Monday, April 30, 2012

Q&A | Dani

This month's Q&A features one of my long-time, hometown friends, Dani, with whom I've become great friends since the fourth grade. It was our inner nerdiness that had us become friends in the first place, and it continues to be paramount for us, even today. We can unleash our full, uncensored geekery with each other without having to feel misunderstood. Our love for all things argyle, show tunes, French patisseries, cartography, making up new words (e.g., her latest one: splendidities :P), and candy shops always leads us into fun, unexpected adventures. Her discovery of her inner foodie lately just adds to the list of things that we enjoy doing together, and I look forward to many delicious meals ahead with her!

She was always a friend to me when others weren't, and she's had my back ever since. I also think she's my best reader here at Four Tines :) I'm very lucky to have such a wonderful friend like her in my life. Thanks again to Dani for participating in this month's Q&A session!

Dani on an apple-picking trip at Highland Orchards in West Chester, Pennsylvania.


Philadelphia, PA

Chilango's in Providence, Rhode Island -- It's a total hole-in-the-wall establishment, with the best tequila/tortilla chips/enchiladas... yum! And the best prices!

Sabrina's: fantastic brunch place in Philly; Misconduct Tavern: really great Philly gastropub with a misbehavior theme! ;)

Nonalcoholic: pepperminty hot chocolate
Alcoholic: Basil Lemonade from Misconduct Tavern; Fegley's Raspberry Saison, which I've only found at Misconduct Tavern and the Falls Taproom.

Ice Cream Palace soft serve in Aberdeen, New Jersey. People from my hometown know what I'm talking about! :)

I love making chocolate chip cookies. I use my own version of the Nestle Tollhouse recipe, so that the cookies are slightly cakey and super soft, even days later.

I absolutely love homemade mac and cheese, but I'm incompetent in the kitchen when it comes to non-baked goods. Hence I have to rely on friends to make mac and cheese for me. (And if you prepare mac and cheese for me, I will love you forever. Seriously.)

Probably Paris for pastries. I adore macarons and tartelettes and croissants. Delicieux!

Stephen Starr is a legendary restauranteur in Philly, and the majority of the restaurants I frequent are owned by him. His restaurant repertoire includes Cuban, French, English, diner-style American, new-agey Mexican, traditional Mexican, Asian fusion, Italian and German food. He can do no wrong. Also, my stepfather, Bob, continually amazes me with his culinary concoctions.

This is such a hard question! I have been thinking about it for days! Back in college, I was really involved with the on-campus EMS (emergency medical services) organization. My EMS friends were (are) some of my closest college friends. I also love annual Passover seders, for the food and the tradition and the conversation. My senior year, I decided to host a seder at EMS and invite each guest to bring a Jewish-style dish. I had a wonderful time leading the seder and explaining the various rituals to my non-Jewish friends in attendance. But when it came to food, my friends outdid themselves! We had potato latkes, brisket, noodle kugel, jelly donuts, several types of matzah ball soup, apple cake... all the foods from all the holidays combined! Definitely one of my favorite culinary memories! :)

Anything with kasha, which is the worst type of wheat ever cultivated by humans. We Jews love to serve kasha varnishkas, and it drives me nuts. Also, mayonnaise.

The tiramisu from Carmine's is heavenly. I realize it's a bit clichéd, but I have never had a more delectable dessert.

I love Mark Bittman's cookbooks. He is specific, conversational, unintimidating, and creative. Most of my successful non-baked good endeavors have been inspired and guided by Mark Bittman.

Glacé, which is French for ice cream. It sounds wonderful on the tongue, and it makes me crave ice cream even more than the words ice cream.

Four Tines, of course, and Two Eat Philly, for a similar take on Philly restaurants. Also, Fifteen Spatulas, Sprinkle Bakes, and Sprouted Kitchen for yummy photos and gorgeous recipes. Wait, swap that. Or not.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Dinner | Barclay Prime

After brunching with Dani and checking out the Philadelphia Science Festival (yes, we are those kind of geeks :P), Marcus and I finally made it to Barclay Prime in Rittenhouse Square to celebrate our two-year anniversary.

There's a little anecdote to this restaurant choice. Two years and a week from the date of this dinner, I dined at Barclay Prime for the first time with Dan during one of our "Starr Restaurant Tour" stints (hitting up a record of four Starr restaurants that weekend!). We had an amazing time because the ambiance, attentive service, and the food were stellar and dressed up to the nines. The most noteworthy part of the experience was that the steak knives given to the diners upon serving their desired cut of steak were not the usual serrated blades with tri-riveted wooden scales as the handle. Instead, the diners were presented with a square platter from which to choose one of many unique steak knives (more on this later), including one created by a samurai sword manufacturer and another one by the grandson of Ferninand Porsche (yes, the carmaker founder).

Anyway, when I returned back to New York that Sunday, I finally gave into my curiosity and signed up for eHarmony as a little three-month experiment. No less than a couple hours later, I was paired with my "first match" -- "Mr. Marcus" himself :P -- and from there we embarked on our first conversations: about food, our personalities, what we like to do, the usual. He went to school in Philadelphia, so the natural thing was to talk about my most recent trip (that very yesterday), mentioning in passing about Stephen Starr restaurants and the impressive collection of steak knives at Barclay Prime. That initial conversation stuck with us all the way until the present (I think I had Marcus at "samurai sword" hehe), where and when we decided that perhaps it'd be poetic for us to return together to celebrate this joyous milestone in our relationship -- plus I really wanted see what Marcus's final assessment would be. It's just crazy to think I was sitting in this very dining room a little over two years ago, just a day before my life would change into one where I'd be sharing it with my other half, only to be sitting there two years later, toasting.

Don't be fooled by the restaurant's unassuming exterior -- it is swanky and posh without having diners feel out of place. Barclay Prime is located on the first floor of the historic Barclay Building (formerly a luxury hotel built in 1929, now residential condominiums) and "takes its cues from the exquisite tradition of the building."

Best described as a "luxury boutique steakhouse" (could not put it into better words myself), Barclay Prime is "the ideal contemporary destination for a space so steeped in glamorous old-world tradition." I love the juxtaposition of modern and retro design that playfully dance with each other in the main dining room. The bold choice of green for its multi-faceted banquette seating (both leather and suede, too!) against the warm and organic ribbons of wood that surround the space as well as against the marbled, white tables and modular, ivory-upholstered chairs makes for a vivid and lively atmosphere for guests to savor and adore.

Another view of the dining room, from where we were seated. Something to note is that this was the first time that I spoke up after having the maître d' attempt to seat us in the very back left corner (see above photograph) where the lighting was nonexistent or would be once the light faded from the windows into dusk. I nicely asked her if she could possibly seat us near the windows, and she gladly said it would be her pleasure, once she made sure with the general manager that no previous arrangements had been made with other patrons. Thankfully it was no problem at all, and we got a table right next to the window, where the fading afternoon light (still a lot left to my amazement) bled right into that side of the dining room with the alabaster marble tops glistening. I was beaming with excitement, as my visit with Dan, however memorably delicious it was, yielded photographs that were dark and indistinguishable due to extremely low lighting of the back corner. With that in mind, I'm really glad I spoke up!

Love the chandeliers -- a fun throwback to the Roaring 20s (when the Barclay Hotel was operating) in a room filled with more contemporary furnishings.

The offerings of the menu is pretty standard for any steakhouse -- e.g., starters (soups/salads), crudo, steak cuts, other main course alternatives (non-steak), and sides (a la carte). However, the layout and design of the menu made it a little less boring and more fun.

There was an infamous item that I noticed sprawled at the center of the menu -- the wagyu ribeeye and foie gras cheese steak served with a 1/2 bottle of Perrier-Jouêt "Grand Brut" champagne. Imagine that -- an ode to the city's iconic Philly cheesesteak while maintaining its unabashed guise as a luxury boutique steakhouse (doesn't get more decadent than adding foie gras to a gratifyingly greasy cheesesteak!). So I admit I got a little sidetracked, but I pulled myself together and focused back on what cut of steak I wanted for that evening. :P

A tastier alternative to the traditional bread rolls, Barclay Prime served Gruyère and scallion popovers. Hollow at its center and airy in the pastry, this flaky and crusty orb of savory goodness was a harbinger of what a promising meal and unforgettable experience the restaurant had in store for us. If we hadn't already ordered two sides, we would have happily asked for seconds. Now that I think about it, I should have sneaked some into my purse for the road! :P Recipe please!

I almost wasn't going to have an appetizer -- I wanted to be able to savor and enjoy my steak down to its last cut of meat and drop of au jus. But whenever there's peekytoe crab on the menu (pardon my inexplicable penchant for cute sounding foods), I have to check it out. Our captain described what the peekytoe crab salad entailed, and I was sold. It had chunky peekytoe crab meat mixed in with a light aioli and herbs, and it was served with a refreshing vinaigrette over a bed of baby spinach, green beans, and sliced radish. There was also a side of Texas toast on which to eat the peekytoe crab salad. Both salads were delightful, even better when eaten on the toast.The chunky crab meat went so well with the aioli, bright with flavor and lush in texture. It was a lightly refreshing treat before the hearty steak course ahead.

Marcus was still feeling under the weather, so he decided to have the lobster bisque, hoping the warmth from the soup could help clear his sinuses. It was creamy with that floating undertone of evaporated cognac on the palate. I liked that it wasn't salty like most bisques are, and the consistency of the soup was very robust -- not at all watery.

Next came my favorite thing about Barclay Prime. One thing was for sure -- when it came to steak knives, Barclay Prime certainly did not mess around. I've already preluded to this earlier, but I want to explain a little more. Right before the steak course, the service team will present you with an platter of uniquely designed steak knives. During this particular dinner, Marcus and I were presented with four distinct knives, from which Marcus chose the Kershaw Shun (second from the left) and I the Global (first from the left).

Thanks to John Polizzi, the general manager of Barclay Prime, I was able to acquire some more background on each of these knives:
{1} GLOBAL: This knife is made in Japan and is entirely stainless steel -- the first of its kind. I had this knife during my first visit, and though I didn't know about the brand at the time, I chose it because of the dots on the handle because it was so hard to choose! :P I remember liking the way it cut through my steak that I wanted to opt for it once more.
{2} Kershaw Shun: This knife is also of Japanese origin, made from sixteen layers of Japanese steel with a Bakkawood handle. The way this knife is made is the same way samurai swords are made. Needless to say, they had Marcus at samurai, as I had in our first conversations! :P
{3} Wüsthof: This one is from Germany and is laser-sharpened.
{4} J. A. Henckels: Also from Germany, this knife has a curved blade. I remember Dan using this one when we went together. He had a little difficulty using it with his cut of steak, so we ended up switching midway through.

Barclay Prime also have two other steak knives currently which were not offered to us that evening (not sure why) but that I remembered from my first visit:
{5} Laguiole: From France, this knife manufacturer prides itself on being the oldest knife maker in the world.
{6} Chroma: This knife was designed by the grandson of Ferdinand Porsche, the founder and creator of the well-renowned performance car brand. Such a shame this wasn't offered during Marcus and I's dinner -- I would be curious to try this one next time. Its uncustomary shape has me very curious.

It also seems that the Wüsthof knife that I came across during this dinner replaced the Fuji/Fujitechnics knife that the restaurant had two years ago -- just a random tidbit I wanted to share!

Close up of our steak knife selections! Pretty badass if you ask me! :P

It was finally time for us to chow down on our hunks of steak. I went with the 18-ounce Gachot & Gachot prime dry-aged ribeye, mainly because I normally like prime rib and ribeye steaks tend to be marbled in fat. With some dry-aging in there, the marbling only intensified. I could even tell before slicing into it that the glossy finish of the steak would be an auspicious tell of its glorious taste. Normally I like to have my steaks cooked to medium rare as leeway so that if it is slightly overcooked, it bleeds into the medium region -- I find that when I do that at most restaurants, I get the temperature of steak that I desire. However, when it comes to steakhouses, I have to be a little more careful because medium rare is quite red at the center. After discussing it with our captain, he recommended that I have the ribeye to be cooked to medium, as the cut itself tends to become tastier as it is cooked more (i.e. , advancing of the marbleization). I'm so glad I went with his suggestion because this steak was arguably the best steak I've ever had. Each bite was so juicy and tender, as the marbling of the steak washed over and enriched every square inch, which left me in a content daze. My steak knife choice did wonders as well, as I had no problem slicing through the thick steak.

Marcus took the ambitious route and had the 24-ounce dry-aged porterhouse, which is part tenderloin (right of the bone above) and part filet steak (left of the bone). The mixed nature of this cute results in different levels of tenderness throughout the steak. The tenderloin tends to be more concentrated flavor, while the filet is much more tender. Marcus opted for the porterhouse so he could get a taste of both, cooked medium rare. He really enjoyed the porterhouse very much, even saying that it's up there in the hall of "the best steaks he's ever had" which already included the 49-day dry-aged beef he had at The French Laundry. Exploring the porterhouse also helped Marcus narrow down what his preferred cut of steak actually is -- until this meal, he was struggling a bit with which cut better suits his palate, and the filet part of the porterhouse pretty much sealed the deal. While he enjoyed the tenderloin part of the porterhouse for its rich flavor, Marcus, at the end of the day, concluded that he will always prefer tenderness over intense flavor. Additionally, the Kershaw Shun steak knife made conquering this massive cut of steak a lot easier!

We each also requested a sauce to go with our steaks -- Marcus had the horseradish crème fraîche, while I had the béarnaise sauce. The horseradish crème fraîche satisfied Marcus's penchant for mustard condiments, while the béarnaise added a rich, creaminess to my already amazingly marbled steak. Ordering sauces to go with your steak at Barclay Prime certainly adds another dimension to the experience, so be sure to do so! :)

As sides, I ordered the marbled potatoes (i.e., differently colored creamer potatoes cooked in white wine with herbs), while Marcus had the whipped potatoes. I enjoyed the different shades of flavor from the medley of multi-colored potatoes -- very different than any side of roast potatoes that I've ever had. Marcus's whipped potatoes were clouds of dense buttery and creamy flavor -- the starchiness of the potatoes went really well with the hearty flavors and juices from the steak.

The maître d' knew that Marcus and I came to Barclay Prime to celebrate our anniversary, so our dessert was presented to us with a candle and "Happy Anniversary" written in chocolate. Such a lovely touch!

The dessert we decided to share was the Barclay bar -- a layered hazelnut chocolate crunch with chocolate ganache, peanut butter praline, peanut brittle, and peanut butter ice cream. For those of you who do not like nuts, this dessert is probably not for you. But for those of you who do, it is quite an awesomely sweet overdose of peanuts and hazelnuts! Essentially, the layered "crunch" tasted like what would happen if you married a Kit Kat bar with a Reese's peanut butter cup -- while it was really good, it was really rich, and that's where the ice cream and crushed peanuts came in to save the day. It would have been difficult to eat the dessert without some ice cream to match each bite, which helped to temper down the sweetness of the chocolate and peanut butter praline.

Right before we departing the restaurant, Mr. Polizzi gave us a little note, thanking us for choosing to come to Barclay Prime for dinner to celebrate our anniversary. It was so thoughtful of them to take time out of the restaurant's busy schedule to write such a gracious note!

Findings: Simply put, our dining experience at Barclay Prime was extraordinary. It was better than I had already remembered from my first visit. The attentive and considerate service that night is not something I come across every day at fine dining establishments, so it's nice to know that there are still places out there that take hospitality so serious to heart. Plus, the little note given to us at the end of our meal just says it all -- the restaurant is thankful for your choice to dine at Barclay Prime. Essentially, they're happy for you to be there, while you're happy to be enjoying luxurious cuts of steak, dry-aged and marbled to astound and melt onto palates.

I haven't been able to write such an effortless dining review in a while (last one was for Kajitsu and the times before that were for Eleven Madison Park and Le Bernardin), so it's nice to have another one in for 2012. I don't normally prefer going to steakhouses (I usually end up being disappointed in service and cuisine or overwhelmed by the portions), but it's nice to know that there is a niche at Barclay Prime that satisfies my unusual palate. The luxury boutique steakhouse perhaps is what I've been searching for all along when it comes to finding the perfect steak. I mean, besides having delicious cuts of quality beef, how many steakhouses offer you the option to choose your steak knife for the evening?! I think that aspect is just so striking and differentiating, again appealing to the customer's dining experience.

I cannot thank the team at Barclay Prime enough for making our anniversary celebration so memorable. Barclay Prime now holds a special place in our hearts, as the anecdote I told at the beginning of this post shows how full circle our relationship has come in the last two years in relation to my last visit here. I'm hopeful to return to Philly for my next hankering for a nice juicy, marbled steak, which from my speculations, will be very soon.

Price point: $12-16 for each starter, $48-58 for each main course steak, $10 for each side, $3 for each sauce, $10 for dessert.

--April 21, 2012

Barclay Prime
237 South 18th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19103

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Brunch | Café Estelle

Marcus and I took a little day trip to Philadelphia this past Saturday -- the primary reason for the trip: our anniversary dinner that evening at Barclay Prime. While we were there, we also planned a lovely brunch with Dani at Café Estelle over in Spring Garden.

Café Estelle is named after Estelle Green, the grandmother to its chef, Marshall Green. Ms. Green ran a catering company in New York and "instilled a love of eating and creating food" to her grandson early on. She "taught him that food was a way to bring people together and share in an intimate experience." Since then, Chef Marshall Green has studied culinary arts at the New England Culinary Institute and has worked in many high-end establishments in Philadelphia, including Fork, Django, as well as Ansill & Meritage, before opening Café Estelle.

Inside Café Estelle.

Café Estelle believes in a healthy and sustainable way of living (i.e., "quality + caring = good food"). All breads and pastries (except bagels) are made on-site as well as its sausage, bacon, brined and smoked turkey, mozzarella cheese, ice cream, club soda, and mayonnaise (just to name a few). All ingredients are local and organic whenever possible.

Despite my typically insistent rule of thumb of not ordering the same main course as another member of the table, Dani and I both couldn't resist ordering the shirred eggs with spinach, mushrooms, truffle oil, and cream, all served with home fries and toast. A shirred egg is one that is cooked individually in cream or butter in a small ramekin. Chef Green's version of shirred eggs was cooked in cream but had the added goodies of spinach, mushrooms, and truffle oil! The eggs were softly baked inside a petite ceramic skillet dish with the accompanying veggies layered in and the truffle oil generously drizzled throughout. The eggs were at that ideal temperature where it just passed into just cooked territory and the runny-ness of the yolk is creamy and indulgent. The shirred eggs went perfectly with the homemade slices of toast, making for a wonderful brunch course. The home fries were really soft and had a nice spread of country spice to liven up the starchiness. Highly recommended, especially if you enjoy truffles/truffle oil on pretty much anything! :P

Marcus had his usual brunch favorite, steak and eggs which had flatiron steak and two eggs any style (he went with poached) served with home fries and toast. The eggs were nicely poached, and the steak was tender and juicy throughout -- as much as a flatiron steak can be.

Since spring has come upon us, it would have been silly not to order ramps when given the option on the menu, given its hysteria-causing nature in recent years. Here, we shared ramps a la plancha with Romesco sauce as a side, which is of Catalan origin and is typically made from almonds, pine nuts/hazelnuts, roasted garlic, olive oil and nyora peppers (i.e., a small red bell pepper). The Romesco sauce was the perfect pairing as the nutty and garlicky flavors from it brought out the inherent pungent nature of the grilled ramps. Even with the pretty hefty price tag for four-five measly stalks, it was totally worth the little splurge!

Dani had never had scrapple before, so we also decided to try the homemade scrapple. Scrapple is typically made using scraps of pork stewed with cornmeal, which is then shaped into a loaf for slicing and frying. Since this was homemade scrapple, it wasn't the kind classified as "mystery meat" (which can be horrifyingly and unabashedly delicious, too :P) -- you could tell that it was made with the top quality ingredients and pan-fried to a crisp loaf slice which went perfect with our runny eggs, poached and shirred.

Dani and me.

Findings: Brunch at Café Estelle was such a treat, thanks to Dani for the recommendation to go! The atmosphere is very comfortable and relaxed, which is just what I like -- an unpretentious brunch spot that still puts forth a delicious menu made from seasonal and quality ingredients. The country/home-style cuisine offered by Chef Marshall Green is quaint and welcoming. I would definitely want to return here for future brunches whenever we're visiting Philly -- the "trek" (if you even want to call it that) to Spring Garden is totally worth it!

Price point: $9.75-13.50 for each main brunch course, $2.50-6.25 for each side.

--April 21, 2012

Café Estelle
444 North 4th Street
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19123

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Fresh Find | Pop Chart Lab prints

Pop Chart Lab is one of my favorite print designers, considering our apartment is adorned with three of its originally designed prints, all of which are focused around hedonist odds and ends.

My first purchase from Pop Chart Lab (thanks to a post a few years back by Outblush), The Spendiferous Array of Culinary Tools fittingly hangs near my kitchen, glistening with all of the culinary toys you can play with whilst cooking up a storm.

This beast of a chart, Constitutions of Classic Cocktails, visually breaks down sixty-eight classic cocktails (e.g., Tom Collins, Gin and Tonic, Mojito, Cuba Libre, etc.) referencing everything from glassware, spirits, mixers, and garnishes. The apartment has this displayed right above the area where Marcus and I plan on putting our future bar corner that will soon be equipped with a spirits cabinet from Crate & Barrel.

Among Pop Chart Lab's most recent creations (and yet another addition to our apartment's gallery of wall eye candy) is Pie Charts (A Baker's Dozen). Just as my Pi(e) Day dedication to my dad was laden with lots of wordplay and things of that nature (and also related to pie!), this chart illustrates a collection of pie charts that depict the ingredients of thirteen (literally, a baker's dozen worth!) of classic pies. Talk about Inception-inspired thinking, only instead of "a dream within a dream," it's a pie within a pie chart! This just arrived at our apartment via post, so I'm still working out the details on where to display it -- we're definitely starting to run out of prime wall space! :P

This last chart, while I don't own a copy myself, is also quite noteworthy. The Delectable Kaleidoscope of Candy Bars celebrates the union of chocolate and its "delightful compatriots" such as caramel, nougat, and nuts.

Pop Chart Lab also has other pictorially stimulating charts in its arsenal of prints (including other food-and-drink-related items as well as other fun topics). If you find these as awesome as I do, be sure to sign up for its mailing list for future coupons and notification of flash sales (many times it's 15-25% off!).

Pop Chart Lab
assortment of "Food & Drink" prints, here at Pop Chart Lab
Price point: $22-36 for each print.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Chef's Tasting | Um Segredo Supper Club, ii

I had the happy fortune of attending another one of Chef David Santos' Um Segredo Supper Club dinners this past week. When I found out he would be doing another installment of dinners in April, I was crossing my fingers, hoping I'd be able to make one, especially if any of the given menus were especially enticing. I was in luck -- one of the dinners was a sea urchin/uni-focused six-course tasting. Lisa and I are HUGE, HUGE, HUGE uni enthusiasts (at times, it is a borderline, serious addiction if you ask me), so I immediately thought of asking her to accompany me. Now the only caveat was that it also happened to fall on the date of Marcus and I's two-year anniversary. We had already planned on going to Philadelphia the following day to celebrate at Stephen Starr's Barclay Prime, but I still wanted to make sure it was all cool with him. I wasn't sure if he planned on doing anything more on our actual anniversary, and knowing that he's not a big fan of uni, I wanted to give him the option of whether or not we should go ahead and make reservations. I wouldn't have made it such a big deal if it weren't for the rarity of such a tasting menu -- I mean, it's sea urchin for heaven's sake! After explaining what the dinner would entail and seeing how much it would mean for us to go, Marcus, without hesitation, simply answered, "Of course we can go with Lisa!" Another reason why I love him so much -- always a trooper! :) I was curious to find out what Marcus would think about sea urchin by the end of this dinner anyhow -- i.e., would he still think it to be overrated or would he completely switch sides and fall in love with it as Lisa and I have? Only time could tell!

Not more than a minute after, I was texting Lisa, explaining to her the gravity of the situation -- after all, we were dealing with our beloved infatuation with uni -- and ultimately, her answer: "You had me at uni!" Now there is another comical part of this situation. The next Table Conviviale dinner that Lisa and I planned on doing once again in my kitchen will be centered around uni, and the date we selected two months ago to finally execute our "study" of the golden ingredient would be the following weekend. Yup, overdose of uni was imminent, but do you think that stopped us? Hell no! :P

Chef Santos decided to create menu for this tasting because of a special request he received from one of his Um Segredo guests. It was a menu that he had been thinking about, but she was the one who finally sealed the deal -- she left her scarf at an Um Segredo dinner back in February, asking him to bring her scarf to a City Grit event she planned to go to. Then, he forgot to bring her scarf, and by this point, he just had to do an uni dinner. Dubbing it the "Forgot Your Scarf" dinner, this uni-focused tasting was intended to be both fun and challenging due to its obscurity as a shellfish.

Communal dining table at Um Segredo.

Since Um Segredo is essentially BYOB, Lisa and I each contributed a bottle from our growing vault of wines -- hers was a fancy bottle of Champagne by Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin given to her from her former workplace and mine a medium-dry riesling I found at Downtown Cellars. Needless to say, both bottles were demolished by the end of the night! :P

{1} Homemade bread was served with an interesting alternative to the usual olive oil and butter -- {2} Portuguese butter made using lard, garlic, black pepper, and artichokes. Man, this was so awesome -- dripping in buttery richness with the biting deliciousness from the garlic and the thickness from the puréed artichokes. Definitely need to figure out how to make this amazing Portuguese butter one of these days -- I really could have eaten the whole basket of bread by slathering this stuff all over it and nomming away. Luckily, I have a little self control! :P

The first course was uni from Santa Barbara with truffles, grapefruits, and chicharon (i.e., fried pork rinds). The thing about Santa Barbara uni is that you can never go wrong with it. It is always almost plump, glowing like golden saffron, and richly buttery -- just as it was here: simply heavenly. With the interesting combination of fried pork rinds and grapefruit, the amuse-bouche had a little tartness paired with crunchiness from the savory fried pork rind. The unlikely union of these ingredients made for a wonderful introduction of what was to come.

Prior to the next course, the three of us ventured to the kitchen to check out what Chef Santos was up to. We also had some questions about where he recommends non-chef folk like us can get our hands on some quality uni. As expected, he gets his from a supplier with whom he's had a long relationship throughout his career as a chef in the city. Luckily, he was able to point us to some places where we can find some for our study of the mysterious echinoderm (will reveal more in a future post).

So while we were chatting up Chef Santos, {1,2,3} he was plating the next course with much precision and alacrity. One thing I really like about his dinners is the wide array of noteworthy dishware used throughout the meal. These glossy, squared glass plates were no exception. Being in such close proximity to the trays of uni that Chef Santos was using to prep and plate the upcoming courses was such a tease -- we were very much tempted to just swipe a tray and eat it straight!

The second course was a tartare of marinated branzino with an uni emulsion (of celery, I believe), artichokes, and fried shallots, topped with a few pieces of Maine sea urchin and some yuzu granita. While Lisa thought this course was just okay, I really enjoyed it. What surprised me most was how much Marcus enjoyed it -- I could see a conversion on the horizon! :P Anyways, the branzino absorbed the intense flavors of the creamy uni emulsion as well as the tart and chilly yuzu granita. The emulsion was so good that we all could not let it go to waste -- we used bread to soak up even last drop of the wondrous foamy butter. Even our neighboring diners at the table couldn't resist! Overall, a great spring/summery starter!

The next course was uni chawanmushi with crab, tomato marmalade, and arugula pistou topped with a couple lobes of Santa Barbara uni. A traditional chawanmushi is a Japanese, appetizer-intended egg custard dish served in a tea bowl, so Chef Santos' take on it was an uni custard with very untraditional toppings served in a mason jar. While the presentation was very well done, I felt the execution was a little off when it came down to the combination of flavors created by the ingredient choice. The custard itself was really good, as was the crab and the sea urchin lobes. However, the marmalade (which had a cool kick) paired with the pistou (arugula here instead of the traditional basil) made for an unpleasant combination on my palate. While the marmalade of tomato added another dimension of texture and savory sweetness, the pistou of arugula was really bitter, which pretty much overpowered the rest of the ingredients. This was probably my least favorite dish of the evening.

The fourth course was a wonderful saving grace from the uni chawanmushi. It was an uni and shrimp risotto with fava beans, sugar snap peas, and carrot foam. What I love about seafood risottos is that there is no cheese -- a weird proclivity, I know, but alas the palate wants what the palate wants. :P The uni melted right into the risotto, adding to the light and creamy carrot foam on which the grains of al dente arborio grains floated fluffily. To contrast the creaminess, the fava beans and crisp snap peas were crisp and snappy and gave some pop of color to the risotto as well. The chunks of shrimp were juicy, complementing the undertones of uni within the risotto. Ahhh, so good! Definitely my favorite course of the night -- it was the ideal risotto, with the giddy bonus of uni!

Last of the main courses was Chef Santos' uni-inspired "surf and turf" -- Iowa Farms pork loin with soba, shredded shiso, mushrooms, watercress (I think?) and uni butter (on the side and drizzled atop). The "surf" part of this dish was well done -- that uni butter was to die for! The soba and veggies mixed really beautifully with the uni butter, but unfortunately, while the pork was unbelievably flavorful, I am sad to report that it was a little overcooked. I wish I could have enjoyed this dish a lot more than I already had. It was just really chewy, making it hard to eat with the rest of the dish's components.

When it comes to satisfying one's sweet tooth, Chef Santos never disappoints. The last course of the evening was a deconstructed lemon meringue pie. A marshmallow seared lightly for a smoky flavor topped the ice cream over crushed graham crackers with a lemon sauce on the side. It was certainly a lot lighter on the stomach than a traditional lemon meringue pie (thick crust, heavy filling, and all), considering we had five courses preceding this one. The taste was refreshing and light, with just a little sweet-and-tartness from the lemon to conclude an awesome uni-driven dinner.

Findings: Once again, Chef David Santos has proven that he can orchestrate one hell of a themed tasting menu (first veggies, now the dark and spiny echinoderm). While there were a couple misses during our meal, we still enjoyed the experience very much. Not very often do you get to convene with other fellow uni enthusiasts and go on about how amazing uni roe really is, to the point where the coming together nearly becomes a support group. I particularly admired the risks that Chef Santos took with the menu, especially with the atypical pairings/execution, e.g., chicarones, chawanmushi, risotto, and uni butter. While I enjoy a good donburi of uni as much as the next fanatic, it was refreshing to see new ways to enjoy the luscious lobes of gold where hope is not lost for creating newly curated courses. Perhaps my only wish was that there was more uni (though I think I'd feel that way with any amount of uni at hand :P), and I thought the $75 price tag on the menu was a steal of a price. Um Segredo could have undoubtedly a little charged more (I assure you that the demand would've remained the same, if not rocketed even more) and thus would have been able to lop on some more pieces for its guests to enjoy.

Additionally, it was fun to chat with Chef Santos as usual and to meet his cooking buddy, Chef Andrew Kraft -- picking their brains about where to find the best uni proved to be quite helpful. Lisa and I certainly found this dinner to be a nice prelude to our study of uni next weekend for our second installment of Table Convivale! Uni overdosage, here we come!

Last thought here: Marcus and I seem to always have luck on the actual date of our anniversary -- we always find some kind of cool dinner to go to! Last year's was Chef David Bouley's opening of his newest restaurant, Brushstroke, and this year we get to spend it with a lot of uni! Not sure how we will top this once again next year, but I have faith that something wonderful will come along. Thanks to Marcus and Lisa for accompanying me -- again, always a treat to go out with my "BF" and "BFF"! :D

Looking forward to another menu exploration with Chef Santos at Um Segredo again very soon!

Price point: $75 cash donation, plus gratuity for service; BYOB.

--April 20, 2012

Um Segredo Supper Club
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Friday, April 20, 2012

Toasts | two years

Marcus and me at a friend's wedding, March 2012.

Today, Marcus and I will have been together for two years. It seems as if we've known each other for many lifetimes, yet it also peculiarly seems as if it were yesterday that the online dating enterprise, eHarmony, matched us with its "mysterious" algorithms resulting in us finally deciding to meet face-to-face. I suppose that is what happens when you meet your other half (after all, I had only been active on eHarmony for barely an hour when he was dubbed my first "match"). Call me cheesy, call me a dreamer, call me delusional -- whatever you like. For me, it is just how our story unfolded into where our lives lie today.

Our relationship began, and continues to thrive, on our love for words -- words themselves, puns, homophones, crosswords, and Scrabble, just to name a few -- that can be best explained by the little anecdote I shared last year (that is, the one I wrote about our visit to the Swanson Salon at Swanson Vineyards in the Napa Valley). But more importantly, our relationship also grew with something so very basic to life: food. The first conversations we had were inevitably about my love for food and how it has an important aspect of my life and how it has been for him as well. Who knew that this common interest would carry on to blossom us into a food-obsessed couple? The trips we've planned and taken together are, for the most part, pretty much focused on eating and nomming away -- what we'd be eating, where we'd be eating, when we'd be eating, with whom we'd be eating, and how we would make it feasible. It was never something we argued over -- there was an unwitting understanding between the two of us. I'll call it the wavelength of food lovers because with this, we have been in total synchronization without skipping a beat. And while I'd like to think that I've exposed him to all kinds of dining experiences (whether it be with a particular ingredient, at a new location, or just learning together about something new), I'm happy to say that he's the only one with whom I've first experienced the gastronome's ultimate milestone -- that is, dining at Michelin tri-starred establishments (namely The French Laundry, Le Bernardin, and Eleven Madison Park, with Alinea to be added to this *hopefully* ever-growing list later this year).

I am so thankful to be able to look back on these two years, only to say, "Damn, have the two of us eaten well!" Which brings me to why I'm sharing all of this with you. If you've been following my dining reviews and the tales of this gastronomy-focused life, you'll know quite well that Marcus is much of a star as I am. Most of the meals I have are with him these days, and I'm very fortunate to share my life with someone who completely understands this foodie madness that continues to live and breathe inside me. With that being said, instead of just talking about starting a blog, I have Marcus to thank for the existence of Four Tines and a Napkin today, mostly in part because he strongly encouraged me to finally pursue it. He was the final push that sent me head first into the world of food writing and blogging, and I have not looked back since. While Four Tines is where I record and share my life in meals, it also documents the story of our relationship, one that is also measured in meals. May Four Tines continue to grow along with us. :] To continue this spirit of meals, we're celebrating with our tradition of a "dual-dinner" as we did last year -- that is, one dinner near us (this year's in Philadelphia; last year's in Manhattan) on or near the actual date and another dinner that aligns with our travel plans during the year (this year's in Chicago next month; last year's in the Napa Valley).

While I bring this dedication to a close, I have one last thing to share. There is a song that I heard (don't judge!) while I was watching an episode of Dirty Sexy Money on Netflix some time last year. It featured the indie duo, The Weepies, as guest stars, performing their song "Somebody Loved" for two of the show's characters. While I didn't really care for the story line, it was the lyrics of this song that really resonated with me:
Rain turns the sand into mud,
Wind turns the trees into bone,
Stars turning high up above,
You turn me into somebody loved--

Nights when the heat had gone out,
We danced together alone,
Cold turned our breath into clouds--
We never said what we were dreaming of,
But you turned me into somebody loved--

Someday when we're old and worn,
Like two softened shoes--
I will wonder on how I was born,
The night I first ran away from you--

Now my feet turn the corner back home,
Sun turns the evening to rose,
Stars turning high up above,
You turn me into somebody loved--
Happy Anniversary, Marcus -- I cannot express completely in words how much I love you, but hopefully this will be a start. Thank you for being my lobster and for turning me into somebody loved -- here's to many more years filled with delicious meals and memories together!

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Food for Thought | Alice May Brock

“Tomatoes and oregano make it Italian; wine and tarragon make it French. Sour cream makes it Russian; lemon and cinnamon make it Greek. Soy sauce makes it Chinese; garlic makes it good.”
--Alice May Brock

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Lunch | Ramen Misoya

Marcus and I met up with my close friend/roommate from college, Debra, this past Sunday for some ramen. It's a little tradition that Debra and I have for when we meet up in the city -- every time we do, it's always for noodles (ramen, soba, and the like). We've already hit up Ramen Setagaya, Momofuku Noodle Bar, Ippudo, Soba-ya, and Totto Ramen thus far, so I thought Ramen Misoya would be an interesting addition to our "slurped and conquered" list.

I first came across Ramen Misoya on Bionic Bites, and from the photos I saw, it definitely looked worth the trip. What makes Misoya so different from other noodle joints in the city is its primary focus as a noodle shop is on the unexpected ingredient, i.e., miso (explaining the shop's name). Miso has high nutritional value as it has enzymes, protein, and vitamins that help benefit one's diet. Ultimately, miso is created mixing steamed soybeans, rice, wheat, and other ingredients with salt and malted rice and then leaving it to ferment. As such, Misoya has chosen to specialize in three types of miso: kome, shiro, and mame.

Inside Ramen Misoya's small space in the East Village.

Marcus and I decided to each try the mame miso ramen with homemade cha-shu (pork), fried breaded shrimp, and some Japanese accoutrement (i.e., a variety of bean sprouts, ground pork, cabbage, scallions, and bamboo shoots). Mame miso is made from soy beans and is dark in color. Among the shop's three varieties, it has sweetest and richest texture. I really liked the ramen and veggies -- it was bouncy, flavorful, and cooked to the ideal consistency. While the breaded shrimp was so-so (I prefer shrimp for ramen to be tempura-style), the homemade cha-shu was definitely the best part of the dish, as they were thick slabs of fatty, tender meat, graciously charred along its circumference. The three pieces they give you ration well with the rest of the ramen's ingredients. So as a ratio eater, it was perfect, barely leaving anything left in my bowl except the miso soup base, which brings me to my next point. I wasn't crazy impressed or blown away by the mame miso soup base at all. It seemed pretty standard to me, if not a little better than average ramen noodle soups. Ippudo, Totto Ramen, and Santouka undoubtedly trumps Ramen Misoya in that regard, which is quite surprising, considering the shop prides itself on its miso.

Debra went with the kome miso ramen with homemade cha-shu, ground pork, corn, bamboo shoots, and scallions. Kome miso is made from rice, which is the standard miso, intent on yielding an intense flavor with a rich aroma. This is supposedly the saltiest of all the misos, but shockingly, Debra didn't feel like it was the slightest bit salty -- it was kind of on the blander side. Debra, like Marcus and me, enjoyed the cha-shu the most, while everything else was pretty mediocre, including the kome miso soup base, too.

Findings: All in all, Ramen Misoya was just okay, though the only real selling point for us was the homemade cha-shu -- not even the shop's presumed "signature" ingredient, miso. The portions (especially of noodles and accompanying meat/veggies) are much more favorable for a price slightly less than Ippudo's prices. So don't expect to be blown away by this little shop the way you may be with Totto Ramen or Ippudo -- just think of it as a place to avoid long waits for satisfying a ramen fix and to have some kick-ass cha-shu with it.

Price point: $13.80-14.50 for each bowl of miso ramen.

--April 15, 2012

Ramen Misoya
129 Second Avenue
New York, NY 10003

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Dinner | The Modern: Bar Room

With the beautiful weather we had this past weekend at dusk, I spent my Saturday evening at The Bar Room at The Modern (adjacent and the restaurant within the Museum of Modern Art, aka MoMA) with Ariana catching up over some delicious bites and drinks.

The entrance to The Modern is probably the most original one I've come across. The window display is changed regularly (I believe it's several months at a time, depending on the installation at hand), and the theme is for the most part modern/contemporary art. This particular installation, per The Modern's seasonal e-newsletter, is "inspired by the elaborate window displays that typify MoMA's Fifth Avenue environs" and created by artist Andrea Zittel. In this piece, Untitled (2012), Ms. Zittel "bridges the hyperstylized, over-produced commercial aesthetic of the Fifth Avenue retail display with the bold colors and graphic geometries of Bauhaus, with slight infusions of Southwestern/New Age aesthetic." The piece also has "several material grids/layers, which in their colors and form refer to the Modern building's façade and provides symmetry with her installed room" on the second floor Contemporary Galleries inside MoMA.

Entrance-way into the restaurant's space.

We arrived bit early for our reservation, so the hostess asked us to wait at the bar and to perhaps enjoy a drink or two before our table is ready.

The Bar Room at The Modern has a general "bar area" that has a first-come-first-served policy along with a menu of "snacks" that can be shared.

While we were waiting, {1} I ordered a lychee purée and soda (my recent fascination with homemade sodas still persists) while Ariana had the Girovita cocktail (the formidable moniker is what enticed her) which nicely mixed Aperol, apricot liqueur, Pimm's No. 1, lemon, cucumber, and mint. My soda was delicious, while Ariana's drink was a very fruity yet punchy mojito-like cocktail. {2} The bar was also nice enough to serve some complimentary popcorn sprinkled with truffle oil. Yes, major drool fest, indeed. Ariana's reaction to her first nibble: "OMG, I can't imagine what would happen if they sold these in packaged form. I would be eating them nonstop." Not too shabby for as a fancy bar treat. May need to makes some at home with kettle corn and white truffle oil! :P

Bentel & Bentel, the innovators behind the interiors of The Modern, were inspired by the Bauhaus movement and aimed to have design play "a major role in every aspect of the dining experience." The firm selected furniture and tableware from "modernist greats" with a focus on Danish design. Some of the designers are represented in MoMA's architecture and design collection, while a number of the pieces are available for sale at the MoMA Design and Book Store.

More shots of the interior, with a pensive Ariana as a bonus! :)

While The Modern as a whole showcases Alsatian-born chef, Gabriel Kreuther, and his original take on French-American cuisine, "the casually vibrant and bustling space" of The Bar Room serves small plates of rustic Alsatian cuisine. The Bar Room invites you to "tailor the menu to your appetite" by creating your own experience by choosing one item from each page (One for starters, Two for seafood, and Three for meat/game) for a personalized tasting or to mix and match items to share for the table. The suggested progression is to go from One, to Two, then Three.

Modern bread basket of miniature baguettes and rustic artisan bread. While the baguettes were a little tough and chewy, the artisan bread was great with a soft holey interior and a loose, crusty exterior.

On the table at The Bar Room.

Ariana and I didn't want to go too overboard so we decided to share two starters and each get a main course for ourselves.

First, we chose the tarte flambée -- an Alsatian thin crust tart with crème fraîche, onion, and Applewood-smoked bacon. This is a classic dish that has pretty much been on the menu since its opening in 2005. Tarte flambée is a gastronomic specialty from Alsace, the northeastern region of France. It is French for "pie baked in the flames" mainly because it is bread dough rolled out very thinly in the shape of a rectangle or circle typically covered in crème fraîche, thinly sliced onions, and lardons (i.e., small strips/cubes of pork fat) and cooked in a wood-fired oven. Ultimately, this "pie" or "tart" is almost like a French version of a flatbread or thin-crust pizza, and Chef Kreuther pretty much stuck to the original Alsatian culinary specialty down to its essential ingredients (i.e., crème fraîche, onion, and fatty pork of some sort). I cannot help but order this every time I've gone to The Bar Room (twice prior to this occasion) -- it is just too amazing to pass up. The tart is crisp, creamy, and savory without being too heavy or rich. It is a great dish to share amongst the table -- it strikes the perfect balance with all of its ingredients, delivering an incredibly delicious experience to anyone who dares to try a slice and not have any more than that! :P

We also had another kind of tarte -- i.e., the upside-down tuna tarte with fennel, Japanese cucumber, and aïoli. I thought the concept was really well done -- instead of just the usual rounded torchon tuna tartare, Chef Kreuther plays a little with words and food. Tartare (i.e., chopped raw meat/fish) resemble tarte both visually and aurally, which allowed Chef Kreuther to play with this idea a little. A mouthful to say, this tartare tarte had an interesting twist of fate -- it strays away from being a traditional "tart" in that it is upside-down! The thinnest possible "crust" (if that's what you even wish to call it) tops the tartare of tuna over a layer of aïoli'd fennel and Japanese cukes. Overall, this beautifully presented dish was very refreshing as a delicate yet delicious tartare salad. It was a nice contrast to the warm and heavier tarte flambée we ate alongside it.

For my main course, I selected the roasted Long Island duck breast from Three, which was served with peppercorn-crusted apples and a pistachio-truffle dipping sauce. While I wish there were a couple more pieces of duck breast meat, this was just heavenly. Though not as mind-blowing as the duck I had at Eleven Madison Park with Marcus, this is pretty up there, primarily because the accompanying pistachio-truffle dipping sauce was what made this course so incredibly awesome. The resulting nutty and savory flavors paired with the underlying umami from the essence of truffle inspired a madness to douse and slather everything I could with this sauce, whether or not it was on the plate. The apples were tartly sweet with an interesting, kicky crunch from the peppercorn crust. I savored every bite of duck and apple coated in the pistachio-truffle sauce, with a looming sadness ahead when I would run out of things with which to eat the sauce. The solution currently will be one of two things -- go back to The Bar Room ASAP or figure out how to make the sauce myself. :P

Ariana had the black angus beef tenderloin with a Marcona almond and Picholine olive crust as well as summer vegetables and savory jus. I stole a little bite of her thick slices of beef tenderloin, which was very tender and full of flavor. From what she reported to me, she thought this was a solid course, too.

We were so full from our two courses that we decided to skip dessert and go for hot, post-dinner beverages. I had cup of jasmine green oolong tea by T of Vancouver. To go along with the design-savvy theme of The Modern, the tea leaves were placed inside a uniquely designed tea strainer -- one that was shaped just like a tea bag made from stainless steel hanging with a flexible wire and a leather tea tag at the end. I think I may have left the leaves in the hot water a little too long because it was more bitter than I would've liked. I usually take my tea straight up, but I had to throw in a few bits of raw sugar to lighten it a little. While it was more on the jasmine-green side of the tea spectrum (as opposed to the redder oolong types), I still enjoyed the cup o' tea.

Ariana had a cup of coffee by La Colombe of Philadelphia. Another fun design here was the creamer container -- it was shaped like a miniature milk carton and made from glass. Very aromatic, and from what Ariana reported, very good coffee!

Findings: Every time I go to The Bar Room at The Modern (still have yet to eat in The Dining Room!), it is always a treat. The menu constantly changes throughout the year, making it a "new" eating experience every time. The atmosphere is always bustling and lively, and I love the design-focused touches curated by Bentel & Bentel -- they always do a stellar job when it comes to those kinds of things. Albeit on the smaller portions side, nevertheless I feel the plates put out by Chef Gabriel Kreuther is are well-composed and deliberate. The ingredients included and presented on the plate are crisp and clean -- there is no excessive adornment nor are any ingredients included superfluously. Everything on the plate has a purpose, and there is no more nor less that is needed. It is nice to know that the man behind the kitchen at The Modern is decisive and knows exactly what he wants you to have in front of you.

So if you happen to be in the Midtown West area, stop in The Bar Room for well-crafted cocktails and delicious Alsatian snacks (the tarte flambée is non-negotiable -- you must order it). I'm already convinced I need to make reservations for dinner in The Dining Room to see what tricks Chef Kreuther will pull out when the portion sizes aren't so limited (*hint to Marcus* next year's birthday dinner? :P).

Price point: $14-18 for each One, $19-35 for each Two, $4-6 for each warm beverage.

--April 14, 2012

The Modern: Bar Room
Museum of Modern Art
9 West 53rd Street
New York, NY 10019


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