Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Apple Pie of Apple Pies

There’s your mother’s apple pie. Your grandmother’s apple pie. Apple pie from the corner café you remember as a kid. And then there’s the apple pie. The apple pie that is more than pie, that represents the institution of apple pie that we cling to as tradition, birthright, and the very foundation of the statement “motherhood and apple pie.”

I have been so fortunate as to have been given this pie of pies by a friend for my birthday.

The pie is known as apple cider pie. It’s delightful anyway you slice it, but best served warm, with a scoop of premium vanilla ice cream. No words I put down here can adequately describe the sublime perfume that gently rises from this dessert, truly fit for the gods themselves. I can imagine Saturn, god of the harvest, eyes closed in rapture, hunched over a slice like the one before me – a deep slice layered with apples, baked in earthenware, and arrayed with the fragrances of fall.

I can’t tell you what is in this masterpiece, but if it were possible to take a bite of late October,
not as you remember it as a child,
not as the best October you can remember,

but the October that you never thought could be possible,
the October you see in pictures by Norman Rockwell and Joseph Leyendecker,
the October imagined in poems by Robert Frost,
the October you wouldn’t have dared to dream, because the thought of something so painfully beautiful might make you cry – it’s that October.

Close your eyes and imagine a gentle sweetness that comes during the few seconds of light an autumn sunset casts on the glowing leaves of a sugar maple just before dusk, when the air is crisp and your heart is light -- imagine enjoying that for the time you can enjoy a slice of pie, and you’ll know what I’m enjoying here.

I don’t know what she put in it. It’s magic to me, and that’s a good enough explanation.

Eat yer hearts out. I ain’t sharin’.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Croissant Du Jour - Charming French Patisserie

Understated elegance would be the best way to describe the pastries at Croissant Du Jour. Warm, simple, and welcoming would be the best way to describe their atmosphere and service.

We'd heard there was a French bakery in town, but hadn't had time to find it until this morning. Oh the lost time; we should have searched for it sooner.

We stopped in just before the rain really picked up again, and I was thrilled to see items I'd only imagined being able to get so close by. Chocolate filled croissants, almond pastries, fruit custard tarts, genoise cake, beautiful little individual French cheesecakes, apple tarts, apricot tarts, and there it was... croque em bouche. There were more items, but we selected three at the display cases, from the baker himself, Chef Ian Cummings, and took a seat.

The French cheesecake had a smooth, eggy emphasis that reminded you, cheesecakes are really custard pies. The tart crust was almondy, and not a bit crumbly. It held together well and didn't upstage the gentle flavors of the cheesecake itself.

The apricots on my tart were just cooked so they retained some firmness, were tart, mildly sweet, and just kissed with the bitterness that makes apricots such nice companions to pastry and coffee.

The star of the show was the croque em bouche. My judgement may be skewed a little just because I've never see this dessert sold here. Croque em bouche is something I think of existing only in the pages of my cookbooks and pale attempts in my own kitchen.

This rendition was served chilled, which would normally introduce problems as sugar is a strong water attractant. If you were to keep croque em bouche in a refridgerated case and serve individual pieces to customers, the spun sugar it's often decorated with would quickly draw moisture from condensation into the sugar, it would melt, and you'd have a runny mess atop your vanilla cream filled cream puff. Oh sure, I'd eat it, but the elegance (and maybe the characteristic crackle) of the dessert would be gone.

Chef Cummings chose to only drape individual cream puffs with the traditional bronze curtain of melted sugar. Treating individual cream puffs this way instead of in the pyramid of them they're often served ensures sugar is thin in places, thicker in others, and creating a hard crystal pool just along the edge of one side of the cream puff.

The amber sugar has a fun 'crack' as you fork through it watching the glass-like surface craze and fracture, and a sweet crunch that's just this side of three-year-old's dream of a world where there's only desserts for dinner. What a pleasure.

The coffee was good too, something that is strangely forgotten at even the best bakeries.

We never felt hurried, we were welcome to linger as long as we liked, and the music was enjoyable, but quiet. Chef Cumming's wife Isabelle, was charming and relaxed in her approach to each customer. This will be a new haunt for us. We're so lucky to have this in Cedar Rapids.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Zins takes on tapas

The tapas restaurant metaphor as it is increasingly done in the US (mini entrees being served, not just appetizers) is subject to a double-edged sword: it attracts people who care about food, which is exciting for restaurant owners who care about cuisine. The format of the American tapas restaurant also makes delivering good cuisine especially tricky and great cuisine very difficult.

Food volumes are low and some of the minor errors that can be easily covered up in a normal sized entrée can become glaring. Small amounts of food are difficult to serve quickly. Larger parties are attracted to tapas and the dozen or so mini-sized dishes that are ordered at one time are hard to release to a table simultaneously. It’s especially challenging to get these small dishes out hot (or chilled).

The fun and playfulness of an American format tapas restaurant requires dedication in the kitchen, careful rehearsal, and much experimentation to turn out decent dishes. Errors easily present themselves and making any of one those dishes great is stunning when it occurs. I experienced more than one triumph of the kitchen this evening at a tapas restaurant in Cedar Rapids.

Zins is a downtown establishment in a downtown just begging for more places like itself. Warm, friendly, and very fashionable; Zins is the kind of place people in Cedar Rapids would like to think of as emblematic of themselves. And it is. The service is impeccable, the hospitality honest & warm, and the atmosphere is open & gracious.

The first item to hit the table was a plate of fresh foccacia. Impregnated with garlic and generously crusted with salt, I was pleased to see someone take this bread that’s become a standby and do something robust with it. The insides were buttery, but unusually fine-grained for a foccacia; I wondered if it was a bit over mixed or hadn’t risen as long as it might have, but it was enjoyable.

I should mention at this point that there was a nice wine list, but that martinis with a twist were my drink of choice for the evening. Aside from some minor bruising of the ice, these were expertly made and I can say with pleasure, Zin’s is not in need of the Martini Outreach Program. Shaken and delivered right at the table, they were chilled delights.

A set of appetizers arrived next. The calamari had an pleasingly unobtrusive batter and a mildly spiced tomato sauce, but were a bit over-cooked themselves.

The crab empanadas were good, but were too much of pastry (but a very tasty pastry at that) and not enough of crab. This is a perfect example of how difficult dishes are to pull off on a small scale. It’s a special challenge to make a pastry that is small, holds together, and isn’t overwhelmed by it’s own ‘pastry-ness.’ A nice corn salsa with a mild tang helped cut some of this, but the crab was a bit of a no-show.

The chicken quesadillas with chorizo handily avoided this fate and were great with some with some sour cream sauce that came with. I wish I could describe what it was like, but I started to be so inundated by flavors at this point, I really can’t remember it specifically. And I was loving this experience of flavor innundation. This was turning into a really good time.

There was a paper cone of traditional pomme frites served that were good, but not great. In fairness, by the time I got to them, they were cool (so many delicious things to try!!). They were served with an aioli that was good and nicely garlic; most impressive was having the guts to serve Midwesterners fries with mayonnaise as they would in parts of the ‘old country.’

The star of the appetizers was a bowl of olives in their own house marinade. Happily, this kind of thing is catching on in a few restaurants here. There were green, black, and a few large red olives I’ve never experienced before. All tasted strongly of cumin (and maybe cardamom?) and were wonderfully firm, salty, and delicious. Olive lovers rejoice! More of that, I say! Bravo.

Next came the entrees. So many wonderful selections went around the table, the options and combinations were a pleasure to take in; this is where the American tapas format really starts to hit its sweet spot. There’s so much going on and for foodies it’s dizzying and crazy. You don’t know what to try first and in what order and it’s almost happening too fast to enjoy it all… but my goodness it’s fun to try.

There were lamb riblets (is it possible for lamb to have anything but riblets? i mean, it's a lamb...) with a mild winter seasoning, that represented a challenge to the chef. Keeping these hot and getting them served hot is key. They cooled quickly and were very dependent on the dressed raw veggies served with them to make them passable and to protect them from that overly fatty flavor & texture that can come on quickly as lamb cools.

There was a lobster cheese cake that was tasty, but really spoke ‘cheese cake’ and not so much lobster.

There was a much-lauded oven-baked macaroni and cheese that was very good and reminded one of special home-cooked meals of youth. This dish was especially susceptible to the quick cool-down of the tapas format and it’s quality degraded quickly if not eaten first.

Oven-baked mac and cheese has become a popular dish in many American restaurants and as this has grown, it's been my guess is it's the scarcity of the dish from the American dinner table that wins it accolades rather than the execution itself.

This dish is especially challenging to do justice to in a tapas format as the thin layer of it presented restricts the chef to a partially crispy breadcrumb top and not enough depth for gooey goodness that usually comes from a deep dish of baked macaroni and cheese. Make it deeper to give more goo, and you lose the taste of buttery topping for most people at the table; cook it longer to crisp up the top more and you've turned the pasta into rubber. Given those limitations, it's a credit to the chef they can make it work this well.

Now, the stars of the entrees:

There was a delicious serving of chicken and dates with a fruity couscous that begged to be slowly enjoyed; something you have to discipline yourself to do in this kind of situation; it was very good and I was appreciative of the simpleness of the dish. It was so ‘unmessed-with’ and such an honest, straightforward offering. My compliments to the chef for exhibiting the good sense not to tart-up a dish for which it is often tempting to do so.

Of special note was a soy-glazed sea bass. Its savory-fishy notes hit my nose as it soon as it approached the table and I graciously kept myself from inhaling the whole portion so it could be shared. It is unlikely my fellow diners fully appreciated the restraint I had to muster to do this. Tender and perfectly cooked: what a triumph by the chef.

The show-stopper and perhaps the best entrée I’ve had anywhere in years was a humble risotto. Wow. I can’t even tell you what the official name of the entrée was, I don’t remember it being ordered, but it had a pungent blue cheese of some kind, gently melted on top and held its own against everything else, including it’s own small size and ability to cool off quickly. It was the stunner of the evening and the thing I will return for. I’m not having luck finding a way to adequately express how lovely this dish was.

Desserts began soon after this and was the one course most of us didn’t share. I ordered a peach frangipane, a great little tart with delicate flavor, ripe peaches - just cooked, and chopped almonds. It was dressed underneath with a mild peach coulis. I think there was a little lemon zest in the crust. A perfect end to a very fun food night.

But it was not to end just yet. Compliments of the chef, out came some perfectly round truffles in orange or espresso flavors. Smooth, flawlessly executed, and a great match to their smooth Italian coffee.

The American tapas format ensures not every dish of the evening will be a superstar, but it does not preclude some amazing food experiences among the competitors. When the challenge of such a format is presented, chefs come up with very creative answers and Zins seems to be nailing it. Well played.

Best bites,

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Ate at a little airport pub in Detroit

Ate at a little airport pub in Detroit (Thee Irish Pub) on the way to Moscow. Started off with a cold Sam Adams and then had some corned beef hash and eggs. Was it 9:30 in the morning? Yes. Was it after five in Moscow? Of course!

The hash was great & more than I've ever seen served in one enter. The nicest surprise was the dark rye that was served with it. Thick-sliced, almost-black and very fragrant. It was served with a gingery chutney that was as savory-salty as it was sweet.
Best bites,

Friday, December 7, 2007

West Egg Wonderful

Savvy holiday shoppers know the place to go for the best breakfast on the Miracle Mile is West Egg. Located a few blocks off Chicago's Michigan Avenue, West Egg is one of those breakfast places that just makes you happy.

Having worked seven years in the restaurant industry, watching the machinery of West Egg is pure joy for me. It's one of those extremely busy breakfast places that gets a ton of people in and out fast, runs like clockwork, and is remarkably clean and polite for the high traffic it supports.

Breakfast diners like this are models of efficiency that make me long for those restaurant days when the people you worked with knew what move each other were going to make next and just flowed together like a single unit. Throw in some cozy restaurant charm and an actual u-shape diner bar and you've got the potential for breakfast heaven.

For anyone who's not worked in the restaurant industry (seems like most of America anymore) West Egg offers terrific, fast service and positively delicious breakfasts. I tested them all three mornings I was in Chicago and not a single one was a disappointment.

I started on the first day with a standard restaurant test. I like to order either a restaurant's signature dish or their simplest dish. In the case of a breakfast place, that's poached eggs (though almost no one offers them anymore) or sunny-side-up. These are simple eggs that can be fantastic given proper treatment or awful if they're just dished to you as an after-thought (eh... sunny-side up? f' this guy.)

I can report my poached eggs were both hot and lovingly treated; while not the best I've ever had (poached egg fans know what i'm talking about... the poached egg with a warm, creamy yoke , about the consistency of room temperature corn syrup) they were still pretty outstanding. The english muffins and tomato wheels served with most egg dishes at West Egg were a perfect match. I also had some perfectly cooked bacon (thick cut that's cooked to just below crisp, so it's that melange of crumbly and chewy), and french toast. God damn the french toast was good. Almost meaty and hearty.

The next day I found my sunny-side-up eggs to be equally delightful.

True to form (and I find this to be true at all great breakfast places, I wonder why?) the coffee was sub-par. I'll never understand why that is, but the most fantastic breakfast places are serving that awful bunn-coffee-maker-coffee that's either burnt to hell or tastes like the machine hasn't been cleaned since the Eisenhower administration. Thankfully, the food at a place like West Egg is simply so fantastic, you dump some cream in and really don't care.

A last item and this is the wonderful cherry on the sundae of this place... The orange juice was fresh squeezed. On a bracingly cold day in early December, West Egg kept me satisfyingly warm all day.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

The Only Chicago Style Pizza I've Ever Liked

I've tried to like Chicago-style pizza for a long time, but I gotta be honest, the whole concept seems just awful to me. Though I know people who are, I'm not a dry texture person. The thought of acres of this cornbread crust and then boatloads of cheese... it's not only abhorrent to my personal palette (and an overly trendy menu item), but it also seems like a recipe for constipation. Not good.

The last time I tried Chicago style pizza was about six years ago rushing between flights in O'Hare. I was famished. I reasoned "if I'm ever gonna like Chicago-style, it's gonna be now." Ick. It was terrible.

Fast forward to tonight. I'm at a conference in Chicago with someone from work who knows the Chicago restaurant and bar scene much better than myself and he recommends we hit Pizzeria Uno for that very thing. Keeping to myself the above experiences, I indicate that I trust him and we head out for the original location of the original Pizzeria Uno.

We arrive early and get right in. The atmosphere is charming, small, and clearly well-worn. The staff is wonderful, and i'll get right to the point.

The pizza was fantastic. We had the Numero Uno - a wonderful everything-on-it pizza with these ENORMOUS sliced off HUNKS of sausage... dear god it was fantastic. It was so wonderful, I have a new "flavor-word" to describe this pizza: it tasted... sausagy. You heard it here first, if any other foodies or food critics are readin' this, that's my f'in' word - back off.

The cheese was pleasingly light; to me the bane of most attempts at Chicago-style is to create this glacier of cheese that adds an unnecessary heaviness to an already substantial dish.

The biggest surprise of all was the crust. I don't know how they did it, but they kept a cornmeal crust loaded down with meat and toppings remarkably light and even a little crispy (in fact, maybe it was the juxaposition of those two things that helped make the crust seem even more delicate). What a joy.

So good deal. I like Chicago-style pizza. From the one and only Pizzeria Uno.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Back to Fado

Ok, so remember that other Fado post? When I said if i ever go back there I'll get the bread pudding?

I did tonight and it was fantastic. A big cube of very moist bread pudding with apples and raisins, a side of whipped cream and orange slices, and topped with walnut ice cream. What's not to like?

My only regret? I just had to have some, but having come from P.F. Chang's, I'd had quite a meal already so only had a few bites. Thankfully, it was enough to say, it was wonderful!