Saturday, January 27, 2007

Anthony Bourdain's Restaurant Les Alles - Fighting the Good Fight!

If anyone were to be named the General of the Guerrilla Food Army to take back the American dining experience, it would be Anthony Bourdain. This is a quasi-review of his restaurnat, Les Halles.

My wife and I just returned from a three day vacation trip to Washington DC. As soon as she booked the tickets I went to the website of Les Halles in DC and made reservations. I must admit, I waited in such anticipation for weeks leading up to the trip; The White House and Capitol Hill are cool and all, but I couldn't wait for some authentic French Brasserie food.
We arrived ten minutes before our 7:30 reservation, and a rather attractive young lady with what seemed to be an Eastern European accent and a metro-sexual guy asked to take our coats. We were immediately seated next to a couple that would prove to be a ridiculous source of entertainment for me and a major headache for my wife who hates people who blabber on and on about nothing.
When our waiter appeared with menus I couldn't help but think that foreign accents are definitely to be expected in a restaurant like Les Halles. Considering the fact that
Philippe Lajaunie, one of the actual owners of Les Halles (Anthony Bourdain is just the executive chef, not an owner) proudly hails from Portugal, I was not surprised to find such an international treatment in their DC branch.
I ordered the Steak au Poivre ($21) and my wife the Poulet
Rôti avec Frites ($16). When my steak arrived I was blown away by the smell. The meat was a wonderful sirloin about as thick as an unabridged copy of War and Peace. It was absolutely encrusted with roughly crushed black pepper corns, and bathed in a cognac and dark veal stock reduction. My wife's chicken was perfectly roasted with a wonderful aroma of herb butter and a jus reduction sauce on the side. Our pommes frites were perfect. Believe me, I feel pretentious calling them pommes frites, but referring to these ideal crisp and perfectly seasoned sticks of potatoes as "French Fries"... I don't know, it just feels wrong.
The most shocking part of the entire meal to me was the small salad of fresh greens that came with both of our meals. It was perfection. There were no tomatoes or cucumber or anything else. It was just greens tossed with a
vinaigrette. Simple and understated. But at first taste, I knew that this is how I want every salad I eat for the rest of my life to taste. Even at the risk of overusing this word... it was perfect!
The Steak au Poivre is really very peppery. I never think of French food as being spicy like Mexican, Spainish, or
Portuguese food would be. But this stuff will really knock your socks off, in the best of ways. Until Les Halles I had always had Steak au Poivre in a reduced heavy cream and cognac sauce. I think the cream has always toned down the pepper corns' heat. At Les Halles, they really let the black pepper rip into you. It was almost religious. I felt like after many years in the forest, I had found home.
Needless to say, I enjoyed my meal. And with three beers ($4.50 ea.) and water the total was only $55. The atmosphere is inviting and Earthy. Everyone seems to smile, laugh and truly enjoy themselves. Some places just have an energy that invited you in. Les Halles at 1201 Pennsylvania Ave is just such a place.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Time Is On Our Side

Alright damn it! What is everyone doing with all this new found time? I haven't seen any cures for cancer, or a couple hundred thousand community centers popping up along the midwest or eastern seaboard. Everyone is saving so much damn time these days with microwave this and that and 30-minute whatevers. What are they doing with all that new time they saved?
We have so many "time saving devices" in the kitchen now. Electric can openers, instant heat and cool stove eyes, microwave bacon cookers, aluminum thawing accelerators, bread machines, and the hits just keep on coming.
I think that people buy these things to "save time" honestly only to see if they work. Most of them end up in the back of whatever cabinet behind things that you do use... like a pot. I just can't figure out why everyone in this country is so obsessed with saving time. No one wants to be doing anything. There are time savers in the car, time savers all over the place at work, and even time savers the be used to relax faster during so-called "off time". We all hurry through everything just hoping and praying that we will not have to think about and be present for any activity. We just want it done, so that we can move on to not doing our next task.
Living in a one bed room "efficiency apartment" in Munich with NO appliances showed me that there is a relaxing beauty in hand washing your dishes. Buying the food that you plan to eat that day is a joy. Buying meat from a different person than your bread is a feeling of artisan bliss that almost no American can remember. Putting your own groceries into your own bag is a humbling and ultimately happy experience. And taking all of an hour to prepare diner for you and your loved ones with all fresh ingredients using nothing more than a pot, a knife and a wooden spoon is a romance that so few will experience because they are so busy saving time.
I don't blame the masses or feel anger towards them; I just wish for their sakes that a little American pride would return to our kitchens and we could all just enjoy real life for a minute, instead of life being brief periods between television shows and blog postings.

Saturday, January 6, 2007

The Sixth Element... Temperature

We have all heard about the primary tastes: sweet, sour, salty, and bitter, and that everything we eat on Earth is just combinations of all of these. It has now been proposed that there is a fifth taste known by its Japanese name: umami. This taste is associated with protein-rich foods like meats and cheese.
It has also become pretty much accepted that our tongues are not sectioned off neatly into areas designated for specific tastes. While the idea is cute, it is simply an over-simplification.
Now, that we are all thinking about the mechanics of taste, I want to talk about something that I think is far too often ignored in the home kitchen… temperature. A dish's flavor profile changes incredibly when it is served at different temperatures. For example, have you ever made ice cream, and noticed how much more muted the vanilla tastes when it is frozen than when it was still a warm custard? What about eating refrigerated cheese versus the same cheese at room temperature? What about coffee? Iced Tea?
And my favorite example of temperature as a factor in flavor profile… French Onion Soup. Go make this recipe:

8 Large or 16 small onions (lyonnaised)
1½ sticks unsalted butter
¼ lb smoked bacon (diced)
½ tsp kosher salt
1/3 cup port wine
1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
1 qt chicken stock
1 qt beef stock
Bouquet Garni (3 stalks fresh parsley, 2 sprig fresh thyme, one dried bay leaf, 8 black peppercorns)

In the biggest heaviest cast iron pot you’ve got melt the butter over medium heat until it foams and starts to brown slightly. Add the onions and salt. Cook until the onions are deeply caramelized, stirring very often (25-30 minutes). In another pan, slowly render the fat out of the bacon and cook until crisp but not crispy. Drain and reserve the bacon fat for another recipe. Add the bacon lardoons to the onions, and add the port wine and balsamic vinegar. Stir until most of the liquid has evaporated (3-5 minutes). Add the chicken and beef stock along with the Bouquet Garni. Bring to a simmer, cover, reduce heat to low and let simmer for 45 minutes to an hour, being careful not to over reduce.
Then take a high quality French bread baguette (not from Wal*Mart’s bakery, come on!) Slice it into half inch slices. Top each piece of bread with grated gruyere cheese and put under a pre-heated broiler for just a few minutes until melted and bubbly. Float the croutons on top of each bowl of the soup. Serve piping hot!

Now, the reason I want you to make this soup, is so that you can see how much more bite and freshness a piping hot French onion soup has over a saggy cold one. When this soup is hot (almost too hot), the flavors jump across your tongue, and the soup seems bright and vibrant. As the soup cools, it goes from less interesting, to too strong and rusty, to plain limp and fruity. I am almost sure you could leave out most of the salt, cool this soup, and serve it as a desert course with whipped cream and a doughnut it gets so fruity as it gets cold.
So, the next time you are serving up some eggs for breakfast in bed for that special someone, keep serving temperature in mind when planing your attack. And remember to cook the eggs last. Because as soon as they leave the pan you have pulled the pin on a temperature hand grenade and your masterpiece is fading fast as you walk the tray up the stairs.