27 June 2007

Poste Brassiere, Washington, DC


When I first started Krik’s Picks, I thought I’d be writing a lot more frequently about restaurants in Washington, DC. After all, as I explained in a post on August 31, I travel to Washington regularly for my work at Land O'Lakes. In fact, the name of the blog comes from DC restaurant recommendations that I’ve made for friends, co-workers, and colleagues. So I’m a little surprised myself that I haven’t actually written about too many DC restaurants. As of today, out of 39 restaurant reviews, I’ve written about 12 California restaurants and 18 Minneapolis/St. Paul restaurants. With today’s post, I’ll have five reviews of DC restaurants.


I think that part of the problem is that often in DC, my dinners are working dinners. We don’t necessarily pick a restaurant for its innovative food, and since we spend the meal talking business, I don’t always do a good job of noting my reactions to the food.



Well, not this time. Today I’m writing about Poste Brassiere, located in the Hotel Monaco in the Penn Quarter neighborhood of Washington. A small group of us from Land O'Lakes found ourselves at loose ends after the first day of a conference we were attending. I was assigned the job of finding a good place to eat. I had heard of Poste, and after checking it out on the internet and in the Where Magazine for DC, I suggested we go there. It was an easy four block walk from the hotel where we were staying.



Based on what I’d read, I described the place to the other diners as ‘innovative American.’ I was challenged to define what that meant. Poste describes itself as contemporary brasserie – hardly more descriptive. I still think my description is more accurate. Traditionally, a French brasserie is more formal than a bistro but doesn’t have all of the features of a full-fledged restaurant. Often at a brassiere, menu items are complete meals rather than individual courses like you see at a restaurant.



But the fact is that in America, we hang the labels ‘brasserie,’ ‘bistro,’ café, etc. on the names of eating establishments without much thought about the traditional definition or presumed differences between them. (I wouldn’t be surprised to learn the same is true in France.)



When I describe Poste as ‘innovative America,’ I mean creative combinations of flavors, not too heavy on sauces, artful presentation, and easily recognizable menu items. Here’s what we had at Poste. You be the judge if it fits my description.



The three of us started by splitting two appetizers – a grilled kielbasa cut into thirds and a very nice selection of house-made charcuterie. The starters overcame any hesitancy my friends might have had about Poste; they quit caring if it was ‘innovative American’ or ‘contemporary brasserie.’ I thought the charcuterie plate was particularly good. The selection offered a nice variety of styles, and the flavors were also varied,



Both of my compatriots had the hanger steak and ‘pommes frites.’ Hanger steak is a traditional bistro fare. My carnivorous friends loved the steak served at Poste. It was tender, excellently prepared, very flavorful. Pommes frites are often defined as French fries. But the wonderfully prepared, crisp potatos served with the steak at Poste bore very little resemblance to the typical, greasy, mealy fries served at many American restaurants. These were truly exceptional. When we ordered, our server asked if we wanted the frites to be sprinkled with parmesan cheese. Hey! She was talking to a milk producer and a couple of Land O'Lakes staff. Of course we wanted them with parmesan. Wow! That was a fabulous addition.



I decided to go for a fish entrée. I ordered wild bass served with a potato mash (the menu calls it ‘champ’ potatoes) and caper beurre noisette. I didn’t know what that sauce was either. It was light and nutty and the capers added a tangy flavor that really enhanced the fish. So as I was writing this blog, I looked it up. Beurre noisette is a simple butter sauce. The butter is cooked over a gentle heat until the solids separate and begin to brown. It was a great meal.



One of our group was from California, so I asked him to select the wine. He picked a 2003 Clos du Val merlot. It was an excellent choice.



My rep as a restaurant picker in DC was maintained. Poste Brasserie – give it a try.


23 June 2007

Dinner at Lucca, Sacramento, CA

A business trip to Sacramento provided me with an opportunity to see my cousin and her husband and my aunt who live in nearby Dixon. Since I didn’t have a car, they drove in to see me. I got to pick the restaurant for dinner.

I love Google. After my business meeting, I typed in the address for my hotel and got a map of my neighborhood. I clicked on ‘search nearby’ for restaurants, and got a list of possibilities with their locations indicated in concentric circles on the map. Then I clicked on different results to see which ones seemed most promising.

One was Michelangelo’s. I went there last September when I stayed in the same neighborhood. I really liked it, and I considered taking my relatives there. But I also like to try new places, so I kept on searching.

What I came up with was Lucca. It has its own attractive web site with its menus posted. I also found an intriguing entry in the Sacramento Bee’s food blog that noted that Lucca had become one of Gov. Schwarzenegger’s favorite restaurants. So besides good buzz on food, there was the possibility of a star sighting. That was enough for me.

It was a beautiful, warm Sacramento evening. We were offered a table on the outdoor patio, which we readily accepted. We started with a couple glasses of wine. My cousin’s husband and I ordered a Lucca sangiovese grown in Santa Barbara. It was a very affordable, drinkable wine. My aunt ordered a Spanish sauvignon blanc. She was somewhat chagrined to be ordering a Spanish wine in California, but she enjoyed it.

My aunt ordered the evening specialty. It was a pan roasted halibut topped with a corn and sweet pepper relish and served with sautéd beans and pesto potatoes. My cousin ordered pan-seared salmon with cherry tomato butter over mashed potatoes. Her husband had the cioppini – mussels, clams, prawns, fresh fish in a tomato chili broth topped with toasted bruschetta and drizzled with lemon garlic aioli. I started with a Lucca house chop salad which consisted of radicchio and romaine tossed with lemon oregano vinaigrette and feta cheese. For my meal, I had chicken risotto with field mushrooms and fontina cheese.

The two fish dishes looked like the best meals. The fish was nicely prepared and there was a complimentary variety of vegetables on the plate. The cioppini looked very good. The tomato chili broth was a little spicy, unexpectedly so, but very tasty. I thought my salad was good, but the vinaigrette needed more flavor. Someday, I’ll learn to heed my wife – she always says I make better risotto than most restaurants. I enjoyed my risotto, but it was a little soupier than I make at home, the chicken was good but not memorable, and overall, it lacked any distinctive flavor. That sentence makes it sound like I didn’t enjoy it. I really did. But I wished I would have had one of the fish entrées … or the other risotto on the menu sounded good, too. It was saffron, seafood risotto.

I really liked the ambiance of Lucca. The dining room is decorated with original art. One of the things I read on-line was that the space was originally a pottery studio. So it has a rustic feel to it. The diners were generally young and hip. It was a wonderful, relaxing evening, and it was great catching up with my cousin on family news.

Sacramento postscript

I flew home from Sacramento on Friday morning. Traveling east, I lost two hours, so I arrived home mid-afternoon. Our son and his family were coming for dinner. I decided to make the risotto recipe below for dinner. The recipe is from the July Bon Appetit magazine. They suggest serving it with grilled shrimp. We did grilled chicken instead, and it made a great meal. I only made one change. The recipe suggests making the herb paste with butter. To me, it looked like a pesto, so I used a good, Spanish olive oil instead. The basil and parsley were fresh from my garden.

GREEN HERB RISOTTO

cups (loosely packed) fresh baby spinach leaves
½ cup (loosely packed) fresh basil leaves
½ cup (loosely packed) fresh Italian parsley leaves
2 tablespoons (1/4 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 garlic clove, sliced
2 cups low-salt chicken broth
2½ cups water
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1 medium leek (white and pale green parts only), thinly sliced
1½ cups short-grain rice (such as arborio) or medium-grain rice
½ cup dry white wine
¼ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese plus additional for serving

Blend first 5 ingredients in processor until thick paste forms. Bring broth and 2½ cups water to simmer in saucepan over medium heat. Reduce heat to very low; cover to keep warm.

Heat 2 tablespoons oil in heavy medium saucepan over medium-low heat. Add leek; sauté until soft, stirring often, about 10 minutes. Add rice; stir until heated through, about 3 minutes. Add wine; simmer until absorbed, stirring often. Add warm broth mixture 1 cup at a time, allowing each addition to be absorbed before adding next and stirring often, until rice is tender but still firm to bite, about 20 minutes. Cover; remove from heat. Let stand 3 minutes. Uncover; stir in herb paste, 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, and 1 tablespoon olive oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve immediately in warm bowls, passing additional Parmesan cheese alongside.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Bon Appétit
July 2007
Janet Fletcher

Epicurious.com © CondéNet, Inc. All rights reserved.

Also, with the risotto and grilled chicken, my wife made this chilled pea salad. The recipe appeared in the StarTribune. It's a quick, easy, refreshing, good-tasting, light salad. She makes it, naturally, with fresh mint from our garden.

SALAD WITH MINT AND PEAS

Serves 4.

1 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
2 tsp. Dijon mustard
1 tbsp. olive oil
Coarse salt and ground pepper
1 head bibb lettuce (about 9 oz.), washed well and torn into bite-size pieces
1 c. frozen peas, thawed
½ c. fresh mint leaves, torn into bite-size pieces

Directions
In a large bowl, whisk together lemon juice and mustard. Whisk in oil. Season with salt and pepper. Add lettuce, peas and mint. Toss to coat.

The New York Times Dining & Wine Section

I’ve added a new link in the left-hand panel of Krik’s Picks, below the archive. It’s the New York Times Dining & Wine section. It is probably my favorite on-line newspaper food section. I always make a point of reading it every Wednesday. I don’t spend a lot of time with the restaurant reviews because I seldom travel to New York City. On the other hand, I get a lot of recipes from the site, and I have found the recipes that I try to be consistently good and deliver tasty results. They also have articles by and about major chefs and cookbook authors.

I’ve got a couple of columnists that I read regularly. One of the other links on Krik’s Picks is The Pour by the Times’ wine columnist, Eric Asimov. Another columnist is The Minimalist by Mark Bittman. So far, I haven’t read an explanation as to why Bittman calls his column The Minimalist. It may be because his recipes generally are simple and quick to prepare.

The other thing I love about Bittman’s column is that he usually has a video with it. In the video, he demonstrates a cooking technique, how to use a specific ingredient in a recipe, or simply makes a point about cooking. He has a really quirky sense of humor and the videos often include some funny production techniques.

I searched ‘cooking’ on YouTube and looked at a few of the cooking videos there. Some of the clips were straight from the Food Network. Some were entertaining, but not instructive. I didn’t see anything that combined practical cooking advice with an entertaining on-screen presence as well as The Minimalist.

The Minimalist has an archive of his clips on the NYTimes Food & Wine web site. So one day, I decided to review some of the columns that I missed or that appeared before I started reading him. I found a great one that brought back wonderful memories for me.

Apparently as part of a series on food around the world, Bittman traveled to Spain and did a video on preparing classic Spanish paella. During the video, he visits the central market in Valencia. His reaction on the video was the same as mine when my wife and I visited Spain in 2001.

Our daughter enrolled for a summer term in Spain following her junior year at Florida State. That created an opportunity for us to visit Spain. We spent a couple of days in Madrid and then traveled to Barcelona by train. Our daughter met us there, and we spent a week enjoying the Catalan culture and food and the remarkable architecture of Barcelona. Then we went by train to Valencia where our daughter was going to study.

After getting her settled in her dormitory (which was far more modern than her dorm at FSU), she turned to us and told us, politely but firmly, that we could go now. Somewhat crestfallen, we went back to the central city where we were staying. (Her school was on the outskirts of town, about six blocks from the beach.)

We had a couple of days to explore Valencia before we returned to the USA. One of those days, we wandered into the Central Market. It was fabulous. Row upon row of vendors selling everything imaginable for Spanish cooking. There were beautiful displays of cheese. I was especially impressed by the fresh mozzarella. There were meat vendors and fish mongers. Lots of fresh vegetables. Lots of local olive oil and vinegar vendors. And then, there were the spices – huge mounds of paprika, precious packets of saffron, pepper corns, sea salt, you name it and it was there.

Like Bittman in his video, it was an almost irresistible temptation to buy stuff and bring it along home. As it was, I limited myself to a container of olive oil and a small amount of Spanish saffron.

Valencia is Spain’s third largest city. It has an interesting history and a charming central city including a bull ring. We had a great visit. On the evening before we left for home, Valencia celebrated the festival of the “Virgen de los Desamparados” in the square near the cathedral. We listened to music and watched dancers until late into the evening.

After it was over, as we made our way back to our hotel, we suddenly heard someone call out, “Mom! Dad!” It was our darling daughter, sitting with a large group of new friends around tables outside a café on the square. She came over and gave us a hug and a kiss good-bye.

The next day, when we left for home, we felt assured that she would be all right and she was and she had a wonderful time and a great experience.

16 June 2007

Mr. Wizard & “Cookbook” Science & cooking

I was saddened to read in the news that Don Herbert, AKA Mr. Wizard, died on June 12. When I was a kid, I was a loyal fan of his television science show, Watch Mr. Wizard. For a long time, I wanted to be a scientist. I suppose Mr. Wizard was part of the reason why.

Somewhere along the way to growing up, I quit wanting to be a scientist. I think it had something to do with learning about ‘cookbook’ science. I remember a teacher using the term. It means following the directions on how to mix together chemicals and heat them or otherwise create a reaction that demonstrates a scientific principle. He very firmly explained that is not a scientific experiment. An experiment is when a scientist uses his or her knowledge of chemicals or compounds to develop a theory about how they will react when combined in a certain way to produce a desired result.

I was crushed. I thought a scientific experiment meant throwing a bunch of stuff together and seeing what happened. That sounded like fun. The scientific method sounded like too much discipline and work. Sometime after that I decided not to be a scientist.

I think there’s a parallel, though, between the scientific method and cooking. Sometimes people tell me I’m a good cook. I appreciate the compliment. I know a few techniques, and I can follow a recipe. But I consider my son to be a good cook. Benjamin can come into our kitchen. He’ll look at what we have in the refrigerator and the pantry, and he’ll check the garden for fresh herbs. Then he’ll just start chopping and cooking, and voila! He’s made a meal!

He has a natural sense of how flavors and textures and colors and smells will come together to make something good to eat. Truth to tell, I bet that the best scientists are those who have an instinctive, intuitive sense of a desired end result, and the scientific method is just a formalized way of getting to that desired result.

On Labor Day weekend, I made this recipe for grilled Tandoori-style chicken with mangoes. It’s from the May 2007 Bon Appetit magazine. I only had one mango, so I used it in the rice instead of grilling slices to serve with the chicken. Also, my wife and son do not like cilantro, so I substituted parsley, and I didn’t have any pine nuts so I substituted chopped, toasted walnuts. It turned out nicely, and I will make it again sometime.

GRILLED TANDOORI-STYLE CHICKEN AND MANGOES WITH MANGO JASMINE RICE

Mangoes are used two ways in this Indian dish — grilled with the chicken and tossed into rice.


1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
4 garlic cloves
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon sweet paprika
1 tablespoon coarse kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 cup olive oil
1 cup plain whole-milk yogurt
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice

2 (2 1/2-pound) chickens, quartered

2 large ripe mangoes, peeled; 1 cut into 1/2-inch-thick slices, 1 cut into 1/2-inch cubes

2 cups jasmine rice
3 cups water
1/2 cup pine nuts, toasted

6 fresh cilantro sprigs

Purée first 7 ingredients in processor. With machine running, gradually add oil through feed tube and process until blended. Transfer 1/4 cup herb mixture to small bowl; reserve. Add yogurt and lemon juice to remaining mixture in processor and blend.

Place chicken in 13x9x2-inch glass baking dish. Pour yogurt mixture over chicken; turn to coat. Cover and refrigerate 1 hour.

Prepare barbecue (medium heat). Place chicken, skin side down, on grill. Cover and grill until chicken is cooked through, turning every 5 minutes, about 30 minutes total. Grill mango slices 2 minutes per side; set aside. Meanwhile, combine rice, 3 cups water, and reserved 1/4 cup herb mixture. Bring to boil. Reduce heat to low; cover and simmer until tender, about 15 minutes. Remove from heat; let stand, covered, 5 minutes. Fold in mango cubes and pine nuts.

Arrange chicken on large platter; garnish with grilled mango slices and cilantro sprigs. Serve mango jasmine rice alongside.

Makes 8 servings.

Bon Appétit
May 2007
Allen Susser

Music & Cooking & Rhubarb-Apple Crisp

There’s an interesting comparison between making music and making good food. I played trumpet in the band all the way through school and college. I practiced hard, learned the techniques, and could read music. But I never could improvise.

My wife, for example, can sit down at the piano, hear a tune, and play it, with chords and shading, and it sounds great. I can’t do that. I can memorize, but otherwise, I need a printed score to read.

Same way with cooking. Benjamin knows how flavors, textures, colors, and smells will work together in the same way that Linda knows which chords will harmonize with a melody.

Here’s my little variation on the Betty Crocker Cookbook recipe for Apple Crisp. I have fresh rhubarb in the garden. I substitute an equal amount of rhubarb for about half of the apple and add a little additional sugar to counter the extra tartness of the rhubarb. Apple crisp and apple pie are my favorite desserts. I haven’t mastered pie crust yet (but I keep trying). So if I just want to mix together a good quick dessert, I go with apple crisp. I usually use frozen apples from my parents’ farm.

Rhubarb-Apple Crisp

2 cups sliced apples

2 cups sliced rhubarb

¾ cup brown sugar (packed)

½ cup flour

½ cup old-fashioned oatmeal

¾ teaspoon cinnamon

¾ teaspoon nutmeg

1/3 cup butter

Extra flour and white sugar

Heat oven to 375. Grease an 8x8 glass baking dish. Place about half of the apples and rhubarb in dish. Sprinkle with about 2 tablespoons of white sugar and 2 tablespoons of flour. Place remaining fruit in dish. Mix together brown sugar, flour, oatmeal, spices, and butter until mixture forms a loose crumb. Spread evenly over fruit. Bake for 30 minutes until topping is golden. Serve warm and if desired, with ice cream or whipped cream.

02 June 2007

Prague Picks

We went to a picnic on Memorial Day weekend. A friend of ours said he and his wife were leaving soon for a trip to Prague. They knew we’d been there and asked us for some ideas about where to eat.

It was easy to decide which were the memorable meals. But we needed to refresh our memories about the details – where, why, and how much. So at home, we pulled out our albums and found the memorabilia that we needed to reply. It was so much fun that I decided to adapt it for my blog.

We have been to Prague twice. The first time was 1999 and the second was 2005. It’s a beautiful city with a lot of historic things to see.

There are three restaurants that we ate at and consider to be memorable. My caveat is that it’s been a few years since we were there. I don’t know to what extent things have changed since then.

First is U Tri Zlatych Hvezd, which translated means “The Three Golden Stars” and also is called Vinny Restaurant.

We ate there on our first trip. The weather on that trip was not great. It was chilly and damp with scattered light rain. On our last night, the sky cleared and we enjoyed a gorgeous, mild evening. We strolled across the Charles Bridge and discovered this restaurant. It features Czech specialties. Linda had roast duck. I had trout. We had a table near the window at the front of the restaurant. (There is a dining room in the basement wine cellar as well.) There was a gypsy trio performing in the entryway, and we could hear the music in the dining room. We enjoyed the food, the ambiance, and the music. It was a great parting memory of our first visit.

Also on our first visit, we ate at Adria. I did a search online, and I’m not sure if the restaurant is still there. It was located right on Wenceslas Square. There is a Hotel Adria that I think is the same location. The hotel’s main restaurant is called Triton but I don’t think it’s the one we ate at. The way I remember it, the restaurant was on the second floor with windows overlooking Wenceslas Square. Triton is a cellar restaurant. The restaurant I remember featured classic continental cuisine, as does Triton. So maybe it’s the same restaurant, and I just don’t remember it correctly. It was eight years ago, after all. What really was memorable was the beef stroganoff that they served. Unlike the heavy cream sauce you usually get, this was a light sauce with tomatoes and paprika and maybe a little light cream.

My third recommendation is U Stare Pani (The Old Lady,) which is really a jazz club. The evening we went there, we had eaten a fairly heavy lunch. So instead of a full dinner, we ate some of their appetizers and small plates. The food was good, but our main attraction was the music. This club has a nightly schedule of jazz musicians, mostly from Prague but also from across Europe.

The New York Times Online has a pretty good travel guide for Prague. They have a couple of editor’s picks that sound interesting. Allegro is an Italian restaurant in the Four Seasons Hotel. Café Savoy is a Prague landmark restaurant that’s been recently renovated. I’m sure your hotel concierge could get reservations at either.

Concierge.com also has a travel guide for Prague. It also lists Allegro as a recommended restaurant, and it provides a list of a dozen other restaurant picks.

When my wife and I travel, we don’t usually plan our restaurants in advance. Our typical strategy is to check out different cafés and restaurants that we see while we’re out sightseeing. If we see something that looks promising – totally subjective like quaint dining room or attractive setting – we’ll look at the menu. If we like the menu, we’ll return for dinner in the evening. We don’t always get a five-star meal, but we’re seldom disappointed, and it adds to the adventure of the vacation.

At lunchtime, we usually will find a café or restaurant in the neighborhood where we’re sightseeing. When we were in Prague in 2005, we had lunch one afternoon in the Old Town Square. There are several places around the plaza with outdoor tables where you can relax and enjoy a lunch and a glass of wine or a Czech beer. When we toured the Prague Castle, they have a café inside the castle grounds. We took a day trip to Plzen and toured the Pilsner Urquell brewery, and then had lunch at the restaurant there. That was a lot of fun.

In Plzen, there is a Great Synagogue that has been restored and an old synagogue that is in disrepair. It’s difficult to find the old synagogue because it’s located in the courtyard behind an apartment house. If your tour includes a visit to Plzen, perhaps your driver will know how to find it.

Prague is one of my favorite cities. I was happy to give our friends some tips on restaurants there. If any of my readers have been there and have your own tips, please leave a comment.