Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Always Get the Special

How do you judge the quality of a cuisine you've never had before? It seems like the one thing professional critics excel at is knowing how a variety of foods are supposed to taste, measuring their authenticity almost. While that's sort of the thing I'm trying to stay away from, I do feel a bit at a loss discussing today's restaurant Cool Runnings - a local Jamaican place. 

I'm not familiar with Jamaican food and I've only been to Cool Runnings twice but both times I was blown away by the food.  The first meal there was lunch with Wes and Dan. The guys ordered jerk pork while I decided to be adventurous and get the curried goat.  The jerk pork was fantastic - spicy with a rich sweet sauce without loosing any of the flavor of the meat. Accompanied  by crisp sauteed veggies and fluffy rice it was a great introduction to Jamaican foods.  

The pork was good, but the goat left me speechless.  I didn't know what Jamaican curries were supposed to taste like and I had no concept of the flavors in goat meat.  It was so rich and gamey. Sort of  like lamb if the lamb had spent his time knocking over convenience stores Even though I had no frame of reference, I knew that this was the way goat was supposed to taste. Almost like tasting the culinary history of the dish. Combined with the curry and rice it was just about the perfect meal. 

Which brings us to today, Dan and I returned to Cool Runnings for what I thought would be a second helping of goat, but my #1 restaurant rule is  "always order the special" and today's special was BBQ Ribs.  

I used to be a rib fiend. My dad would make them for me every Sunday pretty much all summer long, I would seek them out at restaurants. Dry, wet, pork, beef, didn't matter. I could eat some ribs.  When I moved to Phoenix it got hard to find good ribs, I stopped eating out so much, and my beloved ribs were forgotten. 

So, do Jamaican BBQ ribs live up to the home-cooked ribs I remembered? Well, does anything live up to our favorite childhood recipes? Yeah, sometimes it does.  The ribs were hot and sweet, messy and tender, fall-off-the-bone good.  I lost track of the spices in the sauce other than cumin and some kind of sugar.  I think I went through a couple stacks of napkins, always a good sign for ribs.  

The older I get the more I looks for those foods that take me back to the best parts of childhood.  There's nothing quite like the joy of being covered in BBQ sauce and not caring and as an adult there are so few opportunities to experience that.  Sadly BBQ ribs aren't on the menu at Cool Runnings, but every time they're on special I'll be getting them. So if you see me walking around with a huge grin and a swipe of sauce on my cheek, don't say anything, most likely I'm just too happy to care.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Holiday foods

I'm back from a nice long stay with my folks in D.C.  and ready to write!  While in Washington I was able to visit the Carlyle a bustling and comforting if unspectacular restaurant.  If you've never been to Shirlington, its basically a row of restaurants surrounded by hotels and office buildings.  We usually stop off there after doing the tourist thing in DC or the shopping thing at Pentagon City. 

We had been to the Carlyle before and it's  a good place, the food was nice and the desserts were really good. But the whole time  we were there I was thinking that  we should have gone to Bistro Bistro, another restaurant we had visited previously.  I'm not going to go into detail about Bistro Bistro, I'll save that for an actual visit, but I will say that it has a quiet elegant charm that is the opposite of the Carlyle's busy carnival atmosphere. 

So, the food was good, and the decor cheerful but I'm at a loss for anything to say about the Carlyle. I'm suffering from food envy. No matter how good the crab cakes were, and they were pretty fantastic - full of fresh crab with a light sauce -I chose the wrong restaurant.  It's impossible to truly loose yourself in a meal when your heart isn't in to it. Then it just becomes eating for the sake of eating, which is the one thing I'm trying to stay away from.

Now I'm very grateful to my folks for taking us out for lunch, but what I enjoyed most about the Carlyle is just being out and about with my family - oh and the flourless chocolate waffle with the molten chocolate inside.  That was killer.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Wasabi for lunch

Now that the migraine fog has passed I realize I'm a bit behind on my blog. Two restaurants behind actually, which probably means I'm eating out a bit too much.  I'll try to get caught up this weekend, but since I'm headed home tomorrow for a week of Washington DC treats and home cooked meals I'm not sure if I'll stay caught up. 

On Thursday between doctors appointments Dan and I stopped in to our favorite sushi place here in Cary, Wasabi.  Wasabi is a Thai/Japanese restaurant with beautiful bamboo accents dim lights and unobtrusive music.  It looks, feels and smells authentic.  My cousin introduced Dan and me to Wasabi and in our own version of paying it forward we love to bring new friends there to celebrate what occasion calls for a sushi dinner, and really what occasion doesn't?

But today we weren't celebrating, just pausing for some comfort food. I settled in to my old favorite Chirashi- the chef's selection of fresh fish over rice.  The fish was wonderful. Cool and flavorful, beautifully arranged  but as I was eating I realized that I viewed the fish as almost the opening act to the dish. The real reason I order the Chirashi almost every time we go is for the rice. 

See while I'm nibbling away on salmon all the flavors of the white tuna, lemon, whitefish, and the sauce that goes with the eel has been soaking into the rice. By the time I'm done with the fish that rice is a  smokey, spicy, sweet, roe-covered desert. It's nothing that could be prepared in a kitchen, there is no recipe for it. Chirashi rice is unrepeatable, as every time I order it the chef uses different fish, but every time it gives me that same amazing feeling. It's like knowing the secret to the dish. Any maybe that more than anything is the appeal. 

The other day I was at dim sum with a group a friends and the topic of strange food preferences came up. No one was able to think of any or at least, no one wanted to volunteer any of theirs.  Maybe it's because we all eat lovely normal things, or maybe it's because what are strange eating habits to others are our very own own secret dishes. These recipes we have discovered through snacking trial and error, or family traditions handed down are personal private things. 
Being the only one who eats them makes them all the more special. 

There are plenty of recipes to share with friends, to prepare as a group and cherish together. But I'm going to try real hard to remember to cherish the foods I eat alone, they are just as worthy of thought and recognition.  And in the end spending a little more time thinking about what I eat when I'm alone probably isn't a bad thing. 

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Carmen's Cuban Cafe and Lounge

Yesterday Wes Dan and I went to Carmen's. The food was good, although the plantains are better at Cool Runnings, a little Jamaican place I will eventually blog about.  I ordered a steak sandwich, which was in retrospect not very smart of me. The sandwich was good, but it wasn't very Cuban. Dan ordered this wonderful roasted pork and lime dish that was not only tender and flavorful it tasted authentic. The combination of the salty pork and the fresh lime was so natural I can't imagine pork any other way now.   If I'm going to really get into the heart of food, I'm going to have to be a little bit more adventurous with my selections. 

But missed opportunities aside, what really struck me about Carmen's is the decor. There is another Cuban place that Dan and I frequent.The Havana Grill is a bright open place that looks as Wes put it, like a house converted into a restaurant. The service is casual cafeteria-style with more outdoor seating than indoor and the emphasis on the food seems to be more homestyle than anything else.  The food there is great and comforting and I recommend it to everyone but I'll be going back to Carmen's before I return to Havana Grill. 

See, and some part of me realizes that this makes me a superficial person, but Carmen's looks like a Cuban place should. The bar is covered in dark wood rafters and the whole place is dimly lit. There are fabric wall hangings and fancy lights that project dim patterns on the walls. It's moody, mysterious and romantic.I'm prone to flights of fancy and I have a tendency to let my imagination run away with me. When I have the opportunity to slip away from a hectic day, sit in a romantic Cuban cafe , sip an Ironbeer, (not actually a beer) and indulge in a 30 second vacation fantasy, the comfort of that beats comfort food any day. 

The other highlight of Carmen's was the Tres Leches cake. I loved it, but better than that was watching Dan try it for the first time.  I hope he doesn't mind me writing about this, but I sort of have a love hate relationship with food. I mean I love it, but since I'm always struggling with my weight and balancing portions and all that tiring stuff sometimes I get so sick of it, food, weight, the whole thing.  But Dan, he can enjoy food like no one else I've met. Totally guilt-free. When he enjoys food, especially when it's food I've cooked, he looks so appreciative. Every cook should have a customer like Dan and I really wish who ever made the Tres leches cake could have seen him try it.  They would have continued on baking happily for the rest of their lives armed with the most rewarding kind of job satisfaction. 

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Abbey Road Cary, NC

What makes a burger go from good to amazing? What makes one of the most available foods not only satisfying to hunger but also emotionally. High quality beef? A patty the size of my head? Cold, crisp lettuce and pickles?  I can go to MCDonald's and have a meal in under 5 minutes. It will be hot and after eating it I will no longer be hungry, but I will not be satisfied.  So, today we (Dan. Wes, Karen and myself) went in search of the elusive the burger and fries that will satisfy hunger and my soul. 

Now, when I say "went in search of" I really mean it. Abbey road is probably about 10-15 minuted from the office, but since we had never been there Wes took care of  directions. Twenty minutes later while cruising around deepest darkest residential Cary we realized that Wes had actually googled the directions for Abbey Lane the road not Abbey Road the restaurant. By the time Dan and I had stopped laughing, Wes had corrected out course and we were back on track. What would have been an annoying detour turned into a bizzard trip through a campy Christmas wonderland when we had to turn around in a cul-de-sac where every house was covered from foundation to chimney in garish inflatable Christmas decorations somehow made tackier by the presence of pouring rain.

By the time we found the bar I was pleasantly surprised to see that there was a separate non-smoking section. I had been warned that although the food was good the place was smokey. Nothing kills the impact of good food like cigarette smoke. The walls of Abbey rod are covered in 45's, posters, magazine covers and pictures from the 60's and 70's. We were seated immediately by an efficient and pleasant if not overly friendly waitress and given enough room to peruse the menus. They do have a decent lunch menu with sandwiches and wraps, but we were there for burgers so the poor wraps got ignored. 

All of the Beatles named burgers looked good, but I settled on the George - bacon and cheese with a side of onion rings. I haven't had onion rings in months and couldn't resist. Dan and Karen were much more disciplined and got salads while Wes committed 110% and went with cheese fries. I don't remember what burgers they ordered. 

When the food arrived I was both pleased and dismayed to see that the patty was the size of my fist and just as thick. The first bite is always the best part, the most telling and the George did not disappoint. I got bun, lettuce, pickle, cheese bacon and burger all together but I could taste each element separately. The meat was perfectly cooked, medium rare and I got that wonderful dribble down my chin. It was a mess and I loved it. I don't usually think of myself as a tactile person but for some reason I need to feel my food. The crunch of vegetables, the tear of a steak the snap of an apple that's what is satisfying about food. That's  what is missing, for me, from the mushy flat Quarter Pounder- the feel of it. This burger felt great, it felt satisfying.

And now , sadly, a word about onion rings. They should be rings. Circles of  perfectly fried onion, easy to hold, easy to dip in ketchup and able to deliver onion napalm directly into the mouth, a painful but necessary part. They are not strips, the batter should not be hard and they should never EVER arrive in a clump.

I will happily return to Abbey Road when I get a burger craving but I'll be sticking to the fries. 

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

A different take.


Perhaps a little explanation is necessary. I started this blog to talk about things I care about and found out there are really only two subjects I'm actually qualified to discuss - horror and food. 

I could go on at great length about horror movies, books, webisodes and the like, but the problem with that is I tend to love them all and that doesn't make for a very interesting review, does it? Now, food and restaurants, that's a different story.  

I am not a foodie. I'm not really interested in the origin of the food or how expensive or rare it is. What I care about is how food and the environment I eat it in makes me feel. I'm looking for that instinctive reaction that was so wonderfully portrayed in Ratatouille when Ego takes that first bite of Remy's ratatouille and flashes back to a vivid comforting childhood memory. I am in search of the foods that give me that powerful a reaction good or bad. 

So today I began my search for those foods with a Turkish place we had never gone before. "We" for the purposes of this discussion is Myself, my husband Dan and our friend Wes. 

And now the review:

Bosphorus in Cary is a pretty pleasant place to eat. It's small and cozy with big posters of Turkey on the walls. The menu is a good size with plenty of sandwiches and platters so just about everyone can find something they like.  Right off the bat the most interesting thing about the place was the waiter. He discouraged us from ordering an appetizer, saying it was too big and we didn't need it. Okay. Sure.  No appetizers for us. 

I ordered a lamb pita, Dan got a mixed grill plate and Wes got gyro meat on bulgar rice.  The lamb was good, spicy but still recognizable as lamb and the bread was fantastic. Covered in sesame seeds it had a crispy crust and such a great feel to it.  Dan and Wes has nothing but good things to say about their food, although Wes did say that he was expecting a sandwich instead of just meat on rice. He said it tasted good, but would have been better with the bread. Of course I can't think of anything that wouldn't have been better on the bread. 

The other really impressive part of the meal was the hot tea they kept serving us.  It showed up in tiny glasses on beautiful saucers and smelled like hot tea. Strong and comforting, it made the whole meal seem less like coworkers on their lunch hour and more like friends meeting for a relaxing weekend lunch.  

So while the food was good the tea was the big experience of the day. Maybe it was the tiny tea spoons, maybe it was the saucers or maybe it was as simple as a perfectly brewed cup of tea with some of my favorite people. I'll need to experiment more before I can draw any conclusions there.