Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Photo Shoot for Himalayas (Cranberry Township)

In my 3rd blog birthday post I had alluded to some exciting food-related projects on the horizon this year. One of them took place yesterday: I did a little photo shoot for Himalayas in Cranberry Township, a restaurant I wrote about not long ago. It all started when the owners saw the post on my blog and asked for permission to use my photos. I was happy to oblige but was honestly not terribly happy with the way my pictures had turned out (dim lighting is still a toughy for me to work around!). Long story short, a few email exchanges later, I was making plans to go back for lunch one day so I could shoot in daylight.

Nepalese Aalu Dam at Himalayas
Um, not my best work...

As any food blogger can attest, taking pictures of food at a restaurant is rarely ideal. I've already mentioned the problem with lighting. Lighting is actually a multi-faceted issue: First, the kind of artificial lighting used in restaurants is typically horrible for food photos. Sometimes it is because "mood lighting" is simply way too dark. Most of the time, it is because of the yellowish tint that artificial lighting casts on the image. Take a look at this example of a photo (not from Himalayas) I posted recently:

Fried Zucchini at Sunset Cafe
Yellow tint alert!

It is not a bad photo by any means. But, the plate on which the fried zucchini is served is white in real life, and it is definitely NOT white in the picture. Basically, dim indoor lighting throws off the "white balance." Sure, there are ways to adjust the white balance either on your camera prior to the shot or using photo editing software during post-processing, but the result isn't perfect and it can sometimes look over-processed. It's a delicate balance that I have frankly yet to master. Granted, I do think there are ways to use artificial lighting well—I have seen examples of it. I'm just not that comfortable with it myself, and to be honest, I don't think it's really my style anyway.

Even if there is sufficient light inside a restaurant (yeah right!) or you are able to pump it up during post-processing, you often end up with uneven lighting and harsh reflections where the light directly hits, like this:

Duck at Refectory (Columbus)
Uneven lighting and harsh reflections

Notice the top right region of the photo is brighter than the rest of the image, and there are also some really strong reflections bouncing off the meat in the middle and on the lower left. This is the best I was able to do with post-processing, and again, you can see that there is only so much you can correct digitally.

One far-from-ideal remedy for these lighting issues is to use a flash with a diffuser, but flash lighting is still artificial lighting, and the harshness of the light is tricky to adjust. Also, it's a little obnoxious to shoot your food with flash in the middle of a restaurant. For these reasons, I almost never, ever shoot food photos with flash. (I did make an exception once where the restaurant used blue lighting—now that's one clear case where flash lighting is definitely better than having a blue tint over your food!)

Even if you do get to work with natural daylight, you may be mixing the natural lighting with the artificial lighting inside the restaurant. Now that right there is a problem that no software can fix! And even if you only have to contend with a natural source of light, you have the problem with shadows. Here's an example:

Trout Po Boy at Pura Vida
Natural lighting—check! Shadow—check!

Notice that the light source is coming from the left, so the left side of this sandwich is bright, but the right side is in a shadow. There are ways to adjust this during post-processing as well, but again, there is only so much you can do before your picture starts to look stupid. The best way to remedy the shadow problem is to use a white surface to reflect or bounce off the light onto the shadowed side as you take the photo. I use a white foam board for all my photos taken at home for that purpose, but no way do I want to bring a white foam board to a restaurant!

Taking photos of food at a restaurant also means you can't control things like what's in the background. Often, your table is crowded with other plates and glasses and whatnot. Here's an example of a photo where you can see random plates and harsh shadows of other objects in the background, so the dish doesn't stand out as much. I suppose if I were really good at Photoshop I could digitally remove those extraneous objects, but I am not really good at Photoshop, and even if I were, it still wouldn't solve everything (like the lighting problems that this photo presents as well).

Mango Salad at Casa Manila (Toronto)
Random unwanted objects in the background

Anyway, I say all this because returning to Himalayas for the explicit purpose of doing a photo shoot (however informal it was!) meant that for the first time ever I got to be in control of many of these elements I've discussed and truly give myself the best possible chance of getting excellent shots. That was super exciting!

Well, I was in control to an extent, anyway. The setup for the shoot ended up being slightly more complicated than expected because the only window seating at the restaurant faces south—great if you want to be soaked in direct sunlight (and for once we had a warm sunny day!), but not so great for photos! We solved this problem by setting up a small table several feet inside the back door, which we would temporarily prop open any time a dish was brought out to be photographed to let in the perfect amount of indirect natural lighting. Another thing my inexperienced mind didn't consider prior to the shoot was to specify a table without a reflective surface as I struggled a little to avoid getting reflections of the overhanging lamps and other objects in my shots. We did try a tablecloth, but there was a crease showing and the bright red color of the tablecloth really overshadowed the gorgeous food in my opinion. I'm thinking for future reference that either a dark colored tablecloth (black or brown—crease-free, of course!) or a matted table surface might work best (I personally love the look of unfinished wood grain). I suppose a white tablecloth could work, too, but I think dark backgrounds are more my style.

And YES I brought my (small) white foam board because for once it wasn't weird to do so! This means I didn't have to worry as much about shadows and uneven lighting. R. was gracious to help me out as my "light bouncer." In between shots, we ate. We couldn't eat all the food that I photographed, but we did sample four of the main dishes (the Chilli Momo with Chicken, Fried Momo with vegetables, Chicken Vindaloo, and Chicken Tikka Masala—our favorite!) as well as FIVE desserts (the Carrot Pudding, Mango Kulfi, Pistachio Kulfi, Black Forest Cake, and Gulab Jamun—our favorite!). All the food was fantastic. We also got to chat with the staff and the owners, to whom I have given permission to use my photos in whatever way they wish. They expressed an interest in creating a photo menu since many guests are unfamiliar with the dishes, and they also wanted photos of the exterior to help potential customers identify the restaurant as it is tucked inside a small strip mall along Route 19 and not terribly visible from the street. (If you know where the Mad Max or Ichiban is in Cranberry, Himalayas is just 0.2 miles south and across the street, at the Excel Centre.)

For the exterior shots, I had to return first thing this morning so I didn't have to contend with cars in the parking lot blocking my view or having them reflected off the glass doors of the restaurant. It was cloudy when I left my house this morning, but of course it was just my luck that it was pouring down rain by the time I got to Cranberry! I got a couple of shots in, but I may just have to try for better shots in the summer when the trees are greener and the sky brighter earlier (I'd probably have to start at 7:00 a.m. because cars were already pulling into the lot by 8:00 a.m.!).

Working on this project was personally tons of fun for me, and not just because of my tendency to get obsessively excited about food photography. I have said before that the greatest pleasure I've gotten out of this blog is being able to help small local businesses. Doing this photo shoot was very meaningful for that reason and really reignited my motivation to keep this blog going.

Below is a sampling of the photos from the shoot. The entire set can be found here.

Himalayas Exterior 1
Himalayas exterior shot

Chilli Momo 1 at Himalayas
Chilli Momo

Fried Momo 1 at Himalayas
Fried Momo

Chicken Tikka Masala at Himalayas
Chicken Tikka Masala

Thukpa at Himalayas
Thukpa

Gulab Jamun 1 at Himalayas
Gulab jamun

Carrot Pudding at Himalayas
Carrot Pudding

Mango Kulfi at Himalayas
Mango Kulfi

Restaurant info:
Himalayas Restaurant
20445 Route 19, Cranberry Township, PA 16066
(724) 779-4454
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Friday, February 28, 2014

Food Collage Turns 3!

I can vividly remember that day three years ago I impulsively decided to start this food blog. I didn't know it at the time, but that was the fateful moment that would lead to some amazing experiences and an immense love and appreciation for my new hometown. I think my reflection post from the blog's first anniversary said it all. And in these three years, much like those early toddler years, I have experienced tremendous development in my skills as an amateur photographer and home cook.

Personally and professionally, this past year has been my busiest yet, with one consequence being significantly reduced time for blogging. But boy, do I miss it! It's funny, because blogging can seem like such a one-sided, solitary activity, yet the longer I go without blogging, the more isolated and disconnected I feel.

In addition to being insanely busy, I'd have to admit that my already limited free time has been made even more limited for another reason. Like a toddler, I am always curious. I love to explore, learn new things. I am never satisfied with complacency. Variety, as they say, is the spice of life. While I still enjoy food photography tremendously, I have at times felt that I have reached a plateau to some extent, and that further skill development would necessitate the kind of space, setup, and equipment for which I do not have the resources (or time!). For that reason, I have found myself devoting more of my time to other ways of satisfying my creative and artistic curiosity—like painting, landscape and nighttime photography, and video editing—none of which has much of anything to contribute to my food-centric blog.

This, of course, is not to say that the past year has been a dud—quite the contrary! I developed an awesome recipe for my perfect homemade pizza crust along with a number of successful experimentations with various pizza toppings. I continued to explore new ways of preparing venison. I took a Thai cooking class, fell in love with soup dumplings, tried Filipino and Nepalese cuisine for the first time, and have also been trying my hand at slow cooking, with results coming soon to a blog post near you. :) But perhaps the highlight of the year was a collaboration with nine other bloggers for the Perfect Pittsburgh Saturday series of posts where I described my love for "Stripping" for food. Last but certainly not least, I continue to make friends with and support local small businesses whenever I can. I also have a few very exciting food-related projects for the upcoming year that I can't wait to share on my blog!

So while it has been a slow year at Food Collage, I haven't stopped remembering that day three years ago when I started this blog and how much it has enriched me. Thank you for your continued support of my humble project.

It has become a tradition of sorts that I share a photo collage on each anniversary of my blog. This year, I thought it appropriate to combine my food photography with one of those new skills I've learned this past year, and the result is this photo slideshow featuring one photo from each blog post since last February 28. Enjoy.

Sunset Café (Greensburg)

A while back R. and I made an unplanned trip to Sunset Cafe in Greensburg. We had just spent the afternoon touring the spectacular Fallingwater and our dining options were limited on a Sunday evening, so we gave this place a try. It turned out to be quite a pleasant surprise! We munched on some fabulously crunchy, housebreaded Fried Zucchini, served with both a red sauce and an aioli sauce, while we waited for our main courses. I had also ordered a House Salad, which is actually much more interesting and your typical house salad, complete with beets and pasta, along with greens, romaine, tomatoes. I loved my Penne Melanzane, served with roasted eggplant, diced heirloom tomatoes, basil, parsley, sweet onion, pine nuts, and golden raisins. It was a bold choice for me as I haven't always been a fan of eggplant growing up, but I have learned to love it prepared Italian-style. R., whose standard is a chicken dish, enjoyed his Roasted Airline Chicken, served with herb au jus, grilled asparagus, and "salt-roasted twice-fried" fingerling potatoes. I'm still not quite sure what an "airline chicken" is, but R. gave it a two thumbs up! We were also extremely impressed with our amazing server/hostess, Sara, who was responsible for every table at the restaurant and yet never missed a beat. All in all, Sunset Cafe was an excellent find and one that I would revisit in a heartbeat.

Fried Zucchini at Sunset Cafe
Fried Zucchini

House Salad at Sunset Cafe
House Salad

Penne Melanzane at Sunset Cafe
Penne Melanzane

Restaurant info:
Sunset Cafe
302 S Urania Ave, Greensburg, PA 15601
(724) 834-9903
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Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Himalayas (Cranberry Township)

Pittsburgh's first Indian-Nepalese restaurant recently opened up in Cranberry Township. Having never had Nepalese food, I was naturally curious. R. and I visited Himalayas one evening and ordered a mix of Indian and Nepalese dishes to try. Among the Indian dishes were Butter Chicken and Chicken Curry, and both were pretty good. We also tried the Samosa Chat (samosas with chick peas, yogurt dressing, and chutney), which we had assumed would be like an enclosed pastry with filling, but it turns out we were just being culturally ignorant as Samosa Chat actually consists of broken pieces of samosa mixed with the other ingredients. Despite our surprise, it was fabulous.

Samosa Chat at Himalayas
Samosa Chat

Butter Chicken at Himlayas
Butter Chicken

Personally, I was here to try the Nepalese dishes, and that turned out to be quite the highlight. I especially loved the Chilli Momo. Momo is basically a type of dumpling that is native to Nepal, and Himalayas offers several varieties of it. The Chilli Momo is steamed and sautéed with bell peppers and onions and served with a tangy dipping sauce. Growing up eating out with my dad, he always judged the quality of dumplings based on the skin, which must be thick enough to maintain its integrity (so as to not break easily), but thin enough for the flavors of the filling to shine through. According to my dad's dumpling judging criteria, these momo would have received high marks. The dish as a whole was full of great flavors melded together well.

Chilli Momo at Himalayas
Chilli Momo

I liked the momo so much that I was back for a second visit for more momo. This time I had the steamed momo with chicken, which were a bit more subtle than the chilli momo flavor-wise but were also excellent. I also tried some Nepalase Aalu Dam (diced potatoes and tomatoes sautéed with red chilies and Nepalese spices, served with flattened rice known as "chewra") which was great as well.

Chicken Momo at Himalayas
Steamed Momo with Chicken

Nepalese Aalu Dam at Himalayas
Nepalese Aalu Dam

As Himalayas is still fairly new, there may be some tweaks to the menu, and I understand that a lunch buffet is now being offered. Also, check out the restaurant's website to see if there are any current specials or coupons.

Update 3/12/2014: I did a photo shoot for Himalayas soon after this post went online. Check it out here.

Restaurant info:
Himalayas Restaurant
20445 Route 19, Cranberry Township, PA 16066
(724) 779-4454
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Monday, February 17, 2014

Casa Manila (Toronto)

Just a quick photo roundup of my visit to Casa Manila in Toronto with my family. This was my first Filipino food experience and though for the most part the dishes were similar to other southeast Asian cuisine, I enjoyed it tremendously. I particularly liked the desserts, particularly the Halo Halo and the Buko Pandan, which were uniquely Filipino and absolutely delicious.

Mango Salad at Casa Manila (Toronto)
Mango Salad

Peanut Beef and Vegetable Stew at Casa Manila (Toronto)
Peanut Beef and Vegetable Stew

Garlic Chicken at Casa Manila (Toronto)
Garlic Chicken

Crispy Pork Belly at Casa Manila (Toronto)
Crispy Pork Belly

Coconut and Ginger Shrimp at Casa Manila
Coconut and Ginger Shrimp

Boneless Milk Fish at Casa Manila (Toronto)
Boneless Milk Fish

Halo Halo Espesyal at Casa Manila (Toronto)
Halo Halo EspesyalFruits and beans, custard with shaved ice, topped with ube ice cream 

Buko Pandan at Casa Manila (Toronto)
Buko Pandan
Young coconut meat mixed with pandan gelatin, cream 

Torta Trina at Casa Manila (Toronto)
Torta Trina
Cake topped with creamy egg custard

Restaurant info:
Casa Manila
879 York Mills Rd, Toronto, ON M3B1Y5
(416) 443-9654
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Saturday, December 28, 2013

Kekou (Toronto)

My friend Lisa has never given me a bad recommendation, so when she raved about Kekou, a relatively new gelato place in Toronto, I already knew it would be solid. What's different about Kekou is that the flavors are unique and Asian-inspired, like Jasmine Tea, Peanut Sesame, Strawberry Lychee, and even Durian! Customers are free to sample any flavor they wish. In addition, everything is made fresh in house, with natural ingredients and is completely free of preservatives and additives.

Menu at Kekou (Toronto)
Menu at Kekou (changes daily)

Kekou (Toronto)
Kekou

On my first visit to Kekou I tried the Peanut Sesame and Ginger Milk flavors. The very next day I brought my sister along and I tried the Black SesameVanilla Lotus, and Green Bean Coconut. Being the snob that I am when it comes to frozen treats, I have to say that I LOVED Kekou, not just for its exotic flavors but also the freshness of the gelato. For someone who has pooh-poohed the majority of ice cream and gelato shops, Kekou undeniably gets two thumbs up from me! The only drawback is that Kekou is closed for the winter season and will reopen in the spring, and I can't wait 'til I can go back there again!

Peanut Sesame and Ginger Milk Gelato at Kekou (Toronto)
Peanut Sesame and Ginger Milk Gelato

Black sesame, Vanilla Lotus, and Green Bean Coconut Gelato at Kekou (Toronto)
Black Sesame, Vanilla Lotus, and Green Bean Coconut Gelato

Restaurant Info:
Kekou Gelato House
13 Baldwin Street, Toronto, ON M5T 1L1
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Hibiscus Café (Toronto)

While in Toronto this past summer I met up with some friends in the Kensington Market area where we had lunch at Hibicus, a cozy cafe specializing in gluten-free, casual vegetarian fare.

The main feature at Hibicus are the buckwheat crêpes, with several mouthwatering options for savory and sweet crêpes. It wasn't an easy decision to choose just one, and in the end I decided to sample one with pears, pecan, and chutney, with spinach and cheese on the inside. It was as delicious as it sounds.

Buckwheat Crepe with Pear, Pecan, and Chutney at Hibiscus Cafe (Toronto)
Buckwheat Crêpe with Pears, Pecan, and Cutney

For dessert, Hibiscus offers cookies, brownies, and an interesting selection of non-diary ice cream with flavors like chai, ginger, and black sesame. Highly recommended!

Restaurant info:
Hibiscus Café
238 Augusta Ave, Toronto, ON
(416)364-6183
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Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Fishman Lobster Clubhouse Restaurant (Toronto)

My trip to Toronto late in the summer coincided with a visit from some relatives from overseas, and one night we all went out to Fishman Lobster Clubhouse Restaurant in the suburbs of Toronto, right on the border between Scarborough and Markham. Known for its giant lobsters and king crab, it hadn't dawned on me just how much of a buzz Fishman had generated until I witnessed the line to the restaurant going far out the door on this rainy Wednesday evening—and this was before Andrew Zimmern declared Fishman "the best Hong Kong-style seafood restaurant in North America." (Do check out Zimmern's article—especially the photo of the giant lobster tower!)

The restaurant space is large and its walls are lined with giant aquariums that housed the live giant lobsters, giant king crabs, and giant fish. All dishes are served family-style, of course. We had a lobster tower of our own, though not quite as giant as the one in Zimmern's photo. The lobster was served with tiny, crunchy fried fish. We also had a king crab that was served two different ways—in a fried rice and steamed with egg whites and salted eggs. Each guest is given a pair of disposable plastic gloves so we can annihilate our crustacean feed with a tiny bit of civility. We topped our feast off with a steamed bass and a chicken dish. In all, our meal that was meant for 3-4 people came to about $50 per person for our group of seven, and we took home tons of leftovers and with very satisfied bellies.

Best Hong Kong-style seafood restaurant in North America indeed.

Lobster Tower at Fishman (Toronto)
Lobster tower

Lobster at Fishman (Toronto)
Lobster

Crunchy fish served with Lobster at Fishman (Toronto)
Tiny fish served with lobster

King Crab at Fishman (Toronto)
King Crab

Steamed Crab Meat with Egg White and Salted Egg at Fishman (Toronto)
Steamed crab with egg whites and salty egg

Crab Fried Rice at Fishman (Toronto)
Crab fried rice

Steamed Bass at Fishman (Toronto)
Steamed bass

Chicken at Fishman (Toronto)
Chicken

Restaurant info:
Fishman Lobster Clubhouse Restaurant
680 Silver Star Boulevard, Toronto, ON M1V 4S5
(416)321-0250
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