Sunday, August 23, 2009

Swedish Snacks Gone Wild

File this under "imaginative uses for Swedish crispbread." Wonder what they could do with those equally ubiquitous tubes of caviar...

NYC Post Script: The Bar is Waiting

During last year's trip to NYC, I was surprised that several restaurants generously offered a tasting portion of wines sold by the glass before pouring the full serving, a practice that quickly caught on in Chicago. That didn't happen once on our trip this past weekend, which seems a logical enough cost-cutting measure in tougher economic times.

A more revenue-generating trend seems to have replaced the freebie tasting -seating diners with the wine and cocktails menu for a good 15 minutes before delivering the food menu. This happened at two of the higher end restaurants we visited, and was obviously deliberate as I observed the same thing at nearby tables. For drinkers who aren't in a hurry (um, that would be us), it works out well for us and the house. We thoroughly mulled over the libations lists and ordered a round before getting distracted by the food options. I have to think this might drive many impatient New Yorkers insane though.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Wine Makers Update

Don Sritong has returned from California a survivor. He made it through the first round of eliminations as a contestant on PBS' the Wine Makers last weekend. He said his back and knees are killing him, so I'm guessing there was some toiling in the vineyard. He'll be on his way to Rhone soon for the rest of taping. Thankfully, we have the awesome Maggie to hold down the fort at Just Grapes while he's gone.

His audition video for the show is here:

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

NYC - Day 3

Morris-Jumel Mansion (Washington Heights) - George Washington slept here while it was his headquarters in the fall and winter of 1776. He returned 14 years later as president for a dinner party with his cabinet. In attendance were future presidents Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and John Quincy Adams, as well as Alexander Hamilton (who would later be killed by the man of the house - Aaron Burr in our country's most famous duel). I took a pic of the dining room where the victuals went down. And it gave me shivers.

Pierre Hotel (2 E 61st St) - Just for high tea. I've had high tea in Chicago at the Peninsula, Burnham Hotel, and the Drake. This was better. This was three generous, gorgeous tiers of dainty tea sandwich and petit four heaven. Uniformly great food and service in a setting that transports you back to the golden age of 1920s New York. The tea itself was quite nice too. I didn't want it to ever end.

But end it did.

Next time we go: That dinner at Red Cat, a guided tour of the UN, and the second floor of Zabar's for cookware.

NYC - Day 2

Balthazar (80 Spring St) - Large French bistro with a majorly scene-y brunch scene. My scrambled eggs in puff pastry were okay. Pretty, but otherwise nothing spectacular. I'd give the place another shot, but I'm not eager to go back. (A brunch at Bistro Zinc in Chicago is much better.)

Lower East Side Tenement Museum - Don't go on the hottest day of the year, but do go. It gives you new respect for the phrase "turn-of-century immigrant experience," by visiting actual tenement apartments reconstructed to look as they did 100 years ago. Book ahead!

Lolita (266 Broome St) - You know those simple, real, low-key hoodie bars you instantly love? This is one of those. It's right around the corner from the tenement and saved us from passing out in the heat. A nice little list of refreshing summer cocktails for $8.

WD-50 (50 Clinton St) - Just for the famous five-course dessert tasting - we sat at 6:00 pm because a) we're hardcore and b) why not? (As I texted Dar, who proposed the idea the day before, "Dinner later can just be sandwich.") All five courses were excellent. Two were transcendent. Solid dessert wine pairings that offered a few surprises, like a blend from Rhodes, Greece. The staff was surprisingly laid back and fun to chat with.

High Line - This is the new elevated rail line downtown that's been turned into a landscaped public space. I've never seen New Yorkers so chilled out and happy. Chicago will get it's own version sometime in the future on the Bloomingdale Trail, which I happen to live over.

Red Cat - Dinner? Not a sandwich. But we did go light by each ordering the special scallop appetizer instead of an entree, and each of us tried it paired with a different white wine. The wine list here is big and stellar. The place is cute as a button, but all glowy and elegant at the same time - it's style meets substance. The scallops were giant and divine - seared simply over a bed of farm-fresh sauteed veggies. It's at the top of my list to go back for dinner next time. Absolutely loved it.

New York City - Day 1

I'm not surprised to be saying that my trip to NYC this past weekend turned into food tour of NYC. My husband and I went to see my friend Dar, the one who wrote in about stalking the bouchee at La Maison du Chocolat in Manhattan a few months back. And...well...I guess you can see where this is going.

Day 1 - We arrived in the a.m., and with Dar working all day, I just decided to wing it. Temperature around 90 degrees, with humidity above 80%.

Dean & Deluca (Rockefeller) - Late morning caffeination stop. Pricey, but above average.

Tesucher (Rockefeller) - Nabbed a box of four Champagne truffles for later, a tradition my husband started a few years ago. Hoped they wouldn't melt.

Frick Collection (1 E 70th St) - Vermeer, Goya, Rembrandt, Holbein. You can't do better than this for Old Master nirvana.

Le Charlot (19 E 69th St) - I stumbled across this French bistro near the Frick in a pair of painfully adorable peep-toes, famished and hoping it wasn't a blister-induced mirage. We lingered two hours over lunch, smiling at the blasting air conditioning, the abrupt French waiter, and the sublime food. The tuna nicoise was way above average; the giant tiger shrimp was fantastic. We ordered a bottle of rose from Provence. The tart tatin? The best I've ever had. Yes, it's supposed to be small. Yes, it's supposed to be brusque. Order what they tell you to and eat it, Yankee.

Siesta at hotel - with E!'s Top 40 Celebrity Scandals. I still think Eliot Spitzer trumps Bill Clinton for sheer surprise value...

Esca (402 W 42nd St) - All southern Italian seafood, all the time. Chef Dave Pasternack is said to be a consummate fisherman. I pictured him back in the kitchen all salty, gilling a giant carp. By the looks of the menu, that's pretty much what he was doing. There are pages of appetizer and crudo options, followed by long lists of seafood pastas and entrees. The cocktails were excellent, as was the service, but the food fell a little shy of my high expectations.

Followed by a long, warm, nighttime walk back to our hotel in Midtown.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Spring Restaurant on GroupOn Today

Giddyup! Only 14 hours left to get $75 worth of Shawn McClain's amazing seafood fare for $35 on Groupon. Over 800 people have already bought, so the deal is on. Only strings: it expires on February 13th of 2010 and can't be used for New Year's Eve.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Roundup: Graham Elliot, Pig Cheese, and Local Rock Star

1. OMG. Graham Elliot's truffle-Parmesan popcorn deliciousness at Lolla absolutely rocked. Hugely. There was no line at the booth, but that's probably just because they'd already sold out of the lobster corndog. Or perhaps it was because I was one of the few there who, due to my seasoned years, realized that truffle oil trumps drugs and alcohol any day.

Due to said popcorn consumption, my post-concession stand conversation went something like this for a while:

The Hubbles: What's happening over at Perry's again?
Me: Mmmmm....merph-um-wahumf. (crunch crunch crunch)
The Hubbles: Wow, hon. I really wish we could find you a napkin.
Me: Yumph. (crunch crunch)

And thank you Helen at GrubStreet for once again demonstrating that you have my back on these deeply weighty matters.

2. I've been around Greece a bit, and the feta cheese is pretty spectacular. But Whole Foods' store brand (the one with the plain black goat sticker on the front) makes me swoon more than any I can remember eating in Hellas. Last night I was savoring it, and two things occurred to me:

a) Goats aren't chubby, yet their milk turns out lovely cheese.

b) Pigs are extremely chubby, and yet they don't join their barnyard brethren in producing dairy products. So why no pig cheese?

Naturally someone has already explored this on the Interweb. Answer: "Pork cheese" is produced in Mexico and Hungary, and probably other places, but it doesn't taste similar to cow, sheep or goat cheese because the fatty acids in it differ from those animals' milk.
We totally need a Food Mythbusters for this type of thing.

c) Hey, didja see the news down below about Don? Chicago's got one more culinary reality TV rock star.

Go, Don, GO!!!

Oh, the excitement! My good friend Don Sritong, the mind behind Just Grapes on Washington, found out yesterday that he's made the cut for Season 2 of PBS' reality show The Wine Makers! Contestants of the show will fly to the Rhone valley this September to compete for the honor of creating and launching their own wine brand nationwide (presumably stateside rather than in the French market). Season 1 airs this fall.

Don is on his way to California this weekend to start filming the first round of challenges and cuts. As the only person I know who's more competitive than my husband, my money says that he'll show up with all guns blazing. And a killer wardrobe.

Go, Don, go!!!

Friday, August 7, 2009

Lolla Needs Food for Grownups

Lollapalooza descends on Grant Park and my life for the fifth year this weekend, bringing with it a litany of scorchingly great music and the summer weather to match. I realize that I'm at the upper end of the age demographic and all, but I can't help but wonder every time why the food and eating areas are so damned awful. I mean they uniformly bloooooooooow. It's greasy fried food on sticks, Bud Lite, and overflowing trash cans for miles. And because of the size of this thing, it's not like you can pop in and out for a decent bite. It's like the Hotel California that way, without the pink Champagne.

What's funny is that Lolla's otherwise exhaustive website doesn't even mention food anywhere. On the event maps, the very long concession areas are labeled as "Bars/Beverage." I can learn how to Rock, Recycle, and Win a Honda, but there's no way to see which vendors might be on board. The only bright spot is that Whole Foods is a partner this year. Whole Foodies could definitely deliver me from eating the same bad falafel pita sandwich for three days. I hope. I pray. But I will pack Clif bars.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Grab Your Mallets and Your Mouse(s)

I'm stoked about Julie & Julia opening this Friday. Its timing conflict with Lollapalooza means striking a hard bargain with my husband to wedge a viewing in somewhere between Andrew Bird and Jane's Addiction over a sweaty marathon music weekend. But so be it. Madame Streep as Julia Child is simply not to be missed, and I'm absolutely giddy to have a foodie movie to sink my chops into since Ratatouille. (You can only get so much culinary mileage out of animated vermin, even if it comes from the genius pen of Pixar.)

Many of my compatriot bloggers are not however so enthused about Julie Powell's turn of fortune in all this, and we have what's left of the tattered newspaper world to tell us so. I don't mind dissent in the ranks. In fact, among bloggers I think you have to presume a certain constant dull roar of it. Snark is our favorite candy. 

It got me thinking though. Julie & Julia is a two-part story that offers up two heroines. Both are brash, fearless upstarts entering the culinary world during entirely different eras and through entirely different means. How each enters the fray is a fascinating look at how much life and popular culture have changed, but both women have the moxie to search their foodie souls in full public view. And at a minimum, isn't Powell's version of that moxie exactly what all food bloggers share? I hope so.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Proof the Coffee Gods Love Us

I'm still giddy from stumbling into the sweetest little Italian coffee chain ever this weekend in the newly risen and architecturally droolworthy Lakeshore East neighborhood: Caffe RoM - pronounced with a long accent over the "o." Er, like the city.

Imagine a shiny, spanking new, happy place where the menu is straight out of Milan and the design sensibility is one part Vespa, one part Jetsons. SI! SI! SI! Our service was excellent and the coffee had that heavenly smooth, well-rounded flavor that the Italiani do to perfection. Even better, it's a Chicago venture with three locations in the Loop already - the other two are in the Hyatt Center and in the Prudential Building. Am a huge fan. Am cursing recent job decision to ditch the Loop. But, ever the optimist, I took one of their rewards cards anyway.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Blackberry and Orange French Toast Bread Pudding

My 16- and 17-year old nieces flew in from New Mexico for their annual summer visit this week, and having them over is a great excuse to do things like sleep in until 9:00, watch chick flicks, and eat ice cream every day. This morning, they asked for french toast, which I love too, but never enjoy making. Since I've been cleaning up the kitchen several times a day while they're here, I decided to hunt down a baked variation that would be quick and easy to throw together.

I found this strata recipe on Epicurious that I adapted, using blackberries and orange instead of raspberries and lemon, and making the custard a little richer. They were impressed with how beautiful it looked and absoltuely loved it's delicious warming sweetness, and I was amazed how much better I like it than typical french toast.

1/2 cup maple syrup
3/4 loaf of whole grain bread with crust
1 1/2 pints fresh blackberries
6 large eggs
2 cups milk
1 cup half & half
1 teaspoon grated orange zest
1/4 teaspoon salt

Heat the oven to 350 degrees, with the rack positioned at the center. Lightly butter a 9 x 13 in. baking dish. Pour the maple syrup into the bottom of the dish - don't worry about evenly coating the surface. Cut the bread up into large cubes and scatter around the bottom with the blackberries.

In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, milk, half & half, zest, and salt. Pour the custard over the cubes of bread and pop the baking dish into the oven. It'll need to bake 45 to 50 minutes. Look for a nice, puffy golden brown surface with no wet spots in the center. Let cool 5 minutes before dusting with powdered sugar and serving with more drizzled maple syrup on top.