Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Rice Cakes with Korean Red Dragon Sauce

Is there anything like finding a sauce that is both tasty and versatile? So far I've used it on a chicken saute and also (as pictured below) on rice cakes. Chef David Chang's recipe for roasted rice cakes, which includes also making ramen broth as well as roasted onions, was a little too involved for me to do on a weeknight. The Red Dragon Sauce as written below is very good, but I added a little more of the usukuchi to balance the salty and sweet to my liking.

Rice Cakes with Korean Red Dragon Sauce

Red Dragon Sauce
David Chang from Momofuku
  • ¼ cup of water
  • ½ cup of sugar
  • ¾ cup of ssämjang (fermented bean and chile sauce), or more to taste
  • 2 tablespoons usukuchi (light soy sauce), or more to taste
  • 1 teaspoon sherry vinegar, or more to taste
  • 1 teaspoon Asian sesame oil, or more to taste
Bring the water and sugar to a boil in a small saucepan, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Remove from the heat and let cool for a few minutes, then stir in the ssämjang to dissolve it. Stir in the soy, vinegar, and sesame and taste the sauce: no one flavor should stand out, but all should be present and accounted for. Adjust as necessary.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

To Review or not to Review

Cleveland has a couple of restaurants that have recently opened, Dante Buccuzzi's Dante last weekend and Zack Bruell's Chinato tonight. Much like the arrival of a newborn baby, everyone is anxious to see the latest addition to the Cleveland restaurant family.

As people scurry to see the "latest and greatest" that two of the more well known chefs in the city have to offer, there will inevitably be an avalanche of blog posts chronicling the ups and downs of the decor, the dinners, and the service. Opinions typically run the gamut from gushing to gruesome. For some diners there is a sense of realistic expectations for a newly opened establishment; while others are much less forgiving.

Is there much value in a review of a restaurant that has been open for two weeks, or less? I think it's fair to say that the only thing such a review is apt to reveal is how prepared management was for the grand opening. If there is a restaurateur out there that hasn't had these growing pains I'd like to know who it is. In the first few months there are numerous additions and subtractions in trying to strike the right balance in the entire staff.

I think reviews from patrons have very little value if they're on the extreme end of the critical scale, especially early on. If someone writes an absolutely gushing review, the expectations are going to be next to impossible for an establishment to meet. I've heard on a number of occasions where people say, "I went to such and such a place because people raved about it. I didn't think it was that good." In some cases maybe they might have had an off night. I, however, would argue that the food was fine, but the expectations were way out of line. Rave reviews should be reserved for places worth raving about.

The other end of the critical spectrum is the person that nitpicks at every little thing and ultimately brands the entire experience a monumental failure. An excessively negative review does nothing to educate prospective diners as to what they can expect. I have eaten at quite a few restaurants in my life and I think I count on one hand how many abysmal dining experiences I've had in my life. If such bad experiences are as commonplace as the one I've had, I can't help but to believe they will be in business for long.

The worst possible review is when a place is skewered during that period of time when they're still trying to iron out the kinks during the first few weeks. The chances are that this review will continue to get referenced well after all of the problems have been worked out. How fair is that?

When I read a post I want to know what the general vibe of the place is, what level of skill the food is at, where the good and bad places to sit are, and what some of the recommended dishes are. There was a point in time when I used to give the play-by-play of the entire meal, complete with pictures. Coming to the realization that this whole thing was turning into uninteresting and poorly photographed story that no one found all that interesting, I severely pruned the pictures and food descriptions. In the end I think painting a general picture of a restaurant's flavor is much more appealing (and useful).

How long are people supposed to wait before they're "allowed" to post on a restaurant? I don't think there's any set time period; just a different level of expectation dependent on how close you go relative to the place opening. Do I have the same expectation for the service after one week versus one month versus one year? If it takes forever to get food after a month then I think there's a problem. If there's still a problem with food coming out after a year, there's a good chance they're on the verge of failure, or on Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares. This information only becomes useful once it's put into the right context.

At the end of the day these are people's livelihoods. Extreme posts don't help anyone, be it gushing or ghastly. The ridiculously positive sets unattainable expectations for future diners. Extremely negative reviews never give the restaurant a chance to win prospective patrons over in the first place. I will actually add an update to a review from early in a restaurant's life if they've corrected a problem, like here. The important thing to remember is that long after our posts are up these businesses still have to deal with these words after we've forgotten about them.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Carolina Barbecue

This week I spent a few days down in Pinehurst, North Carolina. If you’re not familiar with that area, it’s about an hour south of Raleigh Durham. Like most of the South, the drive down to Pinehurst takes you on country highways that wind through seemingly never ending pine forests. Small houses dot the landscape, peering out from rusty tin roofs topped with clumps of pine needles.

I’ve made this trip four or five times now and I can tell you that with the exception of one restaurant (Elliot’s on Linden), the others have been at the very most ho hum. How can such a place be so mediocre? When I think of the South I think of good eatin’. Food I could get back in Cleveland was not how this was supposed to go down. It was time to take a more direct approach.

Over the weekend I did a search on “barbeque in Pinehurst, North Carolina”, two places were consistently mentioned – Pik N Pig in Carthage and Jackson Bros. BBQ in Sanford. I knew if I persuaded my coworker Robb to try a barbecue place and it sucked it would be the last time he agreed to barbecue the rest of the trip.

If Operation Pulled Pork was going to be successful, I knew that Pik N Pig was going to be the best shot I had. Robb has his pilot’s license, so I knew when I told him this place was at a small airport he would be willing to go.

The restaurant actually sits on a small airport reminiscent of the 80’s show “Wings”. Built out of what were the old Carthage Post Office and a building from Sandhills Community College, which were moved to the airport, Pik N Pig is sited just next to the runway.

They have things set up to where you can order a sandwich which comes with fries or you can get the dinner which comes with two sides and your choice of cornbread or roll. Robb got the spicy chicken sandwich and fries and said it was a pretty good balance of spice to where you weren’t gulping down water. I opted for the pulled pork dinner with baked beans, slaw, and cornbread. The pulled pork had a tender ropiness that was flecked with charred bits of the outer crust. The sauces come in the form of a sweet sauce that’s a more traditional thickness and a thinner more vinegary hot sauce. I give my vote to the sweet sauce. I thought the beans and the slaw weren’t anything to rave about, but the cornbread with jalapeno butter was a definite winner. With the sandwich platters going for $5 and the dinner platters going for a whopping $7, the food is a steal.

I told our friend at the bar about our lunch and he agreed that Pik N Pig is one of the best in the area. He told us that his other favorite place is Jackson Bros, (affirming what I had already heard) which he usually hits whenever he’s headed to or from Raleigh. We were warned that everything is “to go” so we’d have to eat it in our car.

After finishing up our work in the morning, we loaded up our equipment and headed to the Raleigh Durham airport. As we headed north through Sanford we actually passed Jackson Bros., not even realizing that the spartan little building was our destination. We doubled back around and headed to what looked like an old converted ice cream stand in the middle of a gravel parking lot. For whatever reason, Robb only ordered the Big Pulled Pork Sandwich with no sides ($3.50). I on the other hand, I got the sliced pork, which I could’ve ordered chipped, along with fries, slaw, and hush puppies ($7). Of the two places I think JB had better pulled pork. The fries were just typical frozen fries. I really liked the hush puppies; they looked like miniature corn dogs only there wasn’t a hot dog inside. I think it’s the first time I ever remember having hush puppies like these. I was absolutely stuffed after devouring the whole tray.

In the end I thought both places put out a good authentic product. Pik N Pig gets the nod for actual sit down dining experience, while Jackson Bros. wins best food. Should you be in the Pinehurst area you owe it to yourself to stop at both of these restaurants. While they are both certainly among the top values in the area, they are also your best shot at authentic eastern North Carolina BBQ in this neck of the woods.

Pik N Pig
194 Gilliam Mcconnell Rd
Carthage, NC 28327
(910) 947-7591

Pik N Pig on Urbanspoon

Jackson Bros. BBQ
2440 Jefferson Davis Hwy.
Sanford, NC 27332-7102
(919) 776-8887

Sunday, January 10, 2010

I'm a Proud Papa!

There are kitchen smells and then there are kitchen smells. When I say kitchen smell, I’m really talking about the odor that fills your house after the meal is long over. Cookie smell? Good. Sauce smell? Good. Meat smell (particularly pork and more specifically beef?) Bad.

There is something about a lingering grease smell after the dinner is long gone that I absolutely abhor. One way to mitigate that smell is to cook the meat out on a grill. Simple enough, right? Except I live in Cleveland where we are currently in what I like to call “The Shining” season. Continuously falling daily snow with the mercury dropping near ten degrees is hardly grilling weather. It’s enough to make you want to pull out the ax and chop down a door, yelling, “Here’s Johnny!”

What to do.

I’d been smitten with the Big Green Egg ever since my wife showed it to me about a year ago. I’ve looked at it on and off over the last six months hemming and hawing over whether it was worth the money.

If you’re not familiar with The Big Green Egg, let me give you a little background. BGE is what we have come to know as a kamado style cooker. The modern version is made of the same ceramic as the heat tiles on the space shuttle. The heat retention of the ceramic allows the grill to retain most of its heat and use the charcoal very efficiently; this ends up being a fairly big deal up in the Ohio winter because a lot of heat is lost to the cold weather with a metal grill. The high efficiency also allows you to smoke something at low temperatures for up to 20 hours without reloading with charcoal.

Open the windows and unplug the smoke detectors; Daddy’s about to sear some beef! I hate the smoke. I hate the smell inside my house (three hours afterward.) If I have a choice I’d rather grill it outside. The BGE is capable of temperatures between 700 and 800 degrees. With this grill I’m going to get a better result than I ever would indoors. The other cool thing is that the available 24” pizza stone allows you to achieve the high temps necessary for pizza without needing to hack the lock on your oven cleaning setting.

I had to have one of these, but I couldn’t get past the price. Regina and I decided to at least look at them to find out what the whole thing was going to cost. We went to Embers in Solon, where the salesman was extremely informative. There was no question that I was sold on the grill, but I just couldn’t get over the price of these things. It was one of those deals where they pretty much regulate the same price among all of the dealers. You weren’t going to troll on the internet for a cheaper price.

The only place in town that had an XL BGE was Northfield Fireplace. When we got there we saw every size BUT the XL. When we asked the salesman where the XL was, to our delight he told us that it was over in the other section of the store – in the closeout area. Like Ralphy on Christmas morning, it took all I had to contain my excitement. We walked through the door and there it was, in all its glory – a demo and marked down 50%!

The salesman started talking about all of the features on the grill while I sat there and feigned ignorance. He also threw in the plate setter (which acts like a diffuser), the pizza stone, a new grill rack, and the frame with wheels they call “The Nest” for a grand total of $750!

The Big Green Egg XL

Using the winnings from a poker tournament, I was now the proud papa of an XL Big Green Egg.

The first thing I made was a plum glazed pork shoulder recipe from John Besh’s cookbook. All I can say is that this thing fun as hell to use. It was ten degrees outside and I cooked the pork to perfection with very little trouble.

While I have to admit that I’m always intrigued by the latest technology, this two thousand year old kamado relative will probably be the coolest cooking thing I may ever buy. I can’t wait to explore all of the seemingly limitless possibilities The Big Green Egg has to offer.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Brown Butter Custard Pie with Cranberry Glaze

My obsession with Christina Tosi and her crazy ingredients continues. This pie crust is made with bread crusts combined with the butter and cinnamon taste which tastes just like cinnamon toast. I could easily grub on the crust alone. The brown butter custard is also unique in the sense that the brown butter is encapsulated in a gelatin floating in the filling. With every bite you get this intense little bursts of brown buttery goodness.

I made this in a glass pie pan and found that the crust needs to warm up a bit before it will easily pop out. When this crust is totally refrigerated it puts a death grip on the pan. I warmed it slightly over a low flame on the stove.

This particular recipe was in the recent November issue of Food + Wine. The printable version for the filling is here. The Cinnamon Toast Pie Crust, which I will definitely will be using for other pies, is located here.

Brown Butter Custard Pie with Cranberry Glaze
by Christina Tosi of Momofuku Milk Bar
  • 2 sticks unsalted butter
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 4 cups diced crusts and end pieces from 1 loaf of packaged white bread (10 ounces crusts)

  1. Preheat the oven to 325°. In a saucepan, melt the butter. Cook over moderate heat, stirring, until the butter is golden brown, about 8 minutes; strain into a glass measuring cup. Reserve the browned butter solids for the Brown Butter Custard Pie.
  2. Pour half of the melted butter into a bowl. Add the sugar, salt, cinnamon and bread, and toss. Spread the bread on a baking sheet and bake for 35 minutes, stirring once or twice, until golden. Let cool.
  3. Rewarm the remaining butter; pour into a food processor. Add the croutons and pulse to fine crumbs; spoon the crumbs into a 10-inch pie plate. Refrigerate for 5 minutes. Press the crumbs over the bottom and sides of the pie plate; refrigerate the crust until chilled, 15 minutes.

  • 2 teaspoons plain powdered gelatin
  • Reserved browned butter solids from Cinnamon Toast Crumb Crust
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 1/3 cup light brown sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
  • Kosher salt
  • 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons heavy cream
  • 1/4 cup sour cream
  • Cinnamon Toast Crumb Crust
  • 3 1/2 ounces white chocolate, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1/2 cup mashed sweet potatoes
  • 1 cup cranberry sauce, pureed and strained
  1. In a microwave-safe bowl, sprinkle the gelatin over 2 tablespoons of water and let stand until softened, 3 minutes. Microwave at high power for 10 seconds, until melted. In a microwave-safe measuring cup, microwave the reserved brown butter solids with the milk, sugar, 1/8 teaspoon of the cinnamon and a pinch of salt until warm. Whisk in the gelatin and refrigerate until set.
  2. In a bowl, whisk 3/4 cup of the heavy cream and sour cream to soft peaks. Whisk the custard to loosen it, then fold into the whipped cream. Pour the custard into the Cinnamon Toast Crumb Crust; refrigerate for 30 minutes.
  3. In a microwave-safe bowl, melt the white chocolate and butter. Add the mashed sweet potatoes, the remaining 2 tablespoons of heavy cream and 1/8 teaspoon of cinnamon and a pinch of salt; whisk until smooth. Transfer the sweet potato ganache to a pastry bag fitted with a 1/2-inch plain tip and refrigerate until chilled slightly, 15 minutes. Pipe 1-inch mounds around the edge of the pie. Refrigerate until the ganache is set, 10 minutes.
  4. Pour the cranberry puree over the pie and spread it evenly with the back of a spoon. Refrigerate until set, at least 30 minutes. Cut the pie into wedges and serve.
The pie can be refrigerated for up to 3 days.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Momofuku Noodle Bar

You can go for lunch in just about any city and feel a subtle anxiety beforehand over whether you’re going to be able to find a place to sit or not. You can then imagine the uncertainty we felt when we decided to attempt a lunch at Momofuku Noodle Bar on a Tuesday afternoon.

To say I had high expectations for Noodle Bar is an understatement. We had eaten at Momofuku Ssam Bar the night before (followed by a dessert stop at Milk Bar) and absolutely loved it. There was such energy in both places that it left me asking the question: Is this the Generation X/Y’s expression of haute cuisine? To say I was giddy with anticipation, as I strode up First avenue, is an understatement.

As we approached the understated front of the restaurant, I was relieved to not see a queue spilling out onto the sidewalk. It was noon and we were seated immediately (very happy.) The interior is very similar to that of Ssam in the sense that a bar runs the length of the left side of dining room with plywood tables and backless chairs down the right.

I’m not going to act like I looked at the menu for any longer than ten seconds. I knew what I was getting order before I walked into the place. Since Regina wanted to eat over at Rickshaw Dumpling afterward, she said she’d this lunch was all me. Anything that was ordered was mine. With that I ordered the chicken wings and the Momofuku Ramen.

The wings are an absolute monster. As with most things Momofuku, you’ve had something like these, but these are just a better version. Instead of being slathered in sauce these are layered with garlic, pickled chiles, and scallions. They’re crispy with a subtle bite of spice and the end. I could have sat at the table and eaten these damn things the whole time.

….then there’s the pork buns. The buns themselves have the look and feel of a light and fluffy omelet; only instead of egg it’s made from white bread (only they're white). These things are all about mouth feel. As you sink your teeth into the soft bun you find the hoisin and pork belly waiting for you inside – simple and deeeeeelicious.

Good 'till the last drop

You didn’t think I’d go to Momo Noodle Bar and not get ramen did you? I just went with the down and dirty Momofuku Ramen – pork belly, pork shoulder, poached egg, and (of course) ramen noodles. The proteins were great, but do you want to know what my favorite part was? The broth with the noodles made for a perfect ending to this little afternoon feast. All of the rich flavor that had leached out of the pork along with the silky yolk of the poached egg resulted in a delicious bowl of goodness that I will not soon forget.

This place is not to be missed.

Momofuku Noodle Bar
171 First Avenue
New York, NY 10003


Momofuku Noodle Bar on Urbanspoon