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Tapas of Eggs and Chorizo

Posted by jwpiper on February 22, 2009

When I returned from California, it was to a fairly empty refrigerator. My wife doesn’t love to cook when I’m gone – in fact, there’s a lot of hummus an guacamole eaten. At least she makes the latter from scratch. Well, from our meager list of food, I was inspired to make a tapas based on something I’d once watched José Andrés create (the wonders of PBS). Simple, easy, but ultimately made of delicious foods: fried eggs and chorizo with garlic. It turned out wonderfully; I was a bit heavier on the chorizo than I would normally be, but I needed something hearty and filling since this “tapas” was going to be my meal. It turned out that the roasted garlic was perfectly complemented by the smokey flavors from the chorizo, and the textures from the runny yolks, the crispy fried whites, and the rich chewy chorizo in a crispy fried exterior were perfect together. This will make it into the rotation as a tapas, or appetizer, or even a breakfast dish.

Tapas of Eggs and Chorizo

2 large eggs
3-4 unpeeled cloves garlic
1/3 lb sliced spanish chorizo
2 sprigs of fresh thyme (optional)
2 tbsp Spanish olive oil
serves 1 for a meal or 2 for tapas

Use your preferred method for frying an egg with a runny yolk: either use a lot of oil in a small pan/pot and drop the egg in or use a few tablespoons and fry one side at a time.
Be sure to salt the egg.
Remove and plate.
In remaining oil, add smashed garlic with peel on in order to roast the garlic and transfer the aromatic garlic oils into the olive oil. Do this for a minute or two.
Remove garlic and peel.
In the same oil, add the chorizo and some fresh thyme and just cook until it gets a bit crispy.
Place the chorizo slices and roasted garlic over the fried eggs and pour on all of the oil from the pan (some is from the olive oil and some is from the chorizo).

I didn’t have any thyme to use and the dish was still delicious. Additionally, I believe José separated the white from the yolk and just fried the white, placing the yolk on top at the end. The presentation was a bit more interesting, but I think if you’re careful when frying the egg, the end result is quite similar.


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Santa Ana – Coffee Factory

Posted by jwpiper on February 21, 2009

There are few restaurants which I’d consider it a sin not to make an effort to get to and Coffee Factory in Santa Ana, CA is one of them. I was first recommended this place a few trips to Los Angeles ago by the owner of Benley Vietnamese Kitchen in Long Beach. Benley is an excellent small restaurant worthy of a post of its own, but they didn’t have bánh mì, Vietnamese cuisine’s flavor explosion of a sub sandwich. So I asked where I could get the best bánh mì around and they sent me to Coffee House in Santa Ana – a restaurant which if I ran into it while driving down the street, I never would stop inside. And what I would have missed. In all of my visits to this restaurant, the weather has been perfect so the outside tables are full with sunglass-wearing Vietnamese sharing french pressed coffee and tea. Inside and out, you won’t find any non-Vietnamese people here unless you’re there on a day when I am. In fact, it’s just about in the middle of a strip mall in the middle of the largest Little Saigon I’ve ever been to.

I’ve never ventured out from bánh mì in my visits to Coffee House, but they do have pho and several other dishes which look wonderful. But I digress: I should be talking about the bánh mì. I have a general disdain for purchasing sandwiches and subs. There are definitely exceptions to this rule, but I caricaturize my opinion for the purposes of making fun of my colleagues who order sandwiches, in one form or another, pretty much every day of the week. But my true objection to purchasing sandwiches lies in the fact that most of them from most places can be made better and cheaper at home. Coffee Factory bánh mì is the exalted antithesis of these lesser examples.

For those unfamiliar with the bánh mì formula, they consist of pickled vegetables (usually carrots and turnips) and fresh cucumber and chillies along with some meat. At Coffee Factory, they add fresh cilantro. This time I had BBQ pork and pork meatball… so delicious. In general, bánh mì are my favorite expression of a sub, but here they use the best french bread I’ve had outside of Europe, hands down – soft and airy on the inside and crumbly crusty on the out. These sandwiches are absolutely transcendent at prices ranging from $2.75 to $3.25. Now, you’ll need two of them to be full (and I’ve been laughed at fro how much I’ve ordered before), but that’s opportunity for variety or to try the pho.

I like to finish off with a cup of frozen yogurt topped with mangoes. For anyone not in the know about Southeast Asian frozen yogurt, this isn’t TCBY soft-serve, this is truly plain, sour yogurt in frozen form. Simple, bright, and delicious – topped with candy sweet super-ripe mangoes makes a wonderful snack or finish to just about any meal.

I can only assume that there’s plenty of other delicious restaurants in the area. I don’t know if I’ll take the risk on my limited trips unless I get a reliable tip on one in particular. But every trip I make to LA, a city filled with delicious food, includes an earnest effort to make it to Coffee Factory.

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Brussels – L’Huitriere

Posted by jwpiper on February 11, 2009

I wasn’t scheduled to return from London to Brussels until rather late, so I lamented having to eat in the airport instead of getting a proper meal on my last day in Europe. I always check to see if I can hop an earlier flight, and at the check-in counter they insisted that they’d closed reservations for the flight. But my rule of thumb is to always try to get to the gate. And I did – in time to make the earlier flight and make time for dinner in Brussels.

Based on the time and where I was staying, St. Catherine’s area seemed to be the only place I could squeeze in a meal. I was hopeful that Rugbyman Two would have foie gras, but alas, they didn’t. So I wandered the street until I found an interesting enough looking restaurant to try. It wasn’t until I handed the hostess my jacket that I noticed that L’Huitriere had been awarded a Michelin star in 2007.

Before the meal even started, I was presented with a small bowl of gray shrimp – another Belgian delicacy that I generally seek out. I’m never quite sure the proper way to eat these, as every culture has their preferred method with such a beast. In the south of France, pop their heads off and eat the whole remainder of the shrimp. In East Asian cultures, I’d expect they’d either eat the whole animal or at least suck out the brain after popping off the head. In the USA, they’d peel off the whole shell and eat only the body with no shell. I’m always torn between the three and really generally do whatever I fancy at the moment, which in this example was a combination of all three to be honest. In truth, I think the heads need to be either eaten or sucked out, and what to do with the body depends on you preference for texture. I did think the shrimp begged to be dipped into a nice mayonnaise, but my request was either forgotten or misunderstood.

I paired a Jupiler with the meal – the everyman Belgian pilsner. It is a nice clean pilsner: a true session beer which is better than Stella Artois and head and shoulders better than Stell Artois in the USA. I found the Hoegaarden to be more complex and interesting as a pairing at Rugbyman Two than the Jupiler this evening.

The lack of a warm, seared goose liver foie gras was a bit disappointing. But not to be entirely denied my desire, I ordered the Terrine de foie gras d’ Oie & sa confiture d’ oignons, a previously formed and cooked foie gras pâté which is then served cold in a block on bread with caramelized onions. It was rather tasty and quite full-flavored (I assume duck livers), but not at all what I was really craving. C’est la vie.

For my entree, I decided on Skrei aux jus de moules, mousse de trois legumes, or baby cod in the juice of mussels with a three potato mousse. It was delicious and clean, but as per my general dislike for cod, should I make the dish, I would likely select a different mild fish. In truth, it was quite good for cod, including the texture which was very moist and tender for cod.

The name of my dessert has escaped me – it is a classic French dessert of ice cream between two doughy pastries and topped with a Belgian chocolate sauce and toasted almonds. It was decadent and rich and finished the meal nicely.

In all, the meal was excellent, and I wouldn’t say the restaurant doesn’t deserve a Michelin star, but I’ve had better meals in Brussels in my opinion. I am likely to attempt a dish inspired by the cod in my own kitchen in the relatively near future. Next time I’m near St. Catherine’s in Brussels and Rugbyman Two is out of foie gras, I’ll likely be dining across the street.

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Brussels – Rugbyman Two

Posted by jwpiper on February 9, 2009

Having been tipped off by a colleague that the best place for seafood in Brussels is near St. Catherine’s church and having also gotten the heads up from the folks I met at Kulminator, I had to check it out. So it was my first stop on my way down from Antwerp.

I had been told that one side of the road is a more refined experience (and thus pricier) than the other, so my natural inclination was to find the cheaper side and eat there. As I was looking at the menus, I happened upon my new friends, so I decided to pop into the same restaurant. Plus, the place where they were had goose livers on the menu: an Belgian speciality I’ve been searching for. Alas, after sitting down, I learned they were out.

I pieced together a simple meal from the menu. I started with Le cappuccino de bisque de homard a l’Armagnac, or lobster bisque with brandy, which was bright with a bit of spice and some nice lobster chunks. The lobster itself wasn’t terribly impressive as compared with the Maine lobsters with which I have the most familiarity. Served alongside the bisque were several chunks of perfect french bread.

My second course was Le tartare de saumon et thon rouge, ciboulette et concombre, or salmon and tuna tartare. This was the highlight of the meal: its simplicity highlighted the freshness of the fish and the bright onions and refreshing cucumbers were an excellent accompaniment.

I finished with La surprise normande flambée au calvadose, an apple pie flambé in a Calvadose syrup and topped with vanilla ice cream, which was rather rich and sweet.

In all, it was a very good meal, but given the amount of food I consumed, probably not worth the cost. I don’t know that the prices across the street were as substantially different as was described to me, but they were definitely better. Again, I’d also personally steer away from the Belgian lobster. It was good, but not as good as its much cheaper counterpart on the northern Atlantic coast of the US.

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Antwerp – Afspanning ‘t Waagstuk

Posted by jwpiper on February 8, 2009

As an interlude between visits to Kulminator, we grabbed a bite at Afspanning ‘t Waagstuk. Given that the place is better known as a bar with food, I took the opportunity to try a classic Belgian dish: stoemp. Actually, while the decision was somewhat motivated by my recent experience in Amsterdam with the Dutch version of this dish, I was also influenced by the fact that there wasn’t much more compelling on the menu.

If ever there was peasant food – this is it. Basically, it’s mashed potatoes with spices. In Holland, even with it all gussied up, it really wasn’t anything too special. Indeed, it screamed peasant food with dressing. But here, at ‘t Waagstuk, we had a simple rendition. It looked like a hefty pile of mashed potatoes with some green vegetable topped with a nice thick piece of bacon. Well, that’s exactly what it was. Except the potatoes were nicely spiced (there was nutmeg among other things) and the bacon was deliciously smoked.

I enjoyed a bottle of Cantillon Gueuze 100% Bio Lambic alongside it, which was nice to cut the heaviness of the dish.

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Brussels – In ‘t Spinnekopke

Posted by jwpiper on February 5, 2009

Many of my best and most memorable meals in Brussels have been courtesy of a tiny French-speaking restaurant on the south-west side of city center.

The attitude is completely as you would expect out of a restaurant near Paris. The food is completely Belgian. And therin lies the charm. I don’t care you could smack me and spit in my face… if you feed me food like that, you’re alright by me. It’s just a bonus that they do none of the above (except purvey incomparable food) and equally fortunate that they’ve begun to recognize me, the self-proclaimed king of self-branding.

I start with an apéritif of Drie Fontenien Oude Kriek. For my meal, I order the same thing Andy did on his first visit: Coq Spinnekopke. It’s roasted leg and thigh of hen in a beer, cream mushroom sauce paired of course with pommes frites. Should I attempt this at home, as I very well may, I would try to crisp the skin on the hen before adding it to the gravy. That was just about my only suggestion for improving on the succulent, rich dish. I paired it with a Rochefort 10.

So worthy an apéritif sticks in your mind even after the meal, so when I saw sorbet a la kriek on the dessert list, I had to see what that was all about. First taste: “holy crap!”. This is perfect. Sour, a bit sweet with chunks of sour cherries, and more cherry pit flavor even than the beer. Perfect, I say.

In ‘t Spinnekopke you’ve bested yourself yet again. I will be back and not soon enough for me.

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Amsterdam – De Roode Leeuw

Posted by jwpiper on February 5, 2009

On the recomendation of the bartender at In de Wildeman Bier Proeflokaal, I walked to Restaurant de Roode Leeuw for dinner. I was looking for a typical Dutch dining experience.

Perhaps it’s the dark wood or the red velvet seats, but from the outside, this looks like a fancy establishment. When gestured to seat yourself and approaching the table with the paper placemat and thick paper napkins, a different impression is given.

I order the Stomppotten, a traditional Dutch stew over mashed potatoes and vegetables and an Amstel. The Amstel is much better than the light version available in the US, but still quite bad. The Stamppotten is clearly a modern interpretation of the traditional dish. The stewing beef had been removed from the stew for finishing, the bacon was grilled dry, and smoked sausage all served over two different mashed potato stacks: one with carrots an brocoli and the other with cut cooked spinach(?). The waiter sparingly poured the stewing gravy over top. It was then that I decided Dutch food, while eu sunstabtially better than German is still too much thus influenced. Big and fatty and still a little bland except the sausages. The meal wasn’t bad… But if you’re going to modernize a classic, crisp the bacon, caramelize the sausage, and give me some texture on the stewing beef by grilling it after removing from the stew.

I won’t be seeking Dutch food anytime soon. Not terrible, but not good. As my colleague Bart says, Dutch food is peasant food. There isn’t a string culinary tradition. I will say, though, based on my experience in a hospital cafeteria, they can bake bread. The kind with the perfectly crackly crust and light, clean center… the kind no one in the US seems capable of baking to save their lives.

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A Hop Mess

Posted by jwpiper on February 1, 2009

Winter is supposed to be a time for imperial stouts and winter warmers, but somehow this month has become one of the best times for big IPAs here in Ohio. Sierra Nevada recently introduced Torpedo Extra IPA which utilizes a new technique for dry hopping in a beer which is just a bit to big to be called an IPA. Technically, and Amber Ale, Tröegs Nugget Nectar made it to Ohio for the first time this week just months after Tröegs decided to distribute in our great state. Founders Double Trouble is a brand new release from the Grand Rapids, MI brewery. Double Trouble is brewed to target palates more friendly to West Coast style IPAs. Bell’s Hopslam, of course, was recently released and brings its own unique take on an Imperial IPA. An impressive list of seasonals and brews brand new to the market.

It begs for a dedicated evening of hop enjoyment. And it just so happens that in the last month or two, I’ve amassed some additional deliciously hoppy beers in Three Floyds Dreadnaught IPA and Russian River Pliny the Elder.

All these hops also beg for some blue cheeses to go along, so I picked up three from Whole Foods. Gorgonzola Dolce ($11/lb) is a smooth, rich, ridiculously creamy cow’s milk blue cheese. Verde Capra Italian ($22/lb) is also rich and creamy, but a sharper more complex goat’s milk cheese. Gorgonzola Cremaficato ($17/lb) was the weak link – firmer, less complex, but still decent.

Some highlights from the tasting: Dogfish Head 60 Minute is almost swill – ok, not quite, but I won’t be buying it anytime soon. Tröegs Nugget Nectar is an incredible Amber Ale and an incredible value. Founders Double Trouble can’t quite compete with the best DIPAs from the West Coast. Bell’s Hopslam is like no other. Three Floyds Dreadnaught IPA is actually an incredible IIPA which endured a disservice by being consumed side-by-side with Russian River Pliny the Elder. I will be re-reviewing Dreadnaught based on my last two experiences with it. Finally, Pliny is hands down the best IPA I’ve ever had. And even nearly three month after brewing, as it greatness begins to fade, it was the best IPA in the bunch.

Now, it was fun to enjoy these beers back-to-back. But come on brewers, can’t we spread out the releases of these beers which don’t keep well? I’d like to enjoy these year round.

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Boston – Ten Tables

Posted by jwpiper on January 29, 2009

Whenever I need to be in Boston on a Tuesday night, Ten Tables in Jamaica Plain is the first place I call. I think I first found out about it more or less simultaneously through Zagat and a friend who lives in Jamaica Plain. Generally, I’m relegated to 9:30 or 10pm seatings, as the restaurant has a strong local following and is limited to 10 tables. It is truly a neighborhood restaurant while simultaneously offering some of the best fine dining in Boston – and certainly at the best prices. The Tuesday 4-course wine pairing menu is a paltry $42.

The chef, David Punch, specializes in good, clean food made with local ingredients. Some of the plates are familiar and homey and others are combinations which wouldn’t necessarily have crossed my mind. All are well considered and executed – I’ve yet to have a course which didn’t impress. Stan Hilbert is a refreshing sommelier – passionate, real, and unhaughty. His pairings are always equally well considered, and the two along with the rest of the team create a unique experience which I look forward to on my currently frequent trips to Boston.

This Tuesday started with moules mariniéres, mussels in a crème fraîche with taragon, shallots, parsley, and wine, paired with a 2006 Muscadet Sevre et Maine Domaine de la Batardiere. The mussels were huge and succulent and the wine bright and minerally. The second course was a garbanzo bean and chorizo ragout paired with 2005 Ad Libitum, Domaine la Grange Tiphaine. The stew was fresh with a rich earthiness and spice lended by the spanish chorizo and begs me to attempt it at home. The third course was an herb roasted all natural culotte steak, escarole potato cake, and fourme d’amber butter paired with 2003 Saumur, “les Vigneaux”, Chateau la Tour Grise. The pair was perfect, and the wine gives an extreme IPA a run for its money alongisde a blue cheese. I’ll be seeking it out in the near future. The final course was a cheese, Ste. Maure de Touraine, paired with a 2003 Vouvray Moelleux, Domaine Lemaire Fournier which was a nice clean way to end the evening.

Between this location in Jamaica Plain and the new restaurant to be opened in Cambridge in a matter of weeks, I think David is building a reputation for excellent food. And atmosphere they’ve created results in a memorable dining experience. If I were local, it would be tempting to make it a weekly ritual.

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Boston – Green Dragon Tavern

Posted by jwpiper on January 27, 2009

Most of my trips (even before I realized it) to Boston include a visit to the Green Dragon Tavern. Its proximity to The Union Oyster House and North End paired with cheap lobster make it a must visit. The beer isn’t much to speak of, but usually, there are specials for 1.25lb lobster for $13/14 or if not lobster rolls for $13. I usually opt for the steamed lobster, but today I had to keep my fancy clothes on, so I went for the less-likely-to-make-a-mess lobster roll. Lots of prime lobster meat just barely held together by mayonnaise with just enough celery for crunch in the nook of a tosted roll. Pretty delicious.

The space is cozy, the service fast and curt. With the money you save, get some pricey oysters next door at the Union Oyster House or finish your meal with a half mile walk to Mike’s Pastries in North End for some delicious cannoli and coffee.

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Pistachio-Crusted Lamb

Posted by jwpiper on January 26, 2009

Some great restaurants you do research to find, others come on a recommendation. It’s the minority of good restaurants which you more or less stumble onto. After a conference in San Diego, Matt C. and Andy asked some randoms for a good restaurant. This is usually not advisable, but after some convincing that they liked good food, the got a strange and intriguing recommendation: an Afghan restaurant called Chopahn Restaurant.

I tagged along for the adventure and we were amazed at what we experienced. The dish which blew them all away, however, was the Shinwari Kebab – pistachio encrusted lamb chops in a roasted garlic sauce with grilled tomatoes, zucchini, and cardamom rice. Almost every trip I make to San Diego includes a dinner at Chopahn and every time I order the Shinwari Kebab. I’m told that this is a traditional dish which is made in a special clay/brick/or-something oven. I’ve yet to see or taste anything like it elsewhere.

I’ve come up with a recipe which has actually made me capable of going to San Diego without visiting Chopahn. After all, there are plenty of other meals which I can’t pass up in San Diego. This isn’t meant to be a replica of the meal by any means. Instead it incorporates the flavors and textures of the dish. An alternative preparation is to make a side of spiced rice and leave the cardamom out of the main dish. Given that I’m lazy, I usually go with the preparation below. I serve the meal with sauteed or grilled zucchini (or some related squash) on the side and usually break out a bottle of Layer Cake Shiraz.

The wine deserves a mention of its own. There’s so much going on with this $16 bottle, and it happens to be one of my favorite bottles. A real value on an under $20 bottle of wine. It brings an extreme level of complexity and the earthy, rich flavors complement the lamb excellently.

Pistachio-Crusted Lamb

2 tbsp olive oil
1.5 lbs lamb loin chops (4)
6 medium cloves garlic
pistachio topping
serves 2

Heat a heavy pan (I used a cast iron pan) on high.
Add oil.
Add garlic and salted lamb to sear.
Keep moving and flipping the garlic to cook without burning.
After 1-2 minutes, salt and flip the lamb.
While the lamb is searing, spread the pistachio topping onto the already cooked side of the lamb.
After a minute, transfer the pan under the broiler on high to brown the topping.
This will cook the lamb to rare, if a higher level of cookedness is desired, either sear longer or cook longer under the broiler.

The lamb can also be prepared on the grill in much the same way. Grilled zucchini is just incredible, so this method is preferred. The lamb should still be finished under a broiler so the topping doesn’t fall off.

Pistachio Crust

50g pistachios
5g cardamom (two pinches)
40g course ground mustard

Use a mortar and pestle to grind cardamom and pistachios separately.
Add mustard to the ground pistachios until a very thick paste is formed.
Add cardamom to taste.

The paste should have a taste strongly of pistachios with some mustard and a hint of cardamom.

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India – Summary

Posted by jwpiper on January 25, 2009

I left for India cocky and proud. The food there taught me a lesson in humility. It is fitting that my last post was after eating at Nazim’s, because this was the meal which started it all. For days I insisted on my normal response to a solitary meal which tweaks the old digestive system – keep on eating as soon as possible as if nothing happened. Turns out this isn’t the best course of action when you have a serious bacterial infection in a foreign country without clean water or facilities. Lesson learned. Well, kinda. Turns out it was something of a good idea to keep eating since my trip was cut short, but that’s a different story.

Keeping on the topic of food, my final days in India were much more of a roler coaster gastronomically speaking. A return trip to Karim solidified it as the best food of the trip. On another day, after eating the worst meal of the entire trip, the Bengali Sweet House (click here to see it on a map) provided a tasty redemption. There I sampled a cardamom nut ice cream served with sweet noodles, good gulab jamon, and the tasty carrot dessert with crushed cashews. Other restaurant experiences in Delhi varied from terrible to decent. At the worst, gravies left out warm all day below a boil at what turned out to be a cockroach infested restaurant (Kake da Hotel) couldn’t have possibly helped my stomach. And the pizza I had at an Indo-Italian (aka, bad Italian) restaurant certainly wasn’t the best way to end my trip to Delhi, but that’s a different story.

The hotel in Chennai, however, provided some good recovery food with fresh yogurt and fruit (something which didn’t often present itself in Delhi) – including pommegranate seeds, apples, pears, passion fruit, pineapple, figs, papaya, etc. Of course, eating a kilogram of fresh fruit caused some discomfort for the rest of the day before my return trip to the US.

Aside from the food, the biggest differences I noted upon landing in Chennai were the blue skies and slightly more orderly traffic. Delhi had some beautiful days while we were there – but never did you see the blue sky or bright sun. Everything was filtered through the thickest brown fog – much worse than anything I’ve seen in LA and purportedly worse even than the largest cities in China. The food was also certainly different, but my exposure was limited because the trip was shortened and my stomach demanded a respite from the deluge I had thrown at it for more than a week.

In all, this will be a memorable trip. I won’t soon forget the auto-rickshaw (or “auto”) rides which started with me getting punched by a beggar and almost ended in a wreck or fight in the street. I won’t soon forget that its possible to fit five people onto a small motorcycle. I won’t soon forget that large Indian travelers don’t have the same arm-rest etiquette as large American travelers do, nor that seat 22F on the Boeing 777-200ER does not allow you to stretch your legs during the 14.5 hour flight from Delhi to Newark. And I won’t soon forget that any travel case devoid of a powerful anti-biotic is one which shouldn’t touch down in India.

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Delhi – Nizam’s Kathi Kabab

Posted by jwpiper on January 15, 2009

Kanak, always looking out for my gastronomic needs, wanted me to sample typical West Bangali food, so we sought out Nizam’s which was promised to serve food typical of the Kolkata (Calcutta) streets. After a short (Delhi standards) drive into downtown Delhi, we arrived to a large commercial area. Some meandering through streets brought us to the restaurant.

Since the restaurant wouldn’t serve alcohol, we went to an upstairs lounge across the street, Knight World Cuisine Lounge, where I was committed to again have the typical Indian experience. So we took an Antiquity Blue, domestic whiskey, on the rocks. In South India, I’m told this is pronounced “Auntie-Kwe-Tee”. I found it to be just terrible, so after polishing that off, we moved on to a domestic rum, Old Monk. I’m told there is no drink more typically Indian. For a cheap rum, it actually wasn’t too bad. The backdrop of paid karaoke singers completed the modern Indian experience quite nicely. Listening to American music sung above the recorded synthesized background music was a treat in itself.

For dinner we ordered double chicken double egg rolls and mutton biryani. The rolls were chicken kebab with fried eggs, pickled red onions, and fresh chilies all rolled up in a flakey butter naan: an oily, rich delight. The biryani was served alongside curd (this stuff was like a cross between yogurt and cottage cheese), and a chicken gravy (or curry, as its called in the rest of the world). With the curd and gravy mixed in, this was easily the best biryani I have ever had. Kanak rates it a 5/10. Huh? I guess I’ll see later. The highlight of the biryani was the generous spicing with whole cardamom pods and cloves which lended an exotic flavor to the whole bowl, but also resulted in the periodic explosion of flavor in the mouth.

In the interest of full disclosure, I feel I should mention that this food has given me a terrible case of the runs the next morning. Completely and utterly worth it.

See Nizam’s Kathi Kabab on a map.

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Delhi – The Great Kabab Factory

Posted by jwpiper on January 14, 2009

We tried another kebab restaurant on a recommendation. Only 2.5 km away, it took the obligatory 20-30 minutes to reach. It turned out to be an all-you-can eat type of restaurant, similar to the Brazilian churrasco restaurants which can commonly be found in the States. We went the 100% meat route for the kebabs, and were treated to a variety of preparations.

The salad course, consisting of cucumbers, papaya, and tomatoes with a strawberry dressing was fresh, bright, and quite good. The produce is very good at the restaurants we’ve been frequenting, with the exception of the lettuce which no one eats for fear of parasites which attack the brain. Huh? The interesting drink for the night was a buttermilk with chopped mint leaves. Buttermilk has never been my favorite, but this wasn’t offensive. I ended up drinking a couple of sweet lime sodas instead. The search for Kingfisher Strong continues.

Following was the deluge of kebabs, starting with a Kaloti kebab. It seemed to be a puréed lamb pâté which was pan-seared to a crispy exterior. The texture was sublime and the flavor spiced, rich, and enticing. In addition to this came tandoori chicken, a mint chutney rubbed chicken preparation, chicken tikka, tandoori mutton chops, a fish meatball preparation, and likely several more that I’m forgetting. Alongside were severed several dosas and parathas. To supplement, we ordered tandoori prawns which were incredibly succulent and tasty in their crispy spice rub.

I could have continued in this vein for the whole night, but the next course was a dahl and biryani course. Kanak ordered a paper thin paratha for me, which ended up being a good way to not eat too much bread with the ridiculous amounts of food I was consuming. There were two dahls served – a brown lentil dahl and an orange-lentil dahl. The orange lentil dahl had flavors quite reminiscent of the yellow lentil Ethiopian dish I love so much, Kik Alicha. The brown dahl actually wasn’t as wonderfully earthy as my first experience at the Indian Pub, but was still pretty good. The biryani wasn’t exceptional, but the paneer dish was welcome.

To finish, there were four dessert choices, and I decided to sample them all. First I tried a shaved carrot dish which turned out to be the gem and the only one I greatly enjoyed. They shave the carrots and cook with sugar for hours and hours, making a pleasantly sweet and subtle dessert. Then I tried their firnee which was not nearly as satisfying as Karim’s and a pistachio custard which I was excited upon seeing, but ended up lacking complexity or much flavor. Finally, the gulab jamon was simple and not terribly compelling.

If a return were ever to be in my future, I would gorge myself on the kebabs and leave all the other stuff behind. The restaurant was good, but not great, especially on the heels of my visit to Karim’s, and it seemed substantially more expensive.

See The Great Kabab Factory on a map.

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Delhi – Karim

Posted by jwpiper on January 13, 2009

It started as an innocent drive at 20:30 filled with the now usual though comical and scary adventures of driving in Delhi traffic. A few new observations: 1) Green arrow means yield; red light means go. No, I’m not kidding or exaggerating, that is quite literally the rule – at least at this particular intersection. 2) It is perfectly normal for a passenger to get out of a vehicle and cross traffic to walk off the road. First I saw this on city roads – ok, whatever – but then on the highway. 3) If you miss your turn and there isn’t oncoming traffic immediately apparent, it is recommended to drive the wrong way on a road in hope of finding a place you can flip a u-turn. As soon as a wall of oncoming traffic comes racing toward you from around the corner you were blinded to, calmly stop, lay on your horn, open your door, yell to the car(s) who followed you to back up, and backup to make enough room so the angry drivers, presumably in the right of way, can move around you slightly for you to maneuver through the cars to continue on your wrong way. And finally, 4) if you get to your destination unscathed, it was a successful journey – there are no points for finesse.

We exited the car and began walking, guided by our companion who I found out later hadn’t been to this restaurant since 1983. We meandered through the narrow walkways immediately greeted with the smell of stale urine, the sound of beggars and street vendors, and the sight of litter. Soon the smells mixed with varyingly pleasant aromas of street food, though today wouldn’t see me consume the risky morsels.

Finally, we were under the large yellow sign announcing this landmark restaurant, Karim, which has been serving classic Delhi food since 1913. The best restaurant in the worst neighborhood. The decor could be described as classic Hindi movie or straight from an early James Bond scene representing middle eastern establishments. Whatever the surrounds, this restaurant can’t have a more cult following – clearly not a tourist trap, just the best no frills food available in Delhi.

The meal delivered on the promise. We started with minced lamb kebabs, tandoori chicken, and a whole tandoori fish – all brilliantly executed, crispy and succulent with bright and savory flavors. Following was chicken briyani, raan (mutton) in a rich gravy, and pillowy roti. To finish, we each polished off classically subtle firnee presented in an earthen vessel which served to remove some of the moisture from the pudding, giving it an pleasant gelatinous texture.

This was easily the best North Indian meal I can remember ever having and rivaled some of the homemade South Indian meals I savored in my childhood – but with delicious meat. Indeed, the memories flooded back as I finally felt truly comfortable eating Indian cuisine with my hands for the first time since those days. It conjured a warm, homey feeling which undoubtedly contributed to my enjoyment of this meal I won’t soon forget.

See Karim Restaurant on a map.

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Delhi – Pubbles Street

Posted by jwpiper on January 12, 2009

Best pub food… and worst pub beer.

We started with appetizers of lamb meatballs and a tandoori patter (pictured). Everything was extremely tasty, but the meatballs were absolutely unreal – spicy, spiced, succulent and rich, it was difficult to identify all of the flavors.

While I’ve had it before (under both its Asian name and American name, Taj Mahal), I thought I’d give Kingfisher a try near the source. Some of the bottles were brown and some clear. Not too surprisingly, there was a taste difference, presumably contributed by light skunking since the labels are the exact same: avoid the clear bottles. An unsatisfying experience caused the ill-advised switch to Tiger. My reviews are below, both poured at cooler temperature from 650ml bottles into 300ml pilsener glasses. Fortunately, I think I got sampling the light lagers out of the way early on in the trip.

For the meal, I tried a chicken dish, marinated in cream and spices. The dahl was incredibly earthy and played well with the bright and savory spices on the chicken. Kanak introduced me to what I call the chili chaser: taking a bite of your meal and then a bite of fresh green chili to add the fresh, sharp flavor and spice – delicious. It was so refreshing to be back to eating Indian food with my hands – something which consistently draws strange looks in Indian restaurants in the US.

Across from the restaurant, we enjoyed a treat of beetle leaf stuffed with spices – my second street food experience after being warned by everyone not to eat street food. Huh? It was referred to as an aphrodisiac, a breath freshener, as well as a digestive aid. I was instructed to stuff it in my cheek like chew, and slowly work it into my mouth since eating it too fast is bad for you. Huh? This treat seems pretty shrouded in myth. It was pretty unique: very refreshing flavors of mint and anise, honey sweetness, and some exotic savory spices.

My first real meal in India did not disappoint – and I’m told to expect better as we go.

Kingfisher Premium Lager

Clear light golden yellow color with a decent white head which clung to the glass as it was gulped. A strange hope of a decent, clean, lager arises.
Some funky, yeasty notes which were strangely fairly pleasant – reminiscent of a light saison. I fear, however, that the funk was not intentional. All is discord between the label, the appearance, and the smell. But each in its own right is not too bad at all.
Whoa, downhill from here. The flavors are light, watered down, and still a little funky – is this open fermented? Were nasty local yeasts allowed to impart that funkiness? The brown bottle (reviewed) at least had much less skunky notes. But this isn’t very good.
Light. Actually had a mildly pleasant dryness.
Not horrendous. Actually, somewhat easy drinking as per the style, but why?
Again, not terrible (better than many American macros), but why?
165Rs/650ml. Not even close to a value. Sparkling water is better and cheaper.

Tiger Beer

Clear golden with a decent white head. Nothing about this is reminiscent of any good beer I’ve had.
A lighter smell than the Kingfisher, with nothing really inviting about it. Maybe a little malt on the nose – much like an American macro.
This was pretty terrible – light, a little malty. Nothing very redeeming about this.
Not as pleasantly dry as the Kingfisher, but still clean on the palate.
I mean, these are meant to be drinkable. I just don’t find them so. It’s like drinking bad water.
Speaking of water – pass me the water. I’d take a Kingfisher over this anyday. Now there’s a good beer!

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Cleveland – Lolita

Posted by jwpiper on January 10, 2009

One of Cleveland’s culinary gems, Lolita is Michael Symon‘s original restaurant in Cleveland. Once called Lola, it’s name was changed upon openning a new restaurant (you guessed it, Lola) in downton Cleveland. It’s nestled in part of what I think of as Cleveland’s gastronomic center: Tremont, just across the river from downtown.

For the value concsious, Lolita is one of the top treasures in town. Most entrees are priced $16-18, and come with a side included. The portions are varied, but generally satisfying. The menu is compact but ample, with seasonally appropriate dishes. The wine list includes a very long selection by the glass – all reasonably priced.

I always try to go on Tuesdays when they roast a Berkshire pig, but I don’t seem to be able to often. My last visit, I was convinced to try one of the pizzas. That was my only negative experience there… not that it was bad, just not as special as the other preparations in my opinion.

This visit, we started with appetizers of warm olives and stuffed dates. I was inspired to order the braised pork shank, and was not dissapointed. Served alongside a creamy polenta as the side and atop a lentil sauce, it was crispy and tender. My wife had a plate of squash ravioli and Matt C., roasted chicken. Without exception, we were all quite pleased.

There is little excuse for how seldom we make it to Lolita. I count it among my favorite restaurants in town. The food is good, the value impressive, and the ambiance warm and unpretentious. Michael Symon has well deserved his status as a celebrity chef.

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Pommes Frites

Posted by jwpiper on January 4, 2009

Good fries in the US are few and far between, I think. They’re either too soggy or overcooked – and that’s if they’re fresh. We won’t even discuss the fast food variety. Now, frites in Belgium are plentiful and in my experience almost universally delicious. Frites and mayonnaise and in some cases a brown sauce (ideally provided by Carbonnades Flamandes) are one of those pleasures which I seek out when there. Here’s my attempt to bring that home.

Pommes Frites

5 large potatoes
2 quarts canola oil

Cut the potatoes into 1/4″ strips along the long dimension of the potato.
Soak in water, rinse and repeat until the water is clear.
Dry throughly on towels.

Bring the oil up to 350 degrees.
Fry the potatoes in batches for 3-4 minutes until cooked.
Spread on paper towels and allow to cool to room temperature.

Bring the oil up to 375 degrees.
Fry the potatoes in batches for 1-2 two minutes until crisp and golden.
Toss with generous amounts of salt while hot and fresh out of the oil.
Place on a bread rack in a 200 degree oven.

I made this with half the oil with reasonably good success. Using less oil requires smaller batches and more finesse with the heat level to maintain the proper temperatures.

Optionally, refrigerate or freeze after the first fry and before the second until ready to eat.

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Carbonnades Flamandes

Posted by jwpiper on January 4, 2009

Also known as Carbonnade á la Flamande, this is the Belgian dish which held the most mystique for me. Actually, my history with Carbonnades Flamande is like a condensed version of my refusal to give up belief that there could be a good paella. From the first time I had it during a beach festival with some friends at what I would describe as a fast food restaurant, I knew what it could be. The experience sent me searching with an unwavering commitment to find an excellent example.

One evening, my company’s distributor had me stay out in the middle of nowhere Belgium near his house. I was pretty annoyed since when I’m there, I like to take in as much of the local culture as I can. This place literally had no other buildings near it for at least 1-2km. Since dinner at the hotel would have run me about 50€, my friend Jan took me to a restaurant before he left for home. It was definitely a country restaurant, but had a cozy outdoor seating area and as always plenty of good beer on the menu. I ordered the Carbonnades and was ill-prepared for the flurry of flavors which was to follow. This was what I had been waiting for. When asked what beer they used, the reply was “Trappistenbier,” which if remaining unspecified usually means Westmalle Dubbel in Belgium.

Since then, I’ve had some excellent versions, most notably one made with Drie Fontienen Geueze at one of my favorite Brussels restaurants, In ’t Spinnekopke.

Below is my attempt at reproducing what I experienced in that country restaurant outside of Antwerpen. It is also based on my friend Jan’s family recipe. As mentioned in the Christmas in Belgium post, this turned out very well (that was the second time I made it), but I think it could stand some additional souring elements, whether it come from using a different beer or from the addition of vinegar or increase in lemon juice or red currant jam. It ends up a very rich stew.

Carbonnades Flamandes
aka Carbonade á la Flamande

2 tbsp butter
5 lbs cubed stewing beef
2-3 strips bacon
2 large yellow onions
2 cloves garlic
2 tbsp white flour
4 330ml bottles Westmalle Dubbel
1/4 cup concentrated veal stock
juice of 1/2 large lemon
3 slices of french bread
dijon mustard
5-10 sprigs thyme
2 tsp red currant jam
1 tbsp brown sugar
serves 6

Heat a heavy pot (I used a cast iron dutch oven) on high.
Add butter to melt.
Add beef in batches, searing both sides; sprinkle with salt, and reserve.
Chop the bacon into small pieces.
Add the bacon and render the fat. Reserve when the bacon is crispy, leaving the bacon fat.
Chop the onions somewhat coarsely and add to the pot.
Stir and cook for 10-15 minutes, salting about 5 minutes in. This should remove most of the brown bits from the bottom of the pot and the onions should start becoming translucent.
Stir in the minced garlic cloves and cook for 30 seconds.
Stir in the flour until fully mixed.
Pour in the beer and let simmer.
Add concentrated, unsalted veal stock.
Add lemon juice.
Add beef, bacon, and any rendered juices.
Remove the crust from the bread and spread one side with mustard. Place on top of the stew.
Add thyme sprigs.
Allow to cook on medium heat (low boil) for at least 2 hours until the meat is very tender, stirring every 10 minutes or so to ensure that the bottom does not burn.
Towards the end of cooking, add salt, sugar, and red currant jam to taste.
Remove the thyme stalks.
Add water or continue cooking until the liquid becomes the desired consistency, which should be fairly thick.

I cook this on medium heat, uncovered to ensure that the stew would thicken substantially. Alternatively, this could be placed in the oven, covered at 250-300 degrees. This approach may require the addition of more flour or bread to properly thicken the stew.

Traditionally, this is served with pommes frites and mayonnaise one the side. The frites are dipped in the mayonnaise and subsequently into the Carbonnade. The beef is also dipped into the mayonnaise. Not the healthiest meal, but there’s nothing quite like this combination.

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Christmas in Belgium

Posted by jwpiper on January 4, 2009

Matt C., Andy, and I have been collecting interesting Christmas and Winter ales for a tasting, and the long anticipated Christmas Ale Day (part 1) finally happened. Kelly and Andy came to our house yesterday for a day filled with Belgian food and Christmas Ale.

We started with an apéritif of St. Fullien Cuvée de Noël, an excellent way to start the evening. It was spicy, fruity, and very sweet with an excellent use of caramelized sugars in the brewing. Much better than my last experience with this beer on tap at Buckeye Beer Engine. This ended up being in everyone’s top 3 for the evening.

Then a cheese plate was introduced, served with toasted bread squares and paired with two additional Belgians. The cheeses were:

  • Rogue Smokey Blue
  • Another excellent blue cheese – made with a mixture of cow’s and sheep’s milk. Accessible while still being interesting, with a nice nutty finish.
  • Rogue Chocolate Stout Cheddar
  • St. André brie – an extremely buttery, thick, somewhat firm creamy texture and mild decadent flavor. One of the better brie’s I’ve had.
  • A cheese aged with expresso beans and lavender
  • Some other French cheese – whatever it was, it was the dog of the group.

The Corsendonk Christmas Ale also ended up being much better than when I had it on tap at Melt in Lakewood, OH. This isn’t too surprising, since I’m usually a bit disappointed with the draught beer at Melt. It was good, but not great. The St. Fueillien and Corsendonk experience, however, solidified the fact for me that bottle conditioning makes an enormous difference, and I’ll more or less stop buying Belgian beer on tap if it’s available in a bottle-conditioned version.

N’Ice Chouffe was selected as the third beer and for most people ended in the top 3 beers tasted. This is an excellent example of a spiced beer which is extremely well balanced. There’s a lot of complexity in this beer – fruity, spicy, warm, and not too sweet.

For dinner we had Carbonnades Flamandes and pomme frites with mayonnaise paired with a winter dubbel, Belgian Winter Ale, from Barrel House in Cincinnati. The food was delicious – the Carbonnade complex and sweet, the frites crispy and light. The beer was made much better by the meal. Aside from the pairing, this beer has some nice sweet and fruity flavors, but is nowhere near as well balanced as the Belgians we’d been drinking.

While digesting the ridiculously heavy stew, we moved onto Delerium Noël and Gulden Draak Vintage. The Delerium was my first experience with a bottle of this beer which didn’t strike me with metallic notes. The Gulden Draak was the biggest disappointment of the night, as it didn’t have as much flavor as most of the beers we drank.

For dessert, we had plain yogurt topped with honey and pomegranate.

The “finisher” was a Gouden Carolus Noël which was perfect. Magnanimously sweet, it displays an artful use of caramelized sugar in the brewing process. It isn’t the most complex of the beers we had, but everyone agreed it was one of the best of the evening – especially given its place in the tasting.

Though we were missing two guests, our Christmas in Belgium ended up being an incredible day of delicious food and beer.

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