Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Miriam's Kitchen Hot Sauce

After all those delicious and decadent holiday meals, I was desparate for some plain food. Something like, say, steamed brown rice and broccoli. Okay, easy  enough. But even simply prepared healthy food needs a little zest. Time to crack open the Miriam's Kitchen home-made hot sauce that my friend Tali had brought me as a holiday gift. Yum! This was the ingredient that made a low calorie meal still taste fantastic and kept me in the mood of the season.

The hot sauce is made from scratch by Chef John Murphy at Miriam's Kitchen, and is the same one that is served to the guys who like hot sauce with their eggs and home fries. At Christmas time, it was sold to the volunteers as a fundraiser, which is how it found its way (via Tali) to me.

Look out for future MK fundraisers that may feature this sauce! Meanwhile, if you would like to support home-made meals for DC's homeless population (more than 6,500 on any given night), you can donate food items. Miriam's Kitchen has made it super easy: you can purchase items from the Miriam's Kitchen wish list through Amazon and have them delivered directly to the kitchen; shipping charges have been waived. Click here for more details.

Remember that donations drop off after the holidays, but people still need to eat!

As for me, I am taking a short break over the new year holiday. See you in 2012!

Sunday, December 25, 2011


My holiday gift to you, dear reader, is a post that includes "dishes to die for" for three different palates -- not only my idiosyncratic one. This is something that is made possible by the excellent menu at Kinkead's. I had to recognize the oohs and aahs of the people around me, even if what they were eating was not exactly to my taste.


Simply prepared, yet packed with flavor:

Yucatan Style Tuna Soup with Tomatillos, Chiles, Lime, Sour Cream and Tortilla Strips.

This would be my pick. The first time I had it, in pre-blog days, was just after I had returned from a vacation on the Yucatan peninsula, and I was thrilled to continue savoring the limey-fish flavors that I had had in Mexico. This time, the soup was a little more spicy and less limey than I remembered it, but the bright green of the cilantro was unchanged. The chunks of tuna picked up the bold flavors beautifully.

I guess I am not alone in loving this dish -- it's listed under the most popular dishes on the menu.

A little richer, a bit more decadent:

Pepita Crusted Salmon with Cilantro, Chiles, Crab, Shrimp and Corn Ragout

This was Chris' pick. I liked the concept of combining these ingredients and I enjoyed the couple of bites I had. But there is a lot of butter in this preparation, and I could never have eaten a whole plate. Chris did though. :) 

This dish is also in the "most popular" list.


Chilled crab cocktail

This was an off-menu special ordered by our table-neighbors, Tom and Joan. Somehow we fell into easy conversation with them, and before we knew it, we were offering each other tastes of our food.

"It's treyf!"  Tom announced, as I raised a forkful of crab to my mouth. A mock warning, from one Jew to another. Now, perhaps it was because I had just had the zesty Yucatan soup, but for me the crab was too....shall we say "subtle"? However, Tom liked it so much, he ordered another one.


Just as Kinkead's caters to a variety of palates, so it offers a range of seating areas for different moods and occasions.

Bistro style

This is a small, intimate area just off the bar. It's my favorite seating at Kinkead's but the closely spaced tables may not be to everyone's taste. If you don't like interacting with your neighbors (and having them point out that you are breaking dietary laws), this might not be for you.

Formal dining

The formal dining room is upstairs. Better suited either for large parties or more formal business meals.

People watchers' table

At the foot of the rather grand staircase leading to the formal dining room is one, lone table for two. It's set into the window, but the seats face the staircase and the place settings are side by side, so that both diners have prime viewing location. Perfect for people-watching and possible celebrity-spotting.

Happy holidays, everyone!

Photo credits: Chris Svoboda

Kinkead's on Urbanspoon

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Chez Foushee: Richmond Bucket List #6*

Every now and again, I come across a dish in a restaurant that I absolutely want to make at home. Such was the case with Chez Foushee's Chicken Thigh Fricasee with Dried Cherries and Wild Mushrooms. Weeks passed, and I could not get that dish out of my mind. Eventually I wrote to Chez Foushee, and requested the recipe, promising to steer my dinner guests to this gem of a restaurant in Richmond.

Perhaps it is not surprising that I got no response. So I turned to Plan B: figure out how to replicate it myself. To do so, I noodled around the web, getting ideas here and there, but ended up relying most on Marcella Hazan's approach to fricasseed chicken in Marcella Cucina**. The result was pretty darn close to the homey but festive dish I had at Chez Foushee:

Antoinette Ego's Chicken Thigh Fricasee with Dried Cherries and Wild Mushrooms

Serves 4

4 chicken legs (thigh and drumstick joined)
Flour for coating the chicken
1 cup mixed dried wild mushrooms
1 handful dried cherries
1 cup sweet vermouth
2 tbs olive oil
salt and black pepper
3 tbs chopped onion

1. Soak the mushrooms in barely hot water for at least 30 minutes. Lift out the mushrooms by hand, squeezing out as much water as possible. Set aside.
2. Filter the mushroom water through a strainer lined with single-ply paper towelling. Collect in a pouring cup and set aside.
3. Plump cherries in warmed vermouth.
4. Wash and dry chicken; spread flour on a plate and turn the chicken in it.
5. Choose a skillet that can accommodate all the chicken pieces in a single layer without overlapping (you may need to use two skillets). Put in oil and turn heat to medium-hi.
6. When the oil is heated, slip in the chicken and brown on one side.
7. When brown, add salt, black pepper and the chopped onion and turn over.
8. When the chicken is brown all over and the onion is golden, add 2-3 tbs vermouth from the cherry mixture. Turn the chicken over, cover the pan and turn heat to medium-low.
9. Cook chicken at a slow but regular simmer, replenishing with the liquid with filtered mushroom water as needed.
10. Turn the chicken over every once in a while. After 30-40 minutes, add the mushrooms and cherries.
11. Continue cooking until it looks like the meat would easily fall off the bone, about 50 minutes to an hour.
12. Can be served at once, or made several hours in advance and reheated.

Served with tri-colored couscous

Even though I have shared this recipe, I still want to encourage people to visit Chez Foushee. This is an  elegant and inviting restaurant, and one where I would have liked to have spent more time. Although it is close the the Carpenter Theatre, where we were headed, it is a shame to go here as a pre-theater option when you will inevitably be pre-occupied with leaving rather than lingering.

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

**Main differences from Marcella's recipe: I added the cherries and substituted sweet vermouth for marsala. I also preferred to leave the mushrooms whole rather than chopped fine, and to put them in the pan half way through the cooking process rather than at the beginning, so that they remain recognizable.

Chez Foushee on Urbanspoon

The Wine Hussy: Finds of the Week (2)

My wine education continued this week with the second Wine and Food Bloggers wine-tasting at Weygandt Wines. (You can find my post about the first one here.) This time, the event was more structured, with 14 numbered wines to taste. Of these, two stood out for me: the Dugat-Py Chevry-Chambertin Vielles Vignes, 2007, which turned out of have been brought by Joon himself. The second was a Cotes du Rhone Villages, Domaine Les Aphillantes Rasteau 2009.

Both made me sit up and pay attention, but I particularly liked the Dugat-Py, which starts off smooth and then takes you through a corkscrew of sensations on the tongue. At $99, this is not normally a wine in my price range, but is currently an astonishing 50% off at Weygandt -- along with other even more pricy Dugat-Py appelations. By comparison, the Domaine Les Aphillantes was almost too velvety, but then it is also more affordable. Both are organically produced.

I continue to be grateful for this renewed connection to wine!

Saturday, December 10, 2011


"Doesn't this make you want to move to Florida?" said my fourteen year old niece Madison. So cute! She was referring to Yogurtland, the local version of the new wave of Korean inspired frozen yogurt stores. Unbeknownst to Madison, these tastebud-tantalizing yogurt stores have been making their way from Asia to LA and have now spread all over East Coast. In this article you can see how they have taken New York by storm, and believe me, there is one on almost every corner in DC, where I live.

But Madison has a point. Yogurtland is the only yogurt place I have been to that is self-serve, allowing customers to linger over their choice of flavor (there are at least 10, including two that are sugar free) and toppings (too many to count) And the toppings themselves bear more witness to their Asian origins than most others I have been to: lychees and tiny mochi are nestled among the Heath Bar chunks, sprinkles, and other fresh fruit options. The Asian influence is even evident in the cardboard cups, with their manga-like images.

The whole family has been drawn into the delicousness of Yogurtland, even my father, Mr-Real-Men- Don't-Eat-Yogurt. The yogurt itself is up there with the best I have tasted, and we had to make a repeat visit on the way to the airport at the end of my stay.

So, if you find yourself in Hollywood, Fla, you must stop by. Perhaps you will even want to move there.

Photo credits: Diana McNally

Yogurtland on Urbanspoon

Must Love Anchovies

Dish to Die For: Caesar Salad

Diana and I occupy different niches of the foodie cosmos. A native of Baltimore, she is a connoisseur of all things crab, while I can’t muster up much enthusiasm for the critters. On the other hand, she will not go near anchovies -- those briny creatures so close to my heart. So it was fitting, when dining together at the Council Oak, that Diana sampled the crab cakes while I tried the Caesar salad. The waiter warned me that my dish contained whole white anchovies, and that was just fine by me.

The big surprise, though, was the house Caesar dressing, which I had ordered on the side. This was like no Caesar dressing I have tasted before – unmistakably anchovy, and at the same time merely suggestive of that flavor. It was one of those rare moments when perfect proportions stare you in the face. I paused in a moment of appreciation......Then lightly coated the romaine leaves with this sublime dressing, and munched them together with crunchy rye croutons and the slippery white anchovies. A crisp sauvignon blanc washed down this delicate balance of intense flavors….to die for!

Diana gave a thumbs up to the crab cakes as well. Through dining with her over the years, I have learned that the diagnostic for credible crab cakes is whether they consist mostly of fresh crab meat rather than filler. I have seen her cast a withering eye when cross-questioning waiters on this point. But this night, Diana was happy, and so was I.

The Council Oak is one of the higher end restaurants at Hard Rock Casino in Hollywood, Florida. Even a couple of appetizers and a drink a piece in the bar area will set you back close to $70, including tip. But when a restaurant takes two dishes that have become – let’s face it -- fairly pedestrian, and reignites their magic, there is some justification to it. This kitchen takes no shortcuts and for that I am willing to pay. Live music in the bar starting at 7:30pm is a special bonus – go early to grab good seats.

Council Oak Steak and Seafood on Urbanspoon

Saturday, December 3, 2011


Perhaps it started with Chef Mike Isabella's temporary absence from the kitchen while he appeared on Top Chef, and maybe it was finally sealed with his permanent departure to open his own restaurant (the acclaimed Graffiato). But I have sadly eaten my way through Zaytinya's decline from one of Washington's most beloved restaurants to a legacy serving up mediocre fare. My most recent visit was the most disappointing of all. The menu -- including the new creations of Head Chef Michael Costa -- remains scintillating in concept, but is now poor in execution. With none of the six small plates we ordered being memorable, the Zaytinya of today would have gone straight to my "Unbloggables" list.

Except for one thing. This was the place I discovered Magic Hat #9. I had ordered a Yuengling on tap -- a beer I thought I liked -- while Chris ordered the Magic Hat. Once I had taken a sip of that magic potion, there was no going back to my own beer, which now tasted dull and lifeless. Magic Hat #9 has a sparkle that is irresistable, essence of apricot mingling with hoppiness, a strong hint of fruit without being too girly. And there is a conscious playfulness to this beer that is not limited to the beverage itself:

I can't help but be infatuated!


Chris Svoboda
Diana McNally

Zaytinya on Urbanspoon

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Wine Hussy: Finds of the Week

This morning an email arrived from Michael. “I have lost my wine-by-mail virginity,” it read. “I have been swept away by a tall, dark and handsome Pinot Noir.” To which I replied, “Welcome to the club of fallen men and women.” I am no stranger to the seductive ways of wine by mail; on the contrary, I have succumbed to those irresistibly low prices many times. But as it happened, Michael’s demise happened the very week I decided to repent and mend my ways. The reason for my renewed virtue is that this happens to have been the week I fell in love with wine the old fashioned way – by going to wine tastings. Call me staid, but this pleasure contrasted starkly to my tawdry experience with the stuff pimped out by Wines Til Sold Out and Groupon deals this past year. So, bye-bye to deep discounts, and hello to enjoying wine again. I hope Michael enjoys his romp in the oeniphile demi-monde more than I did.

Here are the wines I discovered this week:

Domaine du Bois de St. Jean Cotes du Rhone, Cuvee de Voulongue Reserve 2005

I discovered this delectable red at a tasting organized by wine blogger Joon Song of Vinicultured: A Wine Blog. Joon’s idea is to bring wine and food bloggers together at Weygandt Wines in Cleveland Park to share their favorite wines and learn from each other. I tasted many good wines that evening, but the Cuvee de Voulongue is a wonderful sipping wine that hit the sweet spot right away. I knew I would not look at another wine that evening. The cool thing about tasting this way is that you are not limited to wines selected by a promotional event, but instead get to sample wines that have been enjoyed by real people – with whom you also get to chat about foodie things. This is envisioned as a monthly event, so feel free to contact Joon to learn more about it.

Blenheim Farm Chardonnay 2009

While I was immediately smitten with the Cuvee de Voulongue, the blond Chardonnay took some time to get to know. The tasting room at Blenheim Vineyards – just outside of Charlottesville, VA -- has tables set up for people to bring their own food to accompany the wines they sample. As we laid out our selection of cheeses and I perused the wines on the tasting list, I remembered reading an article suggesting that white wines actually pair better with cheese than red. The Chardonnay was the first wine on the list to be poured. I tasted. Mweh; it was okay. Then I tasted it with my favorite stinky cheese: La Tur, an unpasteurized goat, cow and sheeps' milk cheese from the Piedmont region of Italy. And bam! The combination of the chardonnay and the La Tur lifted me high, like a pitchfork. This is the kind of foodie euphoria I dream about! After the tasting was over, we each purchased a full glass of chardonnay to enjoy out on Blenheim’s deck. A sip, a bite of cheese, and up into the heavens again. As I said, no more demi-monde for me.

Update: The following week, I went in search of the divine Cuvee de Voulongue. In the process, I discovered another impressive Cotes du Rhone from Domaine du Bois de St. Jean: L'Intrepide, 2009. At $13.99, this is the best value for money I have had in quite some time.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Peking Gourmet Inn

I am a late-comer to Peking Gourmet Inn. My first contact with it was through another blogger's post: Toastable's post was the most loving review about peking duck I had ever read.  I was completely drawn in by his description of how "an ancient man named Wu" delicately carved thin slices of duck tableside. Poking around Yelp and Urbanspoon, I discovered that the restaurant was well known, had been patronized and popularized by the Bush administration, and was already well written up by reviewers. My friends Ken and Daniela, my across-the-bridge dining mates, also seemed to know about it. "Better make a reservation", said Daniela, when we were planning our trip there. I didn't realize it at the time, but reservations are essential on the weekends, even for an early dinner.

So, I am not here to repeat what others have written about the home grown scallion, the handcrafted pancakes, and the house recipe hoisin sauce. Nor to rave about the duck itself (in fact, I have had better). What I really want to write about is the service. The facade of Peking Gourmet Inn is nondescript; it's in a NoVa strip mall like so many other ethnic restaurants. But step inside, and you immediately know you are in a grand place. Well dressed Chinese hostesses radiate professionalism as they greet you from the podium. They manage to combine warmth and efficiency as they check your name off the reservations list and bustle you to your table. For a busy restaurant patronized by high profile guests, the welcome is admirable. Soon you are seated in a large dining room, reminiscent of uptown New York in its elegance and scale.

Before long a waitress appears. Her service is personal and expert: she seems to be a foodie and indulges our curiousity with informative answers to our questions. She stays close to us throughout the meal, first carving and slicing the duck, then scraping the fat off the skin,  finally wrapping both meat and crispy skin in pancakes smeared with hoisin sauce and stuffed with  home grown scallion. Deft, is the word.

Each time we finish a pancake, she reappears to wrap another one. By the time we have finished our meal, we feel stuffed and pampered. Too stuffed to move, in fact, so we order dessert. We linger, and are not rushed. It's not often you get this kind of service. When we finally bestir ourselves to leave, I feel we have had dinner in a bygone era.  Then we step blinking into the late summer light of a strip mall parking lot.

To Die For: Service

Photo credits:
Ken Marty 

Peking Gourmet Inn on Urbanspoon

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Plum Blossom

Dishes To Die For: seaweed tofu; green tea ice cream

Outside on 18th Street, confusion reigns. Streets are turned inside out, the underbelly of the earth visible to all. Orange and white barricades block what was once a freeflow of traffic, narrowing two lanes to one. There is an overabundance of stimuli and it's jackhammer noisy.

But inside, in Plum Blossom Restaurant, it is calm. The Japanese aesthetic of simplicity and minimalism takes a moment to adjust to, but then you succumb and nothing else exists. Even before the construction on 18th St started, I loved stepping into this world. Chris chivalrously lets me take the outward looking seat at the table, so I can gaze around the restaurant in appreciation. Each facet of its design is soothing to look at, a jewel of composition. Seeking out my pressure points, it is the shiatsu of interior design.

Then there is the food. Although there is a sushi bar, I am more drawn to the shared and large plates. I especially like the Seaweed Tofu. Although it is described as "tofu in seaweed wrap", they don't mean a wrap that drapes the tofu like a shawl, but rather something like a smart cummerbund. Like this:

Bite into the tofu's creamy! Could it be that I like soft tofu after all? The garlic and vinegar dipping sauce with a touch of pepper is the perfect complement.

I have also enjoyed the Teriyaki Steak and the Sesame Crusted Salmon served with wondrous sushi rice. The menu is varied and creative without being overwhelmingly large. It's petite and tasteful, just like its surroundings. From the dessert menu -- skip the mochi and go directly for the home-made ice cream. The green tea ice cream is the dish to die for.

Plum Blossom on Urbanspoon

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Hidden Gems of U Street

U Street can be a little intimidating at first. It's a jumble of indie bars, restaurants and lounges, lodged into all sort of nooks and crannies that have no architectural uniformity. Some are in basements, others are on rooftops, and some are hidden behind poles, columns and heavy curtains. It's often hard to tell from the outside what to expect, and while this unpredictability has its charm, those new to the area might want a little guidance.

So here are two hidden gems to encourage you to explore further. What they have in common are generous happy hours that overlap with free live music. Combined with an intimate setting and attentive service, this puts them squarely on my "will return" list, even though the food is not the main draw. (Though decent in both cases).

JoJo's (at 1518 U Street), is easy to pass over if you don't know to look for it:

But if you dare to duck beneath the stairwell, and enter through the nondescript door, you will find a cool jazzy kinda place, with spare but warm decor and a low-key vibe. The happy hour menu goes til 8, and includes small plates as well as drinks. The waitstaff is super suave (we loved Aster, who hailed from Ethiopia) and let us know when the last call for happy hour was. Once the live music started, the true unwinding began.

This sign is just to the left of the door underneath the stairs

Desperados (at 1342 U Street) is smaller, darker, louder, and younger. It's more accessible too, as you can see the musicians through the window just below street level. I loved the cozy exposed-brick bar and off-beat feel to this place, and the attentive waitstaff are always on hand for drink refills and an extra order of those yummy fries. Happy hour, including small plates and drinks, til 8pm.

Peering down from street level, you can see a woman at the keyboard below

 Jojo on Urbanspoon

Desperados Burgers and Bar on Urbanspoon

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Tasting Notes: Kyrgyzstan

This post is dedicated to those wondering if there is anything to eat in Kyrgyzstan besides horse meat and mare's milk. Travel guides love to revel in these exotica, and perhaps there is an audience for it. But for the rest us, a reassuring note: Kyrgyzstan is no Mongolia, a country so ill-suited to agriculture that all of its fresh produce is imported from China. No, Kyrgyzstan produces its own fruit and vegetables. In this post I give you a late summer delight: berries.

Tiny but intense strawberries, wrapped in paper cones and sold by street vendors. And blackberries, made into delicious tarts and home brewed blackberry wine, sold in recycled bottles that happened to be on hand.

Apologies for this blurry photo, but I had to include something to document these delicious tarts:

Perhaps made more delicious because eaten while ambling on the paths of the Ala Archa national park:

And in case you are wondering why there are snow capped moutains in late summer, those are year-round glaciers. Though they are receding...

Monday, October 10, 2011

Tasting Notes: Tajikistan

By the rushing waters of the Varzob River, near Dushanbe,

We ate lamb shashlik...

and grilled fish...

But the dishes to die for were the salad -- local tomatoes and cucumbers so flavorful that all the seasoning they required was a sprinkle of salt --

-- and chaka, a local yogurt so sour, it is referred to as a "sour milk preparation" in culinary guides. Yum!

On the other hand, what wouldn't taste good in this setting?

Monday, October 3, 2011

Tasting Notes: Sweden

My favorite foodie moment in Sweden was not a dish but this thoughtful (and energy efficient) gesture:

Monday, September 19, 2011

Hill Country BBQ Market: A Frugal Eaters’ Companion

A few months back, I wrote about a survey that District 365 was conducting on readers of food blogs. The results are now in! You can see them hereIn my original post, I highlighted a particular survey question that interested me: Do readers want more posts about frugal living? Turns out, 60% of those who answered the survey do.

With this result in mind, I decided to write my next post – about Hill Country BBQ Market – from the point of view of frugality. This may seem strange, since the restaurant features Texan food, and everybody knows that Texas is about more, not less. Problem is, the prices are more too. When you belly up to the food stations, chances are you going to order by the piece (4 slices of brisket; 2 ribs; 12 chicken wings), but the prices are listed by the pound. Unless you are paying super close attention to what fraction of a pound your slices of brisket total to, you never really know the dollar value of your order until it hits you at the end of the meal. In this way, we easily ran up a total of $40 per person for lunch. Too much!

Here’s how I would do it differently next time, aiming at value for money:

Texas BBQ is about brisket. Focus on it. The oversized ribs are not particularly flavorful, and when you see those huge bones, remember that you are paying by weight. Although the chicken is reportedly good, anyone can do good barbecue chicken. So your go-to meat should be the brisket that Texas is truly famous for. There are two varieties: dry and moist. Dry is packed with smoky flavor, truly to die for. This is the brisket experience that finally convinced me that good barbecue does not need sauce. But as Todd Kliman has noted, after 10 minutes or so the meat tends to dry out, so you need to order small portions that will be eaten soon after they emerge from the smoker.

I was dubious about the moist brisket – it’s fattier, but also more juicy. If you can get past the fatty look, the taste is pretty rewarding. But it is also quite rich and fills you up quickly. If you don’t know which style of brisket you prefer, I would order one slice of each to start off with, not more. You can always go back for seconds if you still have room.

Just one

Order side dishes for the table rather than per person. The sides are large and since you will want to try several of the temptations on offer, limiting yourself to just one will feel like deprivation (not to be confused with frugality). So it’s best to agree on a few that the whole table can enjoy. We had the bourbon soaked sweet potato mash, tangy cowboy pinto beans, confetti coleslaw and green bean casserole. All good (though predictably I thought the sweet potatoes were too sweet), and way too much for two people.

Dispense with the fru-fru drinks. They will lure you with their creative names, but there really is not a lot of punch behind them. I was not blown away by my Texas Tornado, for example. I would rather go with a $6 genuine Shiner Bock than pay $11 for a wannabe cocktail.

Like Disneyworld, Hill Country BBQ Market needs to approached with a plan. Regulars at Disney know that novices that jump in enthusiastically with no forethought tend to get overwhelmed until they understand the structure and workings of the place. At Disney, spontaneity must be traded for strategic planning. At Hill Country, exuberance must be traded for cool judgment. Less is definitely more.

The minimalist side of Hill Country BBQ

Update: Nov 9, 2011: Return visit to Hill Country. I retract my words about the bbq chicken. It's a must have at HC. Tender, moist and flavorful, and the 'cue sauce is to die for.

Photos: Chris Svoboda

Hill Country Barbecue Market on Urbanspoon

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Shake Shack: Burgers by Design

What's all this hype about the Shake Shack? Is it really a worthy competitor of In-N-Out Burger and Five Guys? I rolled up my sleeves and do what I always do when it comes to testing burgers: I ordered one plain burger, with lettuce, onion and tomato as the only garnishes. No cheese, no secret sauce, no distracting toppings. If I want to know how a burger tastes, I need to taste the meat.

And here's how it shook down. If you are going on meat flavor alone, Shake Shack falls squarely between In-N-Out and Five Guys. The naked In-N-Out burger surprised me with its flame-grilled flavor, unusual for a fast-food place. I enjoyed every bite, and making that stop on the way to LAX was even worth missing our plane back to DC. Chris was definitely right about that one.

By contrast, Five Guys, unplugged from its dazzle of toppings, is really tasteless. The kind of tasteless that makes me angry that I have been pursuaded to come here. On later visits, I found that the free and plentiful topping choices are fun to experiment with, just so long as you can forget what is underneath.

And Shake Shack? The plain burger is pleasant tasting, but comes nowhere near the flavor of In-N-Out. On the other hand, it does not depend on toppings to be respectable. So like I said, from this perspective, Shake Shack burgers fall between the two.

But what if you look at it from a different angle -- what if design, rather than taste, is the distinguishing feature? Walking into the Shake Shack in Dupont Circle, you are immediately struck by its muted lighting and sleek dark surfaces. It's a far cry from In-N-Out and Five Guys' shared motif of red-and-white hues, bright florescent lights and formica counters. The retro-modern concept of Shake Shack is to reclaim the burger and reposition it in the context of sustainable design. Shake Shack exteriors are individually created (often by SITE Environmental Design) to be harmonious with their surroundings. Each interior is unique as well: the interiors of the Dupont Shack are constructed from reclaimed bowling alley lanes (the tabletops), reclaimed antique barn wood siding (the walls), and lumber certified by the Forestry Stewardship Council (the chairs and booths). Wind-power credits offset 100% of Shake Shack's electricity, and its used cooking oil is recycled into bio-diesel fuel. 

Burger on reclaimed bowling lane table top

But isn't all this designery, green stuff expensive? How is it that Shake Shack can offer all of this and still keep their burgers at fast food prices? A single burger with lettuce and tomato is $3.50; the Shack Burger w/American cheese, lettuce and tomato, and Shack sauce will run you $4.50. It turns out that the fast food model is perfectly suited to shoulder this initial capital outlay in design and materials. With no maitre d', waitstaff, or linens, the profit margins can be as high as 13%, compared with a median of 1.8% in full-service restaurants.

All this, I like (and like enough for it to be bloggable). But what does it say about the burgers? You would think that with all the thought going into design, that the same consideration would have been given to the meat. Well, it has -- and therein lies the problem. I believe that Shake Shack burgers have been over-designed. According to a recent New York Times article, Richard Coraine, the burger designer, spent months modifying the organic blend of sirloin, brisket and chuck. Besides getting these proportions just right, he also factored in other elements that would affect the taste: the amount of butter brushed on the bun before griddling, the flavor and amount of Shack Sauce, the type and even the width of the American cheese. Like everything else at Shake Shack, the meat is designed to fit in with its surroundings -- it's not meant to stand alone. This means that if you just want a plain ol' burger, you're out of luck. You can order it, but it won't taste right. Respectable, yes, but really no great shakes. So here is a plea to the powers that be at Shake Shack: if you are going to design the hell out of a burger, please create one designed to be eaten without cheese or sauce. I'd like to reclaim my plain burger!

Shake Shack on Urbanspoon

Friday, September 2, 2011

Lehja: Richmond Bucket List #5*

I am going to get right to the point here: I should not have liked Lehja, but I did. I thought it was the best Indian food I had ever had in an Indian restaurant in the U.S.

Without spending too much time on it, here are a few reasons why I was predisposed to dislike Lehja:

  • I am an Indian food snob. It began in graduate school, when an Indian house-mate's mother moved in with us for three months and took over the kitchen. Once I started travelling to India and discovering the food there, the bar was raised forever.
  • Lehja is in a mall. Enough said.
  • Descriptions of  Lehja's "updated and reinvented Indian food" -- reminded me of Rasika in DC. While Rasika can be good, in general I find their food overwrought and overpriced.

On top of everything, the day we went to Lehja, the brutal August heatwave suddenly chose to subside. As a result, the airconditioning inside felt too cold, while a raspy wind made sitting outside uncomfortable. We opted for the outdoor seating, placed our orders and sat there, enduring.

Now, if there is one thing that Chris and I are good at, it's turning a bad situation into a good one. When plans go awry, we usually find some fun way to save the situation. This time, we decided to get our food to go, and have a picnic in the car. The restaurant staff were quite obliging given this change of plan. Soon, we were on our way, big brown bags in hand.

Then, something happened.  Before we could make it to the car, a table magically sprang up in front of us, set into a sheltered patio. It was unoccupied, and had two chairs, waiting just for us. It seemed obvious that we should sit there to eat our dinner.**

And so, covered now in pixie dust, we did: I had the Market Vegetable Kozhambu: Zesty Vegetable Curry in a Tamil Nadu State Inspired Sauce. I was surprised at how good it was. Then I tried Chris' Chicken Tikka Masala. And this is what really amazed me. Don't be fooled by the ordinary sounding name: the flavors were just like they would taste in India -- fresh spices popping out at you separately and together at the same time, hitting different taste buds in a progression of sensations. I couldn't quite believe it, and after a few minutes, sheepishly asked if I could have a second bite, just to make sure. And another and another. So there you have it -- this is good stuff. The menu  is chock full of things I would want to try. Only, a mall is so the wrong place for this restaurant. Come on, Lehja, you deserve a location that will let our imaginations soar!

Outdoor seating at Lehja. In the winter, the reflecting pond is reportedly replaced by a fire pit. Too bad it was not in service the evening we were there!

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

**In reality, the sheltered nook we found was part of the Comedy Club, but to us, it seemed fantastical: we had just been wishing for a table in a protected space, and there it was before us. Nobody seemed to mind us sitting down to dinner there. So, thanks, Comedy Club, for indulging us.

Lehja on Urbanspoon

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Cooking at home with Roberto Donna: Vitello Tonnato

When Roberto Donna was growing up in Torino, one of his jobs in the family business was to prep the ingredients for tonnato sauce, by hand. Tuna packed in olive oil, capers, anchovy fillets -- all had to be painstakingly passed through a fine-meshed sieve. 35 years later, he is still sending up thanks for the advent of the blender -- with a flick of a switch, the savory paste is ready in under thirty seconds. "Thank you for the blender!" he proclaims, head tilted back.

We are in the chef's kitchen in his private residence, taking a cooking class covering 5 regions of Italy. This dish, vitello tonnato -- roast veal with tuna sauce -- happens to be from his home region of Piedmont. While the convenience of the blender is gratefully accepted, there are no shortcuts when it comes to the second component of the sauce: mayonnaise from scratch. We focus on it in the class, working in twos: one to slowly dribble olive oil into a bowl containing a mixture of eggs, lemon juice and salt; the other to whisk it into an emulsification. Since I have had some experience with home-made mayonnaise, I cleverly pass the task of whisking to my partner. It takes a strong biceps and patience to keep whisking without changing direction. And I am full of encouraging words to keep him going! Myself, I concentrate on learning to dribble rather than pour.

In my own childhood, vitello tonnato was my least favorite Italian dish. No, that is not accurate. I despised it.  I mean, veal and tuna -- really? I remember it as greyish meat, most likely left-overs, slathered with a garish dressing.  So while I am excited to perfect the art of home-made mayonnaise in the class, I do not have high hopes for the dish that will result. I am glad once we finish with the sauce (by folding the tuna mixture into the mayonnaise) and move on to the pasta dishes.

Unbeknownst to me, I am about to have a radical change of heart. The vitello is the first course we sit down to once the meal is ready. It is a starter, served at room temperature. The roast veal has been sliced thin and fanned out on each of our 10 plates, the sauce generously ladeled over it. It only takes one bite for me to realize that this is not the vitello tonnato of my youth. The important thing is that the veal has been perfectly cooked to a rosy pink especially for this particular purpose (not warmed up left-overs after all), and the proportions of the tuna, anchovies, capers and mayonnaise have been expertly balanced to enhance both each other and the veal. It's one of those magical moments where flavors soar above their individual components and all you can think is "genius!"

This, I suspect, is the genius of regional cooking done right. If it is true that there is no such thing as "Italian food", but only dishes from the distinct regions of Italy (as Donna has made a point of saying), then it makes sense that the best preparations of a particular dish are going to be made by chefs that grew up in the region of origin. Later, I check the other courses on offer -- and yes, Chef Donna does teach one focused exclusively on the Piedmont. I am so there!

My plate after finishing the vitello tonnato. I had such low expectations from this dish that I didn't even bother taking a picture of it before eating.

Making pasta is a team effort

Here is the recipe for Vitello Tonnato sauce, provided by Roberto Donna:


For Mayonnaise

2 Egg Yolks
1 1/4 Cups Extra Virgin Olive Oil
2 Tbsp. Freshly Squeezed Lemon Juice
1/4 tsp. Salt

For Remainder of Recipe

1 (7 oz. Can) Imported Tuna (packed in olive oil)
5 Flat Anchovy Fillets
1 Cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
3 Tbsp. Freshly Squeezed Lemon Juice
3 Tbsp. Capers (soaked & rinsed if packed in salt, drained if in vinegar)
White Wine (to thin the sauce)

To Prepare:
Make the mayonnaise.
Drain the canned tuna, and put it into a food processor together with the anchovies, olive oil, lemon juice, and capers. Process until you get a creamy, uniformly blended sauce.

Remove the sauce from the processor bowl and fold it gently, but thoroughly into the mayonnaise. No salt may be required because both the anchovies and capers supply it, but taste to be sure.

And here are groceries coupons you can use to practice the recipe at home.

Other dishes taught in this class:

Pasta all’Amatriciana (Rome)
Pappardelle w/ Mushrooms (Tuscany)
Polpette alla Napoletana (Naples)
Torta di Ricotta (Sicily)
You can get more information on the cooking classes from Roberto Donna's website