Friday, August 29, 2014

Flying Massaman Curry

Curry -- you either love it or you hate it. This one hails from the new book by Terry Hope Romero, Vegan Eats World. It's a deliciously spicy peanut curry with crunchy broccoli and soft potatoes. What really makes this dish unique is the spice mixture that includes 5-spice powder and garam masala -- so much flavor, so little time. With a touch of brown sugar and lime juice, garnished with fresh cilantro, you'll be amazed at how all these flavors come together. Serve it over black or brown rice.

Flying Massaman Curry
Serves 6

  • 3 large shallots, peeled
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 1 Tbsp Garam Masala (Indian spice mix)
  • 1 1/2 tsp Chinese 5-Spice powder
  • 3/4 tsp sea salt
  • 1/2 tsp turmeric powder
  • 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
  • 1/2-inch piece peeled ginger
  • 1 small red onion, peeled
  • 1 8-ounce package baked tofu
  • 1 Tbsp peanut oil
  • 1 pound small new potatoes, sliced into chunks no thicker than 1/2 inch
  • 2 cups warm vegetable broth
  • 1 cup canned coconut milk
  • 1/3 cup natural, chunky style peanut butter
  • 1/2 pound broccoli florets
  • 1/2 pound (about half a pint) cherry or grape tomatoes
  • 1 Tbsp lime juice
  • 2 tsp dark brown sugar
  • A handful of chopped fresh cilantro

  1. In a food processor or blender, pulse together shallots, garlic, garam masala, 5-spice powder, sea salt, turmeric, cayenne pepper, and ginger to form a curry paste.
  2. Cut the onion in half and into 1/2-inch-wide half-moons. Slice the tofu into cubes or triangles no thicker than 1/2 inch. In a large 3-quart pot with a lid, heat the oil over medium heat, stir in the curry paste with a rubber spatula or wooden spoon, and fry for one minute, stirring constantly. Add the onion and fry until softened, about 3 to 4 minutes. Stir in the tofu and potatoes.
  3. Meanwhile heat up vegetable broth and pour half of the broth into the pot over the potatoes. Add the coconut milk, increase heat to medium-high and bring to a gentle simmer. In a measuring cup, use a fork to combine the peanut butter and the remaining warm vegetable broth. Stir vigorously to create a creamy sauce. Whisk this into simmering curry, reduce heat to medium-low, and cover. Simmer the curry for 20 minutes or until the potatoes are very tender and can be easily pierced with a fork.
  4. Stir in the broccoli, cover, and simmer for 2 minutes or until the broccoli is crisp tender but still bright green. Add the cherry tomatoes, lime juice, and sugar, and stir. Taste the curry and adjust with more lime juice or salt if desired. Simmer for 1 more minute, turn off heat, cover, and let it rest for 5 minutes. Sprinkle with chopped cilantro and serve immediately over hot rice.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Grace Restaurant, Chicago

In the magical world that is the restaurant scene in Chicago, there lie only a handful of restaurants that have garnered the coveted two- and three-star Michelin ratings. After having experienced the weekend of my life last year dining at the only three-star Michelin restaurant, Alinea, then dining at Graham Elliot (now closed) the night after, I sought to find a similar experience this year. My trip to Chicago was only for one night this time, so I had to choose wisely. There were only four restaurants with two stars (three stars is the highest and has only been awarded to Alinea) in the 2014 Michelin Guide this year. One of them I had never heard of -- Grace Restaurant. Being awarded two Michelin stars only one year after opening is probably unprecedented and sparked enough interest for me to book a reservation. And, yes, they can accommodate a vegan diner, they said.

What was most intriguing about Grace was that the chef, Curtis Duffy, was the Chef de Cuisine at Alinea for several years before leaving to go to Avenues at the Peninsula. Under Duffy's direction, the Avenues was awarded two stars from the Michelin Guide, the AAA Five Diamond Award, and four-star ratings from Chicago Magazine and the Chicago Tribune. Other reports noted that Duffy's restaurant was the second most expensive restaurant in all of Chicago, second only to Alinea, with a tasting menu that recently increased to $205 per person. With prices like that, one would expect excellence.

The rustic steel exterior complemented the clear glass doors nicely in creating a contemporary look. As I pulled open the large glass door and walked inside, I was somewhat disappointed with the lack of pizzazz as all I saw was a host ready to seat me. A typical restaurant decor is not what I was expecting from this top restaurant. I should probably take a moment to explain where my expectations lied when I entered Grace. Having dined at Alinea and knowing this chef worked there and priced his meals just behind Alinea made me enter with expectations of a similar experience -- one that would blow me away. Let's move on.

I was dining alone on this evening as my good friend in Chicago had to take a last minute trip to Germany. I was actually looking forward to seeing what a tasting menu experience at a top restaurant would be like alone. Immediately they asked me if I desired a Kindle. A Kindle? Oh, like an Amazon Kindle -- yes, please. They discourage the use of phones in the dining room so I could read the news on the Kindle as I waited for each dish to arrive. I loved that.

At Grace, one can choose from two different tasting menus -- Flora or Fauna. The Fauna is the meat-focused track and the Flora is the vegetable-focused track. The Flora is not vegetarian by design so they need a heads up if you are requesting vegetarian or vegan and they seem happy to modify the menu to accommodate. I also ordered the wine pairing for $125.

The dining room was elegant with muted beige tones, plush seating, and contemporary artwork. It wasn't quite what I was expecting, but definitely fit the name of the restaurant. In the back, through glass walls, you could watch the chefs at work, which is always fun to see.

The experience began with the canape, which was three bites in a log.  On the top of the log was a buttery banana brulee with pink peppercorn. Behind it on a spear were mandoline-sliced watermelon radish and green apple. And inside the log, was a quinoa chip with tarragon and kaffir line. The chip didn't taste like much and the radish and apple were quite plain. The wine pairing was a 2007 Ferrari "Perle" from Trento.

The first official course was salsify, a white root, served two different ways. The salsify was sliced thinly and served with apple ice and compressed green apple. The cream was very good when paired with the chilled apple ice as the two textures complemented each other nicely.

For the second course, I was served peas three different ways -- this is how they introduced the dish.  There were fresh blanched peas, peas pressed into dumplings, and pea shoots. Served with French peaches and radishes, I was impressed that the dish was designed around peas. Overall, though, this dish was a bit plain. The 2011 Louis Guntrum Scheurebe from Rheinhessen was very sweet and paired well with this dish.

Bread was served after the third course with an olive oil emulsion. The bread was scrumptious.

The third course was artwork. Shaved asparagus was placed atop shredded pastry and meyer lemon. Underneath was pureed asparagus. I found there to be too much lemon in this dish (and I love lemon) and the pastry to be on the salty side. The bites without lemon were my favorite. A 2010 La Pietra di Tommasone Biancolella was served with this dish.

The fourth course was the first course I really loved, surprisingly. Yet another piece of artwork, this dish centered around strawberry jam while featuring green and red strawberries, fried onion, and sliced hearts of palm. It combined sweet, crunchy, and savory all in one. Most impressive was the strawberry and snow pea terrine made with agar and when mixed with the smear on the plate, was amazing. A 2011 Centonze Frappato complemented this dish.

The next dish was introduced and it was indicated that I should consume it, then "something else will happen." This dish was centered around pattypan squash served with pineapple and chamomile. I found this dish to also be quite plain. A 2011 Domaine de l'Ecu "Cuvee Classique" Muscadet from Sevre et Maine was served as well.

Once finished, they took the top off that dish and inside the bowl was yet another dish. This dish had the same ingredients as the last dish, but with a zucchini soup.

Next up was another dish that I really enjoyed. Roasted trumpet royale mushrooms in a mushroom jus (broth) with 10 puffed grains. The mushrooms were tender and firm, the grains were crunchy, and there was a surprise olive that added richness to the dish. The 1999 I Doria di Montalto Pinot Noir Riserva "Querciolo" from Oltrepo Pavese was an unusual bordeaux-like rich Pinot that added a nice complexity as a pairing.

Now for the sweet courses. In an unexpected way, they handed me my next dish. It was a dragonfruit filled with rice pudding and flavored with lemongrass. The squiggles on the top were made by freezing blackberries in liquid nitrogen. Amazing. The pairing was a 2005 Domaine Yves & Denis Breussin "Reserve" Moelleux from Vouvray.

An intermezzo or palate cleanser before the final dessert was appropriate here. It was a compilation of sweet blueberry vinegar, carbonated grapes with lemon verbena, and frozen basil puree. This was served with a 2013 Elio Perrone "Bigaro" from Piedmont -- a very sweet wine pairing.

The ninth course -- the final dessert, was elegant. They called it "chewy cherry and cherry chip" as it consisted of chocolate and coconut ice cream with tapioca pudding and fresh mint. It was an impressive mix of flavors.

Throughout the courses, the sommelier described the wines not only for their notes and complexity, but also the terroir and origin in such a way that only a great sommelier could. She tripped up here and there referring to fish that is normally in this tasting menu that was removed from mine, which disappointed me as it showed a lack of attention to detail.

The service was quite good, but not all the servers knew everything about the dishes and when I asked specific questions, certain people had to come out to answer them. When I appeared to be cold (temperature-wise), they offered me a shawl and when my Kindle locked up, they were happy to show me how to unlock it quickly.

At the end, they offered me a tour of the kitchen. It was very cool to see how many people it took to plate and prepare these meals for a full dining room. As I walked out, they handed me the menu in a vellum envelope and inside was a white chocolate bar. The menu was not at all customized to the meal I actually consumed and still stated the fish and other animal products that were in the typical tasting menu. The next day, I called and asked if the chocolate bar was vegan. They quickly apologized and noted that it was their mistake for giving me their standard non-vegan chocolate bar.

In the end, for a $435 dinner (including tax and tip), I felt it was not up to the standards I expected from a two-star Michelin rated restaurant. The lack of attention to detail in serving a vegan just wasn't there in the slip-ups by the sommelier, the confusion of what was in some dishes by certain servers, the lack of customization of the printed menu, and the gift of non-vegan food at the end. All of these are excusable at a normal restaurant, but for a restaurant of this caliber, anything less than perfection cannot be excused. Some of the dishes were very good, but others were quite plain and it felt like not enough thought had gone into what needed to be added into the menu when they were converting it to vegan rather than focusing on just what needed to be taken out of the dish. With two months of notice, I expected more. I will say that the wine selection was superb and the presentation of the dishes was spectacular.

So, I enjoyed the experience, but if I had to choose just one restaurant to dine at in Chicago, I'd pay just a little more and go to Alinea. For just $45 per meal more, you get an experience that is several levels above the experience at Grace. Alinea is truly in a class by itself and if Grace wants to price itself that close to Alinea, then it should really step up all aspects of the dining experience as it has a long way to reach Alinea's level of perfection.

Grace Restaurant
652 W. Randolph Street
Chicago, IL 60661
(312) 234-9494

Grace by Curtis Duffy on Urbanspoon

Monday, August 25, 2014

Stellar Vegan Salads by Sharon Discorfano

Stellar Vegan Salads by Sharon Discorfano is a compilation of a number of simple salads with varying levels of complexity. Sharon holds a Juris Doctor with a focus on Animal Law and is the voice of Cruelty-Free Faves, a storehouse of vegan food, household products, cosmetics, and fashion.

She talks about how her love of salads began at home with her family. She is awestruck by the intrinsic beauty of all the individual creations--the details of just one watermelon radish, truly a work of art. She begins with the art of making a salad, which includes tips on working with greens. She emphasizes the balance of six tastes: sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter, astrigent in every meal and also the importance of pairing soft (avocado) and crunchy foods (sesame sticks). She reviews the seasonal menu and the use and types of oils and vinegars. And, best of all, she talks about why she is vegan and you should be too!

I tried two of the recipes in this book. The first one I made was the Ravioli Salad as I found it unusual. She basically makes a salad using sauteed broccoli, escarole, and dandelions and adds cooked ravioli to it. It was easy to make, but i found the greens to be quite bitter and the dressing didn't really temper the bitterness. I used the LaPasta vegan cheese and spinach ravioli in this dish. I really enjoyed the mix of toppings including roasted garlic, pine nuts, carrots, peppers, and capers though as they added a lot of zest to the salad.

The second recipe I tried was the Summertime Sunshine Salad. This was a simple salad with just lettuce and alfalfa sprouts topped with roasted nectarines, fresh mint, and sunflower seeds.  The mint and nectarines gave this salad more flavor than I would have expected and I really enjoyed it.

All in all, I'd say it's a simple book with simple recipes. I was pretty surprised to see that it really seemed like a compilation of many of her favorite recipes from other books as recipes for vegan cheeses and dressings referred to other cookbooks. The type of dull paper the book is printed on took away from the wonderful presentation of her dishes as a bit more glossiness and color would have done wonders for the book. I'm also surprised that this very small book is $23 as it isn't a very high quality book. But, if you are looking for a bunch of fairly easy-to-make recipes that will impress guests, this is a good book to try. You can buy it on Amazon here.

Full Disclosure: Although the cookbook was provided to me for free to review, that in no way influenced my veracious opinion.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Bar Charley, DC

Based upon a simple review that my friend found on Urbanspoon, we headed out to check out Bar Charley after a night on the town. Located in the loud, bustling neighborhood of Adams Morgan, Bar Charley is trying to attract the young folks who want good drinks, but don't want to pay the high prices.

We arrived around 9 p.m. on a Saturday night. Inside, the atmosphere was one of mystery with the dark lighting and exposed brick walls. However, dark, though, you didn't get an intimate feel -- instead it felt quite cold. And I don't mean temperature cold, I mean just out in the open cold. We were seated at a long, picnic-style table, which is not exactly how we wanted to sit and enjoy our drinks. I mean, I know the communal seating thing is in, but not at a loungy-style bar.

I ordered the Chancellor Cocktail for $10 and my friend ordered the Dad's Hat for $9.  I don't have much to say about this other than the drinks were so bad that we couldn't finish them. They were not balanced the way they should have been and were completely undrinkable.

So between the cold, communal table and poorly crafted drinks, we left this place vowing never to return. They've only been open since September 2013 so maybe they'll improve with time.

Bar Charley
1825 18th Street
Washington, DC 20009
(202) 627-2183

Bar Charley on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Prasai's Thai, Twin Falls, ID

After not having had a good experience at A Taste of Thai of Twin Falls, I headed to the other popular Thai restaurant downtown -- Prasai's Thai.  This restaurant has been open since 1998 so I figured it either had to be really good or it was just doing well because it was one of just a few Thai restaurants in the area. Either way, it was worth a visit.

The restaurant was a stand-alone restaurant a bit outside of the downtown area. When you first walk in you have a view of the kitchen where one of the men signaled for us to find a seat. There were a few big parties dining on this Monday night. We took a seat towards the back of the restaurant. It was a simple, casual restaurant with a lot of Thai artwork, glass-topped tables and vinyl-backed chairs.

Me and my friend ordered Singha Thai beers. I liked the beer, but I'm not much of a beer connoisseur.

The server informed me that many of the vegetable-based dishes were made with fish sauce and advised me to order the basic mixed vegetables with tofu, minus the fish sauce. So, I did. It came with broccoli, snow peas, onions, carrots, mushrooms, and soft tofu. The sauce was incredibly plain -- like flavored water so I doused it with soy sauce to give it some flavor. Needless to say, it wasn't great, but at least it was edible. And I was happy to have some vegetables in a town that isn't very vegan-friendly.

I felt like this should have been an $8 entree, not an $11 entree so I felt it was overpriced.  The service was fine, but nothing to note. And the food was mediocre at best. That said, I'd come back just because there really aren't many options in Twin Falls. My recommendation to the restaurant would be to perfect a few sauces without fish sauce for the vegetarians to make the meals tastier.

Prasai's Thai
428 2nd Avenue East
Twin Falls, ID 83301
(208) 733-2222

Prasai's Thai Cuisine on Urbanspoon

Monday, August 18, 2014

Oven Pommes Frites

So simple, yet so satisfying. That describes these French fries so well. Oven-baked and flavored with sea salt and fresh thyme, these pommes frites (as the French call them) are a great complement to a sandwich or stew. Terry Hope Romero recommends serving these with her Beer-Bathed Seitan Stew in the Vegan Eats World cookbook.

Oven Pommes Frites
Serves 4

  • 2 pounds baking potatoes
  • 3 Tbsp peanut or vegetable oil
  • 1 Tbsp apple cider vinegar
  • 1 tsp dried thyme
  • 3/4 tsp sea salt, or to taste
Preheat the oven to 450-degree Fahrenheit and line a large baking sheet with parchment paper. Peel the potatoes or scrub very thoroughly if you'd rather leave the skin on and slice into thin french-fry shapes no thicker than 1/2 inch. Place in a large mixing bowl, pour on the peanut oil, and toss thoroughly to coat the potatoes with oil. Sprinkle on the vinegar, thyme, and salt and toss to coat again. Spread the frites on the parchment paper-covered baking sheet in a single layer. Bake for 20 minutes.

Remove from oven, turn each frite over, and bake another 10 to 15 minutes until the edges are browned and crisp. 

Friday, August 15, 2014

A Taste of Thai, Twin Falls, ID

I'm guessing most of you have never heard of Twin Falls, Idaho. A remote town located two hours south of Boise and three hours north of Salt Lake City, it is more of town to pass through than a destination. I stayed here for five days though and was able to explore all the vegan options available and I'll tell you there aren't many. One of my first stops was A Taste of Thai, a small Thai restaurant in the heart of Twin Falls.

It is located in a strip mall and from the reviews, sounded quite promising. When we arrived, it was a Saturday night around 7 p.m. and there were only like three tables occupied. We waited awkwardly in this area between two booths at the front of the restaurant waiting to be seated. After like five minutes someone signaled for us to sit anywhere. It would have been nice to have been formally greeted.

We sat down and after about another five minutes, we were handed a menu.  They had just lost their liquor license so we just had waters. That was disappointing. The menu didn't look very exciting and didn't have the typical Thai dishes that I usually order. I was intrigued by the dish that was marked as their best seller though so I decided to order that. The server told me that they don't use fish sauce at all so many of their vegetarian dishes are vegan as well.

We waited a long time for our dishes, but they eventually came out. The Cashew Nut dish that I ordered was very disappointing. With way too many cashews, too much tofu, and not enough veggies, it was not well-balanced. And the sauce was almost inedible. It was a spicy chili pepper-based sauce and it did not taste good at all.

For a place serving $14 entrees, it was completely overpriced. The wait was entirely too long for a place that was nearly empty, the service was poor, the food didn't taste good, and there were no alcoholic beverages. For all of these reasons, I would not recommend this restaurant. There is a better Thai place downtown that I will review soon.

A Taste of Thai
837 Poleline Road
Twin Falls, ID 83301
(208) 735-8333

A Taste of Thai on Urbanspoon