Sunday, February 22, 2009

Chicago: Smoque

A nice layout and presentation at Smoque.

Two years ago, when I was last in Chicago, I had heard much hoopla about a barbecue joint called Smoque. So much so that I went out of my way to visit - on the one day of the week they were closed (Mondays). Disappointed, I flew home without having so much as a taste.

Fast forward to present day and after I had secured my trusty Chevy HHT from Alamo, I was on my way once again to visit Smoque. One would think that traffic should be smooth at 1:30pm but no, traffic along the highway into the city was hellish. Backup upon backup. Not fun.

Once inside, Smoque is a nice little place that serves their barbecue on those silver mini baking trays. It's a nice touch and they actually lay out the bbq pretty nicely. Since it was my first time, I had to order a sampling of their wares. A few careful questions of the cashier led me to order a 1/2 rack of their St. Louis ribs with cole slaw, mac n cheese and french fries. Smoque has a great idea by offering "tastes" of their meats for three dollars each. Add on a "taste" of both the brisket and pulled pork with that and I've got a representative sample of their offerings.

Ribs, fries, mac and slaw.

Smoque is highly touted here in Chicago but I'm sad to report that it wasn't superb. Both the pulled pork and brisket were overcooked. The pulled pork was mushy and mealy and lacked distinct flavor, and the brisket was dry. Whether this issue was due to merely being overcooked in the smoker or held too long, I can't say. It just wasn't a great example of either.

The ribs were decent. Nice flavor, a little bit of spice and a good amount of bite to the meat. However, I have to say that it was slightly on the not quite finished side of cooking. What do I mean by this? Many people think that ribs should be falling off the bone, not true. We want to see a nice bite to the meat that requires some amount of effort to pull away from the bone. These ribs required a bit more than some amount of effort.

On the plus side, the french fries were perfectly done. Crisp on the outside, fluffy and tender on the inside. The Mac and Cheese was decent enough but lacked seasoning to make the flavor really shine. The interesting side was the cole slaw. Typical, as far as the shredded cabbage and sliced red onions go, but it's the dressing that really makes it. Light, citrus, acidic - just delightfully surprising without the heaviness that mayonnaise brings to cole slaw. It was the highlight of the meal.

Pulled pork and beef brisket.

The space is nicely decorated and you share table space with other diners. Drinks are a simple affair: just one size cup and drink all you want. Coke, Diet Coke and the usual Coke offerings plus a non-stop dispenser of sweet tea and unsweetened tea. I couldn't help myself.

Smoque BBQ
3800 North Pulaski Road
Chicago, IL 60641

Saturday, February 21, 2009

If Only Summers Were Like This

The pretty quiet D Pier at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

After a month relatively relaxing at home, I'm back on the road again. First, a road trip to Pittsburgh earlier this month and now it's back on United for the short jaunt to Chicago.

I'm in Chicago and Milwaukee for the weekend to visit with friends, take factory tours, hang out with industry buddies, become a certified judge and taste all kinds of wonderful goodies.

I'll report back soon.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Hario In A Box

Good things come in big boxes.

The joys of going to work are highlighted when boxes filled with goodies are waiting for me. Yesterday, that which was awaiting me was a new Hario halogen beam heater and Tokio vacuum pot from our friends at Cafe D'Bolla in Salt Lake City.

In due time I'll be firing up the unit and brewing coffee at home in a very high tech fashion. Then, once we figure out our brewing standards for the devices and train our baristas, I plan on bringing vacuum brewed coffee to order at The Spro!

Of course, there's a kink in the plans. The power converter for the heater doesn't arrive until Tuesday...

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Honolulu 1995 or so

Bringing light to Polynesia.

Once upon a time, I used to shoot. Sometimes the images were picked up for publication, other times they weren't. Day in and day out, my Domke F2 bag loaded with a Canon F1N and a large assortment of lenses was never out of reach. Captured some great moments and captured some tragic ones.

I've been thinking about digitizing my large library of images and I've been debating on whether to farm the work out to a local lab or just by a film scanner and do it myself. The local lab charges $.95 per slide or frame. I've got thousands. Without a doubt, it's cheaper by the dollar to buy a nice Nikon scanner but I'd have to do it myself. This means cleaning the slides/negatives, setting up the session, scanning and correcting. With the time I have available, it would probably take me years (or never) to digitize my library.

Conversely, it will end up costing thousands to farm out the work. So I did a test run. I grabbed two random sheets of slides and sent them off. This was one of the images from that set, and one of my favorite images.

There's a pull off on Roundtop Drive just below Tantalus that overlooks the eastern half of Honolulu from the tall buildings of Waikiki to the neighborhood of Moi'ili'ili and the entrance of Manoa Valley and the University of Hawaii (Punahou School, where Barack Obama attended is just below the railing right where I'm standing).

That pull-off is famous on the island for it's tantalizing view and as a favored make out point for locals. On any given night, you'll find an assortment of tourist gawkers, couples and voyeurs milling about.

To create this image, we set up the F1N set on the Domke bag on the hood of my Karmann Ghia with 20mm prime lens set to F16 and did a 30 second exposure using Fuji Velvia 50 slide film. In the middle of the exposure, I fired the Vivitar 185 flash at full power pointed at the lens.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Giving the Gift of Ice Cream

The book I've been waiting for.

My aunt is a highly-regarded chemists who has had a hand in developing some of the significant food advances in the past forty years (Equal anyone?). Along with her commercial research, she spent quite a bit of time researching and deducing the finer points of broccoli and was featured in the Wall Street Journal back in the 1990s.

During my youth, this meant a never-ending parade of unique and interesting foodstuffs from her day job - none of which struck my fancy more than the box of blueberry muffins she would bring with her from Marshall-Fields. Those were the hallmark of my youth and the barometer against which I hold all other blueberry muffins. So far, none suffices.

As I got older and opened Jay's Shave Ice, things started to come together. Instead of sitting around buying other peoples' product, why not manufacture our own? My aunt was a big proponent of this and after a couple of years, I decided that our volume had reached a point where it made sense to do so. Soon, I was in her Massachusetts lab trying not to drown in a sea of food science.

Being of the artsy set (read: slacker), I worked very hard to avoid science in high school. Chemistry was cool when you got to do experiments, but was otherwise boring. Physics was just too mentally physical. Instead, I pursued the arts and creative fields. But now that I was embarking on food manufacturing, I was woefully unprepared.

There I was, in Boston and swimming hard. The lessons were fast-paced and high-flying. My aunt and uncle are serious chemists. They know their stuff inside and out, and I was the elementary level chemistry student trying to understand concepts and designs they took for granted. It was mind-boggling but exhilarating, all at the same time.

We worked on a myriad of syrup formulations, each with minute differences in formulation but, sometimes, major differences in flavor, texure or mouthfeel. We were working with industrial hydrocolloids and chemicals to formulate a syrup with the right properties of mouthfeel, texture, "clingy-ness" to ice particles, viscosity, flavor and shelf life.

More science than you ever thought went into frozen milk, cream and eggs.

I toured and tasted flavors from a variety of flavor houses. The assortment of offerings are dizzying. One flavor house had 225 variations on cherry alone. Two Hundred Twenty Five flavors of cherry. And, if you didn't like any of those, they would formulate your own recipe of cherry. Amazing. At McCormick's research center, they showed me how they could take a strawberry and breakdown it's aromatics into chemical compounds in a gas chromatograph and then re-create that aroma by compiling the essential chemicals in the specified ratios. Who knew?

During the day, we would test and experiment. Late at night, I would peruse their library and read. One of my favorite books in their collection was the 1977 Third Edition of "Ice Cream" by Wendell S. Arbuckle of the University of Maryland. It's a detailed manual on the manufacture and production of ice creams.

At the time, we had just started to move into offering soft serve at Jays Shave Ice. I had always wanted to make our own ice cream mixes but we just didn't have the capability to do so back then. I just wasn't ready.

About two years ago, I decided that it was time to start thinking about soft serve ice cream. Problem was, I had just closed Jays and the soft serve machine went into storage.

Fast forward to modern day and I'm asking my aunt about ice cream formulations, specifically for soft serve. I want to know how a soft serve mix can churn in a machine day-in and day-out without the mix breaking down into butter, like it would in a batch freezer. She promised to send me some information.

Not long after, a brown box arrives at the house. Inside is the Arbuckle book on ice cream and it's better than I remember. It covers the usual stuff like ingredients, flavors, emlusifiers and stabilizers but, more importantly, there's an entire chapter on "Soft-Serve Frozen Dairy Products and Formulas." Happy, happy, joy, joy!

I will report back later as things develop.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Fanatics and Fanaticism: A Cosmic Supernova

Just wanted to make a post advocating the need for fanatics and fanaticism in our world.

I'm sitting here drinking a quite lovely Clayhouse Adobe Red Central Valley 2006 out of a ten ounce rocks glass that we use here at The Spro for cuppings. It's chock full of currant, black cherry, spice, pepper and fruit. A wonderful wine for fifteen bucks. On the way to work this afternoon, I had a hankering for some nice wine and decided to make a stop at my local wine shop where the owners are just as crazy as the coffee fanatics.

I wanted a nice drinking red for my evening shift that was under $20 a bottle. Off James (the owner, not The Hoffmann) goes, scurrying back and forth along the expanse of their show wall, looking over the various regions from France, Spain, Italy, Australia and the United States before selecting the Clayhouse as one of my bottles. When he gets into his mode, he's obsessed. He knows the wine and yet he still runs the stack like a madman obsessed with great wine. I'm captivated and enchanted by his enthusiasm, passion and fanaticism.

The first time I went by their shop, I was looking for something special. That was the first time I saw this crazy wine guy running back and forth to find something worthy. Then, when he spotted the object of his affection, a 2005 Chateauneuf-du-Pape Chateau de Beaucastel, he suddenly went into a trance. His eyes rolled into the back of his head and his body started in slight convulsions from the overwhelming joy he was feeling about the wine. "Good Lord, what is wrong with this guy?" I thought - almost scared that cosmic forces might combine into a supernova.

But is this a bad thing? Certainly, one can see it as odd. But do we need this level of psychosis and fanaticism in modern-day society?

I say: YES, WE DO!

It's this level of obsession that fosters excellence. I see it wherever I go and I'm warmed by it. I want to patronize those places where the people give a damn about their product. I want to listen to the expert. I want to learn and be guided by that person who sees amazing beauty in what might seem like an innate and inane object to me. I want that person to gently guide my course so that I too can learn to be nearly as fanatical - or at least, have an appreciation for that fanaticism.

So bring it on, people! Let that exuberance show through. Be fanatical. Be crazy. Be passionate. And let me know where you are because I want to visit!

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Weekend Geek

Battlestar represent!

Every once in a while, I indulge myself.

This past weekend, instead of jetting off to Africa, I decided to stay home and hang out at the local science fiction convention (or "con" in geek parlance). If you've ever enjoyed sci-fi, then I think you'll find something to your liking at these events. Luckily, at least four of these cons are held in Baltimore - three of them are held within just a couple of miles from my house, which makes geeking it out cheap and easy.

Where else in the world can you go dressed in costume all day and not receive strange looks from people? Want to be a Klingon or anime character? No problem. Fancy yourself an Imperial Stormtrooper crushing the rebellion? It's easy - especially since Darth Vader is here too. Or maybe you imagine yourself jumping through the Stargate? You can go by yourself or join up with a group and make yourself a team.

These are the actual costumes worn in the movie Serenity.

Cons such as this one (Farpoint) have discussion sessions, podcasts, art shows, autograph sessions, but if you really want to get the full con experience, you must attend the "masquerade." Truth be told, I've only been to one (Farpoint 2006) but I'm told all of them are similar.

The masquerade is basically a big show where anyone and everyone gets their moment on stage to show off their costume. Appearing before you will be a spectacle of costuming. Some amazing and truly authentic, others not so much. The magic of it all is the enjoyment and camaraderie of those participating and in the audience.

Yes, those people are fighting with light sabers.

But a con wouldn't be a con without the sessions. And here you'll find all sorts of topics for discussion. From The 4400 to Stargate to Browncoats bemoaning the demise of their beloved Firefly and of course, the staple of science fiction conventions: Star Trek, in all its' iterations.

Star Trek defined the genre and Star Trek is everywhere. Romulans, Vulcans, Klingons and Federation officers commingling. Second to Star Trek is Star Wars. With so many Stormtroopers about, you'd think the Emperor dispatched a Battalion expecting the Rebel Alliance to show up.

Act up and you'll be questioned by Stormtroopers.

While I grew up on Star Wars and tremendously enjoyed Firefly and Star Trek Voyager, I'm really here for Battlestar Galactica. Problem is, the number of people at these cons who are dedicated to Galactica always seem underrepresented. I don't know if Galactica attracts a more "mature" audience that doesn't go for the sci-fi con thing, or if the show is too serious and without the proper camp and fun that shows such as Stargate showcase, but the ranks of Galactica people compared to the rest is pretty small.

Usually, I come to these events to buy some patches, pins and maybe a prop or two. This time, I ran into some people who not only were Galactica fans but they had the uniforms to prove it. Fantastic. Yellow deck gang uniforms, green BDUs and blue dress uniforms. Very cool indeed. And all I had was my simple BSG grey sweatshirt. Time to get rolling on my costume for DragonCon.

The guy on the left pulled the trigger that destroyed Alderaan. The guy on the right is from Caprica.

Now, I don't mean to disparage anyone, but at these sci-fi cons you'll find the people that you would typically associate with sci-fi. Geeky types who don't quite fit in. This is their domain. But, these are the people you expect to find here. The ones I find most surprising are the people who don't fit the achetypical sci-fi mold. Like this couple in later Star Trek uniforms. They were pretty normal people. Older, mature - if it weren't for the Federation uniforms you would have thought this couple to be from the average suburban-dwelling, SUV driving, private school set. Their uniforms were authentically correct and of great quality. A happy couple that enjoys dressing up and going to a sci-fi con - that that is fantasy!

Maybe I can find me a woman like that...

Even sci-fi people love a good bar. Check out the couple on the left. They had the coolest Star Trek uniforms.

Saturday, February 14, 2009


Chef Ryan welcomes us to minibar.

minibar by Jose Andres in Cafe Atlantico has to be some of the most difficult seats to reserve in the entire mid-Atlantic. Actually, the difficulty I've had reserving a seat is second only to Andres' mentors' restaurant: El Bulli in Roses, Spain.

It works like this: on any given morning, at 10am Eastern time, you must call quickly and speak with Bonji to reserve your seats exactly one month ahead of time. It's a lot of precision and planning, which just runs against the core of my existence. I'm not very good at planning where I'm going to be one month from today, much less where I'm going to eat.

It also requires mental acuity in understanding the dynamics of the time-space continuum. Just because you're calling Bonji on a Saturday doesn't mean you're reserving for that Saturday a month away. It's exactly one month, which means the day you're calling to reserve is actually a Tuesday. That could be a problem

You have to remember to call at exactly 10am. Exactly. A minute later and "game over" - all the seats will be filled. Everyone and their mother is trying to get a seat at minibar and they go extremely quickly. Afterall, there's only six seats. Add another six because there's two seatings per night and you're fighting that guys' mother for a total of twelve seats. It's vicious.

Pisco Sour

I obtained my reservation with my usual M.O. - I had remembered to call two weeks ago after the designated time but called Bonji anyway at 11:30am one morning. I told her I would like to eat at the minibar. I expected her to get rid of me. She asked how many? I told her I'll take whatever she could give me, from one seat to the whole minibar. She came back with an offer of one seat at the 8:30pm second seating. I'll take it!

The first part of the reservation process is relatively simple compared to the second part. They email you a confirmation form to print out, complete with credit card info and signature, then fax back to them. It's a ridiculous practice that's just dumb. You've got my Amex number, what's the deal with the paperwork for my left kidney? But, I had heard so much about minibar that I wanted to check it out and complied. Left kidney and all.

Olive Oil "Bon Bon"

minibar is just that. A small bar for six people on the upper level of Cafe Atlantico. A restaurant within a restaurant. And while it's considered the showpiece in Jose Andres' empire of cuisine that stretches across America, from sea to shining sea, it's also the red headed stepchild. The crown jewel that shines brightly but doesn't make them money.

Huh? How could you say that, you ask? Don't they charge $120 per person at minibar? Isn't that a bit insane? Well, maybe. According to the staff, the ingredient costs are pretty high - out of whack with the margins restaurants normally operate, which means that while minibar may cover their expenses, they don't necessarily generate profit.

And this is kinda reflected in the minibar itself. The immersion circulator they're using is old and crusted with mineral deposits. The workspace itself is made up of haphazard remnants of underbar equipment, including an old, beat up glass washer. They're using electric hot plates instead of the now chic induction. After hearing so much about the food, I had expected minibar to be outfitted slick and beautiful. Like a mini Alinea or per se. Instead, the chefs were making do with cutting boards stacked on bus tubs, stacked on boxes that are stacked on equipment stands.

They may be using wild chemicals to create the cuisine and have a PacoJet stashed in a cabinet, but outside of the patina'd All Clan stainless saute pans, minibar is decidedly lowbrow in its' equipment and setup. While this may seem like an indictment of minibar, it's not. When you see and experience the cuisine at minibar, you really can't believe they're doing all of that with such equipment. It proves you don't have to have the fanciest of gear to produce truly excellent food.

Beet "Tumbleweed"

I arrived at Cafe Atlantico at least a half hour early because one never knows how the traffic between Baltimore and Washington DC will flow in the evenings. Sometimes it's smooth sailing. Other times, you're dead. Happily, this trip was the former. The hostesses greeted me then led me to the bar to cool my jets where I started off with "A New Americano" - touting itself as "A new all-American twist on Barack Obama's Favorite Cocktail 'The Americano.'" I had never heard of it, so I was game.

This is where it started. It was now 8pm and I hadn't eaten since 2pm. I was hungry. My stomach was empty. Perhaps this was not the time to consume a beverage of gin, vermouth and campari. By the time we headed upstairs, I was feeling it.

Our servers' name was Dan but for the life of me, I don't know why we would need a server at minibar. It's extraneous and a waste. To be quite frank, the presence of a server did nothing to enhance the experience. His interaction was limited to greeting us at the bar, giving us the wine menu, taking our wine order, pouring the wines and clearing plates as we ate and collecting the bill (with tip) at the end. I paid a $45 tip to a guy who really didn't do much of anything all night. As I drove home later, I couldn't help but think that this guy, who did practically nothing except stand there all night doing not much of anything just made a $45 tip from me while everyone else did the work.

An evening at minibar means you're interacting with the chefs preparing your meal. They're telling you how things were made, describing the dishes and serving them to you. All you really need is a busser to clear the plates, reset silverware and pour wine. While I never confirmed it, I certainly hope that the chefs got a cut of my tip 'cause they did all the work.


When it comes to imbibing at minibar, there are several options: wines by the glass, wines in half bottles, wines in whole bottles and flights of wines, with the highlight of the flights being presented in their "Grand Progression - a tour highlighting selections from our extensive half-bottle collection." It cost $90 and I decided that I would go for it. These are the wines in order of presentation:

Tradition Brut, Premier Cru
Dizy, France - Non-Vintage

Gruner Veltliner Privat
Kremstal, Austria - 2007

Marsanne/Roussanne Blend
Santa Ynez Valley, California 2007

Pinot Noir
Russian River Valley, California 2006

Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc
Casablanca Valley, Chile 2006

They were nice wines, but I really didn't fancy any of them. I tend to like big, fruity, oak-y wines. These may have been some great wines but I just wasn't into them that much. Sadly, it make me realize once again that maybe I really don't like wines with my meals. Maybe I just don't "get it." Maybe I'm just a charlatan. These were wine flights and not wine pairings, so they weren't designed to be perfect to any one dish, just a flight of wines and I'm just not feeling it.

I've only had one (maybe two) experiences where the wine paired brilliantly with the food. Usually, they're just there. Not necessarily clashing but not quite complimenting each other either. I've found greater joy in wine by ordering a bottle that I enjoy and drinking it through most or the entire meal. Forget the wine/red rules. Just drink what you enjoy and all is well.

Along with the wine was the choice of still, sparkling or iced water. Judging from the bill later, the latter must have been plain tap water because my water cost me six dollars. It wasn't bad nor too expensive but I always think it's not very clever to present water in this fashion - as though you're making a choice when really the server is steering you towards padding your bill (and their tip).

"Bagels and Lox"

The highlight of the minibar experience is the food and the presenting chefs. Ryan and Lyndon were great in preparing our meal, telling us about the dishes, answering our never-ending questions about the ingredients and techniques involved. The stuff they're doing is absolutely amazing. It's technically brilliant. Like the carbonated mojito sphere - that's cool. Or the zucchini textures - wow.

The progression goes from the technically wild, like the parmesan "egg", to the relatively simple breaded cigala. Both of which were delicious and amazing to watch being created.

Which is how it goes at minibar. They prepare the dishes right in front of you. You see everything. From the prep to the cooking to the plating. For someone who's interested in this level of preparation, it's stunning. You want to burn the memory card on your camera using the video mode. You wish you had a video camera - or at least audio recorder. The amount of information on everything that these guys are willing to share is massive.

"Dragon's Breath" Popcorn

Just from chatting with them, I sense that they share the same sensibilities as many of my friends and peers: there are no secrets. They engaged in open discussion about everything. Ask them about technique and they tell you. How long do you bathe the sphere in the chloride bath? One minute. And then they tell you what happens if you hold it longer, or too long.

Within the group, there's an open dialogue. A dialogue that, ostensibly, extends itself from the minibar to the larger world of cuisine where they discuss trials and techniques with Grant Achatz of Alinea, or Wylie Dufresne of WD-50, all the way to the Grand Master himself: Ferran Adria of El Bulli. Oooh. Aaaah. Of course, there's the stories about that guy from Moto in Chicago who won't talk to anyone, where everything is a secret and people have to sign a non-disclosure agreement before stepping into Moto's kitchen under penalty of civil lawsuit. Sounds like a friendly guy, that one.


Our meal was comprised of twenty-six courses. Some really fantastic (like the cigala), some really cool ("Dragon's Breath" Popcorn), and others were just not to my tastes (New England Clam Chowder). In fact, I really disliked the clam chowder. There was something about the flavor of the clam that just turned me off and stayed on my palate for quite a while. Unpleasant would be the best description.

Of course, in 26 courses, not all of them can be perfect. There will be courses you hate (like the clam chowder). That should be expected since you're pushing the boundaries.

Steamed Brioche Bun with Osetra Caviar

I really enjoyed the Beet "Tumbleweed", "Bagels and Lox" and "Dragon's Breath" Popcorn. The tumbleweed was essentially a friend ball of beet string. Fantastic. Bagels and lox was very reminiscent of Thomas Kellers' amuse bouche at both The French Laundry and per se, though I have to say that the salmon roe used at minibar was so vibrant and full of flavor that it really did the trick. Dragon's Breath was just cool. A cake of popcorn dipped in liquid nitrogen so that while you ate it, chilled "smoke" would emanate from your mouth and/or nose.

For me, the steamed brioche bun was slightly sweet and pillowy soft. It reminded me of a rather expensive sio pao, and being topped with osetra caviar reminded me of that extravagant weekend in Moscow a year ago. The cornbread was pretty good but it tasted so strongly of roasted cornnuts that it overwhelmed any connection to actual cornbread. Not to say that it was bad, it just didn't connect as strongly - even though I loved eating CornNuts as a child.

Boneless Chicken Wing

Blue Cheese and Almond

Cotton Candy Eel

When you see them start to spin the little tub contraption, you wonder what is going on? There's some nice slices of eel. He's taking some shiso leaf and adding thin slices of cucumber and pickled ginger but what is with the tub? Once he wraps the eel with the leaf and sauce, he plunges it (along with his hand) into the spinning tub and out comes a cotton candy coated eel. Lovely. I really like roasted eel in a soy based sauce but wrapped in cotton candy is just wild.

"Sun Dried" Tomato Salad

I found the "sun dried tomatoes" in the salad to be just fantastic. They basically take tomato juice, make it into spheres and then dehydrate to create a pseudo sun dried tomato. Very cool. The Zucchini in Textures had to be one of my favorite dishes of the evening. Puree of zucchini at the bottom, stewed zucchini seeds and a top layer of gelatinized zucchini juice. Wonderful. The flavors were nice but the textures were so dramatic. Well played guys, well played.

Zucchini in Textures

"Caesar Salad"

Parmesan "Egg" with Migas

One of the most powerful presentations was the parmesan "egg". I believe it was poached egg yolk enrobed in a parmesan, egg white mixture that encapsulated the yolk. Brilliant. Someday, I want to rip that idea off of these guys. Maybe they'll share with me their technique. It would be a great homage to them. The "guacamole" was interesting with a tomato sorbet wrapped by avocado slices but it just didn't have enough "pop" to connect me with real guacamole. I like boldly seasoned guacamole - let the salt, lime, cilantro and peppers flow, baby - and this interpretation just didn't catch me.

Smoked Oysters with Apples and Juniper


Salmon-Pineapple "Ravioli" with Crispy Quinoa

New England Clam Chowder

As I said earlier, it was the clam chowder that I couldn't connect with. Just something about that clammy, briny flavor that I just didn't like. While I love raw oysters, I don't think I'm a raw clam fan, and this dish just didn't click with me. The smoked oyster was nice with the apple and juniper but it definitely wasn't a strong player in the presentation.

Breaded Cigala with Sea Salad

After two courses of rocky dishes, they sprung back with a monster: the breaded cigala was killer. Prepared oh so simply with a little breading and sauteed in olive oil, it was smashing - and it was the most traditionally prepared method of all the dishes. Just simple and stellar ingredients to mark the hallmark course of the evening.

"Philly Cheesesteak"

Kumquats and Pumpkin Seed Oil

Our "Pre-Dessert" course of kumquats and pumpkin seed oil was captivating to watch them prepare. Alternating circles of pumpkin oil and kumquat puree dotted with candied pumpkin seed, centered around a kumquat filled with kumquat sorbet. Nice idea, nice execution and the tartness of the dish prepared the palate for the sweet courses to come.

The first dessert course, Thai Dessert, was a mixture of peanuts and curry and ice cream. It captured the main flavor elements of a well-made Pad Thai: peanuts, curry, cilantro. I almost thought I was eating a sweet Pad Thai. It was very good.

Thai Dessert

Frozen Yogurt and Honey

The next course was a technical stunner. Evidently, if you balance the water and fat ratio in yogurt, freeze it and then spin it in a PacoJet (doesn't everyone have these in their kitchen?) you can create a frozen powder. Take that frozen powder and heap it with a powdered honey from Ferran Adria and you've got a truly space-age dessert. It's kind of like NASA freeze-dried ice cream meets El Bulli. Tantalizing on your tongue but you better hurry because the yogurt will thaw into liquid form.

Mango Box, Saffron Gumdrop with Edible Wrapper and Chocolate Covered Corn Nuts.

Brewed coffee - can you spell B-O-R-I-N-G?

The final course of the night was a trio of chocolate covered corn nuts (curious), saffron gumdrop wrapped in edible paper (cool) and a mango box (good). This was served along with rather unremarkable coffee. Actually, I had a choice between regular (or decaf) coffee and espresso. I chose the former since I figured I would be gambling less. Sadly, the coffee was unremarkable and not worth the three dollar charge.

Maybe I shouldn't complain. Maybe I should just be thankful. But really, serving such lackluster quality after presenting thoughtful, locally sourced cocktails and exquisite food is just insulting. Why not toss a McDonald's cheeseburger as a minibar course? Sounds ludicrous, doesn't it? But dropping coffee this plain and lame is akin to doing just that.

Three dollars....please... My dad can brew better coffee than this - and he likes Taster's Choice.

Breaking my heart. And the bank.

And that was it. My entire minibar experience was wrapped in an egg - that they crushed in front of you with a big BAM! Inside the egg was The Bill. Time for The Reckoning.

So, how much did this gastronomic escapade cost me? Curiously, there is a thread on where a reader was asking people how much it really costs to eat at these kinds of places. Sure, the menu says $120, but how much does it really cost after adding everything together? Can you truly get away eating (relatively) cheaply? Yes and No.

The Bill.

Here's the breakdown:

minibar Tasting $120.00
Nuevo American cocktail $ 12.00
Grand Procession Wine $ 90.00
Still Water $ 6.00
Coffee $ 3.00
DC Tax $ 23.10
Tip- 18% $ 45.00

TOTAL $299.10

Three hundred dollars for the meal at minibar. It's not cheap but it's not as expensive as some other places I've eaten. Though I'm still confounded by why they need a server for the minibar. Let the cooks and bussers handle it. Let them earn the tips. They're the ones doing all the work.

Lyndon and Ryan bid a fond adieu.

Let's do the math. Let's pretend that twelve people come in for the minibar experience and only pay $120 per person. That's revenue of $1,440 per night. If they tipped out just the minimum amount of 15%, that would be $216 in tips. Even with a five percent tip out ($11) for the bussers, they're still going home with a minimum of $205 a night. Not bad for just hanging out in the background while the chefs engage the customers the entire time.

Consider that my bill was more than twice that and that most people eating at minibar will spend more than $120 per person and you can see that as a minibar server you can make a good amount of cash for doing very little. Which is why I think they should eliminate the minibar server and let the bussers and chefs keep the tips.

I'll probably get hate mail from servers because of this but that's my observation and I'm sticking with it.

Now that you know the cost, you're probably wondering if it was worth it. Again, my answer is: Yes and No. Actually, there is no "no" answer. Only yes. It's worth it for the experience. To see the cutting edge of cuisine presented in a way that you wouldn't experience at places like Alinea or El Bulli. The chefs are right there, in front of you. You watch them prepare and create your courses. You can ask them questions and they'll tell you just about everything you need to know to mimic the technique at home - even down to the length of time they steep the encapsulation in the chloride.

It's an opportunity to see what you would never see anywhere else and to try new flavors and textures that you wouldn't be able to try in the majority of restaurants worldwide, which makes it so worth the money. In fact, it's relatively so cheap that it makes the rest look like robbers. Of course, one should remember that minibar doesn't really make a profit and that Jose Andres is offering the experience essentially at cost because his restaurant empire supports this expression of his cuisine. The other places do this on a restaurant scale and, therefore, have to charge more to recoup their costs and make money.

A fun story the chefs related to us is that since minibar doesn't turn a profit, they don't always get the latest and greatest equipment and often have to resort to raiding the kitchens of Andres' other restaurants for certain supplies when necessary.

My problem with meals like this is that they're technically brilliant and I learn and experience so much from just eating there, asking questions, and observing, Friends ask me if it was "good" and certainly it was - in fact, it's brilliant. However, it's just not "nourishing." It satisfies my soul and my desire to expand my craft, but it doesn't nourish my soul. It's like dating an incredibly hot model but having no internal connection. Beautiful. Stunning. Your friends envy you. But it's still hollow. You're left unfulfilled on a certain level. That's how I feel after eating these brilliant meals.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not bashing. I love what they do and I'll continue to eat and explore similar restaurants, but is this the level of cuisine that I want to pursue? Maybe. Years ago, I thought this was the level of coffee I wanted to present. Now, I'm not so sure. There's a gut connection that I feel is missing. I want there to be a link between the amazing and fascinating to the fulfilling and nourishing to the soul.

Thanks guys, I had a great time.

Cafe Atlantico
405 8th Street NW
Washington, DC 20004

Friday, February 13, 2009

Pittsburgh: Dinette

Kitchen as theatre at The Dinette.

The Dinette.

Ask "in the know" Pittsburgh people where to go for great food and The Dinette is a new choice amongst a surprising number in this old steel city.

Just don't ask them how to find it.

Isaiah can't believe his food disappeared.

There we were. Myself and Troy Reynard (owner of Cosmic Cup Coffee), in our own vehicles, following Rich Westerfields' (owner of Aldo Coffee) Volvo in circles around Penn Circle. Around and around we went. Somewhere in the north part of the circle is this darned Dinette. It was getting late, we were hungry and the Dinette is supposed to close at 11pm. It was 10:37. Crap. C'mon!

Punch in the name into my trusty iPhone and we've got an address. Okay, we find the address but can't find the restaurant. Where is this damned place? There's a Whole Foods, a Borders Books and that's about it. The address is right, but no Dinette.

Rich and Troy contemplate pizza.

A quick query to a girl walking to her car points us to the upper deck of this multi-level shopping complex. We kick it into gear and drive up the ramp to find more shops but still no Dinette. WTF? We park anyway.

Good thing we did, because as soon as we get out of the cars and start asking ourselves where this place is, we see it. It's right there, with a big white neon sign reading "Dinette." Finally!

Celebratory espresso, a bit flat.

The night before we had been turned away from Bona Terra because we got there too close to the kitchen closing (9:30p), I didn't want to be turned away from the Dinette tonight. As we entered, I noticed some of the line cooks wrapping their hotel pans in plastic wrap (that usually doesn't bode well), but they were more than happy to accommodate our table of five.

Marinated Olives

The Dinette is decidedly modern. It's bright, it's white, it's orange and filled with stainless. For whatever reason, it reminds me of the Top Chef Cookbook, or maybe what the Mode Magazine kitchen would look like on Ugly Betty. Either way, it's hip, cool and comfortable.

Sometimes you wonder if these kinds of hip and happening places are just going to hit you with more hipster pretense and attitude. I get enough of that in the coffee world, I certainly don't need it when I go out to eat. Luckily, our server is cool, friendly and helpful. There's no pretense or attitude here.

Mixed Salumi - Cacciatorino, Hot Veneto and Rustico.

Spike and Isaiah arrive from the airport and it's time to get down to business. While Spike ponders the wine list, eventually selecting the 2005 Irouleguy from Domaine Etxegaraya in France, Isaiah pays homage to the coffee professionals by ordering a round of espressos for the entire table. It's a sincere gesture but the espresso is a bit flat.

Fritto Misto with wild-caught shrimp, cauliflower, onions and salsa verde.

The beauty of going out to eat with like-minded friends is that you can order an entire menu's worth of food, everyone can have a taste and no one needs to leave feeling bloated. Mind you, I said "like-minded friends" because I have friends that aren't into the "let's share and taste everything" meal plan. To be honest, eating just isn't as fun with those friends.

At least they're not as bad as some people. I've seen an entire table of diners at Chinese restaurants each ordering the House Special Fried Rice as though it were a meal. Odd.

Farro Salad - grilled chicories, butternut squash, walnuts and sherry vinaigrette.

Happily, our group of coffee and food professionals are game for just about anything and the madness begins. So much on this menu looks so tasty. How does one limit themselves to a starter and a main? It seems inhumane.

Beef Carpaccio - celeriac remoulade, baby beets, mache, dijon vinaigrette.

Straightaway we're firing off our entry round, but not before our server tells us that they are out of the steamed mussels. Dammit, we're leaving!

Well, maybe not. I don't think we can hack another night of Primanti Brothers again.

Fingerlings - chevre, sunny-side up egg, lardons, chives, mozzarella.

First up are the Marinated Olives. Truth be told, I've never liked olives. I always thought they were gross and disgusting. But over the past two years, I've come to really enjoy them. I can now eat them like candy. These olives are lightly dressed in oil and are of several varieties - though I'm not versed enough to tell you the difference. They range from very salty to lightly salty but all full of flavor. I'm discovering though that I enjoy the thick, green olives that you bite partially because they're so big. They've got a meaty texture that I love and a light saltiness to them. Give me more.

Prosciutto - arugula, parmigiano reggiano, mozzarella, tomato.

Radicchio - red onions, pancetta, mozzarella, tomato.

The mixed salumi plate arrives and it's nicely done. Evidently, the salumi is prepared by a local butcher. I like dried, cured and salted meats. I don't know which is which but they are tasty.

Fritto Misto is an interesting dish. One that I've had at various restaurants across America and it's always interesting to taste the interpretations. Dinette's version is lightly battered, crispy and light. The cauliflower is cut like cakes and I dig them. It's like Italian style tempura.

Onions - salt-cured anchovies, nicoise olives, rosemary, mozzarella.

Each of us ordered our own pizzas. Rich hit it off right away with his choice of the Fingerlings pizza with egg. Darn it, I love eggs on my pizza, but I didn't want to order the same thing. Our server suggested the Radicchio pizza instead. Could I have that with an egg? No, the chef doesn't allow compromises to her food. Damn, I like this place already.

The beef carpaccio and farro salad arrived, both were really well done. There's something strangely odd about the farro that I really like. Grains and veggies, I dig it.

Little Neck Clams - salmoriglio, mozzarella, tomato.

We went whole hog. Soon the pizzas were flowing to the table in an endless stream of crispy dough and a variety of toppings. Since there were so many pizzas and so many of us, we just passed everything around, letting everyone have a slice (or two) of each pizza. Nothing was mediocre. All of it was delicious. My radicchio was delicious with the flavors of the cheese offset by the mild bitterness of the radicchio. Rich's egg pizza was luxurious. And I just loved the clams on Troy's pizza.

We ate, and ate, and drank and drank. Five pizzas and four bottles of wine. By the end of the meal, we were quite happy indeed. The food was great. The staff was great. It was just a fun time.

Then we headed to the Sharp Edge for more consumption. Not good.

Troy ready to continue the onslaught at Sharp Edge.

5996 Penn Circle South
Pittsburgh, PA 15206