New beginnings?

August 25, 2011 Leave a comment

Within the past couple of months, several people have asked me why I don’t write in here anymore. To be honest, a major reason is because I just assumed no one read it! As a writer (or one who some may call a writer), I am inherently needy and admittedly desperate for feedback…preferably praise, of course, but a bit of constructive criticism is nice too! What can I say? I’m self-absorbed and I want comments!

So I am thinking about trying to come back here with a little more force. I have been writing reviews semi-regularly over at Yelp, but I obviously don’t get as in-depth. I’d like to make this a site with a little more variety, a site that is truer to its namesake. Whenever I revisit it, I am plagued by how the title is not reflected in the entries. I’d like to incorporate more of my everyday meals and restaurants, not just swanky-yet-cost-effective Restaurant Week meals. I want to explore my local restaurants and cuisine more. Finally, I need to further document my culinary travels, of which I’ve had many since I kind of let this blog sit here for almost a year.

What do you guys think? Do you have any ideas? Is there anything you’d like to see or not see? Am I boring you already?

If I am gonna do this, I want to do it right.

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Graham Elliot – Chicago, IL

September 4, 2010 4 comments

I would be lying if I said I didn’t have a crush on Graham Elliot Bowles.

Sure, I pretty much have a crush on any degree of attractive dude holding a chef’s knife.  But when I was first introduced to Bowles on Top Chef Masters, I was immediately drawn to the rolled-up sleeves of his whites that exposed…what is that?  A Jawbreaker tattoo?!  Who is this dude, and why have I not been following his career since I was born?

Of course, I am always drawn to chefs because we have an obvious common interest.  But first and foremost, independent music is my everything and the single most definitive thing that makes me who I am.  I’ve been going to shows for over ten years, watching (and in several cases, nurturing) bands from my area outgrow basements and side stages and sometimes get too big for their britches.  I travel the country to watch my favorite bands and have been devoted to many for close to a decade.  It’s serious business.

That said, the media has their quintessential bad boys and girls in either demeanor or in physical attributes.  Having tattoos doesn’t necessarily make someone alternative.  Just because Megan Fox has tattoos doesn’t mean we are in the same scene by any means.  So as much as I love the pigeonholed “bad boy” chefs like Anthony Bourdain and Michael Symon, I don’t consider them people to whom I can relate.

There are obvious presumptions that can be made by any guy that is ink-covered and/or beard-clad.  I felt an immediate affection for Kevin Gillespie in the last season of Top Chef because he looked like someone whose crew I could roll with.  But to see Bowles with a tattoo of a band I love, I immediately rooted for him, felt instant kinship with him, and became incredibly intrigued by his cuisine that was seemingly kickass.  I wasn’t left wondering about this dude – I just automatically assumed he was awesome.  And then I started following him on Twitter and saw his exchanges with The Get Up Kids (one of my favorite bands), solidifying every suspicion of awesomeness I had.

I swear this wasn’t supposed to turn into a profession of love for Graham Elliot Bowles.

But, actually, it was – because I finally tried the food and was happy to discovered that my adulation was not in vain.

Graham Elliot was my most highly anticipated meal of my trip to Chicago, largely because of this connection I feel with my fellow music fans, no matter how much or little I know them.  But if I found out that some chef from Wyoming had a Saves the Day tattoo, I would gladly visit his restaurant, too.  I think that a certain level of creativity and artistic merit comes with involvement in punk and hardcore, so I knew to expect some nontraditional combinations.  Not to mention I had read articles about Bowles’ affinity for Cheez-Its, a sentiment I can back entirely and without hesitation.

Thanks to Lauren, we had a primetime reservation: Saturday night at 8:15.  We were a little peeved to arrive about five minutes before our scheduled time and be seated about 15 minutes after our reservation time, but we patiently waited it out in the crowded bar area.  The decor of dark woods was warm and cozy and not at all pretentious.  Lauren noted, and I agreed, that it was awesome that servers were allowed to dress casually and comfortably.  Definitely establishes a level of ease with the clientele.

Once we were finally seated, we were presented with menus and a basket full of popcorn in lieu of bread.  If you know me, you know I have very strong feelings about popcorn.  And by “strong feelings” I mean it is pretty much my favorite snack food and I can wolf down bagfuls at record speeds.  This was absolutely, without a doubt, 100% right up my alley.

My main issue with this popcorn is that I WANT TO EAT IT EVERY SECOND OF EVERY DAY.  It was freshly popped and warm when it arrived, dressed lightly with white truffle oil and I think parmesean cheese?  Maybe some herbs?  I don’t even know, I just know that it was stupidly delicious and addictive.  I have literally been fantasizing about this popcorn since it arrived to our table.  Is it impolite to ask for seconds?  Thirds?  Because we didn’t and I wish we had.  The popcorn wasn’t greasy or heavy at all – just different, delicious flavors and intensities with each handful.  We concluded that this popcorn would definitely be featured on The Best Thing I Ever Ate: Snacks if Food Network ever puts us on the show.  Graham, if you ever read this, please ship a monthly bucket to New Jersey.

First course – hated the presentation and loved the dish.  It was listed on the menu as tuna carpaccio, but I was beyond delighted when a plate of white tuna arrived to the table.  The slices were accompanied by avocado mousse, passion fruit puree, crispy plantain, and dusted with cocoa nib.  Sounded crazy on the menu, but the combination was brilliant.  I think that the cocoa nib was was really brought the entire dish together and set it over the edge from being good to awesome.  The flavors were bright and distinct; you could taste each ingredient within each bite.  The very definition of clean flavors.

For the main course, I got the Waygu beef with fingerling potatoes, cippolini onions, watercress, and cabernet jam.  I requested my beef to be cooked rare, and rare it was!  Look at the gorgeous, deep crimson of that meat.  The texture of the beef was smooth and buttery, able to be severed with just a single knife stroke.  The cabernet jam was perfectly sweet, tart, and almost a little smoky, like barbecue sauce.  All of the other flavors worked together tremendously, but for personal preference, I would have cooked the onions softer, cooked the potatoes crispier, and julienned the watercress – it was a bit difficult to eat such large pieces of leafy watercress and a couple of pieces stuck to the back of my throat.

Lauren’s lamb entree came out perfectly cooked but cold.  She understandably asked for it to be redone – I mean, if you are spending a pretty penny on a dish, you want it to be worth what you’re spending.  The staff could not have been more understanding and accommodating, insisting they remake the dish.  They even offered to remake my dish, so as to not make either of us uncomfortable.  For reasons of waste , I declined.  I thought the offer was very generous and considerate.  When the lamb came back, it was cooked a little over, but Lauren said it was still incredible – just took it down from being an 11 to a ten.

I don’t even know where to begin with this dessert.  On the menu, the combination sounded a little weird – chocolate torte with Frangelico financier, apricot jam, salted caramel, and cream cheese ice cream.  Sure, chocolate and caramel, or chocolate and cream cheese – but all together?  I love all of the elements separately (seriously, I wish it were socially acceptable to eat cream cheese out of a tub), but my curiosity was piqued by the combination.  However, I firmly believe that if a trusted chef puts seemingly weird things together, it has to be good and I usually trust his/her judgment.

The plate arrived and I examined it with wonderment.  I was expecting something much richer, much heavier – and I couldn’t have been happier that it wasn’t what I was expecting.  I love chocolate, but I think a lot of places are a bit heavy-handed when it comes to chocolate desserts.  This was like nothing I had ever seen and nothing I had ever tasted.  Definite Best Thing I Ever Ate status.

I got all of the elements onto one forkful – the financier (which is essentially spongecake), the torte, the jam, the caramel, the ice cream, and the crisp cookie that was set atop – tasted it, and was instantly sent into total dessert euphoria.  My eyes widened and I immediately slapped my palm against my forehead, giggling with delight at how blown away I was.  The cream cheese ice cream was cheesy but still mild (unlike Ben and Jerry’s Imagine Whirled Peace, which is disappointingly and vomit-inducingly sour) and the sea salt sprinkled on the chocolate provided the perfect balance among the sweet and sour elements.  The cake itself was light and airy, but still not overpowered by the chocolate.  Overall, it was delicate, satisfying, and in a word, perfect.

Aside from what I thought to be a small main course, my dinner at Graham Elliot far exceeded my already-high expectations.  I had read in reviews that the staff was pretentious, but I found nothing of the sort.  They were attentive and knowledgable, and in fact, I appreciate the honesty of our server.  When Lauren ordered her dessert (strawberry shortcake) and an iced darjeeling tea, our server made a face and suggested that the tea was really plain and would probably overpower the dessert.  Most places probably wouldn’t offer that advice, but I was impressed that she felt that would be valuable to us.

Bowles is slated to open a new sandwich shop, Grahamwich, any day now.  It will feature sandwiches, snacks, housemade sodas, and housemade soft serve – so, pretty much, it’s going to be awesome.  From the articles I have read, I’ve gathered that the truffle popcorn will be featured.  And the second the opening is announced is the second that I will be researching when to go back to the Windy City.  I miss it already.

Frontera Grill – Chicago, IL

September 2, 2010 Leave a comment

Over the years, I have had to come to grips with it: I live to eat and not vice-versa.

It seems that, when “normal” people travel, they plan food around their activities.  Grab a quick bite in between attractions.  Pack sandwiches or snacks.  Grab a hot dog here, or a pretzel there.

Not for me.  This past weekend, I got on a plane and it was pretty much solely to eat.  Sure, we (my friend Lauren and I) did some fun stuff in between.  Visited some parks and piers, rode some rides, did some shopping.  But really, food is always the main attraction.  The typical “attractions” take a backseat.

I’d been to Chicago several times, but always with purpose.  Never before had I the chance to walk around and savor the city with its gorgeous parks, sprawling river, lively pier, and rich culinary landscape.  I just knew that I loved it every time I went and this past trip validated that love even further.  If it weren’t for the horrendous winters, I would take serious considerations into moving out there.  It’s the perfect city – and so clean!

Chicago is a serious culinary contender, which is one of the reasons I was so anxious to go back with Lauren and really test the waters.  Several Top Chef notables (contestants, judges, and Masters alike) have rooted themselves in the Windy City, including Grant Achatz, Rick Tramonto, Gale Gand, Stephanie Izard, and the list goes on.  When we were booking our trip, there were three established chefs we knew we had to experience during our visit: Art Smith, Graham Elliot Bowles, and Rick Bayless.

Mexican is arguably my favorite cuisine and Rick Bayless is the master (the Top Chef one, too).  I was anxious to try Frontera Grill (and eventually Topolobampo and XOCO) and Bayless’ infamous mole and ceviches.  Frontera Grill is his casual dining option – bright, friendly, warm, and with exceptionally knowledgable and attentive staff.  It was definitely casual dining with five-star service, treatment, and ingredients.

We got two starters.  The first, for $8 per person, is a sampler platter.  I would definitely recommend trying this if you want to get the most out of your experience.

Our eyes widened as this giant metal platter made its way to our table.  Maybe I was expecting something a little smaller and daintier, but I was happy that I was allowed to get a little messy.  Pictured here are cheese quesadillas, chicken taquitos, guacamole, jicama salad, and ceviche tostadas.

The cheese quesadillas were definitely the highlight of the plate.  Creamy cheese oozed out of the crisp batter, making more of a Mexican mozzarella stick than a traditional quesadilla.  The flavor of the taquitos was spot-on, but they were served cold – major downfall for an otherwise delicious item.  The guacamole was good, but needed more acid to make it spectacular.  The jicama salad was crisp and refreshing, kicked up with spices on top and chopped pineapple underneath.  The ceviche tostadas were my least favorite.  Sounds silly, but maybe I am not used to the texture of cooked fish because it was really off-putting to me.  The chips that were scattered around the plate, however, were SO GOOD.  Very filling, yes, but they were thick, sturdy, corny, and perfectly seasoned.  Really stood up to the thick, chunky guac.

What really impressed me was that you could really taste how fresh these ingredients were.  Bayless is renowned for is contributions to sustainability, manifested in part by the rooftop garden in which many of the restaurant’s ingredients are grown – including the tomatoes and chiles used to make the salsas.  This passion was evident in each component, from the creamy, rich cheese to the perfectly ripe avocados used and bold, bright citrus flavors.  Yum!

Our second starter was the Trio, Trio, Trio – a trio of three of Bayless’ famous ceviches: tuna with mango-grapefruit salsa, shrimp and calamari with jicama, and Hawaiian sunfish.

Tuna and mango are two of my favorite things in the world, so it was natural that this ceviche would be the obvious winner of this theoretical contest.  Actually, it prompted a conversation between Lauren and me…

Remember in the movie Coneheads when Ronnie (Chris Farley) takes Connie to Subway and she annihilates the Subway sandwich in one impressive gulp?  Lauren and I agreed that we would similarly like to eat slabs of tuna the same way.

Anyway…

The shrimp and calamari ceviche came in a close second.  It was accented with lime and orange juices with habanero peppers cutting through with great heat.  It was the most interesting of the three.  Different flavor profiles were evident with each bite and within each bite.  I felt like I wasn’t tasting the same thing twice.

The sunfish was the ceviche that we received on the tostadas prior, and I simply didn’t like it.  The texture threw me off and completely distracted me from noticing anything besides how badly I didn’t want to eat it anymore.  It could’ve been completely acceptable for someone who is used to it, but it wasn’t for me at all.

Finally, to the main course: enchiladas de mole poblano.  Essentially, chicken enchiladas with mole sauce.  Trying Rick Bayless’ mole was sort of on my mental food “bucket list,” if you will.  I hadn’t had mole up until this point, so I don’t really have a basis for comparison.  But if this is the standard by which all future moles are measured, the rest of the mole-making world might be in trouble.

My experience with enchiladas is much different than those pictured above.  I am used to them smothered with cheese and salsa roja.  These are much more minimalist and, I assume, authentic (judging on Bayless’ respect for Mexican food and culture).  Just pulled chicken, tortilla, and mole – lots of it.

The chicken was quite dry, but the sauce was heavenly.  This is the very definition of layering – it was savory and sweet, smoky and warm, and it was like nothing I had ever tasted before.  The chocolate that characterizes mole poblano was an ever-so-slight background note – and as subtle as it was, it elevated everything to an unfamiliar level.  It kept me guessing, as a well-crafted dish should.

The enchiladas were presented with a side of black beans.  No words can properly depict how much I love fresh, uncanned, gummy (in a good way) black beans topped with queso fresco.  I wish I could have them more often.

Lauren and I were already well into food coma territory before the entrees arrived, so we, sadly, had to skip out on dessert.  We saw several desserts walk by, and I think we’re both still hurting that we didn’t have it in us to try the flan.  But there will be other trips and other chances, and certainly visits to XOCO and Topolobampo in our respective futures.

New York Restaurant Week Summer 2010: Quality Meats

July 27, 2010 Leave a comment

It’s the most wonderful time of the year!

Yes, New York Restaurant Week is upon us and, thankfully, has already been extended until September 6.  Not only does this bode well for my schedule (I was on vacation for the first week of NYRW), but makes a belated-as-usual blog relevant for a while!

My first Restaurant Week experience this summer was quite an exquisite one.  Anxious to try out new places this time around, my friend Lauren and I scheduled a lunch date at Quality Meats.  I was feeling something hearty and, well, meaty.  With a name like Quality Meats, you provide diners with high expectations before they even walk through the door.  It’s straightforward and challenging, and I am thrilled to report that the name is entirely well-deserved.

The decor at this place is absolutely stunning.  Medium woods, industrial light fixtures, exposed brick, and glass accents make this place feel upscale yet homey and, though it entirely feels like a steakhouse, it doesn’t have the masculine, supper club ambiance of other steakhouses.  Floor-to-ceiling, glass-encased wine racks act as the centerpiece of the room, setting off the cozy alcove in which Lauren and I were seated.

Restaurant Week choices can be tricky as far as calculating how much of a value you’re actually getting.  Some places I have dined, such as Craftbar, are places I could realistically eat without the specials because the prices are pretty reasonable (and they don’t skimp on portions, ahem).  Quality Meats is not one of these places.  Their Restaurant Week menu has pretty generous offerings of about four choices per course, and these items on the regular menu definitely get pricey.

I’ve said it before and I’ll underline it again – restaurants should be putting their best feet forward during Restaurant Week.  They are likely getting more economically-conscious customers (especially in the present climate), so restaurants should look forward to giving new demographics a special meal and potentially tapping into a new customer base.  A lot of restaurants try to get through Restaurant Weeks while others tackle it head-on and provide unforgettable meals.  Quality Meats definitely falls into the latter category.

That being said, the variety and portions were unbeatable.  Lauren and I both opted for the steak tartar appetizer, and we were both awestruck when this beauty arrived to our table.

Gorgeous, is it not?  The Quality Meats “QM” logo adorned a lot of the tableware, including knives, napkins, and this adorable mini-cutting board.  A very nice, classy touch.  The perfectly yellow egg yolk atop the raw meat was a more-than-pleasant surprise; I broke it with excited caution and admired as yellow goo enrobed the steak beneath.  It was served with super crispy, buttery crostini and an array of condiments and seasonings: salt, pepper, shallots, capers, and dijon mustard.  These seasonings were hardly necessary, though, as the tartare with egg was heavenly on its own.  Slightly spicy with a sensual richness that cannot be achieved with anything but yolk.  I couldn’t get through consecutive bites without the necessary “mmmmm”s and “oh my God”s.  And look at that portion!

I chose the baby back ribs for my entree, and wow.  There’s something strangely romantic and therapeutic about bone-in meat.  It’s so barbaric and sexy; there’s no question about what you’re eating.  You get your hands dirty and you have to work for your prize.  That also explains why buffalo wings are so important to me.

These weren’t the baby back ribs I am used to: grizzly and drenched in thick, syrupy sauce that is intended to hide the fatty meat beneath.  Nuh uh.  The bone held a smoky, crispy char and ridiculously tender, fall-off-the-bone, sweet meat.  The sauce was not thick and sticky, but more like a thin glaze with a hint of sweetness.  They were served with wilted greens of some sort (smelled like basil, but I didn’t taste) and thin, delicate chips.  I think they were potato, but when paired with the meat, they took on sort of an onion taste.  And eating the chip and the meat within the same bite was critical to maximizing the enjoyment of both.

We shared a side of parmesean fries that were absolutely divine.  Perfectly seasoned waffle fries with shaved parmesean and herbs, served with a side of some kind of mayonnaise-based sauce.  The fries were good enough on their own, though.

The dessert options were the toughest, I’d say, because Quality Meats had some amazing choices for ice cream.  In addition, they have a cakery on site, so they really have to know what they’re doing in the dessert department.  But I just couldn’t pass off something called “coffee and doughnuts,” so I (and Lauren) went for it.  I was expected just a flavor of coffee and doughnuts, but I was presented with something entirely different:

This dessert has three layers.  The bottom was a fresh, crumbly cookie whose flavor resembled gingerbread except with less spice and more cinnamon.  The top was a delicious doughnut of similar, but more delicate flavor with chocolate drizzle.  Coffee ice cream was sandwiched in between, and if you were lucky enough to get all three layers, it was the perfect balance of flavors and textures.  To be honest, I don’t generally like coffee flavored things (besides coffee) because they always taste fake and tinny.  This ice cream, on the other hand, tasted like a freshly roasted cup.  The doughnut on top was the highlight for me (solely because it was a doughnut), but I was impressed by the size and presentation of this dessert.  It wasn’t a typical throwaway dessert (nor was the appetizer a throwaway salad).

More than any new place I have been in a long time, Quality Meats truly showcased their capabilities and didn’t dumb down their menu for the customers that are looking to save money.  Steakhouses on Restaurant Week, in particular, seem to underestimate their customers and limit their menu to the bare bones.  They rely on name recognition and hope that people won’t realize that other restaurants will really give diners more bang for their buck.

Quality Meats is a classy establishment with excellent food and attentive service without pretension.  Most importantly, they treat their Restaurant Week customers like their full-paying customers.  As a result, your experience is worth way more than what you pay for it – and really, isn’t that the point?

Due Mari – New Brunswick, NJ

June 17, 2010 Leave a comment

Living 40 minutes from Manhattan has kind of spoiled me in many regards.  I have readily available access to the world’s culinary capital, approximately 23 square miles of cuisine from every corner of the world at every possible price point in every atmosphere, street to dining room.  I don’t take nearly as much advantage of this proximity as I should, but knowing that I am so close to the center of the world causes me to forget that there is great cuisine right in my own backyard.

New Brunswick is 15-20 minutes from me.  I grew up going there and have known my way around the city since I was a teen, at least.  My brother and I both attended Rutgers University.  The crowded college streets and headache-inducing parking have always led me to steer clear of the city for recreational purposes.  The weekends are always a nightmare, but when school is out and the bar crowds and backpack-clad students have largely diminished for the summer, it’s quite a pleasant and sometimes relaxing place to be.  And it, apparently, has some wonderful restaurants that I never think to take advantage of, being so close to New York.

My brother, Jim, chose Due Mari for his birthday celebration.  A restaurant called Nova Terra used to occupy the space on the corner of Albany and Neilson streets, and I’d always been intrigued by the building – it always looked nice from the outside.  I was excited to finally be able to go inside, and after perusing the menu online, I was practically trailing saliva in with my footsteps.

The service was friendly and informative, if not a little pretentious.  Our server admitted that he was a culinary school graduate and, as a result, a tad overenthusiastic about the food.  While service went off without a hitch, it could have been more streamlined.  For example, five separate people took drink orders, distributed bread, poured water, took food orders, and delivered the food.  It’s one thing when people seem to be covering for one another or helping out, but it was obvious which roles were assigned to whom.  Maybe this is typical in finer establishments (I am used to two or three different people), but it got confusing and not all diners understand this protocol.  In that regard, the service was too good.

As far as the food was concerned, our server’s enthusiasm was completely warranted.  I have felt a severe dearth of fine dining in my life as of late, and I was welcomed back with a memorable meal from Due Mari.

Our table appetizer was a traditional antipasto with proscuitto di parma, fresh mozzarella, roasted red peppers, and balsamic vinegar.  Everything on this plate was insanely delicious and fresh.  The proscuitto was like no proscuitto I had ever tasted: salty, meaty, and not slimy, fatty, or greasy like proscuitto you’d find in a supermarket.  The mozzarella was milky and salty, tender enough to be easily slice with the edge of a fork.  The elements were delicious on their own, but as usual, the roasted red peppers brought them all together with their bright, sweet tang.  Perfectly fresh and classic.

My brother and I each got a tuna tartar appetizer, naturally.  Although I loved the pop of green on the plate, the wasabi-infused roe atop my tartar was really off-putting (as I am not a wasabi fan at all).  I scraped mine off and enjoyed a good tartar – not as citrusy, bright, and flavorful as I like, but good.  The little poppy seed crackers were delicious and airy.  I wish the dish had come with more of them to provide textural contrast throughout the dish, not just for a couple of bites.  I am glad I tried it, but since I know how good tartar can be (Metrazur), I probably wouldn’t order it again – especially because Due Mari offers an impressive and tantalizing selection of appetizers that I want to try!

Whenever I am out, there are select buzz words that will always catch my eye on a menu.  “Tartare,” “risotto,” and “braised short rib” are among them, as if the chef had highlighted them on the menu just for me.  These words usually give a significant disadvantage to the menu’s competing offerings, although a roast chicken is always a formidable competitor.  “Truffle” is another one of these buzz words, so when I saw “Garganelli with proscuitto, English peas, and white truffle butter,” the rest of the menu ceased to exist.

The word “truffle” has a profound effect on me.  When it comes to mind, I am filled with warmth and thoughts of the autumn months.  And when this dish hit my tongue, its buttery, earthy aromas warmed me from the top of my head to the tips of my toes.  The pasta, all made fresh on premises, was cooked perfectly and you could taste the love and care with which the chefs prepared it.  To my knowledge, it was the first fresh pasta I had ever eaten at a restaurant.  Before I started cooking fresh pasta at home, I always assumed that fresh pasta was all hype and there wasn’t that huge of a difference.  But it’s truly something you have to taste and experience to believe.  It’s delicate and tender and fresh, and there is something very homey and comforting in knowing that each hand-rolled piece is unique.

Although the butter sauce was rich and decadent, it wasn’t heavy and it didn’t stick to the palate like one would expect.  Cream sauces have the tendency to make you feel gross and greasy.  This sauce was rich in flavor but delicate on the tongue and didn’t cause any regrets later.  The salty proscuitto and burst of peas made it hearty.  A perfect dish that was loved by all who tried it!

A birthday always calls for dessert, and the second our party read “chocolate fondue,” we knew we had to have it.  This gorgeous platter arrived to a choir of “ooh”s and “ahh”s.  This was a truly epic presentation.  A huge, deep, top hat-sized bowl of chocolate place above a burning flame, surrounded by the freshest, sweetest strawberries I’d ever tasted, bananas, fresh homemade marshmallows, and fresh homemade graham crackers.

The chocolate was too bitter for my taste, but the presentation and the care given to the other ingredients overshadowed that.  The homemade graham crackers were (disappointingly) cinnamon as opposed to honey.  Aside from that fatal flaw, they were crisp, crumby, and wonderful.  The fresh marshmallows were the highlight, though – sweet and creamy an encased in sweet, crisp sugar.  A perfect ending to a memorable meal, for sure.

And, for good measure, a couple other dishes from the table:

Spaghetti with a full lobster tail, shrimp, garlic, and tomatoes

Pan-seared scallops with asparagus butter sauce

Considering the quality of the food, the prices are pretty reasonable and the portions are huge.  Everyone at the table did his/her fair share of sharing, and we all left happily and comfortably full.  Since we were celebrating, we did kind of go all out.  It would be pretty easy to keep a meal at Due Mari reasonable, though.  They even have a bar menu, a pizza menu, and an express lunch option.  And, with summer on the brink, you’d be a fool to not take advantage of their outdoor patio.

Judging from everyone else’s reactions to the meal, I feel like this might become a staple.  And most importantly, it’s opened my eyes to the potential culinary mecca that exists right next door.  Now I’m a little more apt to explore it.

Finally! A good, commercially-available mac!

March 18, 2010 Leave a comment

I’ve been holding onto a set of Panera Bread gift cards for years.  My frequency at Panera has lessened greatly since I got wireless Internet in my house, and I don’t even have to put pants on to use that.  I was stuck on dinner ideas and strapped for cash, so I decided to finally put these cards to use last week.

While reacquainting myself with the menu, I noticed the macaroni and cheese on the kids’ menu, not noticing that it was also available in an adult-sized portion.  When my cashier told me that there was not only an adult portion, but that it could be used as one of the items in a “You Pick Two” entree, I was thrilled but also a bit apprehensive.

When macaroni and cheese is produced to please a large demographic of varied palates and tastes, I get a bit nervous about the quality and flavor profiles.  First, how good can a mass-produced mac and cheese be?  And second, the macs that I consider memorable aren’t necessarily ones that would be widely accepted by the general public – not because they’re not good, but I just don’t think major restaurant chains would take risks and experiment with truffle, or different cheeses, etc.  I also think that the general public knows what it likes, and it likes Kraft.  Basically, in this environment, I expected day-glo orange, user-friendly mac and cheese.

What I received was nothing of the sort – Panera uses a creamy, velvety white cheddar sauce that is buttery, tangy, and cheesy.  I commend the use of white cheddar over yellow cheddar, making it a little more mild and a little more “adult,” really.  But staying in the cheddar family makes this approachable to a wide audience, for sure.  The mini shells are familiar and great for holding sauce.  While I find a lot of mass-produced mac and cheese to be gummy and obviously fake-tasting, this has definitely become my go-to mac when the mood strikes and I am too lazy to make my own (which is usually the case).

I commend you, Panera, for trying your hand (and succeeding) at making a great mac that’s easy to obtain but doesn’t skimp on flavor or quality.  I’ll be back soon!

Recently Culinary Travels: Volume I

March 17, 2010 Leave a comment

For the past month or so, I have been traveling all around the country – for vacations, for bands, for fun.  With a lot of traveling comes not only a lot of slacking on the blogging front, but also a great deal of eating.  In the beginning of February, I started my travels with a trip to Las Vegas, came back east to catch a ton of dates on the Saves the Day/New Found Glory tour (Richmond to Boston and everywhere in between), and then after a week or two at home, I went on an impromptu trip to Salt Lake City, Utah thanks to JetBlue’s 10th Birthday Sale!

I obviously can’t go in-depth on a month’s worth of meals, but I’m here to show you guys some highlights from my culinary travels.

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