Tuesday, September 28, 2010

A note about small plates, and restaurants in general.

A friend recently posted on his blog about a favorite spot of mine, Secco. I've noted to others that Secco isn't my go-to joint for a meal because putting a full dinner together can sometimes cost more than L and I have as discretionary funds. Why? Because, as people have noted before, the plates are small.

An omnivore like me may be able to put together a fine meal for under $30 — duck or steak, a salad, soup plus the schiacciata, for instance. There's enough balance and richness to satisfy my palate and leave me feeling satisfied. A pickier eater may find it difficult, though. Vegetarians will find some very tasty items, but at least in our visits, L hasn't found the plates satisfying enough. As a result, we're more likely to enjoy one of the best cheese and charcuterie plates in town, drink some excellent wines, and finish the meal at home.

A few times recently, Secco seems to have become a straw man for what some Richmond diners see as the problem with small plates in general. They are — well — small. What a surprise, right? The point of tapas or shared delicacies is that you enjoy a variety of tastes. It's possible to put a full meal together, but you have to strip away expectations of each person getting an appetizer, entree, and dessert. Regardless, the problem with many small plate restaurants is that they often aren't adventurous enough. Too often, small plates simply seem like easy ways for restaurants to maximize profit and minimize care for preparation. This is where Secco beats the curve.

My standard for a good restaurant — no matter the cuisine, style, or cost — is whether it provides me with meals I can't produce myself. Whether it's because of better equipment, ingredients or the elusive techniques of proper preparation, I don't care. If I have been served something transporting that I could not produce as well myself (or find better elsewhere), the restaurant gets my kudos. Mas Tapas in Charlottesville fits the bill. So does Catina, a local banh mi joint. Numerous falafel joints in New York that leave me longing for the right crunch, not to mention a couple steak joints in the city that simply produce a better filet than I can duplicate, are on the list. I could go on, but the point is Secco has landed on that list faster than other places in town. What the chef is producing is worth tasting and savoring. I haven't sampled anything yet that didn't make me smile.

L and I may not eat there as often as I'd like, but that has more to do with life in general than it does a quality-to-price ratio. Ultimately, I wish there were more restaurants that delivered the way Secco does.


In the interest of full disclosure, I am friends with the owner and staff of Secco. But that's only a small part of why I am proud to say they've hit the mark so well. Richmond needed a place like this.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Recent beer discoveries

Just a quick list with some thoughts...

Shooting Creek Farm Brewery — Brown, Red, Bitter, Amber
These guys just made it up to Richmond from the far corner of southwest Virginia. The beers are all unfiltered and hand-bottled at this point, and the craft shows in good and bad ways. There are some characteristics reminiscent of homebrew, and while the use of rye in the red and other alternative grains produces some interesting flavor profiles, only the brown really stood out to me. It had a nice, dry hoppiness and seemed a little more finished than the others. All in all, though, they've got a good start, and it will be interesting to see how they evolve.

Oerbier from De Dolle Brouwers, Belgium
Apparently, this beer is produced in 5 gallon batches and blended and aged. The result is a crazy complexity of flavor with oak, funk, caramel, malt, low bitterness, sour, like nine beers combined into one explosion of flavor. It was a random find at Kybecca, a small store with a fascinating selection in Fredericksburg, and I may have to seek out another bottle or two and see what some additional age does to the flavor profile.

Dieu du Ciel Rosée d'Hibiscus
Wheat beer brewed with hibiscus from a tiny brewery in Quebec. It is a beer for committed wine drinkers — delicate and dry like a perfect rosé.

Ommegang Zuur
A sour brown ale brewed with cherries. My beer guru An says this one is a little young. I'd have to agree. Nice sour notes, and a solid cherry presence — think cider, not maraschino. It made a nice afternoon quaff for my dad's birthday, but could really evolve with a little more time in the bottle.

When I get a chance, I'll do a rundown of some of this year's Octoberfests.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Things I've learned

I was pondering a post this morning and realized that the past year had brought an awful lot of lessons along the way. What follows is an utterly un-premeditated list of things I've finally begun to understand in the past year.

  • When sauteing or grilling, leave fish or meat on a higher heat than you think for a little longer than you think. The trick is to get a good crust on the outside without burning. Very handy skill...
  • Brewing has a lot more to do with equipment and process than inspiration. The 90/10 rule for writing and design also applies here.
  • Listen to your kid and enjoy every day. They grow up quickly.
  • Say thank you and do small, nice things for people close to you.
  • Make time for yourself and those you love.
  • Let go. If it's bothering you and you can't do anything about it or change what is bother you, find a way to let it go.
  • Don't wait to transplant tomatoes or black raspberries. The plants will falter, especially in a bad growing year.
  • Tomato sauce is easier to make than you think.
  • Big California-style reds get boring after a while. The same is true of the hyper-experimental trend in craft beer. A classic done well or given a new twist is better than something that beats you over the head with its idiosyncrasies.
  • I'd rather cook than pay for a mediocre meal at a restaurant.
  • It is easy to forget to slow down. And easy to forget that kids (and adults!) need some time just to hang out.
  • Sharpen your knives regularly. They will perform better and your food will be better.