Sunday, July 29, 2007

A Summer Escape: Crabs in St. Michael's, Maryland

The main street in the town of St. Michael's

Though DC has everything a person could want, sometimes, one just needs to get away. And lucky for us, there are several great destinations within a few hours drive of the city. This weekend it was St. Michael's on the Eastern Shore of Maryland that I visited. A quaint little town full of cute shops, cozy bed and breakfasts, and simple but elegant, eateries, it is a very peaceful place--perfect for a brief escape from the frenzy of the city. St. Michael's is described in the official tourist brochure as:

[A] diminutive well-preserved vintage port, whose origins date from the birth of the colonies, is nestled between the loping Miles River on the north and the vast vistas of Michener's Broad Creek to the south. a collage of handsome churches, manicured colonial, federal and Victorian homes, historic heritage, diverse artistic talents and pleasant southern culture. It is also the proud cradle and repository of the Chesapeake's maritime history.

The Chesapeake is also famous for its crabs. So, when I got the invite for an impromptu jaunt down to Gooseneck Farm (a friend's estate-like vacation property overlooking a cove off the bay), I jumped at the chance. The weekend was full of relaxed and lazy fun, complete with cute and affectionate water-bottle-stealing-labs, AMAZING Maryland crabs (see description below), midnight boating, and lounging by the pool. It was rough having to "slum" it in the pool house--really tough as you can tell.

The "slummy" pool house

So...the crabs. Yeah, nothing is more summertime than dumping a bushel of crabs on a newspaper-lined (or in this case, our host's Post-It easle board paper-lined) picnic table. And the fun casualness of going at it with some mallets and your fingers--with nothing more than fresh corn (from the property, I believe), a baguette, and the ripest, reddest tomatoes as accompaniment--was so relaxing and fun. No pretentions. No worries. Just fun.

Everything was just plucked. The crabs were heavily seasoned and steamed in Old Bay. We went to town and picked up the bushel from the funny little deli/market called Big Als (where you can get wine, crabs, and bait). We even made more seasoning of a mixture of white vinegar guessed it...more Old Bay. So good. The sliced tomatoes and boiled corn required absolutely nothing given the main focus of the crabs, which were really sweet and delicate beyond the spicyness. It was a perfect evening there by the pool under the full moon. There were a couple torchiers, a candle on the table and plenty of Chardonnay and crazy talk.

...with one of the crabs...ugly but delicious.

Afterwards, we went for a midnight cruise along the bay on the host's boat, dodging oyster lines and boueys in the dark. The labs came too. And so we idled somewhere out in the water for a time...laying back, staring at the moon and the stars. The dogs were at my feet, quietly nuzzling.

View of the cove from the main house

In the morning we lazed around the pool a while...reading our pseudo intellectual tripe including Freakonomics and Marcus Aureleaus. Special, huh? What's even more special was Casey, one of the labs, stealing my water bottle as I was "engrossed" in my book:

Casey, helping herself to some Propel water

This is the only way to spend summertime: quiet and lazy days full of nice people, a couple of cute pups, some crabs, and a boat...

Thursday, July 19, 2007

A Case For Tort Reform and Some Korean Food

You've heard about this--the ridiculous case of the $54 million lawsuit over some missing (but eventually recovered) pants. The good news is that justice prevailed and the ruling was in favor of the defendents: these poor, hardworking small business owners. After two years of stress (both emotional and financial), they will get their court costs paid by the claimant,

this clown (Roy Pearson, left):

However, the legal fees that the Chungs incurred, which may (but most likely will not) be paid by Pearson--who is awaiting (an equally unlikely) reappointment as an administrative law judge--are significant. Come show your support for the Chungs (i.e. help them with their hefty legal bills) and attend a cocktail fundraiser on their behalf at the US Chamber of Commerce (see details by clicking on banner above). If you can't make it, at least support another Korean-owned small business: Mandu restaurant on 18th.

Try the bibimbap and bulgogi (rice-and-vegetable medley and the barbecued beef). Yum.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

What Washington Eats Wednesdays: Al Gore

Chilean sea bass has become a very popular fish amongst restauranteurs and diners. It's super delicious with its thick, fluffy, tender flesh. Also known as Patagonian toothfish (not so appetizing a name), it's apparently one of the world's most threatened fish species. Illegal poaching and over-fishing has jeopardized the remaining stock.

So...the last person you would think to eat this endangered seafood is Mr. Environment, Al Gore. But that's just what he did at his daughter's wedding last week. Really, Al? Really? Eco-pocrisy!

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

On the street today...strawberries.

I noticed something unusual today: a woman holding a container of strawberries. No fancy packaging, no creamy extras, no shiny-icey whatever. Just strawberries. Usually it's some sort of over-priced, overly complex iced coffee beverage or some high energy super duper bang bang smoothey that I see in my fellow city-zens' hands. And perhaps this woman, with her modest snack of fruit, made me think of simpler (wiser) people.* (Okay, actually, first the phrase "free to be you and me" came to mind because of her short, spiked hair and teenaged-boy-cum-lesbian saggy jeans--but I digress.) Then I wondered for a moment why we Washingtonians/Americans are so complex and removed from good sense, so forced by convenience or fashion that we require so much processing and adornment. I realized at that moment, that it was rare to see something so unadulterated as fresh fruit as a portable snack--that this was progressive woman. And by progressive, I mean weird...and smarter than me. So I ate the melted bite-sized Snickers that was in my purse.

*Fresh fruit is the snack of choice in southeast Asia. On a vacation there, I remember being awed by the walking street vendors who carried baskets full of fresh fruit that they rigged onto the ends of long bamboo canes to sell to (mostly) locals for just pennies.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Divey, But Authentic: Malaysia Kopitiam

I was walking to work one morning when I noticed a woman holding a to-go cup of coffee from...McDonald's. It read "Premium Roast Coffee" in a fashionably brown ersatz earth-friendly cup. The juxtaposition of the quintessentially down-market McD's and anything near "premium" was amusing.

Premiumization is the new black. It's everywhere. Upscale has gone down-market. I'm not sure how I feel about this. Is it truly premium? What does that mean? Exclusive? Rare? Exceptional? I say true premium is outstanding quality, not a fad. It has to be great and true. And I'm not sure those things can be mass produced. Can they? Now I'm not saying that McD's new fancy coffee isn't good, but there's something manufactured about the whole thing. Perhaps the image; I don't know. I guess what I'm saying (and perhaps stating the obvious in the process) is that premium isn't an image. Indeed, sometimes, real quality might come in the form of a gritty, divey restaurant with ripped vinyl benches and amazing food (such is the case of Malaysia Kopitiam).

Anyway, I want authenticity, dammit! And I got it at Malaysia Kopitiam. On M street a couple doors down from the venerable "gentleman's" club, Camelot, you'll find a dark and dingy little restaurant that's always packed. It's one of the handful of Malyasian restaurants in the city. Ironically, just a door or so away sits the much more glamorous, and much less edible, Panang (which is, I would argue, premium in the McDonald's sense of the word).

Malaysian Kopitiam is quaint in its awkwardness. Everything from the sullen visage of the mama boss in native dress to our server forgetting to give us rice were all forgiveable for the amazing food. The super extensive menu was displayed in two ways: one was a long laminated sheet with names and descriptions; the other was a three ring binder full of pictures of the dishes. Now that's pretty awesome! Malaysian food is a very curious blend of what seems to be Thai (spicey entrees), Chinese (non-spicey entrees), and Indian (roti bread dishes), so the pictures really did help.

We started off with a very interesting sort of rice-based tamale wrapped in banana leaves. Rembah Udang is basically sticky rice stuffed with spicy minced chicken and shrimp paste and grilled in a banana leaf (you aren't supposed to eat the leaf). Unwrapped, the little green present revealed some spicey goodness with surprising flavors that were very enjoyable. Then we tried the pork Roti (Indian Bread) "wrap". The sliced pork was marinated in tamarind sauce topped with lettuce and abundant fresh, sweet onion, all nestled in a folded roti loaf. Delightful. It was slightly sweet, the meat tender, and the roti soft and chewy.

We shared entrees of (awesome) Assam Shrimp Sambal (quintessentially Malaysian, apparently) and spicey tamarind squid. Sambal, the base for the shrimp, is basically a spicey condiment paste made of hot peppers of different varieties . It was indeed spicey, but not overwhelmingly so. The shrimp was large and fresh, and the roughly cut green bell peppers, onions and tomatoes remained crisp and flavorful despite the slow cooked taste of the stew-like sauce.

The squid dish was equally nice, though the squid was a bit tough. The long cylinders of the scored seafood were chewy and a bit overdone. But the playful salty-sweet tamarind sauce filled with okra and pineapple compensated for it. Yum!

The best balance for all this spice was, of course, some cold beer. Singha we chose. So good. I want to go back and try everything on the menu. This stuff is good, and according to my Singaporean/Malaysian contacts, this is as good as it gets--the real deal. Premium=as good as it gets (no matter the image).

Friday, July 13, 2007

Great Customer Care at Petit Plats

Had a light dinner at Petit Plats the other night. I wanted to try one of their many moules frites dishes (mussles and fries). Went with the moules provencal (tomato, garlic, and herbs)--more on that disaster in a minute. But also had to try the smoked trout salad and sauteed calamari appetizer.

First came the bread: a warm and fabulous baguette. Totally good. Chewy outside, soft on the inside. I rarely rave about the bread anywhere, but this was notable. They bake it fresh in-house.

Then came the smoked trout. It was sliced in strips, sat on top of some greens, fennel, and grapefruit. Really good. Nice balance. The calamari wasn't as nice. It was sliced into rings, over cooked and rubbery. The garlic and white wine sauce was oily.

Finally, the large bowl of mussels came. They were exceptionally dry, most were dead (closed), and the few opened ones were so small...there was nothing edible. We sent them back. This was a test of service. The manager came back and apologized profusely--clearly embarrassed. He insisted that he had a reputation for good mussels and he wanted to assure us that this was an anomoly, a bad batch. He had to throw the whole evening's batch out after he had the chef look at them more closely. So he took the mussels off our bill and insisted on dessert on the house. It was a fabulous tarte tatin. Lightly sweetened crust and apples with great caramel glaze, and a really nice vanilla ice cream.

This gesture, although small, was outstanding in its sincerity and I appreciated his focus on good customer care. Indeed "petit plats" refers to a french gesture of hospitality...and they most definitely showed it.

Petit Plats is a good little french bistro. Has plenty of classic selections, is nicely priced, and has great outdoor seating. It's a simple place and some of the food is hit or miss, but the service is great. I'll go again.
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