Monday, July 19, 2010

Asian Eating Etiquette

Yes, I am half Japanese, but no, I have never been to Asia. (Though trust me, I am dying to go!) A friend posted this link from The Faster Times on Facebook today, and I think it's interesting enough to share!  It's a guide to food customs & etiquette in different Asian counties. While polite to slurp ones noodles in Japan, not so much in Thailand.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Paggi House

I've been in Austin almost 16 years (!), and Paggi House has been around as far back as I can remember. Turns out, it's a historic landmark, going back to the 1840s. I know it's gone through some ownership & chef changes in the years I've been here, but I had never managed to get there until now. And I am sorry I waited this long! It was a really good meal with stellar service.

Arriving about 5:30 pm on a Monday, my friend and I were immediately greeted by a trio of stylishly dressed women at the hostess stand. We were seated in the main house for dining, and I was struck by the modern decor, yet it still retained a historic touch to it. There is ample outdoor seating in front, creating a lounge-like area, and then through the entrance to the house and immediately out the opposite door is access to the expansive closed-in porch, anchored by the large rock-walled bar in the middle. The bar area has a separate snack menu, which I will have to try on my next trip.

We ordered a bottle of red wine, and the waiter came back to the table to say they were out, but offered two suggestions for the same price point. The wine arrived, and my friend, much more of a wine expert than I, felt it was too warm, and our waiter happily chilled it down just a bit. He did mention that wherever it is that this bottle was stored does tend to get warm. Understandable, as our summertime temperatures keep creeping upwards; he was more than willing to accommodate us. 

First up was the Bella Verdi Butter Lettuce Leaf Salad and the Lockhart Grilled Quail, always nice to see locally sourced items. The salad was with Asian pear, Maytag blue (Pure Luck's Hopelessly Blue would be lovely!), & lemon vanilla vinaigrette; all the flavors were really fantastic, but there was very little blue cheese on the salad at all; I had to hunt for some.... though looking now at the picture, I think my friend got the whole blob of blue that's on top!  The quail was grilled with an agave glaze, and accompanied by a very subtle truffle risotto with extremely thin crispy fried leeks on top. The kitchen had already split the quail in half for us, and there's really no good way to eat quail in my mind, except for picking it up with your fingers, which is what I did! I could have easily eaten three more quail, and I appreciated that the truffle in the risotto was kept on the more minimum side, though true truffle lovers might be a touch disappointed. 
At the waiter's suggestion, we had the salad & quail together, and then the Hudson Valley Foie Gras was brought as a separate course. The sweetness from the apple slaw and tartness from the balsamic drizzle balanced the fat quite well. Overall it was tasty, though I generally like my foie a little firmer.

For the main courses, we went with the Sweet Tea Brined Duck Breast and the Mesquite Grilled Beef Tenderloin. I started with the duck, and really liked the crispiness of the skin and the foie gras jus it was in. I don't really recall the flavor of the orange gremolata  on the duck, but it was there.  Then we switched plates, and I got to try the beef, cooked to a gorgeous medium rare. It was a great piece of beef, and the green beans and tiny, crispy onion rings were delicious separately and all together as one bite. 

Saving a touch of room for dessert, we ordered the freshly made churros and chocolate pot de creme. The churros were better than the ones I had in Spain, as they were light and not greasy. The pot de creme had good flavor, but a grainy texture that isn't quite right for a custardy dessert like that. And grainy would also describe my pictures :(  I've tried experimenting with my camera phone and a small little flashlight, but looking at the quality of these really really makes me realize I just need to carry my point and shoot digital camera with me when I am eating out. My pictures at Paggi in no way do the food justice.
For a Monday night in the middle of summer, Paggi House seemed to be doing quite well for themselves. There seemed to be a mix of people at the bar, and a large group dining in the room next to us. Doesn't seem to have that "trendy cool vibe" that a lot of spots downtown have (which I avoid), but a genuine commitment to good food and good service.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Notes from this past week.....

A couple things to mention:

Got take out from the new Im Thai (still signed as CK Thai) in the shopping center at Brodie and 290, where Kohl's & Petsmart are located. It's owned by the people who used to own Thai Tara on 6th Street, which was regarded by one of my Thai co-workers as one of the best Thai spots in town. She also didn't particularly care for CK Thai, and I haven't yet asked her about Im. So after running errands one day last week, I was hungry for lunch & got carry out. After pondering the noodle dishes, I picked the Kua Gai, listed right under Pad Thai, and described identically to it, except for using flat rice noodles; I chose pork as my meat. The dish came fast, and 10 minutes later, I was home. It was okay, but not outstanding. The noodles were all very choppy -- none were longer than three inches in length, no nice long strands. The pork was a little tough, and while some of the chile paste added some flavor, there wasn't a whole lot going on; no real sweet & sour flavors to it. It was certainly made fresh, and the lettuce/carrots were a nice touch. The jury is still out though. I'll talk with my Thai friend, and see what dishes she recommends, and I'll go back and dine at the restaurant.
On Saturday, I had brunch at the 1886 Cafe at the Driskill Hotel. I've had a couple really good brunches there before, but this, really unfortunately, missed the mark all around. I am not quite ballsy enough to send my comments directly to the hotel management, but I am hoping someone there is checking up on what people are saying about their facilities. So here's my brutally honest reporting. My friend and I were seated out in the lobby; we both ordered the same skillet, the "D" Texas Two Step, with eggs, biscuit, sausage gravy and cheddar cheese grits; I asked for my gravy on the side. 

The eggs had no flavor. The biscuit dough was overworked, making a dense, tough biscuit. There was very little sausage in the gravy (that's gravy in both those ramekins). And the grits were awful; I think they used water, not milk in making them (think instant cream of wheat texture), and to me, "cheddar cheese grits" implies there's cheese mixed into it, not just on top. What we were served just had cheddar on top. When our waitress, Callie, came by to check on us, I told her the grits were extremely bland. She immediately apologized, and quickly offered to bring something to replace both of our grits. We both decided on the fruit cup, which had pineapple & fresh mixed berries. However, they didn't take the eyes out of the pineapple, and not just one piece, but all of my pineapple still had the eyes in it. Sometimes you can't win!
The one saving grace was our waitress, and while she looked young, she handled everything extremely smoothly and without missing a beat. I can only hope she told the kitchen that the grits were being refused, but who knows.
Saturday night dinner was another story. I had the pleasure of 1) dining at Asti, and 2) dining with friends I hadn't seen in a very long time. I have written about Asti before, but it continues to be an interesting and inspiring menu, with great service to boot. I had the homemade pappardelle noodles with lamb sugo; it was fantastic. While you can see the lovely wide noodles under all the ricotta salata in the picture, the generous sprinkling of fresh mint leaves was perfect with the little pieces of pulled lamb. Friends had the linguine with white clam sauce and the scallops with pancetta, all of which was exemplary. We split the affugato dessert (shot of espresso poured over vanilla gelato, and cinnamon sugar donut/beignets to dip in it), which was the perfect finish.

The place was packed, and while we were sitting in the back of the restaurant, it was a little warm in there. Dishes came fast; we started with the mixed appetizer plate, which arrived just moments after we ordered it.  I asked our waitress if the "Next Food Network Star" contestant, sous chef Brad, was still working there, and yes! She pointed him out along the open air kitchen. He's tall, that's about all I could tell. Anyway, happy to know that Asti is alive and well!

1886/Driskill....anyone paying attention, or do you just think you're feeding out of towners?

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Bacon Fat Shortbread

Well, duh. You don't expect me to throw away the liquid molten gold that is created when you cook bacon, now do you? There's been a lovely little jar in my fridge, collecting the drippings. I actually don't use it all that much, but a little touch here and there really can boost the flavor of certain dishes. Then I came across a recipe on another blog -- see the original post here -- for bacon fat shortbread cookies. OMG!

I decided to tweak it a little, and what developed was shortbread bars, with hibiscus sea salt. If you've read some of my previous posts, you'd heard my affinity for sweet & salty flavors. This certainly hits that spot! The sweetness from sugars (both regular & brown), savory from the lovely bacon flavor, and salty from the touch of purplish hibiscus sea salt.....while I like the flavor the hibiscus gives, another good quality sea salt or fleur de sel would work.  If you're dying for the mouthwatering recipe, drop me a line..... I'll share! All in the name of bacon. Hmmm, wonder how this would be with some little bits of bacon IN it???

Friday, July 2, 2010

Fogo de Chao

Generally speaking, I don't eat at national chain restaurants, so therefore my postings on them are limited. An exception to the rule was this past Wednesday night, when I was invited to a food bloggers dinner at Fogo de Chao, the Brazilian churrascaria.

We were treated to complimentary drinks at the bar before the dinner started. I had a glass of Malbec, which I never got the actual name of, but highly drinkable!
We were seated in their private dining/meeting room, which was set for about 100. The managers spoke briefly, explaining the Fogo experience; it seemed that only a handful of us were novices of the Fogo concept.
Starting first with the salad bar, that alone can be an experience of itself (my mother would be beside herself!), and Fogo recognizes that, as they have pricing levels for "salad bar" only diners ($22.50) and literally, "whole hog" ones ($45.50).  A good 15 - 20 feet in diameter, the salad bar includes prosciutto & salami, genuine parmigiano reggiano cheese (complete in a hollowed-out wheel), assorted pickled/brined veggies like beets & artichoke hearts, mixed salads, smoked salmon.... I didn't see any fresh fruit like melon, which would have been nice with the prosciutto. Loved having the various olive oils & vinegars atop the bar, not to mention the gorgeous tropical flower arrangements.
Back at the table, our ever-circling gaucho waiters made sure we always had plenty of pao de queijo (warm, delicious, golf ball-sized addictive cheese breads), and a trio of sides: crispy polenta, garlic mashed potatoes, and caramelized bananas, all of which were constantly refreshed.
 And then the meat parade started. And it went on. And on. And on! They have 15 different meats on their skewered menu, and I sampled half of them, though I think all of them paraded past at one point or another. I tried: linguica (pork sausage), costela de porco (pork ribs), alcatra (beef sirloin), ancho (ribeye), cordiero (both lamb chops & leg of lamb), picanha (top sirloin rubbed with sea salt), & filet mignon. The gauchos always made sure you received the meat that was to your way of cooking. The lamb chops were overdone, but everything was much to my satisfaction at medium rare. Favorites? The picanha and leg of lamb, just outstanding flavor on them.
I would certainly like to think that every other diner in the main part of the restaurant was getting as much personal attention as we were, because throughout the evening, the service was outstanding. The gauchos were friendly, highly knowledgeable about the meats, would rush to get anything you requested, like a meat cooked in a particular way, and yet remained relatively unobtrusive. 

The manager was present in the room throughout a good portion of the meal, and I had a chance to ask him about his meats. They source them from Texas -- the beef, pork & chicken, and the lamb is from New Zealand. He added that depending on the location of the restaurant, they will source their meats usually from that region. But nice to know we were eating Texas beef. I also asked how much meat they go through in an evening, to which he understandably said it's too hard to gauge, depending on the evening. He did say that the average diner eats two pounds of meat at a meal at Fogo!

So I wasn't stuffed to the gills, but I certainly didn't need to eat any more food, so I skipped dessert, though the signature papaya cream sounded good (also billed as a digestive aid!). It was a very lovely evening. Was I totally blown away? No. Was it some good food (and outstanding service)? Yes. Will I frequent national chains more? No. But I am appreciative to now have experienced Fogo de Chao, as I do think they are probably one of the finer chains out there. Even though I am sure they just raised my cholesterol by a few points.