Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Coffee (The Beans)

When you are picky about the coffee that you drink (and if you are perfectly fine to have no coffee over coffee that tastes bad) you quickly learn that the quality and type of coffee beans you use are key. I have never been able to drink coffee that comes from a can that is pre-ground. I have learned that coffee starts to become stale with seconds of its grinding, and I am very sensitive to that. So I have always sought out whole beans and ground them myself. I'm not going to talk about grinders in this post; that is for another day.

Grocery stores now like to carry large selections of whole coffee beans, most of while sells very slowly. Coffee beans used in drip makers need to be used within 2 weeks of roasting before they become stale and the oils start to become rancid.

With this background starts my journey. For a while I got coffee beans at Starbucks, but the quality and age of the beans was too inconsistent, other than their Black Apron high end line, which is delivered to most of their stores around the first of the month in limited quantities and is excellent, and is unbelievable expensive at about $25 a pound.

For a long time, my mother-in-law sent us freshly roasted coffee from a Costco located in Brentwood, Tennessee, where green coffee beans are roasted daily, and often the coffee you buy is in a warm bag. That worked very well. Until we decided to go espresso.

Espresso coffee is not from a dark roasted coffee--its usually from a medium roast. A dark roast tastes burned after it runs through the heat and pressure of an espresso machine. Also, expresso roast coffee has a much narrower window of freshness because the concentration of the flavors of the coffee will bring out the flaws.

Good espresso cannot be bought at grocery stores. Julia's Coffee, a coffee shop with fair competent baristas, will sell you some of their coffee out of their stock if you ask nice. Dilworth Coffee, a local roaster with franchised stores, has very inconsistent quality and packages coffee poorly. You want to buy your coffee in sealed packages that have a little breathing valve on it so that gases can escape the coffee but oxygen cannot get in. You never want to buy coffee from an open bin. Also never buy coffee that is already flavored--the flavoring for these coffees is mixed with egg white and sprayed on the coffee beans. Yech. Use a syrup.

Currently I am splitting my orders between a very competent roaster from Raleigh, Counter Culture Coffee, and Intelligentsia Coffee in Chicago, which is reputed to have the best espresso blend you can buy, Black Cat.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Dining in Vegas (Part III-Dos Caminos & Zine)

Lunch is a great time in Vegas to try out the "lighter" restaurants. On consecutive days we tried two different restaurants that are night and day from each other in execution and quality: Dos Caminos and Zine Noodle Bar. To be fair, these were restaurants were not chosen by a scientific, studied method of choosing just the right restaurant after hours of research and reading reviews. Instead, the decision to eat at these places was made when the front desk gave us a couple of $30 coupons for each restaurant. So we spun the wheel of fate.

Zine's website proclaims that it has Vegas's "most authentic Asian noodle dishes." I love good Asian noodles, either Chinese sesame noodles or a Vietnamese rice noodle soup or Japanese ramen (the real stuff, not what you get in a package for 25 cents). However, looking over the four page, mixed culture menu left me confused as to what they may do well and what I should order.

I love good Chinese dim sum type appetizers, and we ordered some potstickers. As I also have mentioned before, I love Vietnamese egg rolls, and we also got an order of that. Both were ok, workman like examples. Moderately enjoyable. The eggrolls did not have the fresh herbs that traditionally accompany them.

The entrees were terrible. As I was in a noodle bar, I assumed that ordering a noodle dish would be the way to go, and I got the "Fried Rice Noodle with Beef". I got a large plate overflowing with mushy overcooked rice noodles and rubbery bits of beef, all swimming in a pool of viscous, flavorless brown sauce.

In contrast, Dos Caminos was a joy to visit. The restaurant is enormous, with an inviting bar area, begging you to join them in a overstuffed lounge chair and have a margarita or two while watching the crowd go by. The server was great--she did a great job of explaining the menu, the dishes that she liked best, and why. I hate it when a waiter just wants to tell you what is "popular" as opposed to what the chef and the staff (that has been around the food and knows what they do well) like to eat.

The tortillas were freshly made, as was the guacamole we ordered. The braised pork was very tender, in a flavorful sauce. Very nice experience.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Dining in Vegas (Part II- Fleur de Lys)

While in Vegas we want to go to two really nice restaurants, meaning a restaurant that is generally considered to be among the best in the country. After debating for weeks, one of our choices was Fleur de Lys, operated by Chef Hubert Keller. If you are into that type of thing, Chef Keller was most recently seen in the finals of Top Chef Masters on Bravo.

Unlike most restaurants in Vegas, Fleur de Lys is a small, intimate space, which seats fewer than 100 people. On the wall is a large piece of art made of what must be 1,000 yellow roses. As the waiter seated us, he reached up and plucked one of the roses for my wife. Very elegant touch.

The bartender had told us that Chef Keller was cooking in the kitchen that night, which he did splitting time between San Fransisco and Vegas. That made menu selection easy: we would have the chef's tasting dinner, where you do not know what you will get or how many courses. I love telling the chef: just feed me.

We had 8 courses including an amuse bouche, each of which was paired with a wine. Lots of truffles were sacrificed. Service was immediate and impeccable. What we actually had was a blur. Many small bites with intricate layers of flavor from meats, vegetables, and intense sauces. What I do remember was an onion soup that we had early on (with truffles of course) that was very intensely flavor and very rich. And a single, very small, lamb chop that was the best I have ever had.

After dinner, the waiter asked if we wanted to meet the Chef and see the kitchen. Absolutely! Chef Keller was very kind, and gave each of us an autographed copy of his most recent book, Burger Bar, named after his new restaurant concept of high-end burgers and fries.

Since we now have two books, the first person to ask for our extra book gets it.

Dining in Vegas (Part I-Pinot Brasserie)

We spent a few days in Vegas after Labor Day. We aren't big gamblers, but we love to eat. Vegas is one of the great food cities in the world--no where else can you find such quality restaurants in such a small place, with little difficulty in getting reservations.

We arrived at the Vegas airport at 2 p.m., and, after the ordeal of checking in and unpacking, we wanted a simple, easy meal. I had always wanted to eat at Chef Joachim Splichal 's Pinot Brasserie, located in the restaurant row area of the Venetian.

The restaurant is very much in the style of a French bistro, with "sidewalk" type seating near the hallways of the Venetian (Technically, there is a difference between a bistro and a brasserie, according to this article, but the distinction was not evident at this establishment.) The food was "ok." We had scallops and short rib, which were fine. We also had onion soup, which we sent back because it was very weak and soapy tasting, and raw oysters that were not fresh. We passed on dessert, thinking we would go to the Emeril's restaurant next door to get some bread pudding.

The most distinctive part of the experience was not the food, but the presentation of the restaurant to the public and its patrons. From the hallway of the Venetian, Pinot Brasserie appears to be an intimate restaurant, with a few good people-watching perches on faux front porches. Though the doorway of the front porch is a much larger room that seats several hundred people at a time. We were seated in the larger room with three other parties scattered about, where we looked like marbles rolling around the coliseum. Only a couple of parties were seated on the porches. Therefore, the restaurant to each of us, and to the passersby, looked to be, and was, nearly empty.

This is a failing restaurant. Its location is directly across from the B&B Ristorante, which is run by Mario Batali, and sandwiched between Delmonico Steakhouse, an Emeril Lagasse operation, and Valentino, which is an outpost of a famed Santa Monica Italian restaurant. All of the neighboring restaurants had an active vibe and an alert staff. Food's probably better too.