Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Philadelphia Showdown - Part 1

A quick review of eating in Philly in the past week, with just a pinch of comments.

Tonight a trip to Marc Vetri's harrowingly exciting and phenomenally fresh restaurant Osteria, at 640 North Broad Street. Our meal was the following.

  • Lombardo pizza with baked egg, bitto (homemade sausage), mozzarella, cotechino, tomato (wood fired and packed with flavor)
  • Salumi plate with prosciutto, lardo, porchetta (all house cured)
  • baccala mantecato with pane carasau ( a whipped salt cod dish with crackers)
  • tripe alla parmigiana (dannnng)
  • seasonal vegetable plate (the most moist tomato of my life, and one of the sweetest tangiest onions)
  • bucatini with testa ragu (testa is pig's head after some elaborate process with nutmeg and allspice)
  • prosciutto ravioli with peas and .... sauce ( ridiculous sauce, whatever it was)
  • rabbit casalinga with pancetta, sage, brown butter, polenta
  • braised pork ribs and sausage with cabbage and polenta
  • polenta budino with gianduia (sweet polenta with hazlenut chocolate mousse)
  • tangerine zuppa inglese (a tangerine layered dessert)
  • sorbettos (blood orange, pineapple, black grape)

almost everything was ridiculously outstanding. as i have been reading and thinking more about food these past months, i now know that what i am looking for are flavors that i haven't had before. as much as i enjoy food and attempt to be adventurous, there is still so much out there that is foreign to me, and that is a wonderful thing. the depth of the polenta, smoky and creamy, accompanying the fascinating spice-inflected sausage, was a revelation. as was the hollowed-out bucatina in that ridiculous testa sauce, whose every bite became more moist and intense. the prosciutto, both in and out of the ravioli, attaining a creaminess and smoothness beyond belief. the variation of textures and flavors with each bite, of each course, of each plate. the extreme care and vibrance of the food, from the delicate intensely fruity sorbetto to those elevated vegetables. a terrific meal. very few misses, beyond a good but not great salt cod (although all we ate otherwise was meat, perhaps it just didn't fit in) and a rabbit that was a bit tough, unless you wanted to really dig in around the bones (which I did in fact desire!) no pictures, this was a meal to enjoy and re-live afterwards...

A quick rehash in list forms

  • Tria at 18th and Sansom
Salice wine from Italy and Dogfish Head Aprihop Beer
Two Cheeses - Persille de Beajolais w/ pear bread and honey, and Gruyere w/ chunky tapenade (the persille was awesomely intense, incuding some finger/knife lickage)

  • Late-night Snack
New Orleans style Osso Bucco, Fresh Salad, and Portabellos in Balsamic Vinegar (damn my parents can cook!)

  • KC's Pastries in Chinatown
Sesame Ball, BBQ Pork Bun, Egg Custard (greasy and delicious, $1.80 total!)

  • Lunch on the George
Home-made Turkey Provolone Prosciutto Bacon Paninis

  • A stop at Capogiro for Gelato (20th and Sansom)
Sweet Milk, a combo of lemon/ginger and lime/cilantro, and pineapple/mint and Bitter Dark Chocolate

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Passing Bites: (Spicy, Thwarted, and Potato-y)

A week of accomplished eating, briefly re-told.

Phnom Penh
1929 25th Street

A delicious Cambodian meal, although I still am somewhat unclear as to what we ordered/ate. There was a roast pork coconut stew that we sprinkled on rice cakes, some sort of lemongrass-ginger-cumin noodle dish, with a serious kick (and this was the medium spice option, that is fucking awesome), and a sweet ginger-garlic-laced chicken, onion, pepper dish. Upon waking the day after, I found that the leftovers were every bit as good. So far, Asian food in Cleveland has not failed to impress, with food that is spicy, not overly sweet, and which combines some totally original and unabashed flavors. An odd garish place, completely abandoned at 5:30 on a Friday, but that had an undeniable charm. Any eatery whose website is ohiorestaurant.com and is run by a man claiming to be named "Mono Bun" has to have some charisma.

A Thwarted Bite - My miraculous jedi mind skills stopped a big ravenous white dog in his tracks while running! Aw shit!

Lucky's Cafe
777 Starkweather Ave.

A delicious simple corner coffeehouse/bakery with exquisite brunch options and atmosphere. The emphasis is definitely on sweet combos and slightly adventuresome baking. We split an order of sweet potato waffles with apple compote and honey whipped cream, sausage gravy with cheddar scallion biscuit and home fries, a Shipwreck of eggs, veggies, bacon, potatoes, fresh-made bagueette and homemade jelly, and a side order of pecan praline encrusted bacon. Totally delicious, totally fresh food, although bring your sweet tooth. Even the sweet potato waffles were just a hint of savory amidst a mountain of warm stewed apples and ice-cream like whipping! It was tough not to go crazy buying pastries after our meal, as the muffin selection put my muffin experiments to shame! One sign that this is a solid establishment: All the eggs I saw brought out were wet, juicy, fluffy. The emphasis was on flavors and sauces that mixed up in creamy goodness, a prerequisite for any truly great breakfast experience.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Review: El Diablo visits North Olmsted

Nuevo Acapulco
24409 Lorain Ave.
North Olmsted

I wanted to like the salsa, I truly did. It had a loose end of cilantro floating atop, it smelled sweet, looked spicy, perhaps chunky too! Yet when I dipped my first nacho into the bowl I met none of the resistance of tomatoes or onions or herbs I expected, and was left swirling my hand in a void of sauce! I tasted it. Then I re-tasted it, in disbelief. No! Why me?!

My long nightmarish journey into Mexican food in Ohio had begun a few years ago, but I was depending on Nuevo Acapulco in North Olmsted to perhaps prove me wrong and remind me of the glorious comfort of hot Mexican food, which holds many of the happiest moments of my life.

On first view, the place looked intensely promising. There was a grilled smell floating around the room, a raucous bar, lots of drunk Mexicans, and a 20 minute wait at 5:30 on a Friday. The dining room is gaudy beyond belief, with neon murals, strung-up paper mache parrots, and all the Mexican kitsch you could dream of. Yet my favorite Mexican restaurant in Philadelphia (La Lupe) has the same style of decorations and a repeating 10-minute tape of terrible Mariachi music, and so I have come to associate gaudiness with authenticity, a dangerous mistake on this night.

After the tepid salsa and the cold nacho chips, we dug into a cheese dip that tasted like it might have been emptied from a Tostito’s jar of salsa con queso, except even more plasticky and slimy. Supposedly flavored with cilantro, other herbs, and peppers, it had only a chemical spiciness without any flavor that could be deemed natural.

At this point the smiles at our table started to wain, and we all began to worry about the next course. I had ordered the chicken mole, because it is one of my favorite dishes and one of the most often varied at Mexican restaurants, due to the strange and unique flavors of its composition, a deep and robust combination of chocolate and peppers.

The mole at Nuevo Acapulco was an unattractive viscous light brown, unlike the dark and thick sauces I have usually encountered. As I prodded the chicken (sliced into tenders for my ease?) I noticed a film forming on top of the sauce. I secretly hoped this was a harbinger of promise, as the restaurant may have chosen to use more fat and not skimp on flavor. But as I took my first bite my face twinged in abject disappointment. This mole tasted like a cross between melted chocolate and motor oil. There was no glorious mixture of flavors, but instead an off-kilter sickliness that is still giving me shivers. After another try brought along a moment of nausea, I set about wiping dry the remaining pieces on my plate.

As for the other items, the refried beans tasted like they were from a can, and cold as well. The rice was ordinary and bland. Enchiladas tasted like poor-quality ground beef smothered in canned tomato sauce with a splash of taco seasoning. The steak al chipolte was overcooked and tough, and the overpowering sauce bore an unseemly resemblance to a watered-down version of Campus Dining Services’ chipotle mayo. The margaritas tasted like they had come from a mix and delivered intensely skimpy amounts of alcohol for the price of more than five dollars.

To rub it in, Nuevo Acapulco served us a “fried” ice cream that was nothing more than a rock-hard ball of ice cream sprinkled with some sort of fried particles. At least they chose to include a few splashes of nutmeg, it was probably the first spice I had tasted all night.

Nuevo Acapulco was a terrible restaurant from start to finish. It left me and my friends feeling used and dirty, as we were delivered food that was clearly not fresh, not creative, and not authentic. Yet it is worth noting that people did genuinely seem to like the place. What did we miss? The grilled meats, perhaps? Or does this sort of flavorless bland reproduction of Mexican food somehow appeal to Ohios? Oh the humanity! The idea that you can somehow combine mere ingredients without any subtlety of flavor or care for freshness and call it “Mexican” is dangerous, offensive, and insulting.

As it came time to pay, I imagined what my 18 dollars could have purchased at La Lupe. Freshly-made corn tacos dripping with queso, or roasted pork al castor, barbaco goat with pineapple, staggeringly flavorful chorizo, fried plantains, chicken mole, and even a soda, and I probably wouldn’t even have made it to 15 dollars. And then, amidst my revery, I realized I was still in North Olmsted and started to cry.

0 MMMs
Nightmarishly bad food, that I am still trying to forget.