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

Lovers of Crispy Food, Take Note

“I’ve never really bought into the whole cupcake thing,” says Parsnipity, who had a recent mind-changing experience at Kickass Cupcakes: Cupcake Crisps, baked twice, dipped in chocolate on one side, and then sprinkled with jimmies or M&Ms. “This is a completely different food! The only thing I can compare it to is the corner piece of a really good pan of brownies—sort of crispy, sort of chewy, very chocolately.”

At $2.75 a serving (same as for the regular cupcakes), the twice-baked cupcakes are a relatively economical sweet. oniontears appreciates that “they come in pairs … one for now, and one for five minutes later!”

While you’re at Kickass, don’t forget to make a stop by the (in-store) Dairy Bar for local milk.

Kickass Cupcakes [North of Boston]
378 Highland Avenue, Somerville
617-628-2877

Board Link: Twice-baked cupcakes might make me a convert….

Cocktails for Your Date with Bettie Page

The space formerly occupied by the Abbey Lounge in Somerville is now Trina’s Starlite Lounge, a homey Southern-flavored joint owned by Josh Childs (Silvertone co-owner) and Trina and Beau Sturm (City-Bar, Highland Kitchen). As befits the Abbey’s history, Trina’s has a vintage feel, with shiny wood floors, a lot of classic cocktails on the menu, and a crowd with “ironic hair” says yumyum.

So far the reviews on the food are mixed, and those cocktails are what hounds like best. Good orders include:

• Starlite: white rum, lemon, fizzy water, purple liqueur parfait amour
• The Gentleman: Buffalo Trace bourbon, Belle de Brillet pear liqueur, lemon juice—“Brilliant,” says gini
• Z’s Negroni: pink grapefruit–infused gin, Carpano Antica vermouth, the Campari-like liqueur Aperol
• The Alfa Sour: Something like a Pisco sour, made with grappa and sweet vermouth

To go with the drinks, order a burger and/or gravy fries. “The gravy is absurdly delicious and the perfect foil for what some would say are overly salted fries,” says gini, who also calls the meatloaf “above-average-diner good.”

The Abbey’s live music is a thing of the past. “They tried, but the neighbors fought back and wouldn’t let them,” says jgg13.

Trina’s Starlite Lounge [North of Boston]
3 Beacon Street, Somerville
617-576-0006

Board Links: Trina’s to open today
Trina’s Starlight Lounge to replace the Abbey

Bring Your Host a Taste of Boston

blink617 is going on a trip and wants to bring a little piece of Boston to the out-of-town hosts. What’s a nice local something-something that can be had for less than $20?

Taza chocolates are local, of course, and most Whole Foods have a good selection of their wares; Taza also runs booths at many local farmer’s markets.

More esoteric (and more fiercely local than Taza, which is sold all over the U.S.), are Effie’s Homemade Oatcakes and Crispy Corncakes, available at many local stores, including Savenor’s and most locations of Whole Foods. They’re “decadent, buttery biscuits made right in Hyde Park,” drools galleygirl.

Or try the Tuesday’s Harvard Farmers’ Market, a treasure trove of local goods, says dulce de leche. You can find local honey, syrup, jam, bread, chocolate, smoked fish, and one very unique item: a hunk of cooled maple syrup that can be grated and stores “pretty much indefinitely.”

Savenor’s Market [Cambridge]
92 Kirkland Street, Cambridge
617-576-6328

Savenor’s Market [Beacon Hill]
160 Charles Street, Boston
617-723-6328

Harvard Farmers’ Market [Cambridge]
Oxford and Kirkland streets, Cambridge
617-496-6705

Board Link: Boston local food gift ideas?

New Finds: The Local Foods Wheel Hits New York

The San Francisco Bay Area has had one of these great local food wheels for a while, but now there’s a new version for the New York metro area. The rotating cardboard discs tell you what’s in season throughout the year; you can move the dial based on the month to see what you can consume and still be a locavore. The team that makes the wheels—Jessica Prentice, Sarah Klein, and Maggie Gosselin—dealt with the troublesome fact that nothing grows in the dead of winter in New York in a cute way. From mid-January to mid-March, there are pictures of a root cellar. Sweet potatoes, onions, dried beans, apples and such, are in crates below jars of apple cider and pickles, hanging cured meats, and crocks of sauerkraut, and kimchee. (CHOW has instructions on how to make sauerkraut.)

I’m happy to see that the locally-made items listed as “year round” include hard cider and maple candy. Now that’s a sustainable diet I can get behind.

Local Foods Wheel, New York Metro Area, $12.95.

Ice Cream Topping Insanity

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This week's mission: flavored, syrupy ice cream toppings. ... WATCH THE VIDEO

WTF Safeway Blog?

I’ve seen some bad food photography in my day, but none compares to what’s on the Safeway blog. You’d think a business whose model is to sell food would deem it important to make the food look appetizing.

I don’t want to embed any images because they’re really gross, but here are a few examples to click on (if you want to):

Rancher’s Reserve Tri Tip

Cherry Crunch
Chicken Wing Dip

These posts were written (and the photos were presumably taken) by “Kate”, a Safeway employee and mother of three.

Best Lebanese Garlic Sauce Ever

Victory Bakery and Restaurant is, among other things, a bakery, a baklava factory, a market, and an all-you-can-eat buffet. Most buffets are where food goes do die, but not this one, says Das Ubergeek. “The buffet at Victory Bakery is worth getting over your phobia of steam trays.”

There are three shawarmas available at all times: chicken, lamb, and beef/lamb. The best part? The garlic sauce. “You know that garlic sauce at Zankou that everybody raves about as though it were made from garlic and crack cocaine?” asks Das Ubergeek. “Yeah, well, this is better. Immeasurably so. This is unmistakably hand-pounded, honest-to-God all i oli, made of garlic, salt, and olive oil and absolutely nothing else. Light and fluffy—whoever made this has been doing it for a very long time, because it’s damn near impossible to make oil and garlic into a stable emulsion—like a garlic cloud. I’m telling you, Zankou doesn’t even come close;.”

Yellow lentil soup is also incredible, says Das Ubergeek, who would drive anywhere for this culinary perfection—the depth of flavor of homemade stock, and a transcendent meld of flavors. Stuffed squash is another winner: long Mexican zucchini, stuffed with meat and rice and topped with a thin tomato sauce. “The rice inside soaked up the thin red sauce and it was slightly smoky and slightly sweet,” describes Das Ubergeek.

It’s not always available, but if you see it, scoop up the Lebanese answer to scalloped potatoes: potatoes layered with mushrooms and tahini and baked until crusty. They’re rich, powerful, and earthy, says Das Ubergeek.

For dessert, plumb the Lebanese pastry section, including the pick of the litter: pine nut basma, a sticky-sweet semolina cake. “This is a place worth a considerable drive. They’re clearly proud of what they do, and they should be,” says Das Ubergeek.

Victory Bakery and Restaurant [Orange County]
630 South Brookhurst Street, Anaheim
714-776-4493

Board Link: REVIEW: Victory Bakery & Restaurant, Anaheim

The Subtle Thrill of Handmade Udon Noodles

Ichimi-AN has outstanding soba noodles—this has long been known to the Chowhound community. What’s new is the udon noodles, made from scratch in-house every morning. They’re thin and delicate, leagues better than the usual factory-made crud-for-noodles you find around these parts.

Try sudachi oroshi jikasei udon, with citrus and grated daikon. Take a bite, and “a wave of spring” washes over you, says exilekiss. “Bright, vibrant, green, gorgeous notes of the unmistakable sudachi citrus fruit stand in the spotlight, but then the deep-in-the-earth flavors of the grated daikon radish hit next,” says exilekiss.

The style here is not the flavor-intensive ramen style, but the classical Japanese minimal-and-pure thing. Ichimi-AN’s tori nanban udon—chicken soup with udon noodles—is nothing like the usual spice-laden, vinegary nanban. It has subtle tartness throughout each piece of chicken, served in a quiet homemade dashi broth. The udon noodles here are softened by the hot soup.

Ichimi-AN’s most popular udon dish is tororo mozuku, cold udon with grated mountain yam, seaweed, ginger, and quail egg. It’s a creamy, silky, slick dish, says exilekiss. “A bit of an ocean breeze from the various kelp and seaweed, a touch of tart, but mostly a lightly savory, viscous noodle dish with a nice chew.”

Ichimi-AN [South Bay]
1618 Cravens Avenue, Torrance
310-328-1323

Board Link: Citrus Lovers Unite! The Refreshing, Handmade Sudachi Udon Noodles of Ichimian [Review] w/ Pics!

Graceful Small Plates at Noir

Rarely do you get a new high-end restaurant that’s perfect right off the bat. But Noir is brand new, and yet already “the most finely crafted, well-oiled culinary machine I can remember experiencing anywhere,” says Will Owen.

This is a small plates place, full of intriguing and unusual items, all well-priced, says Will Owen. The wine list is similarly thoughtful. The service is astonishingly sweet. It is obviously “conceived, executed, and staffed by solid, honest professionals,” says Will Owen.

Lamb chops with harissa and mushroom are two beautiful lamb riblets, with a seared crust and meat that’s juicy and savory, not flabby like rare lamb can be, says Will Owen. It exudes a tasty sauce, meant for mopping up with bread. The charcuterie platter is also excellent, and includes prosciutto, Spanish-style chorizo, dry salame, nuts, whole-grain mustard, and a bit of orange marmalade.

Noir is already crowded and loud, but otherwise a class act, says Will Owen.

Noir Food and Wine [San Gabriel Valley]
40 North Mentor Avenue, Pasadena
626-795-7199

Board Link: Noir: Grace and Goodness

Michelin Finally Reviews Cheap(er) NY Eats

The 2010 Michelin Guide for NYC was released yesterday, and commenters in the blog world went crazy over the usual stuff: Who lost a star (Del Posto), what unlikely candidates got one (Rhong-Tiam), and so on. “This reads like the list a guy who lived in NY back in the 80s and occasionally reads New York or visits friends in the city on a weekend might write!” ranted one Eater reader.

But, so far, little has been made of the fact that this year’s Michelin looks at cheaper eats, too. It has an expanded Bib Gourmand category, which lists restaurants where you can get two dishes and a glass of wine or dessert for $40 or less (some of my favorite Brooklyn haunts like Marlow & Sons and Prime Meats made the cut), and has an added, even cheaper list featuring 109 restaurants doing $25-and-under meals that Michelins’ inspectors deem worthy.

The guide still feels a little behind the curve. This year it also notes if restaurants has good cocktail programs, but doesn’t have a similar system for rating beer programs. And it has a special “small plates” category, which just feels very 2006. So by that measure, honest-to-goodness “I just got laid off”–style budget options can’t be far behind. I’m expecting next year’s version to contain an ultra-dated-already haute street food section.