Thursday, March 25, 2010

Hopfest, pt. deux

So the three of us — L, the kid, and me — stopped by Mekong for a bite of dinner after swimming last night. I expected to enjoy a beer or two, but I didn't expect our beer guru to follow up my last post about hoppy beer comparisons with an even broader array. I shouldn't have been so naive.

Not that I'm complaining. Quite the opposite, in fact.

He starts with pours of four hopfests and then over the course of the meal adds a few more. L meanwhile gets a Dogfish Head Midas — brilliant stuff. Before I go any farther, there should be a quick note about the food. At our last couple of dinner stops, I've let An pick what the menu for the evening. Last time, the result was a delicious spicy pork dish. Last night, he pulled out the stops with flat noodles and seafood with chili for me and sauteed tofu, shrimp and snow peas for L. The kid got Pho Ga and wolfed down a fresh roll before the soup arrived. While I love Richmond's array of Vietnamese noodle shops, Mekong still wins hands-down for quality and freshness of food. As other local food bloggers have noted, it certainly is among the best restaurants in the city.

That's the food. Here's the beer...

Round one: Terrapin Rye Squared, Bell's Hopslam (the control), Stone Ruination IPA

Round two: Full Sail Hop Pursuit, Avery Maharajah (the control)

Round three: Terrapin Big Hoppy Monster Imperial Red (the wild card, aged six months in An's cooler)

And the verdict:
1. Bell's — I put the Hopslam into its own category; with the honey and smooth hop introduction, this is in a class of its own.

2. Terrapin Big Hoppy Monster — I recall not being thrilled about this one when Terrapin hit the Richmond area last year. With some age under its belt, it has settled down and turned into a great hopfest.

3. Terrapin Rye Squared — These guys really are doing some great brewing. This is a hopfest full of malt, rye and other stuff going on in the flavors. Good stuff.

4. Avery Maharajah — This one is working its way back up in my estimation.

5. Stone Ruination — With 100+ IBUs, this packs one of the biggest hop wallops I've tasted. L couldn't even take more than a sip it was so bitter. Good stuff, but I couldn't drink more than one.

6. Full Sail — This was the mildest of the bunch. After the kind of hopfests it was competing against, it barely stood up. It seemed more like a lightly bitter session beer. I'll have to try this one again on its own.

Before all was said and done, An mentioned the Green Flash and a couple of others that had to wait for another round. Stay tuned. The hopfest will continue...

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Hop-tastic fun

Last week, my friend Jason (aka RVAFoodie) and I had an interesting tasting session with one of our local beer gurus at Mekong. Jason was drinking a Nugget Nectar and I had a Golden Doom Belgian-style blond. We got to talking about hops and asked our guru An how he would compare the Nugget to the Avery Maharajah. He began to describe DIPAs as roller coasters of hop aroma, and then we asked how he would compare Bell's Hopslam next to them since that little bit of rare gold has set a certain standard for hoppy double IPAs lately. Next thing we know, An pours two glasses of Avery and then pulls a bottle of Hopslam from his secret stash. He added a glass of Nugget Nectar for me, and we each had three glasses lined up. Three hop monsters ready for comparison.

Here's what we found:

1. Bell's Hopslam — While An described most DIPAs as roller coaster rides of flavor and mouthfeel, he told us to watch the way Hopslam carried through the entire sip. And he was right, from the floral bath of aroma to the end of the sip, the Hopslam was a smooth, supple ride. Enough alcohol popped through to let you know that you were at a 10% beer, but it wasn't as overwhelming as it could have been. It was a beer you sat down with after dinner; not one you plowed through a few of in a session. It also had enough malt presence that someone who isn't a hopfiend could still enjoy.

2. Troeg's Nugget Nectar — I've had this beer at the brewery and in bottle and should throw a disclaimer out that I loved it before the tasting session. That said, tasting it after the Hopslam was an excellent hop-to-hop comparison of what different hops will add to the aroma and flavor of a beer. The Nugget hops have a more subtle, nutty flavor, and balance nicely with well-rounded malts making a beer that is smooth with enough hop presence to stay interesting from nose to last sip. Compared to the Hopslam, this is one we agreed could be a perfect everyday beer. It's still a little high on the ABV to be a true session beer, but it was easy to see having another one.

3. Avery Maharajah Double IPA — Jason's first reaction to this was "It burns!" The hop presence here is huge. It hits the nose like a sharp whiff of hop oils and characterizes An's description of a roller coaster. There are intense flavors of hops and alcohol that fall off at the end of a mouthful. I'd call it a perfect example of a double IPA — sharp, strong, big and everything you'd want in a winter beer. Placed in a line with the Bell's and Troeg's, however, this one suffered by the comparison. It's still a good beer, but given the choice, I have to say it's a little over-hopped (if that's possible), and I'd probably choose something else for my next pint.

That's my first take. Check out Jason's.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Easy, delicious gnocchi... thumbs not included.

Because schedules seem busy and complicated lately, I've found myself making dinner for the the kid early and something else for L and I later in the evening. I keep trying to pull things together for all of us to eat at the same time, but it just isn't happening as much as I'd like. In the meantime, though, I've started to simplify what I'm preparing — whether for the the kid or for us. More and more, I find that combining a few really good ingredients and letting the food shine is far more interesting than trying to do full-bore multi-plate meals. This one was one of those pleasant discoveries along the way.

I had a package of Trader Joe's gnocchi — their prepared ingredients often make a good start for my recent creations — and a slew of random ingredients in the fridge. I pulled some bacon out and chopped it into small pieces, slicing off most of the fat. Then I pulled some sun-dried tomatoes in olive oil, a quarter-cup at most, and chopped them up. A couple fresh sweet peppers, a few small heirloom tomatoes, and a handful of spinach rounded out the ingredients. In deference to L's vegetarianism, we cooked the bacon in a separate pan. I sauteed the peppers, tomatoes and spinach in a touch of olive oil added the cooked gnocchi plated a small amount for her, sprinkled with fleur de sel, cracked pepper, a touch of crushed red pepper and parmaggiano. I added the cooked bacon to the pan and finished the saute, adding the salt, pepper and cheese.

In all fairness, I also have to give credit to L on this one. While chopping the sundried tomatoes, I nicked my thumb pretty badly. It was bad enough I had to sit the rest of the prep out and put pressure on the wound. She carried it off well and we plated perfectly.

The result was one of the better and simpler dishes I've done in a while. The flavor of each ingredient came through and they complemented each other beautifully. Served with a decent Barbera, this is definitely a keeper in the recipe list.

Monday, March 08, 2010

The problem with Richmond restaurants...

This weekend, we had a couple of experiences that perfectly explain my issues with so much of the Richmond restaurant scene. On Friday, my mother came into town, and L and I took advantage of the chance to have an adult meal with her while the kid was over at her mom's.

We batted around ideas like Rustica, Can Can and Coast. A few other favorites like Edo's, Balliceaux, and a few others were dropped because of expected crowds. Rustica was dropped for the same reason. The food and service at Rustica are worth a wait, but we didn't want to take the risk of a long wait. When given the choice between Can Can and Coast, my mother chose the latter for a smaller, more intimate experience. We gave a call and were told tables should be clear soon.

When we arrived, there was a party ahead of us at the bar. This wouldn't have been a problem except that Coast is very small, and two parties decided to take their sweet time after they'd paid their checks. We lingered at the bar and had the she-crab soup, which we all declared excellent, and a basket of the fresh bread. My mother and L had glasses of a nice Gruet from New Mexico. I had a Starr Hill IPA. The owner Gary came over and chatted for a bit from behind the bar. The brief wait got longer as the parties continued to linger. When we were finally seated, the owner sent over a plate of calamari to make up for the long wait. He also pulled a nice bottle of Valipolicella Ripasso for us — it wasn't on the wine list, and the price was a very reasonable $32.

When it came to our entrées, the only stumble was that they'd run out of crab cakes. Nonetheless, my mother chose the sea bass and housemade tagliatelle, and L chose the sauteed flounder with tagliatelle instead of potatoes. Both fish were perfectly done and light without being bland. I broke my usual code of not ordering things that I prepare myself and ordered the lamb chops which came a perfect medium rare, with a nice reduction drizzled over the top. For dessert, we opted for a chocolate torta with berries, and it too was right on target.

The overall tab without tip came in at $172. Not cheap, by any means, but it was an "occasion" dinner. The thing is we could easily have spent the same or more at one of Richmond's more central and popular restaurants — and come away far less satisfied. What Coast has going for it includes the quality of ingredients, the simplicity of preparation, and the professionalism of the service. What it loses is location, a problem that the owner's other restaurant solved until it was controversially shut down in November by the new building owner.

This was the high point.

The next day, we decided to do lunch out and dinner at home. After batting around a couple of options, L and I decided we'd try to make our peace with Mezzanine. Unfortunately, Mezzanine apparently changed their hours without changing their website. We decided to try Water Grill — the Richmond Restaurant Group's latest offering. The brunch menu seemed extensive and worth checking out. Once inside, we were seated in the windowed front room — so far, so good. L and I ordered an Allagash White and a Dale's Pale. The server delivered them, declaring confidently that the Dale's was the White and the White was the Pale. When I switched them, she giggled and admitted that she didn't really know the difference between the beers.

We ordered around, the kid getting french toast with sausage on the side, mom getting the crab bisque and an arugula salad, L getting a crab cake Benedict with fruit instead of home fries and an arugula salad to share with me, and a croque madame for me. The soup arrived before anything else, and while it was clear that my mother was being nice about it, the consistency was so thick as to look gelatinous. She didn't finish the bowl. The salads arrived next and were the best part of the meal. The kid's french toast arrived, as did the sausage. She was tired, though, and ate about half of the toast and a couple bites of sausage before declaring herself full. L's crab cake benedict arrived with home fries; thankfully, it tasted good so she ran with it. My croque madame was made with Texas toast that tasted as though it had been in the kitchen a couple days past its freshness date, and the white of the egg was runny when I got to the middle. The kid's sausages were also a little undercooked, which is a pity because they seemed a nice, thick maple sausage. Somewhere in the middle of the meal, the server asked me if I wanted another beer. I told her I might, and to check back with me. About ten minutes later, and as I had decided I wouldn't be getting another beer, a pint arrived.

The tab for this meal: $72. For brunch. This would seem high, even if the meal hadn't been a prime example of Richmond's restaurant mediocrity. As I've experienced with several of the RRG restaurants, not to mention other restaurants around town, the combination of preparation errors and server inexperience made the tab seem like even more of a crime.

The final restaurant experience of the weekend came at Legend Brewery. Now, Legend has struggled for years to balance quality of food and service with the quality of their beer. On the bright side, they've had the advantage of one of the few good outdoor locations in Richmond, and the deck was busy that afternoon. A busy afternoon doesn't excuse bad service, however. I ordered a Hopfest, one of their seasonals, and L asked about a sampler. The server was fidgety and said that she thought they were out of sampler glasses. Again, it was busy, but not that busy. We decided to get my beer, and L would try it to see if she liked it. The kid ordered a quesadilla and a Sprite. This is important because the kid rarely orders without prompting, but the server didn't seem to care about listening to her; she looked at us for the order.

About five minutes later, the hostess arrived with two pints of Hopfest. She looked a little sheepish when we clarified what the order was. Thankfully, L liked the Hopfest, and we were set. The server followed a few minutes later and dropped — literally dropped — the quesadilla between L and me. By this point, we were already saying how much we always wanted to like Legend. The thing is the place was messing up the simplest of things — the beer order was botched, the service was rushed and bad, and the quesadilla came without chips. When we got the server's attention and asked about the chips, she told us that chips didn't come with the quesadilla. L pointed out that the menu said kid's items came with chips, and the server said, "Well I can bring you some, but the quesadilla doesn't come with them." And she turned on her heel. In the end, we left after one beer and a light snack. The server got a $2 tip, and even that seemed too generous.

There is a difference between quick and professional and rude and unwelcoming, and this server crossed that line. Unfortunately, unprofessional and/or uneducated servers are too much the norm around Richmond restaurants. It takes so little to know how to do a job well and how to give people good service that I get more than a little frustrated when someone says a busy day is a good excuse for bad service. There is no reason a server at a restaurant where brunch can run upwards of a hundred dollars should not know which beer she's serving. Likewise, there is no reason a kitchen in such a restaurant should use stale bread and turn out undercooked items. When it comes to Legend, our poor harried server lost out on a decent tip and a higher bill by simply not caring how well she took care of her table. Whether she disliked kids or looked at us and decided we weren't worth the time, I don't know; I just know there's no excuse for such service.

Unfortunately, too often, the norm at Richmond restaurants is weak service and food that doesn't live up to the price. I've complained in the past about the lack of good, moderately-priced neighborhood restaurants where you feel welcomed and can walk away satisfied without breaking the bank. Ultimately, if I could wish one thing for the Richmond restaurant scene, it would be more restaurants like Coast and Rustica rather than more restaurants owned by the same three or four owners or more places that seem to feel like it's okay to be just good enough.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Goat Cheese!

Last week, fellow Richmond food bloggers One Couple's Kitchen wrote about their experiment making homemade goat cheese based on a recipe from Serious Eats. The process sounded remarkably easy and jived with my growing urge to know the chemistry and mechanics behind the making of food. I want to step beyond just cooking and using ingredients and understand how to create my own ingredients. That's really one of the goals for 2010. In this case, I knew Trader Joe's was stocking goat's milk, so it was easy to make a go of it.

All it requires is a quart of goat's milk, lemon, salt, garlic, cheese cloth and a food thermometer, and an hour and a half of your time. That's all.

We came back from Sunday dinner with the neighbors. I poured the milk in a stainless pot and watched until the thermometer hit 180º. The recipe called for a quarter cup of lemon juice, but I was working with whole lemons and seem to have lost (or purged) my juicer. I juiced a lemon and a half through a strainer to curdle the milk and waited for 20 seconds or so while the curdle happened. The curd then went into the cheese cloth — we used about eight layers to be sure that it held the curd — and I drew up the corners. Tie the satchel on a wooden spoon over a large bowl, and then wait.

When it was finished, I mixed it with a crushed clove of garlic and three pinches of good salt and let it stand, covered over night. That's it. So simple.

We tried it with friends the next night, and it was a hit. I would say it was a touch on the lemony side, and I think I'll be tempted to source some milk that is not ultra-pasteurized in the future. That said, this is one that I'll keep coming back to.

Next up: Corned beef, more cheese and returning to making hummus.