Sunday, December 26, 2010

Go West and Go Home

I grew up in Columbia, MD, a thriving, family-oriented suburbia. For me, one of it's downfalls is its overabundance of chain restaurants, which irked me more and more as my passion for food grew. I felt deprived of advancing my culinary horizons within my home town, and was a bit embarrassed with the lack of neighborhood eats I could take visiting friends to. Of course Columbia does have a handful of quality restaurants, but it always made me sad that on the whole, independent places often could not compete with chains.

Luckily for me, Columbia is situated right in-between two major cities: Washington, D.C. and Baltimore. Going to college in D.C. awarded me the opportunity to explore Ethiopian, Middle Eastern, and many other different cuisines that are not easily accessible in Columbia. My restaurant experiences in Baltimore were always more limited however, in part because my time spent there growing up was mostly to visit my grandma, when we would usually go to a Chinese restaurant in her neighborhood (although Mr. Chan's is really tasty, I must say!).

I therefore consider myself even luckier to have discovered Golden West Cafe, located in the adorable Hamden neighborhood in Baltimore. Hamden is filled with vintage shops, boutiques, and an overwhelming choice of restaurants and cafes, all packed within a few blocks.

However I have trained myself to turn a blind eye to all other food options, and make a B line to the Golden West Cafe. Golden West offers a fun atmosphere filled with antique and whimsical Western paraphernalia (obviously not complete without a moose head). The menus are made of, and the bathrooms covered with, vintage record covers. The menu itself is composed of what they call "New Mexican," which translates to unique spins on Tex-Mex inspired plates, with plenty of vegetarian and even vegan options.

As per tradition, every visit to Golden West for me begins with their delicious sweet potato fries, dressed with rosemary salt (you can also get the sweet version with cinnamon sugar). These vibrant orange fries are always made to order (aka, you must practice patience when they arrive, in order not to burn your tongue), and are supremely delicious. Their crispy and savory exterior gives way to a fluffy and subtly sweet interior. They are delectable eaten alone or with ketchup, but I'm a fan of dips, so I like ordering their homemade lemon tahini dressing on the side for such purposes. The result? Heaven! The dressing is thick and bursting with bright citrusy notes and nutty flavors, complimenting the fries' contrasting texture and taste.

For my main course, I decided to go with one of their house specialties, Sopaipillas Enchiladas. Imagine hot and crispy sopaipillas (fried tortilla dough) amidst a mountain of beans, grilled chicken breast, jack cheese, and house-made chile sauce. Throw in guacamole, sour cream, salsa fresca, and an egg sunny side up, and you've got the Sopaipillas Enchiladas, a plate fit for man vs. food.

That's one thing I like about Golden West. The dishes and restaurant as a whole exudes an air of over-excitement. The chef, instead of picking and choosing what to put in the restaurant's dishes, simply decides to throw everything in, and because it's all delicious and well-crafted, the components work together to create a party in your mouth. Everything about this dish made me feel the passion behind its concoction, from the moist chicken and flavorful beans, to the spicy chile sauce, to the perfectly cooked egg, who's runny yolk coated the crispy sopaipillas and everything else in its path with a silky smooth blanket.

I also want to mention the dish that my mom (who served as my eating partner in crime for the evening) ordered, which, although part of the non-Mexican side of the menu, was just as inspiring. Their polenta in minestrone, which was a dinner special the night we went, was crafted using locally secured produce, resulting in an extremely flavorful and hearty stew that covered large triangles of lightly browned polenta, with freshly grated Parmesan sprinkled on top. Again, textures and flavors melded together seamlessly, as biting into the crispy outside of the polenta gave way to its creamy center, an experience heightened by the richly developed flavors of the minestrone, all finished with a slightly pungent aftertaste of the parmesan.

Needless to say, my mom and I were both more than content after our respective meals. Although I'm thrilled to be back in New York, exploring its endless food traditions and innovations, it's always nice to come back to a place unique to where I'm from. For me, the Golden West Cafe provides a guaranteed great meal, always with a friend or family member happy to share the experience with me.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Eyfo HaSush?!

Where is the sushi, that is the question. Well I found it. I know, I know, I'm in New York City, where a new hip Sushi place is opening once every seven minutes.

BUT...not every one of these hip sushi places is reasonably priced, while still able to offer good quality fish, and pieces of sushi that aren't 90% rice. To find a place like that is, I think, a feat.

Before i continue, I do want to explain the title of this post. "Eyfo HaSush" nostalgically refers to my time spent abroad in Tel Aviv, Israel, where I'm pretty sure Sushi places exist even more so than in New York. So there I was in the Middle East, surrounded by plenty of places offering delicious falafal, kebabs and salads (of which I did have plenty, believe me). Yet I found myself gravitating towards the sushi restaurants on a Saturday night, since the abundance of fresh seafood available to Israel lessened the prices somewhat, making sushi an affordable (and delicious) option to my friends and me. It therefore became a running joke to ask, when seeking out a restaurant, "Eyfo HaSush???," literally translating to "where is the sush??"

Thus it was entirely appropriate that my friend Meesh, who I traveled abroad with, introduced me to this Sushi place in the East Village, called JeBon. I was expecting either really good sushi with the high prices that usually accompany it, or subpar pieces of fish at reasonable prices. I was pleasantly surprised when I was presented with beautiful pieces of carefully crafted sushi. And not only were the prices budget friendly, but the atmosphere was an interesting combination of playful and toned down.

I apologize for the poor photo quality, because it makes it hard to see the vibrant colors of these uramaki rolls (aka inside out rolls). The forefront one is a spicy tuna roll, and the one in back is shrimp tempura. The pieces were large, with the fish occupying most of the roll. The tuna was very smooth, with no fishy taste, and the spicy mayonnaise sauce atop it, while not overpowering, was flavorful and satisfying. In the tuna tempora roll, I was delighted to see how generous the shrimp portion was in each piece. The shrimp was crispy on the outside and juicy on the inside, indicating that the tempora had been fried moments before being prepared and delivered to me. The tempura roll also had avocado in it, which was great to have that cool, creamy texture juxtapose the warm crunch of the shrimp.

The atmosphere definitely added to pleasant dining experience. The low lighting was nice, although I should mention that the second time I went here, that wall of lights was red, and I do not recommend sitting at a table right next to blaring red beams. The music in the background, which was turned to an appropriately high, yet not deafening volume, was made up mostly of songs that one would usually hear at a club, making it a good venue on a Friday or Saturday night before continuing on to a bar or club.

I'm really happy that I've found a sushi place where I can enjoy my food and friends' company, while not having to worry about spending a fortune. That means that I can be responsible, and spend that money elsewhere, like for laundry...yeah right.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Cookie Heaven

So, I've never had much of a sweet tooth. I mean, I love cookies and desserts as much as the next person, but I don't get cravings for things of that nature as much as I get cravings for chicken marsala.

But this bakery...ohh this bakery. The Levain Bakery basically changed the way I think about cookies. I scoff when I see little puny cookies sold in other bakeries and on the shelves of the supermarkets. I mean, I still eat them, because hello, they're cookies, but I scoff while I eat them. As anyone can clearly tell, the size of the cookies alone is impressive (my mom first thought she was looking at muffins when I showed her this picture).

I think it's fitting that this be my first post of a place actually in NYC. It's a place that you would pass right by if you didn't know it was there, since you have to go down half a flight of stairs to access the entrance. It's a tiny place, and it doesn't claim to be anything other than a haven for cookie lovers. But these small, unassuming places that deliver the goods are exactly the kinds of places I want to frequent....the hidden gems of the city (not that this gem is so secret. Their website has a video of when they were featured on Oprah. But really, any publicity the Levain Bakery receives is completely justified).

I hope the picture above depicts the magnificent size and texture of this dark chocolate peanut butter chip cookie, so large that even splitting it with someone means eating the equivalent of two average size cookies. The peanut butter chips were gooey and punctuated every bite, and the inside was incredibly moist and rich. Conclusion: I would choose this cookie over chicken marsala, and for me that is really saying a lot.

Thanks for reading!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Respect for the Hudson Valley

Every summer, my family and I go up to Dutchess county for a few weeks. For me, it is pure bliss. Besides the obvious appeal of escaping the everyday stresses for relaxation and late-night scrabble games, the Hudson Valley offers a smorgasbord of restaurants with unique concepts and genuine chefs.

Take Gigi's Trattoria in Rhinebeck. The restaurant exemplifies the philosophy of using local ingredients. The owner Laura Pensiero's menu changes seasonally, and whenever produce from local farms is used in dishes (which is quite often), she notes in the menu what farms the food comes from. She then takes these fresh ingredients and turns them into Mediterranean inspired meals. Seriously, the food is amazing.

This past summer, I got the Bianca "Skizza," an incredibly thin crust pizza that is really all about the toppings: fig jam, chevre goat cheese, mozzarella, thin pear slices, topped with arugula and a drizzle of truffle oil. I was a little skeptical but intrigued, and the taste pairings of the sweet fruit, creamy and tangy cheese, and crunchy arugula with the pungent hint of the truffle oil proved sensational.
Oh, and Gigi's also catered Chelsea Clinton's wedding. The Clintons have very good taste!

Another restaurant that I can't wait to go back to is Poppy's Burgers, in Beacon. A tiny place, it literally only serves burgers and fries, and with good reason. It is honestly the best burger I have ever had. They are juicy, moist (but not greasy), perfectly cooked to medium, and have an amazing flavor that I'm sure originates with their grass-fed, organic beef from Kiernan Farms in Gardiner, NY. Also, the cheese on my burger was so oozey and tangy and delicious, I was convinced it was some locally engineered cheese i had never tasted before...I asked, and was shocked to discover it was cheddar! All I know is that I've never gotten that result from melting Sargento cheddar. And next time I go, I'm definitely opting for the fried egg, one of their topping choices.

A restaurant that I can't go without mentioning is Twisted Soul in Poughkeepsie, near Vassar College. Owned and run by a Culinary Institute of America grad, the restaurant's concept fuses ethnic foods together to make delicious combinations, like savory goat cheese and corn empanadas, and surprisingly airy chickpea fries (pictured below). The joint is small and intimate, and it is obvious that each dish is made to order by the few chefs that are taking orders at the register, preparing the food, and serving. You're crazy if you don't get three or four to share (for two people), in order to sample the eclectic collection of recipes. The fries were definitely my favorite: crispy and light, and incredibly flavorful, since chickpeas have such an earthy substantial flavor that puts plain old potatoes to shame.

Ok almost done with this never-ending post, I promise! But one of the true highlights of my time spent in the Hudson Valley this past summer was attending the Iron Grad Competition, held at the Rhinecliff Hotel. Never heard of such an event? Probably because this was the first one to be held, but very likely to be repeated. Similar in style to Iron Chef, there were four rounds throughout the summer during which recent culinary school grads competed for the title of "Iron Grad."

I attended the final round, and the whole event was extremely enjoyable and done in very good taste. There were about one hundred very enthusiastic and supportive guests, and three local seasoned chefs who were the judges (including Laura Pensiero from the aforementioned Gigi's, to my delight). All three courses were accompanied by wine pairings, and all dishes were very inspired and delicious! Although the judges did offer some constructive criticism, it was not nearly as critical and harsh as that on Iron Chef (or Top Chef, which I'm personally more familiar with).

The event was clearly meant to support rising local chefs first and foremost, who were challenged to incorporate local farm ingredients into their courses. It definitely succeeded in bringing together the Hudson Valley foodie community to recognize the young chefs. Below is the first course that was served, a delicious beggar's purse of crispy phyllo dough enveloping heart-meltingly creamy Old Chathom camembert, worthy of all the awards it has won over the years. A subtly sweet corn puree and ripe tomato jam accompanied the pastry, embodying the summer flavors that dreams are made of. I think they are getting ready to hold another Iron Grad Competition this Fall, and if you find yourself in the area, it is most definitely worth looking into. For a four-course meal with wine pairings, it was $35 per person, extremely reasonable.

I could honestly continue on illuminating all the great meals I had this summer in the Hudson Valley, but I will stop, just ending on the note of Mario's Brick Oven Breads, tucked away in a shopping center in Hopewell Junction (845 226-3782). Besides their loyal following, Mario's is honestly the best kept secret of Hudson Valley, and possibly all of New York. Their fresh breads and homemade pastas (and zeppoles, available on the weekends!!) are truly what I most look forward to. It is the first and last stop my family makes during our vacations. And I should stop talking about it, because it is making me really miss eating that first piece of a fresh ciabatta, with its delectable crust, and an inside so moist and chewy that no condiment is needed. Hudson Valley, I have only respect for you.

Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

And here we go...

Welcome to my food blog! I have been thinking about creating a food blog for a while now, especially  since I found out I would be moving to New York. I am indescribably excited to start exploring all corners of the city; discovering new restaurants, ethnic groceries, and anything else dedicated to food. I love food both because it is delicious and because of its cultural value. I believe that one of the best ways to understand different cultures and lifestyles (and they are endless in New York) is through the many food choices people make on an everyday basis.

Of course, I know that there are tons of food blogs out there. I do not claim to be original in my desire to share my love of food with others. I simply want to use this blog as a vehicle through which to share my explorations and experiences, my revelations and curiosities. So enjoy, and I invite you to comment on and contribute to my posts.

I'll end this first post with an ode to Saveur, a magazine which furthered my education of different foodways throughout the world, and has inspired me seek them out within my own world. It's a terrific gateway into the world of food. An added bonus: their website not only has fantastic recipes from around the world, but it collects recipes from various food blogs. I've supplied the link to their website under my Awesome Food Sites list.

Until next time,