Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Food Memories

I was talking with my sister Maria recently and she reminded me of a restaurant we used to go to as kids in Annapolis, The Little Campus. We went there for birthdays and special occasions—Maria said, “I remember wearing my long dress there.” (Remember when a “long dress” was the height of glamour and formality?) I couldn’t tell you anything about the food, except that we always got to have Shirley Temples, and they had this roll-up cake that we always got for dessert. It was chocolate cake with either white frosting or ice cream, all rolled up like a Ho-Ho. I Googled the restaurant, and it appears, sadly, to have been replaced by an Irish bar. Don’t get me wrong—I like an Irish bar as much as the next person—but it was kind of sad to realize that a piece of my childhood was gone.

Our conversation got me thinking, though, about other food memories of my childhood. We went on a lot of summer car trips as a family, mostly driving up the East Coast to Maine or to visit Grandma and Grandpa in Ohio. Dad usually wanted to get started early in the morning, so we would head out right around dawn. The trade-off for this was that we would get donuts for breakfast. I’m not really a fan of the donut now, but as a kid it was a special treat—a decadent change from the usual breakfast of Product 19 (remember that cereal? No? Just me? Carry on.) or Cracklin’ Oat Bran. We’d drive for several hours, and we three girls in the back of the Volvo would bicker and color or do needlepoint (shut up, it was the 70s), and Mom would occasionally pass back a roll of Lifesavers. Everybody wanted the cherry one, of course. And when Lifesaver Lollypops made their debut—oh boy, was that a great day for candy-dom! (My dad the scientist told us about the Wint-o-Green trick—how, if you bit down on one in a dark room, green sparks would come out of your mouth. Then he told us why, but we didn’t care about that. I still don't. If you really want to know, look it up.)

If it was a summer trip, we’d stop around lunchtime at a rest stop, and Dad would pull out the big, clunky turquoise Coleman cooler with the squeaky latch, and the red jug of lemonade. (We had Kool-Aid extremely rarely, so sometimes Mom would surprise us with that.) Our picnics didn’t consist of pre-made sandwiches. We had whole loaves of Italian or sourdough bread, logs of baloney or salami, and hunks of cheddar and jack cheese. Dad would slice the meat and the cheese, and we’d rip off hunks of bread to make sandwiches. You could chase me down the street with baloney these days, but some taste and texture memory still lingers of those roadside sandwiches.

Eventually we would stop for the night at a Holiday Inn, which was exciting enough for a kid. Hotels meant swimming pools, watching TV in a big bed, Pepsodent toothpaste (which I loved the taste of, and no, I don’t know why we only used it when travelling), doing the Wint-o-Green trick, and eating in a restaurant. I loved eating in restaurants. (Harbinger of things to come, maybe?) There was so much choice and possibility, and they did things so differently than at home! They filled your milk glass all the way up to the tippy top, which for some reason I found fascinating. If you got chocolate pudding for dessert, it came in a fancy glass dish with a little blob of whipped cream on top. And everybody could have something different for dinner. Maria told me recently that she remembers always ordering chopped sirloin, because it made her feel “so grown-up.” I went through a period of only ordering fried shrimp, French fries, and Orange Crush. (I guess I wanted all my food to be the same color or something.) In my mind I did that for years, but it was probably only for a few weeks in Maine.

Trips to Grandma and Grandpa’s for holidays were even more wonderful, food-wise (although maybe not as exciting). We would get to their house in the afternoon and sit around talking and catching up while drinking Teem or strawberry soda (the height of exotic beverages, to my eight-year-old palate) from aluminum glasses and eating those rippled potato chips that came in the big can (Maria, brand, please?). I remember being so excited to go to Ohio for Thanksgiving because it meant we got to have “lumpy mashed potatoes!” What I didn’t realize then was that those were real potatoes, mashed by hand—we had instant “mashed potatoes” at home. I hope I didn’t offend my grandmother too much by pointing out the lumps. Breakfast (brunch, really) was a massive, extended affair, with Grandma’s cream coffee cake, pecan rolls, homemade bread, orange and applesauce donuts, eggs, sausages, actual butter, homemade jam—all the fixings of a good Midwest brunch. Grandma had these awesome glasses commemorating the Apollo missions, and I always tried to get the milk lined up with the top edge of the blue flag graphic. (I was utterly thrilled to find the same glasses in an antique store years ago. I have one in my bathroom right now.)

Looking back, even though I guess we probably didn’t have a lot of money, and Mom wasn’t exactly a gourmand, we were always well-fed on pretty normal food, like any normal family. But it was the special times—rolled-up cake, grenadine “cocktails,” fresh bread in fresh air, sparkly red soda, homemade apple dumplings and ice cream—that probably made me start appreciating food. And for that, I thank my family.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Restaurant Week Summer 2009, Part 2 (Electric Boogaloo)

For our second Restaurant Week 2009 adventure, Ali had booked a table at Art and Soul, a southern restaurant owned by celebrity chef Art Smith. I think it’s safe to say that if you’re going to a celebrity chef’s restaurant, you shouldn’t expect said chef to actually be in the kitchen. He wasn’t, but whoever was did a pretty fine job. But even though the food was good, we didn’t have the best experience.

I got off the Metro and took a mildly frightening walk through a sort of dodgy neighborhood (conveniently located right by the DC courthouse) to the restaurant in the Liaison Hotel. (If you decide to go and take Metro, get off at Union Station. Less scary.) The rest of the girls weren’t there yet, so I went to the bar to have a drink and wait.

Now, I don’t know if it was because it’s a hotel bar or if it was because it was Restaurant Week, but the bar was crowded and noisy, no thanks to the TV showing the Little League World Series. I managed to find a free barstool, though, and ordered The Standard (Ketel martini, slightly dirty, three olives). The martini that arrived was way too salty, but the bartender seemed more interested in talking to her friends who had just come in than checking in with her customers, so I just took small sips while perusing the menu and listening to the two drunk suits next to me try to one-up each other on the “who knows more important people” scale. Gotta love DC!

Ali, Heather, and Kim arrived, and we were shown to our table. It was right inside the door, and spitting distance from the hostess stand. Not the most ideal location, but at least it was August and we wouldn’t have to worry about a cold breeze every time the door opened.

The waiter came and offered us our water choices (we went with DC’s finest tap) and delivered the wine list and menus. After we’d had a few minutes to peruse and discuss, he came back and asked if we had any questions.

Me: How is the salmon cooked?
Guy: However you want it.
Me (in my head): Really? You don’t want to tell me how the chef recommends it? Huh. Okay.

Ali: What would you recommend?
Guy: Oh, everything’s great.
Ali (in her head): Thanks, that’s really helpful.

Come on. When a person asks for a recommendation in a restaurant, that’s what she’s looking for! Tell me your preferences. Ask me about mine. I know you eat the food there. Help me out.

That unhelpful exchange over, we asked for a few more minutes to decide. We settled on our RW choices and decided to try a couple of sides from the regular menu. After all, when you’re in a southern restaurant, you don’t NOT try the mac ‘n’ cheese and the fried green tomatoes.

Turns out we should’ve passed on the latter. They were heavy with fried batter and pretty much tasteless, and the remoulade on the side didn’t help much. The mac ‘n’ cheese was pretty awesome, though.

Anyway, on to our actual meals. Heather, Kim, and I all started with the arugula salad with goat cheese, watermelon pickles, and blackberry vinaigrette, which was very good, but maybe a little heavy on the arugula. Ali had the restaurant’s version of a Caesar, with grilled hearts of romaine, shaved parm, and a white anchovy. She loved it. Nice starts for all.

I went ahead and ordered the salmon, mostly because it came with pea risotto and I am powerless to resist the R word. I asked for it medium, and it did indeed come out cooked perfectly all the way though—nice and flaky and moist. It also came with a little salad of yellow beets and a sauce of preserved lemon vinaigrette. Really good. The risotto was a little on the gummy side, but it was very flavorful, and the peas gave it a nice green-ness and a little pop.

Kim also had the salmon, while Heather had the roast chicken (which I was tempted to order, because it came with a goat cheese drop biscuit, and who wouldn’t want to try that? No one, that’s who.) and Ali went with the pork chop with stone fruit (peaches, nectarines, plums, stuff like that) relish. Both had good things to say about their entrees—Ali so much so that she was a little reluctant to share.

We were pretty much utterly stuffed by now, but as I recently learned from Jeffrey Steingarten’s fun book, The Man Who Ate Everything, there’s a difference between hunger and appetite. I certainly wasn’t hungry, but I still had an appetite for my lemon pudding cake (PUDDING!) with blueberry sauce. It was nice and light and a lovely ending to that big meal.

Sounds good, right? “What’s the problem?” you may be asking.

The problem was the service. Our waiter never came back to check on us, to see how everything was, not even once. Isn’t that like lesson #1 in waiter school? I mean, I know it was Restaurant Week, but we had a late reservation and the room wasn’t full or busy. Guy just disappeared on us. Also (pet peeve alert), plates were taken away before everyone was finished, WHICH I HATE. It rushes the people who are still eating, and leaves the other people just sitting around. God. It might not seem like that big of a deal, but when I’m out for dinner, I’m not just there for the food, I’m there for the whole experience. If you want a good tip and you want me to come back, make me feel cared-for. This is not rocket surgery, people.

Happily, a comment card came with the check, which Ali filled out and handed directly to the manager. To his immense credit, he came back promptly and apologized for the service and told us very sincerely that he would address the issues with the staff. He offered us complimentary after-dinner drinks, which we declined on the grounds of imminent explosion if we ingested one more molecule, and urged us to come back. I guess he’d conferred with the hostess as well, because she then came over and handed us each her business card, inviting us to come back any time and telling us she’d find us “a nice handsome Jamaican waiter” to serve us. Well, sold!

That’s how you make a customer feel good.

And now, a few final thoughts on Restaurant Week from Karina:

(17:11:22) Karina: I've got a post about that: Indebleu: blows.

(17:11:36) Karina: The only reason to go there is for the cocktails.
(17:11:41) Karina: oh but the mac and cheese with bacon at Redwood is f*cking money

There you go.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Labor Day Love

Ah, Labor Day. Unofficial end of summer and official cookout time. Here’s how my Labor Day weekend went:
  • Green tomato and green apple tart with onions and gruyere, with a LARD crust because Andy is trying to kill me
  • Chicken sausages with spinach and feta
  • Salad of tomatoes and basil from Heather’s garden with feta and balsamic vinegar
  • Chistarra (Spanish sausage)
  • Homemade pork sausages with Thai spices
  • My awesome deviled eggs, with a sprinkling of Bacon Salt
  • Couscous with peas, carrots, and the merest touch of stuffed elephant
  • “Gazpacho” of pureed eggplant, tahini, and yogurt
  • Grilled pork skewers that had been marinating for a week in pineapple juice, Thai peppers, vinegar
  • Various pates and smelly cheeses
  • Caprese salad with yellow and orange heirloom tomatoes
  • Excellently grilled hanger steak marinated in homemade Korean marinade
  • Butterscotch “brownies”
  • Salad of tomatoes and basil from Ali’s garden with chevre, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar
  • Grilled chicken, marinated in olive oil and Italian herbs
  • More grilled hanger steak, marinated in olive oil and rosemary
  • Grilled okra from Heather’s garden
  • Chipotle mashed potatoes with sour cream and green onions
  • Various wines from various countries

I love a holiday weekend. And I sure do love my friends.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Restaurant Week Summer 2009, Part 1

I know that people have different feelings about Restaurant Week. Some think it’s the worst time to try a restaurant, with the limited menus and rushed or indifferent service, while others look at it as an opportunity to go to restaurants they normally might not be able to afford. I get that. I’ve had some awful experiences (Butterfield 9, I’m looking at you—oh wait, no I’m not because YOU CLOSED), and some wonderful ones (hi PS-7’s, love you!). But it’s a crap shoot I’m willing to roll the dice on.

(For those of you who don’t have RW in your area, the deal is that twice a year—winter and summer—local restaurants offer three-course meals for a flat rate, usually based on the year. For example, this year lunch was $20.09, and dinner was $30.09. Menus are usually abbreviated for RW, but some places do offer all of their regular dishes, and the price doesn’t include wine/beverages. So there you go. Moving on…)

Poste Moderne Brasserie (
I wasn’t expecting too much from this restaurant in the Hotel Monaco. I’d been there a couple of times for cocktails or brunch, and had had decent food, but nothing mind-blowing. So when Gary e-mailed to say he’d made reservations, I thought, “Eh, well, okay. It’s just 35 bucks, and it’s dinner out with friends.”

Tuesday night after a CRAPTASTIC day, I met up with Gary, Ali, and Heather at the bar before our reservation. Ali had some kind of cocktail with pureed mango, Heather had something with dark rum and cinnamon, Gary had a dark ’n’ stormy. I wasn’t in a mood to make a decision, so the bartender concocted something for me with Earl Grey-infused gin, St. Germain (elderflower liqueur), a little lemon, and a little soda water. A very nice way to calm the hell down and relax before dinner.

The hostess came over and told us our table was ready, and we settled in to our cushy booth (complete with pillows!) to go over the menu. Poste’s menu isn’t very long to begin with, so the RW menu didn’t take very long to peruse, but what was on there was intriguing.

Since it was a warm summer night, Heather and I opted for the heirloom tomato gazpacho with Dijon ice cream. (I’m guessing this involved liquid nitrogen, since I don’t think they probably keep a big tub of mustard ice cream in the back, but I may have just been watching too much Top Chef—a distinct possibility). This soup was amazing, and I will tell you that for free. And get this presentation: The food runner put down a large glass bowl in front of me that contained a small white scoop of the Dijon ice cream and two tiny grape heirloom tomatoes. Then the waiter swooped in with a small glass pitcher with the gazpacho—the tomato, peppers, onions, vinegar, and magic were all pureed together—and poured it into the bowl, garnishing it with fresh basil from the restaurant’s herb garden (gotta love that). The ice cream itself was unexpectedly good—you don’t normally expect things that are salty and mustardy to be creamy and cold—and when mixed with the soup, added just the right amount of richness. Gary and Ali both had an arugula salad with basil, mint, figs, parmesan, and sherry vinaigrette, and they both really dug it.

One thing happened, though, that really bugs me. The busboy came and took plates/bowls away before everyone was finished. I hate that, especially since on this night I was still enjoying my soup, and felt like I had to rush to finish, and that was not a bowl I wanted to rush through. The rest of the service was very nice, though—not overly familiar, but not stuffy, either. Plus the waiter was really cute.

All right, so entrees. Since the braised rabbit wasn’t on the RW menu and I didn’t feel like pasta, I went for the braised trotter, which the guy said is pork shank, but I believe is pied du cochon. Whatever it was, it rocked my comfort-needing soul. The meat was wrapped in a thin sheet of phyllo dough and rested on a bed of fresh greens (again from the garden), with a whole grain mustard sauce, and a dollop of onion marmalade on the side. The marmalade was a little sweet for my taste, but the whole thing worked really well together—the heartiness of the pork, the sass of the mustard, and the earthiness of the greens. Oh, and accompanying this was a very nice Oregon pinot noir, which you can never go too far wrong with.

Topping all that off was dessert. I wasn’t in the mood for something heavy after that pork shenaniganza, so I opted for the blueberry sorbet. Of course, that wasn’t just a scoop of icy blueberry goodness. Oh no. What came out was this gorgeous, deep purple spooning of the sorbet, accompanied by a scoop of almond ice cream (which was quite high in butterfat, I’m certain) and a dollop of hazelnut mousse. Oh my god, you guys.

Oh, and THEN! They came out with an assortment of house-made chocolate truffles with the bill. I don’t remember what they were, except one—white chocolate with lemon verbena.

This was a meal to ease a troubled soul, which it certainly did. Until I got home and got all pissed off again.

Next up: RW Part II -- Art and Soul