Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Letter from Linguino: Guest Post from San Francisco

Dear Antoinette E.,

As usual, my trip to SF was a culinary magic carpet ride. My friends, George & Diana, are foodies from way back. They were into Slow Food before there was a name for it and not only appreciate good food, but also grow it and prepare a lot of it themselves. The festival of delights began as soon as I stepped off the plane, and didn't stop until the following Sunday morning when we went back on Daylight Savings Time and I reluctantly said good-bye to the city by the bay.

The week started off with a snack to tide me over until dinner: A juicy ruby red California grapefruit that Diana cut into perfect sections for me with a knife that she sharpened for the occasion. I watched with salivating mouth as she expertly cut the rind from the fruit and then separated the tender sections from their membranes. The produce in California, as you know, bears only superficial resemblance to the tasteless, anemic fruits and vegetables that we get here on the East Coast, and this grapefruit was like ambrosia. But, as I said, that was only an amuse bouche, as we had dinner reservations at a new restaurant called Cotogna, the little sister of Quince, where we had had a superb meal on another visit two years ago, before it was "discovered" and moved to a newer, larger location.

Cotogna, located at 490 Pacific Avenue right next door to the new Quince and a lot less formal and stuffy, did not disappoint. In fact it set the standard, and a hard one to beat, for the rest of the week. Instead of bread or appetizers, we ordered a pizza for the table with ricotta cheese and nettles to start the meal off. The crust was thin and just the right crispness, the cheese creamy, not too pungent, and just the right background for the steamed nettles, which tasted like a cross between spinach and arugula. Wow! Next, we split a salad with broiled squid, bitter greens, grapefruit sections, and a citrus vinegrette that was the perfect combination of flavors. The squid was tender with just a hint of smokiness and a revelation to my friends, who had only tasted fried calamari before this. 

Then came the pasta, which Mario Bataglia apparently has praised as the best in SF. We sampled two: Papardelle with a tomato-based rabbit sauce and Tagliolini with first-of-the-season fava beans in a light cream sauce. Yum! Mario was certainly right about the pasta, which was cooked al dente and had a mild but definite semolina flavor of its own. There were tender chunks of rabbit with the papardelle, and the sauce was pleasantly peppery but not gamey at all. My favorite of the two was the tagliolini. The fava beans were plump and meaty, and the cream sauce was light and gently coated the noodles, just the way I like it. We also ordered a fish dish - roasted whole sole with chicory and meyer lemon - which was less memorable but expertly deboned by Diana, who really is talented with a knife!

Though we were stuffed, we were not sorry that we decided to order dessert, which as you know is often an anti-climax even at good restaurants, but was not here. We shared two: The Bombolini - which are soft sugary donut holes stuffed with custard-like ricotta - with candied kumquats and limoncello sauce for dipping and a milk chocolate and almond milk budino. Far from an anti-climax, both of these desserts were orgasmic, and there were moans of pleasure all around the table with each bite. We had just enough of the bottle of the Rosso de Montalcino that I ordered (Cotogna only has Italian wines on the menu so I got to show off my knowledge of those) to finish off a perfect meal, and that was just the first night!

Hope I have whetted your appetite for more...

Your friend and correspondent,


Cotogna on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Roscoe's Neapolitan Pizzeria:

Something To Crow About

Recently, it was St. Patrick's Day, and in Takoma Park, Roscoe the Rooster was dressed for the occasion. For those who don't know, Roscoe was a real live rooster who was fed by Takoma Park residents, but was free to roam the streets of this small town straddling the DC-Maryland border. For many years, he was the nimble embodiment of the free-spirit ethos of the town, until one day he met an untimely demise. He is commemorated by a small statue on Carroll Street, which is also the site of the Sunday Farmers' Market.

When a new pizza parlor opened in Takoma Park a couple of years ago -- filling the void left by the closure of the town's only Italian restaurant several years before that -- it, too, decided to honor the much beloved rooster. Its name: Roscoe's Neapolitan Pizzeria.

We dropped in there this past Sunday after doing the rounds at the Farmers' Market -- our first time, even though Roscoe's has been open for quite a while now and can no longer be regarded as "new".  We were drawn to the delicate stone masonry that frames the bar and, although I rarely drink at lunch time, I decided to join Chris in having beer with our pizza.

I admit that I am sometimes seduced by appealing packaging, and my eye lighted on the St. Peters Organic Ale, with its curiously shaped oversized green bottle. This turned out to be an incredibly refreshing brew, somehow hoppy, fruity and light all at the same time. In fact, Roscoe's beer collection as a whole is impressive, including organic beers, seasonal beers, beers with intriguing names (Starrhill The Love Heffeweizen?) and some familiar Belgian labels. The pizza here was just fine -- we had the Totto with a topping of arugula and extra tomato sauce -- but it is the beer selection at Roscoe's that is something to crow about.

To die for: St. Peter's Organic Ale

Roscoe's Neapolitan Pizzeria on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Honey Pig (Gooldaegee) Korean Grill

In the course of my recent trip to Mongolia, I spent a total of 34 hours aboard Korean Air. The airline offers a choice of Korean or Western meals, and at each dining service (there were six of them), I chose the Korean option. I was delighted by the airline's commitment to serving each meal with the traditional side dishes (panchan): little plates of kimchi, other pickled vegetables, or julienned raw vegetables like carrot sticks, cucumber, and crunchy green peppers.

Even thousands of miles up in the air, the signature Korean dish, bibimbap -- which means "mixed meal" --  was arranged to preserve the convention of mixing the various components together at the last minute. Rice, vegetables, chili paste and sesame oil were all served in separate dishes, packets or tubes, and for the uninitiated, a laminated sheet of instructions explaining "How to mix bibimbap" was provided. I really enjoyed these varied and healthful meals, which kept me feeling light and not over-stuffed on this series of longhaul flights.

When I finally arrived back in DC, numb with fatigue, I slept on and off for the better part of 24 hours. And I emerged from this haze wanting...Korean food! Where to get it, though? I definitely was not ready to return to the staidness of the DC restaurant scene. No, what was called for was a certain Korean restaurant in Annandale, VA, which Tom Sietsema had once written about: Honey Pig (Gooldaegee). It's not often that I agree with Mr. Sietsema's recommendations, so it was a bit unusual that I had filed this review away in the back of my mind. His evocative descriptions of the aroma of grill smoke, garlic and chilis in a setting of corrugated-metal walls had prompted a mental note that one day I wanted to go there. That day had arrived!

The Honey Pig did not disappoint. In some ways, it was even better than expected: when we arrived at around 8pm on a Monday evening, we were seated within 10 minutes, the decibel level was the right level of lively, and cigarette smoking had been banned since one reviewer wrote in 2008. Shortly after we ordered, an array of panchan was delivered, and our personal lady grill master arrived. The galbi (short ribs) we ordered was a very large cut of meat -- enough for two people -- and delicious. That was a good thing, as the thin-cut pork bellies (our other choice) shrivelled into ribbons of fat once they were grilled and were left untouched.  But what could be better than wrapping marinated galbi, grilled garlic and jalapenos in lettuce leaves, and biting into this fabulous combination chased by a swig of Korean beer?

The food hit the spot, but the real reason to go is the vibe: the corrugated-metal, exposed pipes and concrete floor create the illusion of urban edginess from the comfort of suburbia, which on this particular occasion, was exactly what I wanted.

To die for: the vibe

Photo credits: Chris Svoboda

Honey Pig (Gooldaegee) on Urbanspoon

Monday, March 14, 2011

Tasting Notes: Mongolia(2)

"I'm going to order a bottle of vodka and meat dumplings for the table; after that you are on your own," said Dorj, our host in Ulaan Baator. Dorj had not been happy when we told him we wanted to try Mongolian food. "It's nothing but greasy meat and flour," he grumbled. So this was his way of washing his hands off the matter: beyond the vodka and dumplings, he was not prepared to vouch for anything.

I perused the menu. Several varieties of "energy soup" jumped out at me: soups made from various organs of sheep and goat, rich with red blood cells alleged to impart said energy. I thought of my foodie failure with the sea cucumbers a few nights before, and resolved to have more guts this time. I opted for a soup featuring intestine, kidneys and liver. "Less Energy Soup," it was called. This was in contrast to the more robust "Energy Soup," which had all of the above plus lung and brain. I guess there were limits as to how far I could tap my inner Mongolian. For the main course, we chose mutton ribs and spine -- a dish serving 2-4 people. 

Buuz -- steamed dumplings

 By now the dumplings and vodka had arrived. Dorj had ordered two types: steamed dumplings, called buuz, and fried ones, called khuushuur. The steamed ones, he explained, were eaten in winter, typically around new year celebrations. These could be frozen by the hundreds, and easily reheated to serve to guests. The fried ones -- bearing a strong resemblance to large empanadas -- were better eaten fresh, and were more popular in summer when they are sold at street stands. The heat of the just-fried kuushuur on the finger tips is good for circulation of the blood, he explained.

Khuushuur -- fried dumplings
Such good choices! I loved them both, especially the khuushuur, which were indeed piping hot, just the right amount of greasy, and filled with wonderfully spiced meat. Buuz were good too, the steamed meat bathing in its own gravy inside a small dumpling sealed with a top knot. I was a bit taken aback by the vodka -- a whole bottle of Chinggis Khaan Black Label had arrived for the four of us. "Don't worry," said Dorj.

I was so much enjoying this portion of the meal that I sort of wished we had left it at that. I was in heaven with what we had going. The  soup, when it arrived, was okay; certainly nothing I couldn't stomach.  It was sort of watery though, bits of organ floating in a thin broth. I helped myself to more dumplings. Dorj poured another round of vodka.

Then came the main course. It quickly became evident why this was a dish for 2-4 people. This was no serving of individual ribs with a side of spine: the ribs of the sheep were still attached to their respective vertabrae. Basically, the entire upper half of the carcass had been plonked on a big platter. As advertised, it came covered in broad noodles and a generous amount of steamed vegetables.

So we dug in, even Dorj. "Not as greasy as I thought," he proclaimed. He looked quite sheepish at the small salad he had ordered for himself.  I enjoyed the ribs too -- anyone who has eaten with me knows how I love to eat meat off the bone. But despite Dorj's pronouncement, it was a little heavy, so I was glad when he poured another round of vodka to help it down.

For those who are thinking that this menu must have been designed for tourists, I should note that this was low tourist season and we were probably the only foreigners in the place. But perhaps the Mongolians think of it as a sort of Disneyland rather than anything to do with themselves. At least three of the tables were there to celebrate children's birthday parties. To mark the occasion, the lights would be dimmed, a recorded version of "Happy Birthday" in English would be played, and a troupe of waitresses dressed in full Mongolian costume would accompany the song with tambourines and other percussion instruments. Remembering these scenes still makes me smile.

By night's end, all the dumplings were gone, a mess of bones was left on the platter, and the vodka bottle was drained.  Dorj had been right: the dumplings were the best thing, and there had been no need to worry about the full bottle of Chinggis being too much. Always listen to your host.

For travelers: if it's dumplings you're after, there is no need to go to a "Mongolian restaurant". The streets of Ulaan Baatar are strewn with Khaan Buuz -- small shops serving steamed dumplings -- and in summer no doubt it will be hard to avoid street peddlers selling khuushuur. Also, do avoid the Chinese restaurant in the Chinggis Khaan Hotel. It's obscenely overpriced. For vegetarians, try the broccoli soup at the shabby-chic Italian restaurant called Veranda: thick and green, this was Dorj's choice when left to his own devices.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Tasting Notes: Mongolia

Yes, I'm on the road again. That means more little snippets rather than full blown posts -- like this one from a Chinese restaurant in Mongolia. One whole page of the menu was devoted to the "sea cucumber". I had no idea what the sea cucumber was, and estimated that the non-English speaking staff would not be able to help me out. So, I passed. Yeah, sue me for being a foodie failure, if you wish. Does being feeble of mind on my first day here count as a defense?

As it turned out, wikipedia has made me both regretful and thankful that I missed this opportunity. On the one hand it tells us: "There are a number of dishes made with sea cucumber as this ingredient is expected to have a strong cultural emphasis on health."  But in the next sentence: "In most dishes, the sea cucumber has a slippery texture.".

And here is their picture to prove it:

Anybody out there with knowledge of the sea cucumber? Worth braving?

For the full wikipedia entry, click here

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Astor Mediterranean: More Cheapish Eats in Adams Morgan

When spring teased us with its gentle airs a few weeks ago, Adams Morgan merchants lost no time in setting up their sidewalk tables. That's when I took this happy shot:

My favorite dish at Astor's is the beef souvlaki sandwich, with its generous chunks of perfectly grilled sirloin. This is not fast food, even though you have to order at the counter. The meat is cooked to order and takes about 15 minutes to prepare. It's worth the wait, though. There have been times when I have been weak with hunger, temper on a short fuse after a long day at work, yet willed myself to wait patiently, as nothing else would do. On the other hand, since Astor's does a brisk trade in take out (and you may actually prefer to take your food home, as the place is a little lacking in ambience), with better planning I could have called ahead and had my sandwich ready to be picked up.

A tip: the sandwich comes with tahini and feta cheese, which completely masks the fine taste of the sirloin. I suggest asking for these toppings on the side, or skipping them altogether. 

And an observation: given that Astor's is primarily about Mediterranean food, the pizza seems remarkably popular. There are invariably people there to pick up their pizzas-to-go and from what I can see at the tables, it does look really good.

One day I will have to give it a try...if I can get past the souvlaki.

Dish To Die For: beef souvlaki sandwich

Astor Mediterranean on Urbanspoon