Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Spence - Atlanta

Since inadvertently watching the end of an early season of Top Chef, I've had an interest in Richard Blais’ career. Unfortunately, while watching him on Top Chef All-Stars, eating a few of his burgers in both Atlanta and Birmingham, and following him on twitter are all well and good, I never had the opportunity to eat at either BLAIS or One Midtown Kitchen when he was at the helm.  Needless to say, when Jennifer told me that he had opened a new full service restaurant in Midtown, I was eager to give The Spence a try. Luckily, my flight out west wasn't until three and a liquid nitrogen modified lunch never hurt anyone.

After burgers with Flip and hot dogs with HD1, what is Blais trying to do with The Spence? According to Kessler, Spence is Blais’ attempt to put creativity for creativity’s sake in his past and focus on “good, simple cooking”. I’m not sure about either’s definition of simple cooking but I’m all for trying a restaurant with bone marrow and a Juicy Lucy on the menu.

However the bone marrow would have to wait as the first thing to our table was an order of oysters and pearls. As soon as I read the name, I immediately thought of dinner at Per Se and I was interested to see if Blais would copy Keller’s signature dish or take things in his own direction.
It figures that my first choice would be the dish using liquid nitrogen.
Bearing little resemblance to Keller’s dish, these oysters and pearls feature tiny, briny oysters, an ice cold watermelon mignonette, and horseradish cream pearls all on the half shell.
While each oyster tasted more of cilantro & celery than watermelon, it was still a dose of super chilled oyster salinity that ended with a pop of horseradish pungency as each pearl melted in my mouth.

It’s hard to know where to begin with the roasted bone marrow.
The combination of bone marrow, tuna tartare, and fried quail eggs is certainly an odd one but it seemed to work.
As you’d expect, the bone marrow was unctuous and fatty, with a touch of beefiness on the side, but when combined with the runny yolk of a quail egg, things were elevated to a new level of delightful greasiness.
Thankfully the parsley provided a nice astringent bitterness to cut through the richness of an egg that tastes like it was fried in beef fat.
At the start, I couldn’t place the flavor of the tuna, it’s unique but relatively subtle taste seemed lost in the fray but as I kept eating I could eventually pick out its lemon scented flavor. I’m still not quite sure where it belongs in this combination of flavors but all the components seem to work quite well together albeit in quite a messy fashion.

Having passed on our usual lunch choice of Buford Highway pho, it’s seemed a little ironic that I drove to midtown to get the sole vaguely Vietnamese dish on the Spence menu.
I say vaguely because I have yet to encounter a croissant based banh mi but the combination of roast pork on a French style of bread is all too familiar.
Since pork belly is never rich enough on its own, this sandwich needed a rich base to start. The golden brown, buttery, and fiddly croissant fit the bill.
I say fiddly because as soon as I picked up this banh mi, things began falling out. Scrambling to get a bite, I was rewarded with pork belly seared to a crisp and a bevy of pungent, pickled vegetables. Watermelon, cilantro, and carrots provided a satisfying crunch and a welcome foil to the pork belly and mayo.
One double edged aspect to this sandwich was the juiciness. With every bite quite literally dripping with flavor, the croissant had almost dissolved by the time I was finished. Unfortunately, the bread’s texture wasn’t the only two sided concern. Although they provided a nice texture and vinegary flavor, the pickled veggies far and away dominated the dish. The pork was left to a supporting role, adding extra depth in the form of fattiness, crunch, and sheer yet reserved pork flavor. It was an uneven partnership but it still made for a unique alternative to a banh mi.
If there was component that seemed completely out of place it was the kimchee. Pungent with a chili pepper tail, the kimchee was nice on its own but I couldn’t decide how it fit into the sandwich. When I added slices to the croissant, their flavor was lost in the sea of carrots and cilantro. Tasty as they were, the kimchee slices seemed like an unwarranted addition.
If you read any of the major reviews of Spence (KesslerAtlanta Magazine) the main worry seems to be Blais sticking to this project. Will Blais stick to Spence or will he continue moving forward at a breakneck speed towards bigger and newer projects? I have no real answer but if it’s any consolation, Blais did stop by Spence while I was at lunch. It seemed to be little more than a quick meeting with the chefs, but it was nice to see him in the restaurant. As for the food, these three dishes were an interesting look at what Blais can do with the idea of “good, simple cooking”. At the very least I’ll be back for dinner and to try that Juicy Lucy.

The Spence Address & Information
The Spence on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Optimist - Atlanta

If there is an upside to not living in Atlanta, it’s that every time I visit there seems to be a bevy of new and exciting restaurants to try. One that had slipped past my radar was the newest restaurant from Chef Ford Fry of JCT Kitchen. Headed by a former sous chef of JCT Kitchen, Chef Adam Evans, The Optimist is the newest casual seafood restaurant on Atlanta’s Westside, but that’s enough background, it was time for lunch and Jennifer and I were looking for some quality seafood.

Although we had come to The Optimist in search of oysters, shrimp, clams, and the like, we couldn’t help starting with an order of the Opti yeast rolls.
It’s amazing the flavor that can develop with time and yeast, and these rolls were no exception.
Practically glowing in the light, I could very well have made an entire meal from these rolls.
With a sweetness and complexity from the yeast and the punctuation crunch of sea salt, this order of four rolls quickly disappeared.

I had planned to start into the seafood with a half dozen oysters, but with neither Kumamoto nor Apalachicola oysters on the menu I was quickly lured by the promise of kimchee in the fried clam roll.
The heavily buttered New England cut roll was quite literally overflowing with well fried clams and house pickles.
On their own, the clams and roll may have been far too rich, but each bite was tempered with rice vinegar, kimchee, and cilantro pungency.
Even though this roll was a bit cumbersome to eat, the combination of salty, crisp clams and Korean flavors made me reluctant to share.

Described on the menu as “messy, but worth it!”, the white Georgia shrimp a la plancha gave the fried clam roll some stiff competition.
True to its description, these shrimp a la plancha were incredibly messy but just as incredibly worthwhile.
Each shrimp was well charred on the outside and brimming with a rich briny flavor that was only highlighted by the arbol and garlic richness of the sauce. Nearly bisque like in creaminess and texture, every last piece of bread was used to take full advantage of the sauce.

While we had been flying high with the clam roll and shrimp, it was an unlikely candidate that would bring us back to earth.
The Maine lobster roll, for all intents and purposes, should have been a star attraction, but a few things were amiss.
Size wise there was ample supply of large lobster pieces, but it was the texture that kept this lobster roll down.
Even with the mayo as a buffer, there was an overcooked chalkiness to each piece of claw meat. Luckily the tail meat didn’t suffer the same fate as its sweeter texture played well with the satisfying vegetal crunch of the celery cubes.

We had come to The Optimist hoping for well-cooked seafood in a welcoming and casual atmosphere and we found it in spades. In fact, the only low point of the meal, the lobster roll, was a bit misleading. Anywhere else, this roll would have been a fine menu choice, but in comparison to the clam roll and shrimp a la plancha, it was mediocre at best.  Even with that stumble, Chef Fry and Evans had delivered; I can only hope that next time we come to feast on seafood from The Optimist they’ll have some smaller and brinier oysters at the raw bar.

The Optimist Address & Information
The Optimist on Urbanspoon

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Northern China Eatery - Atlanta

By now, it should be painfully obvious that I never need a good excuse to go searching for quality Chinese food, particularly when I’m near Atlanta’s Buford Highway. But when I receive an email with the subject line of “Dumplings!!!” and a link to an Atlanta Magazine article, things are all the easier.  This time the article in question is a short guide to Chinese dumplings on Buford Highway. Written by Evan Mah of the blog Toothfish with guidance from Chef Ken Lim of Penang Atlanta, this five part article covers dumplings from five general regions of China. Since I’ve already spent a fair amount of time at Oriental Pearl, Chef Liu’s, and Gu’s Bistro, that left Northern China Eatery and Yen Jing unexplored.  With those two in mind, it only took a few quick phone calls to see which was open and then Jennifer and I were on the way to Northern China Eatery for some late Tuesday night dumplings.

If you look at Northern China Eatery’s Urbanspoon page, it’s pretty empty. Even the reviews from Blissful Glutton and Eat Buford Highway are three to four years old. I chalk this lack of press up to the restaurant’s location. Despite knowing my way around Buford Highway, it took a few tries before I spotted the restaurant’s sign and saw the front door tucked around the side of a strip mall. Once inside, the menu was much easier to navigate but there was sad news; both the fresh shrimp dumplings and the fried pork dumplings being unavailable.

Consoling ourselves, we picked a few dishes and with our orders in, we could soon hear the sizzle of hot woks and the alluring sizzle of garlic and ginger. First out of the kitchen was an order of tofu in chili garlic sauce.
Despite the mouth watering smell of garlic and chilies, this dish was thick and oily.
Battered with starch, fried to a crisp, and covered in a viscous, corn-starch thickened sauce, these tofu squares were still molten in the middle and deeply satisfying.
Once I got past the oil slick on the sides and the greasy texture I couldn’t get enough of this dark, garlic packed dish.
With each bite of firm tofu contrasting with the crunch of bell peppers and wood ear mushrooms, I found it hard to tear myself away to try the next dish.

Seeing beef in chili oil on the menu, I was curious to see how a Northern Chinese restaurant would handle what I consider to be a Sichuan dish.
In lieu of dried chilies and Sichuan peppercorns, the velvety textured beef in this dish was swimming in a sea of sweet and fruity black peppercorns.
With the sweetness compounded by an even sweeter sauce, I was surprised at the lack of pungency to this dish.
 But the floral tastes of the peppercorns were almost as captivating as those of the “ma la” laced dish from the southwest.

Of course, we couldn’t forget the reason we came to Northern China Eatery.
Soup dumplings, those Shanghai delights, were in fine form at NCE.
The wrapper was a bit on the thick side, but these parcels held a piping hot dose of hot and sweet broth with a nugget of pork in the middle.  Well served by a dose of vinegar, it’s hard to turn away from a good soup bun.

Contrasting the sweetness of the pork soup dumplings, an order of beef dumplings was next.
Like so many Chinese restaurants, NCE ranks high on the bang for the buck scale as this plate of dumplings was cheap as chips. The actual flavor wasn’t quite as captivating. Inside the thick wheat wrappers was a filling of beef, leeks, and green onions, but the flavors of these dumplings seemed washed out and diluted.

Rounding out the meal was an order of sesame noodles.
Served cold and unmixed, these wheat noodles were quite elastic.
Following the trend, the sesame sauce was quite sweet.
Trying to combine the noodles and sauce without making a mess was an issue, but at this point in the meal, there was little enthusiasm for cold and frankly lackluster noodles.

As is often the case, we were staggered by the amount of food we received in comparison to the size of the bill, but we were also a bit disappointed that the main reasons we choose Northern China Eatery, the fresh shrimp dumplings and fried pork dumplings, were both unavailable. However, for the most part, what we were able to order was well prepared and immensely satisfying if a bit too sweet and greasy. Oiliness aside, I have to agree with Foodie Buddha that Northern China Eatery doesn’t get enough attention. Hopefully next time I can solidify my opinion and try the two elusive dumplings.

Northern China Eatery Address & Information
Northern China Eatery on Urbanspoon

Monday, September 3, 2012

Hoa Hang 9 (Nine Roses) - New Orleans

Doing our best to hide from the June New Orleans heat in the cool confines of Sucre, Sam and I were enjoying a few macaroons and discussing the all-important topic of dinner. Stomachs still heavy with the recent memory of beignets, snowballs, and po-boys, a butter-laden dinner at one of the grand dames was quickly dismissed. Hoping to show Sam there was more to New Orleans than Bourbon Street and the insulting offerings of the Hard Rock Café, I proposed a trip to the West Bank for a little Vietnamese.

As you might expect there was an ulterior motive to this suggestion. Despite my family’s propensity to seek out any and all Asian cuisines in a city, New Orleans has proved to be the exception to that rule, especially when it comes to Vietnamese cuisine. With my mother not liking the food and my father being largely indifferent, my sister and me were the sole occupants of the pro-pho camp. Sadly, on the rare occasion that my sister does make it to New Orleans, her mind is set on the usual fare, crawfish, gumbo, beignets, etc. The result is that I’ve never so much as touched a bottle of fish sauce while in New Orleans.  Thankfully, change was ever present as Sam agreed to the cuisine; the only problem was figuring which restaurant to choose.

Knowing that in times of confusion it is wise to defer to those with experience, I turned to the good people at Blackened Out. In the years that I have been following their advice for New Orleans, Peter and Rene have rarely steered me wrong. So after reading their glowing review of 9 Roses, complete with an eagle rating, Sam and I finished our coffees and began to make our way to the West Bank.

Once inside 9 Roses, it was time to sort through the menu and that’s more a challenge than it seems.  As other local bloggers have pointed out (here and here), the menu at 9 Roses is vast. There are easily more than 100 items to choose from and each section is a minefield even with the aid of the helpful descriptions.

Loosely following the lead of Blackened Out, things began with an order of chargrilled pork or THT NƯỚNG.
Even when overcooked, pork has a way of being quite tasty, thankfully there was no such dryness with the pork at 9 roses. Large enough to be brilliantly chargrilled on the outside and juicy on the inside, this pork was tender, quite sweet, and the only dish to completely cleaned by the meal’s end.

Best eaten with company, I was looking forward to the rice flour crunch of the BÁNH XÈO.
Very large and very thick, this Vietnamese crepe had a shell-like texture that was oily to the touch.
Inside the rice flour and egg shell, the usual suspects of shrimp, pork, onion, and bean sprouts were plentiful, but every bite of this crepe was dominated by greasiness.

I’m still a little cloudy on how this next dish was ordered, but it appeared to be spring rolls or GI CUNmade with grilled shrimp.
These spring rolls were a bit of a mixed bag. While the wrappers were dry, the shrimp inside were large with a slightly spongy texture. On the whole, the fillings packed a punch of herby flavor and when generously dipped into a bowl of nuoc leo, everything came out just fine.

If there was one star of the show, it was far and away the beef salad or BÒ TÁI CHANH.
Yes, beneath that mountain of mint, onion, and lemon was a small fortune of rare, razor thin beef tenderloin. Normally, I do my best to avoid tenderloin, but in the raw/extremely rare form I’ll make a ready exception. This dish helped reinforce that standard. With a quick flick of my chopsticks, I was bombarded with the potent but succinctly compatible flavors of cilantro, onion, and lemon with the silky flavor of the tenderloin providing an ethereal meaty foundation.

Nearing the end of the meal, an order of the house special roasted quail CÚT QUAY BÁNH BAO appeared.
With a deeply lacquered skin, I was surprised at just how similar these quail were to char sui in both color and flavor.
Largely unsure how to properly apply the bao, we figured they were best left alone and focused our efforts on the quail. Thankfully, the quail had plenty to offer with a deep flavor that made picking through the tiny bones well worth it.

With Sam begging for mercy, I couldn’t help but see how 9 Roses handled the litmus test of PH ĐC BIT.
From the start this pho broth was heavy on the onion and cilantro but had an unctuous and well-rounded overall flavor. It was with the beef that the problems with this pho began to appear. Thickly sliced, I was surprised to see the fat cap on the brisket was left intact.  While there was a pleasant beefiness to the brisket, it and the other cuts of beef were both well overcooked and quite dry. I realize that many cuts of pho meat are cooked well done, but there’s a difference between well done and bone dry. The tendon also suffered as the pieces were far from soft and made any attempt to chew them a burden on the jaw. It’s rare that you find a dish where it can be described as both undercooked and overcooked but this pho required both adjectives. It’s a shame that such good broth had to go to waste.

After six dishes, it was painfully obvious that I need to spend more time working my way through the menu at 9 Roses.  While I was delighted by the well executed simplicity of dishes like the beef salad and chargrilled pork, it was the moments of mediocrity, the pho topping and the banh xeo, that left me a little hesitant about 9 Roses. However, this was my first foray into the world of New Orleans Vietnamese cuisine and I now have a benchmark. With many restaurants in my future, it will be interesting to see how they compare to that first meal at 9 Roses.

Hoa Hang 9 (Nine Roses) Address & Information
Hoa Hong 9 (Nine Roses) on Urbanspoon