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August 22, 2007

I Scream

Dominic Armato
UPDATE : Though I Scream continues to supply gelato to local restaurants, its shops have closed

I promise, at some point I'll actually write about the actual Chinese food I actually ate on this actual trip to China. But before I do, another quick detour, because I feel compelled to rave about this place.

In Pacific Place, a particularly swanky mall in Hong Kong, there's a branch of the Japanese department store, Seibu. Like many Japanese department stores, the entire basement is taken up by a phenomenal food market. For years I've lamented the fact that we don't have markets like these in the States (not of this quality and scale, anyway), and though it's smaller than its bretheren back in Japan, I think the one in the Hong Kong Seibu, named GREAT Food Hall, is my favorite. While there are international delicacies to be found in the Japanese department stores, the focus is definitely on Japanese food. At the Hong Kong Seibu, however, it's a crazy international mix that I don't want to get into too much because it totally deserves its own post. But among its many, many exceptional features, my favorite may be the little gelato stand, I Scream.

The culinary genius at the helm of I Scream is one Paolo Predonzan, a gelataio who trained in Italy, worked for a time in Vienna and then moved to Hong Kong in 2003 to bring authentic gelato to the East. Along with his business partner, Maddalena Gonzo, he opted to eschew the retail market, instead focusing on providing gelato for the city's high-end restaurants. Until recently, that is, when I Scream's first retail outlet was opened in the GREAT Food Hall. It's a small booth, featuring maybe two dozen rotating flavors, a little espresso and a small menu of sundae-like concoctions. It's mostly a take-away establishment, though there is a tiny counter with four stools, where the lovely Italian lady running the show will not only take care of you, but happily chatter away with you if you display a little knowledge of her native language. In my case, "buona sera" did the trick.

Dominic Armato
As for the gelato, as my father muttered repeatedly while he nursed his cup, "Wow... this guy's got a lot of talent." We're talking grade A kick-ass heaven in a cup gelato, here. It's creamy, it's dense, there isn't a hint of an ice crystal to be found, and some of his flavors have an intensity that I've never experienced in gelato before. Frankly, it's better than most of the gelato I've had in Italy. Maybe all of it. The case is perhaps half composed of traditional gelato flavors you'd expect to see in Italy, and half composed of flavors Paolo has adopted from his new environment. The chocolate is rich and intense, the pistachio is unusually complex and very bold, and the banana is light, fruity and nuanced. My favorite of the traditional flavors I sampled over the week was probably his cantucci and vin santo, with little cookie crumbles adding a nice textural element to a very bold, almost liquory sweet wine flavor. I would have tried more if I didn't get hung up on some of his Asian flavors. The cup you see here was my first, and it contained the only scoop that didn't quite do it for me. His green tea gelato is green. Really, REALLY green. We're talking full-on grassy. I've tasted shrubs that were less vegetal. I appreciate the idea (it IS much more interesting than the legion of green tea ice creams I've tasted), and I'm sure some will love it, but it wasn't quite doing it for me. The other two, however, were dynamite. The ginger was fresh and light, and it embraced the ginger's inherent spice while keeping it light enough to be refreshing. And the swirly one you see is his black and white sesame, my favorite of the Asian flavors, which turns up the nuttiness and turns down the sweetness to beautiful effect. I didn't try any of his "coppas" (the sundaes and parfaits), mostly because I don't like to mess with something this good, but partly because the only one that really caught my eye, a Parmigiano Reggiano gelato served with bresaola and a couple of other savory items, was no longer being offered. Here's hoping this isn't an indication that his funkier ideas are being met with resistance.

What makes Paolo's gelato so exceptional, beyond the technical mastery involved, is that he knows when to lay on the sugar and when to let it take a back seat. Paolo knows how to intensify the flavor such that it kicks you around a little, he knows how to dial it back and keep things light and refreshing and, most importantly, he knows when to do which. This isn't a matter of slapping 30 different fruits into the same base. It's clear that each flavor is meticulously crafted and balanced and tweaked until it's just perfect. To encounter this level of creativity, innate ability and technical mastery in the same gelataio is a rare thing, and should be celebrated. His business partner, Maddalena, has commented that with gelato so new to Hong Kong, it's been a challenge to educate the palates of their customers. I have to believe they'll figure out very quickly what a gem they have. And if they don't, they should feel free to send Paolo in my direction.

I Scream
GREAT Food Hall
Pacific Place
88 Queensway Road, Admiralty
Hong Kong
+852 6272 6098
Mon - Sun10:00 AM - 10:00 PM

August 17, 2007


Dominic Armato
Setting aside restaurants and such, one of the things I love about being overseas is just seeing new ingredients. I've heard of mangosteens before, but never seen or tasted a fresh one, mostly because fresh mangosteens have been almost completely unattainable in the States. But read on, this isn't a tease. The mangosteen, grown primarily in Thailand, has been illegal in the States in fresh form for quite some time due to Asian fruit fly fears. Frozen, canned and other products derived from them have been available, usually in Asian markets, but from what I'm told, these don't hold a candle to the fresh item (which really shouldn't come as a surprise). Apparently there is a small boutique grower in Puerto Rico who has been shipping very limited amounts to New York and Los Angeles, but they've been almost impossible to come by both in terms of availability (borderline nonexistent) and price (upwards of $45/pound... and very little of that is edible fruit). The US government, however, has JUST last month approved the importation of mangosteens provided they undergo mild irradiation to eliminate any fruit fly issues. Thai growers are already undergoing FDA certification, and they're expected to hit the States come September. So what can you expect when they do?

Dominic Armato
The one I tried was a solid, dense little fruit about two and a half inches across. Shame on me, I didn't do my research first, so rather than scoring the rind and carefully peeling it away, I just hacked the sucker in half. Somewhat less graceful, and it eliminated any chance I had at photographing the citrus-like white segments inside, but it was no less edible. The rind was a lot thicker than I anticipated, and there were two large seeds inside, leaving me with precious little edible flesh. A few tablespoons, at most. So I just scooped out the white flesh with a spoon and sucked it down. The texture was vaguely reminiscent of a lychee, but much squishier and juicier. As for the flavor... well... it's really hard to describe. How do you describe how corn tastes? It just tastes like corn. The mangosteen is very tropical, with hints of kiwi and citrus and peach, and a very light, natural milkiness. It's a highly agreeable little fruit. I guess the best I can do is to say that it's very complex, but very mellow -- sweet but not too sweet, tart but not too tart, milky but not too milky -- just unique and gentle and absolutely delicious. So I guess the take-home message is that everybody should absolutely try them as soon as they're available, which should, thankfully, be very soon.

August 15, 2007


Dominic Armato

Man, it was good to be back home... even if it was just for a two hour layover en route to China.

Chicago-style dog withdrawal alleviated. I'm now (finally) back in China for the first time in over a year and will be taking care of some other symptoms shortly. Should make for some fun posting this week. But for now, I must conquer jetlag (read: sleep).

August 07, 2007

Skillet Doux Glossary

Dominic Armato
Today's update is running a little behind schedule, so I figure I'll seize the opportunity to introduce a new feature I threw together.

I'm tired of linking externally for definitions, so I've posted a simple little Skillet Doux Glossary page. It's nothing fancy, and it isn't remotely comprehensive. I just figure that when I mention an ingredient or a cooking term that might reasonably have a few people asking, "and that is?", it'd be nice to be able to reach a description via an internal link. It's a little anemic at the moment (not unlike today's post!), but it's something that'll grow with time. There's a heading to the right, and going forward I'll start linking directly from the posts that use the terms. Maybe I'll even pretty it up with pictures and ingredient sources at some point. But for now, I'll content myself simply to bid adieu to Wikipedia.

Oh, and P.S.? Don't be afraid to fact-check me. Seriously. I'd rather cop to making a mistake than leave bad info out there. The only thing I hate more than the propagation of bad info over the internet is when I'm the one doing the propagating.

August 05, 2007

Farmer's Market Bounty

I finally stopped by the main Baltimore farmer's market for the first time on Sunday morning, and ho boy, is it a doozy. We'll be revisiting this subject sometime soon, but for now, a little dinner assembled from the bounty we brought home with us. Nothing fancy about the recipe, but when you have produce this good, the best thing is to just stay out of its way.

Dominic Armato

2 pints fresh fava beans, shells on
1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
2 strips bacon
2 cloves garlic
6 sea scallops
salt & pepper
1 Tbsp. butter
1 small shallot, minced
1 ear corn
1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar
½ C. sweet miniature tomatoes
1 Tbsp. basil chiffonade
2 slices crusty bread
extra virgin olive oil

Seared Scallops with Summer Vegetables and Bacon-Balsamic Vinaigrette
Serves 2

Sourcing quality ingredients is, of course, always integral to a dish's success, but there are some dishes that particularly depend on stunning produce, and this is one of them. If you don't have beautiful fresh corn, tomatoes and beans, save this one until you do. In particular, make sure you can get some really tiny, candy-sweet tomatoes. I think they're particularly key.

Once you start cooking, the dish requires your total attention and comes together very quickly, so you want to assemble your mise en place like you would for a stir-fry. Don't turn on the heat until you have everything prepped and assembled in little bowls, ready to go.

To prep the fava beans, blanch them in boiling water for 5-6 minutes until they're very slightly undercooked, then shock them in a big bowl of ice water to stop the cooking. When they're cool, shell them, save the beans and toss the shells. Slice the kernels off the ear of corn, combine them with the favas and set them aside in a prep bowl. Slice the strips of bacon the short way into thin little matchstick slices. Peel the two cloves of garlic. Slice the tomatoes in half and combine in a prep bowl with the basil chiffonade. Get your shallot minced up and put it in a small dish with the tablespoon of butter. Brush the bread with a little olive oil and grill it or toast it. I had it oiled and sitting in the toaster, ready to hit the button. Rinse the scallops and then use paper towels to pat them as dry as possible. The drier you get them, the nicer your brown crust will be when you sear them. Set them on a plate and season both sides with salt, pepper and a little paprika. Got all that? Okay. Moving on.

In a large sauté pan, combine 1 Tbsp. of the olive oil and the bacon strips over medium-high heat. When the bacon gets a little crispy, but before it turns dry, remove it from the skillet and set it aside on paper towels, leaving as much of the oil and bacon grease in the pan as possible.

Immediately toss the garlic cloves into the hot pan, and swirl them around a bit. Add the scallops to the pan and cook them, turning once, until they're nicely browned on both sides and just barely cooked in the middle, about 1½ - 2 minutes per side. Remove the scallops from the skillet, set them aside and keep them warm. Leave the garlic cloves in the pan.

If your bread is in the toaster on standby, now would be a good time to hit the button. In either case, immediately add the butter and shallot to the skillet and sauté, moving constantly, for about a minute. Add the corn and fava beans and continue to sauté for another minute or so. Add the vinegar, remove the pan from the heat, and stir up the mixture, scraping as much of the browned gunk off the bottom of the pan as possible. Mix in another tablespoon of olive oil, add the tomatoes and basil, then adjust the seasonings, adding a little salt and pepper if necessary. Remove the garlic cloves from the mixture before you plate. Or don't, if you relish the idea of a garlicky surprise. But I think it's a little much for the dish.

To plate, lay down the toasted bread and top it with three of the scallops. Take any juices that the scallops have released while they've been sitting and pour them over the top. Sprinkle the bacon crumbles over the scallops, scatter the vegetables all around, and spoon some of the pan juices over the top. Dining al fresco is optional, but c'mon... tell me that dish doesn't belong under a sunset.

August 02, 2007

Cinco De Mayo 2

Dominic Armato
Relax, this isn't a ploy to sell more Corona.

I'm making a little more headway, combing the neighborhood for a taqueria that tickles my fancy, and Cinco de Mayo 2 was the name of my latest stop. There are probably a good 20-30 places in the immediate neighborhood to try, and with no info online that I can find, deciding which to start with is largely an arbitrary process. Cinco de Mayo's sign, however, contained one word that vaulted them right to the top of my to-do list. Thanks to Cemitas Puebla, I've become a huge fan of the cemita. Well, theirs, anyway. Can't say I've ever had one anywhere else. So when I drove by and saw "cemitas" printed on Cinco's sign, I dropped in. And then, against my better judgment, I went back.

Dominic Armato
Cinco de Mayo 2 is both grocery and restaurant, with an original location (which I haven't visited) in Glen Burnie. Upon entering, the first room is rather quaint. There's a small produce stand with a few staples, a cooler with some cheeses, a butcher on duty and a wall full of candy. Passing through a doorway, the place gets a little more stark -- a long, narrow room with dry goods lining the walls and fluorescent lights overhead. And only by walking through this room do you reach the restaurant proper.

It's a full-service restaurant that seats about 40, and it might as well be 200 feet underground. They've tried to dress it up with a couple of plants, paintings and mylar streamers, but with a brick floor and tile walls, exposed ductwork, poor lighting and a complete absence of windows, it feels less like a restaurant and more like Fiesta Night at the Führerbunker. Don't get me wrong, I love weird little hole-in-the-wall joints, but when I keep looking over my shoulder expecting to see a sombrero-clad Goebbels, it makes it a little difficult to enjoy my lunch.

Dominic Armato
It's a good-sized menu, with an extensive selection of tacos, tostadas, sopes and burritos, as well as a handful of full plates, both meat and seafood based. This probably isn't where I should be having a coctel de camaron, but it's one of my standbys, even in its lowest form. It's overpriced at $10 (as is almost every shrimp dish everywhere -- another subject for another time), but it's a fairly generous portion, served in a large goblet. I believe it's a ketchup base, which I don't mind, but the balance is all off. It had a very strong dried chile flavor, which somehow seems inappropriate to me, and was crying out for lime. The shrimp were pretty blah, but the biggest problem was that it was nearly room temperature. Something like this has to be cold, cold, cold. Or at least cold.

Dominic Armato
I also tried to get my fix, opting for the cemita milanesa de res. I suppose I was just looking for disappointment. It doesn't help that Cemitas Puebla makes one of the best sandwiches in all of Chicago, but I doubt I would have been impressed with Cinco de Mayo's offering, even coming at it in a vacuum. Most of the same components were there -- sesame roll, breaded and fried meat, avocado, queso fresco and chipotles -- and Cinco's also includes some tomato, onion, and a layer of refried beans. But everything here was just flat and tasteless. The bread seemed to have been toasted, but was somehow still limp and wet. Though the milanesa platter at the table next to me looked fresh, the cutlet on my sandwich was a greasy, leather-tough slab without a hint of crispness. The chipotles were canned, which probably isn't unreasonable, but I've been spoiled by the house-pickled ones to which I've become accustomed. In any case, it was just a bad sandwich.

Dominic Armato
The tacos, however, left a little room for optimism. They're stuffed to the gills and nicely plated with radishes, grilled cebollitas and strips of a sautéed vegetable that I believe was cactus. As for the tacos themselves, the carne enchilado, some manner of heavily seasoned pork, was spicy, bold and enjoyable, if not exceptional. I found the carnitas somewhat odd. It was a pile of very pale meat without the slightest browning of any kind, and for a dish that's normally braised or roasted to exceptional tenderness, there was an awful lot of connective tissue that still had most of its bite. It's as though they were halfway through prep and decided to just serve it to me as-is. One pleasant, if unexpected, surprise was the taco al pastor. I generally make it a rule not to order al pastor unless I can see the rotisserie cone, thereby ensuring some fresh, charred pork, but what can I say... the craving was getting to me. Cinco's pork seemed more oven-roasted than spit-roasted, but they did manage a little bit of char by some unknown measure. What caught me off guard, however, was that it was downright fruity. I've had plenty of versions where a chunk of pineapple is sitting atop the spit, so that the drippings add a touch of sweetness and some nice caramelization. But I was getting a couple chunks of pineapple in every bite. I can't speak to its authenticity, but I did enjoy it as a little change of pace. It certainly won't be knocking a more typical al pastor off its pedestal, but I could see ordering this every now and again as a little change of pace. I doubt, however, that I'll have the chance. I could see maybe grabbing a couple of tacos to go if I stop in for dried chiles from the market, but otherwise there's nothing I feel compelled to come back for. Especially considering the surroundings.

Cinco de Mayo 2
1312 Eastern Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21231