The CHOW Blog rss

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

Utopian Dream

You aren’t supposed to give chicken bones to your dog–broken chicken bones are really sharp. However, human hounds with the prudence to carefully eat around the chicken bone shards can enjoy the wonder of the clay pot dishes at Utopia Caf

Chocolate Cupcakes, Done Just Right, at Ciao for Now

Chocolate cupcakes at Ciao for Now in the East Village are something special, intensely chocolaty but not too sweet, says curranthound, who ranks them well ahead of better-known cupcake makers Magnolia and Billy’s.

In other bakery news, Sweet Melissa in Soho has closed. Its original Brooklyn shop remains in business, turning out hound-endorsed chocolate mousse cake, double chocolate-cherry cookies and other treats.

Ciao for Now [East Village]
504 E. 12th St., between Aves. A and B, Manhattan

Magnolia Bakery [Greenwich Village]
401 Bleecker St., at W. 11th St., Manhattan

Billy’s Bakery [Chelsea]
184 9th Ave., between W. 21st and 22nd Sts., Manhattan

Sweet Melissa Patisserie [Soho]
75 W. Houston St., at W. Broadway, Manhattan

Sweet Melissa Patisserie [Carroll Gardens]
276 Court St., between Butler and Douglass, Brooklyn

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Best Cupcakes???
Does anyone know when

New Bakery Pastry Crawl

Dana B’s pastry crawl through eight of the city’s new (less than a year old) bakeries yielded a few top picks:

1. City Bakery’s caramelized French toast. Hot, cold, whatever–and this baby needs no maple syrup. This is also the place for an oatmeal cookie fix. And check out their nicely flaky, salty pretzel croissant.

2. Breadbar’s apricot tart with custard, and chocolate-almond croissants

3. Maison du Pain’s pain aux raisins.

Other good stuff: cinnamon roll at Jamaica’s Cakes butterscotch pudding at Susiecakes.

But steer clear of napoleons at Maison du Pain (did someone forget to add sugar?), whoopee pies at Susiecakes (there are tastier ways to pursue adult-onset diabetes) and scones pretty much everywhere.

City Bakery [Beaches]
Brentwood Country Mart
225 26th St., San Vicente, Santa Monica

Breadbar [West Hollywood]
8718 W. 3rd St., Los Angeles

La Maison du Pain [Midtown]
5373 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles

Jamaica’s Cakes [West LA]
11511 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles

SusieCakes [Wealthy Westlands]
11708 San Vicente, at Barrington, Los Angeles
310-442-2253 (CAKE)

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The great pastry trek is over… (Long)

An Evolutionary Leap in SFV Banh Mi

Sandwich Express is a big step up from the existing banh mi places in the Valley, says yclops. Unlike the rest, they bake their own baguettes. There’s a choice of 15 sandwich fillings.

The special combo (dac biet) has a very loose, light pate, with good flavor, along with assorted cold cuts–lots of meat and bits. Grilled pork tastes of five-spice and is a bit fatty without being gristly. Grilled BBQ pork is less sweet than some versions–more like Vietnamese carnitas. Shredded chicken is reasonably moist.

Banh mi are $2-2.75; baguettes are 75 cents to $1.

Sandwich Express [West San Fernando Valley]
18575 Sherman Way, Reseda

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Sandwich Express–“new style” banh mi shop in Reseda

Unorthodox Route to Perfectly Cooked Steak

Going against the conventional high-heat-is-better school of steak cooking, A Fish Called Wanda experimented with searing, resting, and finishing in a very low oven–and the results were fantastic. “I have finally made a perfect steak,” she exults. “Perfectly medium-rare from the surface to the center.” Wanda used hanger steak, but other flavorful cuts would work as well with this technique, she’s sure.

Here’s how: Preheat oven to 250F. Sear steak quickly in a very hot oven-proof skillet. Remove steak to plate and allow both steak and pan to cool for 10 minutes. Return steak to pan and finish in oven for approximately 10 minutes per inch of thickness (for medium rare).

Here’s a photo of Wanda’s perfect steak.

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Perfect steak —finally!

Olive Oil that Won’t Leave a Stain on your Wallet

Buying expensive single-estate olive oil only makes sense if you’re going to serve it in the raw. For cooking, once you add other flavors, the subtleties of the really fruity oils are lost, advises Texas Toast. So you’ll probably want two oils: a premium extra virgin olive oil for dressings, sauces, and finishing dishes before serving, and a workhorse everyday oil for sauteing and other basic cooking. So what are the good workhorse olive oils?

In a recent roundup of supermarket olive oil brands by Cooks Illustrated, Da Vinci brand came out on top. Chowhounds recommend Trader Joe’s oils; of their several varieties, President’s Select might be the best all-purpose oil they stock. Trader Joe’s Santini Brand Sicilian olive oil is made from thousand year old olive trees; it, too, is very tasty, says Louis.

If you’re interested in going Greek, kalamata oil, also available from Trader Joe’s, is one of the best and least expensive extra virgins. In fact, olive oils labelled “from Italy” are frequently blends of oils from other countries, like Spain and Greece, simply bottled in Italy.

Avoid purchasing more olive oil than you’ll be able to consume in about 6 months, as olive oil can go rancid quickly after that. Diane recommends buying about no more than a about a 32 oz. bottle and then dispensing just as much as you need it into a smaller, more decorative bottle, adding herbs or flavorings if you desire. If you do need a larger quantity of oil, Costco’s own Kirkland brand olive oil (produced solely in Italy from Tuscan olives) is a great choice and exceptionally well priced, says Walters. Stick with the pure stuff though; their garlic-flavored extra virgin is too garlicky for even diehard garlic fans.

Louis recommends a practical test for any great olive oil: fry a farm-fresh egg in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil. When you find yourself using the toast to mop out the pan, you have found a keeper.

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inexpensive, but good, olive oil? [Moved from Home Cooking]

Foolproof Halibut

Pan-searing and finishing in the oven is a foolproof way to cook halibut perfectly every time, swears Bostonbob3. Here’s his technique:

Preheat oven to 350F. Season halibut on both sides with salt and white pepper. Heat olive oil in an ovenproof saute pan and sear halibut on one side until lightly browned. Flip the fish over and sear the other side. Flip over again and place the pan in the oven to cook for 6 to 8 minutes.

It’s terrific drizzled with the classic accompaniment to halibut: lemon juice, melted butter and capers, says River Rat.

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Hints on Cooking Halibut?

Spreading Out from Nutella

Nutella is certainly tasty, but it’s laden with peanut oil. For better chocolate-hazelnut spreadss, without the peanut oil, there are several alternatives.

Check out Trader Joe’s cocoa hazelnut spread, recommends Gastronomos. Also try Merenda, a high-quality spread from Greece.

Le Pain Quotidien sells their own line of delectable chocolate-hazelnut and pure hazelnut spreads.

Canadian Chocolatier Bernard Callebaut makes a decadent hazelnut spead that PaulV prefers to Nutella, and they’ll even ship it to the states.

99 Ranch sells a Dutch brand of hazelnut spread with similar ingredients to Nutella, sans peanut oil.

Nutella loyalists should seek out Italian-made Nutella (distinguished by its glass jar and nutritional info in Italian) which tastes even better than what’s shipped out to the U.S. and doesn’t contain any nasty partially hydrogenated vegetable oils.

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Nutella alternatives

Bruni Takes It Rare

Why does New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni write so much about burgers on his blog? What national chain’s fast-food burgers does he deign to devour? Adam Kuban of A Hamburger Today gets to the bottom of these and other issues in a fun interview with the much-maligned critic. The questions are respectful, the banter is light, the discussion is refreshingly un–New York-centric, and Bruni wins points with me for his description of the ideal burger (thick, rounded, and grilled, made with ground chuck and topped with Swiss—never mozzarella or jack).

It’s interesting to see Bruni approached from this neutral, Q&A angle by a blogger, since the critic has long been lambasted in the land of blogs and message boards (most hilariously by Jules at The Bruni Digest) for turning his reviews into off-topic points about the restaurant industry, being unfair and pompous (not to mention being a cocktail rube), engaging in “star inflation,” and of course abusing the English language.

For my part, while I enjoy my share of Bruni-bashing, it’s refreshing to take a break. (I think reading Ruth Reichl’s enjoyable Garlic and Sapphires has also made me more sensitive to the plight of restaurant critics.) Still, Bruni does bring up a potentially annoying reason for his frequent burger-focused blog entries:

I don’t think I’ve written many—or maybe any—burger stories in the actual paper, other than my fast-food trip across the country. But you’re right that I’ve done a lot of blog posts about burgers. I think burgers are good Internet/blog material—they’re accessible; many people have experiences with and strong feelings about them; and so the subject of burgers often fosters an interesting, fun dialogue.

I agree that people have endless fun picking, panning, and dissecting burgers, but there’s a slight whiff of snobbery about this quote, as though Bruni is implying that “accessible” food is better left to the unwashed masses on the Internet, keeping the actual paper reserved for more rarified tastes. Is that breakdown roughly true? What should be the role of the food blog as opposed to the dining section of a given newspaper?

Your Morning Spray

The Chicago Sun-Times reported today that that mad alchemist of the culinary world, Ferran Adria, has made an, um, improvement on the traditional espresso. Adria’s new coffee thingy is known as espesso (note the missing “R”), and it’s more like a custard than a cuppa.

Sez the Sun-Times:

Espesso consists of espresso and an ingredient the company won’t divulge, combined in a pressurized canister and left to set for 12 hours. The result is a mousselike, cold solid sprayed right out of the canister.

Oooohkay. Should you want to try this unusual treat, you’ll find it any of the three branches of Chicago coffeehouse Lavazza’s —and nowhere else. You can, however, order variations on the espesso theme: espesso cappuccino or espesso macchiatto, both with solidified milk served in the same cup as the espesso. Anyone tasted it yet? It sounds sort of intriguing, but the name alone makes me want to punch a wall.