Thursday, July 24, 2014

La Piquette

This offshoot of Bistro Lepic was a pleasant surprise not because we didn't expect it to be good but we didn't expect to have such a nice package of pleasant dining experiences. The food is French-inspired but a fresh, lighter take that is more like New French than nouvelle cuisine. The atmosphere is buoyant in a very French way, with a warm decor that is pleasant in the summer and must be cozy in the colder months.

Photo by La Piquette
There was a breezy professionalism to the whole operation -- from the warm welcome, rapid seating, good service to one attentive detail that is too often forgotten -- the food was served piping hot on heated plates. I started with a cream of cauliflower soup that was not too heavy and delicately suggesting the vegetable rather than overpowering with it. Andrea had a salad composee that was a work of art, fresh tomatoes and orange slices arranged around ovals of lentil, quinoa and beet -- all again with delicate flavor and a slight healthy crunch.

My main course was braised rabbit in a cream and basil sauce that had a slight yellow piquance -- saffron or turmeric -- ladled over perfectly cooked and very hot linguini. Andrea ordered the roast chicken, which came with (hot) roasted vegetables and crispy hot fries. The chicken had a tangy Dijon mustard rub set off well with the fries. I had a fresh draft beer and Andrea had a Cote de Provence rose to drink.

We skipped drinks and dessert on a quick week night meal, but they looked good, too. And there's a lot of great choices on the menu to try next time!

Sunday, June 22, 2014

A midsummer feast

Saveur magazine is all about culinary travel and often enjoyable to read, but this was the first time we took a whole menu for a dinner party. The June/July issue had an irresistible story by a Swedish journalist about the celebration in his country, complete with beautiful descriptions and photos of the food, and, as always with Saveur, the recipes.

I was in western Finland once at the time of the summer solstice and enjoyed the celebration there of the year's longest day with huge bonfires and some drinking -- and yes, it hardly got dark.

Photo by Miia Ranta via Wikimedia Commons
The prep started a week beforehand with the infusion of some vodka to make aquavit. The Saveur recipe suggested rhubarb, dill, lemon verbena, caraway seeds and juniper berries. I made two batches, adding lavender to both, and then star anise to one and fennel seeds to the other. The results after 72 hours were very smooth and rounded drinks, delicious served straight from the freezer but unfolding nicely as they warmed up. Both were a bit more floral than store-bought aquavits, such as Linie Aquavit. The anise batch tasted more like your typical aquavit, though much softened, whereas the fennel batch was just well rounded. I got some Carlsberg Elephant beer to chase it with.

Midway through the week it was time to put the gravlax into the fridge to cure. The recipe is simple -- 2/3 cup kosher salt, 1/3 cup sugar and 2 tablespoons coarsely ground white pepper for 2 pounds of salmon fillet, with minced dill and vodka sprinkled over the salmon after it's smeared with the curing mixture. At the Fishery they recommended the Canadian farm salmon for the purpose and suggested fitting two symmetric 1-pound cuts together during the curing (a method it turns out that is often suggested on the Web). The fish gets wrapped in double layers of plastic wrap and turned and massaged every 12 hours for 48 to 72 hours. The fillet gets firmer as the curing process "cooks" the flesh. What emerged was that soft, buttery, deeply flavorful delicacy -- a total success, and so easy. We used the crisp bread recipe from the magazine to serve with it and that was fun. This was a crispy flatbread made of fine corn meal batter and liberal amounts of sesame, sunflower and flaxseed, giving tons of texture and flavor to the crackers. Following the directions, we spread softened butter (Danish butter!) on the crisp bread and ate the gravlax on top of that. Together with the aquavit and beer, it was almost a meal in itself! There was Gruner Veltliner for those who didn't aquavit, also a great pairing.

The main course was grilled loin of lamb. The article called for entrecote of lamb but I'm fairly certain there's nowhere to get that cut in Washington. So we substituted boneless, rolled and tied loin of lamb and used the herb paste -- minced marjoram, sage, rosemary, thyme, crushed garlic and olive oil -- applied 30 to 60 minutes before grilling after sprinkling salt and pepper on the meat. I used the Big Green Egg for better temperature control to keep the direct grilling at the medium high heat called for. The bigger lamb loin took almost double the 25 minutes specified for the entrecote to reach the 125-degree interior temperature. But the lamb was a total hit -- tender, intensely flavorful from the rub, but predominantly tasting of meaty lamb.

The menu accompanied the lamb with a tomato "sauce" of cherry tomatoes roasted with chopped basil, shallots, thyme, garlic and olive oil. Once the tomatoes popped, they were stirred together with chopped roasted red pepper, Holland chile, and more oil, basil and thyme. (What you may ask is a Holland chile? A word of advice -- don't google for it during a World Cup where the Netherlands and Chile are playing in the same group.)

Additional accompaniments were shallots grilled in foil with garlic and dill and a potato salad of boiled whole baby potatoes, diced kohlrabi sauteed in butter, and yes, more dill. Everything but the lamb could be served at room temperature though we reheated the potato salad to reliquefy the butter. It is marvelously relaxing to serve cucina fresca in the summer, where everything can be ready ahead of time.

The tomato sauce and shallot were scrumptious and could accompany virtually any grilled meat. The potato salad won points for novelty. Kudos to New Morning Farm for having the kohlrabi, but also a big compliment for Whole Foods with all their bulk seeds and grains, and for a friendly butcher team that helped me out with the lamb.

Saveur called for an almond cheesecake with macerated strawberries, but Andrea preferred to find a non-almond version online and conjured up a perfect cheesecake with sour cream, mascapone and graham cracker crust, which combined with NMF strawberries macerated in sugar and Grand Marnier rounded out the meal with a relatively light touch. We had a southern Cote du Rhone red with the main course, and concluded with Grand Marnier and other digestifs. Full recipes and some great photos can be found online at Saveur.com.

The solstice is called "midsummer" even though it is the day that officially marks the start of summer because historically those celebrating it thought of only two seasons, summer and winter, and the solstices are the middle of those seasons. Another semantic puzzle is that Swedes dance around a Maypole in June. Whatever, God bless them.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Bread Furst

Bread Furst has been a great addition to the vendor offering here. Mark Furstenberg's latest venture -- he is in his 70s -- is a great success. His pain au levain rivals anything in France or Germany, Poilane included, and everything we have had -- bialys, baguette, key lime pie, donuts, cheesecake, chocolate cake, frittata, quiche -- has been excellent. Granted, his bagels are too bready and his croissants are not as good as Fresh Baguette, it has nonetheless become one of our very favorite shops.

Photo by Bread Furst
So we began a perfect Saturday morning -- no humidity, temperature in the 70s, blue skies, pleasant breeze -- with breakfast at Bread Furst, located next to the car wash across the street from my old home in the Albermarle (now rechristened the Avalon). After a cappuccino and croissant, we went the two and a half blocks to the New Morning Farm market at the Sheridan School. There we discovered beautiful asparagus and fresh peas and knew what we were having for dinner.

For a midsummer night's dinner the following week I wanted to infuse my own aquavit, according to a recipe in Saveur. It suggested rhubarb, caraway seeds, dill, juniper berries and lemon verbena as botanicals. We got the rhubarb at the market but of course they didn't have lemon verbena. So we went out to American Plant, since we wanted to supplement the herb garden anyway, and got some lemon verbena and lavender, among other herbs. Having decided we would do Marcella Hazzan's orechietti with peas, pancetta and ricotta, we then swung through some lovely neighborhoods in Montgomery County to go to Vace in Bethesda and pick up the Italian ingredients.

For dinner then we had the pasta dish, which I've made often but only rarely with fresh peas. It is a nourishing and satisfying dish, rich with the ricotta and parmesan and flavored by the pancetta. The peas add a sweet vegetable note of their own. We also roasted the asparagus and dressed it with a lemon vinaigrette for a nice, virtually meatless summer meal on the patio. The asparagus was outstanding after the roasting concentrated the flavor and the vinaigrette accented it.

As to the aquavit -- the jury is still out. I like it, but it is definitely an acquired taste. I've just drained it so it needs to spend a couple of days in the freezer for the real test. I added the lavender and to one jar I added a star anise and to another some fennel seeds. The anise version tastes more like the store-bought, but both have flowery undercurrents you don't really get in the bottled versions.

Bread Furst, by the way, is a very clever name. It plays on Mark's surname of course, and puns with first. Yiddish and German speakers recognize a further pun -- Furst means prince and that make the store Bread Prince, and it truly lives up to its name.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

Double-crusted baby backs with fennel and coriander

Succulent -- tender, moist, meaty, flavorful, a real home run. This recipe from Cheryl and Bill Jamison's Smoke and Spice produced what Andrea and I both felt may be the best baby backs we ever had. Part of the credit goes to the wonderful meat from WF, a marbled rack weighing 2-1/2 pounds that I cut in half for marinading and grilling. Baby backs from lean pork often come out dry and relatively tough. These were just the opposite.

The Big Green Egg showed that it can come with moist and tender meat if the cook manages to keep the temperature steady, at 220 degrees in this case. I was beginning to wonder if it really could smoke meat without a pan of water, but it certainly performed well here.

But it was the recipe, with a rub of crushed fennel seeds and coriander seeds, that sharpened and focused the marvelous pork flavor of the ribs, without any interference from a mop or a sauce. We put a prepared sauce on the side, but I have to say the pork tasted best to me without any further addition.

It could not be simpler. Crush 2 tablespoons each of the fennel and coriander and mix with 2 teaspoons each of sea salt and brown sugar. Put half the rub on the ribs the night before. Take them out of the fridge 30 minutes before putting them in the smoker and put the other half of the rub on them. (Disconcertingly, the Jamisons then call for you to turn the ribs halfway through and put the remaining rub on them, so I saved a little back for that purpose.)

They cook for three hours. I started them meaty side down and turned them over halfway. No basting or mopping, just steady control of the temperature. The result was precisely as called for by the recipe -- a crusty surface that contrasts dramatically with the juicy meat.

Fennel is the key spice in porchetta, so it's no surprise that this spice pairs astoundingly well with pork. We accompanied with Rancho Gordo's vaquerita beans -- small, deep red beans -- cooked according to Steve Sando's "pot bean" recipe. One-half chopped red onion and 2 smashed garlic cloves get softened in lard (bacon grease in this case) and then add the beans and their soaking water and cook for 1-1/2 hours. To drink, I had a silky southern Cote du Rhone, though the pork probably could have used a slightly more robust red.

I just heard of this book, which is a revised version of a cookbook the Jamisons did before The Big Book of Outdoor Cooking, which I like so much. This one focuses on smoking/slow roasting, and there is some overlap with Big Book. It was worth if for this recipe alone, though I'm sure we'll get many more great meals from it.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Macon

Owner Tony Brown's playful concept of combining his hometown of Macon, Ga., with Macon, France, with a cuisine that filters Southern dishes through French refinement is a winner. The restaurant that opened this month in the culinary desert of upper Northwest is bright, classy and destined to be mobbed.

My first taste was at a quick stop at the bar when I ordered the pork rillettes snack from the blackboard. It was a fresh and tasty mix of pork and fat, a small portion served with home-pickled onions and a perfectly toasted brioche. It was a great snack! (The drinks were good, too, as I noted in my drinks blog.)

We came back together the next night for dinner. They had a great table for us in the front with the high windows letting in tons of light (it was a pre-bridge dinner, so we were early). The wait staff was a little clumsy in their enthusiasm, but they clearly meant well. After we placed our order, we were served little cheddar cheese crackers with homemade sliced pickles that were a great way to whet our appetites. We split the fried green tomato starter, which was generous enough we both had more than enough to eat. The tomato slices were perfectly done and a small chunk of pork belly on the top set them off nicely, as did the spiced tomato aioli.

I order the trout with lentils, happy to get a fish you see rarely on menus here though it is a standard in much of Europe. It was presented well and only ever so slightly overdone. The lentils and pecan persillade accompanied it nicely. Andrea ordered the scallops and they were cooked just right, opaque throughout but still moist, sauteed in a light dusting of flour with a sprinkling of bacon on top. Only complaint was she found the portion of three scallops a trifle small, though she admitted she was not hungry at the end of the meal. Perhaps that was due to the side order of biscuits -- lovely, flakey, hot bread destined to become a signature dish. These were served with a softened butter (though I didn't take to the honey mixed into it) and a tart pepper jelly. Andrea had a glass of the Chablis and I had, what else, the Macon-Villages.

It is noisy, as small, crowded restaurants tend to be. It would be hard for more than two people to communicate, at least on a Friday night. The great thing is, it's so close, we can go any night of the week!

Friday, May 09, 2014

Grilled branzino

Cooking fish is more about technique than recipes and technique is a question of practice. I practice cooking fish mostly when Andrea has something in the evening, because there's many types of fish she doesn't like -- for instance, whole fish.

To help with technique for a grilled whole branzino, I used a new cookbook, The River Cottage Fish Book by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Nick Fisher (can you believe it -- he is the fish expert). In their chapter on "Open fire cooking," they have, among other things, the five golden rules of grilling fish -- which basically boil down to "be patient, but don't cook it too long." They are: light the fire well in advance (I have to learn to let the fire sit for a while); preheat the bars of the grill (standard advice for all grilling but particularly important with fish); oil the fish, "not the grill" in italics; don't try to move the fish too soon; be firm and decisive when turning the fish. They discuss various possibilities for grilling -- like putting a bed of bay leaves on the grill or wrapping the fish in wet newspaper (!) that I may eventually try.

I got the branzino at A&H Gourmet, where they had an ice-filled basin with beautiful dorade and branzino. I got the latter because it seemed smaller and more appropriate for one person, but given have big the head and bones were it was actually a bit skimpy and next time I will try the dorade. They cleaned and scaled the fish for me. I rinsed it and patted it dry, squeezed some lemon juice inside and out, sprinkled some sea salt all over, inserted a couple of bay leaves in the inside, and threw some old rosemary on the fire before grilling. I grilled it four minutes on each side, which may have just a tad too long. However, it may be the best branzino I've ever had -- fresh, flaky, delicate in flavor, salty (amazing how well sea salt pairs with fish), just scrumptious. It is a fish you have to chew thoroughly because some bones will make it to your mouth. (Wikipedia informs me that branzino is the northern Italian name for European seabass, known as loup de mer in France; dorade is gilt-head sea bream.)

I accompanied with a kale salad from A&H's new, expanded prepared foods counter and a white Bordeaux that was open. Can't wait to practice more technique!

Drunk and dirty tenderloin

The rap on tenderloin is that it's fairly bland, though tender. This recipe, described by the Jamisons as one of their signature recipes, remedies that with a marinade, a dry rub, a mop and a slow roast of 1-1/4 to 1-1/2 hours. It seemed a perfect way to inaugurate the Big Green Egg for the season with a splurge for a small dinner party.

A 2-1/4 pound beef tenderloin gets marinated at least 4 hours in 1/2 cup bourbon (the "drunk"), 1 cup low-sodium soy sauce, 1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce, 2 tablespoons brown sugar, 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger and 4 minced garlic cloves. Drain the marinade and boil it, using half for a mop (add water and oil) and half for a sauce after reducing further. The dry rub is 2 tablespoons coarsely ground black pepper and 1 teaspoon white pepper (the "dirty"). The tenderloin is seared in a skillet and then put into the barbecue smoker at 180 to 220 degrees.

I decided to experiment for once with hickory and applewood chunks to add some smoke, and probably overdid it a bit. But the meat was fabulous -- crusty, tender, bursting with flavor. It is a poster child for what the Jamisons call barbecue grilling or smoking and ideal for the BGE. The next time I will probably try their alternative "Smoked beef tenderloin with garlic rub" which dispenses with the marinade and combines salt with roasted garlic for the rub, and dial back the wood chunks.

This time we had a nice smothered mushrooms recipe from Marcella, which included dried porcini and its soaking liquid to make a rich sauce, and her green bean salad from the third volume. A great super Tuscan from WTSO paired nicely with the meal. Add antipasti, tomato and mozzarella, and a strawberry-rhubarb cobbler and you have yourself a pretty great meal.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Mintwood Place

This Adams Morgan restaurant strikes just the right note between fine and casual dining with a refreshingly novel menu and great execution. Friends have raved about it and I'm sorry now it took us so long to try it. We'll go back soon!

The ambiance is warm and cheerful, with tan wood tones throughout, and an open feeling with booths and room dividers creating some sense of space. It was loud, but bearable enough for the three of us in a booth.
Photo by Mintwood Place
There was an appealing list of starters -- such as a goat cheese and beet mountain pie, suckling pig croquettes and wood-grilled calf's heart and baby collard greens salad -- that I'll have to try when I can bring a bigger appetite.

This time I settled for the iceberg lettuce and blue cheese, which whetted my appetite for a main course of Spanish mackerel, fennel, piperade, picholine, rouille which was very Mediterranean. I'll confess, I probably would have enjoyed the tagliatelle bolognese that Andrea had more, but you so rarely see mackerel on a menu I just had to try it. The mackerel and garnish -- which the chef offers regularly with different fish -- was quite good in any case. The tagliatelle, served impressively in a big swirl, was outstanding, with a wonderfully full and seasoned sauce. Also extraordinary was the guanciale, chard and spaetzle carbonnade served with our companion's pork chop.

I started with a specialty cocktail, the Bardstown Square -- Redemption bourbon, snap (a ginger thing, I was told), Punt e Mes, Aztec chocolate bitters -- which balanced bitter and sweet in an intriguing way (a little too much chocolate for my taste, however). The bottle of Stangeland Willamette Valley 2012 pinot noir we had with the meal was light and fruity and kept everybody happy.

The bread was warm and yeasty and delicious, the butter was soft (always an important benchmark in our book), the service was quite good -- it was in short an all around great experience. Perhaps due to the torrential rain, I even got a parking space!