Month: July 2011

What’s Cooking, José Andrés?

In post 4th of July celebration of America, I found myself longing for more engagement in our country’s beautiful history. Now, I am no history buff (nonetheless do I even appreciate history), but when it comes to examining America’s history through food, count me in. In the newest addition to the National Archives, What’s Cooking Uncle Sam? depicts how the government has shaped the way citizens think about food. From food rationing to the food pyramid, antique catsup (no, not ketchup) labels to exquisite presidential dinner menus, the exhibit covers it all. I was so intrigued by all of the artifacts and history that, honestly, I could have stayed longer and kept learning. Unfortunately the exhibit is rather short, but that’s where José Andrés comes in.

America Eats Tavern, conveniently located just two blocks north of the archives, has replaced Andrés’ beloved Café Atlantico with a modern twist on a classic American restaurant. “America Eats offers a new take on American classics and celebrates native ingredients and some long forgotten dishes,” claims the home page, and boy, does it ever. From seven different preparations of oysters, to fried chicken and homemade catsup, to mock turtle soup and everything in between, the menu offers something for everyone wanting to learn a little bit about America’s culinary history. Rather than give descriptions of the food underneath their titles, the menu shares a tidbit of history, as to where the dish originated, why or how it was first prepared, or the changes it has gone through since then. They even offer classic american beverages and cocktails, such as phosphates, mint julep, and homemade punch, served appropriately in a mason jar.

When I first heard that this exhibit-restaurant duo would grace DC with its presence, I was ecstatic. I mean, I made a large effort to go the second weekend it was open, even though it will last through January. My friend, Rachael, was in town for the weekend and the unbearable heat was a perfect excuse to take the afternoon to browse through a museum and eat a delicious meal. Speaking of our meal…

We arrived to the restaurant and I was immediately taken aback. My first thought was, “I can’t believe this used to be Café Atlantico!” Full on transformation, like Extreme Makeover, Restaurant Edition. The architecture is very unique, as each level is rather small and skinny but there are various floors dispersed throughout the air. You can see the kitchen in its entirety as you walk up the stairs. I was “that girl” who stood and stared as the chefs and waiters juggled plates, pots, pans, bowls and, oh yeah, FOOD! The classic American artwork, trinkets and artifacts definitely set the right ambiance.

We were seated on one of the upper levels, right next to the oyster bar, which is the usual host of Andrés’ six-seat tasting menu “restaurant,” MiniBar. It was amusing to watch as one of the chefs shucked oysters and filled them into molded plastic bowls over ice (I don’t like oysters, so this ploy to tempt us into ordering them was not very successful).

While overlooking the menu, Rachael and I realized we had a large task at hand. First of all, the menu could easily take you 10 minutes to read through, because of all of the history that’s slipped in! Of course I wanted read why Eggs Benedict was first created for a diner, by the last name of Benedict, who simply “wanted something new for lunch”, and how lobster was originally eaten by slaves and used as a fertilizer! There was no rushing me in my menu reading. I felt bad for our waiter, who returned to our table at least three times only to learn that we hadn’t even considered what to order for dinner! He was, however, very respectful and very knowledgeable (as I would assume is part of the job description, since none of the menu items actually tell you what’s in them!).

Finally we made some decisions. The bread basket looked too good to pass up. Included is a whole wheat Parker House roll, walnut-honey bread, cornbread roll and buttermilk biscuit, served with blackberry butter. Each carbo-licious creation was more amusing than the next, and the blackberry butter went perfectly with all of them. My favorite, surprisingly, was the Parker House roll. At first glance this roll seems like an average wheat dinner roll, but it was both savory and sweet, light and starchy and really, just awesome. The blackberry butter looked to be a swirl of homemade butter and blackberry compote. It was rich without being too overpowering. I probably would have eaten it with a spoon had I been in the privacy of my own home. Moving on…

Since there were so many dishes on the menu we knew we wanted to try, Rachael and I decided to order two smaller plates and share a main course. We went for the shrimp remoulade and fried green tomatoes, vermicelli prepared like pudding, and the barbeque beef short ribs with ‘cold slaw.’ I honestly can’t decide which dish I liked best, they were all so delicious and so unique. The shrimp was perfectly cooked and well seasoned. Moist, succulent and a little spicy, they sat on top of a thick puddle of a tangy, spicy, creamy remoulade sauce. I have a place in my heart for fried green tomatoes ever since visiting Savannah, Georgia, and these babies did not disappoint. The crunchy exterior was, just that; crunchy, and the tomato was juicy and sweet.

Now for the vermicelli. You are probably wondering one of two things. Either you are wondering what the hell vermicelli is, or you are wondering how on earth these people prepare a noodle like pudding. Question number 1 was just answered for you. Question number 2 will be answered briefly. This dish has taken the spotlight in most press reviews of America Eats. Why? Because they claim that it is a lighter version of mac ‘n cheese, but contains neither macaroni nor classic cheddar used in most versions of the dish. I wouldn’t exactly call this dish a ‘pudding’ as we have come to use the word, but it was definitely light, fluffy and oh, so delicious. The long, curly pasta is layered and molded into a lovely portioned disk, coated with a creamy but light parmesan sauce and broiled to crispy perfection on top. The ‘pudding’ is served with three delicate quarters of chanterelle mushrooms, dressed equally as well in the parmesan sauce. Don’t even bother attempting to recreate this one, because I am convinced the recipe calls for magic.

   

Finally, our main course had arrived. This short rib was artwork on a plate. A large and beautiful rectangle of beef, dressed in sweet, tangy barbeque sauce, served next to an elegant melange of shaved, chiffonaded and sliced vegetables, creating one of the most interesting- no, probably the most interesting- cole slaws I have ever had the pleasure of eating. I enjoyed that both northern and southern styles of barbeque sauce made a presence in this dish, and used both liberally. I used to not like barbeque sauce. Then I tried real barbeque sauce and my life has been changed forever. The cole slaw had everything from your standard slaw vegetables to raw brussels sprout leaves! I love brussels sprouts. The dressing was not too heavy, but just creamy enough for you to know it was there. It was perfect.

  Before…

…After 🙂

While ordering, we made a last minute decision to try one of the old fashioned drinks, a lactart. A lactart is basically a combination of seltzer water, milk and your choice of a fruit-flavored syrup. We went with raspberry. It was sweet and creamy and tasted like nothing I have ever tasted before. You can definitely tell the syrup is homemade.

After drooling over, biting into and cleaning the plates of every single dish we ordered, we were way too full for dessert, although the menu is rather outstanding. I would definitely return to America Eats and save room for their Sugar on Snow or Key lime pie. Altogether, our meal was fantastic. The service was supreme and the food, well, I think you get it. Our bill- on the larger side but obviously worth it- was delivered in a mason jar, and I laughed, saying “you would,” under my breath. Being able to visit both the archives exhibit and this museum-like restaurant itself was extraordinary, and while I have claimed myself to be “not a museum person,” I will definitely be back for more!

Making Use of What’s Left

So as I embark on my bake sale adventure, I have bought an abundance of baking ingredients with most of them only serving a function for one or two recipes (i.e. peanut butter chips, a large bag of m&m’s and buttermilk). I’ve been trying to be economical in my recipe hunting, which is the reason these babies came into existence.

Chocolate buttermilk cupcakes with whipped cream. They made use of a ridiculous amount of cocoa powder and my leftover buttermilk and heavy cream from red velvet cupcakes. While the recipe is more or less not mine, the size of the cupcakes are and so is the fact that they are topped with plain whipped cream, rather than mint-infused. They look as moist as they taste, but they are still fluffy and light, thanks in part to the cloud-like whipped topping. For the full recipe, click here. Here is my take.

INGREDIENTS (makes 24 cupcakes)

for the cupcakes:

3/4 cup all purpose flour

3/4 cup granulated sugar

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon sea salt

7 1/2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder (i told you it was a lot)

3 tablespoons melted unsalted butter

7 tablespoons buttermilk

1 large egg

1 large egg white

for the whipped cream:

2 cups heavy whipping cream

2 tablespoons powdered sugar

directions

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line 3 mini 12-cup muffin tins with paper liners.

In a large mixing bowl, combine flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt; set aside.

With an electric mixer, combine cocoa and 5-7 tablespoons hot water until a thick paste forms (this process intensifies the chocolate flavor).

Add butter, buttermilk, egg, and egg white; beat until combined. Whisk in flour mixture until smooth.

Scoop batter into prepared tin. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center of a cupcake comes out clean, about 10 minutes.

Transfer cupcakes to a wire rack to cool completely.

In a food processor or with an electric mixer, whip cream and sugar until stiff peaks form. Top cooled cupcakes with whipped cream and enjoy.

Grateful for Graffiato

Happy post 4th of July everyone! Now while you’re sitting there thinking about how you’re going to be sick if you ever see another hot dog or hamburger, I have a more endearing thought about food: I need more pizza. But not just any pizza, I need more of the Countryman Pizza from Top Chef Mike Isabella’s Graffiato. Why do I need more? Because it was absurdly delicious, that’s why!!

Let me explain to you the night’s precedents, and how I ended up at this tiny little kitchen, where the brick oven takes up about half the cooking station. Its Sunday, July 3rd and my friends and I have just come back from a long day at the pool. We are hungry and warn out, looking for a nice, quick bite to eat so we can get our rest for the following day’s festivities. I had heard and read about Graffiato from many different sources, and everyone had raved about the food, but more particularly about the Prosecco keg. Yep, you read correctly, they keep Prosecco on tap! Who do these people think they are?! I’ll tel you who they think they are- geniuses. Geniui? Anyway.

We arrived at the Chinatown restaurant at around 8:30. The hostess greeted us with a smile, only to reveal our biggest fear- the wait was over an hour. Yes, we were hungry, but we decided to stay figuring if the restaurant was this busy on a Sunday, it must be worth it. We managed to squeeze in at the bar and immediately ordered glasses of Prosecco. I was amused that the oh too familiar handle of a keg was delicately pouring out a more agreeable carbonated beverage. Champagne out of a beer keg? Classy. While we sipped and our stomachs growled, we decided to order some appetizers to pass the time. We went with the marinated snap peas and the cheese trio- both excellent choices, but neither filling the void of a scrumptious and hearty dinner.

Then the real bad news came. The hostess approached us at the bar and told us that our table would not be ready at the expected time and that the kitchen would be closing shortly. She recommended that we order dinner at the bar and the bill could always be transferred if a table would open up. Wishful thinking at its finest. With much trepidation, we began to glance over the menu. I immediately forgot about our less than ideal dining situation as my eyes glazed over the menu. Everything looked so amazingly tasteful, I knew my decision would be hard. Luckily, the plates are rather small and sharing is suggested. My friends and I love to share, so this was not an issue.

We ended up ordering the roasted carrot salad, the aged balsamic risotto, the  polenta with pork meatballs, the roasted potato gnocchi, the market vegetable pizza and, as a “what the hell” kind of decision, the countryman pizza. Boy am I glad we opted for the second pizza. Everything was fabulous but this pizza, oh boy. Lets start with the crust- a true test of any good pizza. The doughy, crunchy, chewy concoction that laid underneath the heavenly toppings was perfect. A little bit charred, but still chewy, salty yet yeasty and sweet. Crusty goodness serving as a beautiful canvas for the main attraction. The countryman comes topped with gooey, salty fontina cheese, savory black truffles and an over easy duck egg. Yep- a. DUCK EGG!! At first glance, this pizza may not seem all that special. Its pretty dull with a hint of shine from the yolk. But once you sink your teeth into this baby, you’ll fall in love. It was rich, juicy, salty and altogether amazing. Words honestly cannot describe this thing. You just have to try it. Our other pizza came topped with a traditional marinara sauce, roasted squash, goat cheese and tomato blossoms. It, too, was beautifully crafted, but nothing can compare to the countryman.

When friends asked how my meal was, I raved. I completely forgot that I had to wait over an hour and a half for dinner and that once my dinner finally did come, I ate it standing up (there was no room at the bar for all four of us). I forgot that I didn’t get home until 11 when I had planned for a quick dinner and a quiet evening. Nothing else mattered because I was so astonished by the food. So, food lovers of D.C., I beg of you to venture out to Chinatown for Graffiato. But definitely make a reservation and definitely order a pizza. You won’t be disappointed.

P.S.- I apologize for pictures of my mouth watering meal- like I mentioned, my camera was being fixed! It’s back now though and I’m almost positive I’m about to go picture happy. 🙂