Saturday, November 28, 2009

Smoke It If You Got It

Me, I love the controlled chaos of making a slightly too elaborate Thanksgiving dinner. Watson finds it a little nerve-wracking, though more in concept than in execution, so we tussle over how much to make, when, and in what. We wind up with less than what I want (no soup this year!) and more than what she finds necessary. (I prevailed on making rolls.)

Here's what we whipped up this year for us and her parents:
Caveny Farm Smoked Turkey
Brown Bread Stuffing with Chestnuts, Apples, and Sausage (Aida Mollenkamp)
Garlic Mashed Potatoes (Cooks Illustrated)
Roasted Mushroom and Barley Gravy (Gourmet)
Brussels Sprouts with Maple Butter (Annie Sommerville)
Butternut Squash Gratin (Lee Bros.)
Boiled Corn
Wild Rice Rolls (Beth Hensperger)
Spiced Cranberry Sauce with Zinfandel (
Sweet Potato Buttermilk Pie (Lee Bros.)
Redemption Hazelnut Pie (Patty Pinner)
Swiss Gourmet Egg Nog Ice Cream

There are a few keys to having a pleasantly busy Thanksgiving Day: (1) Make the pies ahead. This is so obvious I shouldn't have to mention it. (2) Buy a smoked turkey. It's delicious, and there's nothing to do but let it come to room temperature. It slices more easily, too. (3) Back out a schedule: start with your desired dinner time, then sit down with each recipe and work backward, leaving generous amounts of time for chopping, blanching, etc. This will never turn out perfectly in its first draft, mainly because you need to adjust for the limitations of space—in our case, one oven and four burners. And that oven, of course, can only be at one temperature at a time. Still, take the time to refine it, and you might be amazed at how much easier the day gets: chop this now; sauté that next, then punch down the rolls, etc. We aimed for 4:00 and with the exception of the squash gratin, which could have used at least a few more minutes than the recipe indicated, everything was on the table at 4:01.

Now, of course, we have far more leftovers than any two people can happily account for; so if you need some pie, come on over.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Apple Crush

Yes, OK, fine, we went to the Publican again, this time for a cider dinner and sat in our favorite seats. And while there were some fantastic dishes—like the Fingerling Potato, Artichoke, and Celery Salad with Chorizo Vinaigrette and Remoulade, which built strong flavor atop strong flavor atop strong flavor—it wasn't a TKO like the last two times. The risotto seemed bland to me—basically just butter with occasional other textures—and the Roasted Guinea Hen with Root Vegetables and Wild Mushrooms would have been much stronger with only dark meat. Then again, I don't care much for poultry, so what do I know? The Sweet Potato Tart was a winner, though, redeemed from its potential blandness by the surprising saltiness of its graham-cracker crust.

The ciders were of a broad range—I preferred the very dry and less overtly apple-y ones, though there were two darker, vinous ones that were well matched with the food as well. I especially dug the Sarasola Basque Cider, which to my palate had a sharp minerality not common to apples. Our man Paulie tended to us more than nicely again—this time plying us with pear cognac and introducing us to some of his other regulars and some of the staffers. We learned that Paulie has done time in the wine biz, that he recently chased down a mugger, and that his 90-day TV fast is almost over. We chatted briefly, too, with the chef de cuisine. These are all perks, in their way, and they're a big part of why we'll be back again soon—cry though our bank balances do. Urban Belly, take a note: we're charitable to the Big P because even when it isn't at the top of its game, it still feels like a great place to be.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Bloated Belly

We've been a hot streak lately, restaurant-wise, and exulting about our good fortune to live in this city. We knew it had to come to an end somewhere, sometime. We didn't figure it would be at the Urban Belly.

Everything—everything—about the Belly was calling out in goodness to us. (Wow, what's with the Palin-esque syntax?) For starters, it's in a neighborhood strip mall, not far from Kuma's Corner and next to a Laundromat that commandeers most of the parking. It doesn't take reservations, it has communal seating, it's quite wee, and its focus is exactly the sort of food we miss most from St. Paul: Asian soups and noodles.

(A brief aside here to underline for those unaware that University Avenue in St. Paul's Frogtown neighborhood is dense with cheap, intense Southeast Asian restaurants. There's Cheng Heng, which features soups thick with quail eggs and jalapenos; Little Szechuan, where we can't stop eating the Kung Pao Chili Shrimp, the Dan Dan Noodles, and the Eggplant with Garlic; Saigon Restaurant and Bakery and its crunchy banh mi stuffed with fragrant, mysterious pork pastes; and even Ngon, which is to some of the other places as Noodles & Company is to Otto but is nevertheless a festival of cilantro-y goodness.)

Actually, the aside perhaps tells the tale: we have had fantastic urban Asian soups and dumplings, and Urban Belly, you just don't measure up.

Let's start with truth in advertising. If you're not going to take reservations, you're going to be crowded, and the line forms principally down a narrow hallway from the dining room to the kitchen and bathroom. That's fine. While you're there, you need to peruse the menu, because you place your order and pay for it before sitting down. That's fine, too. What is not fine is describing dishes in the de rigueur minimalist fashion but then delivering things dominated by other, nonlisted ingredients. Thus, "lamb & brandy dumplings" were four admittedly quite tasty little dough packets nestled amid a monstrous fuzzy raft of edamame (which to me taste like socks). Similarly, the squash/bacon ones had a palatable texture yet were drenched in what Watson said was ponzu, yuzu, or one of the other -zu flavors but to me tasted distinctly of Lemon Pledge.

This might be a quibble. After all, if one can actually stomach edamame (or if one's intestinal tract needs a good buffing and polishing), then there's no problem with either dish. What's not a quibble is the poor quality of the noodle soups. The Soba Noodles with Bay Scallops, Oyster Mushrooms, and Thai Basil Broth were a grayish swampy mess of indistinguishable flavors. The scallops had that off flavor from one too many defrosting/refrosting cycles, and the "fish dumplings" that floated alongside them tasted like congealed glue. It was only slightly better than what I imagine poking around in a week-old bowl of pureed hippopotamus would be like.

Watson went for the Udon Noodles with Shrimp, Coriander, and Sweet Chili Lime Broth. It is very hard to seriously screw up udon, and indeed the noodles themselves were fine—chewy but not too chewy, gummy but not too gummy. But the shrimp had that same gummy texture—and the same off flavor that ruined the scallops. The broth was thin and uninspired, more reminiscent of dishwater than of sweetness, chilis, or limes. Perhaps the best part of the meal was the chewy ginger candies that we were given on our way out—ginger candies countenance a lot of culinary shortcomings.

One other thing about the ambiance: when is the communal seating trend going to be over? It makes brilliant sense for the restaurateur—it's easier to clear tables, and it reduces expectations for service. And yes, occasionally you do have a nice chat with a stranger who likes (or, in the event, hates) the same kind of food you do. But equally often you get crammed next to a foursome of sorority sisters with the collective IQ of a bottle of Noxzema, and you have, like, to hear all about how, like, uh-mazing New Moon is or like whatever. It's like being back in a school cafeteria, proving that expeditiousness is not an unmitigated good.

Next time, we're heading to some of the Argyle Street options—where, to judge from the local chatter, we might have better started out in the first place.

(Special hat-tip to our blogosphere—and real life—pal, the Bloated Belly.)

Fear and Loathing in the Produce Aisle, Part I

I was a bok choy virgin until my 30s.

I can practically hear what you're thinking: "What, in
this day and age? With frank, illustrated educational materials widely available, and all the teevee cooking shows with the sizzles and the knife sounds lovingly miked, and ethnic markets where you can purchase all manner of exotic produce without eliciting a second glance from the gum-snapping cashier?"

But, yes, it's true. I was never sure what the heck to do with bok choy. It was lovely-looking, with creamy white stems and full, deep-green leaves, so I'd caress a bunch now and then at the Asian supermarket in my old neighborhood. But, as with so many of the unlabeled items in its produce department, I was afraid of it. Even the adorable little baby bok choys (boks choy?) nestled six to a plastic bag stymied me. Crazy, right? It's just a vegetable, and a cheap one at that. I wasn't much of a kitchen experimenter at the time, though, so I always set the bok choy back down and headed for my familiar old garlic, ginger and basil.

As with so many things, it took a new love interest to make me brave. I was pitching woo at Melvin and wanted to impress him with my devil-may-care fancy cooking skills, so I decided an experiment was in order. I found a recipe (now lost to the mists of time and my disorganized storage system) for fish and halved baby bok choy that were glazed and cooked together in a bamboo steamer. The fish turned to rubber, but the bok choy saved the day. We devoured the whole batch. They were cooked but still crunchy, with a sheen of sesame oil and (I think) a bit of honey. My fear was banished, Melvin liked me even though our entrée was inedible, and bok choy entered my kitchen repertoire.

Baby bok choy would work for this Mollie Katzen recipe, which has been a tonic in our household during many a gloomy cold snap. You can use the grownup kind, too—just separate the ribs and wash everything well, because bok choy can be sandy. For easy handling, cut the green leaves off the white stems and chop them separately; the stems handle like celery, the leaves, like chard.

This is a virtuous soup (for extra virtuousness, I use whole-wheat noodles) that's exceedingly tasty with the addition of condiments like sesame oil, chili-garlic sauce, cilantro and soy sauce. Mollie says they are optional, but I disagree.

Big, Bold Noodle Soup
from Vegetable Heaven, Mollie Katzen

6 or 7 dried shiitake mushrooms
1 1/2 cups boiling water
8 cups strong vegetable bouillon
6 star anise
4 or 5 large slices ginger
4 cups (packed) stemmed, chopped mustard greens (about half a large bunch)
4 cups chopped bok choy, stems included (2–3 small heads)
10 scallions, thinly sliced on the diagonal
1 pound fresh egg noodles, or 1/2 pound dried (about 3–4 cups cooked)

Soy sauce
Chile garlic paste, chile oil or red pepper flakes
Chinese sesame oil
Torn cilantro leaves

Rinse the mushrooms and place them in a small bowl. Pour in 1 1/2 cups boiling water and cover with a plate. Let stand at least 30 minutes. (This can be done several days ahead, and the mushrooms can just stay in the water until use.)

Combine the bouillon, star anise and ginger in a soup pot and bring to a boil. Turn the heat down, cover and simmer for about 20–30 minutes. At this point, the broth can sit for up to several hours–or even overnight–before you proceed.

Remove the ginger and star anise with a slotted spoon. Strain the mushrooms over the soup, squeezing them firmly, so all of their soaking liquid goes in. Then slice the mushrooms thinly and add them to the soup as well.

Heat the soup to the boiling point, and add the mustard greens, bok choy, and scallions. Turn the heat down and simmer for about 2 minutes.

Meanwhile, cook the noodles in boiling water till just tender. Drain them in a colander, rinse, and drain again, so they won't clump. Divide the cooked noodles among the largest soup bowls you can find, and ladle the soup on top. Pass around the optional toppings on a small tray, so each person can customize his or her portion.

Yield: 6 to 8 soul-soothing servings

Monday, November 16, 2009

Yes We Publican

Two posts into our second life and already this blog is in a rut: yes, I'm going to write about Publican, too—this time about the Allagash beer dinner. Why? Because I want to ruin it for us by telling you how great it is, so that you'll go, and we'll never be able to sit in the Watson Seats again. It happened at 112 Eatery in Minneapolis, you know—though, let's be honest, the entire freaking world already knows about this place.

Actually, we didn't even get to sit in the Watson Seats this time, but we did sit at about the same spot of the bar where we did for the New Holland beer dinner back in August—the fact that I initially wrote "a few weeks ago" instead of "August" gives you a sense of one of the challenges we're up against in writing this blog. Anyway, that had been a crowded affair, with lots of standees and many Friends of the House. We had charming if mildly distracted service from a guy named Paulie, who sealed his place in the Munch Detective pantheon by sneaking us a couple shots of Sortilège, which ought to be sad cliché (it's a mix of maple syrup and whiskey—and indeed, it is Canadian) but capped a night of mesmerizing pairings. Is there a more perfect beer for a snout-to-tail joint like the Publican than New Holland's Charkoota Rye? I think not—though, as the name implies, you have to like smoky flavors. But, friends, Chicagoans, gastronomes, who among us does not?

All right, where was I? Oh yes, at the bar at Publican with Watson, looking enviously at the couple of British spies who had commandeered our favorite seats. What, not spies? Just balding guys with trenchcoats who ate very slowly? OK, fine. Paulie was on the case again tonight, and once again he delivered the goods. It's amazing how a little extra in the pours and a side shot of cider will get a couple to want to come back pretty much every week.

Yes, yes, we're easy marks and we like our beer. And wine. And liquor. But for god's sake, man, what about the food?

First up tonight was a velvet-on-velvet combination of wee Nantucket scallops (remarkably crisp yet not overcooked) and celery-root puree. Pureed with what, you ask? Butter, silly. A couple large truffle shavings were actually superfluous. I never remember in my own cooking to add like to like—you hand me some small, sweet scallops and I start thinking about drowning them in balsamic vinegar—but here the textures created an inimitable mouth-bath of silky richness. The Allagash pairing was the Curieux, and a good thing, too, because due to a comical series of misinterpretations and one startling gesture of bad faith, Watson had poured out a glass of the stuff I'd been drinking just the night before. It's true I was asleep on the couch at the time and had said something profound like "Grrzzflltt" when asked if I was done with my beer, but it just goes to show that you never really know anyone. So the manifestation of a glass of the creamy, saisony stuff (aged in bourbon barrels, doncha know) was even more welcome than it would have been otherwise.

As good as this was, we were knocked back by the followup: squid pizza. Actually, squid-arugula-tapenade pizza. Oh yes, there was guanciale on there, too. Them's hog jowls (snout-to-tail, remember). And then there were some Fresno peppers and lots and lots of salt. I will want this dish on my deathbed, but I hope to have it many more times before then. The peppery Allagash Fluxus stood up to it but was ultimately overwhelmed. I should mention somewhere—here, perhaps—that this dinner was much less crowded than the New Holland one; my theory is that the New Holland guys have a lot of friends in Chicago, whereas no one knows that guy from Portland.

Onward! Paulie draped himself over the back of the chair (no, he's not a cat; it's the easiest way for him to talk to bar patrons) and let us know that he was about 80 days into a periodic 90-day TV fast. "I've read everything in my apartment," he said, "including a book by Leo Buscaglia." He then nabbed two suspiciously full glasses of Interlude, a rich red-purple ale with an intense grapiness, and slid them before us. It was about as plummy as you could imagine a beer to be, and we wondered (a) what could be paired with it and (b) whether Paulie would sink so low as to read Dan Brown. We got an answer to the first question with the arrival of plate of turkey, a meat I do not care for.

And yet... and yet... oh, Publican, we love you so. Here the turkey was done two ways—first as a smoky hamlike slab and then as a, uh, breaded and deep-fried turkey finger? That part didn't enchant me, but the pseudo-ham was topped with little roasted brussels sprouts, slivers of pear, and shavings of actual ham. (A New Yorker writer or Frank Bruni would call this ham on not-ham pairing "witty." I will not.) The denseness of the dish cried out for red wine—or, conveniently, winey beer. As anyone with tastebuds knows, fruit beers can be abominations of sweetness or amiably pointless. Interlude doesn't actually have any fruit in it, which is probably the secret of its success (it's the blend of yeasts and the barreling that do the work), but it provided the same kind of sweetness that a chutney might, in other circumstances.

Paulie, who had by this time taken to calling us his gang, swept our plates away, brought over the beer guy for a chat, slipped us some cider, and announced that he'd served three tours in the military (Somalia, Yugoslavia, and, um, Iraq? We were getting a little hazy by now) and has a bullet still in his leg. Obviously, we were in love.

Dessert arrived and sent us nattering back to childhood—albeit a much fancier and stranger childhood than either of us actually had: chocolate gelato, with salted peanuts, scorched little marshmallows, and a dildonic piece of candied banana. This came with Allagash Black, a smooth, dry stout that slithered across the palate. The only thing that would have made it better would have been two short glasses of the crimson Cantillon kriek that had been poured from the taps in front of us all evening. Why, thank you, Paulie, don't mind if I do. And I take back that crack about fruit beers.

Is there something unseemly about us gorging ourselves into oblivion while being fawned over by a veteran pantomiming friendship? There is. In our defense, we weren't actually gorged, and we totally bought the act, especially in its last scene. We thought the play was over, so we rose to go. Paulie was down the bar, with another couple, whom he turned quickly from to come shake our hands and say, "Let me walk you to the door." Which he did. It was charming, it was a little strange, and we made a reservation for next week's cider dinner on the spot. Whatever it is, it works. And we tipped very well.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

For the people all said "sit down"

If I'm going to tell you the story that's awakened the Munch Detective from hibernation, I have to tell you about the Watson Seats.

The Watson Seats are those two seats that are tucked away by themselves, revenue-maximizers that are crammed into some corner of a restaurant or into some awkward short row of a theater or sports arena. For example, there are Watson Seats at Midway Stadium (first-base side, top row of Section K) and at the McGuire Theater at the Walker Art Center (Row O). The beauty of Watson Seats is that their relative isolation lets you experience whatever you're there for as though it belongs to you and your companion alone. There's nobody hogging the armrest next to you, nobody eavesdropping as you whisper a critique of that bad jazz ensemble, nobody breathing garlicky breath in your general direction. While most people think the Watson Seats undesirable because they're too far from the action, they're always the preferred seating for Mel and me.

We discovered the Watson Seats last week at The Publican. They're the only two seats on the short side of the L-shaped bar, and they offer a great view of both the kitchen and of the woman who labors with great concentration over the fresh oysters: shucking them, sniffing them delicately, nestling them gently into beds of shaved ice. When Mel and I walked into the Publican at 9:00 on a Thursday, we expected to have to wait a while, having been told by the New York Times Style section some months ago that Thursday is the new Friday. Not only were we seated immediately, we were shown by happenstance to the Watson Seats, where we had excellent beer (including two beauties from Michigan: a Dark Horse Fore Smoked Stout and a New Holland Brother Jacob Dubbel) and delicious, I-never-woulda-thought-of-that seafood-plus-meat dishes (littleneck clams with pork shoulder, squid with kielbasa; both are much more than the sum of their parts). Mel also had oysters—Bagaduces from Maine, described on the Publican menu as "unyielding and brackish"—while I pounced on the homemade crackers that accompanied them.

While we enjoyed our beer and our food, we also enjoyed the show. The Publican is always unbelievably busy, but the staff never seems harried. Nobody’s pitching a fit in the kitchen. Everybody, from the cooks to the busers to the servers, knows exactly what they're doing and knows how to get from point A to point B quickly and unobtrusively. The only ripple happened when the restaurant's co-owner Donnie Madia—leather-jacketed, groovy-spectacled and Jim Jarmusch-haired—walked into the kitchen around 9:45 and started talking, tasting, making the rounds of the kitchen and bar before he started to work the room. Mel and I had a great time watching him. We could tell that he was seeing everything, even in the parts of the restaurant he didn’t seem to be looking at.

Donnie was stationed at the door as we were leaving. "How was your dinner?" he asked. "Terrific," I told him. "This place makes us really happy." "Oh, you had the best seats, those seats at the oyster bar," he enthused. “We love them,” I replied. Donnie grinned and turned to the woman at the host stand and said, “Hey, can we do a favor? They love those oyster bar seats. Will you put a note in the system so they get those seats whenever they call?” Mel and I (who, I should note, are by no means prone to falling for a suck-up or a glad-hander) swooned. It was a cool thing for him to do, and a supremely savvy one, because those few keystrokes turned us from people who really like the Publican into full-on Publican regulars and evangelists. We’re going tonight for the Allagash beer dinner, and will report on the food and the drinks—and whether we enjoyed them from the Watson Seats.