Sunday, February 22, 2009

Thai and more

I didn't think I was going to have anything to write about for a while. I've been busy with all kinds of work and my eating out has been sporadic at best. It wasn't until Saturday that I found myself at a new-to-me restaurant Thai Villa. I loved it, but more on that later.

First I want to write about something I saw rather than something I ate. On Thursday Dan and I went to see Anthony Bourdain  give a talk to a sold out crowd at the Durham Performing Arts Center.  He was exactly as you would expect - witty, snarky, intelligent and humorous. After covering everything from the Food networks crimes against food to Bobby Flay's recent career of humiliation to the evils of the mass marketing and resulting rising prices of organics. Although I love to hear him talk about food. My favorite part came when an audience member asked him who he would cross the street to do harm to. His answer -writer James Frey.  The scorn and contempt he had for one of the most widely know liars of our time raised my esteem for him.  If there was a downside to the evening, it was the signing. It was very formal and regimented and faced with such unexpected rules I froze up and found myself unable to say anything at all to Bourdain when he signed my book. Bummer.

And now for the Thai Villa. I have a tendency to judge Thai restaurants on one dish - Tom Kha, Thai Coconut Soup.  The best soup has layers of flavor, from the sweet coconut, refreshing lemongrass, chicken and spices. Now last night the waitress suggested the soup with shrimp rather than chicken, but one of the things I love about the soup is how the little bits of fat cling to the chicken so i went my old reliable. It was fantastic. So good in fact that I had no room for my entree, which is now sitting in my fridge and although it was a good entree - sort of like a Thai beef and broccoli, all i really want is more soup.

It's a small place, with close packed tables and booths, but it's homey and pleasant instead of being crowded and noisy. the service is fantastic and the food is wonderful. I'll be back for more soup and maybe even for something else...maybe.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Rooting for the home team

Dan and I have a restaurant that we love to go to and to take people to for any special or not-so-special occasion. Now, we didn't discover this place ourselves,  we were introduced to it by a friend who just so happens to be related to the chef by marriage. I've never been introduced to the chef, only watched him work and tasted the results, but having eaten there frequently, I feel like I know at little bit about him.

Vivace  is a trendy-looking Italian place nestled under swanky apartments in Raleigh. It has a very cool looking bar I'd love to hang out in sometime and a rather impressive wine list, which I also have yet to try.  This isn't shaping up to be a very informative review yet, I'll try to get to the good stuff. What I have tried are countless salmon, hanger steak, duck, scallop, veal, lamb and pork dishes. I've tried panna cottas, semi-fredos, tiramisus fried olives, gnocchi and I've loved it all. There is no dish that I haven't enjoyed although there are some that stand out more than others. 

The menu changes seasonally which is both good and bad. The good is the ever expanding variety, the ability to fall in love with something new and wonderful every time I go. The bad is the realty that I will get my heard broken by the absence of a favorite dish. For the last year when we've gone to Vivace we've ordered the gnocchi with apricots, pancetta and kale, if memory serves me.  It was a treat, sweet, salty, chewy and crisp all at once, it was quite simply a dish worth dreaming about.  It was absent from the menu this time. There was  a gnocchi dish but it wasn't THE gnocchi so we didn't order it. 

Which turned out to be just fine. I ordered the bone-in pork chop with brussel sprouts, pancetta over polenta with a cider reduction. It was perfection. The pork was crispy with just the right amount of fat and the polenta was smokey and sweet all at the same time.  

I hope I'll be able o make it back up there before the menu changes again, but if I don't at least I have faith in the chef I almost sort of know to keep me coming back, no matter how much the menu changes, 

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Second Empire

Most of the time I'm a pretty casual girl, but every so often even I like to get a little fancy, pretend I've got some table manners and find a classy restaurant for a "grown-up" night on the town. 

Last Friday was such a night. Earlier that week Dan, Melinda and I were looking for someplace to go out to dinner and Dan found the website for Second Empire. One look at the menu and I was sold. ( I really advise you to check it out, its a beautiful thing. 

The restaurant itself is beyond fancy - old school style. Built in a historic house in downtown Raleigh, it really reminded me of places I used to go when we lived in Macon, very southern.  The staff was attentive and proper without making me feel like I didn't belong there, which can happen at the wrong kind of fancy place.  It's a rare thing for me to find a comfortably elegant place devoid of the kind of snobbery that is designed to elevate the status of a place when the food alone won't cut it. 

Second Empire doesn't need faux snobbery.  They could serve their food on sheets of bark underneath a tree and it would still be fine dining. I ordered truffle risotto as a first course, it was the special, and found it to be so earthy and rich, I had to stop myself from licking the bowl.  For an entree I ordered grouper. Now I love grouper and order it whenever I can so I was expecting a lot out of less than 6 ounces of fish. 

It was perfect. 

Not sort of perfect,  not perfect for that meal on that day, this was a meal I would eat anytime, anywhere any day.   

Now Second Empire is not an every day kind of place. It's expensive.  It's close to a three hour meal.  It's heaven. Go as soon as you can. Spoil yourself. 

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Long Distance Cravings

It's been a rough week. The kind where I barely remember what I did much less what I ate. It's not the idea situation for me, moving through each day frantically finishing each task as efficiently as I can, eliminating distractions and breaking to eat meals on auto-pilot in order to get back to work as fast as possible.  

But its over now, or rather, its over for now and I finally have some time to sit and reflect on the few great meals I had this week. 

I started this week with wicked pizza craving (thanks to an episode of Man Vs Food) so when Wes, Dan and I ended up at Babymoon Cafe I jumped at the chance to try their Chicago style Deep Dish pizza.  Before I go into detail about the perfection of their pizza, a few words about Babymoon in general.  It's a humble-looking no frills Italian place with a small staff and a very visible kitchen.  They were packed when we arrived, so we sat outside in their very charming heated patio. Which was, despite the chilly wind, the perfect temperature. 

And not for the food, the simplicity of the decor only highlights the caliber of dishes on the menu. From sophisticated pasta to grilled sandwiches, everything looked good Were it not for my craving I probably would have been more adventurous in my ordering and gone for a spicy pasta dish.

Which brings us back to pizza. The problem with a food craving is if its not satisfied, it grows. And the only thing worse that trying to ignore a food craving is trying to subdue it with an imitation. So, when I started dreaming about deep dish pizza while living in North Carolina I figured I would have to start learning to cook it on my own. 

Then came Babymoon.  

The last time I has pizza this good was when a dear friend send us some actual made in Chicago pizza packed in dry ice.  Babymoon's version was a cheesy, spicy delight. It was everything I wanted. The only problem was by the time I had stuffed myself with salad, a couple of stuffed mushrooms and a couple slices of pizza, trying out their desert selections wasn't an option. 

Oh well, guess that means I'll have to go back for seconds.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Tasu Asian Bistro

Lately I've been feeling a bit bored of Asian restaurants. It's not the quality of the food, the places we go are all excellent. It's the sameness of it all. Same rolls, same decor, it all starts to blend together after a bit.  So, when Melinda and Rich wanted to go to Tasu, a brand new Asian bistro in Briar Creek, I was less than thrilled. 

Walking in the lobby  I was afraid that my worst fears were confirmed. The decor screamed cliche' and bar we waited in was poorly run to say the least. But it was their first month of operation and there were a few wrinkles.  

Once we were seated and I had a chance to peruse the menu I was thrilled to see some things I hadn't seen on the menu. I ordered my old standby - chirashi with a pickled plum roll. The chirashi did not disappoint. It was loaded with huge slices of salmon and white tuna, shrimp, crab, clam and other fish I've forgotten about.  The highlight however was the two slices of omelette tucked into the side of the dish.   

The picked plum roll was an unexpected delight. The combination of  sweet cucumber paired with sour plum was so fantastic and refreshing.  I was hooked after the first bite.  

Just from a culinary perspective there's  lot to like about Tasu.  The rolls are interesting, with some great flavor combinations and the rest of the menu looks really solid.  But what made the night special was the newness of it all. The awkwardness of the staff only improved the experience and it felt like we were figuring it out together. 

I encourage you to go to Tasu before they become they well-oiled perfectly run restaurant they are destined to be. Enjoy the growing pains knowing that all too soon the human touch will be replaced by the ever churning restaurant machine. 

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Happy Ordering

It's getting harder to find great places to write about. I've been out a couple of times this past week, once to a rather standard mexican place, nothing really worth writing about there, although is someone out there does know about a mexican place worth talking about please let me know. Then on Friday night I went with Rich, Melinda and Dan to  the Edwards Mill Bar and Grill for some tasty, if not exactly world-shattering, bar food.  

Although the rib-eye sandwich I ordered was delicious and huge, I was much more interested in my friends selections, Rich ordered chicken parmesan, Melinda ordered the chicken tenders and Dan got sweet and sour pork.  The interesting thing about the dishes was the difference in size. Compared to Rich and Melinda's chicken and my enormous sandwich Dan's sweet and sour pork plate was tiny.  He liked the dish, but I could tell that there was a bit of dismay at the appetizer-like size.  My meal was big enough to share so no one went hungry but it got me thinking. Every other dish we saw in the restaurant had overly generous portions, but it was all bar food, was the size of the dish relative to the comfort of the chef cooking it? After all it was a bit of an anomaly compared to the burgers, wings and fried goodies. 

I love to see a cook take risks, and I think it's great that the menu at a place like the Edwards Mill grill could expand and grow, but I'm always going to order bar food at a bar.  Limiting maybe, but it is a good way to make sure I'm getting the best meal possible. 

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Vin Rouge

I'm a little behind on the blogging, having been sidelined by a bad cold which has killed my taste buds. The cold itself is annoying but not being able to taste is just demoralizing. 

So the last place I visited was a charming French bistro in Durham called Vin Rouge with Rich Melinda and Dan. It's not a big place and it filled up quickly, which also meant it got very loud quickly. This wasn't exactly a bad thing, the four of us are occasionally not fit for public appearances.  Rich was at one point concerned we wouldn't be asked back, but since our rather stoned-looking waiter vanished halfway through our meal, there were no witnesses to our antics. 

And now for the food. We started with a dish of truffle macaroni and cheese. It was fantastic, creamy and earthy at the same time. I love truffles and I was afraid that the cheese would overpower them, but it was such a great combination.  I could have easily finished the entire dish, except for the whole sharing with the table thing. 

For dinner I got a braised duck leg over potatoes with cheese and vegetables. The leg was fantastic, perfectly cooked. The potatoes however were more cheese than potato and almost too rich for me. The vegetables, mostly carrots and onions managed to retain all of their flavor and texture despite swimming in the cheese/potato mixture.  

For dessert I ordered the chocolate torte and was treated to a rich, dense and moist cake. It was a prefect dessert although probably a poor choice after the rich starter and the heavy duck. 

Melinda, Dan and Rich seemed pretty happy with their choices. Rich got a cassoulet, Melinda ordered pork and Dan got steak au poivre. The steak was excellent, not overpowered by the spices and the pound of fries it came with were crispy, salty and addictive.  

Dan and Melinda got the apple bread pudding for desert and Rich ordered chocolate mousse. The consensus on the pudding was that it was good, but there were a lot of flavors going on. The mousse seemed to make Rich very very happy. 

So it was a successful dinner from a culinary standpoint, but emotionally? It was a nice place and no one threw us out.  I had a good time, but there weren't any "to die for" moments.  So it's kind of an odd situation. Although I liked the place, I'm not sure if it hit that chord.

The best restaurants are the ones that feel so comfortable in some way. The ones you can see yourself returning too, night after night to either experience the same dish or see what new creations the chef has placed on the menu. Vin Rouge is clearly that place for a great many people in Durham, and I have to admit, I'm envious of them. It's a sophisticated place with the kind of decor that says "I don't have to try hard, I just am." Well, I have to try hard and I always feel like in places like that everything that's awkward and goofy about me screams "I don't belong here". 

I'd like to be the kind of person who is at home in the classiest places and the greasiest diners. I'm working on it. Really.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Smokey's BBQ Shack

There is something about the words "roadside" and shack that really make my mouth water. Perhaps it's because they are usually associated with the best of all words "BBQ".  I've made no secret of the fact that I'm a fan of BBQ ribs but honestly I'll take any BBQ.  Shredded pork, wings, brisket, chicken you name it, and if you serve it in plastic baskets with giant bottles of unlabeled sauce next to a roll of paper towels on the table, I'm pretty much sold.  Of course the added bonus is if you do it all in a shack that looks like a strong breeze could do significant structural damage while maintaining the integrity of the meat. 

So today I found myself at Smokey's BBQ Shack. The building was small and looked mostly homemade, but it wasn't exactly a shack. Wes, Dan and I  drove farther than usual slogged through the muddy parking lot and waited in line for what I can only describe as brain-meltingly good ribs and shredded pork smothered with sauce from a mysterious red bottle.  The ribs were falling off the bone and had the great flavor combination of spice, meat and wood smoke.  The smoke makes all the difference. 

The shredded pork was equally flavorful although it did pale in comparison to the ribs. But really, what wouldn't?  It did have the advantage of being cooked dry, allowing me to drown it in as much sauce as I wanted, which is as it turns out a fair amount of sauce. 

The sides were ok, I got fried okra and baked beans. The okra was a little flavorless, but ok. The baked beans were really interesting though. Rather than the standard beans and bacon it was a melange of different kinds of beans and onions.  It was nice to see something different, sadly, I didn't love it. Maybe it's because of the lima beans but most likely it was just that meat overpowered everything else. 

It's got to be difficult trying to scrape together side dishes at a BBQ joint. You have to have them, but no one is actually there for them. Why would they?  I mean I guess it's possible that a BBQ joint could make collard greens compelling enough to compete with brisket, but it seems incredibly unlikely. So do they serve them so we don't feel bad about eating massive quantities of meat? or is it that the BBQ experience just isn't complete without the little paper baskets of fried or boiled veggies.  

I think for me it's the guilt. I would never go to a restaurant and just order protein. Even if I have no intention of eating the vegetables they must be on the plate.  It's sort of shocking how much guilt rules what I order.  I spend countless hours looking up nutritional info on places I like to eat, picking out the best menu combinations or at least the ones that make me feel best about myself.  I bargain, rationalize and compromise all to feel ever so slightly better about myself at the end of the day.  Until I started this blog I never really though about how much I enjoyed eating out. (Of course since this blog is the ultimate rationalization, that might explain my sudden surge in guilt-free meals. ) 

Hopefully as I cut back on junky meals I'll be able to enjoy the times I do eat out more. 

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Breaking The Chain

For me the horror of the corporate chain restaurant is only eclipsed by the horror of encountering the corporate chain Italian restaurant. I love Italian food, when its not a mass produced pile of limp noodles, overcooked protein and runny reheated sauce served in dishes that closely resemble troughs.  These chain restaurant strips  away the individuality of the chef and presents a false impression of an entire country worth of cuisine.  Of course, you can say the same thing for any chain restaurant, Chinese, Mexican, French, whatever, but for some reason the Italian ones seem to offend me the most. 

So today when I found myself planning to visit Brio, the new "Tuscan grille" by Crabtree Valley Mall, I was looking forward to ripping into them and writing my first really negative blog.  I was quite surprised that there were quite a few things I actually liked about Brio. 

Upon entry the leading chain assaults you musically with That's Amore and other Americanized Italian classics.  I don't remember the music at Brio, which is a good thing. I've been in too many restaurants where the atmosphere was carefully designed to distract from the food.  Brio has a nicely neutral palate with the most noticeable thing being the smell of the brick oven. It's a comforting campfire type of smell and it certainly helped put me as ease. 

Following my rules I ordered the fish special, grouper with a lemon butter sauce served with sauteed veggies and potatoes. For a starter I got the soup of the day - tomato bisque. Dan tried the crab cakes with a lobster bisque. 

When the soups arrived I was pleasantly surprised to see that it was a reasonable cup of soup, rather than the bucket I had been conditioned to expect.  It was creamy and tangy at the same time, rich and satisfying.  The lobster was equally creamy with chunks of lobster and a nice spice on the end of it.  Lunch was off to a good start. 

The grouper arrived shortly after and once again it was a nice filet. The perfect size for the preparation of the dish. The sauce was drizzled lightly over it with most of the plate being occupied by the sauteed vegetables. The fish flaked easily and was complimented, but not overpowered by the sauce.  The vegetables however, slid back into chain territory. Bland, oily and flavorless they did little other than look pretty.   

The fish was good enough to encourage me to check out dessert. I was delighted to see their presentation, tiny espresso cups filled with creme brulees, chocolate cake, cheesecake and other tiny treats. I ordered the chocolate, Dan got brown sugar brulee and neither one of us was disappointed. The brulee had a nice subtle brown sugar carmel finish and the cake really gave the feeling of eating fine truffles. 

So can a chain ever overcome their bland mass-produced nature? They are, after all, designed to offer the same quality at every location, individuality  be dammed!  Brio almost overcame it's chain roots by bucking tradition and serving meals small enough to be cooked properly giving the feeling of individual service, but was ultimately done in by ignoring the details. Vegetables are not a garnish and deserve to be treated as well as the entree! 

Also an odd note - we ordered peach iced tea and were rather surprised to see it delivered to the table in plastic bottles.  Not cool. This isn't a cheap place and tea isn't hard to make. Grow up and brew your own!