Sunday, March 30, 2014

Ayse and Other Culinary Forays


I know this blog appears to be more serialized than weekly--the periodicity of blog publishing these days seems quarterly, I know--but as you can imagine, I have been eating. A lot of good food. And cooking! Things that stink up kitchens, in really delightful ways! The man friend and I have caramelized a lot of onions lately, a home flavor that Glade should consider adding to its repertoire.

A few weeks ago, we also were more motivated to tackle outstanding uncrossed-off-restaurants from the top 100 list, including a lovely Turkish place in Frederick, Maryland. The service was mediocre, bordering on strange, but the food was both heavy and citrusy, spice-ful, and tangy: very Mediterranean and mostly very tasty. Since then, though, our culinary exploits have meandered across cuisines, delightful adventures that have taken us far from top 100s in ways that have been, at times, more satisfying, more unique, and (perhaps most importantly for people like us) cheaper and more rife with light beer.

I'm hoping to reel you in with dinner Friday night. After a field trip to pick up beer (including one called "Palate Wrecker") we thought we'd seek out the glories of suburban dining. Korean BBQ? Tex Mex? The fusion place next door to the rental car place? No. Shooter McGee's, which boded well for basketball watching, greasy floors, and light beer? Absolutely.

Almost to our disappointment, it wasn't divey and a legitimately good local place. But I had my first Budweiser Black Crown, a fancily-bottled but disappointing counterpart to Bud Light. It was like having truffled beef jerky: a totally unnecessary accompaniment to something already satisfying in its simplicity.

Since Ayse, we've also had foods at restaurants we expected to be simple. An afternoon for burgers at Holy Cow in Del Ray was met with truffle creamed spinach, a cabernet reduction, bleu cheese, onion straws, and the actual burger, on a toasted brioche bun. It was called the Steakhouse, after all, and I certainly welcomed the truffledness here.

I've really loved eating this past month.

We had more down-home-turned-fancy at Churchkey, with a layer of meat syrup on top (I'm not joking). We had brunch with my man friend's cousin and husband and they all opted for The Luther, an off-menu item where a brioche donut is split, squeezed around fried chicken and bacon in the middle, and topped with baked pecans and a maple-chicken jus. Oh, and a side of fries, also with the jus on top.


It seemed a heretical take (see what I did there?) on chicken and waffles, which I had. After all that, though, I think the fries--salty and sweet with the maple-chicken jus--were the winners.

I ate better in Miami, where a girl couldn't help but order the prolific amounts of fish on menus. I sat outside on Lincoln Road and ate a SushiSamba, sporting my Birkenstocks, while I watched all sorts of fancy shoes, toy puppies, and glamorous couples go by while I delightedly ate raw things and shishito peppers. And then shopped.


I also couldn't resist trying Jose Andres' restaurant in Miami, The Bazaar (or take an early morning photo outside the hotel), even though I used to hold his foams and smokes and liquids in such contempt. It was at the fancy (shmancy) SLS Hotel South Beach, replete with ladies with red lipstick, strategically valeted cars out front, and a modern but elegant interior. My very knowledgeable waitress steered me toward a fancy cocktail with a full sprig of rosemary.


True to Jose Andres form, he served crazy liquids and foams and I tried them. I had dragon fruit ceviche: tuna and pecans were stuffed into the fruit shell of a dragon fruit, with a hibiscus foam on top. The foam was overly sweet, but provided a shock of color. For dinner, I had scallops with a pine nut crumble on top, encircled by a praline sauce, Pedro Ximenez sherry reduction, and sherry-soaked raisins.

 Oh, and I also had sea urchin atop a seaweed leaf, next to a liquified mango juice (the part that looks like egg yolk). It may already be clear, but sea urchin looks like tongue, which I'll admit is pretty unnerving, but true to the waitress' description, was "the foie gras of the sea."

I also had fun with bathroom mirrors, which were cleverly decorated with mustaches. I had trouble aligning my face with a mustache, for which I apologize.


We also ate fancy in DC: Valentine's Day at a fancy French joint (check out the plastic champagne flutes!) and two-toned chocolate mousse with real flutes of bubbly at Le Refuge.

We also went to Le Diplomate again, indulging in all manner of meat: venison pate and hangar steak, and then of course, a deliciously-accessorized cheese plate. The service was sort of spotty, my man friend continued to get bumped by careless waiters as our table was near a main server thoroughfare, and I preferred my own beef bourgignon to theirs (quelle surprise!), but it was still a beautiful dinner.

We also had a full array of dessert wines at Central, a Frenchy place on Pennsylvania (and a top 10 restaurant in the top 100), sampling amaretto, sherry, port, and moscato, collectively drinking our dessert. I hope to explore the vicissitudes of fortified wine later, but will just offer that wine served chilled in little glasses holds a tremendous draw for me now.

As I alluded, we also made a lot of caramelized onions: we turned cheap, offensive vegetables into a rich and delicate side dish. Well, we did so after a bit of Calvados and ratcheting up the heat on cold things sitting raw in their cast iron skiller.

Caramelized onions made an appearance with a delicious, thick medium rare steak and some sausages too.

...And then a redux with broccolini. And a heck of a rauchbier, a smoky German brew

And then there's that Turkish place, the whole point of your reading this rather than my recounting my root vegetable consumption. Ayse (eye-shuh) is tucked into a corner building of Frederick, set apart slightly from the very dense drag of the main shopping strip. We had a lovely table by the window, and munched on flatbread and olive oil with zaatar to start.

One waiter came to explain the specials and take our drink order. Another waiter came over to tell us the specials too. We thought maybe the service was very thorough. One of them came back after we received waters (that we ordered) and asked us if we wanted something to drink. Finally, one waiter came back to ask if we were ready to order (after we were pretty ready to order, even after wading through a very dense menu) and the man friend asked if we should order from her or our other waiter. This was the first she had heard of our unintended waiter two-timing. The waiters sorted it out in the back--I think one was not too happy--but we really didn't need more than one, despite our anticipated extensive ordering.

We started with an array of dips, the "Istanbul spread sampler," a really interesting way to sample a variety of flavors we would enjoy later in the meal. It featured an olive/hot pepper/tomato/feta dip in the top left and a feta/yogurt/jalapeno dip right below that, two of the standouts, and what I liked as well, muhammara, a walnut/bell pepper/pomegranate spread. There was also tzatziki, hummus, and babaganoush.

Next, we had some outrageously good Brussels sprouts, fried up and served with walnuts, currants, and honey.

The freshness of the dishes peaked here, but our other dishes were still tasty. We had the garides saganaki, shrimp sitting in a sauce of feta, oregano, tomato, garlic, and brandy. It was significantly heavier than expected, but was a good sopping-up sauce.

The next one was heavy too, but that was our fault. It was a special: mozzarella cheese and something like soppresatta were wrapped up and then deep fried, served atop an exquisite tomato sauce made with more soppresatta in it. It looked and smelled so delicious that my man friend got a piece before my photo shoot was done (an extremely rare but completely understandable circumstance in this case).

We concluded with "lahmacun," a cheese-less Turkish pizza cooked in a 630-degree wood-fired oven. The standout component was the spiced lamb mixture, flattened on the cracker-thin crust, but it was also topped with s small arugula salad (which we were uncertain what to do with). We really didn't need it, but were glad to have tried it--it tasted of garlic and green spices and we ate more than our full bellies would have recommended.

It was a charming place--lots of natural light and a wide array of selections, but we exchanged quizzical looks when we heard the chef from the kitchen yell "it's ready!" after his increasingly insistent bell ringing didn't summon his waiters to pick up the dishes. Despite our initially having two waiters, too, the service wasn't too attentive. After lunch, though, we walked into the less-than-busy bar and saw a gaggle of waiters standing around watching TV, suggesting a pretty mismatched waiter-to-patron ratio in two rooms of the restaurant. And, with Zaytinya so much closer--and the service so much better--it'd be hard to justify the drive to Ayse again.

But, it was charming: a Turkish lunch in a bright dining room, an afternoon stroll through Frederick (where we almost saw two factions of homeless men throw down), and a visit to a candy shop, where my man friend insisted on picking up a pound and a half of fresh fudge, a perfect way to pretend it wasn't the dead of winter.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park, New York

This is a blog entry that's been in my back pocket for a few months, and will finally to see the light of day. The man friend and I went to New York for his sister's baby shower and I proposed on the way up that we stop at the Mecca of cooking schools, the Culinary Institute of America. After all, I only think of this, foie gras, and some painters when I think of the Hudson River Valley.

Life magazine has called it the "Harvard of haute cuisine," but I viewed it as the life I could have had if I hadn't viewed an English major as my ticket to professional success and had $120,000 to burn. I looked at each building, bush, and vista of the Hudson River with longing, wondering what sort of brilliant culinary thoughts would have passed through my brain had I not instead attended a school that valorised football much more highly than the noble French sauces.

When we arrived, we went straightaway to the Bocuse Restaurant, named after a famous chef from Lyon, France whom I've mentioned before in a similar reverie-type-state. He's a legend and the restaurant commemorating him was the only logical choice at a school that celebrates paragons of cuisine. So, imagine the depths of my despair and consternation when we were told it was too late for lunch service and to try another restaurant on the campus; the staff called over to another on-campus restaurant and put our name on their list.

The man friend, who adeptly handled these terrible news, and I (who reeled just a tad) wandered over to the Ristorante Caterina De' Medici, an Italian restaurant heavily sponsored by Colavita. While we waited for our table we toured the school's beautiful campus, bearing the news of our slightly sidetracked lunch well. We wandered the herb garden, soaking in the beautiful and impressive view of the Hudson River just below us, and admired the esteemed patronage of the school, which included the Marriotts, the Hiltons, and of course, Colavita Olive Oil.

When we returned to the restaurant, we were told it would take a while yet to get a table, so we decided we wouldn't mind sitting at the bar. While our two spots were being prepared, we waited at a charming indoor patio table and sipped wine that the kind waiters brought to us before we fully settled in. We had the impression that students here were graded on their hospitality at ever turn, as we felt very welcome and more than just amateur food critics.

When seated, we sat directly in front of the wood-fired stove, perused the menu and listened to the experienced chefs--all of 20-something years old--banter and discuss their food experiments. When the waitress arrived, the man friend, in an unprecedented blog feat, surprised me greatly and almost inspired tears: after we couldn't narrow down our choice of appetizers, he told the waitress we'd take them all. "When else will we be back here?" he asked, logically. Never, probably; it was magical.

I wish I had written this up when it actually occurred--back in September--to give a faithful rendering of everything we saw and ate; there will be some egregious detail-missing. But alas, the story must be told. We started with a sort of tomato soup with chunks of bread. It was thick--a robust broth and chunky tomatoes--and almost like a spaghetti sauce rich with fresh tomatoes and basil. Setting it apart though, it was delightfully chewy with the hunks of bread that hadn't fully soaked in the beautiful sauce.

Appetizer number two--of six, remember--was a light bruschetta. The bread was grilled and we began to realize that logistically and spatially, we might face some challenges. (Notice we have the benefit of the raised freeway equivalent of plates.)

Dish three was burrata, a pretty challenging plate to tackle on its own, let alone, again, with three more plates coming down the pike. It was fresh and lovely with a side of fresh tomato and so simple.

Dish four--the favorite, I recall, of the man friend--was eggs in "purgatorio." A roasted tomato sauce was covered in a sunny side up egg and Parmesan cheese. Exquisite and so gooey with sinful yolk. I think it was full of stewed leeks too.

Dishes five and six are an odd color pairing but worked, one better than the other. On the left, two types of melon with prosciutto. For some reason when I was little and drew with my crayons down to their poor nubs, I loved the color combination of pink, green, and yellow (orange, whatever). The manifestation of my childhood color preferences was made better with crushed pistachios. The crepes worked.. less well. I believe they were mushroom, but were too chewy.

After six--you saw all of them--appetizers, we still miraculously had room for lunch. The man friend had proposed a pizza, a deliciously thin, crusty, sausage one that was baked right before our eyes in the wood-fired stove. We make pretty solid progress on that unsuspecting pizza, knocking out whatever remained of the rest of our meal while we were at it.

We were pretending to be in Italy--with our American-size appetites--so a little single espresso seemed totally appropriate (in addition to the fact that we had the second half of our trip to go).

With the espressos came little nibbling cookies, exquisite little lemon and almond things; three types in total. Since it was the end of the lunch service, our waitress offered to let us take home some extras, which we delivered to the man friends' parents. They, among others, were kind enough to listen to our gushing tales of this delicious meal.

You may have noticed we didn't stop there. We capped off our exorbitant meal with tiramisu, laced on the bottom with soggy espresso ladyfingers and topped with a densely, foamy creamy top. It was a great consolation to me to eat my way through the Culinary Institute of America's food offerings if I couldn't have made these dishes myself as a student there. Although, I would have been glad to make our lunch if the other students would have let me back in that kitchen!

Monday, February 10, 2014

Red Apron and Breadmaking

First things first. I intend to use my position of authority as an amateur food blogger--read by my mom, my man friend, and some unidentified people in Russia, according to my blog statistics--to publicize the most notable food event in my life this week: one of my friends is currently taking a week-long breadmaking class and today, used her kneading, rising, and proofing skills to produce this thing of beauty. It has homemade bread bubbles and everything.

While she delves into this enviable yeasty and inventive world, I continue weekend culinary exploration apace. Yesterday, the man friend and I met some old friends--both of them!--at the Red Apron, a charmingly quaint charcuterie/beer purveyor/soft serve server/sandwich shop near Tyson's.

This is an area I typically avoid like the plague--what other neighborhood has a Tiffany's and an On the Border a mere 500 feet away from each other--but the development where Red Apron is situated inverts itself, protecting shoppers from the stress of the outside world. There is abundant parking, friendly walking areas, and a Paper Source: in short, a Midwestern girl's heaven.

We ordered at the counter, settled into our (perfunctorily comfortable) stools, and then tucked into our sandwiches. I had a Cuban sandwich, something I learned to appreciate in Florida. It was a bit too complex to highlight the independent flavors, though. The bread was good--but too fancy--and the pineapple mustard--I'll admit, the reason this sounded like a good idea--overpowered the pork, made in house.

My esteemed man friend had a grilled cheese sandwich, which surprisingly, was better than mine (this is not a denigration of his tastes, but rather his ordering a sandwich without meat at a meat place). It had smoked cheddar, apple, and fig vin cotto (like fig vinegar). He won this round.


We split fries. What you cannot see are the garlic cloves and rosemary fried up with the fries. These made this great.

Man friend and I had to pick up some domestic vittles --grown-up things like apples, Gatorade, and sponges, between us both--at the Target in this urban oasis. After loading up the car, we went back for some soft serve, because when you're an adult, you can reward yourself with ice cream after hard work. Toasted marshmallow is on the left, Nutella on the right. Being a grown up is awesome.