Thursday, November 20, 2008

Dinner by the Fountain

Visited some good friends in Philly for the weekend. Knowing how much I love to eat, they planned an entire weekend of gluttony. Our first meal was at La Fontana Della Citta, a quaint BYOB Italian restaurant near the heart of the city.

Calamari Fritti
For starters, we whetted our appetites with an order of calamari fritti. These were some of the best I've had. The pieces of squid were plump and tender. The breading was crisp and light. The marinara was warm and chunky. My only complaint was there there were no pieces of tentacle. Though I like squid tubes, I LOVE me some squid tentacles. Next time I'll remember to request for some.

Rack of Lamb
This is their rack of lamb. I originally ordered the osso buco but they were out at the time. The brown sauce looked delicious but neither added nor detracted from the dish. Because it was bland, I just took it to be a means to keep the meat moist. Despite being a bit tough, the lamb was flavorful and thoroughly enjoyed by my taste buds. As I always do when eating a rack of lamb, I make a first pass using fork and knife but then finish off the dish with my fingers clinching the rib bones and my teeth tearing off every last bit of meaty goodness.

Seafood Risotto
My wife go their seafood risotto, of which I ate half. The seafood was superb but the rice wasn't. Undercooked, the grains did not absorb the creaminess of butter sauce. This was a minor setback since we simply ate around the rice. The seafood itself was delicious. Fresh and properly cooked, the mussels, squid, scallops and shrimp were all tender and plump with flavor.

When considering the food only, we had a pleasant experience at this eatery. But coupled with the great company at dinner, we loved the restaurant and would revisit when possible.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Home-Cooked Goodness

It's always busy right before the holidays. But for some reason, this is also the time I get really lazy, so I've been behind.

Today I'm sharing some home-cooked goodness.

Spring Roll Spread
This first spread was graciously served when I visited a good friend in Rowlett. I apologize for the foto's focal plane being to shallow. It's a build-your-own-spring-roll meal, similar to this one. The sliced beef was marinated in lemongrass, salt and secret spices. The shrimp wasn't marinated. For those unfamiliar with this set up, here's how things work:

1. Cook the meat in a lot of butter in the hot pot
2. Once cooked, combine meat with rice vermicelli, lettuce and cilantro and wrap in rice paper wrapper
3. Depending on your liking, dip it in the accompanying fish sauce (some folks may find the fish sauce too pungent, but, like Goldilocks in Baby Bear's bed, I found it was just right)
4. Guzzle some beer
5. Laugh with good friends
6. Repeat steps 1 through 5

As for how it tasted, IMHO, the combination of minced lemongrass and salt is as delicious as A and W. In the wild, lemongrass looks like a huge weed. In the grocery store, it looks like hard, dried green onions. But at the dinner table, it looks like there won't be any leftovers. It tastes like the illegitimate offspring of a lemon and lawn clippings. Sounds weird, I know. I really don't do it justice but that's what it tastes like. And once you had it, you won't forget it.

The rice vermicelli emulsified the oily, fatty meats with the crisp, fresh veggies so that you can enjoy all the flavors without getting sick of too much meat of veggies. The noodles also served as a means to capture plenty of fish sauce. With beef and shrimp in the same bite, it's the Asian version of surf and turf.

Grilled Nem
Our next home-cooked meal came from my mother-in-law. This woman loves to cook. See how the foto has enough food for 6 people? Yeah, all that was served for only 3. In one of my earlier posts, I covered Laotian nem. Well, here's one of the Vietnamese versions. Though I haven't asked her for her secrets yet, I have a hunch that it is a mixture of pork, beef and lemongrass. I know she then shapes it, steams it, and then grills the cooked meat mixture. Once cooked, it's split lengthwise and covered in cooked green onions. The green onions are cooked in plenty of hot oil just until fragrant. The Vietnamese term for the cooked green onion literally translate to "fat onions." The plate of greens consists of lettuce, a type of mint, and more green onions. In a bowl, combine the noodles, meat, and veggies. Add chili paste and fish sauce as desired and garnish with peanuts.

As I mentioned above, lemongrass and salt is a great combination, especially for beef and pork. And since the nem has both beef and pork, it's a no-brainer. The oil infused with green onion coats the meat and adds aroma and grease to the meat. Throw in the salty fish sauce and spicy chili paste and you have a symphony of flavors in your mouth. I ended up eating much more than I needed, as usual.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The Mallard from Peking

Had dinner with my folks at Sing Kee. Like before, I ordered the ridiculously delicious sizzling bean curd. This time around, I also tried their Peking duck for the first time, but it won't be my last.

Peking Duck
The skin was crispy and separated from the meat, which is due to air injected under the skin before cooking. The meat was moist, tender, and full of duckiness. It helped that the duck was mostly deboned and cautiously carved for easy access. I began by eating the duck without any of the sides but that soon became unctuous since I needed something to balance out the lardy mallard.

Peking Duck Spread
Here's the entire spread that comes with an order of Peking duck. From the back to the front are steamed buns, duck, hoisin sauce, cilantro and green onions. The buns, sometimes referred to as pancakes, function similar to a tortilla or hot-dog bun in that it folds over the other foods. They were served freshly steamed so that they're moist and soft. So how does assembly work? Well, it works kind of like taco night at home. You grab a bun, spread on some hoisin sauce, add as much meat or greens as you like and chow down.

I had a blast eating the duck but am told that there are places in Houston that make it better. Terrific! This further cements my belief that life is a series of little food quests.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Chow Down on Chau

For dinner, the wife was craving some traditional Vietnamese noodles call bún riêu. To get this, we ventured out to west Houston to Kim Chau Restaurant. This restaurant was highly recommended by optometrist and his wife, who are Vietnamese and run a great optometry practice, no correspondence between the two facts. Though we were skeptical since this place is not anywhere near Chinatown, we learned three things about it: 1) they make their bún riêu with snails, 2) they also make a great bún bò Huế, and 3) they're in a strip mall. These three facts sold us on making the drive and trying a new place.

When we found the place, we drove up to one of the most rundown looking strip malls we have seen with a parking lot to match. We parked and saw no one inside except a guy watching college football. So we had a little conversation about whether or not to go inside. In the end, as an act of faith to our optometrist, we braved the empty mess hall.

It was two weeks after Hurricane Ike but when the server came to take our orders, he informed us that they had just gotten power the night before. Because of this, they only had 2 things on the menu that night and they just happened to be the two noodle soups we came to eat. Huzzah!

Spicy Beef Noodles
I didn't get a photo of my wife's bún riêu, but this was my bún bò Huế, which literally translates to "noodle beef Hue." FYI, Huế is a city in Viet Nam known for its Thai Hoa Palace, temples, monuments and spicy food. Like what I expected, it was spicy but came with a side of extra spiciness in case I needed more...and I did. The savory soup was infused with lemongrass, beef bones, chili peppers, and garnished with onions and cilantro. There was a side dish of shredded veggies to add, you know, to make it healthy. As a kid I never added the veggies because it didn't taste like anything in such a flavorful soup. However, now, it's a nice addition of texture to contrast the rich, fatty meats. What I didn't expect but was a welcomed surprised was that Kim Chau served the noodles with very traditional ingredients. So in addition to the beef shank and bones, there was also congealed pig blood, slices of Vietnamese pork sausage, pig knuckles, and enough MSG to make a horse twitch. Though I'm well aware of the controversy surrounding health matters related to MSG, the crystalline substance sure makes for good cooking. I was raised on MSG so I have no issues consuming foods laden with it (besides getting extremely thirsty after the meal), but I know several folks who swell up like a puffer fish because of it.

So in conclusion, I would definitely eat at Kim Chau again and MSG = yummy, if your body can handle it.

Ooo Ooo Fu Fu

Hello, my friends, we meet again. Sorry for the delay in updates. Thanks to everyone who's been hanging in there.

The wife and I visited one of Houston's Bellaire Chinatown's fine dining establishments. I specify Bellaire Chinatown because according to the highway signs, the traffic officials still think Houston's Chinatown is near downtown. Despite being out of touch, I'm sure they're good people and they mean well. Any how, the wife had been here with a coworker, liked it and here we are interacting via a food blog.

I entered this dinner with high hopes since Fu Fu Cafe is situated in a strip mall and for those of you who don't already know, I'm a big fan of strip mall eateries. Though they're not always good, more likely than not they are enjoyable and occasionally exceptional. My theory is because these establishments spend their resources on the food and not the appearance or rent of stand-alone structures. Fu Fu is somewhere in between good and exceptional. Through the glass door you step directly into the dinning area which accommodates 40 diners, maybe 50 if the guests can tolerate little table area. Even with limited eating real estate, you would have to pass through a crowd of waiting famished as you put your name on the waiting "list," i.e., the server's/hostess' memory.

For our meal, we got soup dumplings and beef tendons with scallions. The dumplings I liked though they weren't as good as the ones I've had in NYC. The wrapping was overly thick and doughy for my tastes. The broth and pork filling inside was warm and flavorful. For those you haven't had soup dumplings, imagine a French-dip sandwich that, instead of dipping the sandwich, the au jus and meat were encased inside a water-proof bread crust. Like it sounds, not only would it be incredibly delicious, you would also have to eat it with extreme caution. Wow...I might have just come up with a great new food item. I'll have to experiment and get back to you. Oh, and for those of you who haven't had soup dumplings or a French dip, pat yourselves on the back for being cruel and negligent to your taste buds. Unfortunately, the yummy dumplings made for a poor foto.

Scallions & Beef Tendons
For our main dish, we ordered the "beef tendons with scallions." What's funny is that I quoted the actual English menu entry but the Chinese version had about 20 characters. Just goes to show this place caters to Asians and Chinese illiteracy just means your dinner is like a box of chocolates. The beef tendons seem to have been slow simmered in broth and then flash stir-fried with fresh green onions when ordered. There's really no consistency with tendons since they can come from many joint of the cow. So some pieces were firm and chewy while other pieces were soft and edible sans teeth but all pieces of tendon had the subtle tendon flavor infused with the salty brown broth. The flash frying merely softened the onions, leaving a nice pungency to cut through the oily broth and gelatinous tendons. We ate this with white rice and smiled the whole time.

Since our first visit together, we've revisited Fu Fu, reordered these same dishes and received the same smiles.