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Rioja - A Delight in Denver

21 Jun

With Rachel having her work’s summer conference in Denver last week, how could I turn down the chance to come along? After all, I had never been to Denver, let alone visited the state of Colorado, so we decided to make a mini-vacation out of it.

After spending the day in Boulder, we checked into our hotel in downtown Denver on Friday night. For the sake of spontaneity, I decided to keep our dinner plans a secret until we arrived at the restaurant.

Located on charming Larimer Street in the LoDo area of Denver, I had learned about Rioja after performing some online research on highly-acclaimed restaurants in the area.  Turns out that the Mediterranean-themed venue was tops on a variety of lists, and considering that Friday night was our one free night of the week before Rachel’s conference started, I figured we might as well do something on the fancier side.

Thai Scallops

Thankfully, Rioja took reservations as we were promptly seated when we arrived. Our waitress soon greeted us and asked for our drink order. I went with a glass of red wine while Rachel ordered the blackberry whisky sour, the restaurant’s most popular cocktail. After having a sip, I wish I had ordered one myself. Featuring blackberry whiskey, house made sour mix, soda, and lemon, it was one satisfying beverage.

As for dinner, everything on the menu sounded absolutely delicious, and unsurprisingly, we had a difficult time deciding what to get. After spending at least fifteen minutes reading over the list of options, at the bottom of the menu was an answer to our indecisiveness: “Tasting Menus Available. Please Inquire With Your Server.

Done!

Our waitress explained that the two of us could split smaller portions of two dishes from each category: starters, salads, pastas, and entrees (or at least that’s how we understood, but more on that later). Rachel and I immediately agreed that this was the best course of action not only because we wanted to try so many things, but that we initially couldn’t make up our damn minds if we went the a la carte route.

Handmade mozzarella, wrapped in smoked prosciutto, with grilled bread, oven-dried tomatoes, arugula, and green olive pistou

Before our first courses arrived, we were treated to a homemade selection of bread which alluded to how great this dinner was going to be. The selection included rosemary goat cheese biscuits, lavender sour dough, orange and fennel rolls, and olive loaf. All four varieties were simply fantastic, but it was the lavender sour dough that stood out the most.

We started with the handmade mozzarella, wrapped in smoked prosciutto, with grilled bread, oven-dried tomatoes, arugula, and green olive pistou. Although it was slightly hard to split this small sandwich into two, it was a great way to commence our tasting journey. The mozzarella and prosciutto combination perfectly complemented the tomatoes and arugula. The bread got a little soggy from the olive spread, and we thought it may have been more effective as an open face sandwich instead of two pieces. Nonetheless, we couldn’t wait for our next course.

Next up was the Thai scallops, made with lemongrass panna cotta, compressed pineapple, plantain tuille, coconut kiffir lime purée, and a Thai red curry vinaigrette. To put it in one word: wow. This may have been our favorite dish of the night.

Beet and Watermelon Salads

When we were first deliberating what to order from the regular menu, Rachel kept eyeing the salads. Normally we would skip salad and try more adventurous starters, but these salads seemed incredibly creative and delicious. For our tasting, we were served small portions of both the watermelon and beet salads.

The watermelon salad included baby heirloom tomatoes, organic red and yellow watermelon, Valbreso feta, compressed cucumber, sweet chilies, watermelon vinaigrette, and a micro lemon balm. This was paired on a single plate with the beet salad, composed of roasted candy striped beets, cucumber mint vinaigrette, snow drop goat cheese, crispy beet chips, pickled red onion, micro beets, and mint syrup.

While we thought both salads were excellent, I was more partial towards the watermelon while Rachel liked the beets. I’m not a huge fan of goat cheese (much to the chagrin of Rachel) but I could not stop raving about it while eating the beet salad. It was just incredibly fresh without its flavor being too pronounced that I couldn’t taste the other ingredients.

Artichoke tortelloni

Up next was the pasta course. The first dish was saffron spaghettini, which featured summer vegetables, roasted eggplant, La Quercia lardo, heirloom tomatoes, scallion, black oil cured olives, piquillo peppers, basil, and extra virgin olive oil.

The other pasta was an artichoke tortelloni, which was made with goat cheese and artichoke mousse stuffed pasta, artichoke broth, truffle essence, queso de mano cheese, and chervil.

The spaghettini was a light and delicate dish which was apt given the warmer weather. Meanwhile, I could have ordered an entire bowl of the tortelloni for myself. Between the goat cheese/artichoke mouse stuffing and the wonderful truffle sauce, this was a pure delight. I can see why this is one of the most popular pastas on the menu (all of which can be ordered as an entrée, by the way).

Saffron spaghettini

Our entrees soon arrived, but instead of them being presented in a sampling format, each person solely received their main course. We weren’t sure if this was the tasting menu portion or not as the serving size seemed rather large given the sizes of the previous courses we consumed, but neither of us thought it was enough of a substantial claim to make a fuss over of.

Anyway, I ordered the Colorado lamb two ways while Rachel got the halibut Provençal. The lamb arrived as a grilled t-bone as well as a house-made merguez sausage and was accompanied with a crisp couscous pillow, caramelized fennel, tomato coulis, and preserved lemon yogurt. Mediterranean flavors were brought to life in this exquisite dish. The t-bone was incredibly tender and flavorful while the sausage, which resembled more of a lamb slider, was packed with spice albeit a little too rare in the middle for my liking.

Colorado lamb two ways

But man, that lemon yogurt! It was a dream pairing between that and both pieces of lamb. Throw in the creative couscous pillow, which had a nice crunchy layer outside with soft couscous stuffed inside, and you have yourselves one breathtaking entrée.

For her entree, Rachel got the halibut Provencal, which came with grilled artichoke, artichoke mousse, tomato-feta-zucchini tart, black olive fennel vinaigrette, and crispy milk poached garlic. She thought it would be similar to the artichoke found in the tortellini but the waitress assured her that they would be completely different.

While all the components were incredibly unique and made for a beautiful dish and presentation, she was simply too full from the other courses to truly enjoy it. What really stood out was the poached garlic – it was sweet instead of overpowering, and was like nothing she ever had before.

Halibut Provençal

We passed on dessert as we were beyond stuffed and asked for the check. When we received it, it had turned out that the waitress had charged us for tasting size portions of our meal up until the entrees, which we were billed at full price!  There appeared to be quite a bit of confusion on both of ends as we had asked for a tasting menu while the waitress thought we still wanted regular-sized entrees. I mean, why would we order regular-sized a la carte entrees if we’re ordering from a tasting menu?

We explained to the waitress that we had never specifically asked for full-sized entrees, though it did explain why we received such large portions and could barely eat half of it. She was very apologetic about the misunderstanding and removed the scallop course from the bill, which we thought was very nice.

Despite the snafu, we had a lovely dinner and cannot recommend Rioja enough should you ever visit Denver. Chef Jennifer Jasinski marveled us with her talents as we unceremoniously dubbed her “the Bryan Voltaggio of Denver” while we savored each course. In fact, we loved it so much that Rachel went back a second night for dinner during her stay! The next time we’re in Denver, a meal at Rioja is clearly a must.

Rioja

Rioja on Urbanspoon

Dinosaur Bar-B-Que: Upstate New York BBQ

18 Apr

When one thinks of Upstate New York, barbecue is typically not the first thing that crosses your mind. Yet when I had heard that Syracuse staple Dinosaur Bar-B-Que was opening a location near my hometown, I was pretty enthusiastic. Considering that we were in Albany this weekend to visit my family for Passover, this was an opportunity we could not pass up.

With several of my friends from home, we drove down to Troy for an early dinner on Saturday for our first experience of Upstate ‘cue. Situated right off the Hudson River in the former Fresno’s space, Dinosaur BBQ has an optimal location in the downtown area.

Once we stepped inside, we were overwhelmed not only by the massive space, but also by the wait for a table. Bear in mind that we arrived around 5pm, and there was already a 40 minute wait!

Ultimate Sampler

With our party of five in tow, we made our way towards the bar, which featured one of the better beer selections in the Capital District. New York State’s finest breweries were repped as Southern Tier, Ommegang, and Lake Placid were all found on the restaurant’s very impressive beer list.

It didn’t seem like too long of a wait, especially while enjoying a Southern Tier IPA draft, when we got the call that our table was ready. After looking over the menu, Rachel and I decided that we might as well sample as much BBQ as we possibly could and ordered the Extreme Samper.

It was an apt title for the combo given that it came with a) a half a rack of ribs, b) a half chicken, c) sliced Texas beef brisket, d) two sides, and e) corn bread. Yeah, you could say it was A LOT of food. But for $24.95 between two people, we weren’t really complaining.

So, how did this barbecue stack up to the likes of Kansas City, Austin, North Carolina, and even DC? I have to admit, I came away rather impressed.

Let’s just get right to the ribs: incredible. Honestly, these St. Louis-style cut pork ribs were some of the best I have had since Oklahoma Joe’s last year. The smoky, tender meat came right off the bone, and unlike Hill Country, you could take more than a handful of bites of each rib. And while I have grown used to dry ribs, I really enjoyed how Dinosaur’s were gently glazed with their homemade BBQ sauce. It was a beautiful mess.

Dinosaur Ribs

The chicken was also a hit as both Rachel and I enjoyed how moist and delicious it was. Pit-smoked and apple brined, this was some quality ‘cue. There was clearly no way we were going to be able to finish a leg, thigh, breast, and wing in one sitting, but we (or mostly I) tried our hardest.

The only disappointment, at least for me, was the brisket. Now that may be because we have had sliced variations of this cut in other regions, but in all honestly, it just didn’t wow me. That’s not to say it wasn’t good, but Dinosaur’s version made me want to use more sauce instead of less of it. Hill Country did a better job in this department, both in taste as well as thickness.

As for the sides, we ordered the maple whipped sweet potatoes and the mustard greens. We devoured the former faster than the latter, and we would have ordered seconds had we had the opportunity.  These were arguably some of the best mashed sweet potatoes either of us have tasted. It’s a must-order when it comes to Dinosaur’s side items. Meanwhile the BBQ sauce wasn’t anything to write home about, although their Wango Tango variation captured a nice balance of sweet and spicy.

Overall, Dinosaur Bar-B-Que was outstanding. Our entire party loved it and walked away more than satisfied. Rachel and I probably consumed at most 60% of our plate, but my dad was more than happy to eat the leftovers once we got home. Considering that we are going to be in the Albany area until Tuesday, I will go on record and say that a second trip is a very, very realistic possibility.

Dinosaur Bar-B-Que on Urbanspoon

Pubbelly: The South Beach Asian Gastropub

26 Jan

While on vacation last week, we had the opportunity to meet up with our friend Rinat and go out to dinner while we were in South Beach.

Now when one thinks of Southern Florida, gastropubs are probably not the first thing that crosses your mind, let alone ones with Asian influences.

Yet Pubbelly successfully fills this void with perhaps some of the most unique, delicious cuisine in the entire city.

Short rib tartar with quail egg

Take for instance the McBelly: succulent, barbecued porkbelly sliders served with pickles and onions atop a fluffy potato bun. It was simply fantastic.

Given the name of the restaurant, most of the dishes prominently feature the aforementioned ingredient, but why stray away from a good thing, right?

That’s not to say Pubbelly doesn’t perform well with non-pork belly plates, such as the duck and pumpkin dumplings or the bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with chorizo and goat cheese.

McBellyBacon-wrapped dates stuffed with chorizo and goat cheeseSalt and Pepper Squid

Meanwhile the short rib tartar with quail egg was stellar while the salt and pepper squid was, well, a little too salty. The pork belly with bok choy and butterscotch was decadent but a little too sweet for our taste.

Our favorite dish of the night, however, might have been the beef cheek dumplings with foie gras mousse. While the dumplings are more like ravioli, the beef was so incredibly tender that the entire thing pretty much melted in your mouth.

Duck and pumpkin dumplingsPork belly with bok choy and butterscotchBeef cheek dumplings with foie gras mousse

And for dessert? We decided on the soft-serve yogurt brownie sundae with caramel sauce topped with, you guessed it, crunchy bacon bits! What a great finale of salty and sweet.

Pubbelly is a real gem and we’re so glad that we were fortunate enough to dine at such an excellent establishment during the one night we were in Miami. Well done all around.

Pubbelly on Urbanspoon

In-N-Out Burger: Best in the West

22 Dec

Rachel and I were in Los Angeles following Rachel’s annual meeting in Anaheim a few weeks ago. Of course, we had our fair share of California cuisine, but we closed out the weekend with dinner at one of the country’s greatest fast-food chains

You see, it’s not a West Coast trip without going to the legendary In-N-Out Burger.

In-N-Out Burger: Animal StyleThis was Rachel’s first experience with In-N-Out, so I took over ordering responsibilities to ensure she had a great meal as a first-timer.

I ordered two hamburgers, Animal Style of course, fries, and a soda. Total? $6.80. God Bless America.

For those not familiar with In-N-Out, they have a “secret menu” where you can customize what’s traditionally offered at the restaurant.

Animal Style burgers come with lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, grilled onions, and extra spread. The best part, however, are the patties that are cooked with mustard in them. Simply delicious.

As for Rachel’s reaction? Well, she immediately agreed how awesome everything tasted.

While the fries are not as good as McDonalds’ (let’s face it, they set the benchmark in french fries), In-N-Out’s burgers are tremendously superior to the patties served up at Five Guys (the closest thing we have seen to an In-N-Out on the east coast).

While DC has run rampant with burger chains, In-N-Out is still one of the country’s very best.

In-N-Out Burger on Urbanspoon

Culinary Adventures in New Orleans: Day Four

14 Dec

Bloody MaryFor our final day in New Orleans we knew we had to go out with a bang, so we decided to treat ourselves to the Jazz Brunch at the renowned Commander’s Palace.

Know for its alumni of famous chefs and southern hospitality, Commander’s Palace was located in the heart of the Garden District and fit in right in along the stunning mansions found on the neighboring streets.

We were seated in one of the restaurant’s dining rooms, but not before cutting through the kitchen in order to get there. Each of the tables had several balloons as a centerpiece while a jazz trio was making its rounds around the room, taking requests from diners. It was quite a scene to say the least.

We started the morning off with some cocktails. This was brunch, after all.

I ordered the Adelaide Swizzle (rum, lime juice, bitters, soda water) while Rachel went with her go-to, the ol’ Bloody Mary. This time, however, the vodka was freshly poured into her glass from a bottle of Finlandia that was enclosed in an ice block!

Our waiter delivered our drinks then served us a basket of their complimentary garlic bread. It was delicious, but that could be because it was drenched in butter. Nonetheless, we went through it rather quickly, and, unsurprising, I asked for seconds. Shocking, I know.

Turtle SoupGarlic BreadHarris Ranch beef tips with poached eggs and grits

Their brunch is a three course format where the price depends on what entree you order. You also have a choice of an appetizer or soup and dessert.

I kicked the meal off with their signature turtle soup after asking for the waiter’s recommendation. Once it was served, the waiter took a bottle of sherry and poured some in the bowl in the shape of a heart. Nice touch.

The soup turned out to be an excellent choice as the tomato base was rich and hearty while the pieces of turtle (and pork, as the waiter described before ordering it) really added to the overall texture. It was almost like a bisque, and I would not hesitate to order it again if I’m ever back in town.

Poached OystersRachel decided to get poached oysters in a champagne cream sauce topped with caviar. She had been talking about getting oysters during the whole trip, and we never quite made it to ACME Oyster House, so this seemed like her last opportunity in NOLA to get some.

The dish was very different from what she had anticipated as the sauce was a little heavy, but the oysters were huge and unlike anything she had ever tasted. They were so plump that you could eat them with a knife and fork. Considering that she was expecting something more like traditional oysters, she might have ordered something else if the dish was described to her a little better.

For the main course, I ordered the Harris Ranch beef tips with poached eggs and grits. I hate to say it but I was honestly disappointed with the entree. It was not anything special as the beef did not necessarily stand out. In fact, it tasted rather bland and could have used some more seasoning. The grits were decent but the overall presentation really missed the mark.

Crawfish, Crab, and Seafood CourtboullionI’ve seen poached eggs served a handful of times, but in this particular occasion, one of the eggs was already severed with the yolk running into the beef and grits below. Considering the elegant presentation of our first courses, it was kind of surprising to notice this gaffe.

Rachel’s entree was a crawfish, crab, and seafood courtboullion served with two poached eggs and cakes of goat cheese grits underneath. She asked for the hollandaise sauce on the side, which was probably a good idea since it was easily one of the richest breakfast dishes she’s ever had.

The combination of the eggs on the grit cakes with the seafood broth and various types of shellfish made each bite incredibly decadent. If she wasn’t already fairly full from the appetizer and garlic bread, she would have easily cleaned her plate, but the whole dish was just too much to handle. I helped a little but I was so full myself.

I concluded the meal with another southern staple, pecan pie. Commander’s Palace certainly redeemed themselves with this dessert. Between the accompanying vanilla bean ice cream, caramel sauce, and candied pecans draped atop, it was a delicious ending to a very filling brunch.

Pecan PieCreole bread pudding souffléJazz Trio

Rachel decided to go with the dish Commander’s Palace is best known for, and got the Creole bread pudding soufflé, served table side with a whiskey sauce. It had familiar flavors of a bread pudding, but it was so light and airy that it was almost hollow when she dug into it. She was definitely glad she had the opportunity to try it, but wasn’t so sure if it was worth the three dollar up-charge.

While Commander’s Palace is described as one of the places you must visit while in New Orleans, it may have been one meal too many, as we were beyond full by the time we were ready to head to the airport. Let’s just say we didn’t need to eat dinner that night.

Commander's Palace on Urbanspoon

Culinary Adventures in New Orleans: Day Three

8 Dec

After spending the first day or so in the French Quarter, we had the opportunity to walk around the Garden District on Saturday. We could not have asked for better weather while passing by all the historic mansions on our way to lunch.

We had made reservations at Coquette after reading such glowing reviews about the restaurant both on the Interwebs  (I diligently do my research, as you can tell). They also featured a prix fixe lunch menu which included three courses for $20.

Cochon de LaitThe drink list reminded me of something you would see at PS 7’s or The Passenger as Coquette is well renowned for its excellent cocktails.

I ordered the Coquette Collins which featured bourbon, Pimm’s, Cherry Herring, lemon, and soda. It was so clean and refreshing given how warm it was outside.

Rachel went for the traditional Bloody Mary which was made with house-infused black pepper vodka. She remarked how it was one of the best she has ever had, and after I had a sip, I could not agree more, and I don’t even like Bloody Marys!

I started the meal off with the Burrata appetizer. Severed atop pieces of crostini and layered with roasted tomatoes, the burrata and its creamy texture really worked well with the rest of the ingredients. The cheese had a mild flavor, which was perfectly fine with me as I am not the biggest fan of strong cheeses, while the tomatoes were simply savory. It was quite the enjoyable first course.

Burrata CrostiniFor the entrée, I opted for the Cochon de Lait, another one of New Orleans’ specialties. After tasting the first bite, I could see why.

The dish’s main component is the suckling pig that is marinated and then pit-roasted. The presentation made it appear like a variation of pulled pork, but regardless of how it looked, it was simply fantastic. Accompanied with pepperonata, fingerling potatoes, and pork jus, the tenderness of the pork combined with the well thought-out seasonings made this one of my favorite dishes of the entire trip.

Rachel ordered the drum fish since, after hearing about it at NOLA the night before, she wanted to try a local, regional fish.  The filet was served over a mushroom broth with some pieces of smoked ham and leeks. Much to her delight, it was moist and not too heavy for a lunch meal.

Beignets with Chocolate Coffee Pot de CrèmeAs for dessert, I ordered the beignets with chocolate coffee pot de crème. The beignets were light and fluffy, but the pot de crème might have stolen the spotlight from its fried counterparts. Between being not too heavy and possessing such a fresh, potent chocolate flavor, this item could have been served by itself. Not that the beignets weren’t bad, but I preferred the ones we had the night before at Café du Monde instead.

Dinner, on the other hand, would be much more casual that night.

As stated before, I am a big Maryland fan, and since they were playing Florida State in a rather important matchup, I wanted to find a decent place to watch it as well as enjoy some good Louisianan bar fare.

I recalled walking past a place called Tracey’s in the Garden District when we were heading over to Coquette earlier in the day, and the place was jam-packed with LSU fans who were watching the Tigers take on Ole Miss.

Turns out that it is a rather popular sports bar (used to be named Parasol’s), and since it appeared like more of a local hangout as opposed to tourist central on Bourbon Street, it was right down our alley.

First off, I was in love with their beer selection. Three dollars for Abita bottles? That alone won me over.

Roast Beef Po-BoyThe restaurant didn’t really have waiter service per se, but instead you just went up to the kitchen and ordered your food off of the blackboard menu hanging on the wall. While I was scrolling through my list of options, there I saw it: roast beef po-boy.

Rachel and I split a sandwich knowing it would be huge as well as ordered a side of gravy fries, because, well, they’re gravy fries.

We had no idea, however, how good the roast beef po-boy would actually be.

Now, I despise mayonnaise on my sandwiches, burgers, you name it. I didn’t realize the po-boy came with mayo, but you know what, it was pretty frickin good.

I think that can be attributed to how the hot roast beef au jus, gravy, and mayo combined together inside the po-boy and created a sauce I can only describe as purely delicious.

Gravy FriesThe bread played a crucial element as well as it held up rather well despite the greasy, appetizing mess that was stuffed inside. Observing the fresh loaves stacked in the back of the kitchen further emphasized why the sandwich was on such a level of greatness.

As for the gravy fries? They went hand in hand with the po-boy. Freshly fried and topped with the same gravy found in the sandwich, you could not ask for a better dinner at a reasonable price.

A day later, I found out that Gourmet Magazine had named Tracey’s roast beef po-boy the best roast beef sandwich, ever. And we had gone there on a whim! I love it when stuff like that happens.

Oh, and the publication was absolutely right by the way.

Stayed tuned for Day Four of our New Orleans adventures…

Coquette Bistro & Wine Bar on Urbanspoon Tracey's Irish Restaurant & Bar on Urbanspoon

Culinary Adventures in New Orleans: Day Two

3 Dec

We decided to rent a car for the day so that we could not only drive out to Abita Springs and tour the famous Abita Brewery, but also take a swamp tour up in Slidell, Louisiana.  After seeing several alligators, turtles, and birds, it was nearly lunchtime and the group was pretty hungry.

Crawfish BallsI checked out some well-received places on Yelp and came across Southside Café, and since it was only ten minutes away from where we were at the time as well as a local hangout, it seemed like a no-brainer.

We started our meal off with an order of crawfish balls. It was basically crawfish meat blended with stuffing that was then breaded, deep-fried, and served with a side of remoulade. It proved to be an excellent starter as the homemade remoulade really complimented the flavor of the crawfish.

Learning from my past mistake at Johnny’s, I opted for a half order of the house specialty, the muffaletta, in fear of receiving too large a sandwich this time around.

Well, it turns out that I should have ordered a quarter of a sandwich had such an option existed on the menu. The supposed “half order” was monstrous! I cannot fathom someone actually ordering let alone eating a whole muffaletta. It would feed a family of four easily.Seafood Muffaletta

As for the sandwich itself, it was not only very good but also unique. One of New Orleans’ signature dishes, the muffaletta features ham, mortadella, salami, provolone, all of which is piled high on round Italian “muffaletta” bread.

The centerpiece, however, is the olive salad that is layered on top. The combination of the meats and cheese with the marinated olives and slightly toasted bread was divine, so much in fact that I could only eat half of it. Rest assured the remaining half would not make it the rest of the day.

Rachel ordered a half order of the seafood muffaletta and, needless to say, hers was even harder to consume given the shear height of the sandwich. She got a seafood combo of shrimp, oysters, flounder, and catfish, and while delicious, a quarter was more than enough food to last through the late evening. She decided to get the olive salad on the side, which proved rather difficult to manually place inside the sandwich, and wound up just trying some of it a la carte.

After lunch, we made our way towards the Abita Brewery to checkout the home one of our favorite brews (Purple Haze, for those inquiring).

Abita BreweryAbita BreweryAbita Amber on tap

This might have been my favorite brewery tour as we not only got to see the brewery actually in operation, but also had the opportunity to serve ourselves from nearly a dozen or so brews on tap!

And the best part? It was all free!

After we returned the car and took a nap back at the hotel, it was on to Emeril Lagasse’s NOLA for dinner.

We started things off by splitting two appetizers amongst the four of us. First we had the stuffed chicken wings with homemade Hoisin sauce. We found out from the waiter that the “wings” were stuffed with shrimp, pork, and noodles, almost like a Southern take-off of an egg roll. Seeing how the table quickly devoured them, I’d say they were a hit.

Miss Hay's Stuffed Chicken Wings with Homemade Hoisin Dipping SauceAndouille sausage and shrimp gumboShrimp and Grits

The second dish was the andouille sausage and shrimp gumbo and it was simply outstanding. Rich in flavor and perfect texture, it was arguably the best gumbo I’ve ever had. Then again, being in New Orleans while eating at one of its most famous chef’s restaurants, this should come as no surprise.

Grilled Pork ChopFor my entrée, I ordered the grilled pork chop which was served with sweet potatoes, toasted pecans, and a caramelized onion reduction sauce.  While I thought the pork chop was rather flavorful, it was a bit too dry for my liking despite asking for it to be cooked medium rare which took it down a notch or two (sorry, couldn’t resist).

Rachel got one of the most famous Southern staples, shrimp and grits. These shrimp were really large and coated with a delicious barbeque sauce. They were swimming in a pool of cheddar smoked grits topped with apple smoked bacon, crimini mushrooms and red chili-Abita butter sauce. Delish. I was actually drooling more over her dish than mine, and of course, finished it off.

At the end of the night, we decided on splitting the chocolate bread pudding for dessert. Accompanied with sweet potato ice cream (!), chocolate sauce, and caramel, it was decadent to say the least. Chocolate Bread PuddingThe bread pudding itself was great, especially since it was still very warm, but mixing it with the sweet potato ice cream made it that much better.

As for those muffaletta leftovers? Let’s just say a late evening spent on Frenchman Street took care of that.

Stay tuned for Day Three of our New Orleans adventure…

Southside Cafe on Urbanspoon NOLA Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Culinary Adventures in New Orleans: Day One

1 Dec

New Orleans is a city that we have always wanted to travel to, both for its fun factor and famous Creole cooking. I was originally planning to go this past February for my bachelorette weekend, but thanks to Snowmageddon, that didn’t quite happen.

I still had a credit on AirTran that was going to expire at the end of the year, and Brett had always wanted to travel there too, so we planned a four day weekend on the weekend before Thanksgiving with our friends Jess and Travis.

Of course, we could not go to a culinary mecca such as New Orleans without doing our diligent research, so by the time we arrived we already had most of our meals planned out.

Since we did so much and had so many delicious meals to tell you all about, we thought it would be best to break our trip up into days instead of establishments. So, without further ado, we bring you Day One…

We arrived in New Orleans around lunchtime, and as soon as we checked into our hotel, we made our way towards the French Quarter. We knew we wanted to try po-boys as our first meal, and since Johnny’s Poboys was a short walk and a staple destination for the New Orleans sandwich, off we went.

Shrimp and Oyster Po-BoyClub Po-BoyShrimp Gumbo

The menu was very overwhelming with at least 20 types of po-boys to choose from, as well as muffaletta, gumbo, fried chicken and more.  I decided to get the special which consisted of half a shrimp po-boy and a bowl of shrimp gumbo, and boy, was I glad I did!

Not only was it the perfect meal to start the trip, but I would have been in trouble if I ordered the full sandwich as they were easily 12 inches and pretty much a meal for the entire day.

Brett got a full po-boy with half oysters and half shrimp, and he could barely eat it all while Travis’s BLT po-boy looked like it could feed an entire family. We left completely stuffed, and ready to explore the quarter.

The next stop was Jean Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop at the lower end of Bourbon Street. Hurriance at Pat O'BriensA friend recommended that we check it out as it is the oldest bar in NOLA and perhaps the entire country.

It was pretty deserted (then again, it was 3pm on a Thursday) but definitely a cool atmosphere and we consumed our first of many Abita Amber Ales there.

Shortly after, we strolled up Bourbon Street and made our way to Pat O’Briens to try the bar’s legendary cocktail, The Hurricane. Since it was still early, each couple split one. We realized the trick was that while they taste strong at first, by the time you get to the bottom, the ice melts a little resulting in a very tasty yet dangerous combination.

We started our night early since we wanted to watch the Maryland Terrapins play in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic, so we took the St. Charles Trolley uptown, and after a very long ride, we made it to Cooter Brown’s Sports Bar. (Note to self: the trolley seemed like a good idea at the time, but it took an hour to travel nearly three miles on one street.)

Cooter’s had a huge beer selection that rivaled that of the Brickskeller in DC, but I have a feeling they actually had more in stock as well as much better food.

Once our Terrapins put up a good fight but ultimately lost to Pitt, we headed to the famous Jacques-Imo’s Cafe only a few blocks away for some traditional New Orleans cooking.

Cornbread MuffinsWe already knew we would have to wait awhile since they only take reservations for parties of five or more. Fortunately, they have a relationship with the Maple Leaf Bar next door, and after an hour of chilling there with some drinks, our table was ready.

The hostess took us to our table, but not before cutting through the kitchen in order to seat us in the rear dining room.

The waitress came by and served us a basket of cornbread muffins that were to die for. While heavy on the butter (but hey, it’s New Orleans), they were incredible as they proved to be crisp on the outside and moist in the middle with more than a tinge of garlic provided in each bite.

We were told by nearly every person we encountered before stepping foot in Jacuqes-Imo’s is that we must order the Alligator Cheesecake. And, well, they were right.

Alligator CheesecakeMore of a quiche than a cheesecake, it featured pieces of alligator sausage and shrimp and was decadent to say the least.

It might have very well been the single best piece of food we ate on our entire trip. It was bittersweet provided we still had three more days of excellent cuisine down the road, but in all seriousness, this was the dish to top.

We also split an order of the fried green tomatoes which was accompanied with a highly addictive shrimp remoulade. Eating this southern classic while drinking an Abita Amber… life cannot get much better.

As for our entrees, I decided on the stuffed catfish with crabmeat dressing. The catfish was impeccably cooked and slightly blackened, and it came with a hollandaise sauce, which I ordered on the side. The crabmeat dressing was basically stuffing with crab, and it melted in my mouth it was so good.

Each entrée included two side dishes, so I went with the collard greens and beets. The greens were steamed to perfection but the beets were just OK. I know I got some boring sides compared to others that were offered, but I decided to pick the somewhat healthier options, which was a challenge to say the least.

Fried Green TomatoesGrilled Duck BreastStuffed Catfish with Crabmeat Dressing

Brett ordered the grilled duck breast served with an orange soy glaze, shitake mushrooms, and pecans. He said the duck was extraordinary as the meat was not only juicy and well-seasoned, but the flavor encapsulated New Orleans with each bite.

Brett opted for the mashed potatoes and red beans and rice for his choice of sides. He devoured both of them with ease and was impressed with the quality given how easy it is for most kitchens to lose focus on the sides while putting all their effort into the entrees. Not the case with Jacque-Imo’s!

We were so stuffed that we skipped on dessert, as tempting as it was, and made our way home as we had an early start the next day to head to Slidell for our Swamp Tour!

Stay tuned for Day Two of our New Orleans adventure…

Johnny's Po-Boys on Urbanspoon Jacques-Imo's Café on Urbanspoon

Bistro 27: Great Italian in Downtown Richmond

22 Nov

As some of you may have been aware, I had been training to run a half marathon since this summer, and decided to run the McDonald’s Half in Richmond, VA. None of us had been to Richmond before, so we picked Bistro 27 to eat at for our pre-race meal based on positive Yelp reviews, proximity to our hotel, and their Italian selections.

This was the second time Brett, Lisa, and I did a carbo-loading meal, so we knew what to look for – simple pasta dishes and great bread. This small restaurant on Broad Street, in the heart of the city, had a fairly substantial menu, with pasta being just a part of it.Fettuccine Di Mare

It’s funny because normally I look for the fish entrees and steer away from pasta, but this night was different. There were many options that looked appealing such as tuna or chicken, but in the spirit of preparing for race-day, we ultimately stuck with the pasta selections.

We started out with some warm, fresh bread that was served with an eggplant dip, and devoured the basket pretty quickly. The waiter was slightly quirky and exclaimed everything was “fantastic!”, so I guess we couldn’t go wrong.

I decided to order the Fettuccine Di Mare, which was housemade fettuccini prepared with shrimp, scallops, and mussels, in a slightly spicy tomato sauce. Lisa got linguini with chargrilled shrimp and scallops, and asked to substitute the pesto sauce for garlic and butter. Brett was indecisive what to get (as always) and decided to try the beef ravioli after asking for the waiter’s recommendation.

My dish was delicious and the pasta was perfectly cooked al dente. The sauce had a slight kick to it but wasn’t too spicy.Beef Ravioli

Brett really enjoyed his ravioli and was pleasantly surprised how good it tasted, since it was something he normally wouldn’t order. He appreciated how the pasta was prepared in-house and how the Fontina cheese didn’t overpower the savory flavor of the beef. Lisa liked hers as well, and of course Brett had a little of all of ours.

Overall, everyone was very happy with their dishes, and there were no complaints. I don’t think we were necessarily blown away, but it was perfect for what we were looking for in terms of convenience and affordability, and was great way to start our weekend in Virginia.

Bistro 27 on Urbanspoon

Adventures in Austin

22 Oct

I have been fortunate over the years to travel to many places across the country, but there have always been a few cities I have always wanted to visit. One of them is Austin, Texas, and this past week I traveled there for a meeting for work, and got to try some local favorites along the way.

I knew that Austin was famous for both its barbeque and Tex-Mex cuisine, so I had to make sure to try some of each at least once while I was there. Over the course of only three days, it is safe to say that barbeque may have won out.

Stubb's Chicken PlateOn Monday, for a late lunch I decided to try some barbeque, and noticed on a map at the hotel that the famous Stubb’s Bar-B-Q and music hall was only a few blocks away. I went straight there and was surprised how empty the place was, but then again it was 2:30 in the afternoon.

I was told to order at the counter, and straight ahead of me I saw various options for platters. I was hungry by that point and wasn’t sure what to get, so as a last second choice I opted for the smoked chicken platter with a side salad, mashed sweet potatoes, and cornbread. It seemed like a lot of food, but it looked like the smallest option. Little did I realize till after I got my food and looked over to the right that I completely missed the sign next to the platters that was for sandwiches, which came with one side.

Granted, the chicken I got was extremely moist and delicious, prepared with a blend of mesquite spices and seasonings, but it was not the real type of Texas barbeque I was expecting. I thought it would be pieces of smoked chicken covered in sauce, but it was day one in Austin, so I figured that there would be plenty of time to try the real thing.

Guero's Fish TacosLater that night, we decided to get some Tex-Mex, and with a recommendation from our association’s president (and also an Austin resident), we headed to Guero’s Taco Bar in the South Congress area. It definitely seemed like a dive restaurant, but we were told it was a longtime Austin establishment and had great food and atmosphere, so off we went.

We each started off with a different type of margarita, as well as chips with three kinds of salsa. The menu was fairly large, but given that the restaurant has the word “taco” in its name, I figured I should try one of the tacos. I decided to get the fish tacos, which featured marinated and grilled fish, shredded cabbage and corn, topped with a chipotle tequila mayonnaise and served with black beans and rice. We had a choice of corn, white or wheat tortillas, and I went with the latter.

Some of the other diners had the carne guisada, which was marinated beef tips, and the al pastor, which was pork. Overall I really liked mine and thought the flavors meshed well together and weren’t too heavy. I added some extra salsa, black beans, and guacamole to the tacos, and it was a very satisfying dish. I’m curious how these tacos were compared to the many food trucks there were in the area, and the fact that most places I passed offered various taco dishes. But considering it was my only time having Tex-Mex food in Austin, I was happy overall.

Stubb's BBQ BrisketThe next day, I told my colleague about my meal at Stubb’s, and how delicious it was, but I wish I had ordered the beef brisket sandwich instead. She had no idea that the place was so close to our hotel, and I was happy to make a return visit. Again, the restaurant wasn’t crowded, and you could see they were already setting up outside for that night’s show.

This time, I got the beef brisket sandwich, with a side of Serrano cheese spinach. And what a great sandwich it was. The brisket was perfectly sliced with a layer of sauce on top and a toasted bun. Of course, I added extra sauce from the bottle on the table. The side I chose was really unique, it looked like typical creamed spinach, but the combination of the spinach with the spicy cheese gave it a nice kick.

Sadly, I have no dinner post to write about for that night, because Stubb’s was just that filling.

Last day, after going for a run on the trail by Lady Bird Lake, I decided to get some breakfast at somewhere other than the hotel’s fake Starbucks. Coming back from the run, I noticed a Jo’s, which I knew from the other day had great coffee. They also had a sign for breakfast tacos, so I figured I should have something more local for the last day. They didn’t have many pre-made, but were nice enough to make a taco filled with egg whites and cheese, from scratch! I ate it back in the room with fresh salsa, and it was a perfect breakfast treat with refreshing iced coffee.

Salt Lick BBQ (to go)I thought that would be the end of my Austin culinary adventures, but when I was at the airport, I decided to scope out the food outposts to see if there was anything decent to get for lunch on the plane. Sure enough, with Austin being such a great city, even the airport had local offerings, such as Amy’s Ice Cream, and their famous Salt Lick BBQ.

I had actually seen this restaurant on Yelp when looking up barbeque in Austin, and was amazed this actually existed in the airport terminal. I couldn’t resist, and bought both a beef brisket and a smoked turkey sandwich to go. Since Brett was drooling over my dining experiences this week, I figured bringing him back a sandwich was the least I could do. It was a tough call debating which BBQ was better – Stubb’s or Salt Lick. I guess we’ll have to try to head to Austin next year for ACL to test it out again.

Oh, and I got Brett this…

Everything Goes Better With Bar-B-Q!