Archive for the ‘Restaurants’ Category
Recently, Jim and I joined our friends John and M’Evie for dinner at Niche in St. Louis. The reviews of the restaurant are uniformly glowing. Food and Wine featured a very favorable profile of the restaurant in an article on the St. Louis dining scene; the restaurant routinely wins “Best of” awards from the city’s media outlets; most impressively, Gerald Craft, the head chef, has been nominated for a prestigious James Beard award, the winner of which will be announced in May. Craft is credited with helping to revive the Benton Park area in St. Louis as well as for practically inventing a farm to restaurant supply chain for the region. Clearly, he’s doing a lot of things right at Niche.
We certainly enjoyed our meal there. By far, the most delicious thing that we ate was the chicken liver terrine served with an orange-date compote, a dish that has been on the menu since the restaurant opened. I can see why. Oh. My. Word. It was truly stunning: smooth and luscious with the perfect amount of schmaltz. And was that shallot that I tasted?
You can tell that we liked it from this photo:
As a first course, Jim ordered farro with roe. It was good, if a bit salty. The waiter mentioned that the farro was cooked in ham stock, which is a good move, but then to pair it with roe, which is also salty, pushed the dish just a bit over the top. The saltiness was somewhat mitigated by the addition of some pieces of sweet buckwheat, which was really the saving grace of the dish.
I ordered the trout duo as a main course: one half of the duo was a delicious mound of trout rillette served atop thinly sliced beets. The other half was a piece of nicely roasted trout topped with the most incredible house made potato chips. I wish I could remember what accompanied the trout. It’s in the photo here and my best recollection is that it was a bit like a potato knish. I think my memory lapse suggests something about that particular aspect of the meal. It was fairly nondescript and seemed to be poorly matched to the rest of the meal in terms of texture and flavor. I think something with a more assertive taste would have worked better on the plate.
And then there was dessert. I ordered only one dinner course to save room for the upside down sticky toffee pudding cake served with orange peel and orange sherbet. Hands down, sticky toffee pudding is my favorite dessert so I had very high hopes for this version. Unfortunately, the dessert was a disappointment. The cake was good, but a bit on the dry side; the caramel nondescript. The sherbet, which is house made (as are all the ice creams and gelatos), was, I’m sorry to say, an utter failure: flavorless and grainy. The problem, I suspect, was age. Our visit was the first night that the restaurant was open after a four night break for the New Year’s holiday. I suppose the sherbet was leftover from the previous week. Some kind of starch — my guess is corn starch — had separated from the cream and flavorings. This was also the case with Jim’s vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce.
John and M’Evie fared better with the liquid chocolate cake and peppermint ice cream, a dish that was a wonderful combination of warm chocolate and cool, fresh peppermint.
In spite of the disappointments, our meal was impressive: Jim’s pork was excellent and John and M’Evie’s chicken was well prepared and innovative (which is saying something; it’s hard to be creative with chicken). The ingredients are all locally sourced and in season. Execution aside, it is deeply satisfying to eat this way.
This visit to Niche has prompted some questions about what Americans expect when they eat out. I suppose we expect different things from different types of restaurants, but when we eat in fine restaurants, what, exactly, are Americans looking for? According to Lynn Rosetto Kasper, of The Splendid Table fame, Italians dine out to eat meals that they prepare at home and “heaven help the restaurant that gets it wrong.” I’m not sure what other nationalities expect when they dine out in restaurants, but it seems to me that Americans expect food that is altogether different from the food that they eat at home. However, the American restaurant scene seems to be evolving to meet a new set of customer expectations and this evolution might be an indication of a dramatic cultural shift.
Could it be that Americans are beginning to appreciate quality over quantity and superficiality?
Then again, it might just be a fad. Time will tell.
The food that we had at Niche was prepared with ingredients that American home cooks (or at least those who live in St. Louis) have access to, but Craft does unusual things with them, which is, I suppose, why the James Beard Foundation has recognized his efforts. His restaurant seems to have become an important site in the St. Louis food scene and it’s good to see someone so committed to using local ingredients. We’ll certainly eat there again. I just hope it’s on a night when the ice cream meets my expectations.
Last night, I made a traditional Egyptian dish called Kosheri from a recipe found in the Ottolenghi cookbook. Kosheri is similar to another popular Middle Eastern dish made with rice, lentils, and caramelized onions called Megadarra (also called Mujadra). Megadarra is typically served with a yogurt, tomato, and cucumber salad; we eat it often in the Summer. Kosheri, however, features a tomato sauce on the side, which makes it great for the cooler months, when tomatoes and cucumbers are not at their best.
Perfect…this dish is perfect. However, the method described in the book is not perfect — at least not for the average home cook — but I think I’ve simplified it a bit.
The meal is completely satisfying. It’s fun to cook, too, provided that you leave yourself a bit of time to complete all the steps.
This is my favorite sort of food: simple but interesting, filling but not heavy (although there is quite a bit of fat in this dish). The spicing here is just right; the cinnamon and nutmeg combination in the Kosheri is well-matched to the spicy, tangy tomato sauce. The dish seems at once healthy and indulgent.
Butter, Sweet Butter
I mostly stuck to ingredients listed in the recipe, but I altered the order of the steps in the process quite a bit. It’s worth noting that this dish has four components: onions, rice/vermicelli, lentils, and tomato sauce. Plan accordingly. As written in the book, the recipe requires the use of four pots/pans, as well as a serving dish– hardly fair to the resident dishwasher. Although my resident dishwasher refuses to believe it, I do consider that sort of thing before I start cooking. With him in mind, I reordered the steps of this recipe and managed to cut down the number of pots/pans used to two.
First, the ingredients: I didn’t have green lentils (and wasn’t likely to find them around here), so I used Puy lentils instead since they retain their shape when cooked. It seemed to me that the ratio of lentils to rice was a little out of balance. I used only about 2/3 of the prepared lentils (I’ve adjusted the amount of lentils in the adapation of the recipe included in this post). I discovered that the red peppers in my fridge were a bit old, so I substituted a combination of dried Aleppo and dried Marash peppers in the tomato sauce (I’m cooking for a 3 year old, so I probably low-balled the pepper to suit her palate). Finally, I used a can of diced tomatoes instead of the fresh ones specified.
It’s a terrific recipe–comfort-food of the highest order.
The more I use this cookbook, the more I like it, although I do find that some of the recommended methods are a bit fussy for everyday use. However, I’m always struck by how so many of the recipes are clever in ways that become apparent only after I make them. Few cookbooks actually help readers become better cooks. I feel like Ottolenghi is one that does.
Kosheri ( adapted from Ottolenghi: the Cookbook)
3/4 cup Puy lentils
1 cup basmati rice
2 tbs. butter
2/3 cup vermicelli noodles, broken into small pieces
2 cups water
1/2 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
1 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. pepper
4 tbs. olive oil
2-3 white onions, thinly sliced (the caramelized onions make the dish; whatever you do, don’t skimp on them)
Spicy tomato sauce
4 tbs. olive oil
2 garlic cloves, crushed
2 hot red chilies, seeded & finely diced (or about 1/2 tsp. Marash or Aleppo pepper–or a combination of both–more if you like)
1 28 oz. can of organic, diced tomatoes
4 tbs. cider vinegar
3 tsp. salt
2 tsp. ground cumim
1 tbp. tomato paste
Handful of cilantro leaves, chopped
Caramelize the onions first. Heat the olive oil in a large frying pan and sauté the onions over medium heat for 20 minutes, until they are well-caramelized. Drain on paper towels. Clean the pan and use it to make the tomato sauce.
For the tomato sauce: In the same heavy frying pan, sauté garlic and chilies in the olive oil for two minutes. Add chopped tomatoes, vinegar, salt and cumin. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes, until slightly thickened. Stir in the tomato paste and adjust the seasonings. Refrigerate or leave to cool to room temperature.
While the sauce simmers, prepare the lentils. Rinse them well, then transfer them to a large saucepan with a lid. Cover completely with water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 25 minutes. The lentils should be tender, but intact. Drain them in a colander and set aside. Clean pan and use it to make the rice & vermicelli.
Then make the rice. Rinse rice well. In the sauce pan that you used to cook the lentils, melt butter in over medium heat. Add the raw vermicelli, stir and continue frying and stirring until vermicelli turns golden brown. Add the drained rice and stir until the entire mixture is well-c0ated by the melted butter. Add the water and reduce heat to low. Simmer for 12 minutes. Turn off heat, remove the pot lid, cover the pan with a clean dish towel and replace the lid. Leave alone for five minutes to allow the towel to absorb extra moisture from the rice (don’t be tempted to skip this step; it’s easy enough to do and is worth the small amount of effort).
To serve, empty the lentils, rice/vermicelli and most of the onions onto a large serving platter. Adjust the seasonings and gently toss everything together. Garnish with the remaining onions and serve with warmed tomato sauce. Kosheri is especially good along with warm pita or flat bread. A bit of Greek yogurt on the side would not be an unwelcome addition. This dish reheats well in the microwave.
On Saturday night, we finally managed to get together for dinner with our good friends Jeff and Karen. I served a simple but somewhat experimental meal, precipitated by my recent interest in the Ottolenghi cookbook. Jeff & Karen are great fun to spend time with and both of them are enthusiastic about food; we had a lovely evening. Here’s what we ate:
Roast Chicken with Saffron, Pistachios, & Honey (Ottolenghi)
Couscous with Herbs and Sultanas
Roasted Cauliflower with Cumin
Chocolate Fudge Cake (Ottolenghi)
We purchase our chicken from a poultry farm in Hartselle, Alabama, Goose Pond Farms. Their chickens are superb: moist, tender, and flavorful, better than anything available at the grocery store. Since May, I’ve been buying two chickens per month from Goose Pond Farms and have prepared those birds every way imaginable: brined, roasted, fried, grilled, casseroled. I just can’t seem to cook them badly. But the truth is, I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed by chicken, which is ridiculous, I know, given how good they actually taste. I wanted something a little different, and the Ottolenghi recipe seemed like just the thing.
The recipe begins with some chicken prep. Jim’s better at that sort of thing than I am so I left him to it.
Jim debones the beast
I couldn’t find the specified hazelnuts at the grocery store when I went earlier in the day, so I substituted pistachio nuts, which seemed more authentic to the Middle Eastern origins of the dish anyway. I cooked the chicken in my Emile Henry tagine, which doesn’t get used as often as it should. It’s a beautiful pot that cooks well and cleans easily. Why don’t I use it more often?
At any rate, the chicken cooked quite well in it.
I liked this recipe. It was simple to make and looked just lovely, especially in the tagine. When I make it again — and I will — I’ll definitely add a bit of heat — maybe Aleppo or Marash pepper. The saffron, honey and rosewater are wonderful together, but the flavors are a bit subtle. I kept wondering what this dish would be like made with grocery-store chicken, which is always so bland and rubbery. I will also serve bread of some sort alongside the couscous. There was a great deal of liquid in the bottom of the pan, and I wanted to enjoy every last drop of that golden broth. All in all, it’s a really good chicken recipe, perfect for when you have a freezer too full of a good thing.
Roast Chicken with Saffron, Hazelnuts (or pistachio nuts) & Honey (adapted from Ottolenghi: The Cookbook)
1 large organic chicken, hacked up into quarters
1 onions, chopped
4 tbs. olive oil
1 tsp. ground ginger
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
a generous pinch of saffron threads
juice of one lemon
4 tbs. cold water
2 tsp. Kosher salt
1 tsp. black pepper
4 oz. unskinned hazelnuts (I used pistachios)
3 oz. honey
2 tbs. rosewater
2 green onions, roughly chopped
In a large bowl, mix the chicken pieces with onions, olive oil, ginger, cinnamon, saffron, lemon juice, salt & pepper. Marinate for at least one hour or overnight. Preheat over to 375 degrees. Spread nuts on a rimmed cookie sheet and roast for 10 minutes, until lightly browned. Chop roughly and set aside.
Transfer chicken and marinade to a large roasting tray or tagine. Arrange the chicken skin side up. Roast uncovered for 35 minutes.
Meanwhile, mix the honey, rosewater and nuts together to form a paste. Remove chicken from oven and spread nut mixture over all of the pieces. Return to the oven for 5-10 minutes, until the chicken is complete cooks and the nuts are toasty brown.
Transfer to a serving dish and garnish with the green onions. Serve with rice or couscous.
The finished dish
I spent part of the morning converting the recipe for Ottolenghi’s Chocolate Fudge Cake from metric to American measures. Well, more accurately, I used an online converter to make the calculations for me and then duly recorded the figures in the cookbook. My grammar school metrics lessons were an utter failure at the time and have completely vacated my brain at this point. The converted measures were unusual though: do you round up or down when you get something like 3.34 ounces? While you could go either way without much consequence when making something like a roast, it’s entirely different when you’re baking, which demands relatively precise measures. I couldn’t decide whether to err on the side of less or more, so I made the bold decision to flip a button on my kitchen scale — from pounds to kilograms — and cook in metric.
Most experienced cooks “eyeball” measurements, but to make this possible, you need to have a pretty good sense for how much, say, a cup’s worth of flour is or a teaspoon full of salt. I guess this ability is kind of like culinary ESP. I don’t have the foggiest idea of how much 290 grams worth of anything is, so that particular culinary sense was eliminated during the baking of this cake. Add to that the fact that I’ve never baked a flourless-cake before and I was completely disoriented throughout.
The cake is in the oven now. 170 degrees Celsius is 338 degrees Farenheit, a temperature that the analog dial of my oven can only approximate, so I’m watching the cake closely. Also, the recipe called for a 20 cm pan and I had only a 24 cm pan, so I’ll reduce the cooking time. The fancy whistle of this cake is that it gets cooked in stages: the lower level has a proper cake-like texture while the upper is fudgier from having been cooked for a shorter period of time. That lower level is smelling awfully good right now.
This experience has provided a glimpse into the world of European baking, which prefers measurements by weight rather than volume. As I think about it, this method seems contrary to the American psyche. Without a doubt, weight measurements are more precise. The method is not difficult, provided that you have a decent kitchen scale. The attitude behind it seems, however, more rigid, less of the freewheelin’ cowboy thing that Americans are famous for both inside and outside of the kitchen.
Not such a bad thing, in my opinion. The proof is, as they say, in the pudding, which should be finished shortly.
Since I don’t happen to live there, it’s a bit inconvenient that my favorite restaurant is in London. The restaurant is called Ottolenghi, and there are four branches. I’ve only been to the original location, in Notting Hill, but word is that the other three sites are just as good as the first.
Although it’s possible to eat there — there is seating for only about 10 people — the Notting Hill branch of Ottolenghi is mainly a take-out place. That said: banish any preconceived notions that you may have about take-out. Ottolenghi is altogether something else. This place redefines the concept and serves the most incredible take-out that you can imagine: fresh, simple salads; delicious soups; innovative main dishes; lush desserts.
If I were to open a restaurant here in Opelika, which is fairly unlikely, I’d borrow heavily from the Ottolenghi model: bare white walls, shiny, reflective surfaces, heaping platters of gorgeous food as the only decoration. In such a place, everything is oriented toward the food, which means, of course, that the food has to be arrestingly beautiful and delicious. This true of Ottolenghi. Whether eating a meal there or just having a look at the astounding window display, a trip to Ottolenghi is a real treat and ranks high on my must-do list whenever I can manage the trip to London.
Unfortunately, that isn’t very often, which is why I was delighted when Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, the geniuses behind the restaurant, came out with a cookbook last year. (Recently,an article in Gourmet profiled both the restaurant and the book.) Happily, the book is every bit as good as the restaurant. In fact, even though I ordered it as a pricey import and got taken on the exchange rate, purchasing it might wind up saving me a bit of money in the long run, since, for a time, I can use it here in Alabama to stave off those powerful longings to visit Ottolenghi (but only for a time…).
I own a lot of cookbooks, but I have only a tiny bit space available for book storage. That means that I must store a significant number of my cookbooks creatively, a practice that may oneday drive my husband insane. Far too many of my cookbooks are kept underneath my bed, but a small space on my cramped kitchen counter is reserved for a few oft-used tomes. Ottolenghi is prominent among them.
Ottolenghi, the Cookbook is gorgeous; quirky photographs capture the energetic spirit of the restaurant. The authors write about food in clear, precise, but engaging prose. The introduction of the book explains the ideological underpinnings of the restaurant:
Unfussiness and simplicity in food preparation are … the only ways to maintain the freshness of a dish. Each individual ingredient has a clear voice, plain characteristics that are lucid and powerful — images, tastes, aromas you remember and yearn for.
Indeed! The recipes reflect this admirable philosophy; the ingredients are prepared in ways that render them truly “lucid and powerful.” Ottolenghi and Tamami favor simple methods and assertive spices, but nothing aggressive or fatuous, nothing exotic for the sake of being exotic. They admit to being obsessed with lemon and garlic, surely worthy objects of obsession. The pair also use a lot of yogurt, saffron, pomegranate molasses, as well as a variety of peppers and rustic cheeses. The recipes often feature roasted vegetables. Roasted eggplant with Saffron Yogurt is one of my favorites, but the famous Chargrilled Broccoli with chili and garlic is simple and satisfying. The recipe for cauliflower with tomato, dill, and capers elevates an ordinary vegetable to poetry.
These guys understand the culinary potential of simple foods, especially legumes and pulses. Recipes for Puy Lentils with Sour Cherries, Bacon, and Gorgonzola; Kosheri, the popular Egyptian dish of lentils and rice; and Red Lentil and Chard Soup are impressive enough to serve for company but simple enough to eat weekly.
A number of the recipes feature unexpected cuts of meat or flavor combinations. For instance, the Turkey and Sweetcorn Meatballs with Roasted Pepper Sauce fabulously showcase a meat that no one associates with stellar meatballs, while the recipe for Sweet Potato Galettes — made with puff pastry, goat cheese, and chili — is off-beat but logical. The perfect meeting point of the sweet and the savory and oh, so delicious.
Their baked goods are stunning. To give you some idea of what the restaurant looks like, imagine a display window full of white trays that are filled with huge piles of giant multicolored, multiflavored meringues. Surrounding these are platters heaped with nearly black chocolate brownies, oversized fruit-filled muffins, lacy almond and orange florentines, baskets of wheaten breads, and jars of seeded- crackers. Human beings simply cannot ignore such abundance. You can easily identify the restaurant when you come to it: it’s the place with a constant rotation of 5-6 people, all standing outside the window display with hungry and astonished looks on their faces.
The recipes for these treasures are, however, straightforward and relatively uncomplicated. This is food can be prepared by anyone who has an inclination to make it. I’m dying to try the Apple and Olive Oil Cake with Maple Icing; Pear and Amaretto Crumble Cake; Plum, Marzipan, and Cinnamon Muffins; Khalid’s Chocolate and Chesnut Bars; and the restaurant’s justifiably famous Orange Polenta Cake (a version of which, with converted weights and measures, is available on the link to the Gourmet profile). All of these recipes use simple enough ingredients and call for straight-forward cooking methods.
Ottolenghi, the Cookbook deserves its spot on my kitchen counter. I plan to revist this kitchen essential in the coming weeks by cooking recipes from it regularly. Some will be recipes that I’ve made before, others will be new to me. I’ll post descriptions of my experiences and evaluate the recipes after I cook them. Think of it as a kind of extended cookbook review.
By the way, Yotom Ottolenghi writes a regular column for the Guardian called “The New Vegetarian.” I should point out, however, that Ottolenghi is not a vegetarian restaurant.