Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Food (Section) Fight!: Week 43

Food (Section) Fight! is my weekly look at The Washington Post's Food section and The New York Times' Dining section with my verdict on which section had the better content for the week.

Washington Post

1) “Pick Up Artist,” by Bonnie S. Benwick. Rotisserie chicken is big business for grocery stores these days. Benwick and team took an America’s Test Kitchen approach to sampling 14 local examples of the roasted bird, noting their taste, the store’s policy for how long unsold birds are left on the shelf and also how stores may reuse the chicken they don’t sell. Not into rotisserie chicken myself, but I enjoyed the article. Sounds like Costco might be the bird to beat. Includes a nice sidebar with pictures and descriptions of all chickens sampled.

2) “Frightening heat, at a farmers market near you,” by Tim Carman. Another thing I’m not into is super hot chili peppers. Really, who is? Apparently a select few, who approach eating such peppers like a sport. Carman, bless his heart, dives in with the best of them and artfully describes sampling a ghost pepper, which is about 200 times spicier than a jalapeño. If you’ve ever eaten something too hot—or watched someone else do it—you’ll appreciate this a lot.

3) “Roasted Butternut Squash and Chickpeas,” Nourish recipe by Stephanie Witt Sedgwick. Doesn’t that sound like an interesting combination? I’d really like to try this. I particularly like how Sedgwick describes the roasted chickpeas as becoming toasty and slightly dried like snack food. Yummy.

4) “Citra, hop of the moment,” Beer column by Daniel Fromson. We’re really big fans of hoppy beer in our house, so I appreciated Fromson’s column on how different hops come into fashion, with the Citra, the hop of-the-moment, appearing in some local brews.

5) Barefoot and (almost) foolproof," Book Report by Bonnie S. Benwick. You might be surprised to learn that I don't really watch cooking shows. Apart from Top Chef, I don't make a point of watching them, although I do occasionally tune it to see what America's Test Kitchen or Jacques Pepin are up to (and years ago I was a Rachael Ray devotee, but not these days). So I'm not a Barefoot Contessa fan, but her new cookbook sounds interesting. I'm intrigued by Benwick's description of her recipes being written in a minimal style but usually with an important detail. Sounds like good food writing.

New York Times

1) “The Once and Future Spago,” by Adam Nagourney. The Times’ lead story is a thoughtful profile of Wolfgang Puck, the California-centric chef who resides at the helm of a major food empire that includes restaurants all over the country (including D.C.’s The Source), fast food outlets in major airports and even a grocery brand. Wolfgang Puck was one of the first chefs I knew by name whose food I really wanted to try. I remember how excited I was when I got to eat at Spago in 2000. I'm pleased to read that Puck, who just completed a redesign of Spago Beverly Hills, is still going strong.

2) “A Different Shade of Risotto,” How to Cook Everything column by Mark Bittman. Just about every recipe I’ve seen for risotto calls for Arborio rice, so it was refreshing to see Bittman experiment successfully with using brown rice. His Brown Rice Risotto with Winter Squash sounds like a healthy take on the dish, which omits much of the butter and cheese that make risotto heavy. 

3) “Carrots Develop a Meatier Reputation,” by Florence Fabricant. After learning that Eleven Madison Avenue now serves a carrot tartare, clearly carrots place on the culinary landscape is evolving. Fabricant examines how chefs are gaining a new appreciation for the common root vegetable. 

4) “They’re Eating Out of the Palm of His Hand,” by Adam Nagourey. I’ve been wondering about this and got my answer: Jose Andres does indeed have a presence in Las Vegas. Two in fact: a fourth branch of his Spanish tapas concept, Jaleo, and a super-secret cousin of Minibar called é. Nagourey describes it as being like a speakeasy, and that sounds pretty accurate. The restaurant does not appear on Andres’ Think Food Group website. It serves dishes inspired by Spain and molecular gastronomy; Andres describes it as being like Minibar but easier for people to understand. And of course its eight seats are sold out every night.

5) “Neighbors Won’t Give Candy Like This,” A Good Appetite column by Melissa Clark. Halloween candy isn’t just for kids, especially in the hands of Clark, who whips up a slate of adult-oriented candy, including Almond and Goat Cheese Candy Bars and Black Pepper and Bourbon Caramel Chews.


The New York Times. It’s really close this week—lots of great stories in both publications. I’m giving the Times a slight edge for their Puck profile, brown rice risotto and carrots. Plus, I think they should get some credit for putting out such a great section during the week Sandy ravaged the city, which was hit far worse than D.C.


The Washington Post: 22
The New York Times: 20

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Sautéed Chicken with Pan Wine Sauce

Making a quick pan sauce is a great way to finish sautéed chicken and quick enough to do on a weeknight (it takes less than 5 additional minutes). This is a pretty versatile thing. Sometimes I add capers, sometimes I use lemon juice, shallots or garlic will work well.

Sautéed Chicken with Pan Wine Sauce

1 tbsp. unsalted butter
1 tbsp. olive oil
2 tbsp. flour
Seasoned salt and fresh-ground black pepper to taste
Pinch of ground clove
Pinch of ground cumin
1 lb. boneless, skinless chicken breast cutlets
3 garlic cloves, minced
3/4 cup dry white wine (such as chardonnay)
1 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
2 tbsp. fresh chopped flat-leaf parsley

1. Heat butter and olive oil in a medium frying pan over medium heat. Stir together flour, seasoned salt, pepper, clove and cumin. Pat chicken dry with a paper towel and dredge in the flour mixture. Sauté until chicken is browned, about 5-6 minutes on each side (10-12 minutes total). Remove from pan. Do not remove pan drippings.

2. Add garlic to hot pan with drippings. Sauté a couple minutes until softened but not brown. Add wine and stir to deglaze pan. Continue cooking until the sauce thickens. Stir in lemon juice. Serve chicken topped with a generous spoonful of sauce and a sprinkle of fresh parsley.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Reese's Pieces Ice Cream

E.T. - The Extra-Terrestrial is an incredibly good movie, and I'm celebrating its 30th anniversary with this Reese's Pieces Ice Cream, a nod to the peanut butter candy Elliott uses to coax E.T. out of the shed and into the house.

I've read the production originally sought to use M&Ms, but the candy company wouldn't allow it. So they turned to the similarly shaped Reese's Pieces which, in 1982, had only been on the market a few years. Since the movie went on to become a massive critical and commercial hit--it was a Best Picture nominee and the highest-grossing movie of all time in the U.S. for 15 years--this was surely a major boon to Hershey, maker of Reese's Pieces.

Unlike the pieces' better known cousin, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, there is no chocolate in Reese's Pieces. They are just a sweet peanut butter filling coated with a hard candy shell that's either orange, brown or yellow.

This ice cream is really quite simple: I used Jeni Britton Bauer's basic recipe for vanilla bean ice cream and stirred in some Reese's Pieces I'd pulsed in the food processor a few times to break them up a bit. If you don't want to make ice cream, you could achieve a similar result by letting store-bought vanilla ice cream soften a bit and then stirring in the crushed candy.

Reese's Pieces Ice Cream
With credit to Jeni's Vanilla Bean Ice Cream, Food & Wine

2 cups whole milk
1 tbsp. plus 1 tsp. cornstarch
1 1/4 ounces cream cheese, softened
1/8 tsp. salt
1 vanilla bean pod
1 1/4 cups heavy cream
2/3 cup sugar
1 1/2 tbsp. corn syrup
3/4 cup Reese's Pieces

1. Mix two tablespoons of the milk together with the cornstarch in a small bowl. Whisk together cream cheese with salt in a large bowl. Fill a large bowl with ice water.

2. Split the vanilla bean pod in half the long way and scrape the seeds into a medium heavy saucepan. Add bean pod to pan along with remaining milk, cream, sugar and corn syrup. Bring mixture to boil and boil for 4 minutes, stirring to prevent it from boiling over. Remove from heat. Slowly whisk in the milk/cornstarch mixture. Return to heat and boil for 1 minute until mixture starts to thicken. Remove from heat and whisk into the cream cheese until combined and smooth. Pour mixture into 1-gallon Ziplock bag and submerge bag in the ice water bath, adding additional ice if necessary. Chill for 30 minutes. The mixture can now be refrigerated if needed.

3. Spin ice cream in ice cream maker according to manufacturer's directions. While spinning, pulse Reese's Pieces a few times in a food processor to break up. When ice cream is done, stir candy into ice cream until combined. Freeze completely in freezer.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Smoked Cashew Salsa

I may have been disappointed by my recent dinner at Empellón Cocina, but it wasn't all bad. Quite to the contrary, there were quite a few things that I really liked about the restaurant.

Perhaps our favorite dish was the smoked cashew salsa served with masa crisps. Chef Alex Stupak graciously shares many of his recipes on his restaurant's blog, including the Smoked Cashew Salsa (which was also handed to us on a card with the check).

Stupak's original recipe calls for smoking the cashews yourself. If you have the equipment and wherewithal, by all means go for it. But, lacking an effective means of smoking nuts, I went with store-bought smoked cashews. They weren't easy to find; in fact, I couldn't find any at my usual grocery stores or even from Amazon. As luck would have it, I came across some at Fred Meyer, an Oregon chain of grocery and discount department stores.

As written, the recipe calls for chipotle chili peppers, which I didn't have on hand, so I substituted a teaspoon of chili powder. This makes the dish significantly less spicy, but will work in a pinch. After combining the nuts and water in the portions the recipe calls for, I thought it wasn't thick enough, so I threw in the rest of the nuts. Additionally, since the store-bought nuts were already salted, I added no additional salt. If you smoke unsalted nuts, you'll probably want some salt.

Smoked Cashew Salsa
Adapted from a recipe by Alex Stupak for Empellón Cocina

8 oz. smoked, salted cashews
1 cup water
1 tbsp. sugar
1 tsp. chili powder (or more if you want it hotter or substitute chipotle chili powder or a whole chopped chipotle pepper)

Combine all ingredients in a blender. Puree until smooth. Serve with tortilla chips or cut vegetables.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Food (Section) Fight!: Week 42

Food (Section) Fight! is my weekly look at The Washington Post's Food section and The New York Times' Dining section with my verdict on which section had the better content for the week.

Apologies for the lack of links today. I had to write this one fast, as I'm headed to a cooking event tonight. All the stories and recipes are available and easy to find from the main Food and Dining section links that appear above.

Washington Post

(1) "Bowl o' red, take three," The Process column by David Hagedorn. Everyone has their chili recipe, even me. Hagedorn discusses the evolution of his own chili-making, including three mouth-watering recipes: a Dark Pot Roast Chili flavored with cocoa and espresso powder, a Korean-inspired Kim Chili and the Indian-inspired Paneer and Butternut Squash Kashmiri Chili. I love that he says onions and garlic are "non-negotiable" for any chili; some cooks would say they are non-negotiable for any good dish! And I totally agree with putting black beans in chili, irate Texans can just deal.

(2) "Linguine with Cauliflower Pesto," Dinner in Minutes column by Bonnie S. Benwick. Raw cauliflower pesto either sounds intriguing or off-putting, depending upon your view of the somewhat pungent vegetable. I'll trust Benwick's assessment though. The pesto is made with almonds, sun-dried tomatos, pecorino-romano, garlic, capers and parsley. How can that not be good?

(3) "It costs more to use the good stuff, but it pays," Spirits column by Jason Wilson. In this week's column, Wilson tackles two pieces of conventional wisdom about spirits: 1) that the "good stuff" shouldn't be used in cocktails, and 2) that older spirits are better. He disagrees with both adages and provides a good explanation as to why.

(4) "Labeling meals with at-a-glance analysis," Smarter Food column by Jane Black. Black examines the Bon Appetit food service company's new simplified system for helping diners identify healthy foods. Sure sounds a lot simpler, and ultimately more informative, than other methods.

(5) "Where the Bison graze in style," by Tim Carman. I'm not a football fan, so I've never been to a tailgate party. I had a coworker explain it to me recently and was surprised to find out that it's much more elaborate than the name suggests. Although a tradition at many schools, Howard University has only allowed it in recent years, but that hasn't stopped the event from becoming a pretty big deal, serving up some interesting southern cuisine like Keith Benn's Seafood Boil and Ice Tea-Brined Chicken.

New York Times

(1) "Peanut Butter Takes On An Unlikely Best Friend," De Gustibus Column by Dwight Garner. When I was a kid, I ate a lot of peanut butter and honey sandwiches (I wouldn't eat jam or jelly), but on occasion, the honey was replaced with pickles, an interesting and better-than-you'd-think combination. So I was surprised to read in Garner's story that this combo, which he also likes, is apparently rather rare and unheard of by a lot of people. Of course Peanut Butter & Co. in Greenwich Village makes one they call the "Pregnant Lady," developed as the name implies to satisfy a particular customer's craving. As an aside, I'm curous what this "De Gustibus" column is, as I've not seen it before.

(2) "Helping Quiche Find Its Savory Roots," City Kitchen column by David Tanis. Tanis makes a good argument for the return of the quiche, which gets little attention these days. I'll admit, I've never made one, and I'm not sure why. I love pie, and the Classic Quiche Aux Lardons made with bacon and gruyere sounds delicious.

(3) "Good Things, Small Package," by Jeff Gordinier. A generation ago, dumplings were called "pot stickers"; they've come a long way since then. Gordinier looks at continuing evolution of the popular Asian-inspired dish, which now includes a pretzel-like version at Talde in Brooklyn's Park Slope.

(4) "Add Some Twists and Turns to a Familiar Route," A Good Appetite column by Melissa Clark. Clarks discusses how to take a simple dinner--roasted chicken thighs with squash--and make it livelier. She added coriander seeds and lemon to the chicken and glazed the squash with maple syrup. Shame whoever did the photography for this story used acorn squash instead of delicata as the recipe calls for.

(5) "A Public Display of Affection," Restaurant review by Pete Wells. Wells begins this week's review of "21" (21 West 52nd Street) with a disclaimer of sorts. He rates the restaurant "satisfactory," i.e. no stars, and seems to find the food rather boring, but yet he likes the place as a sort of throwback to a bygone era of New York dining. Frankly, I'm a little surprised to see such nostalgia from a restaurant critic for a place with a dress code and mediocre food.


The Washington Post. It's a pretty close call this week. Some interesting recipes in both publications, but the clincher is the really great chili story by David Hagedorn.


The Washington Post: 22

The New York Times: 19


I rarely put croutons in salad anymore, but sometimes I'd like something crunchy in there. Nuts can do this somewhat, but it's a different sort of crunch. I do, however, like cheese in my salad.

Frico is a way to have the best of both worlds. It's a homemade parmesan cracker that's easy to whip up in under 15 minutes. Be careful with them--they are very delicate.

Adapted from Parmesan Crisps, Gourmet Magazine

Makes 3 frico

1 oz. shredded parmigiano-reggiano
1 tsp. flour
Fresh-ground black pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 375 F. Place a nonstick liner (like a Silpat) on a baking sheet. Combine cheese, flour and pepper and spoon onto sheet into three evenly spaced mounds. Use a spatula or the back of the spoon to flatten the mounds into rounds of about 4 inches in diameter. Bake until golden, about 10-12 minutes. Allow to cool for a couple minutes and then very carefully transfer to a wire rack to cool completely (be careful, they break really easily).

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Layla's Peanut Sauce

The old adage about college cuisine is that it ranges from packaged ramen to pizza delivery. I spent most of my college years on a dining hall plan, but even living off campus my senior year, I remember eating a lot better than that.

One of the fascinations at the time was Thai food, which back in the late '90s was the new in vogue ethnic cuisine. Thai restaurants proliferated in the Portland area. Where I went to school, a very rural area about 5 hours drive east of Portland, you'd think Thai would be nonexistent, but there was actually a rather decent Thai restaurant in the tiny town next to the small town where I went to school (I think it might be this place).

On campus, a few of us cooked up our own Thai dishes. I made an ambitious attempt at pad thai (back when people were still putting ketchup in it), and my friend Doug made a host of great dishes, including curries. But my favorite Thai-style dish from that time was my housemate Layla's peanut sauce. It's the best peanut sauce I've ever had: silky, garlicky, tangy, a little spicy and just all around peanut-y good.

One afternoon, Layla did some demonstration cooking for me and my housemate Julieanna to show us how it's done. It's really pretty easy: it all comes together in the food processor. Mince the garlic, ginger, jalapeño and cilantro in the food processor. Then add the remaining ingredients, saving the honey, curry powder and sesame oil to be added last.

To keep the focus on the flavor of the wonderful sauce, I served it with simple broiled skewered vegetables and chicken with brown rice. The chicken I marinated in soy sauce, hoisin sauce, sesame oil, garlic and ginger. The vegetables I brushed with canola oil and seasoned with salt and pepper.

Modest as she is, Layla claims that the peanut sauce recipe comes from the now defunct Portland eatery Caprial. However, to me, it will always just be Layla's Peanut Sauce.

Layla's Peanut Sauce
Adapted from Caprial's Bistro's Hot As Hell Chicken On Chinese Noodles With Peanut Sauce

(I halved the recipe and still had plenty of sauce for two people, really it was enough for four, but we kind of gorged on it)

1 tsp. minced fresh ginger
1 garlic clove, roughly chopped
1 tsp. chopped cilantro
1/2 jalapeño pepper, roughly chopped (Layla called for twice as much, but I don't make it as spicy)
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/2 cup creamy natural peanut butter
1 tsp curry powder (Layla calls for toasting it, but I didn't bother)
2 tbsp. honey
1 tsp dark sesame oil

Combine the ginger, garlic, cilantro and jalapeño in a food processor. Pulse a few times to mince ingredients. Add vinegar, soy sauce and peanut butter, and process until well combined. Scrape down the sides with a spatula and add the curry powder, honey and sesame oil. Process until sauce is smooth. Serve in ramekins alongside foods for dipping or combine with rice, meats or cooked vegetables.

Broiled Chicken and Vegetable Skewers

1 lb. chicken breast meat, cut into 3/4-inch cubes
2 tbsp. low-sodium soy sauce
1 tbsp. hoisin sauce
2 tsp. dark sesame oil
1/2 tsp. ground ginger
1/2 tsp. garlic powder
Fresh ground black pepper
1 zucchini, cut into 3/4-inch cubes
1/2 sweet onion, cut into large dice
1 red bell pepper (or 1/2 red and 1/2 green bell peppers), cut into large dice
1 tbsp. canola oil
Salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste

1. Soak 12 bamboo skewers in water (if using bamboo, which I actually wouldn't recommend, as they can splinter in the food--or your finger. Henceforth, I'm using metal skewers.)

2. Stir together soy sauce, hoisin sauce, sesame oil, ground ginger, garlic powder and pepper and combine in a large bowl with chicken. Set aside to marinate.

3. Preheat oven broiler with oven rack about 4-5 inches from element.

4. Thread alternating types of vegetable pieces onto six of the skewers. Place on a baking sheet and brush with canola oil. Season with salt and pepper. Broil about 4 minutes, turn skewers, and broil another 3-4 minutes until cooked and lightly charred on the edges. Remove from oven.

5. While vegetables cook, thread chicken pieces onto the remaining skewers. When vegetables come out of oven, put chicken skewers on a baking sheet and broil for about 8-10 minutes, turning halfway (chicken takes a little longer to cook than the vegetables, hence the separate cooking). Remove from oven. Serve with brown rice and Layla's Peanut Sauce from above.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

D.C. Food Truck Pork Sandwiches

From top to bottom, sandwiches from The Rolling Ficelle, SUNdeVICH and Pepe

If Subway and Au Bon Pain aren't doing it for you anymore in the sandwich department, maybe it's time to check out food trucks. There are some pretty amazing offerings on hand, from barbecue to banh mi. Expertly cooked pork is not something many fast casual sandwich restaurants offer, so it's a treat to find that quite a few food trucks do. Here are some top offerings from city food trucks:

The Rolling Ficelle, Pollack Ficelle ($8.50). The Pollack is a nicely rounded sandwich consisting of slow-roasted pork with Swiss cheese, caramelized onions, grilled jalapeño, cilantro and lemon-garlic aioli. I loved how the tangy aioli complimented the cilantro and savory pork. The bread was really good too, with a crispy (but not hard) exterior and soft, flavorful interior. If there was any gripe it was that the meat was a little dry. But otherwise very good.

SUNdeVICH, Havana ($10). This sandwich was amazingly good, the best of the bunch. All the elements worked well together but the star, as it should be, was the roasted pork, which was among the best roasted pork I've ever had. Perfectly seasoned and in harmony with the gruyere, pickles and dijon. SUNdeVICH has a nice variety of sandwiches, and I look forward to trying some of the others.

Pepe, Pepito de Ibérico ($20). Famous chef Jose Andres made headlines when he started his D.C. food truck Pepe last summer, which offers a menu of sandwiches not dissimilar to what you can get at his Jaleo. Particular interest was generated by his audacity to offer a $20 sandwich from a food truck. The imported meats--seared ibérico pork and serrano ham--are what drives the cost. Is it worth it? It's tasty, but not $20 tasty. Served along with roasted green peppers, caramelized onion and aioli, I thought my sandwich was too greasy (take lots of napkins if you eat this on the street). Definitely not bad, but probably my least favorite of these three.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Food (Section) Fight!: Week 41

Food (Section) Fight! is my weekly look at The Washington Post's Food section and The New York Times' Dining section with my verdict on which section had the better content for the week.

New York Times

1) "The Snail Wrangler," by Jeff Gordinier. If the thought of eating snails turns you off, read Gordinier's story anyway, for it's an interesting look at California snail farmer Mary Stewart, whose product is prized by chefs like Daniel Boulud and Thomas Keller. 

2) "In Myanmar, True Comfort in the Food," by Julia Moskin. Burmese food plays like fifth or sixth fiddle when it comes to the popularity of eastern Asian cuisine in the U.S., dominated as it is by, in this order: Chinese, Thai, Japanese, Vietnamese and Korean. I wager most major cities have restaurants that serve all of those, but there probably aren't a lot of places serving Burmese cuisine, which sounds like an intriguing mix of Chinese, southeast Asian and Indian flavors. 

3) "A Gratifying Adventure in Group Cooking," How to Cook Everything column by Mark Bittman. Bittman apparently was recently auctioned off, and the winners received an afternoon of cooking with him at their home. Not a bad prize at all. Bittman details his afternoon cooking in someone else's apartment. Although he seems to chide them a bit for lack of equipment (no blender, for example), he nonetheless seemed to have enjoyed whipping up a really great meal (I looked up the recipe for his Chocolate-Tofu Pudding, which I'd like to try).

4) "From the White House, Beer We Can Believe In," Beers of the Times column by Eric Asimov. The Washington Post wrote about this a long time ago, but nonetheless, I enjoyed Asimov's column exploring the infamous White House honey ale, which included getting Brooklyn Brewery to recreate it. Sounds really good.

5) "A Pasta Salad That Keeps Its Cool," A Good Appetite column by Melissa Clark. Clark astutely points out that there are two schools of pasta salad in the U.S.: the good kind with olive oil and fresh vegetables and the bad kind with too much mayo. She gives a nice example of the former: Penne with Roasted Eggplant, Chile and Mint.

6) "A New Best Friend for Pad Thai," Hungry City column by Ligaya Mishan. Portland, Ore.-based Thai chef Andy Ricker, known on the east coast for his Brooklyn outpost Pok Pok Ny, has converted his former Manhattan joint, Pok Pok Wing to Pok Pok Phat Thai, which specializes in authentic pad Thai.

Washington Post

1) "We have our parts to play," part 2 of 3 of Pig to Table Project by Tamar Haspel. Thirteen weeks ago, The Washington Post began a three-part series about the experience of a writer raising her own pigs for slaughter. I swooned for the story then and found today's second installment just as interesting. Haspel highlights a lot of important ethical and cultural considerations with regard to how we eat. Judging from the comments in today's Free Range on Food chat, it's generating a lot of strong opinions--both for and against what she's doing--which is great. My personal opinion is that to live as omnivores in some sort of ignorant bliss about where our meat comes from is misguided. Because we can get butchered, bled and packaged cuts of meat at the store that already resemble food more than an animal means that we've become very disconnected from the food chain we are part of. Haspel's story is an important reminder of what we're really eating, something we shouldn't take for granted.

2) "Cook quinoa a little longer, and it's swell," Cooking for One column by Joe Yonan. Yonan tackles the über-trendy grain, which he admits he doesn't really like that much (frankly, I've found it a bit dull myself). Teaming up with quinoa-cooking specialist Wendy Polisi, he explores ways to make the grain (really a seed) shine, including a delicious-sounding recipe for Black Bean, Quinoa and Spinach Stew.

3) "If only they sold this jerky at 7-Eleven," The Immigrant's Table column by Tim Carman. I'm not a big beef jerky fan, but after reading Carman's latest column on foreign foods in America, I was hungry for some. He takes a look at Vietnamese-style beef jerky, which sounds way more interesting and tasty than a Slim Jim. He even includes a few recipes.

4) "An artist's design, but interpretation disappoints," First Bite column by Tom Sietsema. Has anyone else noticed that Sietsema seems particularly disappointed in where he eats these days? That trend continues with his look at The National Gallery's Garden Cafe, which now features a buffet created by Restaurant Eve Chef Cathal Armstrong as a tie-in to a new exhibit on furniture (Sietsema, like me, seems to be scratching his head on how they made that connection).


The Washington Post. I did find more stories of interest in the New York Times, even breaking my 5-story limit because I really wanted to include Ricker's new Pad Thai joint. But more often than not, quality wins over quantity, and I really enjoyed all of the Post's front-page stories, particularly the second installment of the pig-raising series, which I think is really impressive food journalism.


The Washington Post: 21
The New York Times: 19

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Fresh Fig Bites

After making the Kale, Fig and Apple Salad, I had a few figs leftover, which I used to make this tasty appetizer.

Fresh Fig Bites

2 oz. blue cheese (such as Stilton)
2 tsp. chopped fresh rosemary
Fresh-ground black pepper

12 fresh mission figs
6 strips of prosciutto about 8 inches long and 4 inches wide (about 2 oz.), cut in half to make 12 stripes about 8 x 2 inches.
1/4 cup good quality balsamic vinegar

1. Preheat oven to 400 F.

2. Crumble blue cheese into a microwave-safe bowl. Add rosemary and season with pepper. Microwave to soften cheese, about 10-15 seconds (if it melts, put in the freezer briefly to firm up). Stir to combine with rosemary and pepper.

3. Slice figs about 3/4 the way down, being sure not to slice in half. Spoon about 1/2 tsp. cheese into the slice of each fig and then wrap a slice of prosciutto around the fig to cover the cheese-filled slit. Place wrapped figs on a baking sheet and bake for about 8 minutes.

4. Heat balsamic vinegar in a small frying pan over medium heat until it reduces by half. Drizzle 1/2 tsp. reduced vinegar over each roasted fig. Serve with toothpicks.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Pasta Alfredo Cornbonara

When I was a kid, a favorite snack was fettuccine alfredo carbonara, a gloppy, creamy confection with little bits of (probably fake) bacon and parsley. It came in a pouch of dried noodles and powder, which I cooked on the stove with milk and butter (or rather margarine probably). was the early '90s and I was like 15.

It's not something I would make today, although I still feel the lure of noodles, cream, cheese and bacon. Mmm... Alfredo carbonara doesn't come without some costs though. First off, alfredo sauce is basically cream (despite the fact that originally it was only cheese). And carbonara is prepared with raw egg that "cooks" with the heat of the pasta. Yeah right. There's no way just boiled pasta is going to raise raw eggs' temperature to 165 F.

For my pasta dish I set out with three aims: 1) eliminate the cream to lighten the dish but still have a creamy sauce, 2) keep the richness of the eggs but cook them, and 3) take advantage of this year's good crop of fresh sweet corn while it's still around.

Adding a little vermouth just before removing the corn from the pan helps remove much of the cooked on bits, which include a lot of good flavor.
To achieve the first goal, I decided to approach the sauce like I would if I was making macaroni & cheese: make a bechamel sauce but with less flour so that it would thicken but not too much. My hope was that this would result in a creamy sauce, even if I used skim milk.

For the second goal, I decided my technique would be to treat my prepared béchamel a bit like the custard for making ice cream: temper a couple of egg yolks with warm liquid, stir it into the sauce and then cook the mixture gently until it reached an internal temperature of 165 F, at which point the egg is cooked but not at all curdled.

Goal three was easy: just add some fresh corn into the mix.

Making the sauce like a béchamel turned out rather well. It was a bit thin when the dish was finished, but as it sat out a bit it thickened up nicely. This suggests the pasta might be even better on the second day. I used plenty of garlic in the sauce and added some lemon zest for a bit of tang.

The tempering of the egg worked out well too. Be sure to let the bechamel cool a bit before adding the egg, otherwise the egg will coagulate rather than mix in. And the corn was a great addition that went well with the pancetta and parsley.

Pasta Alfredo Cornbonara

1 lb. dried pasta, such as spaghetti or fettuccine
Kernels cut from 2 ears of sweet corn
2 tbsp. dry vermouth
3 oz. sliced pancetta
2 tbsp. unsalted butter
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 tbsp. flour
Salt and fresh-ground black pepper to taste
3 cups milk (I used skim, but others would work and make it creamier)
2 egg yolks
1 cup shredded parmesan
1/4 cup chopped Italian (flat-leaf) parsley

1. Heat a large pot of salted water to boil. Cook pasta according to package directions for al dente. Drain and set aside.

2. Heat a large dry frying pan over medium heat. Add the corn kernels and cook about 10 minutes until they soften and start to brown. Just before removing from the pan, deglaze the browned bits with the vermouth. Remove the corn from the pan.

3. In the same large frying pan, cook pancetta until crispy over medium heat. Set cooked pancetta on paper towels to cool then chop into 1/2-inch size bits.

4. In a medium saucepan over medium heat, melt butter and sauté minced garlic. After a couple minutes, add flour and whisk, continuing to cook until the garlic starts to brown. Add milk to mixture, whisking constantly. Season with salt and pepper. Increase heat until the mixture starts to bubble and thicken, then remove from heat and cool for about 5 minutes.

5. Add the egg yolks to a small bowl and whisk together lightly. Add about 1 cup of the milk mixture to the egg yolks, whisking to combine, then pour the mixture into the saucepan with the rest of the milk. Heat over medium heat, whisking constantly, until it reaches a temperature of 165 F. Stir in 3/4 cup of the shredded parmesan, chopped pancetta and half of the chopped parsley. Pour sauce over cooked pasta. Serve in bowls topped with additional shredded parmesan and chopped parsley.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Tasting Oregon Craft Ales

We admit it: we're hopheads. Chris and I probably won't be satisfied until someone brews a bottle that comes with actual hops floating in it. Until then, we're reasonably satisfied with the selection of hoppy IPAs and amber ales available on the east coast. DC Brau's The Corruption IPA is a current favorite, but we're also big fans of Troeg's Hopback Amber Ale (not so much into Dogfish 60-Minute IPA as we used to be, but it's still good on occasion).

 But our occasional visits to Oregon mean an opportunity to sample the state's embarrassingly good variety of craft ales. Hoppy beers are naturally at home in Oregon, arguably one of the finest regions for American-made craft ales, particularly India Pale Ale (IPA).

During our recent visit, we sampled quite a few fine varieties. After coming home, I was still entranced by our favorite--Ninkasa's heady Total Domination Ale--and sorely disappointed to discover it's not sold in D.C. I tried to commiserate with a can of Corruption IPA, but by comparison, it tasted flat and one-dimensional.

Here's a rundown of what we tried:

Total Domination Ale, Ninkasi Brewing Company, Eugene, Oregon (American IPA, 6.7% ABV). Hands down our favorite beer of the group: a deliciously assertive IPA with intensely bitter hop flavor and a clean finish. It's flavor isn't particularly malty, which I like.

Inversion IPA, Deschutes Brewery, Bend, Oregon (American IPA, 6.8% ABV). Deschutes Brewery has been around for awhile, so I'm surprised that I still don't see their beers on the East Coast yet. The Inversion IPA is a great brew for hop lovers. Its flavors are nicely balanced: it's strongly hoppy and bit malty, with a flavor that leans toward fruity.

Hop Czar Imperial IPA, BridgePort Brewing, Portland, Oregon (American Imperial Double IPA, 7.5% ABV). This is definitely hoppy. It has a light, cloudy amber color and a thick texture. Tasty, but not as easy to sit around and drink all afternoon.

India Red Ale, Cascade Lakes Brewing Co., Redmond, Oregon (American Amber/Red Ale, 6.8% ABV). Apart from the IPAs, this was another favorite. It has a balanced hop and malt flavor with a somewhat smoky taste, almost like a porter. Ruby amber color.

Mirror Pond Pale Ale, Deschutes Brewery (American Pale Ale, 5% ABV). I remember I used to like this. It's not bad, but compared to the IPAs it doesn't stand out as a favorite. It has a light amber color with visible yeast. It's pretty floral and malty, but not very hoppy, at least not to me.

Dead Guy Ale, Rogue Ales, Newport, Oregon (Maibock, 6.6% ABV). This one should be familiar to many, since it's distributed nationally. It has a cloudy, dark amber color and a malty, but not too hoppy flavor. I didn't think this was as interesting as the other beers we sampled. If I get tired of hops and want something malty though, it's not a bad choice.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Food (Section) Fight!: Week 40

Food (Section) Fight! is my weekly look at The Washington Post's Food section and The New York Times' Dining section with my verdict on which section had the better content for the week.

Both The Washington Post and The New York Times led today with features examining major restaurant trends: self-grown ingredients and tasting menus. Let's see who came out on top this week:

Washington Post

1) "Microgreens, 100 feet away," by Martha Miller. Miller's cover story looks at how chefs are increasingly growing their own ingredients, moving the farm even closer to the table. This story gives a nice insight into one of the Washington area's most acclaimed restaurants, The Inn at Little Washington, profiling the restaurant's full-time farmer, Joneve Murphy, who works the restaurant's half-acre garden plot and orchard to grow ingredients that save money and improve quality over those that might be shipped in. A generous number of recipes accompany the story, including the Inn's recipes for Brussels Sprout Petals with Coriander Vinaigrette and Pickled Cranberries and Parsnip Soup. The recipe from Chef Bonnie Moore for Chicken Braised with Fall Vegetables, Bacon and Apple Cider also sounds amazing.

2) "All signs point to a hit in San Francisco," by Anna Mindess. I enjoyed this portrait of Mozzeria, a truly unique restaurant in San Francisco that combines Chinese and Italian flavors for its pizza and small plates. Additionally, it's one of the nation's few restaurants that cater to deaf customers, not surprising when you learn it is owned by Galludet University alumni Russell and Melody Stein, who met at the D.C. university for deaf students in the mid '90s.

3) "Norwegian Salmon in Foil," Dinner in Minutes by Bonnie S. Benwick. We eat salmon a lot, so I'm often up for trying something new. At first, the idea of cooking salmon in foil seemed kind of boring, until I began reading the ingredients list, which includes peanut butter (how interesting!). Its Norwegian pedigree is also intriguing, given the current interest in Scandinavian cuisine (credit that, in part, to Noma, the Danish restaurant often heralded as the world's greatest, at least at present).

4) "Soon, wine could be coming from Amazon," Wine column by Dave McIntyre. Yes, it is true. According to the Post, may soon offer wine sales, leveling another blow to the traditional three-tier system with distributors as the middle men between producers and retailers. Sounds like a great idea to me. Amazon has tried unsuccessfully in 2000 and 2009 to offer wine for sale.

5) "Refreshed cocktails overcome sour memories," Spirits column by Jason Wilson. Wilson looks at the sour cocktail, which has earned a bad name ever since the introduction of sour mix. But made with fresh citrus juice, it sounds great. He offers recipes for two seasonally appropriate sours made with apple brandy.

New York Times

1) "Nibbled to Death," Critic's Notebook column by Pete Wells. Hot on the heels of my analysis of the cost of tasting menus at some of America's most prestigious restaurants, Wells takes an insightful look at the growing trend of high-end restaurants offering nothing but (very expensive) tasting menus. When they work well, it can be a magical experience, but when it doesn't, the diner can feel captive to a long meal with a big check at the end. Love the dish-by-dish photos of a 28-course dinner at New York's Atera.

2) "No Apologies Necessary," A Good Appetite column by Melissa Clark. Appealing to the perfectionist home cook in many of us, Clark writes a good column about what to do when your elaborate dinner falls short of your expectations--specifically how to save it and play it off as something else as long as it's still tasty, even it if it's not what you meant to make.

3) "A Taste of Fall In a Bottle of Hard Cider," City Kitchen column by David Tanis. Following last week's Washington Post story about cider, The Times' Tanis has a nice piece about the subject, complete with a rather delicious sounding recipe for Pork Chops with Apples and Cider.


The Washington Post. While I liked the lead stories in both publications about equally this week, I thought the rest of the Post's content was overall stronger with a nice variety of stories.


The Post pulls ahead!

The Washington Post: 20
The New York Times: 19

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Kale, Fig & Apple Salad

I came across this Kale & Apple Salad with Pancetta and Candied Pecans on the Food & Wine website this week and it sounded really good; however, I thought the salad would be even better with figs, preferably fresh ones.

The New York Times was raving about figs recently and my mom is always talking about them, since she has a fig tree in her front yard (although unfortunately it doesn't look like they'll ripen in time this year).

I got lucky and found some fresh mission figs at Whole Foods recently, so I tossed them into my salad, along with some goat cheese, sautéed chicken and arugula, none of which were in the F&W salad, but I thought they would be good (hence the "inspired by" rather than "adapted from" credit below).

I guess it's pretty obvious where I got the apple matchsticks and chives idea (see Little Bird review), although I've used them in a very different dish. Omit the chicken to make it vegetarian and the goat cheese to make it vegan.

Kale, Fig & Apple Salad
Inspired by Kale & Apple Salad with Pancetta and Candied Pecans, Food & Wine, November 2010

Makes two hearty dinner portions or four side portions

1/3 cup chopped pecans
2 tbsp. olive oil
1 lb. chicken breast cutlets
Salt and fresh-ground black pepper to taste
1 tbsp. maple syrup
1 tbsp. white wine vinegar
2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
About 2 cups kale, chopped into thin ribbons
About 2 cups baby arugula
1 honeycrisp apple, peeled and cut into matchsticks
1 tbsp. fresh snipped chives
6 fresh mission figs, stems removed and cut into fourths
2 oz. soft goat cheese (chèvre), cut into small pieces

1. Heat a small frying pan over medium-low heat. Toast the chopped pecans until fragrant and lightly browned. Set aside to cool.

2. Heat 2 tbsp. olive oil in a medium frying pan over medium heat. When hot, pat chicken cutlets dry and sauté until cooked through and browned, about 5-6 minutes per side (10-12 minutes total). Season with salt and pepper while cooking. Set aside and, when cool, cut into strips.

3. Whisk together the syrup, vinegar, 2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil and salt and pepper to taste in a small bowl. Add kale, arugula and pecans to a large bowl and toss with the dressing.

4. In a small bowl, toss the apple matchsticks with the snipped chives.

5. Serve the salad by plating the dressed greens first, topping them with chicken, figs and goat cheese, and then the apple-chive mixture on top.

Monday, October 8, 2012

What's Behind Minibar's Price Hike?

Minibar, the modernist jewel in the Jose Andres restaurant empire crown, started taking reservations last week as it prepares to reopen November 2. Although the one-block move from its former space in Cafe Atlantico to the former Zola Wine & Kitchen space has allowed the restaurant to double its seating (from 6 to 12), it will surely remain one of the region's most elusive reservations.

Despite the challenge of getting in, what has raised eyebrows most about the move is the change in price: the per-person Minibar experience that was $150 is now 50 percent more at $225. Washington City Paper's Jessica Sidman came up with a clever diagram of what other D.C. tastes could be enjoyed at that price point (my addition: 11 Iberico pork sandwiches from Andres' food truck Pepe).

As reported by the Washington Post, Minibar claims the increase is due to the restaurant's unique experience--an "extraordinary culinary performance." Perhaps, but wasn't that the case before the move? I wonder if other factors may be at play.

Economics could certainly be one. While it might be nice to think that restaurants set their prices to cover cost plus modest profit, demand has to be a more important driver. And Minibar has certainly demonstrated that it is a restaurant in demand, no doubt even more with the restaurant's refresh. Jose Andres remains as popular and visible as ever, increasingly as one of the nation's most respected and influental chefs.

That could play into what I suspect is another reason for the price-hike: prestige. Among the Washington area's finest restaurants, Minibar's $150 was competitive. Most of the four-star restaurants' tasting menus run in the low-to-mid $100s range, with CityZen on the low end at $105-$125 and Inn at Little Washington at the high $158 to $188 (and let's note that by comparison, Rasika's $60-$75 tasting menu is a real steal--I bet that price goes up soon). Minibar's new price point puts the restaurant out of league among the pricies local dining spots.

But what league is it in then? On par with New York City? Perhaps, but even in New York, $225 for a tasting menu is pretty steep. Its six (New York Times-rated) four-star restaurants' tasting menus range in price from $145 at Del Posto to $270 at Per Se--with Per Se being far and away the most expensive (second-most expensive Daniel is $195 to $220). So basically, Minibar has priced itself beyond even the New York dining scene.

Where it does fit in then is the national landscape of flagship restaurants from America's most prominent chefs. Judging from this Business Insider list, the $225 per person (which will shoot up dramatically when drinks, tax and tip are included), will put Minibar within the top 10 most expensive restaurants in the country, a status that includes restaurants from Thomas Keller (French Laundry and Per Se), Joël Robuchon (his eponymous Las Vegas destination) and Alinea, Grant Achatz modernist Chicago restaurant.

Does that raise my ire? Not really. Sure, I'd love to eat at Minibar someday, but with a $225 starting price that day will not be anytime soon. But I can (and do) eat at Jaleo, Oyamel and Zaytinya whenever I want, enjoying Andres' other, more affordable and often quite spectacular restaurants. You can scoff at Minibar's price as being elitist or you can consider it an important, trend-setting destination worthy of its national posturing. By comparison, I can't afford to dress myself in Giorgio Armani suits, but that doesn't mean that Armani isn't an important part of fashion (nor does it mean that I don't look nice).

A more important question is whether Minibar, and by extension Andres, deserves this status. I'll let those more versed in fine dining answer that one, although his national restaurant empire and multiple James Beard awards and cooking shows suggest he's no flash-in-the-pan.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Little Bird (Portland, Ore.)

It seems every chef from Eleven Madison Park’s Daniel Humm on down the line is opening a casual cousin to their flagship superstar. For Gabriel Rucker, winner of the 2011 James Beard Award for Rising Star Chef, the adventurous French cuisine at his Le Pigeon is complemented by the more familiar flavors of Little Bird, a casual French bistro in downtown Portland serving beautifully executed takes on classic dishes like roasted chicken, braised meat and grilled seafood.

While Rucker’s first restaurant has been lavishly praised, attention seems to be turning now towards Little Bird, which was honored in June by Portland’s newspaper The Oregonian as Restaurant of the Year (an honor Le Pigeon received in 2008).

Nothing from Chef Erik Van Kley’s kitchen disappointed, although we had our favorites. Topping the list was the melt-in-your-mouth tender braised pork shoulder with cabbage, bacon, apple and chives. A salmon special featured two takes on each key ingredient: salmon both lightly grilled and tartare, whole peas along with pea shoots and cremini mushrooms and, lacing the tartare, truffles.

Soup du jour may not seem like the most exciting menu option, but a recent cauliflower soup was divine, featuring sweet and savory roasted and pureed cauliflower topped with tender strings of apple. A salad’s bitter greens are coated with zippy dressings and enhanced with sweet mix-ins, such as the butter lettuce salad with watermelon, cucumber and yogurt-feta dressing.

Dessert was just as impressive. Pastry Chef Nora Antene’s apple and fig tarte tatin with frozen yogurt was a sensation. The buttery pastry comes glazed with caramel, always a crowd-pleaser, but two preparations of figs--a gastrique and fresh slices--dominate the dish.

The decor mimicks the food perfectly--the long rectangular space with robin's egg blue walls, mirrors and a pressed tin ceiling is classicly elegant but there’s also a touch of whimsy, such as the little plastic birds in the bathroom “window.”

The service was prompt and efficient, but it’s the memory of the good food that lingers. The way it should be.

Little Bird. 219 SW 6th Avenue (at Oak Street), Portland, Ore. (downtown). (503) 688-5952. Reservations: Open Table.
Little Bird Bistro on Urbanspoon

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Cocktail: Everybody Loves a Gin Blossom

I don't often think of using vermouth in cocktails. I'm not a fan of the traditional martini (I wish I was, but I remind myself of this fact every time I try to make one). However, I had a non-martini cocktail at Palena recently that included dry vermouth and it was rather good. This is basically a negroni made with dry vermouth and some lemon juice. Chris helped me name it.

Everybody Loves a Gin Blossom

1 oz. gin
1/2 oz. dry vermouth
1/2 oz. Aperol
1 oz. lemon juice (juice from 1/2 lemon)
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Tonic water
Lemon twist (optional garnish)

Combine gin, vermouth, Aperol, lemon juice and bitters in a shaker with ice. Shake until cold. Strain into lowball glass with ice. Top with tonic water and lemon twist.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Food (Section) Fight!: Week 39

Food (Section) Fight! is my weekly look at The Washington Post's Food section and The New York Times' Dining section with my verdict on which section had the better content for the week.

New York Times

(1) "Hollywood Ending, With Meatballs," by Frank Bruni. Stanley Tucci doesn't just play a foodie on screen (Julie & Julia, Big Night, PBS's Vine Talk), he's one in real life too, with a long family history of making and sharing good Italian-American food. The release of his new cookbook, The Tucci Cookbook, is the occasion for this playful portrait of a food-loving family. The accompanying recipe for Tucci Ragù Sauce sounds great; I wish they'd printed the recipe for the Timpano, which looks like quite a feat (you can get it online).

(2) "Snacks Worth Their Salt," How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman. Bittman turns his attention to edamame, the salty-fresh soybean snack that is extremely easy to make (you just boil and salt them) and affordable, with edamame available in most supermarkets now. He also offers some variations on the dish, generally involving soy sauce and sesame flavors.

(3) "Good Bordeaux For $50 or Less," Wines of the Times by Eric Asimov. Is there a more classic wine than Bordeaux? The bold French red that typically blends grapes like cabernet sauvignon and merlot. One would think not. Given that my personal taste runs toward cab, merlot and syrah, you'd think I'd be a big Bordeaux fan, yet when I buy it, I'm almost always disappointed, and I've never had a Bordeaux that really blew me away. So I appreciated Asimov's look at how the wine has gotten very expensive, but that there are some lower priced quality buys available (and for Bordeaux, lower priced means under $50).

Washington Post

1) "Cider's reach," by Dave McIntyre. Sure Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors make cider, but I doubt it's anywhere near as interesting as the product made by artisans at Flynt's Foggy Ridge, profiled here as Virginia's first producer of modern hard cider. His cider is made from a blend of apples to produce balanced flavors, even tannins. McIntyre describes Foggy Ridge's Serious Cider as "winelike" and similar to prosecco.

2) "Long given cold shoulder, lagers get bolder," Beer by Daniel Fromson. Not using the beer column to write more about cider was a missed bit of synergy, but nonetheless, I enjoyed Fromson's column on lagers, which he finds are upping the flavor game to better compete against craft ales. As a die-hard IPA fan, I'm interested in trying some pale lager to see how it compares.

3) "Poach and egg or two, then feel free to riff," by Regina Schrambling. I'm not much into poached eggs, although if I could make a good one, I'd probably try it. I'm more interested in hollandaise, which is explored in this article, including how to make eggs Benedict interesting by adding other nontraditional flavors. And how cool is it that the Post got someone whose last name is almost "scrambling" to write a story about eggs?


The Washington Post. I wouldn't say either section was really in top form this week. I did really like the Times' Tucci story, but overall, I thought the Post's stories were more interesting this week. None of these were written by the usual suspects, which is interesting (Benwick, Carman, Hagedorn, Touzalin, etc.). With the Post pulling back from a recent deficit, the score is once again tied.


The Washington Post: 19
The New York Times: 19

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Recipe of the Month: September 2012

Pepperoni was the ingredient of the month last month, or so it seems from my readers, who were most interested in the Pasta with Pesto, Tomatoes and Pepperoni and the runner-up recipe of the month, the Watermelon-Pepperoni Salad. Perhaps it's time I made Mike Isabella's famous pepperoni sauce again, which is featured in his new cookbook, Crazy Good Italian.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Palena Cafe (Washington, DC)

This is the most incredible roasted chicken. Seriously.
[Update: As of April 27, 2014, Palena has closed.]

It may be a cliché to say that Palena is the jewel of Upper Northwest D.C. dining but it's true. In an area of the city with many restaurants but few great ones, Palena stands out as the leader of the pack, offering consistently well-executed and satisfying dishes. I've yet to try the restaurant's tasting menu, but I'm no stranger to Palena's cafe, the casual (and more affordable) dining experience that used to be the restaurant's bar menu but has since expanded to comprise the bulk of the operation.

The cafe's main dining room, which was added when the restaurant was remodeled and expanded in 2010, features low lighting and big windows that look out onto the Cleveland Park neighborhood. It's a cozy feeling akin to sitting in your family room with the lights off.

Identifying the restaurant's signature dish is tricky. For a long time, I would have insisted it was the cheeseburger, which earlier this year I declared the winner in my Burger Madness challenge to find the city's best burger (and I'm far from alone in saying so). The burger is served simply, just a perfectly cooked patty with some truffle-enhanced cheese and garlicky mayonnaise. No salad necessary. You can tell its a signature dish, since it's one of just two menu items with the restaurant's name in title.

The other would be the roasted chicken, which is absolutely divine. It rivals Zuni Cafe for the best chicken I've ever had in a restaurant. The half chicken breast with attached wing is so incredibly juicy with crisp skin. The seasoning is a bit of a mystery. I tasted clove, but others have said it's cardamon, star anise, vanilla or tarragon. I've read online that Chef Frank Ruta doesn't share the recipe; however, during a recent online chat with the Washington Post's restaurant critic Tom Sietsema, I learned that Ruta brines the chicken with sweet spices and garlic, changing the flavors through the seasons, and then cooks the chicken "hot and quick" in a wood-fired oven.

The wood-fired oven is also used to churn out pizzas, which are good, but not spectacular. They are the only thing I've eaten at Palena that hasn't blown me away. Still, if you find yourself in Cleveland Park on a Sunday evening craving pizza, you could do far worse than try Palena's pies, which are constructed with simple pairings that sound authentically Italian.

Pastas are another sure winner. The lobster roe tagliatelle is particularly good, served with generous portions of lump crab meat, spotted skate wing and chilis for a little kick. But it's the dish's lemony toasted breadcrumbs that really make it sing. A recent rigatoni with sausage and tomato was also very good. Of course, in both cases, the pasta was cooked to a perfect al dente. Another winner: the potato gnocchi, which I had topped with warm, buttery sweet corn, lima beans and cheese.

For starters, you can't go wrong with a good salad. The Caesar features two romaine hearts with a bright lemon-anchovy dressing, fried capers, parmesan and a fried lemon slice that brings back memories of the famous Palena Fry Plate, which has been unfortunately M.I.A. from the menu the last few years (please Chef Ruta, we'd love if you brought it back. It goes so nicely with those juicy cheeseburgers). Also good is the cafe salad of perfectly roasted beets and hazelnuts served on greens.

As long as corn is in season, I hope the cafe continues to offer the corn brulee tart with peaches for dessert. The exquisite sweet just might make me a peach fan yet. Sadly, I've tried few of Palena's other pastries. I've always made such a pig of myself by the time the dessert menu comes that I usually pass.

One of the reasons I like Palena so much is that its food reminds me a bit of my own, an eclectic homey mix with a decidedly Italian bent, although obviously executed at a level well beyond my means. I could only hope to stick poultry in the oven or a burger on the grill and have them come out as masterfully perfect as Frank Ruta makes them.

Palena Café, 3529 Connecticut Avenue, NW, Washington, D.C. (Cleveland Park), (202) 537-9250. Reservations: City Eats.

Palena on Urbanspoon