Saturday, April 30, 2011

Foster's Martini and Wine Bar (St. Joseph, MO)

This is the third in a series of posts on my last meals in the Kansas City area.  To start from the beginning of the series, click here.

For a completely different view of St. Joseph, MO, I'd like to introduce you to the casually classy Foster's Martini and Wine Bar in the downtown area.  This is undoubtedly my favorite place in St. Joe.  The bar has a bit of a contemporary artsy ambiance to it, what with the bright blue walls decorated with busy art displays.  The seating feels comfortable and the at night the lighting is dim.  It is elegant, yet down-to-earth at the same time.

As a martini and wine bar, its focus is clearly on drinks.  In fact, while Foster's is undergoing renovation/expansion, there is no kitchen and they are therefore not currently serving their small number of appetizer items.  But their drinks are really, really delicious.  My absolute favorite is the chocolate martini, which pretty much tastes just like an ice cream bar.  They also have a version made with cherry juice and one with banana liquor.  I have had both before and they are very, very good.  The best chocolate martinis I've ever had.  This time, I had the plain chocolate martini, and it goes down so easy I downed the first one in a matter of minutes.  And it was so delicious I had to get a second one. ;)

Chocolate Martini at Foster's St Joseph MO
Chocolate Martini
Vodka, Irish Creme, and Creme de Cocoa!

In the past I've also had the Pink Lady and the Love Potion No. 9, both of which I liked.  R. had gotten the new Strawberry Fields (though without the alcohol) based on our waitress' suggestion, and it was highly refreshing.  Judging by their expansion plans, I'm guessing Foster's is doing quite well.  It is great to see a place like this thrive in little St. Joe.

Restaurant info:
Foster's Martini & Wine Bar
726 Felix St, St. Joseph, MO 64501
On the web:
Bonus: Free Wifi 

Foster's on Urbanspoon

Bandana's Bar-B-Q (St. Joseph, MO)

This is the second in a series of posts on my last meals in the Kansas City area.  To start from the beginning of the series, click here.

Saint Joseph is a small city (pop. 76,780) about an hour north of Kansas City.  As far as I'm aware, St. Joe has three main claims to fame: 1) It was one of the two points of origin of the Pony Express, a mail delivery service that operated between 1860 and 1861 that connected St. Joe and Sacramento, CA; 2) Jesse James was killed there in 1883; 3) It is the current training camp of the Kansas City Chiefs.  A couple shots of a pretty part of St. Joe, by the Missouri River:

St.Joseph Riverwalk,
by the Missouri River

Missouri River at Dusk

OK, back to the topic at hand: Food.  Being a not-so-Metropolitan area in the Midwest, St. Joe does not exactly have the culinary diversity that one would expect in a larger city.  While it does have a handful of independently-owned, mom-and-pop restaurant (mostly of the meat-and-potato variety), St. Joe is mostly dominated by chains.  That's not to say I have a problem with chains, however, if they serve a good product.  In fact, one of the restaurants I enjoy visiting in St. Joe is Bandana's Bar-B-Q, which has franchise locations across Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, and Kansas.  The one thing that has kept me coming back is their sauces, particularly the Sweet & Smoky sauce:

Barbeque sauces at Bandana's St Joseph
Bandana's sauces: Sweet & Smoky, Spicy, Chicaco Sweet, KC Style, and Original.

The Sweet & Smoky sauce is a St. Louis-style sauce that's basically a blend of the sweetness and tanginess of the Kansas City-style, the spiciness of the Texas-style, and the mustardy goodness of the Southeastern-style.  Some of the main ingredients in Bandana's Sweet & Smoky sauce are brown sugar, vinegar, tomato paste, mustard, and smoke flavor.

I usually get the combo platter at Bandana's with two meats, two sides, and two slices of garlic bread.  For my meats I usually get chicken (dark meat) and ribs, though this time around I went for the beef instead of the ribs.  I should have gotten the ribs after all as the ribs are far superior to the beef, in my humble opinion, but the chicken was excellent as ever.  In any case, they smoke all their chicken, beef, ribs, and pork in a pit of hardwood for several hours, which gives the meat a smoky flavor but it's not too overwhelming.

Combo Platter at Bandana's St Joseph
Combo Platter with Chicken and Beef

For one of the sides I always upgrade to the fried corn on the cob, served with dripping butter.  It's bad, I know, but you don't exactly go to a BBQ restaurant expecting to eat healthy. ;)  I'd have to say though, that the corn used to be better but lately they've been overcooking it.  For the other side item, I got the BBQ beans.

I claim no expertise on BBQ, and I certainly acknowledge that much of it depends on what style of BBQ and how much smokiness one prefers.  I would also admit that Bandana's isn't perfect in every way, but I do prefer it over some of the other popular BBQ chains such as Gates in Kansas City or the much larger Famous Dave's.  Luckily, it is possible to order Bandana's sauces via their website, so at least there is always an option for a taste of Bandana's at home.

Restaurant info:
Bandana's Bar-B-Q
4225 Frederick
St. Joseph, MO 64506
(816) 671-1166

Bandana's on Urbanspoon

Thai Place Restaurant (Kansas City, MO)

Last weekend I visited Kansas City, MO and a town about an hour north called St. Joseph.  This might well have been my last visit to the area for a while (or possibly ever), so I took the opportunity to revisit some of my favorite dining establishments in the area.  The next few blog posts will feature my "last meals" in KCMO.

One of my favorite restaurants in Kansas City is Thai Place Restaurant, in the cute historic Westport neighborhood of Kansas City.  I like Thai Place not so much for its curry - it's good, but I wouldn't say it's significantly better than other Thai restaurants I've been to.  However, I do love the quiet atmosphere, the beautiful decor, the friendly and speedy service, and the desserts.

Menu for Thai Place Kansas City
The unique Thai Place menu

The inside of the restaurant is well-decorated, with Thai paintings lining the walls, some of which feature the Thai royal family.  We specifically requested a window seat so I can take advantage of some natural lighting for my photos. :)

I am a huge curry fan, so 9.9 times out of 10 I'll order curry at a Thai restaurant.  OK, make that 10 times out of 10.  For my last meal here, I ordered the Penang Curry with vegetables and tofu which was tasty as usual:

Panang Curry with Tofu at Thai Place Kansas City
Penang Curry with Vegetables and Tofu

I only ate half my entree, as I needed to save room for the memorable dessert I had had at Thai Place two years ago when I celebrated my birthday here.  It was memorable partly because Thai Place serves the ever-so-hard-to-find taro/ube ice cream - something I had been unable to locate anywhere in DC where I was living at the time, and something I have yet to see in Pittsburgh.  As an aside, taro and ube (purple yam) are actually two different things, but often confused with one another. It was unclear which flavor Thai Place actually served because it was identified as both on the menu.  I suspect that it may actually be ube because of its bright lavender color (just like 99% of the desserts out there identified - or misidentified - as taro), because I know for a fact that fresh taro ice cream is actually nearly white in color, while ube ice cream is dark purple.  Whatever it really is, taro/ube ice cream has always been one of my favorites.

Anyway, I digress.  On this visit, R. and I shared the dessert we had had here two years ago, the Thai Place Dessert Plate.  It combines three of their desserts: 1) the Coco Tower, which is basically two large scoops of coconut ice cream in crispy thin spring roll wraps, 2) the Baked Coconut Custard, and 3) Fried Banana topped with honey.  Our server knew we had wanted some taro/ube ice cream for our dessert, and allowed us to substitute one of the scoops of coconut ice cream with taro/ube ice cream.  Perfect!

Dessert Platter at Thai Place Kansas City
The Thai Place Dessert Plate
Everything on this plate was ridiculously good.  The coconut ice cream, complete with coconut flakes (tasted fresh, too) was particularly fabulous.  The always-satisfying taro/ube ice cream is at the bottom of the "tower" so it's a bit hard to see from the photo above. Here's a closer look:

Taro Ice Cream at Thai Place Kansas City
Taro/Ube Ice Cream

We were completely stuffed after this meal we had to take a long walk afterwards, but it was so satisfying!

Restaurant info:
Thai Place Restaurant
4130 Pennsylvania Ave, Kansas City, MO 64111

Thai Place on Urbanspoon

Saturday, April 23, 2011

BRGR (East Liberty)

My neighbors and I had been trying to get together for dinner for a while (hi Chris and Nicole!) and we finally made it to BRGR - pronounced Bee-R-Gee-R - in East Liberty last week.  After my visit to Burgh'ers just a week prior, I had been craving another burger, and BRGR was one of the new gourmet burger bars I had been looking forward to checking out because they serve a blend of Angus beef made of NY strip, sirloin, and ribeye that is especially ground for them up in Erie, PA.  (Read: ground beef I'm willing to eat.)

BRGR doesn't take reservations, but the wait wasn't too bad on this particularly Friday night.  The fact that they've just opened the upstairs patio probably helped.  The atmosphere is upscale and contemporary; with several large TVs broadcasting sports games lining the main dining room, BRGR is a bit like sports bar meets fine dining.  I love how tech-savvy they are, too:  When you put your name down they take your cell phone number and text you when your table is ready.

For my meal, I got the Shroomz burger, with mushrooms, caramelized onions, brie, and a mustard aioli:

Shroomz Burger at BRGR
Shroomz Burger

It was a solid burger.  The meat was juicy but not greasy, and the sauce and the toppings were good as well.  I liked it a lot.  I had also hoped to try their famous spiked shakes, but alas, they do not have lactose-free milk, so I got the sangria instead:

Shroomz Burger and Sangria at BRGR
My Shroomz burger with my sangria.

Nicole did order the Salty Caramel spiked shake as a dessert and liked it a lot.

Everything is a la carte at BRGR, so we ordered a side of fries with our meal:

Fries at BRGR
A side of fries, with Parmesan cheese and herbs.

And finally, breaking my rule of posting only pictures of what I have eaten, here's a picture of Chris' Average Joe burger that he wanted me to take, so I figured it'd make him happy if I posted it. ;)

The Average Joe Burger at BRGR
The Average Joe Burger

The Average Joe is basically your standard burger, with tomato, onion, and lettuce, and you have the option of adding cheese and bacon as well, as Chris did here.

I have already been asked which is better, Burgh'ers or BRGR.  I think that's a difficult question to answer because it's a bit like comparing apples and oranges.  If you're looking for a more casual, down-to-earth atmosphere or are specifically interested in grass-fed beef, then you should go to Burgh'ers.  On the other hand, if you are looking for something more upscale, in a more hoppin' neighborhood, and grass-fed beef isn't a must, then BRGR is your choice.  If you're just looking for a good burger, you can't go wrong with either.  Keep in mind, too, that Burgh'ers and BRGR are a good 35 miles apart, so maybe the location will end up being the major factor.  A comparable meal will likely cost you a little more at BRGR because you have to order sides separately and the valet parking will cost you a few bucks as well.  A more relevant comparison may be BRGR versus Burgatory in Aspinwall, but I have yet to visit the latter, though I'm hoping that it'll be the destination of my next burger adventure.

Restaurant info:
5997 Penn Cir S, Pittsburgh, PA 15206
(412) 362-2333
Valet parking available next door at Spoon for $3

BRGR on Urbanspoon

Singapore Mai Fun (Singapore Rice Noodles)

Just a quick post and a little bit belated, but I made this a couple of weeks ago as part of my "cleanse" diet.  I had mentioned in a previous post that sometimes I just feel like my body needs a healthy, homemade meal to balance out all the high-calorie meals I consume when I eat out.  At 237 calories per serving, this Singapore Mai Fun ("mai fun" is Chinese for rice noodles) recipe definitely fits the bill.  I'm also pretty busy this time of year (well, really, most times of the year...), so meals I make at home, like this one, tend towards the easy but tasty.  This Singapore Mai Fun is a little bit spicy and really delicious.  Personally, I think it's better than take-out, and definitely healthier!

Singapore Mai Fun
Singapore Mai Fun

Recipe courtesy of:
Cooking Light (get the recipe here)

Thursday, April 21, 2011

NOLA On the Square (Downtown)

Last Wednesday a small group of us had the pleasure to attend a special preview of Bricolage's Hunter Gatherers.  Before the show, we met up for dinner at NOLA On the Square, a New Orleans-style restaurant in Market Square that has been on my wish list since the day it opened in mid-March.

From the outside, it's hard to see how spacious NOLA is.  A long, lively bar area inside the entrance leads to several dining areas with a view of the open kitchen.  There is a second floor as well although I didn't get a chance to go up and see what kind of seating they have up there (if any).  NOLA's decor is colorful and beautiful, and the atmosphere is quite pleasant with soft jazz music playing in the background.  (There is also live music on most nights.)  Our attentive server, Olga, led me to the back of the restaurant to our table.  I got there early when the back section was still empty, so I had the chance to snap a few photos of the gorgeous dining room:

NOLA dining room
The back dining section at NOLA.

Our Table at NOLA
Our table at the corner.

View of the chandelier at NOLA
Dining under this beautiful chandelier.

But what about the food?  Against my better judgment, I ordered both a soup and an entree. ;)  The Oyster Stew is a bowl of creamy goodness with oysters, mussels, and artichoke, and there is definitely no skimping on any of the main ingredients.  I highly recommend this one.

Oyster Stew at NOLA
Oyster Stew

For the entree I ordered the Creole Tartiflette, which is a wood-fired casserole with lots of potatoes, camembert cheese, artichoke, smoked bacon, in a Creole mustard cream.

Creole Tartiflette at NOLA
Creole Tartiflette

In hindsight, I probably should not have paired a creamy stew with a creamy casserole.  By the time I got to the Creole Tartiflette, I was pretty full from the stew and a little bit "creamed out."  Don't get me wrong, I didn't dislike the dish, but I had trouble really savoring something so hearty and rich at that point.

All in all, I had a great first visit to NOLA.  Olga had made a few delicious-sounding drink recommendations earlier in the night that I had declined because we were headed for a Happy Half Hour right after dinner and before the show.  I promised Olga I would be back for drinks next time.

Keeping my promise, I was back a few night later.  I was out of food at home and didn't have time to cook, and not only did I feel like having a drink, I was also really hungry for a good jambalaya ever since regretting not getting it on my first visit, especially because a friend of mine did and thought it was fantastic.  So I decided to make an impulsive repeat visit before the week's end.

Seafood Jambalaya at NOLA
Seafood Jambalaya

The seafood jambalaya comes with shrimp, scallops, Andouille sausage, and mussels and it was delightful!  Just a little spicy, but not so overwhelming that you can't taste the food.  To go with my entree I also got a drink that was one of the specials:

Dirty Banana Pina Colada at NOLA
Dirty Banana Pina Colada

The Dirty Banana Pina Colada is thick, flavorful, and tastes as good as it sounds.  It definitely gave me a buzz, though I'm not sure if it was because they put a lot of alcohol in it (which would be great!) or because the jambalaya was the first solid food I had had all day.  Or both.  Once again, I had Olga as my server, and she was, once again, very helpful.  Overall I think NOLA has a great combination of atmosphere, food, and service and is a great addition to Market Square.  Flag this as one I'll come back to for sure!

Restaurant info:
NOLA On the Square
24 Market Square, Pittsburgh, PA 15222
(412) 471-9100 
On the web:

NOLA on the square on Urbanspoon

Monday, April 18, 2011

Why I Am Promoting an "Eating Green" Conference in Washington DC

Those of you who follow me on Twitter might have seen my tweet promoting the Eating Green: A Conversation about Food, Consumption and Sustainability conference to be held at American University in Washington, DC on Earth Day, Friday April 22, 2011.  To some, it may seem rather random that I would help promote an event taking place in a city where I no longer live, especially since I have maybe only a handful of Twitter followers from that area.  But in fact, I am doing my part in promoting this event for a reason that is much closer to home, and I am about to get as personal as I would on the www and tell you a story.

The Eating Green conference is held in memory of a recent graduate of American University, Andrew Wolf.  Even though I had actually worked at AU at the same time Andrew attended classes there, I never had the pleasure of meeting this inspiring young man.  But one person who did was my sister - interestingly enough, on a bike tour in Canada.

My sister and Andrew were part of a 17-member group organized by the Ottawa-based Otesha Project, a youth-led, non-profit organization aimed to create social change.  The two-month tour involved cycling from city to city across Eastern Canada and visiting various schools and community centers to educate young people about sustainable living.  All members of the tour were volunteers and had raised their own funds to participate.  They all chose to devote two months of their lives to this experience because of their strong conviction in the cause and their belief that they can make a difference in this world.

Sadly, it was during one of the rides that tragedy struck on September 16, 2010, when a tractor-trailer swerved into the wide shoulder of the highway where the group was traveling and hit three of the cyclists.  Andrew was killed instantly.  (And yes, I often think of how it could have been my sister who was killed instead.)

During his life, Andrew was passionate about food justice and had worked tirelessly to educate others about food-related issues, such as how food is farmed, food labeling, and healthy eating.  He worked as a food educator in New York and had just written this article about it prior to his death.  The conference at AU honors Andrew's memory by bringing together people from different walks of life to discuss the issues that Andrew cared most about, to carry on his legacy in some way.

Even though I never got to meet this amazing young man, I feel inspired by Andrew through the work that he had accomplished in his short life.  How many 20-somethings these days do you know who have such a strong, developed sense of ethics and actively advocate for social justice?  Instead of recognizing and celebrating those who serve as positive role models, our society and our media focus on people like former UCLA student Alexandra Wallace who really don't deserve their 15 minutes of fame (or infamy, in this case).  If everyone has even half the drive and dedication that Andrew had toward positive change, this world would be a much better place.

I do not have any illusion that this blog will reach the people of DC and inspire them to attend the Eating Green conference.  My hope is that this post will at least bring some awareness to issues related to food justice and the environment in general.  In my own small way, I'd like to help sustain Andrew's legacy.

How you can help in your own small way:
  1. Please feel free to retweet my message, even if you don't live in DC. Somebody who does might just see it.
  2. If you're not on Twitter, email your DC friends to let them know about the conference.
  3. If you're interested, take some time to read some of Andrew's favorite links on food justice.
  4. Visit a food establishment that is committed to local sourcing and sustainability.  Here are a few in Pittsburgh that have been featured in my blog so far.
  5. If you're a driver, please share the road, and encourage others to do the same.
Thank you for reading.

Andrew Wolf
Sketch courtesy of my sister

Remembering Andrew
Eating Green Conference Info

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Vegetable Fried Rice

Ever feel like you've been eating way too much unhealthy foods and you just need to spend a few days "cleansing"?  I don't mean doing one of those extreme, gimmicky detox diets, of course; I mean eating lower-calorie foods for a few days to balance things out a bit.  I feel that way a lot these days after bingeing on restaurant meals that are more delicious than they are healthy.  The vegetable fried rice is one of my super easy go-to recipes when I feel like going meatless and relatively low-calorie (only 364 calories).

Vegetable Fried Rice
Vegetable Fried Rice

The only problem I have with this recipe as is is that it calls for instant brown rice.  I'm sorry, but no respectable recipe should list instant-anything as an ingredient, and IMHO instance rice is as nasty as it goes.  So I use regular long-grain rice, usually jasmine rice because that's what I tend to stock at home, and not to brag or anything but I do own a really fabulous Zorijushi rice cooker that I'm totally in love with, so I skip the saucepan method and cook the rice in my rice cooker instead and it comes out perfect every time.  Sometimes I also add a splash of curry powder at the end for a little extra flavor.

Recipe courtesy of:
Eating Well (get the recipe here)

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Burgh'ers (Harmony)

Last weekend I had a sudden burger craving (probably fueled by China Millman's Post-Gazette article featuring the new burger bars in town).  I wasn't craving just any burger though - I wanted a big, fat, juicy beef burger.  You see, I hadn't had a beef burger since my first (and last) visit to Five Guys in DC in July 2009.  Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the burger, but quite literally while my body was still digesting that meal, I went to see the Oscar-nominated documentary Food, Inc. and my life hasn't been the same since.  Without going into too much of the gory detail, I pretty much swore off ground beef right then and there unless I was sure that the restaurant ground their own beef or that the beef was grass-fed instead of grain-fed.

And just like that, no more beef burgers for me.

So you can imagine my excitement a little while ago when I found out about the new burger joint, Burgh'ers, in Harmony through a news article about it having been deemed the best burger in Pittsburgh.  I was excited because Burgh'ers uses ingredients from local farms and their beef is local, organic, and grass-fed.  In other words: ground beef I CAN eat!  So Burgh'ers came to mind immediately when the I felt like my tummy could use a long-overdue beef burger.

I hopped into my car and drove up to Harmony, which is a quaint little area about a 15-minute drive north of Cranberry Township.  The restaurant is located in Creekside Plaza on Perry Highway, although you can't see the restaurant from the road as the strip mall doesn't face the street, so it's good to keep the name of the plaza in mind while searching for the restaurant.  The atmosphere at Burgh'ers is casual and low-key but pleasant at the same time, with its walls painted bright green and its menu scrawled on a gigantic chalkboard behind the cashier.  Most of the burgers are named after Pittsburgh's neighborhoods (like the Shadyside, the Bloomfield, or the Polish Hill), but I decided to go with the Mexican War, which is a fiery burger with roasted green chillies, avocado, tomato, chedder cheese, and cilantro:

Mexican War at Burgh'ers
The Mexican War ($9.99)

And this thing was hot alright!  But more importantly, tasty.  What an interesting combination of flavors!  Everything was cooked just right.  The patty was juicy but not too greasy, the buns were soft and warm, and even the fries were great.  I cleaned up the entire plate, and if you know how petite I am, you'd know this is quite a lot of food for me.  But I ate it all because it was so good!

The restaurant was pretty busy when I got there, and it was absolutely packed by the time my burger was served.  I was actually hoping to take advantage of Burgh'er's free wifi and get some work done, but decided against it because I didn't want to take up a seat if I wasn't eating.  As I was close to being done with my meal, the little boy sitting at the table behind me came up and asked if I was a reporter, which I thought was so cute.  I got into a conversation with the nice parents and turns out they decided to try Burgh'ers after reading China Millman's article (and Mr. and Mrs. Nice Parents, if you're reading this: Hello!).  I didn't stick around long enough to find out if they liked their burgers, but I'm really glad that this little local joint located way beyond the North Hills is getting so much attention.  It is also BYOB, which is another plus.

I had thought that my visit to Burgh'ers would satisfy my burger craving, but if anything, it seemed to have intensified it!  If they had been open the following day on Sunday, I just might have made a repeat trip up there.  I guess it was probably best for my waistline that they weren't open! :)  I definitely see more burgers/Burgh'ers in my near future, and I'm very happy to have found another restaurant in town that is committed to supporting local agriculture.

Restaurant info:
100 Perry Highway, Harmony, PA 16037
(724) 473-0710
On the web:

Burgh'ers on Urbanspoon

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Hunter Gatherers at Bricolage (Plus Ticket Giveaway!)

Last night was a fun foodie night in downtown Pittsburgh.  Following dinner at the recently opened NOLA On the Square (look for a blog post in the next week or two...I'm a bit backlogged right now!), a few foodie friends and I headed over to Bricolage on Liberty Ave to see a preview of Hunter Gatherers, a play written by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb and directed by Jeffrey Carpenter.  (Special thanks goes to Tami Dixon, the Producing Artistic Director of Bricolage, for inviting us!)

Being fairly new to Pittsburgh, I hadn't heard of Bricolage before and honestly didn't know what to expect from the show, but the promise of dark comedy at a dinner party setting (and the hunk of fresh meat prominently featured on their poster) piqued my curiosity.

The play centers around two mismatched couples who are long-time friends, getting together for their annual anniversary dinner at one of the couples' loft apartment where all of the action takes place.

The "hunters" of the show, Richard (Jonathan Visser) and Wendy (Amy Landis), have an unmistakable fixation on sensual pleasures that borders on insanity.  Their delirious obsession with food and culinary perfection is translated into primal lust for other bodily pleasures.  (...Or is it the other way around?)  Sexual tensions abound...

The "gatherers," Pam (Tressa Glover) and Tom (Michael Fuller), appear meek enough on the outside, but are they truly as passive as they seem? Or are they suppressing inner "hunters" within them?

I am no theatre critic, and know nothing about the art of writing about a play without revealing too much, so I will just leave you with this tag line from the show itself:

"...not everyone will survive long enough to enjoy the brownies for dessert..."

Intrigued yet?  The 90-minute play is hilarious and entertaining.  If you're the type who is into raunchy humor (or at least doesn't mind it), you will enjoy this show.  The pace is fast and there is never a dull moment.  While Hunter Gatherers is not a play about food per se, the notion of one's passion for food and its parallel with sexual desires certainly takes center stage in this play.  After all, if both are forms of sensual experiences, what is the difference, really?  Finally, the casting was impeccable and the actors were simply fabulous.  It is definitely a show worth seeing.  Just make sure you leave your kids at home!

And if you would like a chance to win a pair of free tickets to see Hunter Gatherers, drop me an email or send me a tweet by 5:00 pm on Sunday April 17.  [UPDATE 4/18/2011: The ticket giveaway is now closed.  Congrats to reader Elizabeth! Hope you enjoy the show!]

Hunter Gatherers opens tonight (April 14) and runs through May 7.  Check out Bricolage's website for more details.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Eleven - Sunday Brunch (Strip District)

Last Sunday during my out-of-town friends' visit, they were interested in taking a walk around downtown Pittsburgh and doing brunch at a restaurant that wouldn't mind having their 19-month-old boy run around.  Being fairly new to town and not having gone out for Sunday brunch at all, I wasn't really sure which restaurant would fit the bill, so naturally I took to the Twitter world for help.  The only person who responded to my inquiry was none other than Derek Stevens, the Executive Chef at Eleven, who was nice to reassure me that Eleven wouldn't have a problem with my friends' kid.  (Thank you, Chef Stevens!)  Eleven had actually been on my restaurant wish list for a while, so I was excited to hear that they would be open for brunch on Sunday.  Nested right in between the Central Business District and the heart of the Strip District, the location also made it the perfect choice for us on this particular day.

Eleven is conveniently located right across from the large History Center parking lot, and they have their own valet parking service as well.  I had to call Eleven on our way there to apologize for being late for our reservation (having a 19-month-old around will do that to ya!) and they were so very nice and accommodating about it.  Once we arrived, the hostess offered to check our coats, and we were promptly seated at one of the upstairs booths.  They also quickly brought us a high chair that I had requested at the time of the reservation.  The restaurant is fairly large with two floors and the decor is quite contemporary and upscale.  As you enter the restaurant on the lower level, you can also see the open kitchen in full view to the right.  Overall, Eleven has a very nice atmosphere.

The Sunday Brunch menu has several options for appetizers ($9), entrees ($15), and beverages (alcoholic $8-9; non-alcoholic $3.5).  There is also an option to take the prix fixe for $25 which includes an appetizer, entree, and a drink.  All three of us adults decided to go with that option.

Oysters at Eleven
Appetizer: Oysters

For my appetizer, I picked the oysters, which came with two sauces. The one on the left is the Eleven hot sauce made with jalapeno peppers, and the one on the right is a mignonette made with red wine vinegar, pink peppercorn, and various seasonings.  Both were delicious.

Crab Cake Sandwich at Eleven
Entree: Crab Cake Sandwich

For the entree I got the Crab Cake sandwhich, which comes with pickles, tomato, and a fennel slaw, with a side of fries.  (As of this writing, they have changed the recipe for their crab cake sandwich...that was fast!)  This was actually the first crab cake I've had in Pittsburgh and a bit of a risky choice.  I just moved here from Maryland - the land of crab cakes - so I had been skeptical of the quality of crab cakes anywhere else.  But now that I no long live there, I needed to give crab cakes in Pittsburgh a chance lest I'll never eat crab cakes again!  So I decided to go for it.  I thought the sandwich was quite good, and the crab cake itself was full of crab meat rather than filler (my greatest fear with crab cakes).  I personally would have preferred the crab meat to be lumpier, but that's probably because I've been so thoroughly spoiled by the amazing crab cakes at G&M Restaurant & Lounge in Maryland.  Still, I think Eleven's version was very good.

Vanilla Mojito at Eleven
Beverage: Vanilla Mojito

For my beverage, I had the Vanilla Mojito, described as "Cruzan rum, mint, lime, vanilla agave, and Myers float."  It was a good complement to the rest of my meal.

Our server, Yves, was also very friendly and helpful with my questions about the menu.  My friend's husband, who is French, struck up a conversation with him en francaise (not a single word of which I understood...I'm a bad Canadian, I know!).  Turns out Yves had been trained at a famous restaurant in France, which I thought was pretty cool.  Overall, I really enjoyed the meal and my experience at Eleven, and most importantly, my friends liked their food, too.  My friends' poor baby was still not feeling well and didn't eat at all, so we asked to doggy bag our leftover pastries for him:

Instead, the wait staff packed up some fresh pastries for my friends that would be ready for pick up at the coat check on our way out.  Overall, the service at Eleven was absolutely top-notch!  Great food, great service, great atmosphere.  It is no wonder why so many people have raved about this place.  I am so glad I finally got to try Eleven!

Restaurant info:
1150 Smallman St, Pittsburgh, PA 15222
On the web:

Eleven on Urbanspoon

Palace Cafe's Shrimp Tchefuncte (Part 2: The Recipe)

My good friend from graduate school, along with her husband and little boy, came to visit me in Pittsburgh last weekend on their way from Cincinnati to New York.  They had planned to arrive around dinner time on Saturday, and because their kid was nursing a cold, they wanted a low-key evening. So I decided to flex my cooking muscles and prepare dinner for everyone.

Having learned from the minor disaster that was Sunday Brunch a couple of weeks ago, I decided I would make something I've successfully cooked before.  I didn't have time to carefully look through my two very full binders of recipes, so I went with one of my all-time favorites:  Palace Café's Shrimp Tchefuncte.

Shrimp Tchefuncte
Shrimp Tchefuncte

As I mentioned in my last post, about two years ago I had found several versions of this recipe online, and I had blogged about my attempt at making it.  The very next day, a wonderful staff member at Palace Cafe actually commented on my blog and posted the actual recipe, with some interesting tidbits about the dish. I will post her comment verbatim here:

My name is Ali and I work for Dickie Brennan's Palace Cafe. So glad that you enjoy our Shrimp Tchefuncte. Looks like you did a great job repicating it. Just in case you were looking the original recipe, here it is. You can also find it on our website where we share many other recipes:

Rice Pilaf
2 oz Butter
3 C Converted/Louisiana Popcorn Rice
1 med Onion, diced
6 C Chicken Stock
Salt and Pepper

In a 5 quart sauce pan, melt butter and add diced onions and rice. Stir constantly until rice and onions brown. Add chicken stock, then bring to a boil. Stir, reduce heat to low and simmer. Cover and cook
for approximately 20 minutes. Check for firmness, uncover and let stand for 10 minutes. Season with
salt and pepper.

Meunière Sauce
1 tsp Black Peppercorns
8 Tbsp Heavy Whipping Cream
3 Lemons, peeled and quartered
2 lbs Unsalted Butter, room temperature
3 Tbsp Crystal Hot Sauce
¼ tsp Salt and White Pepper
7 Tbsp Worcestershire Sauce

In a large sauce pan, combine peppercorns, lemons, hot sauce and Worcestershire sauce over low heat. Reduce by 2/3. Add whipping cream and reduce by ½, stirring constantly. As you stir, press gently on
the lemon quarters to release the juices. Slowly add the butter by pinching off 2-3 ounces at a time and squeezing it through your fingers into the sauce pan, still stirring constantly (this is called “mounting
the butter”). As you add the last of the butter, remove your pan from heat; continue to stir. Add salt and pepper to taste. Strain through a fine strainer or china cap. Cover and set aside.

Sautéed Shrimp
3 C Domestic Mushrooms
3 C Green Onions
60 Shrimp
6 tsp Butter
Salt and Pepper

Wash (in cold water) and season shrimp with salt and pepper (we use our house Creole seasoning in the restaurant). Melt butter in a medium sauté pan, then add shrimp, green onions and mushrooms. Cook over medium heat for 3-4 minutes, stirring constantly until shrimp turn pink. When ready to serve, add meunière sauce and heat.

Serving Instructions:
Pack rice in a cup (a shallow coffee cup works well). Invert the cup over the rim of your plate and lift slowly. Spoon Shrimp Tchefuncte around ¾ of the rice.

**Food for Thought**
The Tchefuncte River, located north of New Orleans was named after an Indian tribe that once inhabited the area.

Meunière: French for “miller’s wife”, refers to a style of cooking whereby food (usually fish) is seasoned, lightly dusted with flour and sautéed in butter. The sauce made from these drippings is then combined with lemon juice and parsley

[UPDATE 4/13/2011Palace Café was so sweet to post this recipe as well as some really useful tips on their own blog after reading my post, and then took the time to let me know!  See why I just loooove Palace Café??]

It was actually pretty close to how I had made it based on other recipes I had found online.  I had made this a number of times now over the past two years, with generally successful results.  When I make this at home now, I do make one important modification to the original recipe: As much as I think the real thing would be out-of-this-world delicious, I just can't bear to put two POUNDS of butter - that's eight sticks!! - into anything I make, particularly because I'm the one stuck with all the leftovers and that's a whole lotta butter for one person.  (There's still a part of me that wonders if the butter amount is just a typo! Actually, I kind of hope so! - UPDATE: Palace Café has confirmed the amount is NOT a typo. Yowza! Now I know why it tastes so good!)  So when I make this at home, I reduce the amount of butter in the sauce significantly, to about 2-4 tbsp (to taste), which I'm sure affects the flavor, but it's still quite good and I'm happy with it.

As I'm stirring the sauce, I try not to press too hard on the lemons for the juice.  I have learned the hard way that the sauce can quickly turn bitter if it is too lemony (though my using less butter could have thrown off the lemon-butter balance, causing the bitterness).  I adjust the proportions of the other ingredients as I go along to make sure all the flavors are well balanced.  The meunière sauce is what makes the dish, so it's important to get it right.

On Palace Café's Facebook page is a professional photo of the real deal, which obviously looks fantastic and much more appetizing than my homemade version. ;)  Their sauce is darker, which is curious, and the rice is different because I actually just used regular long-grain rice, which I readily had at home, rather than popcorn rice (a.k.a. American basmati rice or della rice).

As an aside, I will be back in New Orleans in January 2013.  You know where I'll be eating! :)

Palace Cafe's Shrimp Tchefuncte (Part 1: The Back Story)

For those of you loyal readers who have been following my food adventures since my first food blog, you may find this story familiar, as I had previously written a post about my experience at - or obsession with, depending on how you look at it - the Palace Café in New Orleans.  I have since continued to refine my skills in replicating the Shrimp Tchefuncte at home, and thought it would be appropriate to redo my blog post on the subject.  This blog is actually broken up into two parts.  In Part 1, I describe my experience at Palace Café, and in Part 2, I explain how I made it at home, modeling after several recipes I found online and the real thing from Palace Café.

In June 2002, I was in New Orleans for a professional conference, which was held at the Sheraton on Canal Street, just outside the French Quarter. One day I decided to venture out on my own for lunch, and I decided that, despite my measly grad student budget, I was going to have real New Orleans food no matter the cost. (You can see I was already a foodie in the making!)  I crossed Canal Street whereupon I found myself standing in front of Palace Café. I took a look at the menu outside and thought, "Well, it's a bit pricey, but the menu looks good and this seems to be a cute place. I'll just order something small." So into the restaurant I went.

As soon as I entered the premise, I knew I was in trouble. First, I was stunned by the hospitality. Turns out the restaurant was much more upscale than I had thought. I was greeted by a sharply dressed hostess, and had a total of three servers - all wearing bowties - waiting on little petite me. Pretty soon I also noticed a string trio (or was it a quartet? can't remember now) offering private musical treats from table to table. I looked at the menu and decided it would make me look real lame to "just order something small," so I went with the Shrimp Tchefuncte, described as "sautéed Louisiana shrimp with Creole meuniere, green onions, roasted mushrooms, and popcorn rice." It sure sounded delicious!

Inside the  Palace Café
in New Orleans (Photo from Yelp)

Meanwhile, the string trio (or quartet) has made its way to my table, and asked if I had a request. I didn't. I was actually a bit embarrassed and felt out of place.  So I just asked them to play whatever they wanted.

But let's cut to the chase and talk about the food: Shrimp Tchefuncte. I took one bite and OH. MY. GAWD. It was absolutely the best thing I had ever tasted. (It's been nine years now and it is still one of the best things I've ever tasted.) 
The creamy sauce was absolutely brilliant.  I was instantly in love.

Anyway, a couple of days later I left the Big Easy and headed home. I might have forgotten what I learned at that conference, but I never forgot
Palace Café and their Shrimp Tchefuncte.

As luck would have it, I had the opportunity to attend another conference in New Orleans in January of 2005. (Yay for meeting planners!) And as if the food gods heard the prayers from my stomach, the conference was once again held at the Sheraton on Canal Street! (Double yay!!) I stuffed my credit card in my pocket made my way over to
Palace Café as soon as I got the chance. And needless to say, I ordered the Shrimp Tchefuncte. It tasted just as amazing as I remembered it. This time, I also got the crabmeat cheesecake (like, how could you not??) and a dessert. I was out $40 by the end of the lunch hour, but that's a small price to pay for absolute bliss in the tummy.

As I left the cafe, I told the staff about my story, how I specifically came back to their restaurant after three and a half years just to enjoy their Shrimp Tchefuncte. Then, to my absolute delight and surprise, they offered me the recipe!! I could not believe how nice they were about it, and even though I didn't cook back then and knew I didn't have the skill to pull off such a heavenly dish, I happily accepted their gift, brought it home with me, and stuffed it in a manila folder along with all the poster handouts I picked up during the conference.

Fast forward another four-plus years into 2009, when I was writing my first food blog.  I was still thinking about the Shrimp Tchefuncte, but the recipe from
Palace Café was lost long ago during one of my many moves in that time period.  Then, I had the brilliant thought of googling it online. Sure enough, I found a few that claimed to be the Shrimp Tchefuncte recipe from Palace Café! Even though there were some slight inconsistencies across recipes, I figured it'd be worth a try to see if I could recreate one of my favorite dishes in the world...

Click here for Part 2: The Recipe and see my attempt at making
Palace Café's Shrimp Tchefuncte! 

Restaurant info:
Palace Café
605 Canal St, New Orleans, LA 70130

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Gypsy Cafe (South Side)

UPDATE 7/15/2012: Gypsy Cafe is now closed.

Somewhat hidden along Bingham Street, a block north of the hustle and bustle of Carson Street in South Side, is a little restaurant known as Gypsy Café, the venue of last week's dining out adventure.  Gypsy Café has a small but pretty creative menu consisting of an eclectic mix of European dishes, mostly from Eastern Europe.  (I suspect their menu changes often, just like their hours.)  Despite the limited selection, which included several a la carte options as well as a three-course prix fixe menu, I had a difficult time deciding on what to order as everything sounded delicious!  I was tempted by the salmon, but ended up going with the Shortrib and Oxtail Borscht, a traditionally Ukrainian dish, for a true Eastern European taste.

And I'd venture to say that this was one of the best dishes I've had in Pittsburgh so far!

Shortrib and Oxtail Borscht at Gypsy Cafe
Shortrib and Oxtail Borscht

The Shortrib and Oxtail Borscht was a very flavorful combination of beef, roasted beets, cabbages, and tomatoes, in a delightful sauce that achieves a nice balance between sweetness and tanginess.  The shortrib was a tiny bit on the chewy side, but the oxtail was perfectly tender.  The dish was topped with sour cream which adds another element of tanginess to the soup.  I always appreciate a dish with a full and complex flavor that just works.  As weird as this may sound, I also find myself having a particularly vivid taste memory trace of this borscht - that is, I find the flavor of the borscht to be very memorable (in a good way), which I think speaks to its savoriness.

Everyone else I was with was impressed with their food, and the portions were huge as well.  This is undoubtedly a place for a repeat visit, perhaps on a night that features live music!

Restaurant info:
Gypsy Café
1330 Bingham Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15203 
(412) 381-4977
On the web: (check their hours before you go!)

Gypsy Cafe on Urbanspoon