Saturday, May 29, 2010

Now That's Geeky

Hoping Admiral Adama will be in the C.I.C.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Golf Cart One

The text came just a few moments after 12 noon: "Golf 5:30 today. Longview."

Crap, and I still have a bunch of stuff to finish today.

I often wonder what it must be like to be a "regular" person. Someone who works a nine to five job, wears a suit, collects a paycheck and goes home to a house, wife and 2.5 children. These are the people who go to soccer in the afternoon, have off on weekends and for whom Sunday Brunch really means something.

They're also the people who can plan a round of golf after the working day ends at 5pm.

As for myself, I'm trying to compress my work day into four hours. Total. At least I'm trying to make it look that way. The truth is that it's all-consuming. A true 24-7 obsession. While I was in California, it was not unusual for me to check in at opening to see how things were going. And considering the time-difference, opening is 4am in Los Angeles.

Regardless of what tomfoolery I had been engaging, or who's flat I ended up, the morning phone call to see how things were going, then another call a couple of hours later to see how the day was progressing caused my staff to ask me when I actually slept. Truth is, I sleep very little. Ready to crash at 4am, a call to check in, about three hours of sleep and then another call around 9am L.A. time.

So, while I try to make it look like I'm working a twenty-hour work week, I'm actually working non-stop.

Which brings me to today's round of golf. Three hours of no phone calls. Amazing. Not one phone call or issue to address in three hours. Hard to believe. I work with great people. And once in a while, these great people give me the chance to have a few hours to myself to do whatever I want.

14 holes, 1 birdie, 2 bogies and lots of water later, it was time to put it all away and go back to work. Afterall, there are strawberries in need to my attention...

Somewhere Out There

Dog Days of Summer

New Shoe Madness

The Day's Bounty

Pickling Daikon & Carrots

A test batch of daikon and carrots.

My family is from the Philippines, which means that I'm SouthEast Asian. The question is: can a SouthEast Asian guy like myself recreate the flavors of Vietnam - another SouthEast Asian nation?

Already I'm playing with the ingredients and adding a little coconut sukang maasim to the mix to see what will happen. I guess we'll see what happens in five days.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Still Got The Chops

Ruth reliving old glories.

Ruth stopped by Spro Hampden today to hang out a bit. She'd been a Towson barista since 2007 and spent the fall of 2009 working at Philadelphia's Spruce Street Espresso while attending Bryn Mawr College. She's back in Baltimore getting ready for her teaching job in the "real world." And as any first-time teacher, she's excited to hit the classrooms this fall. She stopped by to visit and we promptly threw her on the old La Marzocco to pull a few shots and serve a few surprised customers probably wondering who "the new girl" was.

Monday, May 24, 2010

County General

Hangar, mixed greens, rice, Malbec and cigar.

Some of my friends are constantly trying to get me to move into Baltimore City. I think they're crazy. Out in the county, life is good. I get to escape the city life and return to quiet and peacefulness. No people banging on doors, no more tomfoolery. Just greenery, forests, rolling hillsides and horses (along with other miscellaneous wildlife). I can even have a car.

Some of the nicest moments of living out on the edge of the country is that on a nice day I can pull out the grill and have a nice meal al fresco. Out in the open sunshine I can open up a chair, unfold the table, torch up the grill and enjoy myself a grilled steak, a nice wine and a flavorful cigar.

This evening's menu consists of Springfield Farm hanger steak butterflied for quick grilling, a quick side mixed greens salad, a bottle of Trapiste Broquel Malbec 2008 from Argentina, and a punchy PG unlabeled cigar. Add a couple friends and a little Crissa, and life is good in the suburbs...

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Battle Bahn Mi

The Menu at Nhu Lan.

I'm slightly embarrassed to admit that despite living in Honolulu, with a bahn mi shop a half block from the lobby of my flat tower, I never really got into bahn mi or Vietnamese food in general. Now, years later, I'm stuck playing catch-up.

For a variety of reasons, bahn mi has been on my mind lately but it's something that I don't understand. What makes a bahn mi a bahn mi? While I do love our little city of Baltimore, it still lacks the ethnic culinary diversity of other cities and towns (sadly, a little town such as Portland, Oregon tends to best Baltimore when it comes to ethnic cuisines), which means that for serious forays into ethnic cuisines, one typically has to venture outside of Baltimore to other cities. A shame, really.

A Pile of Bahn Mi - ridiculous.

During my online research on bahn mi, the only place that seemed worth exploring were the myriad of Vietnamese shops at Arlington, Virginia's Eden Center - a mecca of everything Indochina. Also from my reading, it seems that the little, tiny shop inside Eden Center at stall number fourteen called Nhu Lan is regarded as "the best" bahn mi shop in the region.

On the way to Eden Center I must...

Nhu Lan is a small, modest and unassuming shop that's barely 200 square feet and it's jam-packed with refrigerators, three tables and a work area where Vietnamese and Latin women churn out what is truly bahn mi wonderment. Toasted french bread stuffed with pickled daikon, pickled carrots, cucumber, mayo, liver pate, jalapeno peppers and some sort of meat of some kind or another.

Thit Nguoi - Assorted Cold Cut Combination.

The most traditional of meats filling the bahn mi are the Vietnamese forcemeats, either a form of headcheese or some sort of terrine style meat. Happily, these sandwiches about the size of a 20oz bottle of soda are only $3.15 each, with a Buy 5, Get 1 Free special for $17 - meaning that we could go to town for cheap!

And go to town we did. With only eight choices on the menu, we ordered one of each, which ended up as seven bahn mi because they were out of the Nem Square Sour Pork Sausage.

Ga - Chicken Sandwich

Ordering the entire menu means that one must employ certain strategies in order to not feel bloated from the experience. With borrowed knife in hand, we cut off 1/4 of each sandwich as our samples, leaving a half sandwich for late night snacking or lunch for the next couple of days.

After eating the equivalent of 1.75 sandwiches, the surprising part was that I didn't feel bloated. The light and fresh aspect of the bahn mi left me feeling fresh and without the heavy burden typically associated with gorging oneself. Perhaps it shouldn't be surprising since the bahn mi is heavy on the veg and lighter on the meat.

Xiu Mai - Vietnamese Meat Ball Sandwich.

How was the Nhu Lan Bahn Mi? Amazing. Light, refreshing and fresh tasting. Balanced and nuanced with the exception of the chicken which was kind of bland and uninspired - as commercial chicken normally tastes. The favorite? The Cold Cut Combination of headcheese and what looked like compressed ham.

The Ham Pate reminded me of Spam in texture without the heavy saltiness. In reality, this is sandwich perfection: the pickled daikon and carrots combined with the house mayo offered a sweet and slight tartiness that balanced well with the meat. Fresh and refreshing. I know I've said that several times, but it's remarkable how balanced and light this bahn mi turned out.

Pate Cha - Vietnamese Ham Pate Sandwich

Probably the hardest one for most people to fathom (beyond the headcheese) is the fish bahn mi. A simple canned sardines in tomato sauce reminded me of the sandwiches my father used to make when we were young for breakfast. I wanted more and made a mental note to bring the remaining half of the sandwich to my dad for a taste.

Now that I have a base understanding of bahn mi I feel comfortable experimenting at home...

Bi - Shredded steam pork & pork skin.

Thit Do - Vietnamese Red Meat Pork.

Ca - Fish Sandwich

The Aftermath, and lunch for Sunday and Monday.

PG Heaven

PG Belicoso Maduros, 20th Anniversary and 15th Anniversary cigars - Ahhh!

Today's afternoon quest is for PG Cigars and bahn mi. If only I could fill my humidor with the PG Belicoso Maduro, I would be a happy, kept man.

Problem is: I smoke them as fast I source them...

Going Metal

Vac Pot filtered coffee going to head-to-head.

In Japan, sophisticated syphon bars utilize a type of metal filter in their vac pots that screw together allowing you to use either cloth or paper filters with quick change ability. In America, intrepid baristas have found a way to use a La Marzocco dispersion screen in lieu of the cloth or paper filters. An intriguing idea but an unusual challenge to find a U.S. based source of these seemingly elusive metal screw filters.

Finally got a (small) stack of these filters with the thought of them replacing our cloth filters for vac pot service. Matched with new metal dispersion screens, these contraptions promise the hope of simplicity and ease of cleaning - which should make bar life slightly easier.

Metal filter on the left, cloth on the right.

The experiment is simple enough: take one metal filter and one cloth based filter and brew head-to-head comparison coffees and see which one is best. For the test, we used the Honduras San Vicente Micro Lot from Origins Organic Coffee of Vancouver. Same ratio, same technique, same coffee - different filter. I was surprised by the results.

In a perfect world, the metal filter would produce the exact same results as the cloth filters without the mess or fuss of cleaning between usages. In this world however, the results were surprisingly different.

Looking back in retrospect, it probably should be a surprise since the La Marzocco dispersion screen is not as fine as the cloth filter and one should then expect sediment. Whatever the case, the resulting sediment was unexpected in my mind resulting in a coffee with more body that reminded me of press pot coffee and a distinct departure from the clarity typically found in a vac pot brewed coffee.

My initial reaction is that I didn't like the resulting coffee. I prefer the clarity of vac pot when brewing vac pot. If I wanted the body and murkiness of pressed coffee, I might as well use a french press. That said, some of the Spro baristas liked the alternative results of the metal filter and we're giving it a run this weekend to see how it performs in a service environment and check feedback from customers.

So if you want to see the latest in vac pot brewing by intrepid baristas, have a visit this weekend.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Syrup Service

Velvety smooth and ready for service.

It's milk delivery day at Spro and time to make more chocolate syrup. As I meet people in the industry who ask: "what syrups should I buy?" I always wonder why they just don't make it themselves.

True, it's not easy to make your own syrups. Simple, but not easy. However, it's not a monumental task and when you use really great ingredients, the flavors shine through in a stellar fashion.

But using great ingredients also means increased costs. I don't know how much it is to buy commercial syrups but I know that our ingredients are some of the best we can find. It also helps that we only offer chocolate and vanilla syrups, and not the plethora of flavors that so many coffee shops across America offer.

Gotta have nice labels. Scissor cut, of course.

Chocolate syrup is really quite simple. Just take two cups of heavy cream and heat it in a pan with one cup simple syrup until it starts to simmer.

Perhaps I should note that the simplest way to make simple syrup is to take any container, fill it halfway with sugar, top off with hot water and stir until dissolved. This will give you a roughly 43% sugar simple syrup and can be used as a base syrup for just about anything.

Once the cream and syrup mixture has come to temperature, pour it over 16z of your favorite chocolate (the darker, the better - I think) and whisk it together until smooth. Note: it's going to be easier if you chop a block of chocolate into pieces or use couverture: little round discs or chips.

Whisk until smooth and use as necessary. Refrigerate overnight and use within seven days. Longer term storage is possible via freezing. If you do refrigerate, be sure to place container in a bain marie (hot water bath) to re-liquify the chocolate sauce so it passes easily through a squeeze bottle.

As a side benefit, you can cool the sauce, allow it to solidify, scoop out little ganache balls, bathe in chocolate, allow to harden and voila!, you've made your own chocolate truffles.

This week I'm also trying a little different approach to our vanilla syrup. Utilizing four whole vanilla beans, ends cut and split in half, in a half gallon of simple syrup. I'll allow it to steep in the fridge for about a week before using for service.

Otherwise, I'm just dying to get out into the warm weather again.

Strawberry Affo-Paco

Strawberry Ice cream straight from the Paco Jet.

Opening a new shop and trying to find the time to cram everything that you want to do into it is proving to be a challenge. Coffees need to be cupped, selected and approved for service. New baristas need to be sorted, interviewed, trailed and trained. Signature drinks are begging for development. Alternative beverages are screaming for attention. Makes me wonder how one is supposed to develop a menu?

It's summer and ice cream is on the mind. We have PacoJet. We have a hardening freezer. What we don't have is a service freezer. Turns out that I over-estimated one undercounter space and underestimated the depth of another refrigerator, leaving us with a space that's too small to fit the intended freezer. Screwed.

In-between scouring the internet for suitable workaround freezers, it's time to do something with the stacks of strawberry flats sitting in the lab. Strawberry ice cream and strawberry lemonade come to mind. Heck, come to think of it, how about strawberry lemon sorbet???

But first with the ice cream. Found a good starting point from The Cooking of Joy. No additives or stabilizers, just simple and natural ingredients.

One of the problems with doing multiple tasks is that you get distracted and instead of macerating the one pound of strawberries with 1/4 cup of sugar, I ended up macerating it with 395 grams of sugar - a bit too much...

Strawberry Affogato.

In the end, the mix was a bit on the sugary side and I think the excess sugar gave it what Ilenia describes as a "yogurt like" texture. For the next batch, I'll have to pay closer attention to the sugar.

As an affogato, the strawberry performed very well. It lended notes of butterscotch and candy to the Hines espresso. Burnt caramel and other pleasant notes rounded out the finish. That one might actually make the menu when we get the service freezer in place.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Doing The Humpty Dance

You know your day is going pear-shaped when you find yourself tumbling down a flight of stairs holding a bus tub filled with ceramic and glass...

Somewhere along the way, you start to wonder: Gee, just how did this happen? Then, you might start thinking: Crap, this is how people are killed. Of course, that's when you start to realize that falling down the stairs with a tub full of glass means that it's shattering everywhere and showering you with glass shards.

In mid-tumble, you wonder if you really are tumbling or just kind of bouncing off each stair tread. Sliding? Unlikely. Painful? Well, you're too preoccupied with trying to find a way to mitigate the damage, if possible.

It's not until you're lying on the concrete floor, trying to figure out if you've broken something, or seriously injured yourself, that you begin to realize that maybe this kinda sucks.

There's still no pain. Not really. You're too stunned to cry out or curse. You're just assessing the damage to your body: can I move my body parts? Do I feel my body parts? Seems like everything is still there and in working order.

Only then do you notice that your hand is bloody.

And your shirt is torn.

And you're covered in glass shards.

When you finally get around to picking yourself up off the floor, you try to keep the glass particles from falling into your eyes and notice that hey, you're actually kinda messed up.

Luckily, pulling away the torn shirt reveals just a small puncture wound and lacerations on the tummy and you start to take inventory of your damage:

- Lacerations on the forearm
- lacerations on your shin
- lacerations on your face
- bruises all over
- lacerations on your palm

And a seriously deep cut on your finger that's spewing blood all over.

Good thing you wear black clothing.

Sadly, gauze bandages and pressure don't stop the blood emanating profusely from your finger. Is it severed? No, not really. But a Flintstones Band-Aid isn't going to stop the flow. Time to go to the hospital.

That's when a new calculus kicks in: do you call the ambulance? It's not that serious but an ambulance might be helpful sympathy from your girls later. Then you remember hearing that it costs $400 to have an ambulance come to the scene - pass.

Maybe you should call someone to ferry you to the hospital. It could generate sympathy from the girls but a true swashbuckler would simply grab some thread and sew himself back together.

Okay, I'm not that tough.

In the end, I piled on the paper towels, changed my shirt and jumped into the car to drive myself to the hospital. Much cheaper and I have my own wheels to go wherever I want after the hospital. In a couple of hours, I'll be fine, sewn back together and on my merry way.

But for now, the biggest thought is how much it's going to cost to replace the serviceware I just shattered and embedded into my skin...

Monday, May 17, 2010

Bucking Tradition

And it started a little something like this:

Did you know coffee is the world's second most consumed beverage after water?

One minute coffee is the second biggest commodity next to oil and now it's the second most consumed beverage after water. Sometimes I just don't know where people get their data.

In the world of specialty coffee, there's always something that gets the cognoscenti riled up and their panties in a bunch, this week it's an article in The Atlantic by Giorgio Milos of Illy Caffe causing everyone to dig up their pitchforks and don pointy white hoods...

His crime? Stating that American espresso sucks and that we here in the Good 'Ole U.S. of A. don't know what we're doing with coffee nor making espresso.

Um, boring...

Truth is, most American coffee is truly terrible. It's horrid, horrific and disgusting. Walk into most any coffee joint in America and chances are that I'm going to order an iced tea. Espresso? Forget about it. While my friends are willing to be adventurous and try an espresso, I won't. I'm too scared.

Anyway - Milos is traveling the nation as a coffee emissary espousing The Italian Way of making espresso coffee. He's giving lectures and demonstrations and I think that American Third Wavers are planning protests and perhaps even a hunger strike.

As for myself, I'd like to know when he's coming to Baltimore so I can attend his lecture.

Not to protest or to stage a hunger strike (that would be stupid) but rather to listen and perhaps learn.

Sure, what Milos has to say might be irritating but he's got a point: the Italian Method. Maybe there's something to learn from his discussion? Maybe not. Either way, to simply work yourself up into a frenzy and dismiss him outright because he thinks American espresso sucks is just myopic. American espresso does suck and maybe he might have some ideas to make it better. Or at least it might be a nice way to spend a morning listening to strange Italians talking about strange ways of making coffee.

The truth is that it matters little to me that Milos doesn't like American espresso, nor if he did not like our own espresso. The reality is that we're not doing "Italian Espresso", we're doing American espresso, or more precisely: Progressive American Coffee. Which means to say that while we're grounded in tradition, we're also exploring coffee beyond the mainstream, beyond what's expected. It also means that if Mr. Milos came to our little espresso bar or shop and found our coffee not to be in the Italian Tradition, that's okay too. It wasn't meant to be that Italian Tradition.

Personally speaking, I don't know why so many of my peers are so up in arms over this. Are we too insecure in our craft that we quiver and fall by those who criticize our craft? The Italian Tradition is rich and storied. The American Method is new and unexplored. I'd rather stick with our genre of exploration and experimentation than remain tethered to "tradition."

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

No Power Tuesday

The BGE guy reattaching the power.

It's just past noon, I'm having a meeting with an advertising exec and the power goes out. Whaaa?

Turns out the power lines from the adjacent building were pulled out of their mounts causing the entire block to lose power. No power means no coffee means no customers means no revenue. What better way to combat the no revenue situation with a lunch out at Iggie's?

Caesar Salad with Anchovies.

Antipasto Plate - Sopressata, pancetta, red peppers, asparagus, mozzarella, taleggio, Garbanzo beans & bread sticks.

Bex and the Fughi - mushroom ragu, leeks, mozz, goat cheese

Milo & Mico - Tomato ragu, anchovies, capers, olives.

Lindsay digs in.

Diavola - hot sausage, tomato ragu, 4 cheeses, olives, hot peppers.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Ah, Macarons!

Joseph and his pastries.

I've always admired the work of Joseph and his Patisserie Poupon. Classic French pastries - what more can anyone ask for?

Raisin, pear and cheese danishes.

Joseph stopped by this afternoon to bring some samples for a quick tasting and to talk shop for a little while. His pastries are transcendent. They're delicious and rival the greats of Paris - places that are warm to my heart. We talked pastry, coffee, ice cream and more. In all, it was a pleasant, enjoyable and tasty afternoon.

Patisserie Poupon arrives at Spro Hampden on Wednesday morning.

Bex holds up a macaron, Devlin approves.

Ah, macarons!

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Frickin' Frisee

Controlled bath egg cookery.

It's Mother's Day at Spro and what better way to spend the day than playing with eggs? Forget that my mom is in town and I could be spending time with my parents and relatives, I've chosen to work with eggs, dammit!

Yesterday's farmer's market was a good adventure. Lots of great stuff and some truly delicious strawberries, along with these incredible spring onions. I bought as much as they would sell me.

Ten, Eleven and Twelve minutes.

Today, we're playing with eggs in a controlled temperature bath at 75C to see just how we can create poached eggs. Yesterday's 13 minute test yielded a yolk too firm. Today we tried ten, eleven and twelve minute eggs. Ten was too runny. Twelve was getting firm. But eleven yielded good results. Eleven minutes and twenty five seconds though seemed just right.

From there it was just a bit of frisee from Gardener's Gourmet, a little bacon from Woolsey Farm and some country croutons from Atwater's bread, mix it up with a lemon olive oil dijon vinaigrette, top with the poached egg and it makes for a quick lunch. Maybe we'll bring it to the menu.

Frisee Salad - with Woolsey Bacon, Atwater's Bread & Springfield Egg.