Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Birthday Buffet

The Steam Table - right about now, those french fries are tempting me.

My nieces are back in town and since they're birthdays are so close to each other I told them I would take them out to lunch - wherever they wanted to go. Woodberry's brunch would be nice, but anything that appeals to 10 and 12 year old girls works for me as well. Applebees, Cheesecake, Five Guys, CPK - wherever, even if I wouldn't choose eating their myself.

One wants to go to IHOP, the other doesn't. They're not sure at first then settle on IHOP. We'll go after the 12:15pm mass.

Why I'm not a fan of buffet anything.

While they're at mass, I'm finishing some work on the computer (yes, I'm "The Bad Catholic") until my aunt calls (they took the girls to mass) to let me know they're finished and that they've now decided to go to the local Chinese buffet.

Something smells fishy to me, so I query my aunt: "Do they really want to go there or did you coerce them into the buffet?"

My perfect way of enjoying a "cone" of soft serve ice cream.

I always wonder about our fascination with buffets. They're usually not very well executed and most of the items are uninspired or downright sad. Hard, dried bits of char siu. Dried and shriveled dim sum. Sodium filled wonton soup with specks of pork in the wontons. But people still flock to them.

For eight bucks, you can eat all that you want. I don't want to eat all that I want. Hell, I shouldn't eat all that I want. Especially when the food is quite a bit short of delicious. bed.

But it's their birthdays and I'm not here to bitch and moan. As long as they're enjoying themselves and having fun - that's all that matters. I can eat something tasty to my palate any day.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Eating After Goulash

Isaiah and Christine flash their street creds: "WK Style."

We're back at Woodberry Kitchen (as though we ever leave) because Chuck is in town from Vegas and wants to eat. As with any Saturday night, the place is jammed packed but Lucy has been kind enough to find us a spot to squeeze into. Of course, as soon as she sees how many friends we're trying to "squeeze" I receive a gentle and friendly admonishment to "spread out" a little.

Pan seared scallops

There's a madness of food and drink. Cocktails, bottles of wine, multiple plates but I can't eat anything. I'm still reeking of smoke from standing between the grill and the goulash fire earlier tonight. Plus a steady regimen of gnoshing on the aforementioned food, several drinks, miscellaneous cuts of bison and sausage, and a big bowl of tasty goulash and I don't know why I even ordered the chorizo flatbread - because I can't eat another bite.

Chuck of Westminister and Chuck of Las Vegas.

Luckily, everyone else is hungry and ready to go to town on the food and my flatbread. There's some sort of polenta dish that's too delicious for words but I could only taste a little spoonful. A lovely latte art capped cappuccino from Jade. More bottles of wine and the promise for more partying into the wee hours of the night.

And with the events of the last couple of days, I'm happy to be amongst friends doing things that dull my senses.

Chorizo flatbread

Ready for a night on the town. Separately.

It Was A Saturday Hang

Nelson removes the "closed" sign - finally.

In the three years that I knew John Gutierrez, his name was synonymous with two things: 1) Roya and 2) parties. And while sadness surrounds death, what better way to celebrate his life than with a party on the Guti Scale? Live music, food, lots of meat, lots of drink, a big fire and another mother pot of goulash for everyone to enjoy.

Baltimore Fire Department arrives to oversee the fire pit.

I find events like these to be rather difficult, so rather than just hanging out, I'd rather do something to occupy my time and mind. Before long, the raging fire of the goulash was to my back and the inferno of the grill was in front of me, with Spike and Nelson on the other side handling some of the meat. Bison skirt, Bison tri-tip, and both fresh pork and kielbasa sausage from Ostrowski's.

The fire was intense and before long I had stripped down to my t-shirt in the 40 degree weather. Not too long after that, with the heat of the fires threatening to scorch my skin, I donned my heavy canvas Carrhart jacket to sheild my skin from blistering. Then with food on the table, drinks in their hands and a hot bowl of goulash nearby, things were almost right in the world, but not quite.

Making the goulash.

A bowl of goulash in honor of John.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

"It Was A Good Hang"

John with Roya, his sweetheart of 30 years at Clipper Mill by the tree he planted in memory of his mother, Sept. 2007

A dear friend passed away tonight after a seven month battle with cancer.

John, you will be sorely missed.

ph: Barista Examinations

Jeremy demonstrating a smooth and controlled command of our craft.

Things are getting a bit tense around here as it's Exam Week at project hampden. After nearly four months of training, it's time to see who's got the chops to remain and who's going to fall to the wayside.

But quite frankly - if, after four months, you don't have it, you don't deserve to be here.

The criteria for the examination is simple: know the menu and demonstrate how to prepare any and every menu item - along with knowing and demonstrating how to prep all the mise and syrups. Essentially, you need to demonstrate to me what the girls in Towson do on a day-in, day-out basis.

A small sample of the drinks prepared.

On the official scoresheets for the individual examinees, we're looking at whether or not they accomplished certain tasks in the execution of each item. How long did they take to prepare and serve that item? Did they follow established procedures? Did they adhere to correct brew times and methodology? Can they defend their choices in execution? Do they know how to prepare a chocolate ganache? Or vanilla latte? How well can they cope with pressure? Can they make changes to an order "on the fly"?

But, most importantly: do I think they can handle the standards I have set for them? Do I think they have the chops? Can I see them representing us? Do I believe that they can be amongst the top baristas in America? Even if they make mistakes, do I believe in them and their ability to improve? In the end, it is my belief in these people and my decision alone.

All along, I have believed in this group of people and they have stepped up to prove themselves. However, that is not to say that all of them made it. Some of them decided to decline the opportunity to test in the examination and dropped out of the program. A shame, but not surprising.

Note to Baltimore coffee shop owners: there's a couple of people out there with a solid base of coffee knowledge and experience that might fit better into your program than with ours. If they come your way, you'd be stupid not to hire them.

Meanwhile, it's back to the examinations which conclude on Monday, March 1st.

Monday, February 22, 2010

ph: Thinking Oysters

This shell is on fire.

Last Friday I conducted a workshop on signature drinks and their development. One thing that I noted to the class is that there truly are no "original" ideas. Everything comes from inspiration or evolution. Without a base of knowledge to work from, it becomes very difficult, if not impossible, to springboard something different.

And while a number of the signature drinks I have done for competitions has garnered attention and a "wow" factor, none of them are truly original. All of them were springboarded off the work of someone else, then forged with the collaboration of friends and experts.

Take the Coffee and a Cigarette drink I used for the 2006 United States Barista Championship. Lots of people were "wowed" by that one, but it's nothing original. In fact, it's something that I derived after reading about lots of Thomas Keller and using one of his recipes as a jumping off point.

Even last years "Lobspro" was inspired and derived from elsewhere: Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin. Without seeing his "Lobster Cappuccino" it wouldn't have occurred to me to pair coffee with lobster (even though his execution did not actually incorporate coffee into the dish).

A mold prototype.

Back in September, I attended a demonstration by Spanish wizard Paco Torreblanca and was absolutely blown away by his method of making chocolate oysters. Simply create a mold from a real oyster shell, mold chocolate and then you're done. Amazing.

Since that time, I've been nurturing the oysters in the back of my mind and collecting nice shell examples that might work for what I have in mind. Today I started to figure out how to mold those shells for chocolate work.

It's not too difficult but I immediately see the need for welding gloves to protect my soft, supple hands. After a couple of tries, I think we're getting closer to the right technique.

And while you won't be able to check this "signature" drink out at the USBC (since I'm not planning on competing), you will be able to visit us at the new Spro Hampden and order it off of our menu in the spring.

Saturday, February 20, 2010


Jess and Anisha - two of my favorite people.


That's really the only way to describe our meal at Alizee.

For months now, Anisha and I have been eating our way around the region and while we've had some nice meals, tonight's dinner at Alizee was easily and by far the best we've had in a long time.

Admittedly, it helps to know the chef, and between the two of us, we seem to know just about everyone working at Alizee, which makes for a fun and unique experience.

The Charcuterie Plate.

Now, Friday night at about 8pm is one of the worst times to arrive at any restaurant without reservation. But we arrive with the hope that the graces of our friends will accommodate us, and with the knowledge that should they be so busy we're still happy to wait or sit at the bar. Afterall, the bar can be a dependable friend.

When we arrive, the place is hopping. It's jammed and the dining room is full. These guys are running at full-bore. Hmmm, perhaps we'll be sitting at the bar - at least the bar tables look comfortable.

A little while later, we're led to a corner table with easy access to the kitchen. It's busy. The kitchen is in the weeds and it's going to take a little while for them to get to us. No problem, our server Jennifer is nice, we have cocktails in hand and it's easy living.

Wagyu Carpaccio with lobster, truffles, frisee and blood oranges.

In time Christian comes out to inquire what we are thinking about having, perhaps it's best for the chef to decide? He agrees and returns to the kitchen and the procession begins.

Allowing the chef to decide what you will eat is a favored tactic of mine. The chef knows what's really kicking and it usually leads to sampling dishes that I might never choose on my own. It opens one for adventure. And Christian never disappoints.

Seared Diver Scallops with soft polenta and pork cheek.

Things start off with a quiet rumble on the charcuterie plate. There's some house made forcemeats and picked cucumbers and onions with grainy mustard and bread crisps. Nice.

The next course picks up speed with Wagyu beef carpaccio, lobster, black truffles and blood oranges. Man, hold your horses, because this stuff is good. After the charcuterie plate, we're rumbling off-road with an array of flavors that surprisingly come togther. What I really want is a spoon to readily scoop each piece together and chew at once to bring the earthiness of the black truffle with the buttery creaminess of lobster, the texture of the Wagyu and the acid of the blood orange. It's a symphony in harmony. Beautiful.

Sous Vide Leg of Rabbit in cocoa and orange with pistachio and rabbit crepinette, grilled prunes and sauce salmis.

From there we move on to two large sea scallops pan seared with soft polenta and a chunk of pork cheek. Pork and scallops? Never thought of that before but the textures are so complementary. I'm crazy for scallops and really can't have enough.

Next up is the leg of rabbit sous vide with cocoa and orange. At first, I thought the rabbit was a bit dry. But once you mixed the rabbit with some of the sauce and a slice of the prune - woah: amazing. Where once I was hesitant, suddenly I'm eating Bugs Bunny with greedy abandon.

Frisee aux Lardons - frisee, fried oyster, bacon, fingerling potato, 90 minute egg, sheep's milk cheese, violet mustard dressing.

Earlier this week, Anisha and I went out for dinner at Petit Louis where we ordered their typically well-executed frisee salad. Sadly, the night we went the kitchen was off their game and our frisee came out a soupy mess. Normally, I love frisee salads but after our experience this week at Petit Louis, I was a bit hesitant to try again when I saw the frisee on the Alizee menu.

But like I said before, allowing the chef to guide you takes you to places where you might not have gone otherwise. I probably would not have ordered the rabbit and I was more than reluctant to go with the frisee, but when it arrived next, I knew that we were in for something much better than the aforementioned soupy mess.

Topped with a fried oyster and fingerling potatoes, this frisee was a winner. Perfectly dressed, delicately balanced. Stellar.

Venison with foie gras and graham cracker spaetzle.

As you can see from the images, these are not "tasting menu" portions. These are not the petit sized servings you receive while eating 12 to 23 course tasting menus. And while they're not entree-sized portions, they're something in-between. After five courses, we're starting to feel the stress of being fed by the chef.

When the venison chops arrive on our table, I'm desperate for mercy.

It's a perfect medium-rare without the intense gaminess that I usually associate with deer meat. Seared on the outside, red on the inside and topped with a foie gras sheet. Delicious. Wait until the foie gras melts a bit and coats the meat? Brilliant. Served with a side of graham cracker spaetzle that I know Anisha is enjoying because she's been asking for it all week.

Sadly, I can't continue. I can't finish the venison. I'm beaten. The meal has been beautiful and I've eaten all I can consume. Let us have a few minutes respite. Please.

Beignets with lavender honey sorbet, pistachio gelato, cherry sorbet and cardamom gelato.

After an appropriate amount of time to digest (slightly) and recuperate (just barely), the dessert course arrives. Rows of beignets flanked with sorbets and gelatos, oh my! The beignets are just right. Coated in sugared cinnamon and not too sweet. They're a nice compliment to the selection of sorbets, my favorite being the cherry sorbet and Anisha's being the pistachio. Jess prefers the honey lavender.

With the night ending and the dining room empty save for our table and another couple making out occasionally in the opposite corner (ideas, ideas...), Christian has a bit of time to come out and hang. But it's not too long before I wrangle a tour of the kitchens.

Christian comes out to say hello.

Typically, restaurant kitchens (except for per se) are small affairs. I forgot that Alizee is in a hotel and also handles three meal services, room service and banquets as well. The kitchen is traditional American in design but is massive with multiple levels and multiple storage/work areas. How nice it would be to have a facility such as this.

Soon enough, we bid our friends adieu and we're back onto the cold streets of Baltimore. Jess is off to destinations unknown and it's time to go home.

Alizee Boutique Bistro and Wine Bar
at the Inn at the Colonnade
4 West University Parkway
Baltimore, MD 21218

Friday, February 19, 2010

Umi Sake

Spicy Tuna Hand Roll.

After an evening drinking the remaining wines leftover from the tasting, the four of us head over to local Asian eatery Umi Sake. I knew Lisa from many years ago when she used to own Johnny Sushi in the shopping center behind Jays Shave Ice. Her food is always good and tasty. Nothing transcendental and not hallmarks of traditional Japanese, but the food is always good, solid and well-prepared.

In other words, it's a good bet that you're going to enjoy the meal and the service - and for a local restaurant, add on top of that some good prices and you've got a winner. And with Chicken Katsu being offered for under ten bucks (when other places are just under fifteen), it's a helluva deal.

Austin and the Spicy Seafood Noodle Soup, Korean style.

The nice thing about eating with friends that are into food or in the restaurant business is that they enjoy a variety of flavors and textures in their meals, which usually means more of a Family Style eating experience than everyone ordering their own meals. I much prefer this approach and our intrepid crew did not disappoint.

What else is there to say? Service was quick and attentive. Our drinks were flowing and kept topped up the entire night. The food came quickly and was served nice and hot on this cold night. I've been here three times so far and it's always been good and reliable.

I'll say no more and let the images do the talking.

Beef Yaki Bop.

Singapore Rice Noodles.

Crispy Spicy Tuna Roll.

Chicken Katsu.

Umi Sake
9726 York Road
Cockeysville, MD 21030

Swirling It

The lineup.

It's Friday night, I'm tired, I'm sleepy, I'm exhausted, but I really don't want to go home and go to bed. Luckily, a friend calls me because she wants to get together. And what better way to spend a Friday night than tasting wines?

On most Fridays, Austin and James set up a tasting at their shop in Timonium. I try to go on a regular basis but lately I've been in Hampden and haven't made it up to their shop in time. This week, it's a flight of some very exciting French wines:

2007 Domaine de la Collonge Pouilly-Fuisse
2008 Domaine de Aubuisieres Vouvray
2006 Chateau de Serame Corbieres
2007 Cuvee du Vatican Cote du Rhone Villages

Wow. I don't think I've ever attending a tasting that was completely a winner. Usually, there's one or two (sometimes more) wines that I don't quite fancy, but this time all of them were stellar. Maybe I'll buy one, sometimes two, but when you're faced with an entire field of wines you'd like to own, it becomes that much more difficult.

A sample of banana rum from St. Martin.

Later, I spy a sample bottle of this banana rum from St. Martin. Someone is trying to import them into the United States and I certainly hope they do. The rum is thick, rich, sweet and complex. Delicious. I could sip it all night long and suddenly, ideas of jetting down to St. Martin to pick up a case (or four) start popping into my head. A weekend in St. Martin to play on the beaches and get silly over bottles of rum? My friend is game. Hmmm...

Au Revoir Elizabeth Large

It's the end of the week and the Baltimore Sun Food Critic, Elizabeth Large, has ended her tenure with the paper.

Readers of this blog and her "Sandbox" know well my criticism of her over the year(s), but I wished her well when she announced her retirement and continue to hope that the best for her is yet to come.

And she was gracious enough to return the favor with a line in her farewell address:

I wish Jay C. well.

Not a bad nod towards someone who acted like a thorn in your side.

EL - come visit us in Hampden, introduce yourself and allow me to buy you a coffee.

ph: Drinking And Fire

A cornucopia of ingredients

It's another day at project hampden and time to start talking about so-called "signature drinks." In the world of barista competitions, signature drinks are a bit of a dark horse. Talk to many competition baristas and it's the one category they want to eliminate. It's a myopic viewpoint that wants to eliminate the most interesting category for the general public. Already thinking that someone should shove a shiv in your neck while watching a barista competition? Eliminate the one category that had the potential to be exciting and it's a living hell.

I think many baristas want to get rid of the signature drink not because they truly care about the "purity" of coffee, but rather because they're lazy and incompetent. Crafting a true signature drink means that one must plan, one must understand their craft, one must nurture an understanding of cuisine, one must actually do some work.

Instead, most baristas are content being shot monkeys simply standing there pulling shots of coffee with mise that consisted little more than pouring the beans out of the bag into the hopper and pulling the gallon jug of milk from the refrigerator: professional laziness.

Ilenia prepares french toast.

To my mind, signature drinks is a path towards capturing the minds of your audience (customers). While most of us like comfort foods like steak frites or mac 'n cheese, we're also captivated by creations that are a bit more exploratory. And even those who aren't quite adventurous are reassured because they at least know that they can "go wild" should they desire.

With than in mind, we spent the day preparing various components of the signature drinks we've developed over the years:

2004 - Haupia Macchiato
2005 - Spro Shake
2006 - Coffee and a Cigarette
2007 - Gin 'N Juice
2008 - Breakfast In Bed
2008 - "PBJ"
2009 - "LobSpro"
2010 - Oyster in the Half Shell

While Joy and Rebecca attempt to quelch the fire alarm, I keep on truckin'.

As we spritely march towards a new season of barista competitions, I will be stepping back from them and making way for a new generation of barista to take the stage. For the Mid-Atlantic Regionals, we'll be sending Lindsay to give a try at the competition and it's time to do some development.

Something we've been thinking of has been Pop Tarts. Is there a way to create a drink that suggests Heavily Toasted Pop Tarts? Maybe with some espresso or a marshmallow foam? Carmelized? Ah, who knows?

Lunch: Tuna Club on baguette with chips.

Meanwhile, as we're saute-ing lobster shells for a LobSpro component, the smoke sets off the fire alarm and a piercing shriek fills the room. As everyone is running around trying to blow the stuff out or simply run away, the mix still needs attention.

From there, it's some sandwich tests on our tuna club idea, a no-go test for poached egg baguette and an afternoon of watching the SouthEast Regional Barista Competition live video stream where we spy a judge who suspiciously looks like Kimmy, who's supposedly "away in New York City" this weekend...

Devlin, Lindsay and Jeremy check out the Hario V60 pour over.

Pop Tarts Consomme base.

Watching the SERBC live video stream.

Poached egg on baguette - meh.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Something Big, Something Nice

Something big, something nice.

For nearly two weeks now, I've been receiving updates from Conway Freight concerning a box that's been either sitting in their terminal or loaded onto a trailer for delivery to project hampden. But with the city streets in the condition they have been, actually receiving delivery has become a bit of a pipe dream. Until today.

Finally, the tractor trailer pulled up and the driver came a-knocking. The box was strapped to a pallet and was much larger than I had anticipated. After a bit of wrangling with Jeremy, a little help from the driver, the box landed on the floor and unpacking could ensue.

Inside? Our new Multivac C-200 table top chamber vacuum sealer with nitrogen flush attachment!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

ph: Mugging It

Weird Science at project hampden.

Ceramic wares for coffee have always been a bit of a problem for me. In spite of the large industry surrounding the coffee world, I find it quite difficult to find really great ceramic cups for coffee service.

Most shops use the "Brown Betty" style espresso and cappuccino cups but to my eye, they're God-awful ugly. Terrakeramik has been making tulip style cups for a couple of years now but at $75 for two, they're prohibitively expensive for service. That is, unless I'm charging French Laundry prices. Sadly, most companies make terrible cups for coffee service. Most of them have poor interior shapes that cause turbulence when pouring or they're just ridiculously large in size. I need a six ounce cappuccino cup, not an 8 ounce sorta shaped like cappuccino cup.

For years, I found respite in the aisles of Ikea where they made very affordable tulip-shaped cups in 2 ounce and 5.5 ounce sizes. Just right for service and competition, but now they're gone and I'm left stuck with nothing.

Ever since my days learning coffee at Hines Public Market Coffee in Seattle, I've been using the ACF La Marzocco branded cups. Those are just right but it's been difficult obtaining more of them and my entire inventory of those is either at Towson or in reserve somewhere. My next alternative is to go with a custom cup from a European manufacturer but I'm still not sure of the design and have been putting it off until we get everything just right. I mean why invest in 300 pieces if you're not 100% behind the design?

Meanwhile, I've ordered a bunch of Illy espresso and cappuccino cups. By far, the Illy cappuccino cups are my favorite. At six ounces with the sloped bowl, they're perfect. Too bad they have the Illy logo on them. The espresso cups aren't bad either.

The real problem comes when you're specifying larger sizes. Because of the trend towards sizes 16 ounces or greater, finding a decent 12 ounce cup for brewed coffee and lattes has been a challenge. But I did find a cup that fits the size requirement and has a pleasing shape. I ordered 48 of these cups in our new Caffeine Molecule design commemorating the opening of project hampden as Spro Hampden. As we transition to a new logo and new look, this will most probably be the very last item we make with the classic logo style.

Now, if we can only get them to work properly!

Monday, February 15, 2010

Paco Sundaes

Banana Ice Cream at the ready.

Someday my equipment order is going to arrive and I'm going to have all the toys for the new shop, namely the freezer. Until then, making ice cream entails storing the PacoJet beakers in Woodberry Kitchen's walk-in freezer, popping over to the restaurant then running back to project hampden to spin the ice cream for tests. It's a bit of a pain.

Tonight we're playing with the vanilla ice cream I mixed up back on the third. Spin it in the PacoJet, whip up some chocolate ganache and we're got lickety-split sundaes for late night snacking.

That's when she spied the lonely banana sitting in the pastry case left over from Saturday's barista jam. "What if we spun the banana into the ice cream?" Chop, chop, chop then spin, spin, spin and voila - Banana Ice Cream!

Add a little more chocolate ganache and all is well.

ph: Playing With Food

Sandwich Onglet with frites and a salad.

Since project hampden was literally wrecked from last nights' dinner, what better way to spend the day than playing a bit more with food and the tabletop Waring fryer? I mean, the shop already smells like grease-laden hell.

There's still some steak and stuff left, so why not make a simple lunch of toasted baguette with melted gruyere with dijon, greens and thin slices of sous vide hangar steak? The Onglet Sandwich. Now that would be a nice menu addition. Add a small side of vinaigrette salad and some fries, with some moules mouclade on the side? Oh, la la!

Poached Egg Three Ways -

With some borrowed eggs, we plopped them into a hot water bath for an hour to test some variations on poached eggs. A shooter in oyster shell, a simple version in an egg cup and on a sliced croissant. Some nice preparations that should also make it onto our menu.

The thoughts then turned back to the sandwich and how nice it would be to serve the sandwich with french fries. But since using a fryer in the shop results in horrific odors filling your pores, that's out of the question. But what if we fried them elsewhere then heated in the oven for service?

Ixnay on that one.

Oven Fries - Just Say No.

A little potato, mushroom and sausage tart from across the street - classic.