Monday, February 21, 2011

On the Road: Columbia, SC

So, I'm on a bit of a hastily planned road trip, to visit my mother who's recovering from an illness¹. Despite the circumstances, it's something of a vacation for me, because... well, for one thing, she lives in Florida, and for another, I happen to love cross-country driving. I love junky road-food, too, but after 800+ miles of Big Macs, Big Gulps, roller dogs, and jalapeno-cheddar Chex Mix², I was ready for real food when I pulled into Columbia, South Carolina, Saturday evening.

What luck, then, that I stumbled upon the Tombo Grille, a brilliant little bistro stashed unobtrusively in a storefront right down Forest Drive from the Super 8 motel I'd landed at. The cozy lounge was full when I dragged in, and the tasteful, art-bedecked dining room was almost full, but happily they were able to seat my road-weary tuchus with no delay. My server could not have been more pleasant, nor more helpful, and shortly I was studying the menu while enjoying warm house-made bread dipped in olive oil mixed with balsamic vinegar and sipping a Troubador Obscura Mild Stout.

The menu consists of what the folks at Tombo describe as "creative comfort food," with a southern bent and featuring South Carolina grown ingredients. I noticed that certain items — pecans, polenta, butternut squash, andoullie sausage, artisanal cheeses threaded through the selections (which, I gather, change seasonally), creating the impression of a focused and harmonious palette of flavors. For the sake of sampling more widely (and, if I'm honest, in deference to my bellyfull of road food), I decided to forego an entree in favor of two Small Bites. One very tempting beef filet item on the daily specials menu was sold out, and I managed to avoid the temptation implicit its entree sibling: "pan seared filet of beef, goat cheese, demi-glace, roasted fingerling potatoes, and warm bacon vinaigrette - wilted arugula." On the regular menu, the promise of cracked black pepper sauce, roasted pepper polenta, and grilled onions almost made me forget I don't really like fried chicken livers... but I eventually settled on seared sea scallops served on an andoullie-butternut hash with a saffron sauce, followed by a 1/2 rack of lamb with roasted garlic demi-glace. The three big scallops were nicely seared and buttery smooth, the medium rare lamb was perfectly cooked, and the accompaniments on both plates were simply brilliant. Better yet, the two plates satisfied my hunger while leaving room for dessert... which was grilled pound cake. Now, I love pound cake. I have warm fuzzy memories of my grandmother's classic pound cake, and the Lovely Bride® has a signature dessert that's essentially a pound cake with a broiled walnut glaze.

One online reviewer called Tombo's grilled pound cake "weird" (as if that were a bad thing!), and it is a bit strange to see crossed grill marks on a wedge of cake. But the carmelized, almost burnt, flavor that hides in those grill marks adds a perfect note of complexity to the smooth sweetness of the cake and the scoop of (presumably house-made) vanilla ice cream served next to it. Let's put it this way: Now I want to learn how to bake pound cake just so I can try making this dessert!

Sadly, I probably won't pass through Columbia at dinner time on the way home, so I won't get to try the mac & cheese (with house-cured bacon and smoked cornish hen); nor the roasted beet, rare seared beef, and blue cheese salad; nor the bourbon butternut soup; nor the pecan-crusted rainbow trout, nor... <sigh>. If any of y'all get a chance to stop in, let me know what I've missed, woncha'?

¹ She's fine; thanks for asking.

² Which is awesome, BTW.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Dining Out, Valentine's Day Edition: IndiGo Indian Bistro

So Monday night is admittedly not the best choice for a romantic evening out, but Valentine's Day is Valentine's Day, and the Lovely Bride© and I took the opportunity to return to an old tradition for us: celebrating V-Day with Indian food. <Mumble-mumble> years ago, during the first year of our married life, we chose for our first married Valentine's dinner, more or less at random, an Indian place called Taj Mahal (and really, aren't nearly half of all Indian restaurants called that?) in a strip shopping center along the Gulf Freeway (aka I-45) in Houston, Texas. By happy chance, we had a lovely, romantic meal, and fell in love with Indian cuisine. Not that we needed an excuse to eat Indian, of course, but for years afterward, we made it a point to spend Valentine's Day in an Indian restaurant, and often celebrated our anniversary that way, too.

This year, Sheen and the crew at IndiGo made it easy — and delightful — to revive our tradition, serving a special four-course Valentine's Day menu that really hit the spot.

The appetizer course consisted of a choice of Shamm Savera (spinach cups stuffed with cottage cheese and served on a tangy honey-tomato sauce) and Karriveppela Shrimp Fry (South Indian marinated battered fried shrimp served with curry leaves): I chose the shrimp, while my valentine chose the spinach cups, and both were perfect. The sauce on the spinach app was reminiscent of the LB's favorite, Chicken Tikka Masala; my shrimp was crispy and invitingly spicy.

The salad course — Cupid Salad — was a tomato-infused potato salad served in a pappadum cup atop a bed of lettuce seasoned (and dyed Valentine's Day pink) with beet juice.

Three entrees — vegetarian, chicken, and lamb — were offered, and we chose the Murgh Lababdhar (egg-coated grilled chicken served sizzling atop shredded vegetables) and the Southern Lamb Pepper Masala (grilled chunks of lamb served on onions sauteed with coriander and black pepper). My lamb was deeply flavorful, with the coriander and pepper providing a perfect match and the dots of hot sauce on the plate serving as more than arty decoration. The bite of chicken I managed to snag from my date's plate was perfectly cooked, moist and juicy, with a delicate, almost floral bouquet of spices.

The Lemon Ginger Parfait made for an ideal ending: A velvety smooth frozen concoction, delicately spiced with ginger and served with cut grapes and pieces of strawberry providing a perfectly romantic finale to the meal.

The only sad thing was the number of empty tables when we were there, at about 7:00 pm. Maybe it was a bit early for a romantic dinner, or maybe it's just that it was Monday, after all. But one of the best things about IndiGo is their readiness to make creative excursions beyond their regular menu on special occasions; it's a shame if anyone who loves great Indian food... or just great cooking... missed this.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Dining Out: Pho 501

So I had to work all day Saturday, but that cloud had a silver lining: It gave me an opportunity to explore some of the culinary delights of East Hartford, where my place of employment is located. For lunch I checked out longtime local favorite Augie & Ray's Drive In, and for dinner, I finally made it to Pho 501, a spot I'd been longing to try for some time. A full report on Augie & Ray's will have to wait, because I was eating alone, and sampling just one item on their menu is insufficient data.

But no such problem exists at Pho 501, which appears to only serve one item — the Vietnamese noodle soup called pho (forgive me for lacking the HTML-fu to render it in proper characters) — and only one variety of it on any given day. Saturday, it was spicy beef, and it was delicious. I must say, this was only my second visit to a pho shop, and the two could not have been more different: The other shop, Pho 75 in Arlington, Virginia, which I visited with some Pharyngula friends last August while on business in Alexandria, boasted a huge range of choices, many of which seemed to differ only in ways too subtle for this non-Vietnamese diner to quite comprehend, and accompanied by a literally bewildering array of fresh herbs, chiles, and sprouts. It was all very intimidating; enough to make me google "how to eat pho." It seems I had guessed right, for the most part.

Pho 501, by comparison, is brutally simple: The only choice to make is whether to order a small, medium, or large bowl (I ordered medium, and it was the perfect size for me, as a Gentleman of Substance®), and the accompaniments to my meal were limited to a plate full of fat, crisp raw bean sprouts and beautifully fragrant Thai basil, plus a wedge of lime. As one online reviewer put it, Pho 501 serves a "clean" broth, without the unctuous tripe and tendon that I've seen Anthony Bourdain wax orgasmic over on more than one TV show... but that suits me fine. The broth was rich, deep, and flavorful, and the noodles and beef perfectly cooked. Gentle applications of sriracha and hoisin, a squeeze of lime, and periodic additions of shredded basil and sprouts and... mmmm, heaven! I know I'll be back soon!

A word to the wise, though: This is a small place, and even for a late-ish Saturday dinner, the dining room was nearly completely full. Many times I've driven past and seen people lined up outside the door. A fellow diner Saturday told me that the chicken pho served on Sundays is especially popular, and often sells out. "You have to call ahead and reserve a bowl," he told me, "Not a table; a bowl."

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Breaking News! New Local Microdistillery

A story (curse you, paywall!!) in this evening's Journal Inquirer announces the forthcoming opening of Onyx Spirits, a new microdistillery in nearby (to me) Manchester, Connecticut. Apparently the initial products, to be released in April, will include a limoncello, a vodka, and a "moonshine" (corn whiskey, perhaps?). Watch this space for more information; you can bet that if public tours are available, I'll be there!

Friday, February 4, 2011

What Facebook Is Good For: Booze!

One of my earliest cocktail-related posts described my visit to The Hour, a great Alexandria, Virginia, shop specializing in vintage and vintage-style barware. I don't know when I'll make it back — I'm not in Alexandria all that often — but I've been able to keep up my acquaintance with The Hour through the magic of Facebook.

One of the delights of following The Hour's Facebook feed is the wonderful cocktail recipes they post. Back in January, they cocktail of the day was the Gold Rush, made with Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur, bourbon, and fresh lemon juice. Since I had some Canton on hand — I'd sought it out to make Gary Regan's Debonair cocktail — I thought I'd give it a whirl... but when it comes to cocktails, it seems I'm never content to leave well enough alone: I tend to think that wherever bourbon is good, rye is better, and in this case the spiciness of rye seemed a perfect match for the ginger liqueur... so I made my Gold Rush with Michter's Single Barrel:

1 1/2 oz Domaine de Canton
1 oz Michter's Single Barrel Rye
1/2 oz fresh lemon juice

That made a delicious drink, but I found myself wanting to bring the whiskey more to the front, so I reversed the proportions of rye and ginger...

1 1/2 oz Michter's Single Barrel Rye
1 oz Domaine de Canton
1/2 oz fresh lemon juice

...and this is the version I finally decided to stick with. It's obviously not quite a Gold Rush anymore, and while a quick Google search turns up a number of recipes including rye, Canton, and lemon juice, none is precisely this drink, so I make bold to give it a name myself. Following my earlier punning convention, I hereby dub this... the Sardonic Redhead. So mote it be!

Actual Cooking: Pork Tenderloin with Mushroom Sauce

So after dealing with the third and fourth snowpocalypses in the last 3 weeks, I'm finally getting caught up (as promised) with some of the actual cooking I've been doing, starting with the sauteed pork with mushroom sauce I made almost 2 weeks ago, based on a recipe from James Peterson's Cooking, which was one of my first acquisitions after I started putting food-related stuff on every gift list.

I didn't feel quite up to breaking down a whole pork loin and packaging the portions I didn't need for one meal for later use¹, so I wimped out and bought a package of boneless pork loin chops, leaving me with three somewhat larger pieces of meat (for two servings) instead of the smaller noisettes called for in the recipe. In addition, my market didn't have any of the wild mushrooms that the recipe says can "make this an especially elegant dish," so I settled for the readily available cultivated white mushrooms for both the sauce and the garnish. I guess I'll have to cook this recipe again in the future, and go for the more "elegant" version.

In the meantime, it was quite tasty. I did learn that my electric glass-top stove is apparently hot, because Hi heat got the surface of the pork browned in about half the time the described procedure suggested, and without getting the interior fully done; I ended up finishing the meat in the oven. In future, I'll interpret "high heat" in recipes as 8 or 9 on my stove's dial.

Even with plain, inelegant mushrooms, the mushroom sauce was delicious, and easy to make: coarsely chopped mushrooms simmered with a couple tablespoons of meat glaze, a little water, and a half cup of heavy cream, then pureed in a blender, thickened back on the stove, and finished with salt, pepper, and a bit of wine vinegar. A yummy, meaty tasting sauce which has the excellent feature (when cooking for a gluten-sensitive partner) of being self-thickening without any need for flour or a flour substitute.

After resting the pork, I sliced it (on the bias, like they do on TV!), plated and sauced the slices, added some sauteed mushroom slices as a garnish, and served it up with a side of rice. (I had bought some fennel, which I'd planned to braise as an accompaniment, but I bailed on that at the last minute; more about the fennel in another post.)

In the end, it wasn't really quite the same dish the recipe promised, but it was a hearty meal that managed to impress the Lovely Bride™, and made me feel at least marginally like an actual cook... and I call that success!

¹ This business of buying primals and portioning them for future use is a project I want to tackle in the future, both because I think it might save some money, and because I want to get more intimately familiar with the ingredients I use.