Thursday, December 27, 2012

Pai Men Miyake (Portland, ME)

After starting my holiday trip to Portland with a long awaited stop at Duckfat, on the 24th I had lunch at Pai Men Miyake, the casual accompaniment to Masa Miyake's celebrated Miyake restaurant.  Situated at the top of the "Old Port" section of Portland, Pai Men Miyake focuses on ramen (Pai Men meaning "100 Noodles" according to the website) blending traditional Japanese flavors with the use of local, fresh ingredients to create a truly remarkable meal.  Yakitori is available after 5:30pm, but since I was there during lunch and obviously could not have that, I went with the "Tei-Shoku" lunch special, choosing one option each from two of four "groups" of dishes, including dumplings, vegetables, ramen, and sushi; prices depend on what you pick.

I started with the pork gyoza, simple potstickers that did not outwardly look any different from any others, but are made with fresh, local pork and cabbage, with a nice, subtle flavor of each, a perfectly thin wrapper, and served with a light sesame oil and soy dipping sauce.  They were seared in such a way as to have a little bit of browning, and thus the accompanying flavor of a light pan fry, but without being really crispy; this is actually a good thing, as pot sticker type dumplings tend to fall apart if they get too hard a sear.  These were some of the better dumplings I have had, but the second I tried my sister's brussel's sprouts, I regretted my choice; more on that later.

For my primary dish I had the paitan ramen, with the traditional Japanese ramen noodles surrounded by a strong pork and chicken broth, topped with a little pork belly, half a soy marinated soft boiled egg, scallion, and a piece of nori (seaweed typically used to make maki rolls).  This is very, very different from the Korean style ramen of Manna House, but I wouldn't say it's better or worse; simply different.  I had them add the spicy garlic paste, but even with that there wasn't much spice, and the broth was lighter in color, though flavor-wise it was still intense.  The pork belly was good, though there was little of it, and the nori did not really add much, but the egg was remarkable; I'm not a big fan of soft boiled eggs, but this was so perfectly cooked, with such a delicate soy flavor enhancing the natural flavor of a really fresh egg, that I found myself wishing there were several of them. 

My little sister ordered the tokyo abura-soba ramen, which is simply the noodles, chili oil, egg yolk, nori and sambal (a spicy chili paste with a flavor similar to that of sriracha, though it is significantly thicker), without any broth.  Spicy and simple, this was really tasty, and not something I would have really given much thought to ordering, as it has neither broth nor meat, but this was just one of a couple dishes outside my normal realm of interest that surprised me that day.

My older sister started with the brussel's sprouts, as I said, and they god, they were good.  I can't even describe it.  A huge serving of halved sprouts, drenched in tamari (a soy sauce variety) and fish sauce, they are tangy and slightly sweet, roasted just to where the outside leaves are a little crispy, just inside are softer leaves, and then the core is just slightly crunchy, with a great bite to them that I have not been able to achieve when I've made roasted sprouts, and that I haven't really had elsewhere either.  These were by far the best sprouts I have ever had, and I'm really hoping to learn to make them the way that Pai Men does.

Her second dish was a pair of steamed buns, sandwiched around thin pieces of fried tofu.  I normally don't really like steamed buns that much, simply because they're rarely well made, and I almost never like tofu, for textural and flavor reasons.  Both were incredible.  The buns were light, porous, and slightly chewy, and the tofu had a slight crunch to the exterior that kept it from feeling like the spongy mess that I associate with tofu normally.  I have no clue what the tofu was marinated in, and I can't even describe its flavor, but it was really, really delicious, and went perfectly with the aioli-like mayonnaise that was lightly applied to the inside of the bun.  Since I liked it, I suspect anyone else trying it will too, even those who typically object to tofu; it really surprised me, and changed my mind a little bit regarding pressed bean curd.

With the exception of the gyoza, all the portions were pretty good; the brussel's sprouts came piled in a large bowl, and it took all three of us picking at them to finish without having my sister be full prior to the buns' arrival, while the bowls of ramen were plenty of food.  The gyoza had just four dumplings, which were not filling, but after mooching some of the sprouts and eating my ramen, I left quite satisfied.  For drinks, a number of local craft beers were available, both on tap and in bottles, with Smuttynose Brewing Company being the best represented.  I went with their Scotch Ale, a strong, heavy, and well made beer that may have been a little too much for this particular meal, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.  My older sister had the same, and my little sister went with the Oxbow Saison Noel, a very dark representation of this traditional farmhouse beer, though it maintained the lightness and flavor of a normal saison.  All in all this is a fantastic restaurant, and I look forward to not only going back but also exploring its sister restaurant.  It's also very vegetarian friendly if that's your thing.

On a side note, both restaurants and the Miyake Catering business are served by Miyake Farm, where they raise fowl, pigs, and produce; this is true farm to table, in the purest sense of the term.  

©Miyake Farm


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Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Duckfat (Portland, ME)

First off, Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, etc etc etc...regardless, I hope everyone is having a happy holiday season.  As always, I am spending my Christmas in Portland with family, and while here I had the opportunity to finally go to Duckfat, a restaurant that opened a few years ago and is designed around the idea of using duck fat as a cooking medium; hence, the name.  I have heard great things, and it has been featured on the Food Network, among other media; the french fries typically get the majority of the press, and I can certainly see why.

Poutine with duckfat fried french fries, duck gravy, and local cheese curd
Duckfat is a very small place, with room for maybe 30, and at 1:30pm on the Sunday before Christmas it was packed, requiring a wait of about 15 minutes for myself as a solo diner before getting seated, and rather longer for many people who arrived with larger parties before me.  Seated at the bar, I felt a little crowded in, but that's okay; it's got a real pub feel, with a lot of exuberant anticipation among the diners, and I felt completely welcomed by the atmosphere and the staff alike.  I ordered the poutine, that classic French Canadian gravy fries with cheese curd dish that is never bad, but is rarely great; this, however, was great.  With extremely crispy fries, packed with flavor from the duck fat, and a really ridiculously good duck gravy, not to mention legitimate cheese curds, this was exactly what you would imagine when picturing the best of this dish.  I have had a few different iterations, and it's always been very tasty, but my god, was this good.  Even after being soaked in the gravy, the fries were still quite crispy, which is a common failing in this dish.  I can normally find a flaw with what I eat, even if it's nitpicky, but I honestly can't find anything with this; it is, quite simply, perfect.

Salted Duckfat Caramel Milkshake
Along with the poutine, I also had the salted duckfat caramel milkshake, which I had been considering before talking to my sister, but absolutely had to have after she insisted that I would love it.  Salt and caramel combine to make probably the best taste ever, and this did not disappoint in the least.  Sweet, savory, and just all in all delicious, I was completely full by the time I finished it but strongly considered having another despite the promise of impending stomach ache from it.  It was thick, gooey, and really high quality ice cream (they call it gelato in their menu description, though I'm not sure that the texture held up to that), and once again, I can't really find anything to criticize about it.

The menu includes a number of craft beers that appear to rotate regularly, along with the numerous milkshakes and sodas that are always on the menu.  All in all, this is a great place, and I highly recommend it.


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Saturday, December 15, 2012

Der Rӓuber (The Robber)

In a departure from my normal food/drink related posts, I'm going to talk about a movie I watched over the last two nights, a German language film called "Der Rӓuber," or "The Robber."  I don't watch a lot of movies, usually sticking to television, since it's easier to watch a 45 minute or hour long episode, especially late at night, but on occasion Netflix offers something that looks particularly interesting or out of the ordinary, and "Der Rӓuber" is one of those. 

Based on a novel, which was itself based on the exploits of real life bank robber and successful marathoner Johann Kastenberger, "Der Rӓuber" follows Johann Rettenberger, a Viennese convict who begins the movie as a prisoner finishing up his term for an armed robbery.  In a scene that sets up much of what comes later, Rettenberger is talking to the parole officer who will be responsible for him upon his release, and when asked whether he wants help, tells the man "I haven't needed help for six years.  I don't need any now."  Rettenberger is a loner, insular and quiet, who lives, it seems, solely to run.  And, it turns out, to rob.  Even when he makes a huge score, enough money to keep himself afloat for years to come, he can't help himself; he has to keep donning his mask and white gloves.

The timeline is not exact, but within two scenes of his release, Rettenberger is charging into a bank, masked and with a shotgun at the ready.  This is just one of a number of beautifully filmed robbery scenes, as the German director, Benjamin Heisenberg shies away from the Hollywood, or even London, style of heist; Rettenberger is in quickly, shouts a few quick lines, has the teller give him what little money is in the registers, and leaves, running to his most recently stolen car.  There are no big speeches, no in depth conversations, and, most importantly, no gunfire; in other words, it's realistic.  The only gunfire in the entire movie last for less than five seconds, and there is almost no violence.  Rather, the movie follows Rettenberger through his life, running, robbing, and even experiencing something that could be called love, with a social services worker he knew before he went to prison.

The cinematography is gorgeous, subtle but strong, without any apparent need to shove it down your throat what is going on.  Scenes seem organic, and not just the robberies are shot in a realistic manner; the running scenes rang true, even things so simple as the excitement of the crowds at the success of this homegrown man, or the exhaustion on the face of Andreas Lust, who played Rettenberger.  Lust himself gave a powerful performance, playing the quiet, determined, yet deeply flawed and angry Rettenberger, giving him an honesty that is rare in film these days.  Franziska Weisz, the stunningly beautiful Viennese actress who played Erika, Rettenberger's love interest, was perfect in her portrayal of the conflict that must inhabit someone who knows that the person they love is bad, maybe even evil, and must try to reconcile doing what is right with what feels right.  It is not an easy thing to get across, especially when there is a language barrier that requires the viewer to read subtitles.  Body language and expression become extremely important, and she, like Lust, plays her character with an unusual honesty and integrity.

This movie would not have been made in Hollywood, not like this; a compelling story, I'm surprised it has not been told previously, because this is the kind of thing that Hollywood thrives on.  There is a clear anti-hero here, but the movie does not judge Rettenberger; it simply shows him.  The viewer can make a judgment about his deeds, but the movie does not preach, it informs.  While some things are dramatized, the thing I liked best about the movie was its subtetly and simple realism, two things that are distinctly lacking in modern American film.  I would highly recommend it to anyone who can afford to waste a couple hours in front of a television or computer screen, and doesn't mind subtitles.


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Friday, December 14, 2012

MRKT Restaurant (S. Deerfield, MA)

MRKT Restaurant, located at 6 Elm St in South Deerfield, MA, is the new creation of Josean Jimenez, formerly of Del Raye Restaurant in Northampton.  Del Raye, which was the fanciest of the Spoleto Restaurant Group's stable of restaurants until it closed a few years ago, served some pretty fantastic food, but the one time I went there I was struck by the fact that the food seemed to take a back seat to the experience and ambience of the place.  MRKT does not suffer from that issue, and I don't mean that negatively at all; the decor is fantastic, very simple, and the atmosphere is perfect for a date (which is why I was there, and also why there will be no pictures today), a group of friends, or even a business lunch/dinner.  The restaurant is one of a growing number of "farm to table" types, specializing in, according to their Facebook page, "local, organic, ethical and natural ingredients."

Located in the building vacated by Alina's, a reasonably well known local restaurant that moved to Hadley, MRKT looks like a simple storefront that could be easily mistaken for an antique shop.  Once you step inside, you enter a dimly lit (but not dark) dining room, with tables for about 60; the tables are set far enough apart that you wouldn't ever feel crowded even if it were packed, and if they were simply trying to maximize profit I think they could fit another 20 to 30 people.  It's a white tablecloth kind of place (literally and figuratively), but it doesn't feel stuffy at all, and I didn't feel under-dressed in a pair of nice jeans and a half-zip sweater.

The food is even more impressive than the atmosphere, though it's expensive.  Even without drinks (the restaurant is BYOB at the moment, though they are working on getting their liquor license) the bill was just over $100 for two appetizers, two entrees, and two desserts; add in tip and  the $12 bottle of Chimay Blue Cap Grande Reserve I brought (see my review of the same here) and I went over the $140 mark.  Thank heaven for overtime, huh?  I didn't mind the cost though, as the meal was delicious and I had a great time.  It's also to their credit that MRKT does not charge a corkage fee, at least not for a wine bottle sized beer, and they have wine and pint glasses available.

We started with a special appetizer, roasted bone marrow, which was served with a small salad on the side and some toasted bread, and a cheese platter, which consisted of a brie like smooth cow's milk, a chevre, and a bleu.  The cheeses were fine, but at $15 I would have expected more than three small wedges of cheese, a small pile of local honey comb (which was pretty awesome), and a small pile of fruit mostarda.  They were not stingy with the bread, at least, offering to bring more at request without extra charge.  We didn't end up finishing all the cheese, but only because they brought our entrees out before we did; this was one of a series of small issues with service that I will talk about later.  The bone marrow was quite good, worth whatever it cost (I have no clue), and it was my date's first time having it, so that was a win in my book.  Hint to the women out there; not only being willing to try something a little out of the norm like bone marrow, but in fact suggesting it...that kind of adventurousness is really sexy.  At least to me.  And that's what matters, clearly.

The entrees were a huge success, for a couple reasons.  First off, my companion ordered the Casco Bay Cod, served with quinoa, radish, arugula and a red wine butter sauce, which was perfectly cooked, flaky but not falling apart, and not remotely tough.  This was great for both the fact that it tasted good, and because Casco Bay is among my favorite places on this planet, and I have spent a significant portion of my life on Peaks Island, the most populous island in that bay.  My dry aged ribeye was perfectly cooked, a lovely deep purple rare, exceptionally tender and with the strong beef flavor associated with dry aging.  My only complaint was that the fat wasn't well trimmed from the edges, creating some slightly tough cutting and bites when I didn't realize that right away.  Even with that, it was a completely reasonable $29, for a pretty decent sized hunk of meat.  The heirloom potato and rainbow carrots were delicious, and the soubise (repetitively labeled "onion soubise") was nice. 

For dessert I had a panna cotta, which was vastly better than the one I had at d.Vino in Las Vegas.  Richer, with a serious lemony flavor and much denser, this was what I was expecting from a panna cotta after seeing it on tv before.  I was a huge fan, and would highly recommend it.  My date had the chocolate budino, a chocolate shell with caramel, chocolate ganache, sea salt and a drizzling of olive oil.  She really enjoyed it, though it was apparently extremely rich and she wasn't entirely sure that the EVOO was really necessary.  It was so rich that she commented that it was hard to finish, but she wasn't willing to leave any on the plate either, so that's a pretty good endorsement, especially after a rather large meal.

So, on to the service.  This is a brand new restaurant, only a month or two old, and it showed.  The waitress we got was very nice, but clearly had never worked at a nicer restaurant before, as she asked another waiter "can we do rare?" when I ordered my steak.  There was a pretty clear lack of familiarity with the menu on the part of all of the wait staff members, but not so much so that it was an annoyance; simply something I noted.  Bringing out the entrees while the appetizers were still unfinished was a bigger problem, one that demonstrates a lack of communication between the front of the house and the kitchen, or possibly simply a lack of understanding of how to time such things by the wait staff.  It's a pretty simple fix, but one that is important.  That said, I'm a firm believer in tipping well based on the attitude of the wait staff, not their performance, and they were very friendly, not annoyingly attentive (something that bothers me greatly when you're very clearly on a date), but never too distant if needed.  Overall, this is a restaurant that has huge potential, and I'm sure they will only get better.  I highly recommend it, as you will be supporting not just a fine local restaurant, but also numerous farms and other purveyors throughout the region.


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Saturday, December 8, 2012

Bobby's Burger Palace (Uncasville, CT/Mohegan Sun)

Exterior view of the menu boards
Bobby's Burger Palace is Bobby Flay's semi-upscale, semi-old school style burger bar, with twelve locations in five states and the District of Columbia, including one at the Mohegan Sun casino in Uncasville, CT.  Among the largest casinos in the world, Mohegan Sun has many fine features, but quite simply, food is not their focus, so when I go, I tend to have trouble finding decent food other than an old stand-by, Jasper White's Summer Shack, which closes by 11:00pm Sunday through Thursday.  Since I was there on a Wednesday and hungry around midnight, I figured a burger was my best option.  I had been to BBP once before, and wasn't displeased by the burger I had, though it was unremarkable to the point that I can't remember what I ate the first time; it may have been the Bobby Blue Burger, consisting of a patty with blue cheese, bacon, lettuce and tomato.  The pistachio shake I had was by far the best part, but even that wasn't perfect, as it was slightly bitter and a little overpowering.  Thankfully, this was a much better, and more memorable experience. 

Napa Valley Burger (I couldn't resist taking a couple bites) and sweet potato fries
I chose the Napa Valley Burger this time, which is a certified Angus beef patty with fresh goat cheese, watercress, and Meyer lemon honey mustard, along with an order of sweet potato fries, that come with a honey mustard horseradish sauce.  The burger, ordered (and served) rare, was fantastic, almost as good as the burger from Burger Bar in Las Vegas, failing to match up only because the bun was nothing special and the meat was just not quite as high quality as at Hubert Keller's restaurant.  The beef was solid, however, with good flavor, and it held together nicely.  The cheese, strong but not overwhelming, was perfectly creamy and demonstrated exactly why chevre tends to be my cheese of choice, as it really compliments most other ingredients without taking over.  The watercress was a background ingredient, and worked essentially the same as any other green would have, but it's a nice change of pace from iceberg lettuce.  The least successful part was the sauce, not because it didn't taste good (it was pretty awesome, actually), but because it was just too messy.  I think a burger should be messy, but when almost as much sauce ends up on the plate afterwards as stayed on the burger, not to mention carrying off some of the cheese with it, there is a problem.  The sauce wasn't complicated, really just a thinned out honey mustard with a nice citrus bite, but quite tasty; if they had made sure it was a little thicker I think it would have been virtually perfect. 

The sweet potato fries were really good, but not so good that after trying to put the burger down and make a dent in the (rather large) cup they came in, I had two and then finished the burger.  The fries were crispier than I have ever seen with sweet potato fries before, covered in a visible amount of kosher salt, which I was worried would lead to them tasting over-salted, but only a few, which were completely doused in salt, were.  The honey mustard horseradish sauce was good, simple like the sauce on the burger, but instead of a bit of a citrus bite, there was instead the sinus clearing spice of horseradish, which could have been stronger but is likely designed to not offend people who are less accustomed to that particular root.  I also used the chipotle bar-b-que, one of about five sauces that are placed at every table, and this spicy sauce went perfectly with the slightly sweet and salty flavors of the fries.  You get a rather large serving of fries, which I could easily have split with someone else and not been left wanting.

So, overall, I had a really good meal, for a pretty reasonable price ($7.75 for the burger, $3.00 for the fries, and I went with water since I had to drive home), that makes me think either my first trip was an aberration or that I just picked the wrong thing that time.  I will likely return to BBP at some point, and it's worth trying if you're at Mohegan or near one of their other locations.  That said, however, if given other options, I probably would choose something else, partially because the burger is not that much better than most, and also because I find Bobby Flay to be a bit of an asshole.  I watch a lot Food Network, on which he is omnipresent, and I am constantly struck by just how poorly he treats people, both those who work for him and those around him.  He is a showman who puts on a good face most of the time, but he consistently lets his true colors out, and they are not positive at all.  If his food was far and away better than everything else, I'd probably find a way to ignore that completely, but with it being very good, but not great, I always end up just thinking about how little I want to put more money into his pocket; too bad Mohegan doesn't have better options available.


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Thursday, December 6, 2012

Founders Brewing Company Red's Rye PA

Founders Brewing Company is a Michigan based brewery producing high quality craft beers that seem to have attracted a decent following among those who love beer.  I have had the Centennial IPA before, and loved it, but Red's Rye PA is a really fantastic brew, definitely a great option if you're looking to have a couple good drinks, whether with dinner or just hanging out and having a few with friends.
Red Rye PA and Polygamy Porter Glass
Sold in brown 12oz bottles with a light cream colored label with a kind of creepy face framed by red hair and beard with "Red's Rye PA" above and "~Ale~" below in large script, with the Founders logo up top.  Poured into a pint glass (my favorite, from Oscar's Cafe at Zion National Park, a Wasatch Brew Pub and Brewery Polygamy Porter glass, proclaiming "Why Just have One!"), the beer is a deep amber, a really beautiful, unusual color for a beer, but it does lack head, and what there was when poured dissipates quickly into a light froth around the edges.  The beer smells hoppy and citrusy, really bright and fresh smelling despite it being bottled (on 07/10/12 according to the mark on the label) rather than on draft, and the flavor backed that up.  It's not as hoppy as I'd expect from an IPA modeled beer like this, and it doesn't live up to Founders' website's claim that it has "serious hop bitterness," but it's quite pleasant, with tons of flavor, including one that I couldn't identify until I checked the website, which would be a grapefruit like flavor they say comes from the use of Amarillo dry hop.  After you finish, the beer just sort of rests on your palate, with no added bitterness developing; it really just mellows until there is nothing left.  The mouth feel is similar to that of a standard IPA, but a little bit creamier.  At 6.6% ABV, this is not the beer to drink if you have an aversion to higher alcohol beers, but it doesn't really taste like it's more than a standard ABV brew.  I'm a huge fan, and I would highly recommend it.


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