Saturday, April 26, 2014

James Beard Foundation CELEBRITY CHEF TOUR sails into DC at Mike Isabella's KAPNOS (4-23-14)

Boy was I glad Passover ended the day before the James Beard Foundation arrived in town this year for their periodic Celebrity Chef Tour. This year we had close to a dozen chefs and mixologists hosting at Mike Isabella's new 14th Street haunt, KAPNOS. When I walked in just before the 7pm starting time, the bar was already heaving as people crowded around the three mixologists working hard to custom mix and pour each drink.
I passed the first group and headed to Taha Ismail who is the mixologist for Kapnos. He was pouring a superb drink made from Skinos, Hum, Grapefruit, Maple and Burlesque Bitters. He explained the first two alcohols come from Greece, but you will have to do your own research here! Next to him, where the long line was previously were the folks from Mockingbird Hill on 7th St, NW ( mixing up Green Hat Spring/Summer Gin, Alexandro Moscatel Sherry, Fresh Lemon Juice, Orange Bitters and adding a sprig of singed Lemongrass for aroma. I adored this drink, but boy did it pack a punch.
I tasted the fab hor's d'oevres which consisted of Crispy Deep Fried Pork Roll, Smoked Salmon something, Scallop Sushi with a Wasabi Cream punch and my favorite that I could not resist; Spoons of WAGYU BEEF TARTARE! I must have had 6 or more of these irresistible treats. After these I moved to Adam Bernbach from 2 birds, 1 stone who was mixing up a drink called Banana is My Business. I wish this was served at the end of the meal as it was sweetish, but here it served as a palate cleanser of sorts before we sat down. It was made from High West Silver Oat Whiskey, Amaro Ramazzotti, Hefeweizen (which he explained is a light wheat beer with a banana hint!) & Banana Soda. It was just right.
We sat down and we were told that the hor's d'oevres were made by local chefs Scott Drewno of The Source, Victor Albisu of Del Campo (yay for the scallop and wagyu!) and Hiadar Karoum of Doi Moi, Estadio and Proof; not a bad start.
The restaurant if full, and it was jammed, can be loud, but we were thankfully in the quieter back room in the corner, which was a blessing. I was lucky enough to be at the "head" table with Jeff Black from Boulder, CO who spends his life organizing these dinners all over the country; not a bad job! They pured Moscofilero, Tselepos "Villa Amalia" , Arcadia Sparkling Brut which was the first of all wonderful Greek wines, but it was not cold. They quickly replaced the glass with a very cold one and it was perfect, especially oh so cold, with the RAW FLUKE, Eggplant, Peas and Mint from Chef Kevin Sbraga (of Sbraga in Philly) which was an instant hit. The secret here were the small cubed deep fried pieces of eggplant which were in a kicky spicy coating that lit up the dish to no end; we all were surprised at the intense spice, but it was quick and the brut was perfect to distill it.
Second came Chef Jamie Bisonnette (of Coppo & Toro in Boston) who served a tasty OCTOPUS A LA PLANCHA with a mild Harissa, Burnt Onion and a divine crispy Bone Marrow that made the dish. We wanted more from the harissa as it actually seemed more like a mild red pepper puree. An aromatic Malagouisa, Gerivassilou White 2012 from Thessaloniki accompanied brilliantly.
The next course was from one of my favorite US chefs (whose tabbouleh recipe is to die for) Mike Solomonov (of Zahav in Philly) which I really want to visit! His DUCK & FOIE GRAS KEBAB was simple yet superb with Huckleberry & Pistachio over Jasmine Rice. We all argued over what was atop the kebab, which was more like a mini-burger. I was sure it was a radish, but it turned out to be a poached carrot. The wine was one of my favorites all night and I kept asking for more of the Tannat, Alpha Estate "Utopia" 2009 from Amyndeon which indeed sent me to utopia.
The "main" meat course was from Chef Mike Isabella himself who presented perfectly cooked Spit Roasted LAMB with Boureki, Green Garbanzos, Ramps. The lamb was smokey and intense and the puree of garbanzos was ingenious. The phyllo boureki pastry was filled with spinach, mushroom, feta and white raisins; who would have thought? The wine was another amazing red: Agiorghitiko/Cabernet from Domaine Skouros  2008 called "Megas Oenos" (big work?) from Peleponnese.
Nearing my limit I was pleased to see that Pastry Chef Chris Ford (now of Bouchon Bakery in LA) sent out a perfect GOAT CHEESE PANNA COTTA with Orange Honey, Candied Almonds, Kaitfi (that crunchy "shredded wheat") & Pistachio Gelato. It was a small plate with perfect portions just right and served with a wonderful Assyrtico/Aidani Vin Santo from Domaine Sigalas 2004 on Santorini, where we had actually visited the winery some 6 years ago!
I am sorry that the tour will return to DC this summer, but I am unable to attend; hopefully more dates are in store as DC becomes a culinary center and big yield for the James Beard Foundation!

Sunday, April 20, 2014

always bravos for BLACKSALT (4-13-14)

Immediately upon deplaning from our cruisetrip, we met my cousins for dinner back in DC at our neighborhood haunt, BLACKSALT ( and we all pretty much had a great time.
It was the last chance to gobble down some bread before Passover, so we all (save my cousin who is gluten-free) enjoyed the various breads with seasoned dipping oils. I ordered a superb Cuilleron-Villard-Gaillard 2011
Marsanne from Saint-Peray made by these superb Rhone Valley winemakers as a joint venture. I met Yves Cuilleron many years ago and still adore their wines. Will's eyes lit up when our server announced the first of the season Corn Meal Battered Soft Shell Crabs which he immediately ordered and I tasted-YUM. Soon we will get the local ones, rather than those from the Gulf! He also ordered some of the Wood Grilled Sardines with Braised Rapini, but asked them to omit the Picholine-Sultana Agro Dolce,  and I thought that would have been a huge addition. He started with the WoodGrilled Baby Octopus, Spicy Peperonata, Salsa Verde and Confit Gold Potatoes which we have always enjoyed here, but he declared it not as good as in the past.
My cousins tended to salads and I chose the Atlantic Dayboat Scallops, Pancetta Vinaigrette, Fava Beans, Gnocchi, Fava Puree & Maitakes which is definitely one of the top appetizers here not to be missed. Such plump fresh scallops are always a treat. Having not had great fish while on the cruise (yea, that makes sense!) I chose the Atlantic Bigeye Tuna with Crispy Pork Shoulder, Yucca Frites, Green Chile Mole & Black Bean Relish; what a treat and fabulous combination of flavors. We had moved onto a Brick House 2010 Cascadia Ribbon Ridge Chardonnay from the Willamette Valley; I have definitely added this winery to our list to visit in July when in Oregon.
The Whole(fileted) Wood Grilled Branzino was divine with Bean Ragout, Rapini, Olives, Baby Chokes & Preserved Lemon. It's amazing how good and rich a fish this is when prepared with such love.
WoodGrilled Creekstone Farm NY Strip with Beer Batter Onion Rings, Wild Mushrooms, Bone Marrow Butter and Blacksalt Steak Sauce was on the menu for Sam. It was also perfect, although he insisted those fabulous wild mushrooms be on the side. Better for the rest of us to gobble them up.
DoverSole was Pan Raosted with Asparagus, New Potato & Ramp Cream--INGENIOUS. I must make ramp cream sometime somewhere!
We took our time, but had some issues communicating with Fernando, our server, but nothing awful. We survived, and the place was indeed jammed as it is every weekend night and most other nights as well.
Desserts were needed to get that leaven in before the holiday. My cousin and I shared the Trio of Crème Brulees, and she loved the Butterscotch, while I adored the White Chocolate/Raspberry, but the top was the Milk Chocolate/Hazelnut with Poached Cherries!
Banana Chocolate Cream Pie with Thyme Honey, Roasted Pineapple and Chocolate Sauce just seemed like overdose to me, but then, I did not taste...and it was gobbled up as well as the Chocolate Bread Pudding; a Butterscotch Pot de Crème, Scotch Vanilla Milkshake, Almond Brittle & Milk Chocolate-Butter Shortbread dish that looked like tons of fun. We will have to go back again soon for cheese :-))

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Cozumel, Mexico's CASA MISSION will get you all cooked up (4-11-14)

Yesterday our ship ported in Cozumel with about 19,000 other tourists coming off the various cruise ships in port. We have never been fond of these mega-ports such as St. Thomas and now Cozumel with the capability to have a half dozen ships in town on any given day. We had chosen what turned out to be an awful shore excursion, but we were so grateful for what came afterwards. Friends of ours from DC had noticed in my last posting from Galveston that we were headed here. They quickly emailed and invited us to lunch and to spend the afternoon by the pool and sea at their mother's home as she lives in Cozumel full time now. We met at CASA MISSION which is east of the town center and consists of a large old hacienda converted into a beautiful oasis in the middle of town.
We sat on the porch surrounded by flowers and plants and a cool breeze wafted by as we sipped what had to be the most powerful Margarita I had ever had; it was simply fabulous. It was noontime, but Mexicans still eat breakfast so while you could choose from Fish Tacos (made with fresh Dorado), Enchiladas and more, there were also several local breakfast dishes. There was cut fresh bread (no chips here) with a wonderful smoky salsa made from arbol chilis. This was also excellent on all the dishes as was the more powerful salsa made with habaneros, but it was not intense or overpowering as the ones back home are.
I had the Chilaquilis which come with red or green chili and are simply taco chips with shredded chicken, salsa, and a superb side of refried beans all topped with queso fresco, that wonderful white freshly made cheese found all over Mexico.
I gobbled my dish up as everyone else at the table did and even managed to finish off a half of one of Samuel's cheese quesadillas as he could not eat all three. The food was fabulous, the atmosphere perfection and all of the agony from the morning's excursion disappeared. Our afternoon with our friends was perfect and we returned to the ship having a new view of Cozumel; it can be great if you escape the thousands of tourists and the omnipresent pier shopping!
We must also thank our friends' mother, Jean, who is a warm, generous and kind person, and truly a good "soul." It was so special to meet her. Indeed I am already reading her book entitled "Saying 'I Do' In Paradise" on our last day at sea and am thoroughly enjoying it.
We head back to DC tomorrow and will be busy observing Passover this week, so to all those who celebrate, we wish you a wonderful holiday.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

RUDY & PACO in Galveston gives you super seafood Nicaraguan style in Texas (4-5-14)

We only had one night in Galveston, Texas before boarding our short spring break cruise and I chose RUDY & PACO's ( in the old part of downtown, which was a great choice for all of us.
The restaurant is elegant, but a bit too dark for me; I had to ask our friendly server, Leann, for her flashlight numerous times in order to read the menu! The tables are close and it can get a bit noisy, but it was never bothersome (like some trendy loud place back North with blaring music!).
Paco himself came around to greet folks and make everyone feel welcome and before we even had our napkins in our laps a plate of
crispy fried plantain chips arrived with two salsa. The red called Paco Pico is their version of pico de gallo, and the green was a cilantro-based chimichurri. Both were superb and mild as well with just a slight kick as much of the seasoning here indeed was.
A bottle of Provenance Sauvignon Blanc 2012 from Rutherford in Napa Valley was a perfect pairing for my starter a huge portion of Ceviche Corinto which was Gulf Red Snapper at its best. The local fish is truly tasty and the purple and white slaw at the bottom was a nice change from wet lettuce. Will ordered a creamy tasty Sopa Poblano which also had a slight spice kick. The kitchen here knows how to treat spices and food well with just the right amount.
Crunchy crusted Sourdough bread came hot to the table with a creamy soft salty butter; even Samuel could not resist this.
He gobbled up his Pollo Managua which was the Nicaraguan version of my chicken with lemon-butter sauce and capers, but here the breast was crispy with a yummy lemon-caper-butter. On the side of each dish was superb spinach with mushrooms and sun dried-tomatoes and a large portion of scalloped potatoes; Sam wanted neither of these, but we could not resist them.

Will and I moved on, after a long rest, to a yummy bottle of Belle Glos "Clark & Telephone" 2012 Pinot Noir from Santa Maria Valley in Santa Barbara, CA. We loved it and it was superb with the two main courses we shared:
Filete de Pargo was a grilled version of the same Gulf Red Snapper from the ceviche topped with jumbo Gulf lump crabmeat, avocado and paco pico (the pico de gallo on the plantain plate). It was excellent and the fish superb. We switched and I also loved the special of Golden Tilefish, Parmesan crust and more of that yummy crabmeat with a white wine, basil butter sauce, pancetta and capers. It was almost too much in the dish, but somehow it all came together beautifully. The only issue was that we forgot this is TEXAS and the portions are all Texas size or amazingly HUGE. Will and I could not eat dessert so same chose the Chocolate Sabroso which was a molten chocolate ganache cake surrounded by mounds of whipped cream and vanilla ice cream drizzled with chocolate sauce. We tasted and it was very good.

We can now board our ship for the week-long cruise to Belize, Cozumel & Roatan knowing that we have had some of the best Gulf of Mexico fish around!