Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Making the Best of a Day Off in Cincinnati

In my years of traveling on business, I rarely get a day off in an American city. Overseas, I would stay 2 or 3 weeks so the weekends were mine, but here in the US, I typically go home. Well this week was a bit different. I had a Tuesday in Cincinnati with no work to do so I just putzed around. Technically I was in Kentucky which is on the south side of the Ohio River but it all runs together. My first thought was, “What the hell is there to do in Cincinnati?” Rachael Ray and Giada De La Rentis have never had this town on of their getaway shows for the food network and I’ve never in my life heard a sentence begin with the words, “Next time you’re in Cincinnati, make sure you go…” Well, since my only other option was to sit in my room and stare at the great view of the interstate, I did a little research and off I went.

Before I tell you about that, I want to tell you how I choose restaurants on the road. Sometimes I’ll find them from magazine articles or recommendations from friends, but often they come from a website called Urbanspoon. It is the best restaurant review site for cities I have found and I look at them often. Like many others, it is driven by those who use it and they rank places very conveniently. You can certainly look up a whole city’s top 10 rated fine dining restaurants but you can also get a more granular search if you’re looking the best burger on the east side. You can search by price, type of food and/or part of town. It is that feature that I have come to rely on because at the end of a long day, I don’t want to drive 25 miles across town for a great steak. If that’s what I’m in the mood for, there is probably one closer.

It was Urbanspoon that lead me to breakfast at The Greenup Café.

A little nook in Newport, Kentucky, it would be quite easy to miss this place. In fact, I drove right past it once and had to turn around to find it. The sign is small. It is billed as French Bohemian breakfast (whatever that is exactly). The menu is small but eclectic featuring slight twists on traditional breakfasts, such as Pancakes with Maple butter and several daily quiche specials. Personally, I chose “The Morning After”.

Now I didn’t have a hangover but the breakfast sounded good. Two sunny side up eggs atop crisp hash browns with Goetta sausage gravy on the side and bacon. Unless you come from the Cincinnati area, you probably have never heard of Goetta sausage. I certainly had not. It is usually a pork sausage (sometimes beef) that is cut with oats to stretch the meat. It was brought to Cincinnati by German immigrants and is quite popular. In my European travels, I had many sausages and meat dishes made in this fashion. If this style is frugal with meat, it is not lacking in flavor. The spicing of this Goetta (pronounced “getta”) was perfect and there was no hint of oats in the flavor. I liked this a lot and I’m going to try to find it somewhere back home.

The rest of my midday was spent at the Newport Aquarium. While Louislovesfood is completely dedicated to culinary adventure, I have to admit, this place impressed me. With the bright and shiny Florida Aquarium in Tampa and my years of scuba diving, I was expecting to be unimpressed. That was a mistaken assumption. Not only do they have all of the requisite fish tanks with every fish you can imagine, there are numerous glass underwater tunnels with beautiful creatures swimming all around you. You really do get the sense that you’re swimming with the sharks.

There are other things besides fish, too. Near the frog display is the kids play area. Kids can only look in fish tanks so long before they need to spend a bit of energy, so they have a place where they can kick off their shoes and crawl through the maze of tunnels and tubes. Around the corner and past the otters is the Lorikeet feeding area. For a buck, you can get a cup of nectar that will make the birds sit on your hand and drink from it. A little “Alfred Hitchcock” to me, but most of these kids have never seen that movie.

The real treat of the day was dinner. Also in Newport is a little Italian place called Pompilios. Never heard of it? Of course you haven’t. But you’ve seen it. It was featured in the movie Rain Man. Now I haven’t seen the movie in years so I don’t recall the details but I recognized the checkered floor and the bar used in the scene. I will have to go back and revisit the movie now. Pompilios is a true neighborhood restaurant featuring from scratch everything. They make their own sausages and pastas and that’s always a winner in my book. I have never been to a restaurant that makes pasta that I didn’t just adore. Still somewhat content from my breakfast many hours earlier, I wasn’t up for a heavy Italian dish. Fortunately for me, the cannelloni portion was modest and just right. Rolled fresh pasta tubes filled with veal, beef and sausage and topped with the best Bolognese sauce I have ever tasted (and I love my version of Bolognese).

The freshness of the pasta is so clean and pure while the meats are tender and perfect. If I had an Italian grandmother, this is how she would have made it. I enjoyed my meal so much, I may go back tonight and that breaks one of my cardinal road rules about trying a new place every night. In chatting with an old friend after dinner, she asked how Pompilios stacked up next to my all time favorite restaurant, Al Forno. It took me a minute to formulate that answer. While both are Italian, that is their only similarity. Al Forno, in Providence Rhode Island, is bit more upscale and certainly more pricy. Pompilios is classic Italian fare in a family setting. Both are classy in their own right.

Now I don’t expect any blog readers to hop a plane to get to the greater Cincinnati area based on these recommendations. I respect that. But this day turned out far better that I could have imagined. If you do find yourself passing though this town on one of the 3 major interstates at either breakfast or dinner time, you would do far worse than to drive 10 minutes off the highway into Newport Kentucky for a meal. I certainly will.

I had a nice day off.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Simple, Elegant, Saturday Shrimp Pasta

It was a really nice Saturday. The sun was shining and there was just the hint of a springtime breeze. One of those breezes that has just a sliver of the cool weather we left behind. These are my favorite days. The plan for was pretty simple. Lisa had a work picnic and one of our daughter’s favorite friends was going to be there. Lexi and our Olivia are fast friends. Unfortunately our morning bike ride must have been too much for my dear 4 year old girl because she passed out on a quick errand at noon and the picnic was off the table. When Olivia naps, it’s for hours (and woe be to he who tries to wake her). I gently removed her from the car and placed her in the bed and curled up next to her. My days of napping next to my sleeping child are as coveted as they are numbered. Needless to say, Olivia was not pleased that she missed her playmate or that she changed the course of our day but I offered her a little boat ride as compensation. She accepted. What really relieved her pain, though, was an evening of play with the neighbor girl, Jordan. As the day ebbed away, I wondered what I was inspired to make in the kitchen. I was at the store for a short time in the afternoon to grab a few things for my dad (at 89, he’s recently given up shopping), so I explored a few idea of my own.

When I think of the spring to summer transition, I often think of seafood. I think of bright flavors that wake up your mouth and make you want to sit at a dockside bar listening to Jimmy Buffet or Van Morrison. Lemon, Parsley, Mint, Fennel and all of those tastes that I adore are so abundant. While I didn’t use everything in this dish, this recipe works on a spring Florida evening while sitting on my patio and I suspect it will in your kitchen just as well. I settled on a simple, elegant and tasty shrimp pasta. There is no fuss to this dish and it takes just minutes to prepare. The rewards are unbelievable. I think that most seafood pasta dishes fly way below the radar of the home cook. I know the first few times I made them many years ago, I sorely overcooked most of the seafood and the shrimp and scallops were like rubber. I was embarrassed and stayed away from seafood pastas for a LONG time. The trick is quite simple but crucial. You have to know when to add the type of seafood at the right time. For instance, most hearty fish like swordfish or Mahi Mahi can poach for a very long time and absorb all the great flavors of a broth but shrimp and scallops repel that same broth. They will get very tough after just a few minutes of over cooking. The way to deal with them is to add at the very end just before serving and allow their individual flavors to contribute to the dish rather that become homogenized.

Cream or no cream, that is the question. Here I chose “no” but I would not have been wrong to add it. I was shooting for more of a buttery broth for bread dipping rather than the rich complexity of cream. If I had used cream I would have probably wanted to add another seafood that could poach in that liquid imparting its flavor (clams or swordfish perhaps). It would not have been wrong to use Parmesan-Reggiano instead of Pecorino-Romano either. I had both but I decided I wanted the extra bite of the latter. It is a spring dish after all. So in the end I had a pasta dish that resembled a shrimp scampi flavor. The starchy fresh pasta held the buttery broth nicely and prevented even the slightest hint of that unappealing greasiness.

If you make this exactly as I did, I’m sure you will be quite pleased with yourself. If you chose to impart your own wisdom on this, you stand to be equally as happy. For goodness sake, do NOT overcook your shrimp or you will fail with the utter disgrace that I did so many times before.

Ahhhh, What a lovely Saturday I had.

Shrimp Pasta

(pssst- I chose a fresh pasta rather than dried. This recipe calls for the same but if you use dried, follow the cooking instructions on the box for an al dente pasta noodle)

9 oz fresh pasta (At my grocery, it’s in the refrigerated section next to the cheeses)
2 tbsp butter
2 tbsp olive oil
2 cloves garlic
1 shallot
¼ cup white wine
¼ cup pasta water (from cooking the pasta), or a bit more
Juice of 1 lemon
3 tbsp capers
¾ lb jumbo or large shrimp, peeled and deveined
1/3 cup Pecorino-Romano cheese
¼ cup chopped Italian flat leaf parsley

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook just a few minutes, maybe 3. Drain and set aside. Reserve ¼ cup pasta water. Meanwhile, in a large skillet over medium heat melt the butter in the olive oil. Add the garlic and shallot and heat together for just a minute or two. Do not brown the garlic. Add the wine, pasta water and lemon juice and reduce about five minutes at gentle boil. Add the capers and shrimp. The shrimp will begin to turn pink right away. Turn after a minute. They will be done in two minutes. Turn the heat off and add the pasta to the pan. Then add the cheese and parsley and turn to coat. If the pasta is a bit dry add more pasta water (a few tbsp at a time). It will absorb into the pasta. You want a bit of liquid with this.

Slice a nice crusty bread to mop up any drippings from the plate.

I made this to serve 2 but we could have probably served 3 comfortably so I would double this recipe for a dinner for 6.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Eating Philly

Last week I went to Allentown, Pennsylvania. I found it to be a hearty, blue collar American city. The kind of place most people are proud to be brought up in but long to be elsewhere (funny how that works). Unfortunately, I didn’t really find any great food in Allentown. In fact, a trip to the Starlight Diner did give me some indigestion but the ambiance was a cultural experience, to be sure. A sniff of research, however, told me that Philadelphia, a mere hour away, held a few gems. So after finishing work on Thursday afternoon, I thought checking out the Philadelphia scene was the right call. I settled on an award winning restaurant by celebrated chef Douglas Rodriguez: Alma de Cuba. If you haven’t heard of this guy, he has quietly taken the food community by storm. His bio reads like a food deity; he’s done it all. He’s been creating original cuisine since boyhood, worked in prestigious Miami establishments, attended Johnson and Wales and opened numerous successful restaurants from New York to South Florida. He’s been recognized by The James Beard Foundation and made numerous television appearances. Even knowing this going in, I wondered what he could do with Cuban food to take it to the a higher level. I mean as much as I enjoy Cuban cuisine, most of my experiences involve beans, rice, and a well spiced meat –usually fish, pork or chicken. Cuban food, by nature, is for the people and not haute. I had no idea what I was in for. This was not from su cocina de abuela Cubano (translated –your Cuban grandma’s kitchen).

Their website describes this cuisine not just as Cuban but as influenced by the whole of the Caribbean. ‘Alma de Cuba’ means ‘Soul of Cuba’ but really the soul of the regional is represented. For a ceviche order I was presented with was a dazzling Tuna, salmon and black bass marinated in lime juice with a touch of soy and jalapeno with roasted sweet potato slices. The soy set this dish apart (not Caribbean at all) because it married so well with the island flavors.

Then a smoked Marlin in a malanga taco with pickled jalapeños followed. I mean, just look at this:

Malanga is a Caribbean root vegetable that was sliced and shaped to be a taco shell. It made for a starchy sweet shell that housed a succulently smoked marlin. For my entrée, the bartender (I eat at the bar even at fine restaurants) suggested a pork dish. Now I have a rule about pork. I don’t like to order things in restaurants that I can make at home. Most chicken and pork dishes fall into that category (with exceptions). Plus, I’d had Cuban pork before and I found it a bit bland. Still, since I’d asked for a recommendation, she stuck to her guns and said this was one of the best dishes on the menu and her personal favorite. Well, all right then. With that endorsement, game on!

I ordered the Lechon Asado (roasted pork) and was prepared to be disappointed. While I believed my lovely bartender, Poppy, the previous 2 courses were so amazing that this couldn’t be a hat trick of culinary perfection. Wrong. OK I’m not sure how they did this but I have never had such a crispy, tasty crust on pork while preserving just the right juiciness to the inner meat. I’m thinking there was a torch involved, seriously. The Yucca puree and slightest drizzle of black bean broth really let the pork be the star. It was a far cry from the heaping mound of beans and rice I’m used to. A pickled cabbage slaw stayed quite true to the Caribbean theme.

I loved this place –really loved it. I will not only go as far as to say this is the best take on Caribbean I have ever witnessed, but I squarely put this in the running for top dog restaurant n my book. I have unequivocally placed the Providence Rhode Island, Al Forno, as my personal #1 but this place is right there. A couple of good meals here and it might just overtake and move into that slot.

I also need to quickly mention another stop on this trip. Heading to the airport, I realized I was quite a bit early and near the Italian markets in Philadelphia. As a foodie, I thought it heresy to not visit the birthplace of the Philly Cheesesteak. Pat and Harry Olivieri are credited with inventing the steak sandwich back in 1933 and according to Philly natives, no other city on earth can reproduce the perfection of this sandwich. I’m never a fan of the claim that I can’t make something like the original but nevertheless , they do make one hell of a sandwich and it has certainly endured the test of time. A trip to Pat’s King of Steaks will transport you back to those days just after the depression where I imagine a great sandwich like this was quite a treat. Across the street is a baseball field, many little mom and pop establishments are working to make a living in this old neighborhood.

The Olivieri brothers were both hardworking kids from the neighborhood who opened a little stand at the Italian Market. Their steak sandwich with onions was a hit from the very beginning. So much so that they opened the little stand at the intersection where Wharton, Passyunk and 9th St meet. They were an immediate sensation and are to this day. Cheese didn’t come along until 1940 and Provolone was the original. Cheese Whiz was invented in 1951 and soon found its way to the steak sandwich at Pat’s. It is now the standard but other cheeses are also available if you have the audacity to look the guy in the eye and order it.

On the day I was there, it was 11 AM on a Friday and already folks were lining up. There were as many tourists as there were locals. I imagine they tire of us out of town visitors but they seem to share the outdoor picnic tables all the same. I ordered my sandwich “Steak wit cheese”. While that sounds simple, it is code. ‘Steak’ refers to the sandwich, ‘wit’ means ‘with onions’ and ‘cheese’ means ‘with cheese whiz’. That is the most standard order but there is a sign over the order window in the event you don’t know the lingo.

The sandwich itself was wonderful; fresh and juicy with melty hot cheese. While rich and tasty, I was surprised at how non greasy this was. They use a method with the onions that pulls most of the excess grease away leaving just well cooked shaved beef as the base for this sandwich. They’ve made it the same way for almost 80 years. I feel another notch has been carved into my foodie belt by eating here. Soon I will need a new belt.

Whew, my week was yet to be over as I got pulled out of the airport in Philly for a quick Friday night case in Washington DC but I got home just a few hours before Easter and had a wonderful time with the family. The culinary week was as good as any I’d had in a while but I am glad to be back to baseline. It’s off again this week on another adventure.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Can You Forgive Me? How 'Bout Some Steak

Sorry I’ve been a bit absent. It really is inexcusable but I’ll make excuses anyway (a skill known to my teenagers). I have about 3 articles in various stages of incompleteness and I just can’t seem to finish although I’d like to do that today. What IS noteworthy is a recent article I wrote for the Creative Loafing Tampa blog. Since its grilling season here in Florida, I decided the pure and unadulterated steak needed some attention. So here’s the link to this article. Hopefully that will be sufficient until I can get a proper posting up to my original and favorite parking lot of thoughts and ideas.