Monday, October 22, 2007

What I did this Summer: Part 2, Bahamas

View of Paradise Island from the 19th floor at the Cove

I'd like to start off by saying that as far as Carribean islands are concerned, I think the Bahamas (specifically Paradise Island) is something that I will not return for--not because it's awful, just because it wasn't interesting despite the "decandence". We searched in vain for great local cuisine...and for good food in general. There were moments of clarity, but mostly it was overpriced schlock (what my companion called culinary rip-off)...even Jean-Georges' Dune Restaurant was a bit disappointing.

Anyhoo, we avoided the frightening masses of the primary Atlantis hotel (think the same craptastic guilded guido glam as the Venetian but with a water theme) by staying at the much more sedate (and tasteful) Cove on the same resort property. I was happy and given a lot of hope with my first bite after getting off my flight Thursday night at the Seaglass, the sleek, stylish, and quiet bar. (If you want throbbing, colorful and inappropriately-cladded, go to Aura in the casino at, of course, the Atlantis.) I had a wonderful snack of a very fully-packed crab cake with mint pesto, some sort of micro greens and a Ferrari Carrano Fume Blanc. Very tasty. Good experience despite our very talkative bartender. (Note: The service on the island, generally is very friendly, but slow, leisurely and a bit forgetful. And everyone will hit you up for an extra tip even though it's automatically calculated in the bill.)
The more sedate Cove Hotel on Paradise Island

We laid out by the very, very cool infinity pool most of the next day and had a light lunch of conch salad (a great medly of peppers, onions, garlic and lime juice--kind of like a spicy calamari ceviche) and a very fishy seafood roll. A little hit or miss.
That evening we went to Chez Willie's back on New Providence Island (across the bridge towards the rest of Nassau). It was, how do I say this, sheer awful. It was trying, struggling, floundering (no pun intended) towards high-end French. They served us a bready crab cake with boxed mashed potatoes, a relatively decent conch chowder (yes, more conch) that was ruined by the skin that developed for sitting under the heat lamp too long, and they even had a palette cleanser lime sorbet...which we were unfortunate to have found it accompanied by one curly hair and sticky spoons. The best part was the surf and turf...and when I say best, I mean the best display of culinary incompetence that I have seen in, well, ever. The "steak" was a thin sliver of what looked like breakfast beef. They had the audacity to ask how we wanted them cooked (medium rare is my preference). I laugh now, because it must have taken some effort to grill these slivers without cooking them through. The lobster tail was a shriveled, too salty, previously frozen piece of sadness. In fact, I was sad sitting in the moldy, old, place. I'll stop there. Don't go to Chez Willie, you appreciate the grand and inappropriate gestures (including letting the Jacobs Creek "breathe"), but it's all very awkward and sad and depressing.

The next evening, no matter what, we knew that we couldn't do as bad at Dune, one of the two Jean-Georges Vongerichten restaurants on the island. The place is beautiful, set in a Carribean colonial style house with dark stained wood floors, and Asian touches made the ambience alluring and romantic. The menu, similarly, had somewhat of the same flare. We had the sweet ginger sauced tuna tartare, with lucious strips of the tender raw fish resting in a nice pool of the sauce. I had a sweet pea soup. Nice, not spectacular, but definitely not bad. I had the duck as my main. It was okay...I guess the wilted greens were the best part, sauteed in rich butter and lightly seasoned, it was simple and nice. The duck was tender and prepared medium rare. Unfortunately, it was uncreative with the asian plum sauce. Dessert was a nice bread pudding with complimentary molten cake and chocolate covered strawberries. Cute. Like our experience in Vegas, it's a lot of good show, but the food itself was very average.

Dune Restaurant at The One and Only Hotel

Our last day there, we went into town and I wanted to try something local (but ultimately, it was just for tourists): conch fritters at Conch Fritters restaurant. The fried dough balls were pretty greasy and salty with bits of the chewy seafood. B truth be known, I love anything deep fried. So it was fine with me. We also tried the grilled grouper sandwich--"eh" at best.

Conch fritter at Conch Fritters

Sunday, October 21, 2007

What I did this summer: Part 1, Vegas

View of the Vegas strip from the balcony of the lounge at Mix, Mandalay Bay

Yeah, it's late in the game, but with the heavy rains and chilly weather (finally), I'm realizing that summer is finally over. My mind now wanders to warmer climes, to lazy sunny days and me in flip flops and sundresses. This is my ode d'ete and the first part of a n-part series (I know you're all holding your collective breaths).

Our mod pod table at Mix, at the top of The Hotel

Though I'm not a fan of Vegas, I do appreciate it coming into its own in recent years as a culinary destination. Several celebrity chefs including Alain Ducasse, Thomas Keller, and Todd English have outposts in the city, providing well-heeled alternatives to the ubiquitous (and banal) buffet extravaganzas. Went to Ducasse's, Mix, at the top of The Hotel, where we enjoyed ourselves in an atmospheric, thematic, heaven-hell restaurant. We got a table at a tricked out mod pod and had some (as expected) superb service. The food was good, not great, and definitely not as great as you'd expect for the price and the hype. But the overall experience was nice. I had a forgettable starter, and an average duck breast main. Though medium rare, it had little flavor, but was very tender and lean. Fun place, especially walking through the dark and deliciously dangerous "hell" lounge into the light and ethereal "heaven" dining room with bubble glass chandeliers and soaring ceiling. Oh, yeah, did I mention the amazing views of the city? A must go.

Soaring ceilings with crystal ball "cloud" chandeliers at Mix, at the top of The Hotel

Wine Tower at Aureole
Another night we went to Charlie Palmer's, Aureole. The main draw there is the 40-foot wine tower--complete with a pulley system that lifts "wine angels" to the upper reaches to fetch wine--that houses over 9,000 bottles of wine. A dream for any connoisseur of the grapes. Along with this dramatic wine cellar is the electronic pallet that is the wine list. Amazing. A few drop down menus, a tap of the stylus, and voila, you zip through the thousands long list. We had an awful, pretentious, and forgetful waiter--but mind you, the service at each table includes the main server, the bread guy, the water guy, the sommelier, and for us, the GM...since we had to complain about the negligent service. The food, again, was okay, but be prepared not to be wowed as you should be with a restaurant of this caliber (and price). But alas, it was the atmosphere that made up for it all. I had a boring goat cheese and mushroom tartine (i.e. crostini). Then had the roast rack of Colorado tender lamb stuffed Campari tomato, braised flageolet beans,Nicoise olives and Rosemary Jus. Actually quite tasty. I forget what I had for dessert. Because after the white wine with the appetizers, and bottle of red with our mains, I was done.

One morning I had brunch at Thomas Keller's Bouchon, a more accessible (than his venerable French Laundry) brasserie. Had a very fine Bloody Mary with my Croque Madame. Yum.

Dining room at Bouchon Restaurant, top of Venezia Tower, Venetian Hotel

So Vegas is great for food on a superficial level. You'll get spectacular atmosphere and ambience, and a good show of service at certain places (and you'll pay for it). But due to the mass production sort of quality of the town, truly personal service and attention to detail only come at a higher than average price. Fun times, though. And one other thing, it was hotter than hell this August.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

What-Washington-Eats-Wednesdays: Hillary Clinton

The place to see and be seen!! Hillary loves Cafe Milano and with good reason...she's amongst her peers (see below). And by peers I mean crooks, bald, middle-aged married men looking for side dishes (and I don't mean tomato basil gnocchi), members of the Persian mafia, and some "working girls". Here's what one reviewer had to say about this fine DC institution:

"[The] atmosphere mixed with the fashionable BP [that's beautiful people, to you and me] crowd of DC is Cafe Milano! Its an awesome place to go to see (Madonna, Al Gore, Michael Jordan,etc...) [she left out Hillary] and be seen.. It is always crowded [because that's what you want when dining] but a fun place to drink cosmo's good wine and most of the time great food. The wait staff is extremely busy on the weekends so bring lots of fun friends !!!"

Translation: If you're desperate to be seen, love rubbing elbows with posers and prefer to swill only the best "high end" and "klassy" fruity, sweetened, libations and are used to bad service and marginal Italian because you frequent the Big Slice in Adams, then go to Cafe Milano (cause it's about the art of the drink)!

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Nip Night: Soba Noodle Salad and Sesame Grilled Salmon

I don't like Japanese food, save for sushi and tempura. Otherewise, it can be a scary combo of bland and vomitous. But tonight, I decided to try a milquetoast version of a Japanese-inspired menu, including soba (buckwheat) noodle salad and sesame grilled terryaki salmon. First of all, as you may know, I think salmon is JV and I kind of have a like-hate relationship with it. But for a Tuesday night dinner, doctored up, it can be pretty fine. What made this dinner special was the layering of fresh ingredients. Instead of using store-bought, thick, gooey, corn-syrup terryaki, I combined a little brown sugar, ginger, garlic, and light soy. For the Soba noodles, similarly, I used light soy, sesame oil, garlic, and lime zest with ribbons of fresh herbs including (not so Japanese, but fragrant) basil , cilantro, and mint. There was a lot of chopping, including julienn-ing sweet red bell pepper and shredding of other vegetables. But the point is, despite all this chopping and assembling, the meal was quite simply fish and noodles. It came off well due in large part to the dressing and marinade. If you want an interesting flight of foreign fancy without (unlike the title of this entry) offending your mate/partner/spouse/dinner companion, try this--a far cry from fish sticks and Kraft mac and cheese:

Soba Noodle Salad (you can half this recipe, it serves 6):

4 ounces soba noodles, or whole-wheat spaghetti
1 large shallot, very thinly sliced
1 1/2 cups shredded carrot 1 red pepper, julienne
1/3 cup shredded fresh basil leaves
1/3 cup shredded fresh mint leaves
1 tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro leaves
1/4 cup rice vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon walnut oil (or canola oil)
1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
1 teaspoon finely minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon chili flakes
1/2 teaspoon lime zest
1 teaspoon lime juice
1/2 teaspoon fish sauce, or 1 teaspoon low-sodium soy sauce
6 large Bibb lettuce leaves
Boil noodles according to package directions. Drain and cool. In a medium to large bowl, combine noodles, shallot, carrot, pepper, basil, mint, and cilantro. Combine all dressing ingredients, season with salt to taste, add to noodle mixture, and toss lightly.
Snap off Bibb lettuce leaves and wash and dry. To serve, scoop spoonfuls of noodle salad into the lettuce leaves.

Sesame Terryaki Salmon:
1/4 cup low-sodium soy sauce
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons dry sherry
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
2 garlic cloves, crushed with a garlic press or minced
1 teaspoon finely grated fresh ginger
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 4-oz Salmon filet
2 teaspoons sesame seeds
Combine the soy sauce, sugar, sherry, vinegar, garlic, ginger and red pepper flakes and stir until the sugar dissolves. Transfer to a resealable plastic bag and add the salmon. Seal the bag and marinate the salmon in the refrigerator, turning once, for 1 hour. The salmon can be marinated for up to 4 hours.
Heat the broiler to high. Arrange the salmon on a broiler pan skin side down and broil until brown and crispy, 4 to 6 minutes. Flip the salmon and broil until almost cooked through, about 4 minutes longer. Sprinkle with sesame seeds and cook until the seeds turn golden brown or another minute longer.

*A light-bodied red, such as a pinot noir goes well with this meal. Try Abiouness from Carneros.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Loud but Proud Hook: Barton Seaver's Sustainable Fish Fantasy

Had dinner one bustling Saturday evening the other weekend at the months-old Hook in Georgetown. The one stand out was the noise level. With the arched ceiling and hard surfaces, it was a bit unnerving. But the food and service were great. The wine list is wonderful and pretty extensive. But we brought our own wine for a mere $20 a bottle corkage--the sommelier helped us decant and seemed very, very knowledgeable. Our waiter was a bit noviced, not bothering to explain the concept of sustainability of the fish on the menu, and was a little rude when we asked to switch tables after being elbowed a few times, yelling "Go ahead and move!" as he walked away. Again, the food made up for all that.

Had the crudo (raw, bite sized fish starter) of Wahoo with a bit of lemon and dill. Very fresh and almost effervescently light. The appetizer of baby beets was smart and married well with lightly charred greens, blue cheese, mint and orange. My dinner companion had the risotto cakes which were delicious, tender and chewy on the outside and moist and flavorful on the inside with a bit of garlic and onion. My main dish of mahi and tomato risotto was somewhat disappointing, as it was overly seasoned. (Someone likes the salt shaker in the back.) The tomato risotto was nice, but nothing to write home about. However, my companion's Wahu with bacon braised chicory and beans had the luscious flavors reminiscent of an old southern recipe, but there was something modern and complex about it. I like this restaurant. I like Barton Seaver's cooking (I love Saint Ex and Bar Pilar--even before he left and before I knew it was Seaver).

And with the relatively reasonable price point (most entrees in the twenties), it's a good way to savor sexy-chic without blowing your budget. Having, said that, you'll get a lot of the younger groups, especially on the weekends. So if you want a quiet dinner sans high fives and fist bumps, perhaps try it on a weeknight.

I'll go back. Hopefully next time they'll lay off the salt and get some rugs to keep the noise at bay.

P.S. For all you ladies, the open kitchen offers a generous view of the very high mise en place standard...along with Mr. Seaver's, eh hem, Sevens jeans.
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