Sunday, January 31, 2010

A Couple Of Places You Might Not Have Been

Several weekends ago the wife and I visited a couple of restaurants which we'd never heard of before, both of which turned out to be worthy of some positive press.

Creole Cafe

Our first stop was the Creole Cafe; if anybody needs some positive press it's these guys. While we were dining we overheard the (presumed) proprietress talking with some other customers about how slow business had been and I really wanted to tell her that she'd get more traffic if she'd put a little time into her web page. I found the place via Urban Spoon solely because I was looking for cajun/creole in the area. So yeah, these guys need to work on their PR.

The food was pretty good; it's certainly comparable to creole fare I've had elsewhere. And it's definitely the best I've found in the Tacoma area. The red beans and rice are well executed: good seasoning, the right amount of spice, good sausage. My wife got some sort of chicken (the exact name of the dish eludes me) which was OK but not great; though the topping was flavorful the chicken was a little on the tough side.

However, neither the chicken nor the beans and rice were what made our visit memorable. What really captured my attention were the hushpuppies and the crawfish boil. The hushpuppies were tiny little bits of fried delight possessed of a crispy, but not too oily, shell which breaks away to reveal a core of perfectly cooked dough. They've clearly taken some time to get their batter recipe right; it's not overly mealy or heavy and you can actually taste the onion and herbs.

The real highlight of the evening, however, was the crawfish boil. I do believe that, in all the traveling I've done hither and yon, this is the only place I've ever encountered a crawfish boil outside of Louisiana. This by itself merits a trip if you're the adventurous type.

Jake's Bar and Bistro

After the Creole Cafe we met some friends at Jake's Bar and Bistro for drinks and trivia. It has a bunch of beers on tap, which isn't the least bit unusual given that this is the Pacific Northwest and all. What makes Jake's stand out from the crowd is that it has beers I've never seen on any other menu. I had a glass of Lost Abbey Angel's Share and it was like drinking a tiny little slice of heaven. The only downside was that, at 12.5%, I had to limit myself to one glass 'cause I was the one driving home.

The food was fine, the ambiance on trivia night (every Monday!) was entertain, but go there for the beer.

Monday, January 11, 2010

St. Cloud's Restaurant

I had dinner with my wife at St. Cloud's in Seattle's Madrona neighborhood this weekend. We'd never heard of it before but went on a friend's recommendation and found it to be a generally worthwhile experience. So I figured I'd give it a little bit of press.

When we arrived for an early dinner the place was full of thirty-something hipsters and their kids; add another item to the list of good, family friendly restaurants in the area. They were a bit understaffed and it looked like everyone was having to wait a bit to get their food. But apart from that both the food and the service were pretty good. The wifey got the curried, roasted yam and sweet potatoes with chickpea cakes, which was pretty very good. I got the steak special, a top sirloin (I believe, but don't quote me) with blue cheese butter accompanied by polenta and green beans. They could have improved the execution of my dinner; the butter garnish was ice cold and they hit the steak with way too much black pepper. Picky picky, I know, but if you're charging $27 for an entreé these things matter.

They redeemed themselves, however, by having a pinotage on their wine list. I'd never had this varietal, a cross between pinot noir and cinsaut, and so gravitated to it immediately. Their particular offering was the 2004 Backsberg Estate Cellars Pinotage, which had a rich mouth feel with pronounced fruit and a mild finish and was definitely worth the $8.50/glass they were charging.

Overall I think I'd visit again. Complaints about the execution of my steak aside the food was good, the waitstaff was friendly, and its about the nicest restaurant I've been to where a well-behaved one-year-old wouldn't be the least bit out of place. I put a lot of stock in all of the above these days.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Cook's Illustrated Beef Stew

Beef stew is one of those things which I never seem to be able to get right on my own. It seems that no matter how much time and effort I expend to create something lovely the end result is usually ok, but not great. The meat's a little dry, the gravy is neither as thick nor as flavorful as I'd expect, and so on.

Cook's Illustrated to the rescue. They just published an excellent beef stew recipe which I was able to try out a little while ago. It was fantastic and took little more time than I would normally spend making stew on my own.

They've done a couple interesting things with the recipe, which I'll get to in a moment, but it seems like the real magic is their emphasis on using a good cut of meat. In the past I've always used "stew meat" which, according to the good folks at Cook's, is a bad idea. The scraps that go into the typical package of supermarket stew meat lack fat and are difficult to cook evenly, leading to tough chunks of meat in the final product. Rather, Cook's recommends going with a largish cut of something well marbled. Their recipe calls for boneless chuck-eye roast but I ended up using boneless short ribs instead since I had some on hand. In any case the meat in the stew ended up fork-tender rather than tough and had excellent flavor, supporting Cook's contention about the importance of meat selection.

Apart from picking the right cut of meat they also front-load the broth/gravy with high-glutamate ingredients including tomato paste and anchovies. Lacing anchovies I substituted fish sauce instead, which worked well. I've used tomato paste in stew before but never any fish product; the broth seems to have been much improved by the addition.

One of the things which I like about Cook's is that they're not purists. They're perfectly happy to use shortcuts when appropriate, in this case adding gelatin to the stew at the last minute to thicken it up. As they point out this is essentially the same effect that you get by preparing a real stock but takes no time at all. The gelatin thickened the gravy without any apparent ill effects, so no complaints there.

It's also a testament to the quality of the recipe that I could fumble the execution (too much meat in the pan so I couldn't properly brown the tomato paste and flour) and still get a quality product in the end. I think if I were to do this again I might use homemade stock rather than chicken base, but apart from that I've nothing but praise for this particular interpretation of beef stew.