Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Times Gone By

New Year's Eve is an interesting time for us restaurant folk; it's a mad dash to successfully complete one of the busiest nights of the year and hopefully manage to make it out for cocktails with those who mean the most to us before the stroke of midnight. This isn't always the case, but some of my fondest restaurant memories are set to the soundtrack of "Auld Land Syne".

Most restaurants opt for the "prix fixe" menu, meaning a limited menu of three to six items per category to choose from for one set price, for faster service and make it easier on the kitchen. While I do agree that it is easier, I have learned through my experience that customers who go to a restaurant do so because they enjoy the food that is already offered, so, as always, we will be serving our entire menu in addition to a special set of dishes that I have devised to accentuate the folklore of food eaten around the world by using ingredients and shapes that are considered lucky or that can bring wealth and prosperity in the next year. Check out my menu below for many examples.

Since I also had three nights of dinner service aside from NYE, I still needed a special to offer to our patrons while still bringing them good luck, so I stuck with the same entree for the entire week.

It's no secret that pork is my favorite choice for meat due to its diversity, but it is also commonly considered to bring good luck in the coming year. Most of the typical ingredients eaten for luck are done so out of symbolism, not because it is actually lucky (too bad for my four-leafed clover salad with rabbit's feet...). Round objects represent the year coming full circle; lentils resemble coins, and colorings like saffron and turmeric represent gold. Pork is twofold: pigs root forward, considered as progress, and their meat is fatty, translating to a fat wallet. After the shitty recession that we all have been enduring, I didn't take any chances with this one!

First, I developed a dry rub similar to what you would use on barbecue except that I doubled the brown sugar to compensate for the bitterness of the instant espresso powder; I used a quality version instead of ground coffee because it would dissolve completely and penetrate into the meat. Then, after a full day of marinating, I slowly roasted the pork shoulders at 275 degrees for about 4 hours until they were meltingly tender before slicing them into medallions.

In the south, beans are eaten because they swell when cooked, like you hope that your bank account will, and greens are common because they resemble money, so I slowly stewed red beans in Hungarian Paprika and some of my handmade ham. When ready to serve I sauteed them with onions, garlic, butter and some local purple kale, a variant of cabbage. The plate is finished with a rich sauce simmered with caraway seeds (a traditional ingredient in Dutch cakes and cookies), and topped off with a pinch of crispy fried pork belly for good measure!!!

Where I'm from, a traditional holiday gift usually comes from a loved one's kitchen. One of the most beloved homemade items (at least as far as my wife is concerned) is the Bourbon Ball, which is often enjoyed well into the new year, if they last that long. They are simply bite-sized balls formed from a mixture of finely ground Nilla wafers mixed with cocoa powder, chopped pecans, corn syrup, confectioner's sugar and, of course, bourbon.

So instead of me giving out tin boxes of these treats, I'm offering this cocktail interpretation instead: bourbon shaken with ice, Creme de Cacao for the chocolate and Frangelico in place of the nuts and strained into a martini glass rimmed with a fine dusting of Dutch cocoa powder!

Happy New Year!!!

With Love,


Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Using My Noggin

Due to the Christmas holiday we will be closed on Thursday and Friday, leaving me with three nights of dinner service. This short week gives me an interesting opportunity to work outside the box with this week's special and come up with something that embodies our ideology that plates don't have to be either small or large, but rather a variety of sizes to mix and match to suit individual tastes. As a chef, this style of cooking is incredibly freeing; at a lot of restaurants the appetizers are more interesting than the entrees because with a smaller plate, people are more likely to take a chance on something a little different, where with entrees they want something more cohesive and complete.

Since most of our customers expect the special to be of an "entree" size I tend to oblige them, even if a lot of the time I don't conform to the standard meat-vegetable-starch format that the traditional ways of cooking stipulate. So with a short week like this, I can take a chance with an idea that is smaller but more interesting without pissing too many people off ;).

Another interesting aspect to a medium-sized serving portion is that I can also implement more vegetarian options, because even though "Meaters" won't normally order a vegetarian entree, everyone will enjoy a dish like this!!:

People often associate winter with rich, heavy food, but in fact this is the season where bright and vibrant flavors such as citrus fruits and pomegranates are starting to peak, so I used that misconception to pair with the more notorious cold weather ingredient, the beet, to create a refreshing plate that still brims with seasonality.

I didn't use the standard red beet, of course; instead I whole roasted both golden and chiogga (a.k.a. candy striped beets) to concentrate their flavors and peeled them easily while they were still hot. While the beets cooled I finely zested the rinds of blood oranges and used that to make a vinaigrette with champagne vinegar, shallots, garlic, a touch of fresh thyme and a wonderful blood orange-infused extra virgin olive oil that I found from California. I then carefully cut the segments from between the membranes that I saved in the remaining juice until I was ready to finish the plate.

Once ordered I alternated thin slices of each beet and drizzled them with the vinaigrette and topped them off with crumbled Greek feta cheese, the blood orange segments and a fine shaving of fresh mint to end up with a dish that is as beautiful as is delicious!

Since I didn't feature a holiday-style dish for the food-side of my specials, I couldn't help but introduce one of my favorite holiday drinks to make up for it: Boiled Custard.

Boiled custard is a Southern beverage that is similar to egg nog, but growing up, I always felt that it was lighter, and well, less eggy than egg nog. Traditionally speaking, the only difference was that boiled custard was cooked and egg nog was not, but now they are both cooked, so the difference nowadays is that egg nog is richer and contains cinnamon and nutmeg, whereas boiled custard is lighter and contains vanilla.

One thing that has never changed for either? They both do very well with the addition of liquor!

For mine I tempered egg yolks with sugar, vanilla and hot milk and then cooked the mixture slowly until it thickened slightly. Once cooled I whipped the leftover egg whites with granulated sugar and cream of tartar (used to "cook" them so they're safe to eat), then folded them into the cold custard.

We are offering our boiled custard with or without brandy, but either way, it's like sipping sweet clouds and happiness!!!!

Happy Holidays!

With Love,


Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Dinner With Me

Believe it or not I still enjoy cooking on my time off. I usually cook dinner every Monday night for me and my wife, Anna, whose palate is as adventurous as mine. Not only does it allow me to experiment with different flavor combinations, it also allows me to do something that I absolutely cannot do at the restaurant: have a dish that fails. Of course, my idea of fail is far from inedible; it just doesn't fulfill what I believe would wow our customers enough for them to return again and again.

With that said you may think that every week we eat a rich, extravagant feast, but actually the meals I prepare are relatively healthy and somewhat simple, at least as far as I'm concerned ;). For instance, a few weeks ago I prepared what I felt was a rudimentary soup consisting of lentils simmered in a broth with some leftover pork cooked on my wood burning grill and a little curry powder. The result was outstanding! There was a touch of magic that came out of that combination of smoke and subtle Middle Eastern flavors that I had yet to realise. I knew after one bite (and the look in my wife's eyes) that I had to incorporate these flavors into one of my specials.

To offset my obsession with pork I decided to use chicken instead for this dish. First, I deboned chicken thighs (my favorite part) and used the bones to make both the foundation for a stew as well as the cooking stock for the lentils. While the stock simmered I quick-smoked about a quarter of the thigh meat and added it to slowly cooked onions, garlic, carrots and a touch of sweet curry powder that I used to cook French green lentils, the best in my opinion because they hold their shape without becoming mushy.

Once my lentil inspiration was set I started to build a stew around it by separately roasting rutabaga (a.k.a. yellow turnip), carrots, fennel and pearl onions and then adding them to the chicken stock along with tomatoes, smoked paprika, thyme and garlic. To finish the dish I sauteed the remaining thigh meat until golden brown and added the infused broth, served it with sauteed lentils and finished it with the delicate fennel frawns.

Don't think of it as a entree that you've had in a restaurant, but more like a dinner with me at our house.

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I think that a lot of people are surprised that citrus fruits are actually in season this time of year, as opposed to the summer due to their bright and refreshing flavors. For me, that is the best part about them: a shining star in a culinary season of heavy, rich and creamy.

Once I saw that mandarin oranges were available, I knew that the would make a great cocktail because they are sweeter and have a thinner skin than their orange cousins, which allows their flavor to be released more easily under a bartender's muddler. With the addition of Absolut Mandarin vodka and a splash of Grand Marnier this cocktail bursts with more sunshine than we will see here in months!!

I'm not complaining, though; a little rain never hurt no one.

With Love,


Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Shank You Very Much

Often, when people think of the holidays, for some reason chestnuts come to mind. Other than hearing of them in Christmas carols, they weren't apart of any holiday festivities that I can remember when I was growing up, and it wasn't until moving to NYC that I recall ever smelling roasted chestnuts (and even then it wasn't an open fire under a mantel but a hotdog truck, and it was more of a charring than a roast). Being raised there, my wife has fond childhood memories of them, but the allure had eluded me.

That's why when I came across a bin of fresh chestnuts, I had to use them.

If you ever have the chance to roast and peel your own chestnuts, don't, and find someone else to do them for you, like the nut stand outside of Uwajimaya or at the restaurant of some over-achieving chef. They must be scored with a knife so that they don't explode (!!!) in your oven and to allow you to pull off the outer shell and inner skin. On a nut-by-nut basis they are relatively easy to peel if they are not over/undercooked, but after about ten nuts and twenty minutes your fingers start to get sore, leading me to believe that it is impossible to get "full" on chestnuts (or pistachios, for that matter).

Once inside you get a large, delicately flavored nut that is lightly sweet. Since the texture is a bit crumbly I initially thought of pureeing them as a filling for ravioli, but then decided to introduce some German heritage and use them as the base for spaetzle instead, which I sauteed in brown butter to accentuate its nuttiness and served as the main foundation for the meat component of the dish: a lamb shank.

'Tis the season to feature succulently braised dishes that define the idea of comfort food with hearty warmth and a rich sauce that can only truly be obtained by cooking meat that is still on the bone. It is the best of both worlds because the bone provides the flavor while the meat soaks it back up! For the lamb shanks, I seared them in oil at a very high heat to form a beautiful brown crust that helps develop the flavor, then I added caramelized onions and carrots, vegetable stock and beef stock to mellow the gamy flavor that lamb tends to have, tomatoes, herbs and red wine. I simmered the whole lot slowly and tended to it like a loving father until the meat was perfectly tender. Once strained the cooking liquid was reduced and thickened with a deep red roux reminiscent of one used in a great gumbo.

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This week's cocktail involves an ingredient that is usually a substitution for alcohol, not an accompaniment: Martinelli's Sparkling Cider.

Although I do remember drinking Martinelli's in place of champagne to toast the new year as a child, my most recent memory is when it was served after successful performances by my mother-in-law's music group, Continuum. The sweet effervescence and tart apple flavor is a true balance by itself, but I couldn't help giving it a twirl.

I like the combination of apple and cranberry so I opted for a Cape Cod style cocktail with cranberry juice, Skyy vodka and finished it with the Martinelli's cider to tickle the palate. It goes down so smooth it's like taking a breath of fresh air!

With Love,


Wednesday, December 2, 2009


I love the holidays; even as the weather turns down there is an elevated spirit in the air drawn from thoughts of giving to family, friends, and strangers alike - and instead of fretting on the things that we don't have, we start to realize and embrace the things that we do.

Last Thursday we had our own celebration at Table 219 where we owners invited friends and fellow transplants, who also live too far from our original families to visit, to celebrate Thanksgiving with us in our own way. I took care of the turkey, stuffing, gravy and desserts (Derby Pie and Bourbon Balls, my personal touch taken from my own childhood Thanksgiving) and everyone else chips in with their favorite side dishes.

How, as a chef, did I prepare my turkey? Instead of the traditional roast (or fry) I deboned the meat, ground the legs and thighs, diced the breasts, mixed them with pureed shallots, garlic, coriander and seasonings, rolled it tightly, wrapped it in the leftover turkey skin and baked the whole thing until golden brown and crispy (known by chefs as a ballotine). The process sounds tedious, but the end product is moist and delicious because the roast is an even size and the white meat is surrounded by the moist, dark meat.

Another personal touch that I used was taught to me by an old-timer cook back in my days at the '21' Club in NYC: Italian sausage stuffing with sauteed onions, fresh herbs and banana peppers. The slightly spicy peppers add a whole other dimension to the stuffing, which I push even more by using half sweet sausage and half spicy sausage. Louie was a mentor to many who freely shared many of his little touches, but the one that I'll never tell you is his finishing ingredient for sweet potato soup.....

Speaking of secret finishing touches, there's one of my own that helped me develop this week's special - the simple potato. An amazing virtue of a starchy potato such as our own Washington State russet is that cooking a little bit in a soup before pureeing will result in an amazingly velvety texture without actually adding cream; a refreshing supplemental for those of us who are trying to watch our cholesterol.

So for a sort of sauce I pureed sauteed onions that were simmered with some peeled potato and chicken stock along with lightly roasted garlic cloves and finished it with a touch of heavy cream (hey, our restaurant isn't called Healthy 219...).

For the main component I wrapped pieces of skinless Pacific red snapper with finely shaved strips of Bavarian Meats bacon (if I said it before I might as well say it again - THE BEST BACON!!) that were pan seared on all sides until crispy.

A classic and seasonal compliment to anything bacon is cabbage, so I pan-stewed shaved savoy cabbage with julienned local leeks in butter and white wine, and, as a sublte final touch I drizzled just a few drops of White truffle oil over the potato and garlic puree.

Now that the chilly months are here I thought that I would try my hand at some warm cocktails, though no monthly themes this time!

Co-owner Stacey had a regular a couple of weeks ago ask for one that I had never heard of before, a Blueberry Tea.

Even though it doesn't actually contain any "blueberry" flavoring, its components lend to a similar taste. The original recipe calls for Amaretto, Grand Marnier and Orange Pekoe, but Stacey uses my personal favorite kind of tea, Earl Grey, instead, due to its bergamot orange flavoring that only enhances the Grand Marnier. Add a twist of orange rind and it must be complete!

Warm up with a fire by your side, or with this drink in your hand, but you know which one will make you feel better!

With Love,