Friday, October 16, 2009

Restaurant Round-Up: Birthday Week

I still need to write some wonderful things about New York, don't I? I will probably visit New York yet again before I get around to finishing up that project. Anyhoo.

My birthday (and the birthdays of many of my friends) is at the end of September, so the husband and I spent a whole lotta time dining out between September 26th and October 3rd. We went to a couple of old favorites and tried some new places, too.

First up, we went to ChaChah. We'd intended to go to PM instead, but it was crowded and ChaChah offered up the opportunity for immediate seating on the patio. Win.

I love the food at ChaChah. Arnold Myint, the chef is very creative and seems to combine some of my favorite things with new flavors to create wonderful dishes. The delicious tagine was gone from the menu, but replaced by a "menestra" of seasonal vegetables flavored with a hint of Meyer lemon preserve. Though, because the chef strives to keep the menu "fresh," the menestra is now gone, too--replaced by another vegetarian dish that I'm sure I'd love. Though I could survive on pinchos and salad and dips (which I don't see on the menu right now--Arnold, you rascal). And dessert...that night, we had a coconut milk-based flan flavored with cardamom. Spectacular. In addition to the food, ChaChah (and PM) have fantastic cocktails. I can't wait to go back postpartum when I can actually enjoy one with liquor.

Incidentally, the tagine wasn't the only thing I noticed missing from the menu since our only previous visit back in March for Husband's birthday...gone also were the high prices on the large plates. Replaced by very, very reasonable prices. How refreshing.

Next up was brunch at Allium. We'd never been before and hadn't thought much about it (we don't make it to East Nashville often) but that's where a friend was having a birthday brunch. There are several vegetarian options, but I'm not a fan of eggs so I had Raspberry brioche French toast. What I really wanted were popovers (!), but the popover o' the day had bacon in it.

The food was very good (Husband thoroughly enjoyed his Shrimp Benedict or something like that), the place is really remarkable for two other things: the view and the service. The view (see photo) speaks for itself. When it's patio time again, be sure to visit. The When one friend couldn't decide between two side dishes, the server offered to bring a half serving of each. I've never heard a server offer that. I was impressed (and so was my friend). And when I asked about the popovers, I gave a back up choice of the French toast, but neglected to mention that I'd want hash browns on the side instead of bacon. No worries, he picked up on that on his own and even said that if he'd gotten that wrong, he'd bring out another side. I think I fell in love right then.

Our next stop, mid-week, was for my actual birthday. I chose Zola because it'd been quite some time since I'd eaten there and because I'd heard of a special vegetarian menu. The chef, Deb Paquette, has always had a vegetarian option and been able to accommodate special requests (I have never forgotten that phyllo burrito stuffed with roasted vegetables and Israeli couscous), so I was very curious about the menu.

The verdict? Eh. No phyllo burrito, sadly. I did have a very tasty empanadilla, but the other options were a bit disappointing to me, but that's because (at the time), they were heavy on eggplant. I don't care for eggplant. I won't bother to tell you why, but I don't. No fault of the chef's, of course. Ya can't please everyone and she's not a psychic. What vegetarian doesn't like eggplant? Anyhoo. I'd actually filled up on a really delicious brie bruschetta with these wonderful little candied hazelnuts.

But the thing that Husband and I discussed the most was the service (seeing a theme?). The service there is really great...the servers know the menu inside and out and make great recommendations. But something on this night just wasn't right. We just didn't see this guy very much. We waited for a long time to order, to get drinks, to get bread, to get our food. We were there for over two hours and we didn't even have dessert. Halfway through, we figured out the reason, though--the table next to us. Every time the server came by, he had to spend at least ten minutes with these people. I think he just eventually started avoiding them--and us, since we were so close. We were just unlucky. It was annoying, but I can't blame him too much. Whoever wrote this must've been in the dining room that night. On the upside, we weren't tempted with dessert and that's a good thing because there was an Italian wedding cake from The Fresh Market waiting for me at home. My favorite.

We finished up the week with a Saturday night dinner at City House. Many of my friends and online foodie friends have raved about City House, so a big group of us met up for dinner.

What I hadn't thought about before was that all the fans of City House are omnivores. The real draws at this restaurant are cured meats and the specials. We, however dined from the menu and I chose from the few vegetarian options.

I started out sharing a "margherita" pizza with the husband. I use quotes because there was no sign of the (what I feel is) the required fresh basil. The pizza did have a good flavor and though I love thin crust, this crust didn't hold up well to the watery sauce. It tasted great, but was a thin, soggy mess. A little thicker crust and a lot less runny sauce (plus a few leaves of basil) and this pizza would be perfect.

Next, I had "Conchiglie, Shittake, Potatoes, Garlic, Oregano, Grana Padano." An adult's version of shells and cheese, right? It's hard to go wrong with a pasta dish, but this one just didn't come together right. I've heard that City House gets their pasta fresh from a local pasta maker, but the shells didn't seem fresh. And I thought it was maybe the heavy hand with the cheese, but others have said that the pasta dishes there were too salty. It was too something. This could have easily been a good, simple and light dish that's satisfying, but it was just not great. Just okay (but too salty). Roasted mushrooms over a really good egg fettucine with olive oil and a bit of cheese would be great. I think this thing got overthought. Try saying that three times fast.

While the food was okay, the service was not. There was a steady decline in the quality of service we received over the week and this guy really punctuated that. First, he took drink orders for just half the table and then disappeared (we had a party of seven). Then, he seemed annoyed at having to explain many of the words on the menu (if a sugo is a sauce, just say so, mmkay?). But the worst was that he didn't really seem to understand the food very well and wasn't able to explain the menu at all. When my friend asked if the butter beans could be substituted on the catfish plate, he started with a very blunt "no." It was startling, actually. And he never did explain that the reason was that it was not a side dish, but part of a sauce that was made for the fish. There was not a big ol' pile of butter beans on her plate, which is what one tends to imagine when ordering catfish.

There were highlights, though. The drink menu there is great--the menfolk really enjoyed their artisan beers and manly cocktails (my husband's new favorite drink is a Dark and Stormy). But my favorite part of the night was dessert. I'm told Rebekah Turshen does the desserts and I'd met her at a Slow Food Nashville event and had some of her linzer cookies--yum). The husband had a chocolate terrina (so chocolatey, so smooooooth) and I had one scoop each of salted caramel gelato (not quiiiiiite salted caramelly enough, but very good) and chocolate orange gelato (superb). An apple dessert was topped with a mascarpone gelato that was also amazingly delicious.

So I don't know that we'll ever go back to City House, but I will say that it's got a fun atmosphere and a great bar area. Just limit your group size and come ready to dine on some swine.

Shew. I'm still kind of de-toxing from all that restaurant food. Though we only have about four more months of freedom until we're tethered with a newborn, so I expect we'll be dining out a lot this winter!

Friday, October 2, 2009

Ginger Peach Ice Cream

Really, I should be writing about all the great food I ate in New York. Not just because I want to re-live it or brag but mostly because I don't want to forget. And as we all know, once something's on the internet, it's there forever.

But before summer ends (oops!), I wanted to share this recipe. Because it's mine, all mine! As in, I tried to search for a good ginger peach ice cream and came up with nothing. So here ya go.

Ginger Peach Ice Cream
Makes 1 quart or about 8 servings

1 1/2 cups whole milk
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
2 large or 3 medium eggs
3/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 teaspoons grated ginger root
4 or 5 fresh or frozen peaches (skinless), pureed
Peach preserves (optional)

Beat milk and eggs together in a large saucepan. Add sugar, ginger and
vanilla extract, and cook over medium-low heat. Stir constantly with a wooden spoon until slightly thickened and registering 170F on a thermometer. If you don't have a thermometer, just cook it long enough so that it thickens like a custard but does not boil.

Remove from heat and allow to cool. Stir in cream and pureed peaches. Mix with a stick blender (this is what I do--I don't pour it through a sieve and have never had an issue with my custards). Cover and refrigerate at least 3 hours and then pour the mix into your ice cream maker according to the directions. Afterward, the ice cream will still be soft, so stir in some peach preserves for a ribbon of peach and store in the freezer.

I really like ginger, so I added more. Eh, I don't really recommend this. The colder the ice cream got, the more gingery it tasted. And some other add-ins might have been nice. Maybe some cookies or something to resemble a pie crust? Mmm...

So why ginger peach? Well, back during peach season, my eyes were bigger than my body's ability to eat peaches in a timely manner. Peaches are wily little fruits. One day, they're too firm, the next day--poof!--mushy and moldy. The fact that I keep my house at 80 degrees (even hotter on the kitchen side of the house) doesn't help. Anyhoo. Once any peach started looking questionable, I just tossed it in the freezer. Even after two months, they were fine even without being wrapped up. I let them thaw, skinned them and they were ready to go. Also? I love peaches, but I'm not a huge fan of peach flavor. But one day, I just thought, hey, ginger would be a great compliment to peaches in ice cream! And I was right. I really like this recipe a lot.