Friday, July 30, 2010

Cafe Rustica Redux

As anyone who has read my notes on Richmond restaurants knows, Andy Howell's Café Rustica is among my favorite spots in the city. Compared to most restaurants of comparable pedigree, Rustica churns out consistently excellent food for better prices. I have yet to have a bad meal at the joint, even on what I would call at the time one of their "off" nights.

Tonight was decidedly not an "off" night. In fact, with a new menu debuting in the past two weeks, the kitchen seems to be revived and putting more energy into the food. (Mind you, there was no lack of energy before.) The mix of locally-sourced, reasonably-priced Continental comfort food is well-intact. From the pomodoro pie to the steak to the mediterranean short stack to the pot roast, everything that came to the table was well-prepared and delicious. Even the beet salad seemed to have gained a little extra microgreens and a little extra zing on the roasted walnuts. My only regret? That Howell took the Portuguese stew off the menu before I tried it.

The tab with a bottle of '07 Chinon Cab Franc and a glass of Rueda for L's mother? $127. With tax and tip. That's for four of us, and we all walked away sated and stuffed, wishing we had a little more room for the peanut-butter-and-jelly creme brulée or blueberry mascarpone. But back to the price: $127, after tax and a good tip. It's tough to find comparable food at that price anywhere in the city. And with a front-of-house staff that makes the place feel like home, there's little wonder it has become our go-to place.

Next step, testing the place on the kid. Then again maybe we'll keep it as a date-night secret.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Writing about Beer

You wouldn't think the above words would give me pause, but they are. I've been asked to write up a quick (200 word) primer on craft beer for the second edition of a friend's book. What we have in mind is something that covers the basics but also gives enough to go on that the discerning reader — who isn't already up on craft beer — will know which way to go and what he is tasting and finding.

Style is admittedly giving me a little trouble. My friend's writing is a little more on the savvy magazine edge than my usual prose, but I can live with that. I'm rusty but not so rusty I can't find the right tone. No. What's getting me is the style of presentation. Is it better to give a quick list — a sort of best-of of the craft beer world that will give any reader the right place to start? Or is it better to give a run-down of styles and terms to know? Or is it better to pull together some nice clear prose that takes a more narrative approach?

It feels odd to be stuck on my first writing assignment in years. It feels even stranger to be stuck when it comes to a subject I know so much about. So here goes a bit of crowdsourcing... If you were looking for a quick primer on what it means when someone says "craft beer," would you rather have a list of styles, a list of go-to beers, or some fuller prose to chew on?

I'd love to hear suggestions in the comments.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Burned, thrice.

I consider myself a good cook. I know my way around the kitchen, around ingredients, around different preparations. It's a hobby that has gotten more and more serious in the past few years — maybe filling a void left by not playing pool lately. Friends and family enjoy what I cook, and I can usually take an eclectic set of ingredients from idea to execution handily. From time to time, though, there are reminders that I'm just an amateur. Tonight, I made a couple of such mistakes.

The plan was to prepare some sockeye filets we'd picked up TJ's with quinoa and a salad. No big deal, right. Easy. Prep the salmon and give it a quick sear on the stove before putting it under the broiler to get the top. Chop up some veggies for a little slaw to go on it. Add some veggies to the quinoa. Salad. Simple stuff.

The thing is the fish wasn't great. I knew that the moment I took it out of the package. Usually TJ's fish has been pretty consistent, but the last couple times the quality seems to have dropped off a little bit. This salmon was a little beaten up and might have seen a bit of freezer burn, but I didn't have a back-up plan. It was getting late, too. Time to pull some cumin and lemon to the rescue. If I couldn't grab a better piece of fish, maybe I could at least cover up the imperfections. I prepped it and moved on.

The garnish was going to be a bit of cucumber, some sungolds, parsley and a bit of pepper. For the pepper, I opted for a bright yellow hot pepper I'd picked up at the market. It seemed fairly innocuous, and I made sure to prep it correctly — slice open and remove the seeds with a quick wash, dice. I even cleaned my knife and hands afterward to prevent cross-contamination.

The quinoa had a good start on the stove. I salted it liberally and added diced some yellow squash and green pepper a friend had given L. I tossed it in the pan to cook with the grains. Seemed like a fine idea at the time.

Before pulling the salad together, I shoved the salmon under the broiler. I love cast iron for its versatility, and for the ability to get a perfect sear on almost anything. I pulled some greens from the bag and mixed them with the rest of the parsley and a red pepper that had landed on our counter this afternoon. Crumble some stilton over it, add a little balsamic, and we're all good, right?

It was just a couple minutes later that the burn started. My lips were the first hit, then my eyes. Then I realized I'd forgotten one very important detail — the cutting board. I'd washed everything but the cutting board. And now everything was covered in sweet, hot pepper. The salad was, if not ruined, at least the wrong set of flavors. The quinoa had an extra bite to it. My eyes were burning, and to add final insult to injury, I left the salmon under the broiler too long.

The last was the least of my problems since the salmon was already a bit of a flavor and texture fail. The mistake with the peppers bugs me though. It seems like the kind of mistake you shouldn't make if you consider yourself a serious-enough cook.

The truth is that life is filled with those moments, however: little lessons that teach you to always be vigilant, no matter how much you think you know.