Introduction and Initiation

13 10 2008

Hello, and welcome to Moviefone.  Okay, not really.  What’s this blog really about?  It’s about whatever I want it to be, but mostly it will be about food.  For me, food is life and life is food.  Food is central.  Food is vital.  Take the etymology of the word vital (from the Latin vita, meaning “life”) and you may see what I’m getting at.  The importance of food, however, goes beyond sustenance or its role as a substrate for exothermic reactions.  It is about Life with a capital “L.”  It’s more “Life Magazine” than Biology 101.  It’s more about Billy Joel’s “My Life” or Roberto Benigni’s “Life is Beautiful” than it is about fuel.

 

Eating is universally a social event.  Many people won’t go out to eat alone.  I’m sure that some anthropologist has studied this type of communal eating behavior and attempted to divine the purpose of it all.  I’m sure that animal behaviorists have watched prides of lions (lionesses?) hunting various larger beasts and subsequently devouring their unfortunate prey within a defensive perimeter.  I’m sure researchers have tried to figure out why we seem to eat within a social context by studying our leonine cousins.  Whatever the reasons, it is one of the rituals of life.  We eat with friends.  We eat with families.  We eat with other people for company.  We talk about how the food was at a wedding reception.  We eat with potential mates.  Some of us (myself included) try to get to know a person by what she orders and how she orders it.  I’m assessing our compatibility here.  Eating is a mating ritual whether one realizes it or not, whether one is on a date or at a party.  Isn’t mating central to life?  Isn’t good company and a great meal a wonderful way to spend an evening?  Aren’t these moments some of our best experiences in life?

 

I recently had an extremely pleasurable evening with good friends and fantastic food.  We’re talking about some of my best friends in the entire world.  We’re talking about one of the most amazing meals I have ever had in my life—whether at a domestic venue in the United States, or one abroad.  That priceless (read: expensive) experience is what inspired this blog more than anything else.  Reflections on that meal at Ken Oringer’s superlative Clio in Boston reawakened the impulse to blog.  Of course, television programs like “Top Chef” or “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations” fed the impulse its breakfast.  Currently, I live in a metropolitan area that is not known as a great destination for culinary tourism.  When I find good food in this Motor City (or elsewhere), I am, as Mr. Bourdain states in his show’s introduction, “hungry for more.”  This blog is about my quest for “more” and my enjoyment (or displeasure) on the journey of discovery.   This blog is about life’s centerpieces: the meals we eat.





Michael Ruhlman’s Blog

11 01 2010

Okay.  Now, here’s what a real food blog looks like.

http://blog.ruhlman.com/





Amy’s Bread, Hell’s Kitchen, New York, NY

10 01 2010

As far as Amy’s Bread is concerned, I was one of the uninitiated until recently.  In Manhattan for a conference at the Marriott Marquis a few blocks away from the original Hell’s Kitchen location of Amy’s Bread, I stumbled on to this wonderful little place while trying to warm my bones with some coffee before a lunch reservation around the corner at Sushi of Gari 46.  Amy’s Bread is located on 9th Avenue between 46th and 47th Streets.  For me, it was a lucky find.  A friend of mine keeps telling me to go to Serendipity, because she loves the desserts there.  So far, I have resisted that suggestion, because I have other gastronomic priorities.  Moreover, I prefer finding my own serendipitous experiences like this one, because I know my gastronomic priorities better than she.

I got to Sushi of Gari 46 a bit early for my noon lunch reservation.  I had about thirty minutes to kill.  It was a blustery, frigid day in Manhattan that Friday.  I looked around for a place–a place that wasn’t a Starbucks or a Dunkin’ Donuts– to have coffee or tea to warm my bones.  I walked west toward 9th Ave. along 46th.  I looked uptown.  I looked downtown.  I metaphorically flipped a coin and walked uptown.  Then, I found the inviting storefront of Amy’s Bread and their similarly inviting chalkboard out front.

The Hell's Kitchen location of Amy's Bread

I initially passed Amy’s Bread and walked further uptown to see what other options were nearby, but I fully planned to come back to Amy’s Bread if nothing else seemed as promising.  As expected, nothing did.  Then, I turned around and headed to Amy’s Bread.  I saw on the chalkboard an invitation to passersby.  The lovely people at Amy’s Bread were warmly inviting us in for a little soup or a cup of coffee to warm our bones on that painfully cold day in Manhattan.  I took them up on their kind offer.  How could I refuse when they put it like that?

I entered to find the store packed, presumably with locals who frequent the place.  One look at the bounty of baked goods is enough to explain.  A couple of display cases show off their wonderful pastries, breads, cupcakes, cakes, cookies, scones, and sandwiches.  On top of one of their display cases is an impressive array of little sandwiches on their artisanal bread.  Too many to list here, a visit to the online menu of Amy’s Bread will show a great variety of sandwiches that belies the tiny size of this New York-small store.  As I had lunch reservations, I could only choose a little tiny sandwich to try while I drank my coffee.  I thought a little baguette and cheese would do as an appetizer before going around the corner for an omakase at Sushi of Gari 46.  I chose the Mini Brie Sandwich.

The Mini Brie. For Mini Me?

Amy’s Bread describes the Mini Brie as being done on a baguettine roll with tomato and a light vinaigrette.  Admittedly, I was a bit disappointed that the Mini Brie wasn’t a mini-something else.  Brie is fine, but I think that there could have been something more fun.  In any case, cheese and tomato just works.  So did this sandwich, especially with that light vinaigrette, I assume.  I say that because there was a little something there beyond just bread, tomato, and brie.  I only notice in retrospect that it was there.  The roll was soft.  It was firm, a bit chewy, but it wasn’t uncomfortably so.  It was just firm enough to  be an appropriate vessel or handle for the brie and tomato slices.

My coffee was served in a paper cup.  They asked me if I would like to have some cream in it.  I asked for half-and-half.  I sweetened it myself with a bit of Splenda.  It was just the thing non-corporate-chain I was looking for to warm my bones.  The sandwich and the coffee were a wonderful, unexpected prelude to a wonderful meal at Sushi of Gari 46.  Serendipity indeed.

If I lived in the area, I could see myself seeking out Amy’s Bread on a fairly regular basis for a coffee and a little sandwich.  I’m sure that the next time I’m at the Marriott Marquis for a conference, I’ll be visiting Amy’s Bread for more coffee and little sandwiches.  It’s a surprising little find around the corner from the tourist trap Restaurant Row where the seemingly most notable place is Sushi of Gari 46.  If you’re in the area, give Amy’s Bread a try.  Skip the Starbucks.  Support the little, local guy–or girl.  http://www.amysbread.com/





No Meat, No Greet: Eric Ripert, Le Bernardin, New York, NY

10 01 2010

A year-end conversation on Yelp Detroit centered around people’s best food experiences of 2009.  I joined the conversation naming the Chef’s Tasting Menu at Le Bernardin with wine pairing as my favorite food experience in 2009.  I wondered if that wasn’t too much of a cop-out, picking a restaurant that has held on to four New York Times stars for nearly 15 years and three Michelin stars for a similar amount of time.  Was it too much of a cop-out to pick a restaurant that is a Zagat favorite?  (Incidentally, I ate at a table adjacent to the table of Tim and Nina Zagat back in December 2008.)  Was it too much of a cop-out to pick a restaurant whose executive chef is a winner of multiple James Beard Foundation Awards?  Was it too much of a cop-out to pick a restaurant whose sommelier Aldo Sohm was named Best Sommelier in the World in May 2008?  Was it too much to pick a restaurant whose pastry chef also won a James Beard Award for Outstanding Pastry Chef in 2007?  Should I have found something more obscure?  Should I have found something abroad?  Opinions are like the pucker where the sun doesn’t shine, I suppose.  They asked me for my opinion.  I gave it.  I stand by it.

Sure, I’ve had better meals from a social perspective—meals eaten with certain female dining companions.  (If any of you readers think I’m referring to you, yes, my dear.  Yes, I am.)  Let’s face it this blog’s title is Food=Life, and the social aspect is part of the enjoyment of food.  That social aspect was missing here.  For my late summer/early autumn visit in  2008, I did that lunch with a very dear friend and old flame.  That experience was one of those great social experiences that exemplify the food = life connection.  In December 2008, I had the opportunity to experience Le Bernardin’s Chef’s Tasting Menu with wine pairing.  I did that alone, because I couldn’t imagine that anyone else I knew was nearly as committed as I to such an investment of time and money.  I had a window of opportunity that night, and I took it.  I did something similar in December 2009.  I realized that I could squeeze in a lunch at Le Bernardin on December 15, 2009, before I had to jump on a plane from LGA to DTW.  I went for it.  It was such a last minute thing, that I didn’t even have a table.  I arrived about 20 minutes before they opened and “camped out” for a seat at the bar.  It reminded me of some experiences back in college camping out for concert tickets.  Thankfully, I didn’t feel nearly as stupid camping out for a Le Bernardin lunch.

Why am I so nuts about the food at Le Bernardin?  The simplest explanation is that I think it’s so damn good.  I’m not alone in singing Le Bernardin’s praises.  Reportedly, Zagat’s rates Le Bernardin highly.  So, all those people who contributed to that rating must agree.  The Michelin guide seems to agree (but that’s controversial, I suppose).  The New York Times has agreed with me.  The place is still every bit as packed as I first experienced it back in late summer/early fall 2008.  I have never eaten at a meal that has given me so many moments of sheer astonishment at the quality of the experience as my meals at Le Bernardin.  I never expect how good it’s going to be except for the dishes I already know and have eaten.  It has been said that we eat first with our eyes.  I would agree.  Next, I eat with my nose, smelling the food.  Then, I eat with my mouth.  I think I usually can tell what I think the food is going to taste like before I ever put it in my mouth.  Le Bernardin has exceeded my expectations every time I have eaten there.  This has been true from my first bite of bread with their salmon rillettes back in the late summer/early fall of 2008.  Since that lunch, I have been back to Le Bernardin two more times on two separate trips to New York.  I fully intend to return to Le Bernardin.  Eric Ripert and his crew continue to surprise me.  I ate at another New York Michelin 3-Star the night before, Jean Georges.  I had their tasting menu consisting of their signature dishes.  I was not nearly as impressed with that meal as I was with this Le Bernardin lunch.  A chef friend of mine—a veteran of Michelin starred (two- and three-stars) kitchens in France—called Le Bernardin the best restaurant in New York City.  As far as haute cuisine is concerned, I might have to agree, but I’ll reserve judgment.  I’d like to experience both Per Se and Daniel before I make such a statement, but I strongly suspect that I will agree with my chef friend.  I do, however, have to proclaim Le Bernardin to be my favorite restaurant in the United States.  Unfortunately, I cannot find any of the pictures I took of the food from my most recent visit.  I’ve seen other people’s pictures of the same dishes on the internet, and a web search for the dishes listed online at the Le Bernardin website should bring them up for the reader.

The build-up to this visit started when I ate with a friend at Sushi of Gari 46 in November 2009.  We were there for dinner after a Sunday afternoon matinee of Hamlet, starring Jude Law.  We did tourist stuff walking around that night—a picture here, a picture there.  We were coming east, and we were a few blocks from Le Bernardin.  So, I asked my friend if we could stop there for a book.  I wanted to get a copy of Eric Ripert’s On the Line.  Unfortunately, Le Bernardin was closed.  On my December 2009 trip to Manhattan, I was having dinner that Saturday night at Insieme around the corner from Le Bernardin.  Somewhat disappointed with Insieme (itself a current Michelin one-star), I went around the corner to Le Bernardin to wash away the disappointment by just being there.

Disappointment dissipated pretty quickly.  I figured it would be a good opportunity to get myself a copy of the book I wanted.  I informed the hostess that I was just going to the bar to buy a copy of the book.  I was greeted by the bartender who noticed me looking at their merchandise.  Included in their humble display was a DVD set of Eric Ripert’s PBS series “Avec Eric.”  Their 3-disc set included Chef Eric’s first season of the show and a bonus footage of some web-only shorts that he had done revolving cooking with a toaster oven, “Get Toasted.”  I just knew I had to pick it up.  The bartender recommended highly the DVD set.  As Honda used to run commercials proclaiming their vehicles as cars that sell themselves, this DVD set sold itself to me.  I would have bought it even if the bartender hadn’t said a word.  I feel vindicated, because for some reason, the PBS station that has just started airing the show here in my area is broadcasting it with some horrible picture quality.  I can’t fathom why it’s like that.  I also picked up Eric Ripert’s A Return to Cooking.  I asked if they had signed copies of those items.  The bartender told me that he could have Chef Eric sign them.  He disappeared for a few minutes after asking me to write my name on a piece of paper for Chef Eric.  My books and DVDs came back autographed.  Then, the bartender asked me if I would like to have a picture with Chef Eric.  I said yes.  He told me that he didn’t just do this for everyone, and he told me to follow him into the kitchen.  Unfortunately, Chef Eric had stepped out.  It turns out we just missed him, but there I was in the kitchen of Le Bernardin.  It was like being in the recording studio where your favorite artist is working.  For me, that would have been like standing in the middle of Studio A at Avatar Studios, which is only a few blocks from Le Bernardin, with Dream Theater’s gear all around me.  I thanked my new friend, and he introduced himself as Rick.  I told him I would be back.  Little did I know that I would be back three days later for lunch.  The following Monday, I asked the Le Bernardin host if there were any cancellations for a table at lunch on Tuesday.  The host advised me that I could come in anytime and get a seat at the bar if I couldn’t get a table.  He told me it was first-come, first-served.  Par for the course, I thought.  So, I made up my mind to come back Tuesday afternoon for lunch.

That Tuesday, I arrived at Le Bernardin with suitcase in tow to find the revolving front door locked.  I looked at the time on my phone, and I saw that I was earlier than I anticipated I would be.  I still had about twenty-some minutes until the doors would open at noon for lunch.  I sat on the cold stone benches built-in to the side of the building.  I tried to kill time surfing the internet on my phone, but that was a long twenty-some minutes.  I wrestled with the process of getting my suitcase and hand-carry through the revolving door at around 12:05.  After checking my things, I informed the host stand personnel that I was there for lunch at the bar.

Once at the bar, I took one look at the menu to see if my chosen meal was available at lunchtime.  For better or worse, it was.  It sure was a lot of food and drink for lunch.  Undeterred by any thought of moderation and decency, however, I erred on the side of gluttony, ordering the Chef’s Tasting Menu with wine pairing.  I could have had a three-course prix-fixe lunch.  I could have also had the seven-course Le Bernardin tasting menu, but the thing that really appealed to me was the Chef’s Tasting Menu and its eight courses.  I had to make a little show of it, though.  I had to make it look like I had to think about it.  So, I started off with a glass of bubbles, and I pretended to peruse the menu for five minutes or so.  As I sat there on my tan, leather-clad barstool, I munched on some of the salmon rillettes on the little pieces of holey baguette toasts.  Then, I ordered.  I think I put on the show just to buy time for me to have a glass of bubbles and eat that wonderful salmon rillettes.  On his show Avec Eric, Eric Ripert shows the world how he makes the salmon rillettes.  I found out the key.  He poaches some salmon.  Then, he mixes it with smoked salmon.  He mixes it all together, adds some chives et voila!  I felt almost like I had some small insight into the magic.  The magician showed me how he did his little card trick.

Soon, it was time for the real show to begin.  As if the lights went down and a curtain went up to suddenly reveal a performer on stage, one of the sommelier’s staff came to me with her first lines.  She attempted to instruct me about the wine she was about to pour.  I wonder how wine people learn anything sometimes.  They’ve got to take notes or not drink the wine.  I would forget anything I was told around the time of tasting a wine.  So, as you might expect, I know—and can tell you—little about what she told me about this, but I thought it was an impeccable pair for the first course.  She served me a Muscadet, “Clos des Briords”, Pepiere, Loire 2008.  Apparently, the wine is from the western Loire, and, therefore, it comes from near the ocean.  That tidbit made sense to me.  Wine from near the sea for seafood?  Yes.  Definitely, I can understand that.  The wine is made “Sur Lie,” which apparently means that they age the wine in contact with the dead yeast cells which lie as sediment at the bottom of a tank after primary fermentation.  This process supposedly results in protecting the wine from oxidation and allowing for more complexity of flavor.  I can say that it was certainly unlike any of the few Muscadets that I have ever had.  The details are fuzzy—thanks to the time that has gone by or, more likely, the memory blurring effect of ethanol.  I do remember it having more mineral, perhaps salty, flavor.  After I received my first course, the genius of Aldo Sohm’s wine program again revealed itself with another revelatory light blast of perfection.  The first course was a smoked yellowfin tuna that had been cured like prosciutto, served with pickled Japanese vegetables, roe, and crispy kombu kelp.  As I ate the dish, the subtle saltiness from the curing, the saltiness of the roe just went so perfectly with the Muscadet, which in retrospect, makes a lot of sense.  Muscadet is often thought of as a great wine for oysters, which may be briny.  So, the saltiness of the food could stand in for the brine, making this wine a perfect pair with its acid and almost salty character.

The second wine that I was served was a Krug Grande Cuvée.  I had never had it before.  I remember it as crisp and powerful in its character with a fine texture.  Some have described it as having notes of toast, grapefruit, ripe apple and coffee.  Somehow, those thoughts make perfect sense when you consider my second course.  Fans of Eggs Benedict, this is something you have got to see and eat.  Egg-Caviar consisted of a poached pastured egg, Osetra caviar, Mariniere broth, and some sliced English Muffin pieces.  Honestly, I don’t know how they do it.  The Mariniere broth tasted like the lightest of Hollandaise sauces.  The egg, I imagine, was poached in an immersion circulator.  It had to have been.  It was so perfectly done.  The whole thing tasted like Eggs Benedict.  With my Krug Grande Cuvée, I felt like I was eating brunch.  I was taken aback.  I couldn’t believe what I was experiencing.  My eyes opened wide as I recoiled in astonishment and pleasure.  Then, I dove back in for more.  You can bet I used up my English Muffin pieces to clean up the bowl.

The third pairing was one of the two courses that I was anticipating most eagerly.  They started me off with a Gewurtztraminer, Cantina Tramin, Alto Adige 2007.  Apparently, this is a wine from northern region of Italy, bordering the Austrian states of Tyrol and Salzburg.  If one is from the Italian-speaking population, one would call the place Alto Adige.  If one is from the German-speaking population, one would prefer the name Südtirol, South Tyrol.  I suppose if you know wine, you probably knew all of that.  This wine had some great fruity notes with peach, ginger.  Some characterize it as having some lime, which makes sense when you consider the dish.  The Langoustine was lightly grilled, with mache, wild mushroom salad, shaved foie gras, and a white balsamic vinaigrette.  To me, that sounds like a dish that needs some acid and some sweetness.  That’s exactly what I got in this beautiful pair.  I have been hankering for langoustine.  I never imagined that it would come with a bonus piece of foie gras on top.  Of course, the langoustine itself was sweet and tender, perfectly cooked.  This was one of many examples of what Eric Ripert and Aldo Sohm’s feeling that the wine and food should complement each other synergistically.  The pair was truly better together, making the whole experience greater than the sum of its parts.

Honestly, for this pairing, I don’t remember much about the wine and how it impacted the experience.  All I can tell you is that it all worked perfectly.  I received a Chassagne Montrachet, 1er Cru Chenovettes, Bernard Moreau 2006.  The star of this pairing was the pan-roasted monkfish with hon shimeji mushrooms, turnip-ginger emulsion, and sake broth.  The plate came first.  Then, if I recall correctly, the turnip-ginger emulsion was poured around the fish.  Lastly, the sake-miso broth was poured.  What instantly came to mind was a pan-fried fish dish in a Chinese restaurant.  There was a nice seasoned crust to the monkfish, vaguely alluding to the crisp outside of a pan-fried fish.  Usually, I’m not a fan of fusion, but hey…this one worked beautifully.  I kept thinking that Eric Ripert outdid the Chinese at their own game.  Strangely, he did it with some Japanese ingredients.  I suppose it was all in the spice mix on the monkfish.

Next, I received a Rioja.  Specifically, Rioja, Reserve “Vina Ardanza”, La Rioja Alta, Spain 2000.  This, to me, signaled that the crispy black bass with braised celery; Iberico-ham, green peppercorn sauce; and parsnip custard was coming.  This dish, which I love, has been featured on Top Chef New York.  One of the contestants was tasked with making it.  I think it was Jamie or someone else who just couldn’t get into the flavors involved.  Honestly, when I first had this dish over a year ago, I felt like Eric Ripert was reading my mind making something out of Iberico Ham.  When I first had this dish, the Rioja surprised me.  When the Iberico Ham sauce was introduced and poured, it suddenly all made complete sense.  It still does, and I still love it.  For me, even though it was only the second time I had eaten the dish, I think I might have been happier to eat something new, because all these new dishes were so brilliant.  I helped sell the guy sitting a couple stools to my right on this pairing while I was eating the monkfish.  The woman who served me my wine was still there telling the guy about the Rioja/bass pairing.  She gave me a quick smile and poured me an extra ounce of my wine as she was talking to him.  I’m not sure if she was trying to subtly shut me up or thank me.

A Chateau Haut-Bages Averous, Pauillac Bordeaux 2001 heralded the arrival of the last savory course.  I’ve seen people describe this wine as having ripe fruit notes, speficially blackberry.  It wasn’t overly tannic.  It was well-balanced, and it was a perfect complement to the last savory course.  Baked lobster came on a bed of truffled foie gras stuffing with a red wine-brandy reduction.  Nothing short of remarkable, it was kind of the culinary expression of the philosophy of more is better.  I don’t mean with respect to quantity.  It was as if Eric Ripert was trying to blow me a way with a bunch of culinary treats, and he just kept piling them on.  Lobster, foie gras, truffles?  What else do you want?  Chocolate?  It was kind of like a very sophisticated child’s way of looking at making a dish: just keep adding the good stuff!  The red wine and the red wine reduction countered the richness of the lobster and foie very well.  Of course, the execution of this dish and all the rest of the savory courses was exemplary.  It makes one wonder why fish ever gets overcooked anywhere in the world, and it’s often done on purpose.  Here, great care is taken to never overcook the fish.  So much care is taken that sometimes they hardly cook it at all.  Thank goodness for Eric Ripert and Le Bernardin.

Dessert started with Torrontes Sparkling-Deseado, Familia Schroeder, Patagonia Argentina.  The fruity and flowery notes seemed to go well with the creamy goat cheese spheres with Concord grape, candied walnuts, and black pepper.  The wine really picked up the Concord grape flavors very well, accentuating them beautifully.  Following that course, they brought me a Ron Zacapa Rum from Guatemala.  The dish was a caramelized corn custard with hazelnut praline, brown butter ice cream, and popcorn tuile.  The desserts, while very nice, weren’t outstanding to me.  The first dish seemed to me to be a play on a cheese plate.  It made sense in that regard.  I certainly enjoyed the cheese flavor as well as the red fruit flavor of the Concord grape.  The last course seemed to me to be more like a geometry project.  There wasn’t really anything memorable for me about the flavors.  The popcorn tuile, for me, seemed to be an exercise in pure technique.  I’m not sure I understand the point of the dessert.  Is it a play on  buttered popcorn?  I’m not sure.  I don’t really understand the trend to use popcorn so much these days.  At Ken Oringer’s Clio, one of the courses on their tasting menu during the summer of 2008 was a variety of flavored popcorns.  The cheese-flavored popcorn was a huge mess with the white cheese powder getting all over my napkin and the tablecloth.  Similarly, the porcini powder on the popcorn served as a snack at The Modern was a big mess as well.  Jean Georges bar also served flavored popcorn.  While it wasn’t nearly the mess that was Ken Oringer’s popcorn or Gabriel Kreuther’s at The Modern, still, that’s a lot of places doing popcorn.  Now that it seems to be a trendy item to use, I think that’s enough of a reason for places like these to stop.

While I didn’t meet Eric Ripert on this visit to New York, I imagine I will on some future visit.  Chef Eric was visiting tables as I was eating my lunch.  One day, when I get back there, I’ll thank him for all the great meals that I’ve had in his restaurant.  Le Bernardin still stands as my favorite restaurant in the United States.





Meat and Greet: Polonia Restaurant, Hamtramck, MI

10 01 2010

Ah…here we go.  I’ve finally made it to the recently immortalized-on-the-small screen Polonia.  Polonia plays up the fact that Anthony Bourdain has visited by discreetly displaying his face in a small picture on their menu.  Of course, their website features his now-famous mug as well with links to YouTube clips of segments featuring their place.  Are they overdoing it?  I don’t know.  Who really cares anyway?  They’re proud, and they should be.

Through a strange, serendipitous synchronicity, I drove up in the VW with Hendrix’s “Gypsy Eyes” playing off the hard drive.  The soundtrack was appropriate.  The propulsive drums and bass; the almost hyperkinetic, R&B, clean rhythm guitar of Hendrix himself; and the scenery seemed to go together like an unexpected wine and food pairing like Rioja and crispy black bass or lobster and a red Bordeaux.  The apparent decay of the surrounding neighborhood with the Hendrix’s urban 1960′s musical sensibility worked perfectly.   The area seemed trapped in a bygone era architecturally.  The few clues to modernity were cars, fashions, and satellite dishes.  The neighborhood could have played the role in a period piece if it weren’t for those occasional clues.  My friend stated that the place also reminded him of Philadelphia.  Maybe, a film crew could make it double for a 1960′s Philadelphia by removing the satellite dishes, modern cars, and modern clothes.

As another reviewer has stated, there is a public lot next to Polonia where we parked.  At the entrances to the lot, there are some fancy, new-fangled machines where you can prepay for your parking.  The one we passed by wasn’t working.  I saw no evidence in other cars that anyone had used the machine.  It seemed that no one put money in the meters either.  So, I parked at a meter that had some two hours on it.  Of course, that was broken too; it had the same amount of time on it when I got in the car to leave.  Yes, the Detroit decay radiated over to my parking meter in Hamtramck.

The interior of Polonia

My friend James and I started off with some service with a smile as our waitress greeted us enthusiastically.  She then happily led us to our booth.  Having Filipino blood must include having  pork-loving gene somewhere on one of those chromosomes.  I was immediately drawn to the Smalec Zi Skwareczkami, which is apparently a famous Polish bread spread featuring lard, bacon, fried onion, and spices.  I thought there was some garlic in there too.  I highly recommend it if you have a death wish–a death wish which includes dying of a heart attack from eating tasty food which modern medicine would deem to be inconsistent with eating for longevity.  Don’t hesitate to season with some salt and pepper to bring out the flavor a little.  It’s much better that way.  After all, we put salted butter on bread and olive oil, salt, and pepper on bread.  It’s the same idea.  My friend made the observation that it kind of made the Smalec into a lardo when I did that.  Mmmm…lardo.  The last time I had that was at Del Posto in the Chelsea/Meatpacking District of Manhattan.  I know.  It’s fat.  It’s probably going to be considered pretty disgusting to some, but I appreciate it.  I love the fact that it’s about hungry people not wasting anything from an animal.  It shows respect.  It shows a history of love–a peasant’s love for one’s cold, poor, hungry children.  As Bourdain points out repeatedly, some of the great culinary and gastronomic experiences are brought about by deprivation and the creativity required to turn the awful (or is it offal?) into something edible and satisfying for one’s family.  That’s what I see in the Smalec.  That’s what I see in Filipino Kare-Kare (made with oxtails and tripe), Sisig (made from the meat and cartilage from a pig’s face), Bopis (made from the lung of I don’t know what), Tsitsaron Bulaklak (made from pork omentum), the infamous Balut (fertilized duck eggs), Dinuguan (made with pigs blood and pork), and so many other great Filipino dishes.  A dear female friend has repeatedly reneged on offers to cook for me, because she thinks I’m a food snob.  She’s intimidated.  She thinks I won’t like what she’ll put on my plate.  I say to her that I come from a culture of peasant food.  Sure, I love baked lobster from Le Bernardin, and I have high standards.  But, you know, my family comes from humble roots.  We eat humble food, but it’s food made with love and an earnest desire to please.  If that’s what my friend puts on my plate, I’ll eat it with a smile and with a dose of love returned.  I tell her that she needn’t have worried.

Lipitor, Omega-3, red wine...you're going to need them all for the Smalec.

James and I both ordered the marvelous dill pickle soup.  If that sounds strange to you, let me assure you, it’s grand.  Think cream of potato with some pickles involved.  It may sound odd, but it makes sense in any case.  Rich food needs acid, and that’s where the pickles come in.  Pair the soup with a rich, meaty sandwich, and you’ve got something–not that this soup isn’t wonderful by itself.  My friend and I agreed it was very good.

Small Dill Pickle Soup. Marvelous.

For my entrée, I ordered the Polish Combination Plate, which had stuffed cabbage with tomato sauce, sausage, 2 pierogies, mashed potatoes with brown gravy, and kraut.  I thought that the stuffed cabbage was excellent.  My friend James, who being from Wisconsin knows some things about Polish food, assures me that it was a good example of one.  The sausage was probably the tastiest example of a Polish sausage that I have ever eaten.  All those familiar spices were there.  It’s what I imagine a homemade Polish sausage to be. The kraut was amazing.  I am guessing that this is the spiritual source for that NY/NJ thing for putting sautéed onions in that red sauce and sauerkraut on a hot dog, because that is what it was like—only better.  It’s like the homemade version—not the hotdog cart version.  The pierogies were good, but they’re really about being a starch source, it seems.  Again, it’s that peasant thing of trying to fill bellies in the most economical but creative way possible–something borne out of a grandmother’s or a mother’s love.  I see that in the potato noodles as well.  They remind me of potato dumplings or gnocchi.

Polish Combination Plate. Sorry. I took a bite out of my pierogie.

Overall, I had a wonderful experience at Polonia.  I’m sure I will return.  I’m sure my doctor will advise me to stay away from the Smalec, but she’s Filipino too.  So, maybe, I can’t count on that.  I washed all of that great food down with a pint of Okocim Porter, which was indispensable in allowing me to make it through the rich meal.  I’m definitely a fan of Polonia, but bring your appetite.  You’re going to need it.

One may have to view my following comments as those of an outsider here.  I feel like I can taste the history of the Midwest in a dish like this Polish Combination Plate.  In truth, I am a transplant to the Detroit area.  I’m not of this earth.  I was born, and probably conceived in Manhattan.  I’ve lived in SoCal and NorCal.  I’ve lived in Asia.  I just landed here by quirk of employment.  So, my comments are very much the thoughts of an outsider observing his new surroundings.  What I see in this Polish combo is one story in the history of the development of regional tastes.  It’s a large portion of food.  It’s hearty.  It’s meaty.  It’s filling.  I think that’s something people would associate with Midwesterners’ tastes.  Paul Kahan said as much when discussing the concept behind the things he does with his food.  Also, I’m told it’s an accurate view into Polish food, as my friend knew it from his Polish neighbors in Wisconsin.  So, it’s a Polish immigrant story too.  It’s an inescapable truth that food history IS history.





Dinner Tonight: Rookie Romertopf Chicken

3 07 2009
There’s a reason the professionals can charge a premium for their services.
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The food in this picture is not it.  Above is my rookie attempt at roasting a chicken.  It should be pretty obvious from the content of this blog that I have no training whatsoever in cooking.  What little knowledge I have is haphazardly learned from books, TV, the internet, and friends.  As with any kind of learning, one has to take the obtained information with a grain of salt.  No, I’m not attempting to make some kind of cooking pun.
What started this roast chicken endeavor?  Simply, I love roasted chicken, and I’d love to learn how to make a good one.  I know people who do make good ones.  They are professionals who deserve to be paid for their cooking skills.  I’m like the guy who plays guitar at home, trying to learn how to play like his heroes by listening, looking at books, etc.  I’m doing the culinary version, I suppose.  I’m not after a practical goal like putting dinner on the table for the family.  I’m chasing a perfect roast chicken.  Perhaps, I’ll never have the chops to pull it off, but I’d like to be able to make something that will satisfy me.
How did I make the chicken pictured above?  Believe it, or not.  This has been a process that has been going on for months.  I was inspired by a local restaurant, whose roast chicken is impeccable.  I’d love to be able to emulate that recipe one day.  So, this journey started several months ago when I fell in love with that dish.  Since then, I’ve longed to be able to make chicken like that.  I took the advice of a friend who suggested I try a clay roasting pot (Thanks, Michelle!).  A few months ago, another friend gave me Romertopf clay roasting pot she found at a thrift shop after she heard me talking about using it to make some chicken. (Thanks, Colleen!)  Last night, I decided to get of my butt and try to make some chicken.  I took some inspiration from some cookbooks and YouTube videos.
First, I brined the chicken.  For the brine, I used a cup of David’s sea salt, a gallon of water, some ginger syrup (I had no sugar, and I forgot to buy some.), some Tellicherry black peppercorns, and a splash of Zingerman’s 16 year-old balsamic vinegar.  I think I could have used more salt or brined the chicken longer.  The breast ultimately needed more flavor.  I don’t see how some more pepper and vinegar could hurt either.
While the chicken sat in the brine, I chopped my carrots; half a Spanish onion; and some fresh basil, rosemary, and thyme (about a tbsp. each).  Also, I zested half a lemon.  Simultaneously, I let  125g of Life in Provence  unsalted butter sit at room temperature to soften.  After chopping all that plant life, I mixed the lemon zest and herbs with my butter.  Then, I seasoned the herb butter with some sea salt and pepper.  I eventually let the chicken sit in the brine for about two hours.  I probably should have let the chicken sit there longer.
After I felt I was done brining the chicken, I went to town with the herb butter.  I spread it under the skin, making sure to get some on the thighs and legs.  I also left a good dollop of the herb butter sitting under the skin on both breasts.  I stuffed the chicken cavity with both halves of my lemon (one zested, on un-zested) and the other half of the onion.  It looked like the chicken was going to be good.  When I was ready to try to cook the chicken, I immersed my unglazed clay pot in water for 15 minutes.  Then, I layered some onions and mushrooms at the bottom of the pot.  I placed some carrots along the edges of the pot.
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Next, I followed Romertopf’s directions for electric ovens.  I placed the clay pot into the middle of a cold oven.  Then, I set the oven to 450 degrees F.  I cooked for 85 minutes.  I did not open either the oven or the pot.
Then, I took the veggies and chicken out of the pot.  I poured the juices into a saucepan for gravy-making.  I returned my chicken to the bottom of the pot.    Then, I put the pot back into the oven (without the top) to brown and crisp the skin, which was a little more blistered than I expected.  I wondered if I put too thick a layer of butter under the blisters.  While the chicken skin crisped up, I started my gravy.
I poured a cup of ruby port in with the juices.  I brought the mixture to a boil and reduced it by half.  Then, I whisked in a few tablespoons of butter.  After that, I strained out the remaining solids.  I probably should have been more aggressive with the reduction.  The gravy was a little too watery.  While I was working on this part, I took the chicken out of the oven when it looked brown.  I probably could have crisped the chicken up a little longer.  I just wanted to make sure I didn’t burn it.
How did it all taste?  The breast was somewhat underseasoned.  The chicken could have been crisper.  I could have had more veggies in there.  I would have had to have used a roaster pan for that.  The sauce could have been thicker, but the flavor was great.  I felt that the chicken certainly had enough herbs and butter involved.  It needed more salt.  I’m not completely happy with the texture of the breast.  It’s not quite moist enough.  It was a little too fibrous; I’m searching for smoother texture.  The mushrooms and carrots turned out great.  Overall, it wasn’t too bad for a rookie.




Dessert Tonight: Caramelized Peach Slices with Ginger Syrup and Vanilla Bean Ice Cream

1 07 2009

Caramelized Peach Slices, Ginger Syrup, Vanilla Bean Ice Cream

Lately, I’ve been thinking that I haven’t been eating enough fruit.  I think that somehow my body is telling me I need fruit.  I’ve been craving it.  I bought some peaches, a plum, and some strawberries this past weekend.  Honestly, I haven’t a clue how to eat a peach.  So, I caramelized the suckers.  I took some inspiration from Eric Ripert’s videos at his website (http://aveceric.com/).  In one video he caramelized some mango and basically did what I did here.  So, I’m cribbing from Eric Ripert, basically.

I followed basically what Chef Eric Ripert did by taking my fruit slices, basting them with butter, seasoning with brown sugar, and placing them on a buttered toaster-oven baking pan.  What I did differently, was that I took my peach slices and drizzled them with some Robert Lambert White Ginger Syrup.  There’s just something about peaches and ginger that seems to work.  Think of the Republic of Tea Ginger Peach tea.  The ginger seems to add a little spicy complexity to the whole thing.  I put the pan in the toaster oven and broiled for about 5 minutes.  The peel came off the slices easily in most cases.  Then, I plated the slices.  After that, I put a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream on top and drizzled the syrup left in the pan on the whole thing.

Some rum might have made it a lot more interesting.  Maybe, I could have added some more of the ginger syrup too.

Next up, I’m going to have to do something with all the cherries and other berries out there.  I’m probably going to try Chef Eric’s Raspberry Clafouti that’s found on his website.





Five-Course Degustation Menu, The Forest Grill, Birmingham, MI

20 06 2009

I have to say that one of the main reasons that I don’t update this blog much is that there isn’t really much material to write home about here in the Detroit Metro Area.  I’m sorry, but it’s true.  So, why am I writing now?  Honestly, one of the other main reasons that I don’t update very often is that I keep going back to the same well time and time again, The Forest Grill, Chef-Proprietor Brian Polcyn’s latest restaurant in the area.  Honestly, it’s my go-to place in the Metro Detroit Area to bring people for a meal that’s even remotely special.

In my last blog entry about the restaurant, I really didn’t give credit where credit is usually due.  I totally neglected to give credit to Executive Chef David Gilbert whose creativity and passion is a major part of what makes The Forest Grill such a great place.  His partner-in-crime Mario Plaza, GM and Sommelier, and he really make the place shine when it comes to both the food and wine.  So, apologies, David and Mario, for not having mentioned either of you so prominently in my last blog entry about The Forest Grill.

This latest dinner at The Forest Grill had me using the iPhone OS 3.0 voice recorder to pick up whatever I could of what David and Mario were telling us about the food and wine.  It’s all too much for a person like me with limited food and wine knowledge to absorb.  So, I tried to use some tools to help me out.  I found my tools hopelessly inadequate, though.  I’ve got a crappy iPhone 3G camera.  I’ve got the iPhone Voice Recorder.  That’s about all I had with me.  So, I told Mario that next time, I’m taking HD video!

First Course: Angnolotti with Corn Mash, Mascarpone foam, and God only knows what else.

The first course, pictured above, was, as best I can recall, was made with a Sweet Corn Mash with black truffles, Perigord truffles in the Ricotta Angolotti, and some Mascarpone foam.  One of the amazing things that David Gilbert is able to do is to take the limited ingredients that have been ordered for the menu and recombine them into something special for these degustation menus.  I’ve seen and eaten these Ricotta Angolotti many times.  I’ve had this Mascarpone foam again and again.  The truffles keep showing up as well.  They don’t always appear together with corn, however.  Chef Gilbert always manages to do something interesting with these old characters.  He always manages to put them into a great new situations.  Ingredients get recombined with dramatic effect. We’ve seen brothers Michael and Fredo interact in The Godfather.  It’s quite something else when Michael sends Fredo out onto a boat on Lake Tahoe to die.  It’s one thing to see Al Pacino and John Cazale playing their roles in the Godfather saga.  It’s something else to see them together in Dog Day Afternoon.  What has to be said about these novel combinations of ingredients from the Forest Grill’s pantry is that they’re great every time.  This time, the food was paired with another old favorite, the Dibon Demi-Sec Cava.  It was an impeccable pairing.

Seared Foie Gras and a Quick Bread.

The following course featured seared foie gras, a quick bread and some strawberries.  Honestly, I can’t tell you many more details.  What I can tell you is that it was paired impeccably with a gorgeous sweet, white wine that complemented the dish masterfully.  It was around this time in the meal that I began to give up on remembering what we were eating and drinking.  Pictures ceased to suffice.  I had to start recording audio.  If I recall correctly, we were served the Mas Amiel Muscat de Rivesaltes.  Nothing short of amazing!

Next, we had scallops two ways.

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We had Diver Scallops seared, finished with citrus powder, a tangerine reduction, fresh tangerine slices, and red radish.  A savory version was done as well.  A scallop was sliced and studded with Perigord black truffle and done en croute in puff pastry.  Truffle emulsion surrounded the puff pastry.  With the sweet version, a Riesling from New Zealand was served.  A great citrus note in the Riesling and the great acid made the wine a perfect pairing.  A Mawby Blanc de Blanc from Michigan’s Leelanau Peninsula accompanied the savory version.  The wine’s acid went perfectly with the scallop en croute with its hearty, earthy truffle emulsion.

Unfortunately,  I can’t seem to find a picture of the next course.  We had duck breast two ways.  One piece of breast was fabricated.  The skin was removed and made very thin.  The meat was wrapped in the skin as a ballotine and slowly seared.  Inside the ballotine was a Morel mushroom duxelle.  The other slice of duck breast was roasted.  Served with the duck were baby turnips, house-made pancetta, almond oil, and a port-wine reduction.  Served to our red wine-allergic friend was a Macon-Villages Chardonnay seasoned with earthy Thyme and Oak with great acidity to balance the rich duck.  An earthy 2005 Pinot Noir from the Cote du Beaune with red fruit notes was served to the rest of the party.  Was it magic?  As before, all the food and the paired wines were magic.

Intervening between dinner and our last course  was a small, complementary cheese plate.  We had some gruyere, cheddar (which seemed very much like an Irish cheddar), and some lovely parmesan.  This little plate was inspired by that great Pinot sitting in my glass.  Mario thought we needed some fromage to go with our remaining wine.  So, he thoughtfully brought some around.  Again, it was magic!

Chocolate Veloute

For dessert, a chocolate veloute came with some chocolate soup and some cinnamon gelato.  We were all amazed.  I had tried The Forest Grill’s chocolate veloute before.  This was somehow different.  If I’m not mistaken, this is the latest evolution of the chocolate veloute.  We still had the great molten chocolate veloute disc.  We still had the chocolate soup.  Maybe the cinnamon gelato made the difference.  Who knows?  It was magic.  It was insanely good.  For our red wine-allergic friend a Buller Muscat was served.  For the rest of us, a Late Harvest Zinfandel was the pairing.

This is just the latest episode out of many at The Forest Grill.  My dining companions believed that it was the best meal that they had ever had at The Forest Grill.  I have to count it as one of the best I have experienced as well.








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