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Insights, tips, and restaurant reports from CHOW editors and Chowhound.

Someone’s Got to Play with the Chocolate

In the realm of dream job, how does spending a month playing with chocolate sound? Sarah Copeland of the Food Network has done just that. Hey—someone’s got to make sure your chocolate soufflés don’t “expire.”

The project was in preparation for the Food Network’s guide Chocolate 101, which includes tips, history, buying and tasting notes, how-to pointers, and recipes. Everything you’ve ever wanted to know about the sweet dark stuff. As she reports on the Food Network Kitchen blog, Sarah and colleague Mory Thomas spent a month working on the recipes for the features—and, most important, the photos.

In order to get a great photograph of a soufflé just when it is at its highest, we had to have plenty of mise en place ready to account for the fact that a soufflé will exhale (or fall, if you must) before it makes it on film. Next, we baked off a dozen soufflés at intervals to shoot as we adjusted lighting, a composition until we came up with two shots that we loved.

While baking—and subsequently devouring—soufflé after soufflé may sound like a rough job, Sarah claims that it is all for “the greater good of chocolate lovers everywhere.”

Hmm, now where can I get a job like that? I’m ready to martyr myself for chocolate.

Until then, I’ll just have to content myself with reading up on the Food Network’s Chocolate 101.

Testing Those Table Manners

Worried that students may be losing their culture to the onslaught of hamburgers and spaghetti, a high school in Nagasaki, Japan, has added a new test to its entrance exams—chopsticks skills.

According to an article from international news resource Agence France-Presse titled “Japanese Students Face Chopstick Test,” applicants to the Hisata Gakuen Girls’ High School in Sasebo, Nagasaki Prefecture, must demonstrate proficient use of chopsticks by gracefully transferring marbles, beads, and beans from one plate to another. “This is simply one factor to assess whether these girls can handle chopsticks correctly, which is really the most basic element in education,” said Katushi Hisata, vice principal of the school. He says that only 20 percent of Japanese students use chopsticks correctly.

The increasing popularity of non-Japanese food such as pizza and fried chicken is partly to blame for faulty chopsticks skills. In addition, more women in the work force means that more children eat meals alone these days. “It’s surprising to see how many children don’t know how to hold chopsticks correctly, which is a part of the Japanese culture’s beauty,” said Hisata.

What’s next: after school tutoring sessions for remedial chopstick users?

Halifax: Faux Turks and Primordial Corned Beef Hash

Halifax, Nova Scotia

Cape Breton Island is shut tight for the season, so I’ll be hunkering down in Halifax for the next few days. If I’d arrived just a week or two earlier, there’d have been many more Maritime options, but the prospect of eating seal meat in the Magdalen Islands, et al., will have to wait for another trip.

But I’m not suffering. Halifax is a dynamite town, just large enough for urban culture and edge, but small enough to feel personal. And you’re still in Nova Scotia, so there’s a certain softness in the air.

I’ve never heard anyone describe the Canadian Maritimes as a culinary hotbed, so I was stunned by the chowhounding savvy of callers in to the Maritime Noon show, which had me on as a guest. By kind permission of the folks at the CBC (and the show’s host, Costas Halavrezos—who, as you’ll hear, really groks the ethos), here’s the entire program: MP3.

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I spent the day running around sampling quick bites. The following is an overview of the chowconnaisance:

The Ardmore Tea Room (6499 Quinpool, Halifax, Nova Scotia; 902-423-7523), a no-nonsense old-time diner, serves the primordial corned beef hash. A frequent theme of my trip has been discovering local traditions that inspired ubiquitous mass-market foods, and this is clearly the sort of hash that inspired canned corned beef hash.

I don’t mean Libby’s Libby’s Libby’s grabbed the recipe from this very kitchen. But the Ardmore opened in 1958, and their hash is an amazing trip back in time. Nobody in New York City (or anywhere else I’ve been) makes hash like this anymore. What does this legacy hash taste like? Like canned corned beef hash, only soulful. Just like Chattanooga fried chicken tastes like Banquet fried chicken, only soulful. And Memphis ribs taste like barbecue potato chips, only soulful. And so on …

These folks all surely ate lots and lots of hash in their day:

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Donair shops are everywhere, serving what I’m used to seeing spelled “Döner”: compressed meat on a spit. But despite the similar spelling, this is a whole different compressed meat on a spit. It’s Halifax Donair, made by guys as Turkish as Doug McKenzie. Brace yourself as I explain what they use for sauce on these babies: vinegar, sugar, and evaporated milk. The result at least visually resembles the yogurt sauce used on Turkish döner, though the taste is, er, quite distinctive. My theory is that a visiting Turk once accidentally dropped a photo of döner on the streets of Halifax, and the relic went viral (and oh so wrong).

My stomach went a little viral after just a few bites of this sandwich from one of the downtown branches of King of Donair:

The swarthy King of Donair proudly displays his royal accouterments.

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I was endlessly fascinated by Tom’s Little Havana Café (5428 Doyle Street, Halifax, Nova Scotia; 902-423-TOM’S). This is a super-popular gin mill/cigar bar, where the thick cigar smoke adds yet more cinematic ambiance to a scene already straight out of a European movie. Despite its dramatic high ceilings, the room is warm and intimate, comfortably hosting a clientele spanning oddball loners to coiffed scenesters.

There’s a wide selection of local beers, and a kitchen the size of a closet turns out an ambitiously long list of dishes cooked with equal parts irony and naiveté. The terse dish names do little to describe what’s actually served, so ordering here is like making a wish to one of those tricky genies who never conjure up quite what you’d expected. The pace is too bustling to engage much with servers, and there are no menus beyond the terse chalkboard, so your only hope is to seek the counsel of a regular with experience in this place’s wacky oeuvre:

Local beer and wine guru Jeff Pinney suggested Havana rolls, sort of deconstructed chickeny egg rolls refashioned as wraps … or chicken stir-fry wrapped in a flour tortilla and baked. Whatever they are, they’re defined by their utter non-Cuban-ness. This place is no more Havana than the donair joints are Turkish. But they’re not aiming for Cuban. The name’s just a point of departure for whatever twisted genius (I visualize a wise-ass 11-year-old with a toaster oven and hot plate) whips this stuff up in the nano-kitchen.

The rolls are served with herbacious dipping sauce and tequila salsa, and, speaking of departure, they taste like they were made on another planet—which is not to say they’re not tasty. They are, and I pretty much inhaled them:

Just as the Havana rolls are the antithesis of Cuba, beef-chipotle quesadillas here contain no cheese:

Jeff had never tried them before, but I insisted on ordering potato pancakes, which tasted like deconstructed Indian pakoras (complete with cardamom) refashioned as latkes, with a dipping sauce of chutney refashioned as ketchup:

The food is primitive, even amateurish, yet supremely confident and intriguing as can be. It’s like a distinct cuisine, with its own internal flavor logic. One yens to work through the entire menu, preferably with a guidebook to the cuisine in hand (The Lonely Planet Guide to Tom’s Little Havana Café?). It’s all very trippy, very Alice in Wonderland … with cigars! (Note: By the time you read this, anti-smoking legislation will have cut in. Let’s hope they’re still in business …)

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Charming, obscure Mrs. P’s Bakery (336 Herring Cove Road, Halifax, Nova Scotia; 902-479-1293) makes real good oat cakes and other everyday baked goods. They’re quietly witty, nice folks, too.

Oat cakes are a blurry, homely sort of treat. The camera resists all attempts at focus.

You can taste each of the 600 miles from New York City in those highly Canadian black-and-white cookies.

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Tarek’s Café (3045 Robie Street, Halifax, Nova Scotia; 902-454-8723) is a shopping-strip Lebanese restaurant with great potential. Their toom (garlic mayonnaise) is sharp, pungent, just right. Tzatziki is lush; kibbe is authentic, down to the pignoli. Buf falafel’s nuked—everything seems to be nuked, robbing the food of its soul. My guess is that the trick is to arrive early when the food’s warm and fresh, and get to know Mama, cooking in the back, so that she’ll make you special dishes (I get the feeling she’d take requests). This is a restaurant that requires effort and strategy.

A Tale of Two Restaurants (or, Yin ‘n’ Yang in Nova Scotia)

Wolfville, Nova Scotia, and Port Williams, Nova Scotia

I’ve traversed Nova Scotia, trading the bucolic salty south shore for the bucolic salty north, where I scored a surprisingly inexpensive room ($125 Canadian) at hoity-toity Blomidon Inn (195 Main Street, Wolfville, Nova Scotia; 877-542-2291). Ah, sweet shoulder season. Look at this joint and tell me: Could life possibly get any quainter?

The dining room splays out among various alcoves on the first floor, making for a luxuriously personal setting. Here’s the view from my table:

Aside from the unbeatable ambiance and impressively professional service, it was a perfectly fine, thoroughly unmemorable meal. In fact, I can’t recall a single bite. But I’m glad to have done it … once (at this price—$53 Canadian—I wouldn’t return for seconds).

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Tin Pan Bakery & Bistro (978 Main Street, Wolfville, Nova Scotia; 902-542-5649) is one of the most enigmatic places ever. It’s as humble as can be—just a modest cabin by the side of the road offering a daily soup, a sandwich or two, and a couple of pastries. The woman in charge is quiet and polite, but her eyes brim with intensity.

I ordered potato leek soup (with biscuits), plus a muffin, and took it all out to the car, where one sip told me this was the most ingenuous of soups. Very little salt—in fact, it had very little flavor, though the oddly shaped chunks of waxy potatoes told me that the chef really loves potatoes. But it was the strangest thing: Nothing happpened in my mouth, yet this was one of the few items I’ve completely finished on this trip. I just couldn’t put my spoon down.

I’ve included two shots, hoping that if we all stare at them long enough, we’ll figure out what the magic is:

The biscuits also were phenomenally bland. I arrived late in the day, so they were slightly tough, too. And I couldn’t stop eating them. What weird, enchanting food!

This pensive muffin is also from the Tin Pan. Yup, utterly flavorless and utterly irresistible:

Only now, as I review these photos, have I noticed Tin Pan’s motto at the bottom of this sign:

Something about the font, the spacing, the capitalization, even the wallpaper behind the sign makes me suspect there’s an intelligence at work. The supernatural effect is, I believe, no accident.

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Tempest World Cuisine (117 Front Street, Wolfville, Nova Scotia; 902-542-0588) is a much-acclaimed restaurant, whose chef/owner, Mike Howell, seems to be one of Nova Scotia’s buzziest chefs.

He’s up on the latest trends—for example, his upcoming “Surreal Dinner.”

I was seated within view of the kitchen, so I couldn’t get away with taking lots of photos, but you can just visualize splashy, pizazzy presentations. I did squeeze off this one hasty shot of my slow-braised pork bellies in sour cherry gastrique:

The little square potato thingies on the left tasted rewarmed. The beety/cheesy thingies, on the right, were obnoxiously rich with cheese. And the squares in the center with the sauce are the pork bellies, which tasted nice. My pumpkin risotto was deftly made, but soulless. Pineapple and lemongrass ice cream sandwich (“our own lemongrass ice cream between layers of coconut milk–poached pineapple”) suffered from a remarkably low deliciousness-to-cleverness ratio.

“It’s SHOWTIME!” exuberates your food. And I suppose it truly is. This kitchen musters fine technique, interesting (if not always successful) juxtapositions, and sophisticated broad strokes. But everything left me stone cold. I had to force myself to take plodding second bites of things.

It dawned on me that Tempest World Cuisine, where skillful cooking entices nary a second bite, is the precise yang to the yin of Tin Pan Bakery & Bistro, where poor cooking is downright magnetic. A high-powered laser experiment must have gone awry, splitting a genius chef into two dysfunctional half-chefs. One works in a silent bleak cabin, the other a few miles away amid splashy accolades. One day I hope they find each other and merge.

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Café Central (corner of Cornwallis and Webster streets in Kentville, Nova Scotia) is just some generic small-town coffee joint with counter service, but their chowder and salad were leagues better than I’d expected. Have I just been chowhounding well, or are ordinary restaurants starting to try harder than they need to?

Classy-looking chow for a pedestrian coffeeshop, no?

I’ve been drinking more and more rooibos tea (see report #53), and liking it better and better:

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Fox Hill Cheese makes ordinary hard cheeses (though their fenugreek havarti wins points for creativity), but also sensational quark. You can find their products at the Saturday Halifax Farmer’s Market, at 1496 Lower Water Street, or at Fox Hill Cheese House (1660 Lower Church Street, Port Williams, Nova Scotia; 902-542-3599), where friendly staffers offer samples.

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This area was a bastion of Tories opposed to the American Revolution, and the British flavor is still palpable—particularly in the dark, woody, creaky Library Pub (472 Main Street, Wolfville, Nova Scotia; 902-542-4315), which could easily be a bar in Oxford. Downstairs, the same owners run the Coffee Merchant, a warm little hangout for teetotalers.

I’m Hatin’ It

I have to admit, my eyes aren’t what they used to be, so I don’t know if I would have caught the “subliminal” McDonald’s flash on an episode of Iron Chef America in real time. However, when you watch Pajamas Media’s slowed-down clip, there is no mistaking the big red sign and yellow writing telling us someone out there is “lovin’ it.”

Now, according to the blog at Broadcasting & Cable, the Food Network has stated that the McBlip was nothing more than a “slight technical problem,” which is totally old school for “wardrobe malfunction.” Anne Becker at B&C adds, “Still, it’s not totally implausible, in an age of rampant DVRing, that networks will soon resort to short subliminal ads to meet advertiser demands,” which would scare me if it wasn’t for the fact—as I already pointed out—that the old rods and cones are aging and I’m just not seeing it. Becker also points out, “Clear Channel has already begun running one-second radio ads called ‘Blinks.’ The client whose jingle they used to demo the product? McDonald’s.” OK, now I’m getting a little scared. And paranoid.

Let’s juxtapose the McBlip with the completely shameless and totally in-your-face advertising on Bravo’s Top Chef and see how they stack up. Note that I said “advertising,” because what that show has been doing goes way beyond simple product placement. I’m going to ignore Top Chef’s standard sponsors (Toyota, GladWare, and Kenmore), since the very fact that they are announced as sponsors in the show’s bumpers puts them in a different, honest, almost acceptable category. Moving on from there, just last week we had an episode that was dripping with Nestlé and Calphalon products, and the week before, the Quickfire ordered the cheftestants to create dishes using one of four named Kraft ingredients. Then there was the Bailey’s-saturated cocktail challenge. And the TGI Friday’s Elimination challenge. Sure, all of them are food or food-related, but I really don’t think that is any excuse to shove them so severely down our throats.

For the most part, the Food Network is refreshingly free of product placement. Alton Brown eschews it on Good Eats, I can’t remember Paula Deen ever brand-name-droppng but maybe I just can’t decipher her accent, and Rachael Ray famously goes to elaborate lengths to cover up cans, boxes, and bars with her own homemade labels.

Back in the day, we used to giggle over television show sightings of the label-free pop cans because they were so obviously Diet Coke or Pepsi. It became something to point out and laugh at in the “How stupid do they think we are? That’s obviously 7-Up—look at the bubbles on the side!” kind of way. But now, so many television shows cram in brand name after brand name to such a degree that advertisers might need to rethink their strategy. Soon enough the public will become desensitized to such placement, and where would that leave them?

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Ham Cooked in Coke

Basting ham in Coca Cola is an old-time southern practice. It’s still popular because it tastes great. Coke’s not the only soda you can use–7-Up and Dr Pepper are also popular, and Isabella prefers Barq’s root beer. acme took a risk with orange soda, and says it was wonderful.

wyf4lyf recently made a Coke-basted ham that she raves is “out of this world!”: Score the fat, rub allspice all over the ham, cook in 2 liters of Coke, basting every 15 minutes for the first 90 minutes. Then glaze with apricot preserves mixed with orange juice. Glaze and baste every 15 minutes until done.

chezlamere is crazy about Nigella Lawson’s version, and says it’s even better when made with pomegranate molasses.

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Nigella’s ham cooked in coke.

Chili Lemon Garlic

You might not expect it from the silly name, but Chili Lemon Garlic does great Thai food. Dave MP likes the boat noodle soup, #37 on the menu ($6.95). The broth is dark and has a nice beef flavor, though this is somewhat overpowered by the flakes of fried garlic that are generously sprinkles over the soup. If you like fried garlic, though, that won’t be a problem. Meatballs are good and very beefy; the rare steak isn’t really rare, but it’s good nonetheless.

They claim to be able to make any dish vegetarian using fake meat, but this claim is as yet untested by ‘hounds.

Chili Lemon Garlic Thai Cafe [Mission]
3166 24th Street, San Francisco

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Noodle soup at CLG (Chili Lemon Garlic) in the Mission

Mama Lucy’s Soulful Comfort Cuisine

Mama Lucy’s has amazing fried catfish, says Benny Choi. It has a thin, crunchy crust covering the hot, moist, tender fish–and it’s not at all greasy. Fried chicken wings are also admirably fried, with a nice crust and tasty flesh. Also try the tender collard greens, with a subtle balance of sweet and tangy. Lunch is around $16, including an entrée, two sides, and a drink. Sweet corn and red beans are just OK.

Mama Lucy’s Soulful Comfort Cuisine [SoMa]
1 Gilbert Street, San Francisco

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Mama Lucy’s Soulful Comfort Cuisine

Pardo’s – Superior Peruvian Chicken in the Village

At Pardo’s, a Peruvian chicken chain, the secret is in the marinade. Brewed from a recipe developed at the source in Lima, it works its way deep into the bird, resulting in exceptionally flavorful meat. The chicken comes off the rotisserie moist and tender, with crisp, delicious skin. “Sometimes there’s nothing better than a good roast chicken,” notes jdmetz, “and this place came through big time.” Alongside the chicken come a couple of house-made sauces, of which the green peppercorn is the winner, says Benjamin68.

There’s more than roast chicken here. Hounds recommend yuquitas (yucca fries), chicharron (fried chicken with an unusually light cornmeal crust), garlicky, bacony stewed canario beans, and dense but refreshing flan for dessert. Parrillero (grilled chicken fillet), anticuchos (grilled beef heart), fried rice, and a handful of other sides round out the short menu.

Pardo’s [West Village]
92 7th Ave. S., near Grove St., Manhattan

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Pardo’s chicken–Just as good as now-defunct El Pollo
The Best (Peruvian) Rotisserie Chicken–Pardo’s
New Peruvian Chicken Place in West Village