Friday, August 24, 2007

Soliloquy to the Sandwich

I hate to sound like a snob, but I can’t eat at Subway. Every sandwich, from the Chicken Teriyaki to that damned Classic Italian B.M.T. (does anyone really know what B.M.T. stands for? I don’t think so) tastes exactly the same. Even Subway’s lame attempt to be artisan by offering specialty breads like Parmesan Oregano and Honey Oat fails miserably in trying to up the flavor quotient in their misguided sandwich artistry. The sandwich has been manipulated, degraded, and bastardized. I feel as though a setting straight of the record is in order.

The sandwich, whether or not it really was invented by The Earl of Sandwich, is a part of history, and therefore should be respected for its purpose and function within the social strata. The sandwich is a portable juxtaposition of flavor, texture, and color. Take, for example, the classic peanut butter and jelly combination. This has remained a favorite for a reason. It isn’t decadent; far from it, but peanut butter goes with jelly for a specific purpose. The acids and sugars in the fruit jelly, cut through peanut butter’s creamy richness to form a perfect symbiosis. The dance is complete when these smooth textures are placed between two pieces of white Pullman toast. The crunch of the toast against the sweet and tangy jelly and fatty peanut butter harmonize perfectly. Not only texture and taste work this way, color is an important factor as well. Cut through a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and admire the even layering and vibrant color of the jelly against the orange-brown peanut butter. That’s the way food works, people. The perfect harmonization of taste, texture, color among mingling ingredients.

Unfortunately, it has been reduced to a marriage of convenience for unhappy breads, cheeses, meats, and vegetables – kind of like if Andy Dick were to marry a woman. They’d both be unhappy, and both be trying to hide something. Like a bad sandwich. Even if the ingredients are of excellent quality, if they are mounded haphazardly on top of each other, they come off as just being in bad taste. Like Brangelina.

Coming from Florida, I’ve been spoiled by Publix (our local chain grocery store) and their gargantuan sub sandwiches. Pile on a full pound of quality Boar’s Head meat and cheeses (I recommend the Cajun Turkey and Jalapeno Pepper Jack cheese) and eight times as many vegetables as Subway. If you have to eat it with a knife and fork, it’s a Publix sub. But it still leaves something to be desired. It’s big, yes. But does it taste different than any other corporatized sandwich? Not really. It just requires more utensils and a drop cloth.

I must own that sandwiches are neither made better or worse by their size. A “fat” or “horizontally challenged” sandwich could be just as worthless as one made with two slices of bread and a thin layer of pimento-cheese spread.

The true nature of the sandwich is so often abused, and unappreciated that finding a sandwich that truly fulfills the expectations of fine food is an event in itself. I am, myself, exhausted with the search and have given up for the time being. I have resorted to my own kind of Jackson-Pollack-esque sandwich artistry. The latest creation to come out of my kitchen is an Applewood-Smoked Bacon-wrapped Salmon Sandwich with Basil Aioli, Arugula, and Tomatoes on Whole Wheat Toast. The recipe follows.

1 4-5 oz salmon filet

2 slices of applewood-smoked bacon

Salt and pepper, to taste

2 slices whole grain bread, toasted

1 cup arugula

½ tomato, sliced

For Basil Aioli:

¼ c. mayonnaise

2 cloves garlic, minced or 1 tbsp garlic puree

1 tbsp lemon juice

¼ c. fresh basil leaves, chopped

1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper

Season salmon filet with salt and pepper and wrap in bacon slices until completely engulfed in bacon. Lay on baking sheet and place in oven for 8-10 minutes, or until cooked through. Poke the salmon with your finger (or a fork, if you’re a fraidy-cat). If it is firm to the touch, it’s done.

Mix ingredients for basil aioli together in a separate bowl while salmon is resting. Spread aioli evenly on both sides of the toast. Place ½ c arugula on each slice and follow with three slices of fresh tomato. Place sizzling bacon-wrapped salmon on top of one slice and flip the other half on top. Prepare for liftoff.

Indulge, and enjoy this sandwich with a full, heady glass of 2004 Freemark Abbey Chardonnay, my salmon-pairing wine of choice these days. About $13 from Total Wine.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Beyond "Baby Food": Comfort Restaurant

Comfort foods have gotten a bad rap in the past. Unsophisticated, mushy, and invalid are all words I’ve heard to describe foods like meatloaf, macaroni and cheese, and mashed potatoes. In a piece included in the Best Food Writing of 2001, William Grimes denounces comfort food as “baby food for adults” citing its universally soft texture and neutral color scheme (usually brown, white, yellow, dull green, etc). However, a new restaurant in Richmond, Virginia is giving restaurant goers a venue to relax and enjoy a meal as comforting as pink bunny pjs with footies. Appropriately named, Comfort is an unpretentious space filled with smells of home.

Richmond is an old city, marked by horse-and-carriage sized traffic lanes and a painted-brick downtown. It lacks finesse, but retains a certain charm that encases a budding restaurant scene. Comfort is a restaurant that maintains the kind of charm that reverences old tradition while showcasing a cuisine that brings traditional classics to a new level. The restaurant is painted a pale yellow and features an antique exposed brick wall behind the unpretentious bar area, which serves traditional cocktails like Sidecars and Mint Juleps. It only seats about 60, situated in a corner storefront complete with creaking glass door. Oak tables line the front of the house with a few intimate banquettes closer to the kitchen.

After being shown to the“fishbowl table” (the exact one in the picture above), we were given a simple piece of paper outlining our choices of appetizer, entrée, and side items. I quickly downed the sweetest of sweet teas, served in a classic Mason jar with straw, and ran off to the bathroom. Antique linen chests dot the individual restrooms, and a chalkboard with eraser and chalk tempted me. Scribbling a hurried, “Don’t miss!” after washing my hands in the porcelain pedestal sink, I hurried back to my dinner companions, my heels clicking on the ceramic tile floor that reminded me of the kitchen surfaces I used to play on as a little girl while my mother stirred her famous goulash at the stove.

After gazing into the soft eyes of Sunday dinner on the face on the menu, we finally decided on our fare. One friend chose the baked trout, wrapped in applewood-smoked bacon. Accompanying the trout would be mashed potatoes and a generous helping of macaroni and cheese. The other friend chose a large porkchop, surrounded by green beans (Comfort would never be so pompous as to call them haricot verts) and creamed spinach. I chose meatloaf. I personally believe that meatloaf is harder to perfect than the most delicate of classical dishes. It is far too easy to end up with a dry, flavorless meatloaf that has to be doused with gravy or ketchup to retain any kind of integrity. I thought that by ordering the meatloaf, I would be putting the restaurant to the ultimate test. If you can make a good meatloaf, you can cook – at least in my book.

Everything was fantastic. It was pure and unfettered food that spoke volumes about the way Americans like to eat. The trout was perfectly flaky and, aided by the bacon, tender and moist. Pork chops, to me, are a difficult sell. They are often overdone and dry. This one was crusty and brown from searing with a pretty pink center that oozed juice and flavor. The crunchy green beans were blanched and then sautéed with bacon and its fat. Perfection. I don’t know why I love creamed spinach as much as I do. I wanted to ask for seconds. I was happy with my meatloaf as well. The two thick slices stood tall on my plate, ladled with a modest amount of mushroom gravy. Moist and flavorful, the meatloaf was a testament to Americana. The star of the show, though, was dessert.

I have had my share of banana pudding horror stories. I once spent eight hours assembling forty individual banana puddings in ring molds, Nilla-wafer crust lined with paper-thin long slices of banana and filled with banana-liqueur-spiked pastry cream and topped with whipped cream, for a Cypress Restaurant wine dinner. The one we ordered at Comfort was much less painstaking and equally – if not more – delicious. Served in a shallow ramekin, cookies and sliced bananas were placed on the bottom, and covered with vanilla pudding. It wouldn’t have been as exciting as it was if it hadn’t been bruleed. A thin coating of caramel was torched on top of the ramekin in the style of crème brulee. The crunch of the caramel against the silky pudding and tender bananas was almost too much to handle. Why didn’t I think of this?

Comfort is great food for a moderate price. Drinks, dinner, and dessert came to about $25 each for the three of us. If you, like me, grow tired of the hoity-toityness associated with fine food, stop by Comfort on your next road trip up I-95. It’s fuzzy slippers and Saturday morning cartoons.

Comfort: 200 W. Broad St. Richmond, VA 23220 (804) 780-0004

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Purdy Good Food

“There are shells in my pasta!” I exclaim to my dinner partner over the din of French slurred by too much wine and through the fog of cigarette smoke from the 15-year-olds at the next table. She smiles back at me over her heaping salad and pushes her sweeping blonde bangs out of her sea-foam eyes. They sparkle under the Tiffany-style lamps with as much anticipation as my voice portrays. We eat in near silence, every once in a while uttering an “oh wow,” showing reverence for the new culinary high we are experiencing. I dig into my Provencal-style pasta with fruits de mer that steams boldly with essences of tomato, anchovy, garlic, kalamata olive, and fresh basil that surround the scallops, mussels, and littleneck clams that inhabit my seemingly-bottomless bowl. I close my eyes prayerfully as I roll each flavor around on my tongue as it explodes in my mouth. The crunch of a freshly-picked basil leaf and then the creamy tenderness of a meaty sea scallop is transcendental as we sit in the red leather banquette in Nice, France.

I have shared many more meals with Dannii, each a journey in their own way, from the Italian Riviera to Delray Beach, Florida. Tonight, though, I am making dinner with her and her new husband Jess Purdy, Dannii’s equal in just about every way, at their new apartment in Reston, Virginia. We take a quick trip to Trader Joe’s and end up with a basket of Arborio rice (Dannii has been itching to learn risotto), cremini mushrooms, eggplant, and shredded mozzarella cheese. They seem like random ingredients, but we are about to surprise ourselves.

I teach Dannii the correct way to rock her pink-handled santuko knife while she slices the mushroom caps and minces garlic. She is a natural gourmand. I give Jess the task of searing eggplant slices in olive oil. The refrigerator delivers some extra surprises that are all on my favorite foods list: pesto (a staple in the house, I’m told), dried cranberries, and fresh rosemary.

I tend to the risotto, adding vegetable stock until the rice is al dente, while Jess and Dannii joke affectionately about how much fun it would be to cook naked. I encourage this endeavor, as long as bacon isn’t on the menu. Jess moves to the counter and begins to assemble eggplant napoleons by sandwiching the shredded mozzarella and parmesan cheese with a spoonful of pesto in between two thick slices of meaty eggplant. He slides them into the oven as I add the sliced cremini mushrooms and a palmful of fragrant minced rosemary into the risotto and season it. Jess starts taking pictures of his new wife and new friend posing in avant-garde style with random kitchen utensils and wearing frilly aprons.

The napoleons come out of the oven beautiful and brown like little ziggurats. I quickly add the dried cranberries to the creamy risotto and give it a final stir. The result is hearty and woodsy. Only a drop of truffle oil and some chopped walnuts would improve its exquisite texture and earthy taste. Our eggplant was chosen as a worthy substitute for meat. It was substantial and strong next to the risotto. Eggplant is too often used as a vehicle for other things without really standing on is own. The napoleons we made belied eggplant’s status as a “vehicle” and brought it into the forefront.

As we laughed around the small table in the IKEA-furnished apartment, we felt like we were running down the cobblestone streets of Nice against the March wind. After waiting four hours for our check, we decided that our waiter must have forgotten about us and gone home for the night. We chanced it and bolted. The sound of the maitre’d hotel calling “Mademoiselles!” after us in the chilly spring evening was exhilarating, even though we’d been busted. As Jess cleared our plates from the green placemats Dannii had made, we looked at each other and felt just as we had after pizza on the beach in Italy or Nutella crepes in Paris. Thoroughly satisfied and yet hungry for more.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

The Spanish-American War: Columbia Restaurant

Okay, I think I’m ready to talk about it. It’s been stewing in my mind for a few months now, while I thought of the right words to describe what happened. I’m not sure why it seems like a big deal, or why I felt so much trepidation in exploring my inner-most feelings about the experience, but nonetheless, it has been a journey. I have had to come to terms with myself, the horror and the pain, over the fact that I had a bad meal.

It sounds silly, perhaps, that I’ve battled with myself so much over this one dinner at a mediocre restaurant in a beautiful place serving bad food. I went to St. Augustine, Florida, on a long-weekend with my best friend and dining partner, Veronica. After asking locals where they liked for dinner and getting tepid responses, we chose a place called Columbia in the heart of the historical district on St. George Street, a bustling pied-a-terre full of tourists wearing fanny packs and buying faux antiques. Excited about the prospect of Spanish food, we made reservations at peak hours.

I like to eat at the busiest time of the night, especially when I plan on reviewing a restaurant. In Europe, peak restaurant hours fall between 8 and 10pm. In America, it’s between 5:30 and 7pm. At these times, the restaurant shows its true colors, and you can judge the place easily on three main symptoms of peak hours: attendance, service time, and food quality.

Walking into a restaurant at 6pm and seeing it packed with people eliminates the possibility of the restaurant being bad. I use “BAD” as a general term describing the décor, atmosphere, service, and food, the four things reviewers generally use to rate eating establishments. The logic is simple, there are many people, thus something about the restaurant is attractive – usually one or more of the four categories. Columbia was jammin’. Glancing at the reservation books as I made my way to the maitre’d station, they would be full all night. We were led to a table on the third floor of the restaurant, overlooking a balcony and a courtyard. The ambiance and atmosphere of Columbia is breathtaking. The walls are textured yellow and orange on beige, the woodwork is left exposed with high ships-beams on the third floor ceiling. The building is old-Spanish style with the dining rooms like a hollow cube, all looking over a flowering Spanish courtyard. It was clear that the beauty of the restaurant was a major draw for clientele, mostly in their 30s and 40s, donning sport coats and light wraps. I hoped that the food would be as exhilarating.

After a visit from our blonde, pigtailed server, we took a look at the expansive menu. Very few restaurants I have been to that have menus spanning more than three pages have actually had good food. I have learned early, short menus generally mean more-carefully prepared food. Even the oldest restaurants in Paris, La Tour d’Argent and Le Grand Vefour, both temples of haute cuisine, have two-page menus displaying two or three entrees, appetizers, salads, and then desserts. I was completely overwhelmed and unable to make a decision. I did the unthinkable.

I have rules for when I go out to eat (but that’s another blog entry), and I broke an important one. After telling our server twice to “come back in 5 minutes” and still being unable to shy away from Veronica’s impatient glances and my seemingly chronic indecision, I asked our server what she liked. I never do this for two reasons. First, I don’t care. Second, I’m a classically trained chef*. I know what I like. I should trust myself when making decisions about food. I’m not sure what possessed me to ask our server this question, perhaps I felt so nihilistic as to think that I might be eating my last meal. Maybe I needed affirmation. Whatever it was, I will never do it again.

Generally, I don’t order shrimp at restaurants. I never feel full when I eat them (unless I happen to be in the Chesapeake Bay, and 3 pounds of steamed, spiced, seasoned shrimp are laid before me on nothing but a cafeteria tray), and so when the crab-stuffed shrimp with rice and vegetables was suggested to me, I was hesitant, but decided to risk it. Hey, I’d already ordered a four-dollar bottle of imported Spanish water, I might as well live. Veronica (wisely, it turned out) ordered a meat version of paella with chicken and chorizo and pork instead of the traditional seafood. I knew I should have ordered the paella.

After 45 minutes (we were warned that that’s how long the paella took to make), our plates were placed before us. All the anticipation in the known universe couldn’t have made my food taste good. My shrimp were overcooked and rubbery (I had a chef instructor in culinary school tell me that there was nothing worse than an overcooked shrimp. There is – an overcooked mussel.) and the crab stuffing tasted like cornmeal. I searched the stuffing for a red pepper or a shred of onion with no luck. Trying the “saffron rice”, I found no rich smoky flavor associated with both saffron rice and the deepest of Chardonnays. There was about a cup of it on my plate, so I forked around in it for a saffron thread. If they had really used saffron, there would at least be one scarlet thread. Nope. No thread. I had to conclude that they used the spice Turmeric instead of real saffron. Turmeric is a yellow powder used in some Indian and Middle Eastern cuisines. It’s often called “poor man’s saffron” because it’s much less expensive than real saffron threads (an ounce of saffron is about $8, an ounce of turmeric is probably $0.0001) but still gives the yellow color associated with the spice. Paying $34 for an entrée that advertises saffron rice but uses turmeric is appalling to me. I bit into a broccoli floret. It was cold and tasted like the Sysco box it had just come from. At this point, I’m mad.

Maybe I’m a pretentious snob (I am, no question about it) but bad food ruins my day. I also hate to send food back to the kitchen. But I did. The dining room manager came to our table to see if he could do anything. I told him it was just all wrong and I would help Veronica eat her paella.

The paella was fine. In paella, one uses short-grain Arborio rice, which takes longer to cook than regular long-grain rices like jasmine or basmati. It was slightly undercooked, but at least it was hot and not straight off the delivery truck.

I feel bad about rejecting food that’s placed in front of me. It’s an inner struggle between the critic (my chosen profession) and the chef (my other chosen profession). The critic in me relishes the ability to have people scurry about trying to appease me. It is the voice that tempts me to answer the question “how would you like that cooked?” with the smartass answer, “expertly.” But the chef in me knows the turmoil of the kitchen, the stress that comes with food being sent back, and empathizes with the sous chef that has to deal with it.

Regardless, pass up Columbia. Unless you get the paella. Or if you’re really acquainted with your inner demons.

*accredited to Veronica Curran

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Mixing the Empty Bowl, Full of Dreams

I wonder what he sees as he pistol-grips the whisk in the red plastic bowl. The big Jewish eyes, the big Moroccan eyes with the long eyelashes that span the Atlantic see more than I do as we cook together on the white tile floor. I wonder what the little girl, almost young enough to be unable to form words and ending her broken sentences with sweet sounds that should be words sees in the blue bowl she is banging with the wooden spoons. Does he see the beige batter, the crystals of brown sugar that we try to break apart with our fingers and unstuck them from the whisk. The hazelnut sized pieces are not sugar to him, they are tiny blue beetles that smile and watch Pixar films with him from dawn until dusk. The little girl with the soft black curls and delicate red mouth that opens wide for black grapes and yellow cherries blushed with red is stirring pink tulle and lace and Barbie heads in the bowl while her brother and I add the chocolate chips.

In France, I teach a little boy, whom I loathe, to make chocolate mousse in tiny glass cups from IKEA. I whip the egg whites into meringues after he cradles the yolks in his 5-year-old hands as if they were the fuzzy yellow chicks they would have become. We save the yolks for no reason and I battle the decision to tell him what they really are. He watches intently as the chocolate melts on the double boiler and his eyes widen as we softly fold the melted bliss into the stiff peaks of the meringue. I believe he knows what is happening and is present for the moment, but I also believe he is buttoning up his white lab coat and heating a blue chemical in a Bunsen burner, mixing with the green slime and waiting for the explosion of foam – like meringue. I know this because he brings me a bowl of rocks and chocolate syrup and plastic bath toys and jam in the morning to show me his “invention.” Then, he brings me a flower for lunch.

On the white American floors, we spill a few chocolate chips as we pour cup after cup of them into the cookie dough. I teach him how to snatch a little bit of it before spooning it onto the greased sheet pan. He grabs the spoon delicately looking up at me with a “like this?” look. I nod gently and smile as I heap the dough onto my own spoon, setting an example. His cookies turn out perfect – next time more egg for more chewyness – but they taste like innocence. They taste like the exact measurements that the recipe called for: two cups of imagination, melted hearts, and a tablespoon of reassurance. We sprinkle walnuts on half of the cookies and he presses each one into the small mounds like we squash the ants on the picnic table on the patio.

The little girl with the black curls and red mouth stirs her Barbie heads and makes sweet sounds that I wish were words.