Thursday, February 28, 2013

Year Two

It's hard to believe another year has passed. Today marks my blog's 2nd birthday!

And what a year this has been! On the personal front, I got married, honeymooned in Paris and Amsterdam, and sampled some amazing European cuisine while I was at it. I had the opportunity to visit and eat my way through New Orleans, one of my favorite cities in the U.S. I saw my friend realize his food truck dream. I got crazy busy at work, but continued to enjoy learning what the Pittsburgh dining scene has to offer as much as I can, while trying new ingredients in my own kitchen. I even created some pretty decent recipes, if I may say so myself! Photography-wise, I very recently acquired my first mac, and am now learning to use Apple's Aperture for photo editing. I continue to learn and draw inspiration from others whose work I admire - like trying to embrace dim restaurant lighting more than I am averse to it (thanks to some excellent low light photography I've seen over at With the Grains).  Looking back on my very first post on this blog, I can definitely say that one of the original goals for this blog - to improve my photography skills - is being realized.

This blog has also begun to get noticed around town, having been mentioned by Edible Allegheny magazine, CBS Pittsburgh, and About.com, and a photo of mine was featured in Serious Eats as well. It's all been so validating, yet humbling at the same time!

While the craziness of the past year has meant being not quite as up-to-date on my blog and my Twitter feed as I would have liked, I continue to be grateful to have started this little project two years ago. As I said on this day last year, this blog has helped me become more connected with my adopted hometown, and some amazing friendships were born as a result. And without you - the readers! - this blog really wouldn't have done quite so much for me as it has.

So, thank you.

Food Collage, Year 2
Food Collage, Year Two

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Cafe Beignet (New Orleans - French Quarter, Musical Legends Park)

Bourbon Street in New Orleans' French Quarter is...interesting, to say the least.  But the coolest spot on Bourbon Street, in my humble opinion, is the Musical Legends Park, where live jazz fills the air all day long starting at 10:00 a.m.

Musical Legends Park in New Orleans
Musical Legends Park on Bourbon Street

The live jazz is cool.  But what makes the Musical Legends Park even cooler is the fact that it also houses Cafe Beignet.

Cafe Beignet actually has two different locations in the French Quarter; the other one is an indoor cafe on Royal Street.  R. and I visited the location at Musical Legends Park to enjoy some Sunday morning jazz along with our breakfast.


Menu at Cafe Beignet (New Orleans)
Cafe Beignet's Menu

Sign at Cafe Beignet (New Orleans)
Beignets!

T-shirt at Cafe Beignet (New Orleans)
T-shirt at Cafe Beignet

The line to order was quite a bit longer than I had expected as there was only one cashier on this busy day.  Although Cafe Beignet serves more than beignets, I felt obligated to try their beignets anyway, since it seems that would be their signature item.  We sat at one of the covered tables outside and took in the atmosphere.

Beignets at Cafe Beignet (New Orleans)
Beignets ($2.99)

Beignet at Cafe Beignet (New Orleans)
Beignet

The fresh beignets were satisfying.  Not quite Cafe du Monde good, in my opinion (I found the ones at Cafe Beignet to be denser), but I think it is highly a matter of personal preference as you'll find many who like Cafe Beignet better. I do think Cafe du Monde's cafe au lait wins, however. On the other hand, for a relaxing atmosphere and jazz entertainment, it is hard to beat Cafe Beignet.

Restaurant info:
Cafe Beignet
311 Bourbon St, New Orleans, LA 70130
(504)525-2611
On the web: http://www.cafebeignet.com/
On Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Cafe-Beignet-at-Music-Legends-Park/103467929705774


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Saturday, February 16, 2013

Palace Cafe (New Orleans - French Quarter)

I honestly don't think there is any other restaurant in this world that I love more than Palace Cafe in New Orleans.

Palace Cafe captured my attention in 2002 when I had their amazing Shrimp Tchefuncte, but it stole my heart on my return trip in 2005 when they so graciously offered me the recipe.  I have since made the Shrimp Tchefuncte at home a number of times (which prompted Palace Cafe to write their own blog post in my honor!), but that doesn't mean I didn't look forward to having the real thing again on this trip to New Orleans.

Palace Cafe (New Orleans)
Palace Cafe

Palace Cafe (New Orleans) 2
Inside Palace Cafe

Eight years has been far too long, but everything about Palace Cafe remains comfortably familiar. The Shrimp Tchefuncte comes in a Creole meuniére sauce with green onions and roasted mushrooms, and served with popcorn rice. I took one bite - and no exaggeration here - I was nearly in tears. Because...wow.  I had spent the last eight years hyping up this dish in my head, and the perfectly cooked shrimp and exquisite sauce still exceeded expectations. If I ever get to request a last meal, this would be it, hands down.

Shrimp Tchefuncte at Palace Cafe (New Orleans)
Shrimp Tchefuncte ($19)

I was very curious as to what R. thought of his meal. Sometimes, when I make a strong recommendation about a restaurant, I do worry that others won't find it as amazing as I do. I had been talking up Palace Cafe for so many years that it would have been embarrassing if R. thought it was a dud.

But au contraire, R. loved, loved, loved his Grilled Gulf Fish Panzanella, with housemade olive bread croutons, cucumbers, tomatoes, capers, and spinach tossed in an Italian parsley pistou. (It normally comes with grilled eggplant as well, but R. had asked to leave it out.) While several other meals we shared were rather excellent, he wholeheartedly agreed with me that Palace Cafe was the best meal we'd had in New Orleans! (And no, he certainly doesn't agree with me all the time!) It makes me so happy that he enjoyed my favorite restaurant!

Grilled Gulf Fish Panzanella
Grilled Gulf Fish Panzanella ($24)

This third visit to Palace Cafe for me truly solidified its place in my heart. My only regret is that we had had such a substantial and very late "brunch" earlier in the day that we didn't have the room to try more courses. We were specifically eyeing the bananas foster, made fresh tableside, which had been served at a neighboring table while we dined. But alas, we were too full.

Next time - hopefully less than eight years from now - we will be sure to come hungry. In the meantime, I do believe I will be making the Shrimp Tchefuncte again very, very soon.

Restaurant info:
Palace Café
605 Canal St, New Orleans, LA 70130
(504)523-1661
On the web: http://www.palacecafe.com/
On Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Palace-Cafe/45079713185?fref=ts
On Twitter: https://twitter.com/palacecafe


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Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Commander's Palace (New Orleans - Garden District)

Ask any local or tourist alike to name the best restaurant in New Orleans, and I'd be willing to bet that the answer you'd most likely get is Commander's Palace.

Located in the cute Garden District, the Commander's Palace is an institution in the city. It had been highly recommended to me by a colleague who had lived in New Orleans for a time, and I received two additional recommendations from fellow conference folks within a day after arriving in New Orleans.

But I almost blew it: I had planned on making a solo trip there one day when I could sneak away from the conference for a bit, and didn't think I would want to make a reservation for one. At the last minute, however, I managed to convince R. to play hooky with me, and suddenly I realized I needed to book a table. By the time I checked the online reservation system, it looked as if it'd be impossible to get in. I was ready to accept my cruel fate, but decided to call the morning of our intended visit anyway to see if they might have something available.

They did! Seats were available at 2:00 pm - even though the website lists Saturday jazz brunch as running from 11:30-1:00 pm only.  But no matter, I was ecstatic that luck was on my side!

We arrived right on time. Despite being housed in a sizeable property, the Commander's Palace was packed even at 2:00 pm. We were led upstairs to the sunny Garden Room which overlooks the courtyard.  Both R. and I agreed it was the best room in the house for its cheerful and inviting atmosphere.  (Check out this video from Access Hollywood for more views of the restaurant's interior.)

Commander's Palace (New Orleans)
Commander's Palace

The Garden Room at Commander's Palace (New Orleans)
The Garden Room at Commander's Palace

When dining at a restaurant, there is good service, and then there is the Commander's Palace service. As if on cue, our waitress came by as soon as we were seated to offer us drinks. But the most impressive part was that she knew my name, presumably from my reservation. It was a little thing but I sure felt like a million bucks.

The weekend jazz brunch is a three-course meal that ranges in price from around $29-42 depending on the main course chosen, with the option to add a cocktail and/or a side. Because I love oysters, the Oyster & Absinthe "Dome" was a no-brainer for my appetizer. The poached oysters are cooked with bacon, artichokes, tarragon, cream, and a splash of Parisian absinthe, and served covered in a flaky pastry shell (the "dome" part). It was an interesting dish with well-balanced flavors.

Oyster & Absinthe "Dome" at Commander's Palace (New Orleans)
Oyster & Absinthe "Dome"

Oyster & Absinthe "Dome" at Commander's Palace (New Orleans)
Oyster & Absinthe "Dome"

Oyster & Absinthe "Dome" at Commander's Palace (New Orleans)
Oyster & Absinthe "Dome"

My main course was the Cranberry Molasses Lacquered Quail, stuffed with cochon de lait boudin (suckling pig sausage) and served over caramelized onions, bacon lardoons, and garlic wilted greens with sticky cranberry-apple jus. The meat was incredibly tender - in fact, I don't know that I had ever had quail this good. The sauce, too, was heavenly. Really, everything about this dish was just perfect.

Cranberry Molasses Lacquered Quail at Commander's Palace (New Orleans)
Cranberry Molasses Lacquered Quail ($38 for three courses)

I also managed to sneak a photo of R.'s Blue Crab Stuffed Flounder. The flounder is butter roasted and stuffed with crabmeat, melted leeks, wild mushrooms, and brie, and topped with tomatoes, confit shallots, and Swiss chard.

Blue Crab Stuffed Flounder at Commander's Palace (New Orleans)
Blue Crab Stuffed Flounder ($42 for three courses)

We enjoyed our meals with a side of the fresh Warm Buttermilk Biscuits, as well as crusty complimentary garlic bread.

Warm Buttermilk Biscuits
Warm Buttermilk Biscuits ($4)

Garlic Bread at Commander's Palace (New Orleans)
Garlic Bread

A nice surprise awaited us when our dessert was served. Earlier, when the maître d' was leading us to our table, she had asked casually if we were celebrating a special occasion. We weren't, but we just so happened to have gotten married exactly eight months prior, so I offhandedly remarked that, "well it is our eight-month wedding anniversary."

Never in a million years did I expect our Sticky Molasses Bourbon Cake to be served with a little happy wish for us:

Sticky Molasses Bourbon Cake at Commander's Palace (New Orleans)
Sticky Molasses Bourbon Cake

I mentioned earlier about the Commander's Palace service - and this truly exemplifies the effort the staff puts into making your visit personable and pleasurable. And considering the size of the restaurant, and the large number of patrons the restaurant serves at any given moment, this level of attention is quite extraordinary. It is truly the little touches that make Commander's Palace such a special place.

The cake itself was excellent, too: A warm bourbon and molasses cake topped with fruits and ginger compote, served with a pecan toffee sauce. Mmm...toffee.

Sticky Molasses Bourbon Cake at Commander's Palace (New Orleans)
Sticky Molasses Bourbon Cake

In the end, I'm really glad I got to share this lovely dining experience at Commander's Palace with R. The food, the atmosphere, and the service were all top-notch. I can now see why everyone raves about Commander's Palace.

Indeed, count me in as a fan, because I cannot recommend a meal at Commander's Palace highly enough.

Restaurant info:
Commander's Palace
1403 Washington Ave, New Orleans, LA 70130
(504)899-8221
On the web: http://www.commanderspalace.com/
On Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/CommandersPalace
On Twitter: https://twitter.com/Commanders_NOLA


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Cafe du Monde (New Orleans)

When in New Orleans, a trip to Cafe du Monde is a must.

While Cafe du Monde has a number of locations these days - and not that I've been to many of them - but I love the original shop that has been in the French Quarter in 1862. It is open around the clock, with open air seating underneath a giant green canopy.

Cafe du Monde (New Orleans)
Cafe du Monde

Cafe du Monde is known for its Beignets and Cafe au Lait, of course. The cafe au lait is a dark roast coffee with chicory, added to take the edge off the bitterness, and mixed with milk (1/2 coffee, 1/2 milk). Even though I am not much of a coffee drinker, I was in love with Cafe du Monde's cafe au lait - probably because it isn't bitter!  Like coffee and chicory, beignets were brought to Louisiana by the Acadians (or Cajuns) - French colonists from Eastern Canada who had resettled down south. The beignets are deep fried donuts topped with powdered sugar. They come in threes, and they are amazing. I am not a donut fan either, but it is hard to beat freshly made beignets. Just be careful not to wear black while enjoying your beignets!

Beignet and Cafe au Lait at Cafe du Monde (New Orleans)
Beignets ($2.42) and Cafe au Lait (small, $2.42)

Beignet at Cafe du Monde (New Orleans)
Beignet

Restaurant info:
Café Du Monde
813 Decatur St, New Orleans, LA 70116
(504)581-2914
On the web: http://www.cafedumonde.com/
On Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Cafedumonde


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Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Emeril's (New Orleans - Warehouse District)


Emeril's
Emeril's

While in New Orleans, I met up for lunch with some colleagues at Emeril's in the Warehouse District.
To be honest, I was a little worried that Emeril's would be one of those overhyped celebrity restaurants, but a colleague had chosen Emeril's because, at least up until the prior evening when she dined at Commander's Palace, it had been her favorite restaurant in New Orleans. (More on my own meal at Commander's Palace in my next post!)

Luckily, we had a reservation, because the place was packed. The restaurant is quite spacious, but the decor is warm and welcoming, with the open kitchen in the back. The "Lunch Crunch" special - a choice of three courses, served in 30 minutes, for $22.50 - seemed like an excellent deal, and we all selected this option.

My first course was the soup of the day, which was a Curry Tomato Soup with Shrimp that is rich and flavorful.

Curry Tomato Soup at Emeril's (New Orleans)
Curry Tomato Soup with Shrimp

I chose the Steamed Mussels as my main course, with coconut curry, Chinese sausage, scallion, herbs, ginger, and a slice of grilled furikake bread. The mussels and the broth were both good, but it was the grilled bread that really wowed me. That furikake seasoning was amazing.

Steamed Mussels at Emeril's (New Orleans)
Steamed Mussels

My dessert was a lovely Vanilla Bean Creme Brulee.

Vanilla Creme Brulee at Emeril's (New Orleans)
Vanilla Bean Creme Brulee

The colleague who had recommended Emeril's "upgraded" her dessert to the famous Banana Cream Pie , with a graham cracker crust, drizzled in a caramel sauce, and topped with whipped cream and shaved chocolate, and shared bites with the rest of us. I am not quite sure that the photo does it justice, but the pie is huge - and delicious.

Banana Cream Pie at Emeril's (New Orleans)
Banana Cream Pie

Everything from the quality of the food to the service at Emeril's was quite fabulous. What a great choice!

Restaurant info:
Emeril's
800 Tchoupitoulas St, New Orleans, LA 70130
(504)528-9393
On the web: http://www.emerils.com/restaurant/1/Emerils-New-Orleans/
On Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/EmerilsNewOrleans?fref=ts
On Twitter: https://twitter.com/Emerils


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Sunday, February 10, 2013

Johnny's Po-Boys (New Orleans - French Quarter)

New Orleans is one of my absolute favorite cities in the United States, and I knew January was going to be my favorite month of 2013 because R. and I were going to be in New Orleans for a conference! And of course, I made damned sure that we would eat well in one of the best foodie towns in the country!

We arrived on a Thursday afternoon, and after checking into our hotel in the Central Business District, we were hungry for a late lunch. We took a short walk to the French Quarter (where we hung out mostly the entire weekend) to grab a sandwich at the casual joint, Johnny's Po-Boys.

At Johnny's Po-Boys, it is of course imperative that you get a po-boy, a casual New Orleans sandwich with meat stuffed inside French bread. The only question is what kind? With several dozen varieties to choose from, it is not an easy decision to make. I was intrigued by the Alligator Sausage Po-Boy special, with half of an Alligator Sausage Po-Boy, seafood gumbo, and a drink. The gumbo was a bit too salty for my taste, but the po-boy was excellent, the meat nicely flavored and juicy and the bread perfectly crusty on the outside and soft on the inside.

Half Alligator Sausage Po-Boy with Seafood Gumbo at Johnny's Po-Boys (New Orleans)
1/2 Alligator Sausage Po-Boy with Seafood Gumbo

R. got a Muffaletta, another traditional New Orleans sandwich that's a must-try. Johnny's Po-Boy's version is absolutely incredible. Every bit is full of flavorful meats and olive salad. Even the colleague we went with was extremely impressed.

Muffaletta at Johnny's Po-Boys (New Orleans)
Muffaletta

Thanks to Johnny's Po-Boys, our trip to the foodtastic New Orleans was off to a delicious start!

Restaurant info:
Johnny's Po-Boys
511 Saint Louis St, New Orleans, LA 70130
(504)524-8129
On the web: http://johnnyspoboys.com/


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Venison Meatballs with Roasted Garlic Mashed Potatoes

Being a Western Pennsylvania boy, R. grew up hunting deer with his dad. He still goes once a year in the fall as part of a family tradition.

The side effect of having a husband who hunts? You might suddenly end up with some 30 pounds of venison in your freezer! Having never cooked venison before, I suddenly find myself scouring the internet for all sorts of tips and recipes. We have various cuts of the meat, but ground venison is especially in abundance, and not being someone who cooks with ground meat regularly, I needed ideas! Meatballs seemed obvious and simple enough, so that's what I started with.

I found a pretty good venison meatball recipe online, and the meatballs were easy enough to make and tasted great, too! R. commented on how much he loved the sauce. I paired the meatballs with my special roasted garlic mashed potatoes (recipe below) and assorted veggies. Excellent!

Venison Meatballs
Venison Meatballs with Roasted Garlic Mashed Potatoes

Venison Meatballs

Recipe courtesy of Taste of Home (get the recipe here).

Roasted Garlic Mashed Potatoes

Ingredients
  • 1 large head garlic
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 2 pounds russet potatoes (about 3 large potatoes)
  • 4 tablespoons butter, softened
  • 1/2 cup sour cream
  • 4 oz cream cheese or Neufchatel cheese
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • crushed red peppers to taste (optional)
Directions
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C).
  2. Drizzle garlic with olive oil, then wrap in aluminum foil. Bake in preheated oven for 1 hour.
  3. Peel potatoes if desired. (Otherwise, clean potatoes thoroughly with vegetable brush.) Chop potatoes. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add potatoes, and cook until tender, about 15 minutes. Drain. Stir in butter, salt, pepper, crushed red peppers (optional), sour cream, and cream cheese.
  4. Remove the garlic from the oven, and cut in half. Squeeze the softened cloves into the potatoes. Blend potatoes with an electric mixer until desired consistency is achieved.


Saturday, February 9, 2013

Fukuda (Bloomfield)

Last summer, I had written enthusiastically about Emilia Romagna, referring to its sushi as the best in town. Emilia Romagna didn’t last long, though for reasons other than the quality of the food. Meanwhile, its soft-spoken but hugely talented sushi chef, Matt Kemp, who had previously worked at Tamari, joined in on a new adventure: Fukuda.

Fukuda
Fukuda

Sushi Bar at Fukuda
Sushi bar at Fukuda

As a matter of full disclosure, the owner of Fukuda is my friend. Technically a friend of a friend, but a friend nonetheless. Regardless, I do believe the food speaks for itself.

First things first: If you are the bargain-hunting type when it comes to dining out and there is nothing you love more than getting super-sized meals for a few bucks, read no further. You will not like Fukuda.

But, if you are the type who appreciates quality over quantity, finesse over monotony, you will find some of the finest Japanese food in Pittsburgh right here in the heart of Bloomfield.

I had showcased Fukuda's takoyaki in a previous post on the Pittsburgh Restaurant Week Winter 2013 Kickoff Party.  Here I share my two recent visits to the restaurant. On my first visit I was with friends and was able to sample a number of dishes. A small order of the Chef’s Choice Sushi that particular day consisted of madai (red seabream snapper), saba (mackerel), tuna, and tamago (egg). Everything was not only fresh, but always made with that little added touch that makes it interesting and unique. Take the tamago, for example. I have had many a tamago sushi at other restaurants, and they were always exactly the same. Fukuda’s version, however, is lighter, fluffier, and less “spongy.”

Chef's Choice Sushi (small) at Fukuda
Chef's Choice Sushi Sampler (Small, $24)

Chef's Choice Sushi (small) at Fukuda
Chef's Choice Sushi Sampler (Small, $24)

Chef's Choice Sushi (small) at Fukuda
Chef's Choice Sushi Sampler (Small, $24)

Fukuda offers more than just sushi. The Edamame, a fairly standard item at Japanese eateries, is grilled here. The Robatayaki, or grilled skewered meat, was well-flavored and the meat cooked just right. The Ramen, with housemade noodles, pork belly, poached egg, scallions, and young bamboo shoots, was tasty and satisfying. We were also treated to samples of juicy Wagyu Steak, with cilantro oil, yuzu, and bulls blood microgreens. The portions may not be huge, but they sure are fulfilling to the tastebuds.

Edamame at Fukuda
Edamame ($5.50)

Ramen at Fukuda
Ramen ($10.50)

Wagyu Steak at Fukuda
Wagyu Steak

I returned to Fukuda on the only night I was available during Pittsburgh Restaurant Week because the $35 prix-fixe menu sounded incredible.  The first course was a Chef's Choice 4 Piece Nigiri, featuring zuke (marinated tuna), maguro (big eyed tuna), ikura (Skuna Bay roe), and tamago (egg). The fish was fresh and the sushi was excellent.

Chef's Choice 4 Piece NIgiri at Fukuda
Chef's Choice 4 Piece Nigiri

The second course was Kusshi Oysters, with juniper shisho granita, Thai chili, and fresh lemon. This oyster was probably one of the most interesting dishes I've tasted in a while; the flowery juniper flavor is infused in the juices, complimenting the oysters in an unexpectedly delicious way.

Kusshi Oysters at Fukuda
Kusshi Oysters

For my third course, I chose the Tofu, with crispy kale, sambal (a chili sauce), garlic, sesame oil, soy, and katsuobushi (fish flakes). I love tofu, but I have truly never seen anyone make tofu this awesome.

Tofu at Fukuda
Tofu

The final course was Kabocha Mochi - a mochi (Japanese rice cake) ball with toasted sesame and beet bubbles. A delightful dessert.

Kabocha Mochi at Fukuda
Kabocha Mochi

It's easy to see why Fukuda has quickly become a favorite of mine. The quality and ingenuity of every carefully crafted dish are leaps and bounds ahead of its competition.  Sure, you can get cheaper Japanese food elsewhere, but I doubt you'll find the same satisfaction as you would at Fukuda. Take my word for it.

Restaurant info:
Fukuda
4770 Liberty Ave, Pittsburgh, PA 15224
(412)377-0916


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