Archive for October, 2010

Fruition Restaurant: Chef Alex Seidel is Inspired in Colorado

Posted 28 Oct 2010 — by S.E.
Category Fine Dining, Full Service

Fruition’s Pasta Carbonara

I love that Denver chef Alex Seidel of Fruition Restaurant was named a Food & Wine Best New Chef 2010. His elevation nationally offers further proof that Denver is becoming a real fine dining restaurant town worthy of mention, not just a hot-bed for quick service restaurants and full service chains. Many of us in the biz know that the city is a proving ground for innovative quick service and full service restaurants destined for multi-unit greatness. Noodles & Co founder Aaron Kennedy started in Cherry Creek in 1995, Qdoba was started in Denver in 1995 and, best of all, Steve Ells started his 1000 store Chipotle Mexican Grill empire in Denver back in 1993. Even Quizno’s traces its origins back to Denver in 1978. Denver invented the fast casual genre and Steve Ells has proven that you can serve fast food of outstanding quality and integrity. However, for many years the fine dining segment of the market in Colorado lagged. Today, this is not the case.

Denver has emerged over the past five years as a great restaurant town. Food & Wine’s nod to Seidel has added another fresh face to the small number of elite chefs in metropolitan Denver and confirms that the fine dining trend is building. Seidel now joins other local chefs that have made their mark on Denver such as Jennifer Jasinski, Kevin Taylor, Radek Cerny, Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson, and, of course, Frank Bonanno the king of Denver chef/restaurateurs.

Seidel earned his street cred working for Bonanno at Mizuna before striking out on his own in 2007. Accolades soon followed and by 2010 he had earned multiple awards, a great write up in the New York Times and the Food & Wine distinction. As has been the case at other restaurants, Seidel is known for several dishes including his pasta carbonara (photo above), a dish that he will probably have to keep on the menu forever. The dish is composed of a base of fresh cavatelli with peas, a slab of locally sourced pork belly, a sous-vide egg, and home-grown pea tendrils grown at Seidels Fruition Farm (yes, he has a wonderful farm pumping out ingredients for the restaurant, what a dream!). This is a fantastic dish, sensual, full of texture and flavor.

Another dish that a few locals suggested I try is the potato wrapped oysters Rockefeller. Seidel takes a fresh shucked oyster, wraps it in a thinly sliced raw potato chip and fries the cylinder until crisp. Served with bacon lardons, spinach, and a parmesan leek emulsion, the dish is a play on contrasts of flavor and texture. It really doesn’t resemble oysters Rockefeller at all but the concept is good and it’s innovative, not to mention the fact that I love fried oysters in any form.

The Pan Roasted New Zealand Bass is another strikingly beautiful dish and I love Seidel’s interpretation of risotto using diced potato and broccoli puree. He serves this with truffled cauliflower salad, additional broccoli florets, shaved carrots and micro greens. When asked whether the bass was farmed or wild caught from New Zeeland, my server went blank and had to run to the kitchen. This was disappointing but understandable since the autumn menu had only been out for a week. Still…

What do you think of Buttermilk Fried Chicken Confit with Crème Fresh whipped potatoes, haricots verts, glazed baby carrots, and button mushroom gravy? I know fried chicken is in. Both Art Smith (of Art& Soul fame) and Thomas Keller (at Ad Hoc) have fried chicken nights that require reservations a week in advance. Fried chicken is in and has been for a couple of years. However, who would have thought to confit the chicken before frying it. This dish is right on all levels. I love it! What a great idea.

 

My final dish of the night was a nice bread pudding with Colorado peaches and raspberries with ice cream. Desserts at Fruition are emerging but still a work in progress. They are very good but the savory cooking shines brighter and offers more innovation as noted earlier. Having eaten many of the other great restaurants in Denver, Frution is in the top five and Alex Seidel has the culinary chops and vision to bring even greater depth to the Denver dining scene. Three years in and Fruition is absolutely fantastic.

Fruition Restaurant

1313 E. 6th Avenue

Denver, CO 80218

303-831-1962

 

No. 9 Park ~ Boston

Posted 24 Oct 2010 — by S.E.
Category Fine Dining, Full Service

Chef Barbara Lynch is setting Boston on fire. For the past thirteen years she’s been steadily opening restaurants while pushing the envelope on culinary creativity and service in a city with a history of embracing strong female chefs. Her restaurants (9 as of this writing) are bold, creative, and of clear intent. Although she’s generated tremendous press for her latest venture, Menton, and newer ventures like Drink (best creative cocktails in Boston),  B&G Oysters (best fresh oysters and martinis in Boston), and The Butcher Shop (best burger in the city, hands down), my favorite  Barbara Lynch outlet is good old No. 9 Park. No. 9 Park is a gem. It has old world charm with a contemporary twist and several long-standing menu items that draw me in each time I am in the neighborhood.

No. 9 Park steadily offers several signature menu items.  Lynch’s prune stuffed Gnocchi with foie gras is such a dish and it’s the main reason I love stop over as a “walk-in” and sit at the bar or one of the café tables for a snack. If you arrive right at 5:30 p.m., a table is usually available without reservation and within minutes hot Gnocchi and steaming foie gras can be yours.  With its deep stained wood floors, antique chandeliers, and cushioned seating by the bay window, the bar is incredibly relaxing and comfortable. Designed by Cheryl and Jeffry Katz of C&J Katz Design, the space draws on its colonial surroundings while remaining sleek and refined. In some ways, the interior of No. 9 Park reminds me of what the original Olives in Charlestown was like back in the day. Warm and inviting, refined, packed, loud, comfortable and mouthwatering.

Prune Stuffed Gnocchi with Foie Gras

In the culinary world, there are lineages, both regionally and nationally. Lynch can trace her pedigree back to Todd English when he was cooking at Michela Larson’s Michela’s in Cambridge.  I had a friend that worked at Michela’s at the time and she was a colleague of Lynch’s. Both were running fast and hard in the midst of an emerging Boston restaurant scene. Even then it was clear that Lynch was her own woman with a future ahead. It wasn’t long before Todd took off to open Olives and the rest is history as far as Todd is concerned. Barbara Lynch followed English to Olives and then over to Figs. When I eat the Gnocchi with foie gras I taste an echo of the tremendous, super rich, deeply flavorful, hearty and rustic foods that English used to serve and sense a bit of English’s genetic code in what Lynch is doing. The evolution of a chef and the lineage he or she draws from results in subtle similarities in menu items and techniques between the master and apprentice.  I see this as complimentary to both parties. Don’t get me wrong, Barbara Lynch owns the dining scene in Boston in a way that Todd English never has.  The apprentice is now the master cooking with some similarities.

Today, Barbara Lynch operates nine different restaurant concepts and employs over 200 people. She serves as CEO of Barbara Lynch Gruppo and has a fantastic track record adding new concepts to her portfolio. It was only 13 years ago that Lynch opened her first restaurant! She probably has another new concept in development at this very moment.  As far as I can tell, there is no other female chef in the country with such a high quality restaurant portfolio or the accolades that Lynch has earned over the years. These are the thoughts that fill my head as I take my first bite of Gnocchi, steaming slab of foie gras attached.  You have to try this dish. Go to No. 9 Park and take a seat at the bar. Order a glass of champagne and a plate of the Gnocchi to get you started, and soak in the room. This may be the very dish that launched an empire and it is one that will warm your soul.

Charcuterie Plate

Composed Salad

Black Olive Clafoutis

Chocolate Cremeaux

 

No. 9 Park

9 Park St.

Boston, MA 02108

617-742-9991 

 

 

Rasika ~ Washington, D.C. Indian Fine Dining

Posted 12 Oct 2010 — by S.E.
Category Fine Dining

Last month during one of my trips to Washington D.C., I made a point to trek over to Rasika at 633 D. St., NW in Penn quarter on for a meal. Being a fan and follower of great Indian food, I had been meaning to eat at Rasika for months but never had the time. This trip the timing worked so I made a reservation with high anticipation. What excites me most about Rasika is that it’s pushing the limit on Indian fine dining in America and earning rave reviews along the way including one of the highest scores for food in Washington D.C. by Zagat. Rasika also has talent in the kitchen. Executive chef Vikram Sunderam, one of the few Indian chefs to be nominated for a James Beard award (best chef Mid-Atlantic 2010), has a refined yet authentic touch when creating menu items and produces food as elegant as the stunning décor and service at Rasika. This is a serious Indian restaurant with a serious, talented, professional Indian chef.

Sunderam was hired away from the Bombay Brasserie in London by Rasika owner Ashok Bajaj. With Sunderam at the helm, Bajaj opened Rasika in 2006 to compliment his collection of restaurants in the Washington D.C. metro area. It’s telling that Bajaj had to recruit talent from London when opening Rasika. There’s no one else in America pushing the limits on Indian food the way Bajaj is at Rasika and, other than from India itself, London is the only place with an Indian culinary community mature enough to provide Rasika with this level of back-of-the-house talent. Reflecting on the restaurant décor, website, food, service and style, it is clear that Ashok Bajaj is a man of vision.

Bajaj’s first restaurant, Bombay Club, opened in 1989 and is now a Washington institution. After arriving in Washington in 1988, having completed stints with the Taj hotel group in India and London, Bajaj scraped together the resources to open Bombay Club with a partner and, sans partner, has added another restaurant to his empire every 2-4 years since. While dining at Rasika Bajaj stopped over to my table to say hello. He’s a distinguished looking, well dressed gentleman with great presence. He departed my table after a minute or two and I watched him walk away. As he walked he shifted his head from one side to the other, eyes darting around the restaurant to each table. Bajaj has the intuitive ability to “sense” when a restaurant is running well that all great restaurant owners have and his vision drives the progressive Indian fusion cuisine Rasika is known for.

Rasika represents the steady evolution of Indian cuisine in the U.S. Twenty years ago it wasn’t uncommon to find one or two good Indian restaurants in major cities but the cuisine was less prevalent in suburban areas and the food was tame compared to Indian food in the U.S. today. Even Bajaj agrees that the American dining public is shifting toward a wider acceptance of Indian cuisine. Perhaps we are headed into an era where Indian flavors and cooking techniques will become as common in America as Latin and Mediterranean flavors have been in recent years. If this happens, we will have Sunderam and Bajaj to thank, in part, for showing us the way.

My meal at Rasika was served family style for a table of seven. The photos below reflect this (FYI).  

Chili Garlic Scallops $12 Ginger, lemon juice, poha

Barbeque Shrimp ($12) Fresh mint chutney

Entrée (l-r) Bhindi Amchoor (sliced okra with dry mango powder), Dal Makhani (lentils, tomato, garlic, fenugreek), Chicken Tikka Masala, Basmati rice

Rasika Bread Basket $8 Assorted Naan/Roti

Gulab Jamun ($8) & Apple Jalebi Beignet with Cardamom Ice Cream ($8)

Rasika 633 D St. NW

Washington, DC 20004-2904

 202-637-1222

Science & Cooking at Harvard

Posted 12 Oct 2010 — by S.E.
Category Food Alert Trends

It appears that the culinary arts and sciences are alive and well in Cambridge, MA. Last week on the 7th, the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences launched an 11 part series on science and cooking. The last time I was in Cambridge (other than for an outstanding meal at Craigie on Main) was for the TEDx Cambridge

Jaleo ~ Alexandria, VA is Latin Flavor

Posted 03 Oct 2010 — by S.E.
Category Fine Dining, Full Service

My first trip to Jaleo was four years ago. I was staying at the Mayflower Hotel with some hospitality industry friends and on short notice, was put in charge of finding a restaurant where three of us could dine without a reservation. Talking with the hotel concierge, I was reminded of Jaleo as an option and quickly recalled the press Jose Andres was generating at the time. Jose’s connection with Ferran Adria and his ongoing role as translator for this uberchef had garnered tremendous attention from the press, trade publications and the professional culinary community.  The concierge’s suggestion of dining at Jaleo intrigued me and, after sharing the idea with my fellow diners, we decided to make the trip.

Andres, chef owner of Think Food Group (TFG) along with partner Rob Wilder, is widely accredited as the source of the Tapas (small plates) movement in America, most notably at Jaleo. According to Andres’ TFG web site, Jaleo means “revelry” or “uproar” in Spanish. The site credits the John Singer Sargent painting “El Jaleo” as the inspiration for the concept. Andres’ inspired small plates, most between $8-$10, came while the U.S. economy dissolved. Customers seeking value without compromising quality or flavor intensity instantly embraced Jaleo. Within months the notion of “restrained fine dining” was born. Knowing these things, we departed for Jaleo curious about the food and attracted by the hype like a moth to a flame. All I can remember from that meal was how simple, affordable, and delicious the food was. I had a perfect Serrano ham with béchamel gratinée that still makes my mouth water when I think of it.   Jaleo was the real deal: simple, well executed, affordable with no pretense. It was entry-level fine dining, the prices were restrained, and I left sated without an ounce of guilt. The next time in Washington, I vowed, Jaleo would be on my list for a drink and quick meal.

This past summer, I was in Washington again and bumped into Jose Andres at the “Chefs Move Schools” event at the White House. It was a busy visit and time didn’t permit eating at Jaleo. However, I did meet the one of Andres’ Jaleo chefs on the lawn of the White house. I shared my fond memory of the Serrano ham with her and she went on about where it was sourced, her technique for making béchamel (onion clouté and all) and thanked me for the compliment. She asked it I had visited any of the other Jaleoo’s and described how thoughtfully designed the newer outlets in Bethesda, Maryland and Crystal City, Virginia are.  This got me thinking about how perfect Jaleo is for expansion as an upscale, full-service, multi-unit restaurant. It would compete in the same bracket as Legal Seafood, Ted’s Montana Grill, and Cheesecake Factory, with lower prices on a plate cost basis, and better food. She agreed but didn’t confirm whether Andres had plans for expansion. As we parted, the thought of visiting one of the newer outlets of Jaleo suck with me.

You can imagine my delight when I wound up in Crystal City, VA recently and had the chance to visit the Jaleo there. One thing is obvious at the Crystal City location; it’s new and thoughtfully designed compared to the original. Being new, this store doesn’t have the obvious wear as the original D.C. outlet and is more modern and bright in its design. The color palette is spot on contemporary, and the facility has high ceilings, clerestory windows, custom light fixtures and a huge mural just above the long curved bar. The interior colors are burgundy, gold, green, and natural wood giving the restaurant a contemporary feel with a slight undertone of Moorish/Iberian influence. It’s gorgeous.

After the hostess seats me, I relax for a couple moments taking in the room and making a mental note of my first impression. Within a couple of minutes my server arrives smiling and offers to take my beverage order. I stick with water. She asks the usual “tap or bottled”: tap for me thanks. Nice kid. She’s authentically warm, smiling and unconcerned by the camera on the table. I usually place my compact camera on the table in plain view of my server when first seated to give subtle notice that I am likely to take pictures. Off she goes as I open the menu and contemplate my order.

The menu at Jaleo is daunting with over 80 items listed. Andres divided the menu into 12 categories including meats, cheeses, vegetables, fried foods, fish, and salads while reserving a full page for a listing of made-to-order paellas that take 25 minutes to prepare and serve 2-4 people. Although drawn to the paella, time is short so I skip to the tapas menu. My server arrives with water and I ask her what the three most popular items on the menu are. Her response is delightful. She knows the menu well and immediately describes three items that she likes that are popular with customers. I also ask if she has octopus on the menu and she confirms stating that it was just added back to the menu. Noticing my hesitation, she takes off for a couple minutes while I contemplate a final decision. She’s back and I order four items; three that she recommended plus the octopus.

Gambas al ajillo

Shrimp Sauteed with Garlic $9

Manzanas con hinojo y queso Manchego

Sliced apple and fennel salad with Manchego cheese, walnuts and Sherry dressing $8.50

Patatas Bravas

Fried fingerling potatoes with spicy tomato sauce and alioli $6.50

Pulpo a la Gallega “Maestro Alfonso”

Boiled octopus with fingerling potatoes, pimenton and olive oil $8

Today, TFG operates seven restaurant concepts with plans for opening a large scale Jaleo and new Chinese Mexican fusion restaurant called ChinaPoblano at the Cosmopolitan Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas this December. The Las Vegas outlet will mark the first Jaleo outside of the Washington, D.C. metro region. Perhaps Andres is planning for a wider expansion of the concept. Such an expansion is a great idea and one I hope he pursues. Jaleo is a great concept that has held up over time and is suitable to any major metropolitan area in the country.

Jaleo

2250 A Crystal Drive

Arlington, VA 22202

703-413-8181