Friday, December 16, 2011

The Ultimate Dilemma - Graffiato

My girlfriend, ERICA, and I had made a deal with each other here a couple months ago.  Once we both got new jobs, we would go to Graffiato to celebrate.  And so we both did and so we went.  For those who don't know, Graffiato is restaurant conceived and run by Top Chef fiend to favorite, Mike Isabella.  And we saw him expediting when we showed up for our reservation.  We didn't go the picture route just because that's not really us and I like to let a man who's working keep on working.

The decor is the increasingly popular industrial chic look, which I don't really have any particular feelings about, but certainly worked for the food that was to come.  Honestly, what got my attention even at the hostess stand was the Tool song playing in the background.  What followed was like the playlist I burned onto CDs for my Discman back in high school.  There was Nirvana, Metalica, Pantera, White Zombie, Black Sabbath, Alice in Chains, and Disturbed.  Some people would not have liked it that but I loved it.  It sent me back to younger days that once sent me to the ER following a rather vigorous head banging session, and it also all seemed very intense but in a comforting way.  Or as comforting as Pantera (RE!  SPECT!!) can be.  I don't know who put together that playlist, but mad props.

Graffiato is kind like a tapas place and you're meant to order several plates to share.  Erica and I needed about ten minutes to settle on what we wanted and on more than one occasion we considered just ordering one of everything.  In the end we settled on five items.

Flatbread with Pepperoni Sauce
Had to get this.  I mean Isabella's pepperoni sauce and Gail Simmons foodgasm on cable TV are almost more famous then Mr. Isabella himself.  And it's good, like liquid pepperoni good.  It smacks you upside the head with flavor.  At that moment I had two thoughts: 1) I will not be able to physically take it if all the dishes are this powerful.  2)  The chicken thigh with pepperoni sauce is probably amazing because it would blunt some of the sauces natural heft.  That said, if you're not going to do the chicken thigh then you gotta have the pepperoni sauce on the menu somewhere for all the Top Chef junkies that flood in.  Easiest $5 Graffiato will ever make.

Polenta with Crispy Goat, Pears, and Saba
This dish was truly the unsung hero of the night.  The first bite, for me, was relief.  The flavors were mild and subtle.  If you had all the elements on their own it was good.  If you put together that complete single bite, it was great.  Just a perfection of texture and taste and so much quieter then the pepperoni sauce.  For a meal that was full of bold flavors, the polenta was a welcome respite.

Crispy Brussels Sprouts with Pancetta, Maple, and Egg
I'm a late in life brussel sprouts whore, but when they're done well they could be the best vegetable ever.  Better than even broccolini.  My reaction after one bite was to exclaim, "This is somewhere between cotton candy and God."  I mean awesome.  I mean, "Where the f*** are you going with that plate?!?!  I haven't licked it clean yet!!!" awesome.  I was concerned the pancetta or the maple would over power, but neither did.  No the maple set the whole thing off and took the excellently crisped sprouts into the sublime combination of flavors.  We nearly ordered seconds.

Wild Board Flatbread with Chestnut, Apple, and Balsamic
Another winner without a doubt.  It tasted like the forest.  I can't think of a better way to describe it and once again, much like the polenta, you had the fantastic balance of savory and sweet.  The chestnuts took on so much flavor.  Just fantastic.  I must admit I still regret not getting the bone marrow flatbread, but in case you couldn't tell by now I'd be fine with going back.

Jersey Shore Pizza with Fried Calamari, Tomato, Provolone, and Cherry Pepper Aioli
The Jersey Shore pizza is already gaining a following and who are we to buck convention?  There's a lot to potentially love about this.  Fried calamari, cooked to perfection.  Cherry pepper aioli that had some great heat to it, but never overwhelmed.  But the thing that impressed Erica and I the most was the tomato.  I mean there it is, buried beneath fried squid, pepper aioli, and provolone, but without a doubt it was the star element in the pizza.  And the singular bite with the squid, the aioli, and the sauce was just fantastic, a symphony.

Warm Pistachio Cake
After the preceding five dishes I was stuffed.  I even suggested we take a couple slices of the pizza home, but Erica would hear none of it and ordered the pistachio cake.  It was a great finish.  Admittedly I only had a couple bites but it was great because it wasn't too sweet.

Overall, this was probably the single most delicious meal I've had in easily the last 6 months if not the entirety of 2011.  I'll also say, I tend to not like tapas style because I'm afraid I'm just going to want more, but the portions were just right even for my outsized appetite.  And when you consider that we got all of that food plus a drink for just over $80, you just can't argue with anything about the experience.

The title of this post is "Ultimate Dilemma" but what could be the dilemma after my unequivocal support for every dish we had?  Sitting at the table last night Erica and I discussed never telling anyone how awesome it is.  The dilemma is that the food is so great you want to be able to walk in and get it at any time, but great food very rarely affords you that convenience.  With apologies to Erica, I have decided to share the awesomeness.

Now go make a reservation at Graffiato right now, or Pantera will get you.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Duck Prosciutto Pizza

As I mentioned yesterday, with all this duck prosciutto what's an amateur chef to do?  Given it was a week night and when I bought ingredients I didn't know if the prosciutto would be good or not I decided pizza would be a good idea.  If the duck prosciutto had been awful, I could pivot to something else edible fast.  Thankfully it did turn out so I went with my original idea of duck prosciutto pizza with mozzarella, arugula, red onions, and balsamic reduction.

First I made the balsamic reduction which simply requires taking some balsamic vinegar, bringing it to moderate heat so it does reduce and then stirring in some sugar.  It take a bit of time, and I guess on proportions until I think it tastes right.  One word of warning, making balsamic reduction makes your house smell like balsamic vinegar, but it's worth it later on.  Once it had lost about 1/3 to 1/2 it's liquid and I'd added about 4 to 6 teaspoons of sugar I pulled it off the heat.  While I was letting that reduce, I sliced 1/4 of a red onion into thin strips.  Next, I preheated the oven to 425 degrees.  Why 425?  Because that's what the Pilsbury pizza crust told me to do.  Yeah, I took a big shortcut here, but again, it was a Monday night after work.  Besides the Pilsbury classic pizza crust is a great blank canvas to work on and far better then the pre-baked discs you'll find.

I laid out the pizza crust and once the oven was preheated I put a little olive oil on the crust and stuck it in the oven for five minutes.  After five minutes I added the onions, the mozzarella, and the duck then back in the oven for five minutes.  Finally, I pulled it back out and put the arugula on it an drizzles some of the reduction over it then it was back in the oven for a final five minutes.  This staged process was meant to do two things.  First, I was concerned the rich fat of the duck with render in the oven if left in for 15 minutes.  Second, I was concerned the arugula would wilt too much.  When it was all said and done, the first concern was handled, but the arugula was a bit too wilted.  Here's the finished product after I drizzled a bit more reduction over it.

As you can see, the arugula is quite wilted, but otherwise the taste was solid.  Erica made a salad with mixed greens, arugula, walnuts, blue cheese, apples, and cranberries to go with it.  We used the reduction as a dressing for the salad as well.  All and all a great meal.  The pizza took about 40 minutes to make and 25 minutes of that was reducing the balsamic.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Duck Charcuterie At Home or Trying to Not Kill Myself or My Friends

I have to admit something.  I'm a whore for good charcuterie.  That's probably already been established by my glamour shot of a meat and cheese tray and further confirmed by Erica and some friends who saw me moan my way through the charcurterie board at Brassiere Beck.  You can see the fetching little devil hiding so coyly, dare I say coquettish, behind some delicious oysters in this photo.  I disturbed the table next to me with my intonations of delight and I am not ashamed.  It was that good.
Look who's hiding back there
And then was this bad boy I had over the weekend in Minneapolis.  This is like the charcuterie horn of of plenty right here, complete with copa, prosciutto, salami, rillete, terrine, and head cheese.  How much of a whore am I for charcuterie?  I had to negotiate with the restaurant to serve it a few hours before the menu it's one took effect.  Behold!
Tasted every bit as good as it looked.
Yet as much as I love to eat charcuterie, I have dreamed of making it too.  I've bought what many people say is the definitive book on the subject called Charcuterie as well as "borrowed" my dad's copy of Rytek Kutas's Great Sausage Recipes & Meat Curing.  By now, most of my friends know of my dream of a charcuterie chamber and roommates, and even Erica, have been concerned it might someday become a reality.  Alas, as that dream remains unrealized, I knew I needed an outlet and so I took to the internet, googling for in-home recipes for charcuterie and I found several center around duck prosciutto.

I could do this, I thought.  I mean is it slightly dangerous to plan to let raw meat that's been smothered in salt for 24 hours just hanging up in your apartment for a week or more without fully regulating temperature and humidity?  Probably, but life and cooking is adventure.  This idea of duck prosciutto hung out in my mind for a long time, but I never could find duck.  The Whole Foods on P Street let me down so many times and it wasn't until they opened a new location in Foggy Bottom could I find duck breast.  I bought it instantly.  From there is was just a matter of buying some (a lot) of kosher salt, cheesecloth, and meat string.

So I opened up the packaged duck breast and to my surprise I found two complete duck breast, or rather four individual breasts.  I set aside a pair for latter and then laid out one whole duck breast on the cutting board like so:

The bits you see just a little above are parts of the tenderloin.  From here I split the breast with my pairing knife so I had two pieces.  From there I took a 9x9 glass Pyrex baking dish and covered the bottom with a solid foundation of salt resulting in a 1/4" to 1/2" layer of salt in the dish.  I laid the breast, skin side up, into the dish and then just poured salt over the duck breast.  In the end I used at least 2lbs of a 3lb kosher salt box.  When pouring the salt in I made sure that I was getting around the edges of the duck, even taking a moment to make sure it was nestled into the salt.  Once completely covered I wrapped the top of the baking dish with cling wrap.  Here's how they looked, covered in salt and wrapped up:

I made sure, once it was wrapped, that you couldn't see the duck anywhere.  I even lifted up the dish to make sure no duck showed through the bottom.  Satisfied the duck was sufficiently covered in salt I threw the dish in the refrigerator for just over 24 hours.  Even in that short time period you realize how much moisture the salt pulls out of the duck.  I took the duck out of the salt, rinsed it off, and dried it thoroughly.  Here's what they looked like after 24 hours in the fridge, one skin side up, one skin side down.

You can notice even just between the picutre above and the picture below how the salt has had an effect.  From here I wrapped each breast in about two full covers of cheesecloth and then tied them up with some butcher's string.  You'll notice in a lot of recipes this is where you can add different seasonings to change the flavor.  This being a first attempt, I decided to keep it simple.  Here's a single breast wrapped and trussed:

Now to perhaps the most important part.  All the recipes I read said the duck should lose about 30% of it's weight through lost moisture during the curing process.  But how do you know what 30% is unless you weigh it ahead of time.  So I weighed them both, noting ounces and grams.  I think took two dry cleaning hangers, cut part off and formed some make shift meat hangers then leveraged the hangers between the recipe books on my fridge.  I hung them up along with a piece of paper with their initial weights on them.  Of note, the breasts don't touch anything while there hanging.  Here's what Erica came home to after her internship one Sunday afternoon:
Welcome Home Erica!
And so I waited for over a week, weighing them periodically.  In fact, I ended up being out of town when they were finally ready so Erica took them down, unwrapped them from the cheesecloth, and then wrapped them up in plastic wrap.  Of note, they were much smaller then when I wrapped them.  That sounds pretty obvious when it's supposed to lose 30% of it's weight, but striking to see in reality.  Last night was the big tasting, so I busted out my mandolin, set it to 1/16" thickness and trimmed one of the duck breasts into little pieces.  Here's what it looked like after slicing.
Sliced Duck Prosciutto
Erica, my buddy Ben, and I all tasted it just like this and it was really good.  Ducky, not too salty, great fat content.  Just good prosciutto.  I'm marking this a success for a few reasons.  First, it happened just like the book said it would.  Second, it's been over 12 hours and to my knowledge no one who consumed the duck as gone to the hospital.  Third, it was really freaking good.  Tomorrow I'll put up the recipe for what I did with all this beautiful sliced duck prosciutto for dinner last night.  Hint: Duck Pizza.  Oh, and in case you were curious, yes I did order two duck breasts online last night (because Whole Foods in Foggy Bottom failed).  They should arrive on Thursday and be curing by Sunday.  I am still negotiating for the charcuterie chamber.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Lou's City Bar: It could be perfect, but it's not

I've lived in and around Columbia Heights for the six years I've lived in DC, and I always lamented the fact that there wasn't a good sports bar in Columbia Heights.  Sure Ventnor Sports Cafe in Adams Morgan is solid, and Old Dominion Brewhouse is an adequate refuge to watch football on Sunday, but they weren't convenient.  So I was ecstatic when Lou's City Bar opened just a few blocks from my apartment several months ago.  But now, after several months and several visits I am here to tell you that I am underwhelmed and that there is still a place for a great sports bar in Columbia Heights.  Let me explain.

It should be perfect.  There's a critical mass of TVs, an extensive beer selection both on draft and in the bottle, there's a solid bar, good service, and a fantastic outdoor patio that they have three TVs out on most nights.  The beer is reasonably priced and there's always a beer special of the month (for a time it was a $4 Leinenkugel Summer Shandy, "Yes, please!"), but there's still something lacking.  The food is painfully mediocre.

I've been to Lou's a number of times and always enjoyed the beer.  I've also eaten there a number of times.  In fact, I've tried the buffalo wings, the calamari, the nachos, the french dip, the reuben, the blackened bleu burger, and the benedict burger.  That's constitutes a good percentage of the menu and while I never sent anything back, I've also never ordered anything more then once.  In fact, part of the reason I've had so many different things is because every time I order something I am so underwhelmed by it that I think something else has to be better.  The search continues.

I'll begin with the buffalo wings.  I am a wing fanatic, especially on a Sunday afternoon.  Some of my favorite places to get wings are Mackey's (which is inexplicably closed on Sunday much to my chagrin) and Ventnors.  At Lou's the wings come unbreaded, but fried.  All that is normal, but the sauce, well it's not good.  It's a sweet-ish spice the departs a long way from say a Frank's Red Hot sauce or anything similar.  Also, the wings look a bit scrawny, which could be a consequence not being breaded, but it could also simply be that they're puny wings.  When you want me to pay $10 for wings, I expect some meat on the bone.

Next, the burgers.  They tend to come out dry and a bit overcooked.  That lack of juicy-ness though is the real killer for the burger.  When I think about the better burgers I've had at a bar like at Sign of the Whale, or even a no frills place like Lindy's Red Lion, those burgers are juicy and flavorful.  The taste of beef and the toppings come together splendidly.  But sadly, that's not the case at Lou's.  I dare say the best thing I've had so far is the reuben, but taste to price the $10 they charge me for it seems a couple dollars too expensive.  That's really the issue with all the food at Lou's.  None of it is awful or offensive, but when the bill comes and you wonder was that a $10 sandwich the answer for everyone I've ever dined there with is no.

Now I'm dogging on the food pretty bad and I don't know what the chefs are working with in the kitchen.  It could be they don't have the materials to be successful.  It could be my tastes are wrong.  And I don't say any of this to try and run Lou's out of business.  I want Lou's to succeed, because I've waited a long time for a sports bar in Columbia Heights.  But I worry that the take on slow sports nights will be so abysmal that it could sink the restaurant.  People will come to a bar like Lou's on a Sunday afternoon for the beer and the TVs, but they'll come back after work on Tuesday if the food they had on Sunday was really good.  I worry that for Lou's, nobody will be there on Tuesday.

But I'll keep going back to Lou's.  They've got a great beer selection.  They've got a great vibe, and they're just around the corner.  But I'll eat dinner before I head over for a brew.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Away Game: Seattle's Pike Place Market

It's a tourist trap, but a functioning market.  It's vendors and hawkers of all sorts, but it isn't over commercialized.  It's a place I visit every time I'm in Seattle, but I feel a bit shameful every time I do it.  It's Pike Place Market, perhaps the second most famous tourist destination in Seattle behind the space needle.  I love a good market, and even if it's for tourists I gotta believe it's also for restaurants in Seattle as well which is why I make a point to come down to the market for lunch every trip, and this is the culinary chronicle of my most recent visit.  Now one thing to know about the market.  It's a maze of levels, shops, food stalls, flower stands, and curios packed to the rafters with gawking tourists who seem to be setting new lowest walking speed records.  Don't fight against it.  Let yourself get lost.  You'll find something interesting, I assure you.

Oddly enough my first stop is not to a seafood vendor, but rather to a stall that, when I first visited several years ago, made me remember a lost loved childhood dish.  Just about 100 feet from the famous fish throwers is this unassuming stand selling something that was wholly familiar to me as a kid.
Chicken (Death) Valley
I was here that I rediscovered the beauty of fired chicken gizzards and offal meat in general.  Since that chance culinary encounter I've had grilled chicken hearts, head cheese, livers,  made a pate and it all started with this little stall that took me back to Decatur, IL when growing up we used to get Brown's Chicken and I'd devour some delicious fried gizzards.  And so every Seattle trip, I return to this stand.  Yesterday it was a combination of fried chicken gizzards and hearts.
Fried Chicken Gizzards & Hearts
If you like this then you already know how awesome it is.  If you don't, I encourage you to give it a shot.  You might just surprise yourself by how much you end up enjoying it.  Everything was fried to perfection and the breading was a flour based that added just a little texture to the parts, though obviously these are two things that have their own distinct texture anyway.  I sat at the viewing point with a bottle of water and my chicken parts taking in the sound.

From there it was on to Jack's, which is across the way from the main market.  They are a wholesaler and retailer selling a great selection of seafood cocktails, oysters, and always clam chowder and cioppino.  I decided to go with a bowl of the clam chowder and a half dozen of the raw oysters.
Oysters and Clam Chowder
As you can see, this is no frills dining.  They've got a very small counter for those "dining in" and the bare bones set up suits the food.  The chowder has clams, potatoes, carrots, celery, and seasoning in it.  It was a bit peppery for my taste, but given a crisp fall day it really hit the spot.  The oysters were small bodied, slightly briny oysters.  To be honest, I could have used them cleaned just a bit more but they were very tasty.

After scarfing down some solid appetizers, I decided to wander around the market and the surrounding streets a bit.  One thing about it, whatever kind of food you're looking for you can probably find it at the market.  There were bavarian sausages, greek delis, numerous vegetable stands, a fresh made pasta stand, and of course seafood stands with scallops that made we want to break into someone's house just to use their kitchen they looked so delicious.  There are also a variety of shops, especially down under.  I found a used book store, a great distraction and a bonus destination.  Before leaving on this trip I'd been trying to download something, anything by Graham Greene to my Kindle, but I'd found no ebooks are released to U.S. markets by Greene so I wanted to see if I could find the old fashioned book version and what better place to look for the old fashioned then a used book store.  And there it was, a copy of Journey without Maps, paperback, printed in 1986 for less then 10 bucks and with the slight yellowing of the paper that demonstrates it's worn in.  But this isn't a blog about books, it's about food and the coup de gras is yet to come.

Even after chicken parts, oysters, and chowder I thought why not have a proper lunch.  As I'd been walking the market I'd been looking at the menus and settled on Lowell's for lunch, in no small part because they had a crab cocktail on the menu.  I have a compulsion about Dungeness crab and so I ordered both a crab cocktail and a crab roll.
So much crab.
Did I need all this?  No.  Were the fries a wasted starch filler?  Yes.  But a compulsion is a compulsion for a reason.  The crab roll had greens, tomatoes, and avocado mixed with the crab.  The bread was very good and the crab and avocado were fantastic together.  The crab cocktail was a 10oz glass full of crab, cocktail sauce, and just a little bit of lettuce.  I could do without the lettuce, and I wasn't a big fan of the cocktail sauce, but the crab itself was delicious.  I devoured the two dishes and meandered, far slower then when I went to the market, away from the market fully satiated for having tasted some old favorites and new delights.

If you're ever in Seattle, stop by Pike Place Market, but don't linger over the fish tossers, avoid the bus loads of retired meanders, find the food, sample a little bit of everything.  And if you have access to a kitchen, buy a bunch of seafood and make yourself the best damn meal of seafood imaginable.  For my part, I let others cook for me and I wasn't disappointed.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Pork chops w/ Apples, Wilted Garlic Kale, and Wild Rice

On Tuesday I was considering what to cook for dinner and knew I didn't have a protein thawed out, so I headed to Harris Teeter to pick up a meat and instead decided to design a full menu.  It's been awhile since Erica and I had had pork, I knew apples go well with porkchops (and are kind of seasonal, right?), but that I also wanted a vegetable that would counter the sweet taste of the apple.  I also knew I had wild rice at home.

In putting together any meal the sequence of steps in the cooking is very important if you want everything to be done at the same time, so I started with the rice following the porportions on the package, but I also added two chicken bouillon cubes and a tablespoon of butter.  It took about 45 minutes, but came out with a good flavor from the bouillon.

Next I decided to work with the kale.  I took about a third of a pound of kale, threw it in an ovensafe skillet, and seasoned well with salt and pepper.  I sliced up 4 cloves of garlic and threw that in the skillet as well, then poured about 2 tablespoons of olive oil over all of that.  While prepping that I preheated the oven to 350 degrees and once preheated I threw the skillet into the oven for about 20 minutes.  Pulled out the skillet and then using tongs I took the kale from the skillet onto a cutting board.  I did a rough chop to make the kale more manageable and threw it back into the skillet on the range and took the heat to medium-high.
Wilted Kale & Garlic

I used that heat to take out some of the water that the kale sweated off in the oven, and once satisfied that the water was mostly gone I pulled it from the heat and set it aside.

While the kale was in the oven I brought a different skillet to medium-high heat and cooked up the pork chops in the skillet.  They took about 3 to 4 minutes per side, I took them off the skillet and put them on an ovensafe plate.  After the kale was out of the oven, I took the heat down to 190 on the oven and put the cooked pork chops in the oven to keep them warm.  This has been a favorite trick of mine to cook the meat and keep it ready to go while working on a sauce.  In this case, I deglazed the pork chop skillet with a rose wine and then tossed in thinly sliced pieces of a jazz apple.  I threw in a heaping tablespoon of sugar and some cinnamon and stirred it around, then let it reduce.  After about 5 minutes I tasted it and it wasn't as sweet as I wanted it so I threw in two more tablespoons of sugar and some more cinnamon and let it reduce down till almost all the liquid was gone, then I pulled it off the heat.  This is what the sauce looked like in the skillet once I pulled it from the heat.
Cooked Apples reduced in wine

Amazingly all these components came together at the same so I plated up everything.  Here is the fully assembled plate.
Pork chops w/ Apples, Wilted Kale, and Wild Rice

In the end it was a great success.  The apples were sweet and went really well with the pork chops.  The kale was a great contrast to the apples with a strong garlic taste.  The wild rice was good and served the purpose of having a starch on the plate.  It was a fun dish to make and great to try out something without a menu and with ingredients I'd picked up just an hour before.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

I Ate This: Hurricane Survival Meat & Cheese Tray

I'm a sucker for good charcuterie and so on a recent trip to San Francisco I bought a brown sugar and fennel salami from Boccalone's store front at the ferry building market.  When Hurricane Irene kept Erica and I inside for the better part of the day, it seemed the right time for a delicious afternoon snack of meat and cheese.
Meat, Cheese, and Bauguette

We've got the brown sugar and fennel salami, along with a sopressata from Trader Joe's and some bacon ends I had cooked up for something else.  For cheese we had a cave aged gouda, a nice gruyere, and a montereau,  And just a simple Harris Teeter baguette.  Awesome.

Rookie Brewing Adventure Update

When last I reported on my home brewing adventures, the jalapeno saison was a success and a batch of tripel was fermenting in my carboy.  Well after that post I decided to buy a second carboy so I can have two batches brewing.  And so this past weekend I brewed up a batch of Everyday IPA from the Brooklyn Brew Shop.  I followed the instructions, but in the last five minutes decided to throw a pepper in the wort for the final five minutes a la the jalapeno saison.

With two batches fermenting it'll be a little while before a report out the results of these brews.  I plan to bottle the IPA on October 1st after three weeks in the carboy and then bottle the tripel on October 9th after 6 weeks in the carboy.  I already have a new adventure I'm considering that would take me away from the predetermined kits with this Pumpkin Ale recipe.

So stay tuned for updates and as always, consider taking a shot a brewing.  It's fun and easy.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Brunch at Tonic-Mt. Pleasant

On Monday my girlfriend, Erica, and I went to grab brunch at Tonic in Mt. Pleasant.  I've been there many times before, but I didn't have a blog about eating before so here's the review.  They only had the upstairs open so we grabbed a seat.  She ordered coffee, while I ordered a bloody mary.  The bloody mary was pretty lack luster.  The mix had a nice spice to it and you could taste the vodka, but there wasn't any depth of flavor.  It wasn't as bad as the tragedy of a bloody mary I had at Madhatters before they moved, but I definitely didn't think to order a second one.

Erica ordered the lox plate and I ordered the biscuits and gravy with cheesy grits.  The lox plate looked fantastic.  And the biscuits and gravy were excellent.  One of my minor complaints is that most of the places I go for brunch don't offer biscuits and gravy.  At Tonic they come with two eggs and grits, home fries, or fruit.  I got my eggs over easy because just about every breakfast dish is improved with some runny egg yokes.  The cheesy grits, however, were a miss on Monday.  I've had them before and they've been delicious so I don't want to swear them off, but on Monday they were too salty that had me begging for more water.  But I got all that for $10 which is a pretty good deal.

I'll definitely be back to Tonic for brunch in the future, but I think I'll pass on the bloody mary.  Maybe the mimosa will be better.  I vaguely remember that they were on previous ventures there, but only vaguely.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

O'Tasty: An Ode to Hole-in-the-Wall Chinese Places

We've all had food from them before and most of us willingly.  For many of us, your author included, it was the first taste of "ethnic" food beyond Mexican.  I'm talking of course about Chinese restaurants.  Now for most of us Chinese restaurants come in two varieties: the all-you-can-eat buffet where sesame chicken, jello, and fried popcorn shrimp all seemed right at home with each other and the hole-in-the-wall place that probably served fried chicken wings (which came with a side of fried rice) and an assortment of unadventurous American food.  Not that the Chinese food was overly adventurous in it's own right.

I cut my teeth on the buffet places, but since coming to DC (and trying to manage my waistline a bit more earnestly) I've fallen in love with the hole-in-the-wall places.  Well, at least one hole-in-the-wall place, O'Tasty.  Over on Columbia Road near the AdMo Safeway, this place just called to me when I first moved to DC with few friends.  I had a ritual my first semester at grad school on Monday nights that went something like this:  Take metro home from work, call O'Tasty and order dinner, change clothes, pick up dinner, return home to eat dinner, do laundry and watch Bravo's West Wing marathon.  It got to the point they knew my phone number and without me saying a word I'd hear, "Hello my friend!  Would you like your usual tonight?" when I called.  In a city that didn't feel familiar it was a welcome greeting.

The food was always good, never great, and it remains that way today.  It's a pretty dirty place and sometimes my curiosity over what's really going on in the kitchen nearly takes over my loyalty to the place, but I keep living by my "dirt builds natural immunity" strategy and it hasn't let me down so far.  Over the years I've tried out some different things and my less consistent Chinese food consumption these days means I'm just another customer when I call or stop by, but I know as long as I live within their delivery zone there's only one place I'll order Chinese from.

Of course I've tried Chinese food from other places because of geography.  In the ill-advised year when I lived in Rosslyn there was a bland Chinese place up the hill at Courthouse, then there was the year in Petworth where the options seemed a bit too high on the dirty scale for even me.  Hell, I've even had my fair share of Panda Express, but I always come back to my favorite like a prodigal son who returns home.  And make no mistake about it, the woman who runs O'Tasty filled in for my mom on a couple occasions in those first few months.

If you haven't tried it already and you live in that area, I encourage you to give it a go.  You won't be wowed, but you won't be disappointed anyway.  When a Chinese place serves hamburgers, chicken wings, and shrimp fried rice you can't expect much more.

Recommendations:  Steamed Dumplings, Boneless Spare Ribs, Combination Lo Mein, Sesame Chicken, Gen. Tso's Chicken

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Rookie Brewing Adventure - Success!

Yesterday it was about failure, but today I'm here to gloat.  After 5-ish weeks of waiting, the jalapeno saison was released for consumption.  First, the essential, everyone drank, no one died.  Second, the more essential, it tasted awesome.  Right out of the gate, the first thing you notice is the smell of jalapeno.  It was unique and, you know, earthy.

The taste was very light, with spicy notes (shut up Kyle).  It finished clean, and while it's hard to know the actual alcohol content, I think it was above the standard 5% ABV.  It was a fantastic first experience brewing beer and I'm not sure if it was good by chance or method, I'm just glad it was good.  Everyone, except Kyle, really seemed to like it.  Kyle kept asking why it didn't taste more like cider, despite my attempts to explain the different between cider and beer.  I've still got one 15 ounce bottle lingering in the fridge for a special occasion, or until I need that Grolsch bottle.

Also, if you're a beer drinker in a space equal to or greater than 500 square feet, you should definitely buy the kit and get to brewing yourself.  So much fun.  So gratifying.

What's next?  I'm glad you were planning to ask, but couldn't because this is largely a one way medium.  On Sunday I brewed up a batch of Tripel and I've been advised by my beer brewing mentor, Neil, to let it sit because it can only get better.  I'm not sure my patience will hold out, unless I buy a new gallon carboy to get a second batch of something brewing.  Also, I bought proper sanitizer and used it when I prepped for the new batch.  Second also, despite the post time, this post is fueled by Magic Hat Hex.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Sometimes You Fail - Last Night's Dinner

Last night I made dinner.  Chicken breast with penne pasta in a white wine, cherry tomato, and asparagus sauce.  It was awful.  Like damn near inedible awful.  I could see Gordon Ramsey yelling at me, asking if I respected myself and my girlfriend for feeding us something so bad.  Yet this is part of cooking, particularly if you are an amateur like myself.  Sometimes things go awry, but I want to go back to the scene of crime and figure out what happened in the hopes it wouldn't happen again.

I've made a number of white wine cream sauces recently and they've been turning out really nicely.  I'm getting the hang of it, but they are always pretty thin and I've been racking my brain to try and thicken in up.  Inspired by some recent reading about the master french sauces I decided I would make a roux to add to the sauce in the hopes of thickening it up a little.  So I prepped my roux (2 tablespoons butter & 1/8 cup flour) and left it over low heat.

The chicken I was using was the Perdue Italian seasoned chicken breast.  It was an oversight on purchase, but still needed used so I dropped the chicken in a hot frying pan and cooked it up.  As the chicken cook, the Italian dressing that has been marinating the chicken starting to cook away until it was burning to the bottom of the pan. Once the chicken was one I threw in some sauvignon blanc (Barefoot) to deglaze the pan, but all the burnt Italian dressing came up as well turning the white wine from orange to brown.  I dumped the pan, trying to get most of the brunt bits out, then attempted to deglaze again with more wine.  I threw in some garlic and let the wine reduce, then I tossed the wine into my roux.  It all seized up and became a paste.  Like any reasonable chef I decided to throw in another 2 tablespoons of butter to try and thin it a little.

Turning back to the frying pan I threw in chopped asparagus and let that go for a few before tossing in the cherry tomatoes.  Little salt, little pepper and they were sauteing nicely.  Pasta was cooked.  Chicken was keeping warm in the oven.  I dropped my veggies into the still too thick sauce and then tossed in the pasta.  Globules of sauce were catching on the noodles.  Panic set it.  I grabbed what was left of some chicken broth and dumped it into the sauce pan, stirred a few times, plated, and served.  And then that first taste, that horrible, regretful first taste.  The wine and cheery tomatoes gave everything a sour taste.  It permeated everything.  The only bright spot was the chicken which was in good shape and pretty tasty, but it was a fail over all.  But with a failure should come lessons learned.

First, I need to add maybe a slight dollop of roux to my sauce not add my sauce to a 1/4 cup of roux.  Second, I shouldn't have tried to deglaze a pan with burnt Italian dressing on it.  That's the decision that set the whole meal toward disaster.  Third, cherry tomatoes were a poor choice.  They are just too sour.  If I had been committed to using them then I would have needed some heavy cream and probably even some sugar to cut through that initial sour taste.

I share this failure with you all because you can't be afraid to fail.  It sucks.  It's crushing to work on a meal only for it to be awful.  And even if my girlfriend told me it "wasn't that bad," I know the truth.  You just learn from the mistakes, remember were things went wrong, and try to never do it again.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Away Game: NYC

I took a trip to NYC over the weekend and spent an evening hanging out with a grad school buddy who is from the city (Brooklyn to be precise, and he is).  He told me to meet him at Zum Schneider at Ave C and East 7th in what I learned was Alphabet City (I thought that was DC) to enjoy a Bavarian Beirgarten.  It's a pretty small place, but a solid beer selection and after a few Reissdorf Kolchs we decided to head across the street.

So we went catty corner to Edi & The Wolf named after shortened versions of the chefs names for dinner and more beer.  Edi & The Wolf is an Austrian restaurant that doesn't have a biergarten feel, but certainly a lot of crossover appeal in the beer department. At this point I relinquished beer drinking decision to my buddy and was not disappointed.  He'd been there before and knew the lay of the land.

For dinner we started with an ode to pork, getting the cured pork belly and the baby back ribs.  The pork belly was as expected, little delectable bits of cured bacon with diced apples to cut through the salt.  It was good.  But the ribs, they were great.  Fall off the bone tender with a sweet glaze and house made mustard with that potency that distinguishes real mustard from yellow mustard, they were fantastic.  After the ribs were gone I may or may not have just eaten some mustard on its own.

By the time the ribs were gone I had consumed about 2.5 liters of beer (those handy lines on the glasses helped me keep track) and what would have otherwise been enough food felt lacking so we moved on to entrees.  My buddy got the organic chicken, while I got the veal wiener schnitzel.  His chicken was this perfectly wrapped and cooked mini chicken roast.  Meanwhile, my wiener schnitzel was outstanding.  It came with potato salad, cucumber with dill, and lingonberry jam.  Everything just worked.  These were classic Austro/German flavors at their finest.  The potato was great with the schnitzel, as was the jam, and the cucumber was a great side to go with a fried piece of veal.

I also have to say the service was fantastic.  My buddy has a reputation of being a bit loquacious with wait staff, but our waitress and the hostess both parried back and forth with him.  Our waitress warned me about the good, not great-ness of the pork belly, but I didn't listen.  Suffice to say I asked her opinion for my entree.  After all that food and a fair bit more beer we decided to head to Brooklyn to see a friend of my buddy's band play.  This was my first time in Brooklyn.

Now as a consequence of having at this point an indeterminate number of liters of beer, I don't know where we ended up.  In fact, I don't think the place had a sign, it was just a small venue with a narrow concert space, stage, and a small bar in a side room back into the building.  It was a cans only kind of place, but we made do.  Meeting up with a couple of my buddy's friends we were greeted with shots of I think Jameson (my true friend and downfall of late) and more beer, and then more shots, and some conversation, and then more beer, then one last shot...or two.  Having started this drinking at about 5:30, but midnight I was pretty much done and so we wandered to look for a cab and thus my NYC adventure ended.  Great beer in some cool little neighborhoods.  Excellent food, but mostly awesome people.  From the waitress we harassed to the excellent folks I met in Brooklyn some quality people all around, and that's what drinking, cooking, and eating is all about.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Quick and Easy Fish Tacos

My girlfriend was visiting her family over the weekend and they sent her back with a bag of some great looking jalapenos so we were talking about what to cook for dinner last night and settled on fish tacos.  This is something I've done a few times before, but I think I got it right last night.  So here's my recipe for fish tacos:
Fish Tacos & Lime-Cilantro Rice

Fish Tacos
.75lbs - fresh tilapia
2 - vine ripened tomatoes
1/2 - white onion
1/4 head - red cabbage
2 - small jalapenos
1 - avocado
1/2 - lime
1 cup - cornmeal
1/8 to 1/4 cup - cilantro
Olive oil

Lime-Cilantro Rice
1/2 cup rice
1/2 lime
1/8 cup cilantro

I made the rice first because I knew it could sit.  Make the rice to the instructions on the package, and then just as I took it off the heat I added the juice of the half lime and threw in the 1/8-ish cup of cilantro, stirred, and then set aside.

The next step, and to be sure the most time intensive, was dicing up all the vegetables.  I did a small dice on the tomatoes, onion, and jalapenos.  Next I did a thin chop of the red cabbage and put all the different elements into different little bowls.
All diced and nowhere to go

After all the dicing and chopping I took the tilapia and put a little sea salt and pepper on both sides.  Then I split the tilapia at the middle seam turning three tilapia filets into six strips.  I poured the cup of cornmeal into a reusable Chinese food container and dredged the tilapia in the cornmeal until it had a nice coating but wasn't caked in cornmeal.  I put some olive oil in a frying pan and let it heat to almost smoking and then put three of the six pieces in the pan.  They only took about 2 minutes per side and then I repeated with the remaining fish.
Avocado, tilapia, and rice.

My girlfriend cut up the avocado and we plated up and enjoyed.  The rice turned out okay.  I think I put in too much cilantro (and thus would say 1/8 cup versus a 1/4 cup) or maybe not enough lime.  Obviously the rice is a rip off of Chipotle's rice, but that didn't make it a poor option.  The fish came out exactly the way I wanted in no small part because it was fresh.  Frozen tilapia would have crumbled or I would have been inclined to heat the hell out of it because it was frozen.

I will tell you this secret for great fish tacos.  It's all about dredging, whether it's corn meal or flour, a very light coating to the fish takes care of excess moisture and gives it just a slight crispiness.  Without it, the fish can be mushy.  With a full on breading you lose the fish in breading and oil.  Start to finish, less then 90 minutes and cost around $25 for two people.
I went back for seconds.
Just one more picture for good measure.  I put a little Nali sauce on this one to give it an extra kick.  Happy cooking and remember, anybody can make this.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

I Ate This: Dungeness Crab Breakfast Burrito

I enjoyed this delicious breakfast burrito at the market at the San Francisco ferry terminal.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

A Rookie Home Brewing Adventure

A couple months back my girlfriend got me a home brewing kit from The Brooklyn Brew Shop.  The Brooklyn Brew Shop's unique angle is giving anyone the set up to do small batch home brews.  In this case, it's one gallon at a time.  They even include the mix with just about everything you need to get to brewing.  It was definitely a great gift for your blogger here as it is not by accident "Drinking" comes first in this blog, but my creativity had previously been stifled by uptight roommates.  (Yes, I just called out fully 50% of my readership)
Drinking a beer while brewing beer.
A few weeks ago, before the advent of this blog even, I made my first batch and set it to ferment in the carboy (jug) for a few weeks.  The recipe said two weeks, but I gave it 2.5 on the hopes it would up the alcohol content a little.  So, with my girlfriend out of town last Thursday, I invited my buddy Ben over to help me bottle the contents of my gallon jug.
A jug of beer

For this, my first attempt, I was making a Jalapeno Saison.  Now, that sounds super fancy and thanks to Wikipedia, I know a Saison is "the name originally given to low-alcohol pale ales brewed seasonally in farmhouses in Wallonia, the French-speaking region of Belgium, for farm workers during harvest season."  What makes this a Jalapeno Saison is the addition of (you guessed it) a jalapeno at the end of the brewing process.

You will also notice in the above picture a swingtop beer bottle.  This is (and all the bottles I used) are 15oz Grolsch bottles which allowed me to skip buying a capper and caps.  I didn't discover these bottles until I had drank about 3 six packs of pry top bottles in anticipation of the bottling.  Some mistakes can be hard on the liver, but good on the heart.

You'll also notice what appears to be sand at the bottom of the jug.  It's the yeast, called trub, which is a word that accurately conveys the grossness and the lack of desirability that it get into you bottled beer.  So, to avoid getting that into your bottles you have to siphon the beer from a jug to a pot, where additional sugar was diluted with water, and then from the pot into the bottles.  This was definitely the tricky part and not a one person operation.  In the end, though, Ben and I managed to get the beer into bottles with a minimum of trub.
Nectar of the gods or failed science experiment?

And so now, here they sit to ferment a further two weeks before I throw them into the fridge and cool them down.  The recipe had some pretty explicit (and to my mind onerous) sanitation instructions that I skipped so all these weeks of waiting (5 from brew to taste) could just be a waste of time.  But that's part of the fun.  I'll let you know what it ends up tasting like, good or bad.  I'm interested how the jalapeno ends up being tasted it the beer.

This is my first of what I anticipate to be many attempts in brewing beer.  If you've got any interest, I really encourage you to get the Brooklyn Brew Shop kit.  It's a great size for a small space.  Almost all the ingredients are included, and the instructions are damn-near idiot proof.  In time, I hope to discard the training wheels of the recipes.  For now, thought, I'm happy to minimize the errors I could make.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Away Game: San Francisco

Over the next few months I'll be doing some travel to various locales in the U.S. and elsewhere.  Figured I'd eat some delicious food on the way and tell you all about it.  When I'm outside DC, it's the Away Game.

I was in San Francisco this past weekend and grabbed dinner at Tadich Grill on Friday.  Tadich Grill is billed as the oldest restaurant in San Francisco having been founded by in the 1800s as a tent coffee shop by two Croation brothers and evolving from there and eventually finding a home on California St just a couple blocks from the Embarcadero.

The first thing you notice when you walk in is the age of the establishment, not in a run down, call the health inspector kind of way, but in a "I just went back in time" sort of way.  The next thing you notice is the massive counter that runs the depth of the restaurant.  On the other side of the counter are small table and then even a few booths which would provide a good degree of privacy for a small group.  Also of note, all the waiters (I didn't see any waitresses) wear white coats that reminded me of front of the house butcher coats and ties. Even the bar backs wore ties.

I grabbed a seat at the counter and every seat comes outfitted with a quarter loaf of sourdough bread, butter, and water.  They had a good number of wines available, but I'm more of a beer guy so I ordered a Stella Artois (they also had Sierra Nevada and a couple other beers on tap).  It was a bit chilly on the walk over so I asked my waiter if I should go with the shrimp bisque or the seafood cocktail, I planned to follow up whatever I selected with cioppino so he recommended the seafood cocktail.

I was not disappointed.  San Francisco is renowned for their seafood cocktails and this one was a delicious medley of bay shrimp, Dungeness crab (including a couple whole claws), and a massive prawn.  There was cocktail sauce dabbed over everything, but not soaking everything.  The cocktail sauce had a fantastic bite from the horseradish and I didn't feel shorted on the portion despite the $15 price tag.

Next came the cioppino, a dish native to San Francisco and despite the name not at all Italian.  It's a hearty fish stew and in this iteration there were clams, mussels, bay shrimp, prawns, Dungeness crab, halibut, and sea scallops all combined with a tomato broth that consisted of tomatoes, celery, onions, and some basil and oregano.  It's served with a couple hulking pieces of garlic bread.  In a word, the dish was amazing.  The broth was clearly tomato, but that acidic edge that can make a tomato broth or sauce unpleasant wasn't there.  In fact, the broth reminded me of a light, bean free chili broth.  The whole dish had a seafood chili quality, but I don't want to overstate that taste or turn you off if you're not a big chili person.  It was a seasoning that sat in the background and never over powered the seafood.

A couple more things to note. First, the prawns were again huge, as were the sea scallops.  The scallops were the highlight for me.  I tend to think a well cooked sea scallop is the best bite of seafood you could ever eat and that's what surprised me about this dish.  When you consider the sea scallop being tossed in a hot broth (hot enough to open mussels and clams) you'd think the scallops would get over cooked.  Far from it from what I saw yesterday.  Maybe they threw the scallops in at the last second, but the exterior showed that light rupturing you see along the edges, but no browning.  Inside it was that perfectly soft consistency that tells you the heat just barely got here.  They were so delicate and flavorful it's hard to describe.  When I was finished, I was very full (good thing since the cioppino set me back $30), but it was the right choice.

Overall, I give the restaurant high marks on the atmosphere and that commitment to a time since passed.  The food was fantastic.  The seafood was fresh and flavorful.  The wait staff were helpful and patient.  In fact, my only knock would be the prices.  I think for the food I got my money's worth, but eating at an old west lunch counter basically and racking up a $45 bill just don't seem congruent.  If you decide to go, go with deep pockets so you can get the full experience.  I would definitely go back to get that cioppino again if even for just those two scallops.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Just Keep Stirring

Sundays tend to be the best days for me to try something even remotely ambitious in the kitchen.  During the week, the lack of time necessitates a hasty meal, but Sundays are for exploring.  Folks who know me might be surprised to learn I've never made risotto before.  It's not a hard dish, but a time intensive dish that requires near constant attention.  A couple weeks back I bought some Trader Joe's Arborio rice so I could try my hand at this oft admired Italian starch.

Whenever I set to do something like this I look for recipes online, just to get a sense of the steps, and what is supposed to happen.  I'm usually less concerned about measurements in any exact since, because I take more of a "food as jazz" approach.  So I found this recipe for an asparagus risotto, but my girlfriend likes broccolini and Harris Teeter always has it in stock, so I thought I'd mix it up a bit.  I'm also a big fan of mushrooms, so I picked up some cremini mushrooms to go in their as well.

To start, I chopped up the broccolini into 1.5 to 2 inch pieces that I then blanched in boiling water for a few minutes and then put them into an ice bath.  This is basically what the asparagus recipe called for and the green color the broccolini took on once hitting the ice bath was fantastic.  Next, I washed the mushrooms and halved them.  I melted a tablespoon of butter in a frying pan, melted it, and then threw the mushrooms in on med-high heat.  After sauteing the mushrooms for about 10 minutes, giving them some good color, I set them aside.

I took about three and a half cups of chicken stock and got it heating up on the back burner, per the recipe.  I think took three more tablespoons of butter and melted it in a saucepot at med-high heat and then tossed in two diced shallots. I turned the shallots through the butter until about translucent (just a couple minutes), then I tossed in a cup of the Arborio rice and turned it in the butter letting it take in some of that heat for a couple minutes.  Next I added a half-cup of Bare Foot Sauvignon Blanc (I use Bare Foot as my primary cooking wine, it's cheap, but I'd drink it on it's own, which is the test of any cooking wine).  I kept stirring the rice until it soaked up all that wine, which took less than two minutes and from their I added the simmering chicken broth a half to three quarter cup at a time stirring almost constantly.

I say almost constantly because I took the frying pan I sauteed the mushrooms in and brought it back to a medium/med-high heat and dropped in two chicken breasts (I have a mental block about a meal not having a  protein).  So at this point, I've got chicken browning in a fry pan and I'm stirring the risotto with every free moment I have, while also monitoring a loaf of Grapenuts bread I had baking in the oven for breakfast the next day.

The Arborio rice is really quite remarkable.  It sponges up any moisture incredibly fast and you have to keep it moving to avoid scorching it.  And so it continued until I'd put in about 3 cups of the chicken stock in and flipped the chicken breast in.  I tasted some of the rice and it had the texture, I think at least, you're looking for.  It was very soft on the outside with just the slightest resistance in the center.  The chicken breast was done and resting, and I took the risotto off the heat.  At some point doing all that stirring I had managed to grate about a half cup of Parmesan cheese.  I took the bulk of that and sprinkled it over the risotto, stirring it in.  I used a fine shred and the cheese melted away in the the risotto with ease.  After that, I threw the broccolini and the mushrooms back in and stirred a little more.  After plating the risotto and the chicken breast, here's what it looked like.
Broccolini & Mushroom Risotto w/ Chicken
Overall I think it turned out pretty well.  It lacked a little punch, but I couldn't decide if that was just how a risotto should be, if I had under seasoned, or if the vegetables I had couldn't stand up on their own.  The Parmesan flavor definitely came through though, which is one of my favorite flavor.  Now, if you're a Top Chef watcher (or just know risotto really well) you'll notice my risotto has Trae's disease.

Trae, the chef sent home after restaurant wars in Season 3 and sent home after a lackluster risotto during Top Chef All-Stars, was sent home during All-Stars because his risotto wasn't creamy enough.  It stood up on the plate.  Mine did too, and I think I know why.  There are two reasons.  First, the rice could have tolerated a little more chicken stock, probably another half cup or so.  Second, I pulled the rice off the heat at the wrong time.  I pulled it right as it has finished soaking up the last half cup of chicken stock I threw into it, versus right after adding a bit more chicken stock.  This is a minor thing that didn't impact taste, but certainly texture.

Overall, I think it was a successful attempt and I was able to crank it out much faster then I feared (the whole process took about 90 minutes from first cut to eating), but as with any first attempt there are lessons learned.  I've still got plenty of Arborio rice and my girlfriend asked why I didn't just use the asparagus because she likes that more then broccolini, so I'll be making more risotto in the weeks ahead.  I hope you find a random risotto recipe and give it a shot.  It's really not complicated, it just takes the right rice, enough chicken stock, and a lot of stirring.

Friday, August 5, 2011

The Bar within a Bar

I went out for drinks last Friday at a place called Last Exit.  It's a speakeasy style joint and it is literally a bar within a bar.  It's nestled inside Tonic: Mt Pleasant with a sign that was unlit when I walked by.  That may have been the point.  A hipper friend picked the place (because it's about 2 block from her apartment), and I expected a nondescript door, but honestly had to call her once my girlfriend and I arrived because I saw no doors, no signs, no placards, nada.

After figuring out where it was, I immediately liked the basement party darkness the bar emanated.  If you've been to Tonic, either Tonic, you know it's a pretty straightforward sports bar atmosphere.  The contrast in styles just by crossing the threshold was a bit jarring (I'm predisposed to like sports bars), but I dug it.  This, combined with some great, comfy lounge furniture and I was sold.  There were a few high top tables as well, if you wanted the over the table intimacy that comes from being in a dark bar.  But for me, heaven was the old, comfy chair I decamped to for the evening.  Seriously, I didn't leave that spot for several hours and if not for the call of nature I wouldn't have moved all night.

The drink menu is an interesting mix of cocktails and beers.  Given the vibe of the place and the comfort of the chair, I opted to start with a cocktail and tried out the Sazerac Willie.  It was a great mix of whiskey and bitters.  I had been concerned the absinthe might take the drink over, but it sat in the background adding a different dimension to the bitters.  And so I drank that in 5 minutes because it had been that kind of Friday and followed up with a Violetta.  It is essentially a mint julep, and is supposed to come with chocolate chips.  I passed on the chocolate.  Violetta is part of the Infusion section of the drink menu, which is what I think Last Exit wants to be the drinks you come back for.  There were some great combinations on the menu, but at $10 a drink my tab was running up and it'd only been 20 minutes.  I drink quickly.

I shifted to beer to help out my wallet and my liver.  You can't go wrong with $5 sixteen ounce draft Natty Bos.  Natty Bo being the hipster beer of the moment (sorry PBR), and the lowest ticket option it made sense for my overall plan.  However, there were a number of great beers available and an option for any discerning beer drinker (which I am not).

They also serve a number of small plates and I have to admit I was not excited.  Tonic for brunch in solid, but my last few dinner at Tonic: Mt Pleasant have been...well, bad.  Still, my compatriots craved sustenance and I kept my apprehension to myself.  I didn't have all the dishes they ordered but it doesn't matter because I know what the best dish is, the pate.  Seriously, ridiculously, magically delicious pate.  I've made pate before, it's not hard to make, but it's hard to get right and they got it right.  I spent five minutes wondering what was in their pate that wasn't in my pate that made theirs head and shoulder ahead of mine.  I never figured it out, but I did finally grab another slice of bread and slather it up.
Remnants of the pate

By around 11:30, I was two cocktails and three 16oz Natty Bos deep.  The cool temperature in the place, combined with the imminently comfy chair was conspiring to put me to sleep/pass out.  I nearly did, but we closed out and I left drunk and noticeably lighter in the wallet.  That said, I plan to go back.  The cocktails were great, the service was excellent, the pate was a moment, and the atmosphere straddled the line between upscale and pretentious.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Welcome to my blog

Hello to you, lonely blog search wanderer, or one of my friends regretting that association now that I have another outlet with which to share my random thoughts.  When I looked around the blogosphere, I noticed something.  There aren't enough blogs about food.  Okay, maybe there are, but I'm not contributing to any of those and thought I'd start one for my self.  So beyond the obvious topics of drinking, cooking, and eating, what am I going to be writing about here is:

I've been going to bars since before I was 21 and I've enjoyed many of them.  I'll be talking about different drinks, beers, bars, and my own home brews because life is too short and you can detox when you die.

I am an amateurish cook with no formal training and very limited skill.  You will be able to see my creations and here how they came to be triumphs or tragedies.

You can't cook all the time, and sometimes you don't want to.  So I'll throw in some restaurant reviews, but also just great meals with great friends.  My palate is the refined one of a Midwestern who's mother believed in only Lawry's Seasoning Salt.  Please take that limitation into consideration.

Along the way, I hope you learn a little more about cooking and maybe find a new spot to eat or drink.  Hope you all enjoy.