Thursday, December 18, 2008

Mulberry

I just got back home from a trip north of the river... maybe that will teach me! I went to Mulberry, a bar/restaurant in the new 360 condo building downtown at 3rd & Nueces. And after looking it up online, and finding rave reviews for it on yelp.com, I felt compelled to join yelp and write a review as I wasn't in love. So what's written below is straight from my review on yelp. In brief, stay south! :)


I normally don't do online reviews of places, but I feel compelled to write since I am not completely in love with Mulberry as most other reviewers on here are. I have only been once (a Thursday in December), and while I will say the service was good, the portions are not worth the price they are asking.

My companion and I started with the coppa, gorgonzola, and crostini appetizer w/ honey. The presentation was lovely, but it it was thin pieces of bread, with a melba toast consistency. The coppa was tasty, but hard to bite into more than one piece with your teeth. So 4 small crostini for $10. I had the Cuban pork sandwich, which came with a mixed baby green salad with a really lovely vinaigrette. The sandwich itself though, was a large amount of bread, but not a lot of pork on the inside. It was good, but not great; cost was $11. My friend had the salmon filet entree, which was grilled (I think) with a citrus pesto on top, and the whole thing sitting on a bed of unexciting boxed couscous. Neither of us really tasted citrus in the pesto, it seemed like a pretty straightforward basil pesto. The salmon was cooked fine. When we were ordering, I asked the waiter what kind of salmon it was, and he said he didn't know. When he returned with the drinks, he did report that it was Atlantic salmon. (Not my personal first choice in salmon, but my companion was fine with it, and she had also already ordered.) The dish was $22. Would have been great at $12, but for the small portion that was offered, not worth it at $22.

I had a glass of Four Sisters Shiraz from Australia, at $9/glass. She had a sparking wine from Schramsberg, at $11/glass, I believe; they do have a nice wine list, though again, prices seem on the high side.

Service was quite good; three different people attended to us thoughout our hour there. And while the food was good, it wasn't great, especially for the prices they're asking. The place is also really really small. Only 2 tables, and then counters around the perimeter, and the bar in the middle. There's a large wooden pillar in one corner of the bar, and maybe because I was opposite it along the counter, it seems imposing and somewhat unnecessary. I fully admit to not being a downtown barfly to begin with, but I really can't see going back.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Madam Mam's

Okay, back in the saddle! While there may be another Moroccan post to come (when I have the time!), it is time to get back to some delicious south Austin food!

This past Saturday night, I ate at Madam Mam's (the south location, duh!). We were starving when we arrived, and completely stuffed when we left! As we began looking over the menu, I saw on their specials list an appetizer I have only been able to find at a Thai place in Las Cruces, NM (yes, odd location, but Lemongrass is as good of a Thai restaurant that I've had in any big city). There they call it "Leaf-wrapped Savories." I call it delicious! Anyway, I've NEVER seen it at any other place before, and there it was! Mam's calls it "Mieng Kum" (or #A9 on the specials menu), and it's romaine lettuce ribs with a fabulous mixture of little chopped things (dried baby shrimp, toasted coconut, kafir lime, peanut, ginger, chile,& shallot on top of it) and a sweet & sour tamarind sauce to drizzle over. For those of us who love the sweet & savory combination of foods, this rocked! They're messy to eat, because you're holding a piece of lettuce, trying not to let all the goodies fall out, and also trying not to let the sticky sauce drip down your hand. Messy but totally gratifying!

Next up was #P11, their incredible Tom Kha soup,which is about the best Tom Kha I've ever had. Their coconut milk broth is so flavorful... it's got a ton of stuff in it too. We chose chicken (over tofu or shrimp), and pieces of lemongrass, galangal, chiles, mushrooms, cilantro...which can all be spooned over some jasmine rice. Mmmm. It clears any stuffed sinus passages, and really just leaves you warm all over! (Great for the colder weather that may be coming into town!) Our last dish was #F11 "Guay Teaw Kua Gai" or flat rice noodles with sauteed pork, bean sprouts, and another lovely sweet and tangy sauce. This was definitely the best noodle dish I've had at Mam's. Maybe it was the wider rice noodles or just the melding of the pork with the sauce, but I'd certainly get it again.

It's been a long time since I've had it, but I have found their Pad Thai to be a disappointment, and I often use that dish as a standard to judge the restaurant when trying a new Thai place. Mam's tends to be hit (green papaya salad, amazing green beans, everything we had above) or miss (all the other noodle dishes, satay) so it's just a matter of being able to get the good stuff. We practically licked our plates till we were completely saturated, and I still wanted more!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The road back to Casablanca & beyond



We left Essaouira, and backtrack slightly to one of the argan oil cooperatives that we didn't have time to get to on our drive into town. As we enter, we are greeting by singing Berber women, and our guide Amina begins to explain the processes. Extracting the oil (for either cosmetic or culinary uses) is a very labor-intensive, and fairly primitive process. One woman cracks the nut on a rock, another removes the outer shell, exposing the seed, another begins grinding the seeds with a mortar & pestle-type device (she toasts the seeds first if producing oil for culinary uses; untoasted only for cosmetic), and another collects the paste that is formed from the grinding. About 50 women are part of the co-op (argan oil production is purely women's work), and Amina says they enjoy the work, hang out, etc. Some in our group do question the methods of extraction. Surely there is something more mechanized that would result in greater yields, but she says no, this is the only way.

Moroccans have been using argan for centuries, and here at the co-op they have all different kinds of products to purchase (what a surprise!). Amina explains how in cosmetics, it's used to keep the skin smooth & elastic, takes away wrinkles, etc. Foodwise, they have both the oil, and a nut butter thing called amlou, which is the oil, ground almonds, & honey; we get a taste & it's delicious on its own, but is usually used in desserts.

Returning to the bus, we head up the coast to Safi, a town known for its pottery. We stop first at a museum of pottery, and then to the pottery market where we can wander for a few. You can see the kilns just up the hill from where we are. Continuing up the coast, the landscape is interesting. Rolling green hills, with innumerable low stone walls.... they're go on and on, as far as you can see! The walls mostly made small quadrants, or I am guessing pens for the animals, but they weren't very high. I wonder how many generations they have been there.... On to a seaside town called Oualidia, where we have lunch at hotel called L'hippocampe, or Seahorse. We sit on the patio overlooking the water, and are treated to a nice meal of soup (I think it was some sort of pureed lentils in a fish broth), a whole grilled fish (dorado) drizzled with basil oil, and a pretty good flan for dessert. Don't know why, but I was fascinated with the fishbones!


Onward to Casablanca.... the area just past (and before) where we had lunch is a rich agricultural area, including the mining of sea salt, which you can see the pools from the road. (I was on the wrong side of the bus, and couldn't get a picture, but I thought it was neat!) There were mounds of salt, that I'd say were the size of 4 tractor trailers put together. Now I know where my sea salt that I found in the souks comes from! We make it to our hotel, the impressive Golden Tulip Farah, a luxurious accommodation, especially after our last place. Jen, Susan, Louise, Peggy, Mom and I decide to have our last meal of the trip at the onsite Moroccan restaurant. Kefta, kebobs, lamb & veggie couscous, and some nice pastries for dessert. A good meal to end the trip!

The bus leaves for the airport at 8 am. Casablanca seems like a total maze of streets and traffic, and 45 minutes later, we're at the airport. Getting through security is surprisingly easy, though they don't board people in a orderly fashion, like back of the plane first. It takes almost an hour to get on and seated. Once we take off for NYC, a very a pro pro meal of beef couscous & sauted veg. Not one of the more satisfactory meals on the trip, but heading home is a good thing. It's been a great trip with fun people, but my own bed calls!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Essaouira


Sunset in Essaouira

Monday, we left the Palais Salam and Taroudant behind, we head west to the coast and Essouaria. We go through the city of Agadir, which holds very little appeal from what we could see, but is a big beach & casino vacation spot for Europeans. Up the coast a bit more, through more argan tree/goat territory, and we reach the seaside town of Essouaria for lunch. I've got the name of it someplace, and while it certainly caters to the tourists, it was good food. All fried (but not greasy) -- calamari, sole, red snapper, and something else I know don't remember. Then to the hotel, the Hotel des Iles, right on the water and by the entrance to the medina.

As they say, location, location, location, and hate to say it, but that's all this place has going for it. Things have been a small comedy of errors. They didn't have a room for our guide, because they overbooked; they couldn't find our room key when we came back from a walk, and it turns out they gave it to another duo in our group, but it seems that ALL the keys open ALL the room doors. Great. The light above my bed didn't work, and while the wiring is clearing coming out of the wall, the bulb was dead. They came and replaced it, but then it turns out something else was wrong with it and they couldn't fix it til morning. Dinner was a huge buffet for us and the other tour bus of Israelis, a few other Americans here too. The buffet wasn't exactly stellar, with a lot of raw veggies that we cannot eat, some poorly cooked fish, and flavorless chicken. The pomme frits were the hit of the night, though actually, the desserts were good too.

We had the opportunity to walk around the medina for a bit before dinner. It does have a nice relaxed feel, and not the pressures to buy stuff like in the big cities. Old hippie, surfer town, fairly tranquil. My mother WAS offered 1000 camels, plus a cat named Mimi for me....

Tuesday, we took a quick drive over to a woodworking studio, which is one of the main crafts they are known for here. It was incredible to see the inlay work they do, I've never know how it was done! I think almost all of us walked out of there with some treasures. We had the rest of the day on our own. Wandered around the medina a bit more, and ate some very good thin crust pizza for lunch, a nice change of pace!



I've take too many cat photos! These were at one of the street-side shops.


We had our farewell dinner just inside the medina, at a place called Dar Loubane, which is owned by a French woman. On the heels of our great meal at the Riad Maryam, this too was one of our better meals (and the portions were just right!). We sat out on the courtyard, with portable heaters in the wings. We started with wine, olives, eggplant, tomato sauce, calamari w/ tomatoes, a nice pastilla, and a trio of tagines: lamb with apricots, beef with eggplant, and a firm white fish with caramelized onions & raisins. Monkfish kabobs appeared, as well as rice & sauteed squash. Dessert was a trio of chocolate mouse, different Moroccan cookies, and a creamy white sauce, sort of like melted ice cream. Back to the hotel for another night of seagulls squawking all through the night....

In & Around Taroudant


My one group photo, taken on my camera by Harvey, at the delightful Riad Maryam.



After getting a better look at our hotel in the daylight, we took off to the far side of town (really, maybe 1.5 miles away, tops) for the open air market. We had time to wander by ourselves through the used clothes, and then the more interesting produce (seeing the items we had seen growing along the road yesterday), spices, and the livestock. We then went inside the kasbah, and into the souk. After some wandering around, we visited two antique shops apparently run by the same people. I am getting tired of being herded to certain shops (where our local guide probably gets some sort of commission), where the men working there hover non-stop, trying to make a sale with their promises of “we have good price.” Twice today, the guy tried to put a necklace on me that my mother tried on, and both times I quickly backed off, and said No. I know it's their way, but I take it as an invasion of personal space!

Finding the place for lunch at first was a bit dubious, as we were walking through some back alleys to find what turned out to be the incredibly lovely Riad Maryam, named for the proprietor's daughter, who was our server. It was a beautiful courtyard, with a long table set up for us. And when they say lunch is the main meal of the day here, they're not kidding. It all begin with a pureed vegetable soup with fish stock (I think) in it. Then sauted young zucchini with a light tomato sauce. Then came the baby eggplant. Then a big mixed vegetable plate (all cooked), with carrots, cauliflower, beets, potatoes, green beans, and I think parsnips. Then a chicken kabob for each. Then a fava bean & green pea salad. Then a salad of cuke, tomatoes, and what was probably green bell peppers, or an extremely mild green chile. Then kefta kabob for each. At this point, we were all fairly full, but suspicious, because they hadn't removed our dinner plates yet. Then they brought out the tagines, and at that point, we told them we simply couldn't eat any more. I HOPE we did not insult them by refusing their main course, but everything up to that point was delicious, but it was a crazy amount of food! So we asked them to bring dessert, expecting fruit or a cookie. Maryam brings out this gorgeous layered dessert; Our guide called it a jowhara, meaning “jewel”, and that is was! (Looking at my book on Moroccan foods, I am pretty sure this fantastic thing is called a keneffa.) It was like traditional French crepes, flash fried, so they were crispy, layered with a light pastry cream with cinnamon, honey, peanuts and almonds in between the multitude of layers. It looked beautiful, and tasted even better! A superb treat, and their hospitality was wonderful.





Back to the hotel for a bit, and then we took carriage rides around the kasbah. I got to be one of the lucky ones and sit with the driver. Fortunately (or not) my driver was young, 32 to be exact, and rather handsome. But he was definitely interested in meeting me later for coffee or tea, and showing me the town. Very persistent! And even though I said I was traveling with my mother and aunt, he kept saying how beautiful I was and how he would wait for me after the group's dinner. Blah, blah, blah. Very persistent though...He asked if I had a boyfriend, and I said yes. I was prepared to tell him my boyfriend's name was Charlie, and just leave out the fact that he has 4 legs and a furry tail! This town seems to be the place for men, as the hotel porter, Abdul from Mali, whom I was talking to about Obama, asked me if I had a boyfriend.

My, cough, knight in shining armour:

Monday, November 10, 2008

Through the Anti-Atlas Mountains





Photos: Goats in the argan trees; argan nuts, with the fabulous Moroccan tangerines!

So, we've been through the Middle Atlas and the High Atlas, and today we got the Anti-Atlas. Creative with the names, no? We left Zagora – thankfully not on camel – and headed back west, stopping for some photo ops along the way. The first hour is fairly flat, driving along the palm oases, and then it gets more hilly as we get into the Anti Atlas. Very pretty, fairly uneventful drive. We were supposed to stop at a weaving cooperative, but for some reason, they will not see us, and we're all a bit unsure as to why, so we continue down the road, looking for a place for lunch. We find a small restaurant in the middle of saffron country, and they are also of course happy to sell the saffron. The guy says “it's the real thing, the best quality,” and I tend to believe him. Outstanding price on a large quantity of the stuff, and they made a good lunch too – meatballs with a light tomato & saffron sauce.

As we head further west towards our destination of Taroudant, we come into the region were the argan trees grow. The oil from argan nuts has been used for centuries in Morocco for both cosmetic and culinary purposes. Some is exported to Europe, while the US seems to be still just learning about it. For culinary uses, it has a nice light smell, not unlike toasted sesame oil. While I haven't yet tried it (I did smell it) yet, apparently it makes for wonderful salad dressing. What also makes argan unusual is its method of preparation. The nuts are eaten by goats, who climb up in the trees for them, and their digestive systems breakdown an outer coat on the nut, which are then collected from their dung, and pressed for the oil. That's right. We're eating nuts that have passed through the goat. Anyway, it was really quite a sight to see the goats IN the trees!

The remainder of the drive was through a rich agricultural valley that reminded me of the Mesilla Valley in the Las Cruces area. Argan & olive trees, banana trees in green houses, melons, winter squash, tons of citrus, and other things that we couldn't really identify from the bus. Very pretty region though. So into Taroudant, which is a city that is mostly behind the thick walls of the ancient kasbah. One section of the wall serves as the backdrop for our hotel, the Palais Salam, which is an old palace that has been converted; there are tons of little courtyards, pools on two levels, very quaint. Dinner was at their restaurant, soup and a fairly good chicken tagine with onions and preserved lemons.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Zagora & the Sahara



That's me on the camel in the back!

The day started with a drive along the palm tree oases about 20 minutes from here to a town called Tinfou, where the sand dunes begin. There are still mountain formations, though they trail off a bit more down the road, and I imagine that's where the fun really begins! There are signs all around which say “Timbuktu – 52” meaning 52 days by camel! Uhhhh, not this time around! Anyway, the winds have deposited sand in these large dunes off the main road. The Toureg people (dark skinned nomadic Africans from the Sahara) occupy the area with their camels (occupy for the tourists.....), and of course, for a price, you can ride one.


So, ride the camels we did! We each got our own camel, they tied a few together, and then the Toureg guides lead them through the sand, and up and down the dunes. They have carpeted tents set up for the tourists who come to spend the night, as well as modern amenities as motorcycles. These people are obviously accustomed to tourists, as they spoke basic English, and were happy to take your picture of you on your camel with your camera, and happily took your money for the fabric they wove around your head into a turban. (I actually have become quite fond of my royal blue fabric, I just have no idea how to recreate the desert turban look!) We would lurch along, and then stop for some picture taking, and then pitch forward as the camel headed down the dunes. The saddle on top of the camel isn't the most comfortable thing in the world, and it took a second to get your land legs back once you got off, but great fun! It was a good 30 – 40 minute ride, and thoroughly entertaining! When else are you going to ride a camel in the Moroccan Sahara?!?? It was a treat!

From there, we headed back up the road to a town called Tamegroute, which oddly enough, is known for its Islamic library. It used to have upwards of 40,000 volumes, and scholars came from all around to study the books on math, astronomy, philosophy, Koranic verse, and other sciences. Adjacent are pottery makers, who do ceramics with a green glaze made from natural manganese, mined from a nearby region. We had a tour of their rustic studios, and of course had buying opportunities. Lunch was back in Zagora at a small riad (cooked carrots and a beef pot roast tagine), and then to an antique & rug store, operated by men in traditional Toureg dress (blue kaftans & turbans), though they didn't look like it ethnically speaking. As in, I think the dress was for the tourists. Some time to rest in the late afternoon, and dinner at the hotel of kefta, (instant) rice, and veggies.

Marrakech to Zagora: The High Atlas Mountains



We leave Marrakech and it's famous Djemma (plaza) of food vendors, entertainers, snake charmers, and mopeds for a quieter countryside drive. Early fog gives away to blue skies with some high clouds. It is a beautiful drive up to the snow-covered peaks through hairpin turns and a multitude of scenic views.

I wish knew more about the geology of the region, because rocks and mountains changed at every seeming bend in the road. It started out with terraced hillsides with deep stream-carved valleys below. We saw a whole range of snowy tops, with the sun glistening off the mountain sides. The highest peak is called Tizi-n-Tichka pass, which at 7400 feet, is the highest pass in Morocco. The landscape then became very much like our American southwest, some looking like the reddish-oranagey Grand Canyon, other areas looking like southern New Mexico's Robledos with their more muted tones. There was one mountain that was a light sage green, and it appeared to be that shade not just from its vegetation, but from whatever minerals were in that hillside. We saw very angular, cubic looking hillsides and mountains, many at odd angles, having been thrust up by plate tetonic movements eons ago. All different, all gorgeous.

We stopped for lunch in Ouarzazate, which is known as the Hollywood of Moroccco, as there are at least 3 movie studio sets & soundstages there. Movies like Kundun, Gladiator, The Mummy, and Babel have all been filmed around this region. Brad Pitt was known to walk around town. Lunch was at a place owned by a Greek, called Dimitri's, and it was filled with photos of movie stars of the years gone by. A nice spinach soup and chicken tagine. Another 2 hours down the road to Zagora, which is the beginning of the Sahara.

Our hotel is a sprawling place, with the rooms built around a center courtyard and pools. We arrived just as the sun had set, and navigating some of the dark passageways to find our rooms was amusing. The lights were not on, and once we figured out there were light switches in the halls, that made it a bit easier. This place though has a bit of an abandoned feel. Not out of neglect, but for the size of the place, there's just not many people here besides us. Dinner was soup and another chicken tagine, with wine in honor of Tom's wife's birthday and their anniversary.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Marrakech

OBAMA!!!!

We are estatic, and it's been fun to see the reactions of the Moroccans. Yesterday (Tuesday), as we were walking around the medina, people would shout out Obama's name. Today, I have been wearing my Obama/Biden button on my shirt (it's been on my purse until now, but sort of hidden), and SO MANY people, from the hotel workers, to the shop keepers, to the people sitting in the medina, have all smiled and their eyes light up. I've had numerous requests for the button, or if I had extras, and I wish I did! The Moroccans are very excited for change, not just for how it will effect their country but also for Americans. They understand that the direction our country has taken in the past eight years is not the will of the American people; they know the goodwill this country has undertaken in the past, and look for that to return, and not to continue the wars that Bush has gotten us into. It's been gratifying to support a positive change, and to be able to hold your head high while walking the Marrakech streets.

Computer problems..... the flash drive where I have been writing my posts and downloading my pictures to is now not being recognized by the laptop. Don't really have a clue as to what's wrong with it, but I have two posts on there, that I now can't get on here.

In short, we had the most wonderful experience in Fes. We were invited to the home of our guide, Abdesalem, as his wife, Aicha, and family prepared a traditional meal for us. We had pastilla, also known as pigeon pie, though this was made (as it is commonly) with chicken. It's phyllo dough, with cooked chicken, mixed with ground almonds & walnuts, cinnamon, cloves, a touch of sugar; it is one of your traditional sweet & savory Moroccan dishes, particularly known as a specialty of Fes. This was FANTASTIC. It had the sweet & savoriness, crispness from the phyllo, tender chicken, I really can't say enough about it! They also made a traditional couscous (which we've only had once until now) with lamb and vegetables. It too had some sweet & savory elements with the tender lamb and golden raisins, and it too was terrific. We were seated at three tables in their living room and hallway, and they made 3 of each of these dishes for each of the tables, and they have a tiny kitchen!

The food & hospitality we received was absolutely fantastic; it is by far the best meal we have had while we've been here. My special thanks to Zahra, one of Abdesalem's daughter-in-laws, who lived in the US for a couple of years. I sat next to her during dinner, and she answered my questions about the food. It was a great evening, and all of us thank them for it!







And a quick recap since leaving Fes:
Monday morning was cloudy and a bit rainy leaving Fes. We headed south for the Middle Atlas mountains, and the drive south. About an hour south of Fes, we stopped in a small town that was built in the late 1920s for French expatriots; it's even modeled after an alpine village. And true to form, it snowed a bit! Continuing down the road, we made a quick stop to see the Barbary apes, who, though wild, are fairly tame for the tourists. Also known as a type of macaque, they were rather entertaining! After cedar forests and more rain, we had a very late lunch at a roadside gas station, that served very good tagine and kefta (like a grilled meatball). Onto a small town with a tourist hotel for one night. Tuesday morning, we continued the drive into Marrakech, and arrived in time for lunch just off the main plaza in the medina, called the Djemma. We then got to tour the medina, which is vastly different from Fes. Basically, think medieval vs. modern. It's very easy to get around without a guide here; people are friendly, and I've had no sense of personal danger like pickpockets that I've felt in other countries; it's comfortable.



(The Djemma al Fna; the stands with the roofs are juice and dried fruit stands. As the day wears on, the grilled meat vendors roll into place, filling up the plaza.)

I didn't sleep super-well last night, I think in anticipation of the election results. We turned on the tv at 6:30 am (1:30 am EST), and after a couple of commercials on CNN, saw the results we wanted! There was much rejoicing at breakfast, and we SHOULD have had mimosas! We went to some beautiful private gardens, a couple of museums, an herbalist shop where we all got the hard sell (it worked!), and then we were turned loose for lunch & time to ourselves. Mom and I went back into the medina, wandering through the different souks as the locals called out Obama's name. And not to be forgotten, the snake charmers sit on the plaza, waiting for tourists.



Monday, November 3, 2008

GO VOTE!!!!

We're leaving Fes this morning for the Middle Atlas Mountains. I think tonight will essentially be in the middle of nowhere, and I doubt I will have internet access. Tues & Wed nights we will be in Merrakech -- in time to watch the election returns, although CNN Europe has been rather repetitive in its coverage the last couple days.

I still have to write about yesterdays sights, and the day was capped off by the BEST meal we have had so far!

My fingers are crossed for Obama!

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Day 6 -- Fes






Pics: olives, silk thread merchant, tannery baths


It's 4:45 am. Do you know where your mosque is? Both Mom and I were awake at this hour, as the call to prayer droned on and on. With no offense to anyone, it sounded like a dying cow. Our guide had previously explained to us that the first call to prayer of the day (5 total) is the longest, because they are trying to get people up. Also, the first call is somehow related to sunrise, but in this part of the world, at this time of year, sunrise isn't until around 6:30 am.... So we have early morning prayer calls to look forward to for the next 2 day. Goody.

When we intentionally got up around 7 am, it was rather a disappointment to see that it was raining, and that clouds & fog completely covered the hillside. You could barely see the hotel's swimming pool which is directly below us. A couple hours later, as we set off for the medina, it wasn't much better. We went first to the gates of the Royal Palace; quite an impressive set of engraved brass doors and mosaic tile work. From there, it was into the medina itself, which is closed to cars. Not so much that they're not allowed, they simply wouldn't fit. The structure of the medina hasn't changed much since it was originally constructed around the 9th century. It's a medieval labyrinth of narrow streets and alleys, accessible by foot and donkey, and not much else. Labyrinth may be a bit of an understatement. Most of the walkways aren't much more than 8 feet wide, and many of them around 4 feet wide. Roof tops overlap with one another, making a view of the sky near impossible. But even if you could see it, it probably wouldn't give you much clue to what direction you were going in. You need a guide. (Or as my Fodor's book says: pay a small child a little bit to escort you out.) And with a group of 18 people, our guide, who grew up in these quarters, also hired a guide to bring up the rear, a very wise move.

So it's raining, mid 50s, and we descend into the maze. Each area of the medina specializes in something. We hoofed it through: the vegetable stands, meat & fish, desserts like halvah, shoes, silk thread, cloth, kaftans & djeballas, brass, silver, ceramics, woodworking, leather tanning, weaving.... saw the mosque, the building that holds the tomb of a long-deceased emperor, a museum of old enthographic artifacts, rug co-op, weaving workshop, tannery, all while dodging raindrops, donkeys full of wares, and donkey dung. As if the donkey dung didn't smell good enough in the rain, you know you are approaching the tanning areas, because the smell of somewhat rotting flesh nearly overwhelms you. Would have loved more time to wander a bit, look more at some of the wares, etc. Definitely opportunities for buying things, and local entrepreneurs who can spot the tourists coming from down a dark passage way, sporting their umbrellas (useful today, though I haven't caved in yet), Fes hats (the red felt ones like what Shriners wear), and trinkets galore. I am sure there are some great areas of the souk that we didn't see.... I saw some spices, but not tons... our guide says in Marrakech we will have some free time in the medina, but that may not be the case here.

Lunch was at a touristy spot in the depths of the maze; totally looks like a hole in the wall from the outside, but the inside was quite elaborately decorated with mosaics, wooden carved arches, and fabric draped ceilings. The meal consisted of plates of cooked veggies, and these were some of the better we've had – beets, carrots with a bit of clove, eggplant/ baba ganoush, potatoes; good bread too, but we asked for olive oil, and what came had something else mixed in with it, and I couldn't identify it. Dinner was back at the hotel, and we were served a Western meal – potato soup (like a vichyssoise), veal with a mushroom sauce (kinda chewy), potatoes, and cauliflower florets w peas & carrots. While not stellar, a nice change from not stellar tagines. The dessert though was lovely – an apple tart tatin, with a raspberry sauce. Not the chocolate cake I was suddenly craving, but you could taste the butter in the crust. :)

Friday, October 31, 2008

Day 5 -- Olive oil, Roman ruins & the road to Fes





Pics from top: pressing the olives the old fashioned way; green & black olive paste; view of Vilubilus ruins

Leaving Chefchaouen this morning, there was much concern about the weather, as the winds were howling, and the clouds were down low on the mountains, with some drizzle. Not good for walking the Roman ruins of Vilubilus, about 2 hours to the south. Fortunately, the further south we traveled, the weather improved.

All along the way, lining the hillsides of the Rif Mountains, are olive trees, some citrus, and pomegranates. About an hour into our ride, our guide had the bus driver stop on the side of the road when he saw there was a man operating his olive press. Was I excited! Annie Mance, you would have loved it! The man was leading a donkey, which was turning a huge stone wheel over a basin where the green and black olives were being squashed into a paste. From there, the paste is spread onto woven mats, about 18 inches in diameter, and then placed under a metal plate that screws down on top of it, squeezing the oil out; it drains into a holding tank, and presumably bottled from there. Only the first stage with the donkey was functioning when we pulled up. I asked, and it takes an hour and a half to crush the olives in that press; they were though, adding more olives to it as the olives got more and more crushed down. It takes 100 kilos of olives to make approximately 13 liters of oil. I also asked what kind of olives they were, and was told by our guide, “green and black.” When I further pressed the issue (no pun intended), I was still told, “just green and black.” Aside from the partial lack of info, it was great to see it! Unfortunately, there was no oil to sample.

Another hour down the road took us to the town of Vilubilus, where we had lunch at a fancyish hotel that looked relatively new. They are obviously there for the tourist trade. Lunch was another plate of 4 cooked vegetables, and a mixed grill plate with sausages (the first I've seen in Morocco), a thin pork chop with the salt pork attached, chicken breast, and beef livers. The thin sausages were really good, certainly related to Spanish chorizo, as you could taste the smoked paprika in them. The pork chop wasn't bad (Muslim country, they don't eat much pork here), the chicken over cooked, and liver isn't my thing. Oh, and great bread there too; like a fat, more tender english muffin.

From there, it was a 5 minute drive down the road to the actual ruins of Vilubilus, which was the capitol of the Roman province of Mauritania, Rome's southwesternmost lands in Northern Africa. About 20,000 people lived in this valley 2000 years ago; the ruins are spread over 28 acres, and have some extremely well preserved mosaics of the era. Amongst the ruins are also over 50 olive presses, showing the importance of the oil even way back when. It was used for cooking, massage (they know which building was the town brothel and the public baths), and burning in oil lamps, as well as being sent back to Rome for use there. It was very windy while we were there, but it was an interesting lesson in the Roman Empire, and the views were beautiful.

Back to the bus, and another hour and a half, we were at the Hotel Merinides in Fes, where there is wireless internet! The hotel has a fancy traditional (as in, for the tourists) dining room, which was rather ornate. Unfortunately, the traditional Moroccan meal didn't match the setting..... a reasonable hariah soup, though more tomato-based than what I've had in the past, an assortment of small meat phyllo-wrapped savory appetizers, and an alright beef tagine, but that's our third beef tagine in row, and certainly not the best! The end of the meal was accompanied by musicians playing traditional music, and the requisite belly dancer, who was quite good with the moves, but facially, didn't seem into it.

We get to wander the medina tomorrow! (Today's pictures will be added tomorrow!)

Day 4 -- Chefchauoen





Day 4 -- Chefchaouen


Pic from the top:
The hillside city of Chefchaouen; beef tagine at lunch; Ahmed the local guide


The day started with a town tour by a local guide, the irrepressible Achetot Ahmed, or just Ahmed. A short man, wearing his Berber djellaba (again, think Star Wars robes), with very pale blue eyes.(The light eye color is something I would not have expected in Morocco, but apparently, many of the Berbers are of lighter skin and eyes.) His voice at times sounded like he was talking through a tracheotomy box; then he would raise his voice and yell “hello” to get the attention of the group. Apparently, he's been in the Lonely Planet's video on the town....

Ahmed was entertaining, and like most local guides, is probably in cahoots with many of the area shopkeepers. We wandered through the meandering up & down streets, stopping from time to time, and then taking us to a weaving cooperative where a man and his sons took us through their different styles, types, colors, materials, etc. of the woven items they represented. And then they happily took our money. They had beautiful silk and cotton blankets, some of which were in beautiful ocean blues (the one Mom got) and a really beautiful magenta and cream colored one that another woman in the group bought. The teenage son saw me looking at the fabrics, and of course starts chatting me up. Before I know it, he takes me upstairs to see even more of the collection, and of course, talks me into one. It wasn't the magenta I wanted, but it's a small (2.5' x 4') cotton weave, done in beautiful reds, oranges, and yellows. Apparently poppy flowers and henna comprise its natural dyes. My first Moroccan purchase.

We continued onwards, and had lovely at a very quaint place, that turns out to be a 350 year old family-owned establishment, that also serves as a hotel. Lunch was fantastic cracked wheat bread, with mild olive oil, green olives, a quartet of cooked veggies (carrots, cabbage, eggplant, and something green....); all okay,but they didn't jump out at me. The main dish was a beef tagine, with green beans, artichokes, and green bell pepper. Extremely tender beef, obviously stewed for a long time. It had a faint clove taste, and of course in my opinion, it could have used more spice! But very tasty. A very caramelized flan for dessert with our not very sweetened mint tea, a nice change not to have the added sugar.

Ahmed took us to one or two more places, and then we were on our own. Mom, Peggy and I wandered around the streets for a while more, and then by late afternoon retreated to the hotel, just a hair from the plaza and activity. Dinner was here at the hotel, a harirah soup (I think that's how it's spelled) which is typicallly had at Eid, to break the Ramamdan fast, and another beef tagine, this one with prunes and hard boiled eggs. This one was good, and the prunes gave the beef a nice sweet flavor contrast, but it wasn't outta this world good. Picky, picky.... Onto Fes tomorrow!

Thursday, October 30, 2008

The first few days in Morocco





Photos from top: olive trees; inlay work at masoleum; Chellah ruins; chicken tagine. Left: Hassan mosque



Coming to you from an internet cafe in the charming little town of Chefchaoen. Here is what I have typed from my laptop and had to seek out internet connections.

Day 1 – Arriving in Morocco: Casablanca to Rabat

We've made it! While there was little sleep to be had sitting behind a crying child, we,and our baggage, have arrived in one piece in Casablanca. I am taking this journey with my mother, Jane, and aunt, Peggy and as I was previously fairly certain, I am the youngest member of this tour group by a generation.

After getting the bags, meeting our local guide, and exchanging dollars for dirhams at the airport, we loaded up the bus. There a was a local man waiting curbside with a Britney Spears t-shirt on. Nice. But there really is quite a mix of western dress and the traditional khaftans and even the more devout Muslims with head coverings.

Our first stop was a modern mosque, completed in the 1990s, that is the largest mosque in the world that non-Muslims are allowed to enter. That is, after you pay your dirhams to Allah. About $18 USD. I figured it was worth it, as when else are you going to get to go in a mosque like this? Peggy & I decided to do the tour that allows you inside. The Hassan II Mosque will hold 20,000 praying men, with space for an additional 5,000 women in the hanging mezzanines. (Muslim women are not allowed on the main floor.... I can't quite figure out why non-Muslim women are allowed.....)Didn't really have time for the full official tour because we had to get back to the bus, but it's an impressive place.

From there, to a hotel in town that we'll be staying at the last day of the trip. A chance for a snack and bathrooms before the 1.5 hour drive to Rabat. A relatively fancy hotel. Stunning French pastries (I had a fruit tarte with a pastry cream filling), and my first taste of authentic Moroccan mint tea. A strong mint essence, with a touch of sweetness. Even though this is my first, I get the feeling it may be the standard against which other teas are measured. Delicious.

Kinda slept on the drive to Rabat. Lunch was at at touristy seaside place. Prix fix and a preplanned meal for us, starting with a pureed seafood soup with saffron, giving it a beautiful deep orange color. Not real memorable otherwise. Unfortunately, the whitefish presented to us for the main dish was overcooked (really, a seafood place?!!?). We were told it was related to seabass, but it was more like halibut or swordfish steak. Came with Uncle Ben's-esqe rice, and a melange of sauteed carrots and squash ribbons. A really weird spumoni for dessert. 

Then on to the hotel – the Villa Mandarine, about 15 minutes from downtown in a residential area. Goregous. Colorful, over abundant gardens, and it IS October. And I haven't even walked around the whole place yet! A formal welcome dinner for the group was held at the hotel. Started with a salad course – a modern rectangular plate with small offerings of 6 different things: 1) roast beets w/cumin and boiled calamari; 2) something baba ganoush-like; 3) steamed potatoes w/ golden raisins; 4) baby squash (the waiter said “courgettes” but it looked like okra to me) w/ a lightly creamy mixture that none of us could figure out, but the best thing on the plate!; 5) steamed cauliflower florets w/ harissa; 6) baby greens, which was the one thing we shouldn't eat on the plate. All were tasty, and a really nice presentation. Then the main. A chicken tagine, served in the tagine. Stunning. They lifted the lids, and the steam just poured out. It was a drumstick and thigh, with onions, purpley olives, and a bit of preserved lemon. The chicken was so tender, it truly fell off the bone. A side of real couscous, not the box stuff. Looked great, tasted great! Could have used a little more of the lemon.... the dish was so hot, that the olive pits almost burned your mouth. For dessert, they served a trio of cookies, fresh orange slices w/ cinnamon, and mint tea. The cookies were all different types, but all had almond paste in them; kinda so-so, especially after that French fruit tarte earlier in the day! The tea was a bit oversweetened, but I know there will be tons more of that to come!




Day 2 Rabat

Woke up to overcast skies, wind, and a bit of drizzle. After breakfast at the hotel (croissants, yogurt, cheese), we departed to see the Royal Palace. The king, Hassan, is young by royal standards (45), western educated, and apparently popular. He wasn't in residence (the fountains outside are working when he is), but while tour groups have been allowed inside in the past, we were not today. Winds picking up, we headed back to the bus.


Then off to Chellah, the 7th or 8th century BC Roman or Phoenician ruins. What was probably once a bustling city of about 1000 is down to some walls and pillars, but you can get the sense of what was, and it was probably spectacular for its time. Still visible are the remains of the amplitheater, baths, and market. Old arches and garden paths still preside. Several cats line the walkways, and were somewhat talkative to the tourists. At the end of out tour, the rain was starting to pick up. We went across the river to the town of Salé, and parked in an area known for its pottery and crafts. Had some time to walk around in the drizzle, and see what kinds of things are available. Saw some nice quality embroidered kaftans.


Lunch was at a place called La Peniche, on the Sale side of the river. It's on a boat, and as yesterday, our preplanned meal wasn't stellar, though better than the previous. Started with a seafood stuffed crepe, which looked really nice. But I've never had a crepe with glass noodles in it before.... The main dish was white fish, with white sauce, a timbale of rice, q quiche-like thing of carrots and squash (a theme...), and a roasted tomato half with diced, baked eggplant that was quite good. And a much better spumoni for dessert.


We had the option of being dropped off downtown, or returning to the hotel. After some mechanical issues w the bus, it just seemed easier to back to Villa Mandarine. We opted for dinner here, and it did not disappoint, the food or the company! The menu was all in French, and out of 6 of us, no one spoke it, so we muddled through it. They started us with a chilled yogurt cucumber offering, similar to a raita. I ordered a lamb dish, which I thought would be more stew like, but instead, it was baby lamp chops, with mashed potatoes, roasted cherry tomatoes, and fava beans in a light tomato cream sauce. Delicious. The chops were juicy and tender. And again, another beautiful presentation. This dish was certainly of French influence, rather than Moroccan, but no complaints. For dessert, we ordered the sampler plate with chocolate souffle, crème brulee, banana in phyllo.... and a goat cheese plate, with 4 different aged goat cheeses with fig jam. Mmmm. Wish I knew which cheeses they were, I am guessing all French. Two rubbed w veg ash, one soft ripened like a Brie, one kinda chalky, all lightly tangy, not too goaty, and delicious! A nice way to end the meal!



Day 3 – Ouezzane to Chefchaouen

Most of the day was not a good one. I am sick. At least I am not the only one though, and I'll spare any further details. We left Rabat and the beautiful Villa Mandarine, and headed north. About 30 miles out of town, we stopped at a private ethnographic museum. Beautiful collections of weaving & textiles, old saddles, metal work, etc. Unfortunately, really nothing was labeled with any information as to the origin of the pieces, and what little info there was, was in French. I certainly would have enjoyed it more if had been feeling better. Back to the bus, and a little further down the road, the driver stopped at a roadside fruit stand, and got us oranges and bananas. They also had big pomegranates, though a very light pinkish color, not the deep maroon I am used to. Hopefully, I'll get a chance to eat one. The banana was the first thing I ate all day.


We continued down the road (I pretty much slept), and got deeper into the countryside and rolling hills. You could see young men with their flocks of sheep along the sides. Then the olive trees popped up. We stopped at a bend in the road, and got out to take some pictures. Onwards to a modern gas station for lunch; lamb tagines with vegetables, which the reports on were very good. We backtracked to the town of Ouezzane, and what began as a not terribly trecherous climb up a village street became a little more challenging when we reached the point where they were digging up the entire walkway for pipes or something. The workers waved us on through, as we plodded through the dirt and rocks. One of our group remarked “Imagine the liability in New York!”. Indeed. V arious little storefronts lined the ways – shoes, clothing, kaftans, djeballas (think Obi Wan Kenobi's robe), trinkets, At the top of the passageway, were several craftsmen – kids spinning thread into these braided plakets, weavers making cloth. Tom, the guide, had pictures he had taken of some of the craftsmen on a previous trip, so he gave them to his past subjects. Some of the kids whose pictures he had taken before were tickled to get the photos. I got a picture of them with big full grins.


It was interesting to see the workers, as some of them were in a space the size of a small closet. But they seem content, and happy with their lives. From here, onto Chefchaoen, which seems to be a charming little town, even if it is known for its prevalent kif -- like hashish -- supply.


This cafe computer is taking waaaaaay too long to download photos, going on 5 min for 4 pics.....


Tuesday, October 28, 2008

We're in Morocco!

Well, we made it safe and sound. We are at the Villa Mandarin in Rabat; Google it, it is gorgeous. No wireless computer access though, so I am using the ancient communal computer that has no USB port. Grrrr. And a screwy French keyboard! So no pics for now, and here is the condensed rundown.

After leaving the airport yesterday, we went to the Hassan II mosque, a modern structure that can hold 25000 worshippers. Stunning facility. Stopped at a hotel for coffee, Moroccan tea, and a delicious French pastry. Onto Rabat for an unmemorable lunch, then to the fabulous hotel. Had a great, authentic meal here for dinner - chicken tagine with olives and preserved lemon, served in the tagine. Hopefully will post photo at a later time.

Today, we saw the old Roman/Phoenician ruins of Chellah, that are within the city. The maosoleum of King Mohammed and time walking around a potters and artisans quarters. It has been raining today, so that has put a damper on some things. A small group of us have already decided to eat dinner here at the hotel tonight.... if it is anything like last night, we are in good shape!

Friday, October 24, 2008

Oh, Olivia!



** Editor's note: closed by the restaurant group in Fall 2016, and repurposed as Lucy's On the Fly, a carry out fried chicken spot.

I am so fat and happy right now (and very slightly buzzed), that I don't even know that I can write properly about one of South Austin's newest establishments, a fine dining one at that, in every sense of the word. Olivia's, a quasi-Frenchish (with heavy Italian influences) bistro sorta place opened on South Lamar, just north of Oltorf, in early August. I pass it every day coming home from work, and saw it being constructed from the slab on up. So two plus months later, I check it out. What a treat!

We arrived a mere two hours ago, just before 6:30 pm, beating any Friday night crowd that may have swarmed. The interior design of the place is, I think, fairly stunning. High angled ceiling, very clean, modern lines. Flower arrangements with whole apples in the vases added to the visual appeal. Seating includes booths, benchs, 4-top tables, and a small bar area, so something for everyone. See their site for pics.

First the wine... or bubbly I should say.
Alne Prosecco, which for me was perfect! Not very dry, but definitely not real sweet, bit zippy, fruity. It complemented everything nicely. Our first course was the Tarte Flambe, essentially a pizza, with creme fraiche, caramelized onions, bacon and calvados. Bacon was tasty! (Duh.) Not sure I tasted any calvados. The crust on ours was a bit blackened around 3/4 of the edges, but not terribly offensive. We both agreed the crust was a bit doughy/yeasty, like a fluffy pita without the pocket. The second course was the beet salad, which they nicely plated separately for the two of us. Very thin slices of beets stacked with some onions and a milder feta cheese with a vinaigrette that had twang, but not noticeably so.

For the main entrees, we had the
herbed ricotta ravioli in Prosecco brown butter, which was dusted with amaretti cookie crumbs, and accompanied by starkrimson pears. The pears are a smaller red variety that our waitress said were local (neither of us have heard of them), as they've been getting them from the farmer's market. Tasted like a pear... The 6 large ravioli were tasty, and nice with the pears, but could have used more contrast in flavor and texture. Nuts? More amaretti? The other dish was the grilled ribeye.... mmmm, steak! Menu says molasses bacon butter.... certainly got the bacon, and looking back on it now, I guess any sweetness I was tasting I thought was from caramelzation, not from molasses. It was a huge cut of meat, and done a perfect medium rare.... a good deal of fat, but we know that fat equals flavor, so what hasn't already rendered, just cut around it! The meat was extremely tender, and almost filet mignon-like in texture; it's served with sauted fingerling potatoes and some hearty oyster mushrooms.

Not that we weren't stuffed already, but we
had to look at the dessert menu. It was a tossup between an apple pie thing (the exact name now escapes me) and the sticky toffee pudding with creme fraiche ice cream. Our server voted for the sticky toffee, and that's probably one of the best restaurant desserts I've ever had (and yes, I've had a few!). It was a generous sized piece of tender cake, generously covered in a wonderful deep toasted toffee sauce... you could taste the butter and brown sugar, as your eyes rolled back in your head. The ice cream was a great foil, and little bites of the cold ice cream and the warm cake and drippy sauce were like heaven. And I am totally stuffed.... we only ate half the torte flambe (lunch tomorrow!) and if we ate half the ribeye, I'd be shocked...though it was going home to a husband who by now has probably demolished it, if he can keep 3 dogs away.

It's rather exciting that there's such a good mix of food close to my house! The previously written about Lulu's Vietnamese is about 150 yards south of Olivia's. So trailer to fine dining, Lulu's to Olivia's....keep it coming!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Dog Almighty

I had a bunch of errands to run yesterday (pick up Rx, vote, Target....), and my intention was to stop at Torchy's or Shuggies on my way back home. After Target, I went to Half Price Books on South Lamar to find some paperback reading material for the upcoming plane rides (found The Omnivore's Dilemna.....so soon we'll see what all the fuss is about!), and was reminded of Dog Almighty.

The names of their items on the menu board is definitely a reflection of Austin. I ordered a Broken Spoke Dog named for the legendary honky tonk bar, which sits about 50 yards south of Dog, and a side of fries. The dog comes on a nicely buttered (oiled?) and toasted bun, and it's a great grilled beef hot dog. It's got a good snap to it when you bite into it, and is very juicy. The appropriate amount of onions, and a bit of BBQ sauce completed it. The side of fries is a very generous order, and mine were just out of the fryer, so very hot, but not at all greasy, and fairly well salted but not overly so.

There were a handful of eaters in there at 12:30ish, and during a lull, the guy who I am thinking was the manager was on the phone with one of his employees, who apparently has strep. Overhearing the conversation, I was impressed with how the manager was telling his employee not to worry about it, he'd cover the shifts, and just take care of yourself. It's a more compassionate side not always exhibited in businesses today. Kudos.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Andrew Zimmern


Here's why I love Bizzare Foods with Andrew Zimmern on the Travel Channel... he's really good (better than me!) about always tasting something, even if it's disgusting, twice. (Watch the Moroccan episode, where he ate putrid mystery meat (his words) packed in it's own fat, and left at room temperature overnight....) He's also generally good about giving a real taste description about what it is he's eating -- not just "it's really yummy" but about the flavor profile and texture of the item. This is important in really understanding your food!

But a recent episode, he visited a famous Parisian cheese maker, and got to see how the cheeses age in the underground affinage. As he went down the stairs, he describes the smell alone as "rotten eggs trampled by the unwashed feet of a thousand teenage boys." Hahaha!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Lulu B's

** Editor's note: closed in 2016

Finally. Finally!!!!

1) I went to Lulu B's.
2) It rained
!!!

More on #1 in a sec. After the promise of rain by the local weather forecasters during the passage of 4 hurricanes
this summer & fall (Dolly, Felix, Gustav & Ike), and how they were wrong EACH time, we finally got measurable rain today! I think I may have close to an inch at the house. Now, if only the humidity would go away, and we could really have a "fall."

Back to LuLu B's. I basically pass it twice a day on my way to & from work. It is a trailer, serving a limited Vietnamese menu, that is literally sandwiched between Austin Quality Tires and Office Depot, just south of the Lamar & Oltorf intersection. The trailer sits under a giant liv
e oak tree, which provided me coverage as the drizzle started up again just after 2 pm today. Their menu consists of bahn mi -- the legendary (and elusive in South Austin) sandwich of French influence; bun, or vermicelli bowls, and summer rolls. I had the Chinese BBQ pork sandwich, and after asking the guy at the counter for his recommendation, he suggested the chicken lemongrass vermicelli bowl.  They've got several gently used tables and chairs out under the live oak, each with bottles of sriracha and sambal oelek for the heat-seekers. I got my food, and headed home, getting a bit of a free carwash in the process.

The bahn mi was simply fantastic. Tasty pieces of beautifully char grilled (but not burnt) pork
, which have a nice subtle sweetness to them. I could eat that pork every day! The relatively tender (as in, not too crusty) French bread is stuffed with the pork, thin strips of carrots, daikon radish, cuke, cilantro and either a jalapeno or serrano (it was fairly hot!). Absolutely stunning in looks and taste, and at $4.50, extremely worth it! The picture you see here is the other half of the sandwich, which I am about to eat for dinner!




The bun was good, though not as outstanding as the bahn mi. The lemongrass chicken has nice flavor (props to the guy at the counter); often you order a lemongrass dish, but it barely has a lemony flavor, much less lemongrass. This hits it. The chicken is on a bed of romaine and vermicelli noodles, with cilantro, maybe some basil (?), chopped peanuts, and a fish sauce dressing on the side. Overall, it's missing a pop though.... I think it needs lime juice. But it's very fresh, quite healthy, and I will happily return!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

12 more days!



I leave on Oct 26 for a trip to Morocco.... I just bought a baby laptop (Asus eee PC -- it's adorable!), and I am trying to figure out all the ins and outs..... Here you see my assistant.... notice the size of the cat versus the size of the laptop.

S. 1st Street

South First Street is gradually turning over, and trying to make itself into South Congress. Still a long ways to go, but progress is being made.

The lovely local taco shack Torchy's has moved its trailer, and added a new one, Shuggies, in what's being called the South Austin Trailer Park Complex. A dessert trailer is supposed to be added too! A big open air lot, picnic tables, moderate parking, and really good food. Went with friends two weeks ago.... why am I not blogging about it until now???? Ooops. On the Shuggies side, I split a burger, which was huge, bacony, and delicious, and onion rings, which were slightly disappointing, but tasted my other dining companion's fries, and they were good. Their menu promises other fried delights that I must go back for!

Torchy's has an actual restaurant further down 1st, a bit south of Oltorf. Hit that today for a late lunch -- were we hungry by 2 pm! I had the green chile & pork taco and the beef barbacoa called the Democrat. Two GENEROUSLY filled tacos cost $7.04. Well worth it. The pork carnitas was tender and flavorful, and incredibly moist, though the roast chiles, and addition of green salsa didn't help with the messiness factor, and I was creating a small lake of pork drippings in my basket. The barbacoa came with an avocado slice, cilantro and queso fresca. The barbacoa was a bit greasy, but it must not have be too bad, as there haven't been any digestive issues this afternoon! Great local places!

And heading back north on 1st, we made a quick stop at Sugar Mama's, as my dining companion had never been. Today's picks: The Odd Couple (chocolate cupcake, with salted caramel cream cheese frosting) and theElvis (banana cupcake with peanut butter buttercream). Oh yeah! And, new offerings, as of today: a "shot" of frosting, available for purchase (only 75 cents!) in a little sample cup. Then, they'll top it with your choice of choc chips, pb chips, sprinkles, or coconut (I think I got those right....). Got the peanut butter w/ the mini choc chips, and it was worth every calorie! Brilliant idea! :)

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Behind the thymes...

Okay, so I am a little lagging here.... I have had a couple of meals recently with my friend and restaurant reviewer Monika. Unfortunately, the little Hill Country Kitchen in Dripping Springs, was rather poor food. Country-cute decor, and friendly service, but the food needs major work.

On the brighter side in DS, Rolling in Dough &Thyme right on Hwy 290 is adorable (nice yard with prolific flowering plants for sale), and the BEST croissant I think I have ever had! I ate it the next morning for breakfast -- heated up, and had some butter with it -- so flaky and tender! The cats were watching me eat it, waiting for little buttery flakes to fall. These alone may be worth a trip out there.

Oh, and the new Home Depot out there..... practically empty, and there were a plethora of employees, and they were all friendly, and happy to help customers! Really, in a Home Despot! Now that's worth the trip!

Friday, October 3, 2008

Oak Hill eateries

Went for lunch on Tuesday to a Vietnamese place called T & N; it's in the strip center at 290 & Wm Cannon. Got there at 1:30, and there was only one other diner in the entire place. Not a great sign! The hostess was carrying a baby, and then disappeared with it to the kitchen. Hmmmm.

There were 3 of us total, and it took a few minutes to decide. We started with Vietnamese iced coffees. Yum! Fried eggrolls with beef proved to be mushy and very earthy tasting on the inside; on the plus, they really weren't greasy. However the spring rolls with char grilled pork were delicious. The pork had fabulous flavor, though there were a lot of mung bean noodles shoved in there too. Unfortunately, the peanut sauce was a bit watered down -- no real pop of peanuty goodness. (Admitedly, I make a mean peanut sauce, and I am very picky!)

For main dishes, there was the pho with thinly cut steak, spicy tofu & broccoli with rice noodles, and a lemongrass grilled chicken salad. The broth for the pho was quite tasty, but the steak had been immersed in the simmering broth too early in the kitchen, and it was grey and overcooked, making it a bit tough, not tender. It came with a side plate of nice and fresh bean sprouts, stems of Thai basil, lime, and a jalapeno. Lots of noodles in it too. The tofu dish seemed to suffer slightly from inconsistencies in the crispyness of the tofu -- some were more crisp than others. The grilled chicken salad was good, fresh lettuce & other veg, but I failed to really get a lemongrass flavor from the bites I had.

On the plus, the service at T & N was prompt, and the food came fast. While we were in there, two more tables filled, so we were't the only ones. The pho broth very tasty, and I've been dying for more of the pork spring rolls. The other dishes weren't bad, just not real memorable.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Homemade pasta

I admit to being a carboholic. I would not do well on a strict low-carb diet. Good bread and especially pasta are amongst my comfort foods. Mac & cheese. Carbonara. Almost anything with pappardelle....you get the idea.

Throughout my foodie education, I have learned why some pastas are cheap and some are expensive, comparatively. Your nice dried artisan pastas are exuded through brass dyes, which give the pasta dough its shape, and often its rough, craggy texture. Look at your linguine next time! If it's a good quality one, you'll see
and feel the roughness on what in inexpensive brands would be a smooth surface. The shaped pasta is then left to air dry -- and herein lies the key. All dried pasta really is is durum semolina flour and water. Through in an egg if you're making egg noodles. When pasta air dries, that semolina is left to ferment just a tiny bit, giving your cooked pasta a fuller-bodied flavor. The Italian brand Rustichella d'Abruzzo is a fantastic quality pasta, available in many different shapes, and found in places like CM & WF. Try for yourself!

So having experimented with various brands of dry pasta, I've now been trying to conquer making fresh pasta on my own. Getting there! The typical method is a mound of flour with a well made in the center; break an egg into it, and with a fork, start blending the flour and egg together until you get a dough. When I tried this last night, obviously my well wasn't big enough, as my egg promptly went running overboard, escaping its flour walls. Messy. It was a very stiff, unworkable dough with crunchy flour globs throughout. Yum. Not.

Then I remembered the adorable Jamie Oliver. On one of his shows from his "Jamie at Home" series, he literally made pasta in 3 minutes as the camera rolled the entire time. His trick -- the food processor! Flour, eggs, pinch of salt go in (maybe EVOO too, can't remember), and a nice malleable ball of dough comes out. He kneads it about 3 times, and then starts putting it through his hand-cranked pasta maker. The dough gets thinner and longer, and then he's cutting it by hand into fettucine or pappardelle strips. Into the salted, boiling water, and voila! Dinner.

My versions makes 2 decent servings of handcut noodles.

1 cup "00" flour (double zero flour.... regular AP is okay, but this has less gluten, making it a more tender dough)
1/4 tsp salt
1 egg
1 tsp olive oil

-- Put it all in the blender, and pulse a few times until dough begins to come together. (I used my mini-Cuisinart, and I think the motor is starting to go, so I didn't want to subject it to a big dough ball. Next time, I'd try it in the regular Cuisinart, though the motor on that one has also been a little wonky lately....)
-- Turn out onto countertop, and knead 3 - 5 minutes until dough is smooth and elastic.
-- Form ball, cover in plastic wrap, and let sit at room temp for 20 mintues. (Allows the glutens to rest, so it doesn't get tough.)
-- Get your pasta machine ready.... mine is "technically" for modeling clay, bought at Michael's with their 40% off coupons.... It was about $10. No pasta cutting attachment like for linguine or fettucine, but that's fine by me.
-- Start on the widest setting, and start cranking your dough through; I ususally do 2 - 3 passes on the wider settings.
-- Keep putting the dough through; as it stretches out, and if you are the only one making it, it's probably best to cut your long sheet in half.
-- Once you get it down to the lowest setting (or sometimes the second lowest), you're ready to cut it. I folded it in quarters, and trimmed my scraggily edges, and then into roughly half-inch wide strips. You may want to dust with cornmeal before you fold it, but immediately after cutting, you want to separate the strands so they don't stick.


-- Boil water, and salt it well (salt gives it flavor!). Add pasta -- it will be ready in about 2 minutes. Don't over cook it! Even just real simply, with good olive oil, salt, pepper, and real parmesan cheese -- it's worth the effort!


Next time, I will have to try the Jamie no-knead (relatively speaking), no resting time method and see how that compares. With my fresh pasta, I made a delicious and fairly easy dish with pancetta and fennel, from epicurious.com (click here for link).
Salud!