Saturday, March 24, 2012

Tasting Notes: Venice

The local population of Venice is shrinking. "We are now down to 59,500, it's slowing slightly as we get down to the 'zoccolo duro', the hard core", said Matteo Secchi, head of the protest group With millions of tourists flooding Venice each year to visit its immense art and architectural heritage, locals are fleeing for lack of affordable rents and services. To the casual visitor, it can be hard to get a sense of the living city.

This is where foodies have an advantage. Connecting with seasonal produce is one way of being in touch with local rhythms of farming and eating. In Venice, this connection is possible for two reasons. First, the agriculture of the Veneto is still characterized by market gardening. This labor intensive method allows for growing many more varieties of plants than industrial farming does. Particularities rather than consistency can be encouraged: cultivars that have a short season, or are more delicate, or are specific to a locality. (Here in the U.S., "heirloom gardening" is an attempt to revive this approach.) The second reason is that this bounty is readily available to Venetians at the Rialto market, right in the heart of town. This time last year, and other groups had an important victory: they succeeded in reversing plans to relocate the 700 year old market to the mainland.

If you are lucky enough to go to Venice in late March-early April, you will catch the short season of the "castraure", the first shoots of the artichoke. Before the full-grown artichokes begin to sprout, a tiny bud appears at the top of the plant. This is what is snipped off to become castraure -- so miniature that there is nothing to trim; so tender they can be eaten raw. In this delicate offering is held a concentrated bite (two at the most) of artichoke essence.

For such tiny morsels, castraure can be quite versatile. My first taste of it was at the esteemed restaurant, Osteria Da Fiore. Of the exquisite food we had there, the most exquisite was gnocchi stuffed with crab, served with braised castraure. Perhaps the gnocchi was intended to be the star, but from my first taste of the young artichokes, these were undoubtedly the main attraction, an unbelievable spring intensity leaping from their small tendrils. The crab and its juices were merely there to enhance the sweetness they yielded.

You don't have to go the most expensive restaurants in town to find castraure. I happened upon them again at one of those restaurants lining the Grand Canal near the Rialto bridge. The proprietor of the Terrazza Sommariva flagged us down as we were passing by, trying to lure us with offers of pizza. But when I inquired about castraure, sure enough, there they were on the menu as a special, this time paired with shrimp. The shrimp, by the way, were amongst the tenderest I have ever tasted. But the castraure blew me away. This time, they were shredded raw and lightly seasoned with olive oil, lemon, garlic, salt, and most importantly chives. This preparation brought out a completely different flavor than the one I had had the night before -- the slight stringency of the raw shoots given depth by the chives, then made to sparkle by the lemon.

Venice's food is sometimes criticized as being boring and limited. I disagree. Follow the market offerings and you will find chefs that are inspired and creative, and a cuisine that is very much alive.

Varieties of Artichoke at the Rialto Market (local and regional)
Venice, Italy

Photo credits: Chris Svoboda
And: thanks to Marcella Hazan, still my most reliable guide to Italian food.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Letter from Linguino: Guest Post from San Francisco (4)

Yank Sing

Steaming baskets of Chinese dumplings,
Filled with savory delights,
Wrapped in the most delicate of wontons,
That kept coming
And coming.

Yank Sing on Urbanspoon

Friday, March 9, 2012

Road Food

When I am on a road trip, I somehow feel compelled to eat "regional food". Honestly -- is there really such a thing anymore? And if it were any good, why is it still only regional? Nevertheless, driving through Virginia on my way to North Carolina, I managed to ingest fried onion rings, deep fried pickles, and a pimiento cheeseburger. Pimiento cheese, for the uninitiated, is cheddar cheese mixed with mayonnaise and pimiento peppers. A big debate rages about whether to use Duke's mayonnaise or Miracle Whip.

All of this left me feeling quite green, and sort of jipped. Nevertheless, on the return journey, I felt compelled to make one last attempt. I had read about deep fried banana cheesecake at a place called the Glass House Grill. I was attracted to the idea of fried bananas nestled with the cheese filling, but if I had read more carefully, I would have realized that it was the pastry itself that was deep fried. Sure enough, when this dish showed up, it turned out to be something like a giant churro (deep fried, sugar dusted dough) stuffed with bananas and sweet cheese and topped with caramel sauce. And I loved it!  It was worth every calorie and every gram of cholesterol.

Sneaking peeks at what other diners where eating, everything looked fresh and tempting. This place really has a unique spin on road food, but road food it is: it's right off the highway (I-85) in a town called South Hill, VA.  Enough to make me look for reasons to head south again.

Glass House Grill on Urbanspoon

Friday, March 2, 2012

DC Noodles

There's a new love in my life. Her name is DC Noodles. DC Noodles is like the girl next door -- the one you pass a million times in the street and never notice. Then one day, something happens to change that. She becomes all you can think about.

Seriously, it's not often you can say that every aspect of the meal was perfect -- every dish, the vibe in the restaurant, the service, even the price. DC Noodles is fundamentally a Thai restaurant, but its unique appeal comes from its ecumenical approach to noodles. You'll find squid ink spaghetti prepared in a wok. Spinach linguini shows up in red curry. Rice noodles, egg noodles, thin noodles, broad noodles -- they are all welcome under a broadened tent of Thai cuisine. Very DC, no?

My dish to die for was drunken squid ink spaghetti, with seafood. Aside from the sheer sexiness of black noodles, I loved how the chef had not compromised on the heat. After a few bites, my lips were tingling, which only made me want more. This was not an all out assault kind of chili burn, but a gentle one, with a touch of sweetness. Really addictive. The portion was large, but I ate the whole thing.

I don't know what it is, but spicy food makes me crave dessert. I just wanted a little bit, though, so we ordered the green tea ice-cream to share. Unexpectedly, the ice cream came with a side of warm black sticky rice. This was truly a dessert to die for, hot and cold, sticky and smooth. Luckily for me, Chris had to step outside to take a call in the middle of eating this, and...what can I say? She was gracious about it.

As the eating wound down, we took the time to look around us. The DC Noodles physical space could not have been easy to work with -- it's long and narrow, with a bar running the length of one wall, and a row of tables down the other. But with low lights, funky art on the walls, and -- high up near the ceiling -- a discreet row of recessed mirrors fashioned to resemble windows, it is a welcoming space. Somehow the acoustics work too -- by the time we left, the place was packed and lively, but the noise level was never overwhelming.

As I said, this was a perfect first date. My only question:  how soon can I see her again?

Photo credits:
Chris Svoboda
DC Noodles

DC Noodles on Urbanspoon

Saturday, February 25, 2012

DC Food Trucks: A Slow Embrace

It's taken me a while to warm up to the food truck phenomenon. At first, social media encircled the trucks, frenetic tweeting and chaotic pushpin maps like so many coils of razor wire on road between me and the food.

Until one day, I stumbled upon a bevy of food trucks clustered on the corner of N. Capitol and Massachussetts, just one block from where I work. And I realized: to explore the food truck zone, all I had to do was...walk outside.

Armed with this one piece of information -- location -- I developed my own type b approach to the food trucks: what I enjoy is the diversity and serendipity they have to offer. I love that on a given day, I can find anywhere from two to eight food trucks gathered on the corner, and that I can buy lunch from a favorite or try something new. I have no need to know which ones will be there on a given day, nor what time they arrive and depart.  Mapping the mobile world is not for me.

But from this jumble of surprises, a growing list of favorites is emerging. Here are my three top picks:

Kimchi Taco, which launched in DC in November, is the first one to truly excite me. Based in New York, but now literally rolling out in other cities, it serves Korean-Mexican fusion food. For example, you can get your choice of Korean barbecue (short ribs, spicy pork or chicken) in a corn tortilla, or kimchi-infused refried beans over crispy wontons.  You can get carb-free versions of any of the tacos, where large pink fronds of sweet-and-sour radish -- a riff on Korean banchan -- are fashioned into taco shells. I loved the piquant crunch of mine against the spicy pork filling.

I am also quite enamoured of Dangerously Delicious Pies, and am a particular fan of the Vegan Tofu Curry savory pie. "Fluffy brown rice, bok choy, and bell peppers folded into a curry sauce." Yum. That description is what lured me, and it did not disappoint. After eating a slice of this, I feel that I have dined well, on food that fuels me rather than sends me into a food stupor. If you find the term "vegan" intimidating, this is a great way to discover how flavorful and satisfying a meatless, dairyfree dish can be. True vegans: honey is sometimes used in the salad dressing, so if that is a constraint, be sure to let them know.

Finally, I'd like to give a shout-out to Sang on Wheels, the Laos/Asian fusion food truck. I'd never had Laotian food before, so I have nothing to compare it with. I don't know quite enough about subtleties of Southeast Asian cuisine to say for sure whether it really is fusion food as it claims to be. But comfort food it certainly is. I keep going back for those broad Drunken Noodles, reddish with the tint of chili oil and loaded up with veggies -- broccoli, carrots, cabbage and tofu. If you do eat meat, it's hard not to agree to the lamb balls, which Sang urges on you. The portions are heaping and I usually get three meals from a single purchase. On the first day, I eat the noodles and the vegetables. On the second and third days, I make sandwiches from the lamb, sometimes adding a slice of tomato for freshness. Not bad for $8.

If social media added to the allure of the food trucks when they first arrived, it is the dynamism the trucks lend to the DC food scene that keeps them interesting. As Daniella Douglas notes in a recent Washington Post article, the lower risks of launching a food truck has opened up the food business to a greater diversity of entrepreneurs than was previously possible. And some -- such as Kimchi Taco -- move on to opening a bricks and mortar shop. At the same time, established restaurants -- like Dangerously Delicious Pies -- can reach more people by launching food trucks in multiple locations. This evolving relationship between restaurants and food trucks is a welcome one. My slow embrace is now a full-fledged bear hug.

Dangerously Delicious Pies on Urbanspoon

Kimchi Taco Food Truck on Urbanspoon

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Kimchi Taco

Have boundary transgressions reached a new level of playfulness? Have we finally shattered any notion of binary identity? 

Scene 1:

On Valentine's Day I saw the Kinsey Sicks, "America's Favorite Dragapella Beauty Shop Quartet" perform their election year political satire: Electile Disfunction. The group is led by Winnie (Irwin Keller), a lipstick lesbian with motherly instincts, and includes Rachel (Ben Schatz), a strong woman with serious boundary issues, Trixie (Jeff Manabat), sort of an Asian Joan Collins, and Trampolina (Spencer Brown) who is sweet but rather dim. The show pokes some serious fun at the GOP, weaving political commentary into its gender bending numbers. Afterwards, make-up free and in blue jeans, the cast came on stage for a talk-back. "We always do this in our guy drag" said Keller. A sotto comment leaving the audience to wonder: if these are not simply boys dressing as girls, but boys dressing as girls dressing as boys, are they always acting out roles? Are we?

As with gender, so with food.  Some of the most adventurous fusion food cross-dressings are happening in the mobile kitchens of food trucks.

Scene 2:

Later the same week, I went to try out the Kimchi Taco food truck, which launched in DC in November. Based in New York, but now literally rolling out in other cities, Kimchi Taco serves Korean-Mexican fusion food. For example, you can get your choice of Korean barbecue (short ribs, spicy pork or chicken) in a corn tortilla, or kimchi-infused refried beans over crispy wontons. But look closely, and you will see that there is more going on than just Korean food acknowledging its inner Mexican. You can get carb-free versions of any of the tacos, where large pink fronds of sweet-and-sour radish -- a riff on Korean banchan -- are fashioned into taco shells. So: no sooner had the Korean chef handed the part of the taco off to the Mexicans, he immediately took it back into the Korean repertoire. This dish is no longer simply Korean dressing as Mexican; it is Korean dressing as Mexican dressing as Korean.

Take a look at these pink, frilly radish ribbons. Is it not Korean drag?

Kimchi Taco Truck on Urbanspoon

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Cafe Rustica: Richmond Bucket List #7*

Do you ever walk into a place and feel completely at home there? That is how I feel about Cafe Rustica. It is at once rustic and elegant, blue collar bar and fine food establishment. Sit at the amply-proportioned bar if there are no tables available (or even if they are), and bartender/sommeliere/co-owner Michelle will take good care of you.

The dish to die for here is the Mediterranean Shortstack: shrimp, scallop and crabmeat cakes. Loosely bound -- which means that there is very little filler -- these are packed full of fresh seafood, and only minimally seasoned.

Chris ordered them as an appetizer (they can also be ordered as a main course) and offered me a bite.

This was a mistake. Any thoughts of saving the second cake to take home were torn to shreds as I dug fork after fork into that mound of deliciousness, unable to stop. At which point, Chris gleefully joined in, until the platter was clean and we waited expectantly for the next course.

Cafe Rustica is a place that keeps you looking forward -- to the next course, to the next time. Retro-forward food at its comfy-dynamic best.

*As a result of "On Fumes Alone", Chris created a bucket list of Richmond restaurants for us to visit. This is the seventh of such visits. For a full list of visits, click here.

Cafe Rustica on Urbanspoon