The judges have spoken.
While there was no consensus on the winner of the first annual SND beauty contest™, Neptune Oyster was the crowd favorite. Sometimes, the underdog gets his moment in the spot light.
Neptune Oyster is a teeny place – it seats something like 25 people – in Boston’s North End (very Little Italy). A large ice table sits in the front window; a woman stands by it, shucking oysters with absurd speed and agility. Neptune serves a wide selection of oysters and clams (the roster changes daily) as well as some prepared dishes.
The oysters come with short descriptions of their flavor, as in “cucumber accents, briny...” While I found the cheat sheets really useful in remembering what or who, if you will, I was eating, I felt led by the descriptions. I read first and ate second. Instead of making up my own mind about what I was tasting, I would note to myself, “why, there are cucumber accents” or some such nonsense. Next time, I am totally not looking at the sheet.
A word or two about eating oysters: I happen to be an oyster purist - nothing but a squirt of lemon for me. I don't see the point of topping something delicate in flavor and texture with horseradish (cocktail sauce) and onions (mignonette). That's what you put on a hot dog, not an oyster. I had to put aside my strong preference for strong red wine, and go with something a little more appropriate for oysters - I had a perfectly girly flute (or three) of Prosecco – feeling the bubbles mixing with the oyster liquor was very neat.
I liked Kumamoto oysters the best. They are very small, dark, with a creamy texture. I found them to have a rather pungent taste, even though that seems to conflict with most descriptions I have read of Kumamotos. It is horribly cliche to say that oysters taste like the ocean, but they really do. They taste like salt and seaweed, and smell like the beach in the evening. They taste alive. That may well be because they are alive, but I will overlook that aspect of oyster consumption.
I pity all those who refuse to eat oysters simply because of what they look like. I have heard oysters described as “snot” or “fetal” (ooph, that one stuck) and I think that’s just mean. Oysters are unique in the food world. It is difficult to compare them to any other food and difficult to describe them in terms of another edible – they most certainly do not taste like chicken. All those that shun them are missing out, big time. Give them a chance, people! Don’t let your eyes dictate what your mouth gets to taste. Thinking about what you’re eating ruins the tasting experience – just taste, don’t think. That is my wisdom for the day. I shall now leave you to ponder.
Sunday, April 29, 2007
The judges have spoken.
Monday, April 23, 2007
Welcome to the first annual Sunday Night Dinner Beauty Contest. The best and the brightest plates from restaurants all around the Boston area have come here to compete for the coveted title of the one, the only, the first ever Miss/Mister Sunday Night Dinner™.
You, the judging panel, are tasked with choosing from among these highly accomplished contenders for the title. We understand that such a decision cannot be undertaken lightly no made easily or spontaneously. To aid you in the decision making process, please consider the following general guidelines:
- Consider all the qualifications of the contestants: plating, originality, perceived smell and taste.
- Be objective: do not let your own food preferences and biases color your decision-making process - this is an equal opportunity beauty contest.
- Look past the imperfections entirely out of our contestants’ control: poor quality of the photograph cannot, and should not, be held against them.
Please enter two votes (Ms/Mr SND and runner up) by Sunday, April 29, 2007 (or whenever you feel like it, really). Please indicate your choices by listing the restaurant name. Do not forget to include what you consider to be the gender of your chosen contestant, indicated by Miss or Mister, and your reasons for the assignment of the gender.
Remember that your votes are non-confidential and non-anonymous. Please be advised that the organizers of the first annual SND Beauty Contest™ reserve all rights to make fun of you based on your response, should the appropriate opportunity present itself. [Incidentally, this holds true for any and all posts presented here, at SND]. The winner will be announced once all the votes are counted.
We appreciate your participation and patronage of the SND Beauty Contest™ and look forward to many more thought-provoking, captivating, and challenging beauty contests in the years to come.
Thursday, April 19, 2007
When I first moved to Boston almost 6 years ago (whew), Kenmore Square, the home of Boston's iconic Citgo sign and adjacent to the famed Fenway Park, was not a place one could calmly walk through unarmed, much less hang out and grab a couple of drinks (unless forties are your thing). Things have really turned around since then. There are nice shops and great restaurants opening up. Scary people still inhabit the square at night, but they are mostly drunk Red Sox fans and are only a hazard if you happen to step in their vomit (oh how I wish I were exaggerating. The streets of Kenmore Sq and environs are paved with vomit).
The de-crappification of Kenmore Sq began with the opening of the upscale Hotel Commonwealth. Restaurants followed suit: first came Petit Robert Bistro, then Eastern Standard and recently, Lower Depths Tap Room. Out of these, Eastern Standard (ES) is my favorite because it has fantastic food, a gorgeous room, and a story. What you are about to read is almost too fantastical to be true, but true it is. Ask any Bostonite and they will confirm it.
ES is owned by a tall, skinny woman with flaming red, curly hair. I have trouble turning my eyes away from her – she really is striking. Besides being striking, she also happens to be a fairy tale lucky woman. Once upon a time, this woman (don’t know her name) was a waitress. One evening she was serving a businessman that came in to dine alone. He was miserable. She treated him well, was kind and attentive. They talked about what he did and how he hated it (he was earning a ton of money but disliked what he did – I have no sympathy for him), and about how she would like to open a restaurant of her own one day. At the end of the evening, the businessman was feeling a smidge less wretched. He wanted to do something for the server that was kind in his time of wretchedness. He left her a 1 million dollar tip. Yep, wrote her a check for a million dollars. (Isn’t it odd when real life resembles TV life?)
She used the money to open her very own restaurant, a fairy tale dream come true for many a waitress. That restaurant tanked – quickly and spectacularly. Tongues were a-wagging, people were a-laughing at the million dollar waitress. She gave the unforgiving restaurant business one more shot – I guess she still had some of that tip left over. She opened Eastern Standard in Kenmore Sq, adjacent to the brand new hotel, and about one block away from Fenway park. Smart woman.
Eastern Standard is booming. Last time I was there, I was informed that there was a one hour wait for a table. At 6:30PM. On a Wednesday. Like I said, booming. The restaurant is huge and tastefully decorated, with enormous glass globe light fixtures hanging down from the tall ceiling and red leather banquettes and chairs surrounding dark wood tables. There is a large and well-stocked raw bar, a daily offering of offal (which is near impossible to find in Boston), and an extensive and unique cocktail menu. The menu is French-tinged, with the obligatory American comfort foods (mac and cheese, burger on brioche, and grilled cheese sandwich with Grafton cheddar) thrown in. ES is uninhibited enough to offer roasted bone marrow on the permanent menu – I have never seen it on a menu in Boston before and I am thrilled (I am weird that way).
The roasted bone marrow is served as three bones cut in half vertically, along with a very salty parsley salad (the traditional accompaniment to roasted bone marrow being a parsley salad and salt), two different types of mustard, and toasted bread.
Bone marrow has the texture and melting point of pure fat and tastes like essence of cow. There is no other way I can describe it. It is a very potent and concentrated beef flavor shoved into a small piece of fat that melts in the mouth. [Note: immunologists will not order this dish, no matter how hard you try. Kinda makes sense, I guess.] The bread serves as a vehicle for getting the gelatinous stuff to your mouth; the vinegary mustard helps cut the almost overwhelming richness of the marrow (and this from a girl who could eat seared foie gras for breakfast… if given the opportunity).
I am grateful to the strange man who hands out million dollar checks and to the owner (I actually don’t know if she is still the owner) of ES who gave restaurant life one more shot. I am also pretty happy that I am no longer afraid for my life when walking through Kenmore Sq... although I still have to watch for the vomit puddles.
P.P.S. An update is in order. I spoke with a friend of mine who happens to be a chef and man about town (if you're reading this, Jim, Hi) about this Eastern Standard/waitress/tip business and he said he hadn't heard about it. This casts serious doubt on the story, as well as my source (I know you're not reading this, Ayesha, Hi). So, take it all with a grain of salt (or perhaps with a salt-rimmed margarita). The BS story doesn't detract from ES, however. It's still a great place, even without a movie kind of beginning.
P.P.P.S. Yet another update - I was right all along! Scroll down the Chowhound thread for an update on the million dollar waitress.
Thursday, April 12, 2007
I have finally joined the ranks of true cooks. I cut myself. Badly.
I didn't exactly cut myself. It would be more accurate to say that I cut a piece of myself off. [All together now: Eeeeewwww!]. I was chopping garlic in the last stages of dinner preparation, using my most favorite of all exceedingly sharp knives when it happened. I was distracted, preoccupied, not thinking about what I was doing (all fitting synonyms for "asking for it"). Oooh I so vividly remember the sensation of the knife going through my fingertip. Lord almighty it felt alien and awful.
After I recovered from almost fainting, I saw that I had taken a little chunk or divot out of my left index finger. While nothing serious ( I don’t think), the bugger wouldn’t stop bleeding (I like to think of it as gushing) for hours. Hours! I briefly contemplated going to the hospital but couldn’t stomach the thought of pulling a nurse away from a gun shot or stroke victim to take a look at the booboo on my finger. That would just be embarrassing (this I know for a fact because I once had to go to Urgent Care to get a glass splinter removed from the index finger on my right hand. I am not so good with the index fingers, it would seem).
I took an ibuprofen (smart girl that I am... taking a blood thinner while desperately trying to stop bleeding), put the hand above my head, took pictures to distract myself, and proceeded to sulk and whine for a good long while.
Time has passed, my finger hurts less, but my divot is still impressive. I am done sulking. I have joined the scarred cooks club and am feeling slightly hardcore and just a little bit cooler for it. Cooks and chefs are covered in scars from cuts and burns. While I hope never to actually be covered in them, I am pretty excited to have my first war wound. I prefer to think of it as a war wound, as opposed to a memorial to my astounding clumsiness and stupidity. Incidentally, my plov turned out remarkably well. Could it have been the special seasoning I added? Eeeeewwww.
P.S. No one wanted to see my finger! I kept offering but people kept running away… why is that, I wonder? The head of my lab accused me of trying to make her vomit. Hee. If you don’t want to see it (wuss), don’t scroll down.
Sunday, April 08, 2007
I visited two parallel universes in one weekend. It was a bit of a whirlwind.
The first visit gave me a glimpse of what my life would be like if I married for money and/or chose a career slightly (ha) more profitable than microbiology, while the second revealed what it could be like to have three kids, house, and husband, all by the ripe old age of 25. Both of these revelations were somewhat traumatic.
Let me start at the beginning. I went to Nebraska this weekend. Yep, Nebraska. I never wanted to know where Nebraska is, much less visit it. I am happy to say that I still have no idea where it is. “Over there” remains sufficient for me. Due to scheduling issues and delays (stupid Logan Airport) I was shuffled to a new flight, getting bumped to first class in the process.
We were plied with vast quantities of spring water, booze, and good cheer all before leaving the ground in our wide, recliner-like seats. And then we were fed – roasted vegetable pizza with ricotta, parmesan and feta. It was good! It wasn't "good-for-an-airplane" good, but actually good. I could very easily get used to this manner of travel.
What I would have a harder time getting used to are the semi-hostile stares of the people filing past me to their seats in coach. “It’s not my fault!!,” I wanted to yell out, but didn’t, for fear of being kicked out of first class and relegated to coach with the rest of the riff raff.
The other thing I was not a fan of – I was one of two women in first class, and the only one not traveling in the capacity of “the wife.” Bit of a culture shock there. I was surrounded by men in suits and sat next to one named (I kid you not) Blaine. Blaine? Seriously? He was perfectly nice and friendly, but I had a hard time excusing his name… even after I had a beer.
Speaking of culture shock… Nebraska. Huh.
At the engagement party of the bestest of friends, I was seated next to the Nebraska born and bred friends of her fiance. The women among them were approximately my age, if not a little younger (ack). They promptly and thoroughly questioned me as to my marital/relationship status and were shocked and impressed by the fact that I am not only single, but that I traveled to Lincoln, Nebraska *gasp* all by myself. “You are so brave!” they mused. I hadn’t realized that domestic airspace was pirate-infested and dangerous, but alright, I'll take brave.
Once they realized that I a) didn’t care to hear about their kids, b) didn’t care to discuss the possibility of having kids of my own, and that c) my sense of humor, taste in television shows, and choice of reading material did nothing but puzzle and irritate them, I was left to my Pinot Grigio and giant plate of amazingly good food from the Kansas City caterer that served the party. On my fully loaded plate: spicy saag paneer with the tenderest paneer cubes, lamb curry with strong cinnamon undercurrents, dal makhani (brown dal made with butter/ghee), raita, pakoras, naan, and assorted sweets (mithai; jalebi is a personal favorite).
I am now happily, safely, and non-pirate-molestedly back to my non-first class, child-free life. As I slip back into my normal schedule, among people who see the world as I do, I realize that I could have been many different people, each with her own society, problems, and set of expectations, judgments and motivations, but I am simply me, with a puzzling and irritating sense of humor, penchant for traveling alone, and slowly returning love of vegetables, especially multi-colored ones. These radishes are going on the salad that I will take to lab with me tomorrow as I attempt to recover from the mass quantities of food I ate this weekend. I will eat my salad while dreaming of saag paneer and deep-fried sugar syrup. Sigh.
Wednesday, April 04, 2007
I love all things vegetable and fruit. I love cooking vegetables. I love Boston Organics. I love opening the big green box they leave in my entryway and breathing in the puff of fruit and vegetable aroma (or fruit/veg body odor, if you will) that accumulated over a day. It smells alive and healthy and earthy. BUT. Enough is enough. I have reached my limit with vegetables. I am starting to feel somewhat rabbit-like with all the leafy greens and roughage that I consume on a daily basis. I need a break.
No more vegetables! I want something with little nutritional value, little crunch, little green, and lots of warm olive oil and cheese. I bowed before my cravings and made a dinner that fulfilled at least half of those requirements.
Why not all the requirements? Simple. Guilt. That’s right, guilt. I had leeks I needed to use up before they crossed the veg life line into a limp and cloth-like state. I can’t waste food! Secondly, I used whole wheat pasta instead of the regular white kind. I felt guilty using regular pasta when there was a perfectly suitable and healthy alternative in my packed pantry (seriously. It’s about to burst). I have an overactive conscience, it’s true.
So, without further delay, this was my non-vegetable, non-low-fat, non-protein rich dinner… with a lot of fiber.
Non-rabbit pasta with leeks
1 leak, washed and sliced (white and light green parts only)
8 oz pasta, regular or whole wheat, for those with a guilt complex
2 tbsp chopped parsley (omit if boycotting green)
1/4 cup grated parmesan
1) Cook leek in olive oil over low heat till it wilts and becomes soft (this takes forever... as in 15-20 minutes)
2) Cook pasta in salted boiling water until just done, reserve a cup of pasta water
3) Add into pan with leeks, sprinkle with parmesan, drizzle with more olive oil. Add
pasta water in ¼ cup increments till you get the pasta to the level of hydration you are happy with (as in, till it’s no longer dry). Toss in parsley.
4) Salt, pepper… oooh maybe red pepper flakes. Everything is better with red pepper flakes.
5) Eat with bread and beer, if you’re really pushing the carbs. Which I was.
Monday, April 02, 2007
I am a good eater. I really am. I don’t need to be hungry to eat and enjoy my food and I will eat (or at least try) just about anything and everything. “Eww, that’s gross” is not in my vocabulary.
I was trained to eat when I don’t necessarily need or want to. There was no such thing as leaving food uneaten when I was little. All food on all plates had to be consumed, none thrown out, none wasted. Neither my cousin nor I were allowed to leave the table till our plates were clean. One day, desperate to get away from the table, my cousin stuffed everything left on her plate into her mouth… and kept it there. For hours. But her plate was clean! Do you see the brilliance of that approach? She was a clever 6 year-old. Now she is a very very clever 21 year old, but that’s a different story (she shares my love of piercing. It must be genetic. She rocks).
This eating boot camp made me able to eat whatever, whenever. It’s never too early or too late for me to eat. Like I said, I am a good eater. Quantity and timing of food consumption aside, I hold no preconceived notions of what should or should not be eaten. Thinking about what I am eating has never got into the way of my eating it… insides and outsides of various creatures alike. I can play the “what’s the weirdest thing you have ever eaten” game for hours.
This weekend I made a dessert that is fit only for adventurous, non-prejudiced eaters such as myself: chocolate ganache with fruity olive oil and flaky salt, inspired by a recipe off my new favorite website, Chowhound. Chocolate, olive oil and salt. Weird, right? Maybe not entirely. The combination of sweet and savory is the trendiest thing. Salted caramel and salted chocolate are appearing on menus all over town and in every shop. Food blogs are screaming about sweet and savory combinations and the Boston Globe even ran a huge story on the subject a few months ago. The trendy person that I am, I had to jump on the salty bandwagon and try it for myself.
The chocolate/olive oil dessert is the simplest combination of four ingredients imaginable, which is why all four have to be of the highest quality. I used Valrhona Manjari chocolate to make the ganache, topped it with red Hawaiian sea salt and poured my favorite olive oil around the chocolate island.
So what did it taste like? Puzzling and a little shocking. It was so out of the norm, so far outside what I am used to eating that I really didn’t know how to process it. It made me pause and think, staring at my dessert, trying to put the taste experience words. Hmmm...
Let me begin with the texture. The crunch of the salt crystals served to break up the richness and creaminess of the ganache and oil. The thin and runny olive oil coated each bite of the smooth, soft chocolate, simulating a chocolate truffle with a warm liquid shell and cool solid center.
And the taste… surprisingly harmonious, with each component heightening the flavors of the others. The salt took the sticky sweet edge off the chocolate, allowing the chocolate flavor to deepen and stand out with all its subtleties. The oil stood its own ground with a completely separate flavor from the chocolate – in harmony, not in combination. In other words, each component of the dessert remained distinct yet enhanced the flavor of the others. Neat and thought provoking. Should you consider yourself a good eater, try it. Tell me what you think.
Chocolate ganache with flaky salt and olive oil (for good eaters only)
3 ounces chopped Valrhona Manjari chocolate, or any top quality chocolate, ~70% cocoa content
1/3 cup heavy cream
Red Hawaiian sea salt, or any flaky salt of your choosing
1) Heat cream till almost at a boil
2) Pour hot cream over chopped chocolate, let stand for 2-3 minutes
3) Mix chocolate and cream till all the chocolate is melted. Rap the bowl on the countertop to rid the ganache of any air bubbles that may have become trapped during the mixing.
4) Place plastic wrap on the surface of the chocolate and refrigerate for about 2 hours or until set
5) Scoop out a modest hill of ganache, top with salt and surround with olive oil.
6) Set aside five quiet minutes.
7) Taste slowly and thoroughly.
8) Sit and think.
* It just occurred to me that Hawaiian salt really isn't flaky. It's more granular or crystal-like. Somehow, chocolate ganache with granular salt doesn't sound nearly as appealing. For the sake of aesthetics, I will stand by the misnomer.