Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Something Old, Something New

My talk with Herb last week had left me nostalgic; not only has he been a regular since the the first owner of our original incarnation, El Greco, but has been dining on Broadway longer than he would like me to say here. He explained to me how different the face of Broadway was, when it was adorned by high-end clothing shops, like Store 219 (!!!), and a variety of fine dining eateries - a far cry from the stretch that we see today.

I have only been here for two and a half years, and about eight months of that was before we made the change to Table 219, so my nostalgic time perception is probably a little skewed, but there has still been something that I have been missing...

As you may or may not know, El Greco was Mediterranean-themed, and we had two weekly specials at a time: one fish, and one risotto. Now as Table 219 I have streamlined the specials into one that can contain anything: meat, fish, poultry, etc., allowing for a more variety of dishes that have been the inspiration for these writings, but the risotto special was cast aside since it was so decisively Italian. So as a nod to the past and to the way that it helps shape our future, I decided to create a risotto dish that encompasses all of the best attributes from my favorite risotto dishes.

First, as with anything, the foundation must be secure, which for risotto means you start by toasting the dried rice (I've used the more known Arborio rice before, but have now found that another variety called Carnaroli is even better) in oil before adding white wine and slowly cooked onions and garlic with some neutral vegetable broth. Once cooked to near doneness I spread the rice mixture thiny over a large pan to cool quickly to keep from becoming mushy.

Next I seared thick cuts of Angus Beef bottom round (similar to a brisket) before slowly cooking them in vegetables and Guinness beer until fork tender. The resulting liquid was then thickened into a distinctly flavored gravy that is dark and rich, with a slight bitterness that offset the creamyness of the risotto.

To complete the risotto I finished the rice with half and half, parmesan cheese, lightly roasted cubes of butternut squash, baby artichokes, diced chunks of the braised beef and a touch of tarragon for that hidden note of flavor. As a final touch of complexity I topped the rice off with a savory scoop of roasted garlic whipped cream to soften the edges of the artichokes and Guinness gravy.

Thanks to Seattle Magazine for recognizing us for our great brunch, we have been slammed (forgive the pun) for both brunch and dinner. Though the two are generally viewed as separate, I have thought of a way to tie them together while coming up with a topping for this weekend's French toast.

This time of year doesn't give me many options for fruit, and for variety sake I have to settle for a compote made from frozen berries to keep from buying produce from Chile, otherwise all I have is apples... and pears.

I love poaching pears. There's just something about the transformation that I love and the ability to infuse a piece of fruit throughout with whatever flavor you want; something that you can't do to a peach or banana. So this week I will have Caramel Poached Pears on the French toast, as well as in the cocktails!!

I start with a caramel by cooking sugar and water until it is a dark amber and then cool it down. I then add trimmed and halved Bosc pears with some lemon juice and slowly cook them until tender, but to allow for the flavor to penetrate the fruit I let them cool in the liquid completely. The remaining liquid is a rich, golden color that has also captured the pear's flavor. After shaking with ice and some Absolut Pear and finishing it with a few slices of poached pear, this drink is a true delight!!

With Love,


Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Root of the Solution

Herb, one of our regulars, remarked tonight after finishing this special how he is consistently surprised at the caliber of food that we put out with just two guys in the kitchen. Aside from never getting enough of someone telling you how great you are, there's a great satisfaction that comes from the fact people really do see the amount of love and preparation that goes into creating a dish, as well as the vision behind it; it's as if that plate of food acts as wordless translator between chef and diner. For me, hearing a satisfied guest recite back to me my own intentions in a special is the best compliment that I can receive.

As we began to talk further, I layed out some of the intricacies that turned what could be a simple chicken dish into the plate in front of him:

The idea for the sauce, or glaze, is what inspired the dish; I began thinking about reconstituting black mission figs and pureeing them, but I hate the gritty texture of their seeds, so I began a long process of blending and straining, five times in fact, to get the texture just right and to remove all of the seeds. For balance and added flavor I finished the glaze with Chinese black vinegar and a reduction of red wine and aromatics (garlic, shallot, bay leaves, etc.). It coats beautifully without any added thickener and has a lustrous shine.

There are many different routes that I could have taken with such a beautiful glaze, but I felt that nothing shows skill like a perfectly cooked chicken breast, and I chose to go with and old favorite - the airline breast.

An airline chicken breast has the first section of the wing, or drumette, attached which not only looks nice, but also adds a little extra flavor and helps keep the meat moist. As a bonus, the wing acts as an anchor by holding the skin in place over the breast, which to me is crucial if you don't want to have an "island" of crispy skin over just the bottom half of the meat. The key is to start it skin side down in a very hot saute pan with just a little oil and roast it in the oven until it is about three-quarters done before flipping it over so that all of the fat is rendered from the skin, leaving it nice and crispy.

Herb is no stranger to Seattle's restaurant scene, so it came as no suprise when he noticed my simple approach to preparing baby root vegetables, the base of the dish, to keep the focus on their natural flavors. I lightly roasted an assortment of baby bunched carrots (purple ones too - the original carrot color), baby pink and white turnips and baby red and golden beets, all nestled over a bed of their own greens that were sauteed in onion and garlic confit and a touch of butter.

As exemplified above by my use of Chinese black vinegar I believe that a well stocked pantry is a chef's gilded bag of tricks. Sometimes all it takes is that one special ingredient to make something unique that "pops".

In the past I have cooked with pomegranate molasses, a reduction of pomegranate juice into the the consistency of maple syrup used in middle eastern cuisines, so since I tend to use my cooking techniques in my mixology, I thought that I would give it a try here.

I thought that it's sweet/tart complexity would compliment our classic cocktail, the Margarita. We do ours a bit differently than others, with the addition of orange slices to the muddled limes, triple sec and tequila.

Served tall and tasty, the way that it should be!!

With Love,


Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Big Things to Come

I want to start out this week by giving ourselves a great big pat on the back for not only making it into Seattle Magazines Best Breakfasts issue this month for our Seattle Slam brunch item, but also to have its likeness grace the cover!! Not only that, but our sister restaurant was selected for Best Northwest Spin on French Toast! Watch out Seattle, we're taking over....

This week's special is a study in simplicity, not due to a lack of imagination, but because less is more; sometimes you only need focus on a few ingredients and let them shine - anything beyond that is just overkill. There are times when I have gone out to restaurants and have had a dish riddled with so many flavors with the intention to be unique that the final product tastes ironically muddled. I have built my career as a chef on the fundamental concept of focusing on around four main flavors to a dish, and I only now stretch beyond that philosophy after over a decade of cooking professionally with great care.

One of the best ways to create a flavorful dish with minimal components is to get the best ingredients and keep it as fresh as possible; that's why so many people are making such a big deal about seasonal/local produce - you are getting a product at its best because it hasn't traveled for a week to reach you. Another important aspect is to keeping it fresh is to do as much of the work yourself, like rolling your own pasta instead of buying it. Not only is it a fresher product, but I am a firm believer in the thought that every extra bit of effort that you put into something adds up to make it even better.

I seem to be making handmade pasta for a special on an average of about once every two months, which only shows you the extent of my attention span because after making 10-15 portions, three times a week I am cursing myself for the hole that I have dug myself into!

This time I wanted to try out a new idea of making jumbo tortelloni filled with richly braised lamb, complete with sauce, so they would break open like soft boiled eggs where the center runs out when you cut into them. I made my pasta by pureeing local, organic baby spinach, eggs, flour, salt and extra virgin olive oil in a food processor. After a rest I ran portions of the dough through a pasta roller to get them started, but then hand-rolled them to larger circles big enough to hold the extra amount of filling.

As the tortelloni rested I began to build on the other component of the dish, the kabocha puree. Kabocha is a winter squash commonly known as Japanese pumpkin, which has a sweet, velvety flesh similar to the butternut variety. I enhanced the squash's smooth texture by cooking it with onions and garlic softened in olive oil and a generous amount of half and half before blending it into a silky smooth puree that could be compared to the perfect eggless custard.

As I continue my journey as a chef who is trying to hone his prowess behind the bar, I am constantly trying to outdo myself. The hardest part for me is the fact that in order to grow, I have to use ingredients that that simply I don't like; in cooking I can get around it by tasting the dish as a whole and knowing that not everyone likes/dislikes the same flavors, but things change when you dip into the relm of alcohol; there probably isn't a person reading this that doesn't have a distain for a particular type of liquor. For most, it's probably tequila, since we have all had our bad share of experiences from drinking it, but sometimes a spirit has merely run it's course in your life, and that spirit for me is gin.

In college, gin was a staple in the lives of my roommates and I, and though I haven't looked at a tonic water bottle the same way since, the resurgence of quality and handcrafted gins have given me a new breath. So, for this week's drink special, I decided to do a play on an old classic made with my nemesis.

The typical gin fizz is made with gin, lemon juice and powdered sugar that is shaken and topped off with soda water, giving it a cloudy appearance, but I decided to add a fresh blueberry syrup that I made instead that I feel compliments the subtle floral notes of Hendrick's Gin. Sorry, but we don't carry the traditional Tom Collins glasses, so I guess a pint glass will have to do!!!

With Love,


Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Happy New Year!!!

In case any of you were wondering if I made any New Year's resolutions for 2010, I'm sorry to inform you that I haven't. In fact, it is my personal belief that if you really want something NOT to happen, then you should make a resolution for it, otherwise you are just setting yourself up for disappointment.

Instead of grandiose wishes I like to build upon the things that I have done well and try not to dwell on what I have not; slow and steady wins the race. With the hard-hitting economy a devastating factor to small businesses like ours I am truly grateful for our loyal customers and feel positive about the things to come in the new year.

So what's new for us this year? Well, I have been working on menus for special dinners that we will be holding one Wednesday a month with the possibility of an occasional Sunday/Monday night as well. The limited seating dinners will include some form of libation pairing and will have a specific theme, such as beer pairings, foods that aren't supposed to go with wine, cocktail pairings, spicy foods, the versatility of pork (of course), maybe even a vegetarian/vegan night and probably a gluten-free menu as well. I am always up for suggestions; if you have a suggested theme or are excited about one that I have listed above, please feel free to contact me to let me know what you would like to see featured first. Stay tuned for updates!

Now on to this week's special:

Chowder is another one of this country's great dishes, but when most people hear the word they immediately think of either the white New England or red Manhattan versions, but a chowder can simply be a rich and creamy soup made from corn or even chicken. I personally prefer mine white and creamy, so I'm going to build upon the New England version with this one.

I slowly cooked chopped fennel and onion with steamed whole garlic cloves in equal parts of butter and olive oil (to keep the butter from browning) and then added clam juice, thyme and bay leaves. I added peeled potatoes as a thickener as opposed to the traditional flour base for the growing number of people with "gluten allergies" a.k.a. Celiac disease whose special requests have outnumbered those with shellfish allergies, an irony for this type of dish. Another plus to using fresh potato as a thickener is that it will create an amazing velvety texture when pureed, almost as if you didn't need to add cream... but I did anyway.

As for the other components of the dish I added roasted fennel and fingerling potatoes to a saute of shrimp, bay scallops and chunks of Pacific red snapper. For the finishing touch I made some fritters by breading a mixture of ground chorizo and chopped clams with a touch of Old Bay seasoning for that classic taste before frying them to crispy deliciousness.

As I've said before, the winter doesn't offer a lot as far as produce goes, but a surprising gem is the blood orange. After using it to brighten my Beet Carpaccio plate a couple of weeks ago, my mind was brimming with cocktail possibilities, but I felt the best use was to implement it in what is considered to be the first drink to be called a "cocktail" in this country, the Old Fashioned.

Instead of the now obligatory ritual of muddling, layering, shaking and topping that has come to define what Mixology means to us today, I chose a simpler route that emphasizes the quality of the ingredients:

Rocks glass full of ice, fresh squeezed blood orange juice, Bourbon and a splash of club soda to liven it up.

"Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication." - Leonardo da Vinci

With Love,