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May 30, 2008

Grace Garden

Baby Bok ChoyDominic Armato
For somebody like me, a food blogger with a special love for strip mall ethnic eateries, there's a magic formula for the perfect discovery. It starts by stumbling into some random, unassuming little ethnic restaurant bookended by mundane commercial establishments like liquor stores and laundromats. It has an Americanized menu, but it also has a separate menu of dishes that are not only jaw-droppingly good at times, but also fill a gaping hole in the area's offerings. This second menu is extensive, absolutely authentic, and prepared by a family that couldn't be more welcoming and enthusiastic about sharing the flavors of their home country. And for reasons unknown, perhaps because the bulk of their business has been serving Americanized dishes to the local carry out crowd, nobody knows this exceptional little ethnic gem exists. That place is Grace Garden.

Fish NoodlesDominic Armato
In fact, the only thing that keeps Grace Garden from being the best discovery I've ever made is that it isn't my discovery. Full credit goes to Chowhound member frequentcrasher who, for his first post (helluva way to introduce yourself, there), dropped a little mention of Grace Garden deep into the bowels of an extended discussion of whether excellent Chinese exists in Baltimore. I've been here a year, but it only took a few weeks to learn of the running gag that is Chinese food in Baltimore. Even the suburban exceptions to the rule, by reputation, aspire to intermittent acceptability rather than regular excellence. An honest to goodness great Chinese restaurant in the Baltimore area has been, for quite some time, the holy grail of the Charm City food nerd. And it was finally unearthed this month. It's true, if you're going by geographical proximity, Annapolis or DC could just as easily lay claim to Odenton, but c'mon, guys... we need this one. 'Sides which, we saw it first. (Uh HUH!)

Golden ShrimpDominic Armato
Before I build Grace Garden up to impossible heights, allow me a quick reality check. It is not perfect, it is not the most beautiful girl at the dance, and not every dish is a transcendent experience. But I've tasted fifteen of them over the past two weeks, there hasn't been a single miss, and the hits are genuinely outstanding. From this humble little strip mall carryout joint across from an army base, I've had a number of dishes that would have been standouts even on a trip to Hong Kong or Shenzhen. Hong Kong is, in fact, the hometown of Chef Li and his wife, Mei. They're absolutely lovely people whose abilities in the kitchen are matched only by their warmth and zeal for sharing their food. The pair are the true soul of what could otherwise be mistaken for any other cheap carryout joint. It's as spartan as spartan can be, but the surroundings completely disappear when the food hits the table. Despite his Cantonese heritage, Chef Li covers quite a bit of ground on the menu. The southern specialties are, predictably, his strong point, but I've tried some formidable Sichuan offerings as well. I held off on posting for a week and a half because I wanted to try as much as possible to give a comprehensive sense of what's going on. But it's a huge menu and I can't wait forever. So of the fifteen I've tried so far, here are some favorites, in no particular order.

Sichuan PorkDominic Armato
The vegetables section lists but three dishes, all eggplant, because Chef Li prefers to offer whatever looks freshest when he does his shopping. It's to his credit that he puts the quality of his ingredients above the consistency of his menu. On one visit, we were treated to some beautiful baby bok choy, served simply in a traditional Cantonese style, with a lightly seasoned glaze and a bit of salted fish for punch. Below the bok choy, you see one of the smashing successes, the Fish Noodles. The thick, nubby noodles, made from ground fresh fish, have a lovely, delicate seafood flavor and a tender but firm and slightly spongy bite. However impressive the technique behind the noodles, however, their sauce was one of my first clues that Li really knows what he's doing, as its velvety, gingery warmth left this sucker for bold flavors completely engrossed in its subtlety. Accented with some Chinese greens, bits of fresh mushroom and slivers of Chinese sausage, this is quite simply one of my favorite Chinese dishes anywhere, and an absolute must have for a first visit. He also does an off-menu version that he calls Seven Treasure Fish Noodles, both in spicy and non-spicy varieties, but I think I prefer the thicker noodle and gentle richness of the regular menu version.

Sichuan Steamed Pork with Rice PowderDominic Armato
Moving down the page, you see the Golden shrimp, fried crispy with a salted egg yolk coating and a sprinkling of crispy fried garlic. Please don't peel them or remove the heads or tails. They're fried hot enough that the shells become light and crispy, a natural textural punch to the tender, sweet flesh inside. Be careful, the squirt from the head is volcanic. But don't wait, as this is one of those dishes that loses 50% of its awesomeness within three minutes of hitting the table. Sweet, salty, rich and garlicky all in one, this is an impressive shrimp preparation, expertly executed. The next dish down is one that makes me happy all over, as it's one of my regular eats in China. The Sichuan Pork is a belly cut (good for much more than bacon, believe you me) that's thinly sliced and stir-fried with leeks, bell peppers and toban djan, a spicy Sichuan fermented bean paste. It's an example of fat as art, the pork belly's rich flavor cut by the chiles' explosive heat and texturally accentuated by being singed to a crisp at the edges. Straightforward, bold and delicious.

Crispy Sichuan Fish with Rice PowderDominic Armato
The next two photos show the same flavor profile applied to two proteins, one excellent, one outstanding. The Sichuan Steamed Pork with Rice Powder is, predictably, a more tender take on the pork belly, and while drifting more towards the unctuous end of the spectrum, it has that all-encompassing Sichuan boldness. I have a weakness for pork belly, but this is a particularly beautiful specimen. It's one of those dishes where I can't even begin to name everything that goes into it, but it's spicy, gingery and intense, and infused with the scent of the leaf in which it's steamed. The mix on top is made with a coarse rice powder, which also makes it as much a textural as a flavor experience. It's another of my very favorites that's only outdone by the fish version, which is an off-menu item only available by special order. Chef Li will take that same intense topping and apply it to fish. But what makes this dish remarkable is that after stripping the flesh from the fish, he flash fries the fins and bones, leaving them impossibly crisp and seasoned with a hot chile oil. If this isn't a practice with which you're familiar, set any skepticism aside. A bite of the crisp bones along with the fish is an absolutely addictive combination.

Seafood with XO SauceDominic Armato
XO sauce is an invention of 1980's Hong Kong, and Chef Li does his home proud with a very nice version that's less fiery than some, but no slouch in the flavor department. XO sauce is an oily chile sauce characterized by the introduction of dried seafood, most notably shrimp and scallops, and then frequently applied to fresh versions of the same seafood. The mix at Grace Garden includes shrimp, squid and scallops, and is further punched up with a bit of fresh green chile. Li's is less explosive and more subtle, which I appreciate. The sauce exhibits a mellow brand of spicy, if that makes any sense, and its sweetness draws out the natural sweetness of the accompanying fresh seafood. A considerably less subtle (though no less nuanced) take on spicy seafood is the Sichuan Fish Filets, which come swimming in an oily pool of the searing, numbing Sichuan combination of chiles and huajiao, or Sichuan peppercorns. While Chef Li's ma la isn't quite as balanced as some other Sichuan places I've tried in the states, it's still extremely good and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it for a moment. I'll certainly be going back for it.

Sichuan Fish FiletsDominic Armato
What may be my favorite dish so far, however, is another off-menu item for which you need three days advance notice and a big crowd or a Herculean appetite. He first debones a duck, leaving the meat and skin completely intact, and then stuffs it with a seasoned sticky rice mixture before steaming it whole. As the bird gently steams, the fat renders and flavors the sticky rice inside, which sucks up the essence of the duck that surrounds it. It's very, very lightly spiced -- five spice, perhaps? -- with lotus seeds and bamboo for texture, and chunks of sweet Chinese sausage. It's subtlety and restraint and respect for the duck and the rice all rolled into one, and it's the kind of hearty, tender, comforting dish that you completely melt into.

Stuffed Whole DuckDominic Armato
What gives me chills is that I've only tasted a tiny fraction of the menu. Grace Garden should be packed. There should be people waiting for tables. And yet, 8:30 on a Wednesday night and we're the only ones there (though there are, admittedly, a cool dozen of us Charm City Hounds), with a couple of carryout orders staggering in. It's the answer to the prayers of the Baltimore food nerd. The trek down to Odenton will deter some. The bare bones interior will deter others. The traditional nature of the menu may deter some more. But this is the real deal, at its worst it's very good, at its best it's fricking fantastic, and you couldn't ask for more enthusiastic and accommodating hosts. Among those with whom I've been feasting for the past two weeks, nobody's quite sure what to expect once word gets out. Will the good folks of Baltimore, thrilled to have such an place in their backyard, make the short drive and overlook the humble setting for some truly exceptional Chinese? It's been two weeks since word broke on Chowhound. I'm busy telling everybody who has ears, and I'm willing to wager it's a matter of weeks before Baltimore's mainstream press catches on. What happens at Grace Garden over the next few months will speak volumes about Baltimore's food scene. This is a restaurant that deserves Baltimore's support, and Baltimore can only be enriched by lending it.

Grace Garden
1690 Annapolis Rd.
Odenton, MD 21113
Mon - Thu11:00 AM - 10:00 PM
Fri - Sat11:00 AM - 10:30 PM

May 22, 2008

Winging It

Dominic Armato
Last night I was craving something new, so I went cruising the net in search of a recipe for tonight's dinner. But it was one of those nights when nothing was grabbing me. So when this morning rolled around and I still had no plan, I decided it was a good day to wing it.

It's one of my favorite things to do, actually. Walk into the store, see what looks good, and try to think up something new on the spot -- the only requirement being that it has to be something I've never seen before, even if it's just a subtle twist on an old favorite. It's a great way to break out of a rut and exercise your creativity. You have to be willing to fall on your face sometimes, but that happens less frequently the more comfortable you get, and every once in a while you strike gold that you never would have found any other way.

Today, the store had some really nice cherries out for tasting, so I decided to start there. I thought chicken, pork and shellfish would go well with cherries, but we've been eating a lot of chicken and my ladylove hasn't been feeling the shellfish lately, so I grabbed some beautiful boneless pork chops out of the meat case. Cherries kind of walk that sweet/sour line, and I was in the mood for something sweet-sour anyway, so I figured a cherry vinaigrette would be a nice topping for pork. But those are some bright flavors, so I needed something to ground it and suck up the liquid. A root vegetable puree, maybe? Beets would just be doubling up on sweet. Carrots are close, but a little too aggressive. Parsnips, on the other hand -- fairly subtle, nice and peppery -- perfect. The parsnips need a little something... ginger complements both root vegetables and fruit. And it needs something green and fragrant. Mint should do nicely. I also thought a little cinnamon would work well, but after accidentally grabbing the wrong jar off the shelf, it occurred to me that the five spice would probably be even better. And it was.

Anyway, this was definitely one of the successes.

Dominic Armato

1/2 Lb. parsnips
1 thumb ginger
2 Tbsp. cold butter
2 Tbsp. whole milk
1/2 tsp. five spice powder
2 boneless thick-cut pork chops
3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil, divided
1 small shallot
3 Tbsp. sherry vinegar, divided
2 Tbsp. water
1/2 C. stemmed, pitted, chopped cherries
2 Tbsp. fresh mint chiffonade, divided

Five Spice Scented Pork Chops with Ginger Parsnips and
Cherry Vinaigrette
Serves 2

The parsnips have to cook for a while, and you can get all of your other prep done while they're boiling, so start with them. Peel them, slice them into 1/4" rounds and put them in a saucepan with cold water to cover. Scrub the thumb of ginger clean (no need to peel it), slice it in half lengthwise and toss it in the saucepan with the parsnips. Salt the water, bring it to a boil, and continue boiling the parsnips until they're tender, about 35-45 minutes. Once they reach this point, drain the water from the saucepan, throw out the ginger and mash the parsnips with a fork over low heat. Cut the butter into small cubes and mash them into the parsnips until thoroughly combined, then whisk in the milk until you get a nice, creamy consistency. Salt and pepper them to taste, then either remove the parsnips from the heat, or leave them on very, very low and watch them carefully to make sure they don't scorch. You just want to keep them warm until the chops are ready. If you leave them on the heat and they get a little dry, you can revive them by adding a touch more milk right before serving.

While the parsnips are boiling is a good time to get your other prep done. Pit and chop your cherries, mince the shallot and wash and dry the mint (but don't chop it yet). Dry the pork chops as much as possible using paper towels, then season with salt and pepper and rub them with the five spice powder. Just a light sprinkling on each side will do. You want it to be a subtle flavor, not overpowering.

When the parsnips are tender and you're almost ready to drain them, that's a good time to start cooking the pork. Add one tablespoon of the olive oil to a cold skillet, swirl it around and then add the pork chops. Put the skillet over medium heat and cook the chops, undisturbed, until they've developed a nice color and they appear to be cooked about a third of the way through, about 5-7 minutes. Flip them over, cover the skillet, and continue cooking until the chops read 140° in the center with an instant read thermometer, about another 5-7 minutes. Don't go by the times, though -- go by temperature. When the chops are done, remove them from the pan and set them on a plate covered with tented foil to keep them warm.

While the chops are resting, make the vinaigrette. As soon as you've removed the chops from the pan, toss in the minced shallot and sauté it for about a minute until it starts to turn translucent. In a small bowl, combine the water and two tablespoons of the sherry vinegar, then pour them into the pan, scraping up all of the good crusty stuff the pork chops left behind. Continue cooking the mixture over medium heat until the vinegar and water mixture reduces down by about half, then add the remaining two tablespoons of the olive oil and the cherries, and continue cooking for just a minute or two so the cherries warm up and soften just a touch. Remove the pan from the heat and whisk in the remaining tablespoon of the sherry vinegar along with any juices the chops have released. Taste the vinaigrette, making any adjustments and adding a little salt if necessary. Chop up the fresh mint, mix one tablespoon of it into the vinaigrette, and get the dish plated.

To plate, divide the parsnip puree between two plates, and top the puree with the chops. Spoon the vinaigrette and cherries on and around the chops, sprinkle with a bit more fresh mint, and get it on the table.

May 14, 2008

Liver, Anyone?

Dominic Armato

After today's news, all I can say is that Doug had better have this on the menu next time I'm in town!

Thrilled to see that the Chicago city council has put the controversy over foie gras back where it belongs and from whence it never should have strayed: the realm of personal ethics and personal choice.

UPDATE: This take is perhaps the best I've read in the wake of the move.

May 13, 2008

Asparagus Season

Dominic Armato
I hate -- HATE -- getting a great idea for a dish out of season, but I suppose the extra time percolating in the noggin isn't a bad thing. I think I cooked this one twenty or thirty times in my head before I finally got the chance to make it this week, and that's probably why it turned out so well. I'd originally planned on using fresh peas, but I think the Baltimore farmers market opened a little late for them. Asparagus, however, is everywhere this time of year, and it turned out to be a lovely substitute.

This particular recipe is not exactly in the quick and easy file. It's a four burner dish that combines an awful lot of elements and involves some critical timing. Plus, this is the snooty restaurant version of the recipe (not that I have a restaurant in which to serve it), but that doesn't mean you couldn't simplify it if you wanted. I've never tried them, but I understand there are some methods for baked risotto that are entirely respectable, if not quite the same consistency as the stovetop version, and the morels can sit for a bit after they've been sautéed. So it's possible to do this without having to simultaneously juggle multiple items. But if you're feeling brave, there's nothing like chicken stock simmering on the rear left, risotto stirring on the front left, salmon searing on the front right and morels sautéing on the rear right.

Admittedly, it's a little rich for spring far. But the flavors are there, man -- it turned out great. And the acid in the vinaigrette helps to keep it from getting too heavy. Incidentally, this is exactly the kind of dish I like to point out to those who insist that Carnaroli rice is "better" than Arborio. You want your risotto to have a little body so it stands up to being plated with the salmon fillets, and wonderfully creamy as it is, I think Carnaroli is a little too loose for this purpose.

Dominic Armato

1 lemon
1/3 C. extra virgin olive oil
1/2 C. loosely packed mint leaves
1 bunch asparagus
2 C. chicken stock
4 tsp. balsamic vinegar
2 tsp. fresh lemon juice
1 Tbsp. very finely minced mint leaves
1 pint fresh morels
1 Tbsp. butter
1 Tbsp. extra virgin oilve oil
2 Tbsp. butter
1 1/2 oz. diced smoked pancetta
2 Tbsp. minced onion
1 C. Arborio rice
1 Tbsp. grated parmigiano reggiano
1 Tbsp. vegetable oil
1 lb. salmon fillets, in four pieces
Seared Salmon with Sautéed Morels, Asparagus Risotto and Lemon-Mint Vinaigrette
Serves 4

The lemon-mint oil you'll use to make the vinaigrette can get pretty murky, so I think it's best to make it a day ahead of time if you can. If not, it'll still taste great, it just won't be as pretty. Using a vegetable peeler, peel all of the zest off one lemon, except for a bit at the ends (you'll need that later). Then lay the strips of lemon zest on a cutting board, outside down, and using a very sharp knife, lay the blade flat on a strip of zest and carefully shave off all of the white pith, leaving only the bright yellow zest. Once all of the pith has been removed, combine the zest with 1/3 C. extra virgin olive oil in a small saucepan or skillet and heat over medium. When the lemon zest curls up and gets golden around the edges, remove the pan from the heat and let it cool. Once it's cooled enough to transfer but is still warm, combine the oil and zest with 1/2 C. fresh mint leaves in a blender or mini prep and buzz away until they're completely combined. Let the oil sit for 2-3 hours at room temperature, then strain it through a fine-meshed sieve lined with cheesecloth. Discard the solids and refrigerate the oil overnight, if possible in a round-bottomed bowl. The next day, all of the muck should have settled at the bottom. Carefully spoon the clear oil off the top, discarding the cloudy stuff at the bottom. You should end up with about 1/4 C. of lemon-mint oil.

If you're making this dish the way I do, there's a lot of mise en place to get ready. You'll be doing way too much at the stove to be going back to the cutting board. So first, do all of your prep and have everything ready right by the stove. If you wash your morels, do that first and give them a chance to dry a little bit before you use them. Otherwise, start with the asparagus. Snap off the tough bottom ends and throw them away. Cut off the tips and save those in their own prep bowl. If you have larger, tougher asparagus with stringy skin, you may need to peel the skin off first. But hopefully you picked up some beautiful, fresh, tender asparagus at the farmers market. Snap one stalk in half and take a bite out of the middle to test it. If it's pleasant to chew raw, leave it alone. If it's stringy, peel it. At any rate, after removing the bottoms and tips, chop the rest into 1/4" slices if you have larger asparagus, 1/2" lengths if you have small, pencil-thin asparagus. You want to end up with 1 C. of chopped asparagus. Put enough salted water in a small saucepan to cover the chopped asparagus and bring it to a strong simmer. Then toss in the chopped asparagus (but not the tips!) and blanch it for a couple of minutes until it's tender but still a little crisp. Strain the asparagus, saving the asparagus water, and shock the asparagus in ice water. Then drain and reserve it. Meanwhile, combine 1 C. of the leftover asparagus water with 2 C. of chicken stock in a saucepan and bring to a simmer on the stove.

While your stock is coming to a simmer, you can do the rest of the prep. Halve or quarter the morels, depending on their size, and check the cores for little critters. Cut the smoked pancetta into 1/4" dice, mince up your onion, get 3 Tbsp. of butter sliced up and at the ready, slice your salmon into four fillets and set them out, get all of the other ingredients next to the stove, and get all of the necessary pans on the stovetop. You don't want to be rooting through cabinets and the fridge while you're in the middle of firing this thing.

Lastly, before you start, mix up the vinaigrette. If you didn't quite get 1/4 C. of lemon-mint oil, add enough olive oil to bring it up to 1/4 C., then mix it with 4 tsp. balsamic vinegar, 2 tsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice and 1 Tbsp. of very, very finely minced fresh mint. Give the vinaigrette a little stir, but don't whisk it -- you want it to separate and look pretty on the plate, so you don't want it to emulsify.

On the stovetop, start with the risotto. Have your asparagus water and stock mixture simmering at the ready, with a ladle at hand. Then combine 1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil and 1 Tbsp. butter in a small, heavy pot and heat over medium-high until the butter foams and then subsides. When it does, toss in the diced smoked pancetta and sauté it until the edges just start to turn golden, about 4-6 minutes. Add the minced onion and continue sautéing, stirring frequently, until the onion turns translucent. Toss in the rice and cook, stirring constantly, for about a minute, so that the grains are completely coated with the oil and fat. Lower the heat slightly to medium, add a ladleful of the simmering stock mixture to the rice and stir until all of the liquid has been absorbed by the rice. Continue this process, a ladleful of stock at a time, waiting until it's completely absorbed before adding more, stirring almost constantly, until the risotto has cooked thoroughly, the grains are tender but still have some individual bite, and the mixture has a very nice, creamy consistency. If you haven't made a lot of risotto, just keep adding, absorbing and tasting until the texture seems right to you. If you run out of stock mixture and the rice still hasn't absorbed enough liquid, switch to simmering water so as not to make the flavor too intense. Once the risotto is cooked to the desired consistency, stir in 1 Tbsp. of butter and 1 Tbsp. of grated parmigiano reggiano, salt and pepper to taste, and get it off the heat. Ideally, you want to time the morels and salmon to be done at the same time. If the risotto has to sit for a few minutes, it's not a tragedy, but it's best eaten right away.

To cook the morels, heat 2 Tbsp. butter over medium-high heat until the butter foams and then subsides. Toss in the asparagus tips and cook, stirring, for about a minute. Then add the morels and cook for another minute or two until they're tender but still have some body. Remove from the heat, salt to taste, and reserve. If any of the hot components need to sit, let it be the morels.

To cook the salmon, heat 1 Tbsp. vegetable oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. While it's coming to heat, season the salmon fillets with salt and pepper. Once the oil's hot but before it starts smoking, add the fillets to the pan, flesh side down, and sear them for 2-3 minutes until you have a nice crust and the filets are cooked about a third of the way through. Then flip them and cook another 2-3 minutes on the skin side until the salmon is cooked to your desired doneness. Personally, if that light pink color creeps all the way into the middle, I say they're way overdone. But it's a very personal call.

To finish the whole shebang, divide the risotto between four plates. Top the risotto with the morels and asparagus tips, and then the salmon fillets. If you're feeling saucy, pick out a couple of particularly pretty tips or morels and set them on top of the fish. Spoon the vinaigrette on and around the salmon and risotto, and then grate a little bit of fresh lemon zest over the top.

It's, uh... just that simple.

May 09, 2008

Orchard Market & Cafe

Haleem BademjuneDominic Armato
Continuing the recent theme of exploring cuisines with which I only have a passing familiarity, this month's Charm City Hounds outing was to a Persian restaurant in Towson. My previous experience with Persian was limited to a dinner my ladylove and I shared at the widely known and respected LaLa Rokh while on a trip to Boston over five years ago. But this was in the pre-blogging days (for me, anyway), and due to the combination of time and lack of my own writing to refer to, I was left with only the vague memory of a cuisine that was quite exciting to me, embracing some of the Middle Eastern conventions with which I was familiar, but veering off into novel pairings and flavors. However novel, though, I wouldn't call my first experience with Persian surprising. It's an unfortunate habit of Americans to refer to any food produced within 2000 miles of Baghdad as "Middle Eastern" when that's about as useful and specific a term, from a culinary standpoint, as "European". Lebanese and Persian are, in my limited experience, about as similar as French and Italian -- probably less -- yet both routinely fall under the same blanket. Recognition of the true diversity of the region's foods is long overdue, and restaurants like Orchard Market & Cafe are exciting because of their ability to educate an ignorant public (among which I include myself) about the very much plural cuisines of the Middle East.

Eggplant & ArtichokeDominic Armato
While the name Orchard Market & Cafe conjures up images of sandwich shops, it's actually an intimate little gem of a neighborhood restaurant, improbably tucked into a strip mall that's hidden behind a furniture store, a stone's throw from a dozen fast food and carryout pizza joints. As somebody who has a deep love for low profile ethnic eateries, I'm a firm believer in the underappreciated culinary potential of the nondescript strip mall. But it's rare to find such a place that's so downright warm and cozy. The incongruity stems from the restaurant's origins as an actual market and cafe, opened in the late '80s, that morphed into a full-service restaurant with the hiring of Iranian expatriate Nahid Vaezpour in 1990. Though the restaurant evolved, its location did not, and Vaezpour -- a widowed mother of 18 before joining Orchard -- now serves dishes that are both foreign and comforting, capturing the essence of the meals she'd prepared for her family while back in Iran. Our dinner was a preplanned affair, a rapid-fire succession of communal dishes that left us with fleeting tastes of a wide variety of unfamiliar foods. While meals like this are a wonderful way to get a sense of the cuisine in a fuzzy, delirious fashion, they're not conducive to the sort of analytical overthinking with which I typically approach my meals. As such, I'll have to forego my usual level of detail in favor of sometimes vague impressions. Hopefully this won't make the food seem any less compelling, because it deserves your interest.

Mango ShrimpDominic Armato
We started with the Haleem Bademjune, billed as "a dip of eggplant and beans with sour cream, garlic, walnuts and spices, similar to baba ganoush". Similar it was, and I think I would have identified it as such had I been blindfolded. And while a creamy, comforting expression of eggplant, it was very familiar to me and, as such, far less compelling than the dishes to follow. I did note, with disappointment, that the accompanying pita was rather dry and flat (in flavor -- in shape, a given). Some would call this picking nits, but a good dish deserves good bread, and this wasn't. The second appetizer, however, was one of the highlights of the evening. The Eggplant & Artichoke arrived, a warm, melty mess, bound with a mild Bulgarian feta and swimming in a sauce laced with Dijon and dill, both pungent and very, very sweet. I suspect whole artichokes are not to be found in the kitchen, which is unfortunate, but right or wrong this didn't detract from my enjoyment of a strong-willed dish.

Mushroom ZabanDominic Armato
The third appetizer wasn't a troubled dish, per se, there just wasn't much to get excited about. The Mango Shrimp were sauced with a chutney that was built on onions and garlic and lightly spiced, but despite these additions it came across mostly as shrimp in a savory mango puree. The dish was inoffensive, but forgettable. The Mushroom Zaban, on the other hand, may have been my favorite dish of the evening. It wasn't much to look at, but the curried poached veal tongue with onions and portobello mushrooms had a luscious, earthy richness that I loved. I am, admittedly, partial to braised meats, but this was a particularly fine specimen. The curry wasn't so much a primary ingredient as it was a light accent -- a faint whisper -- to lend a touch of brightness to the succulent, silken, not-quite-beefy intensity of the tongue. This was the kind of meltingly tender meat that you want to linger on your palate. It's a dish to make a believer of tongue skeptics.

KoobiedehDominic Armato
The appetizers out of the way, we moved on to more substantial fare. The entrees opened with the Koobiedeh which was, like the Haleem Bademjune, very familiar to me. It was a ground beef mixture lightly seasoned, formed over skewers and grilled. It was then topped with sumac and served with rice. I enjoy simple grilled meats quite a bit, but I found this particular version a little mundane. It was tender, with a pleasing texture and a little bit of char, but it struck me as underseasoned. I think a little acid, most obviously lemon, might've been all that was necessary to wake it up. I considered requesting some, but by the time I was in a position to flag somebody down, we'd devoured it -- a testament to the fact that while less than great, it was still tasty.

Chicken AbadanDominic Armato
The next entree had some interesting things going on, but felt like it didn't quite come together. The Chicken Abadan combined chicken with a token amount of shrimp and scallops, and covered them in an abundant tomato-based sauce with curry and saffron. The first problem was that the sauce just didn't feel balanced to me, as if all of the flavors were present but hadn't quite come together into that magical cohesive whole. And while chicken, scallops and shrimp have an affinity for each other, here the seafood felt more like an afterthought. And even if I set aside my boneless skinless chicken breast prejudice (is there a more boring, flavorless cut in the known meat universe?), despite being smothered in the sauce, the chicken didn't seem one with it. I wasn't in the kitchen and I don't know how it was prepared, but the feeling was that of a "take chicken breast, top with seafood, ladle sauce" preparation. This makes it sound awful, and it wasn't at all. There were interesting flavors and a good dish was in there somewhere. It just didn't fulfill its potential.

Dried Plum LambDominic Armato
The Dried Plum Lamb I found frustrating, because while I enjoyed it a lot, it felt just barely incomplete. I love crossing that sweet/savory divide, and a sweet meat entree is one of the trickiest expressions of such. It's a risky proposition that often turns out poorly. In Persian cuisine, though? Old hat. It would seem they throw together meats and fruits with reckless abandon. Here, the lamb was stewed in a sauce made with tomatoes, pomegranate, lemon and dried plums, and paired with thick slabs of tender butternut squash. The butternut squash should have been the key. With pomegranate, lemon and plum, it was a very bright dish that needed grounding and the starchy but sweet vegetable almost brought it down to earth -- but not quite. Though delicious, it lacked a certain roundness of flavor that I think could have been achieved if the meaty intensity of the lamb had been developed a little more. But I still enjoyed it quite a bit, and a couple of people at our table declared it their favorite.

Duck FesenjuneDominic Armato
I had no such reservations, however, about the Duck Fesenjune. Not only was it a delicious, well-executed dish, but it was exactly the kind of unfamiliar but utterly compelling flavor profile I'd been hoping to try. Our duck leg was perfectly poached, moist and tender, with an orange flavor that was intense and sweet. The accompanying sauce, made with pomegranate and walnuts, is touted on the menu as a Persian classic. But what's classic to Persians, in this case, is new to me, and I loved it. There was nothing subtle about it, sweet and saucy and full-flavored, but this one came together in a way some of the other entrees didn't. This was also in the running for my favorite of the evening, and it's what I found most reminiscent of our meal at LaLa Rokh.

DessertsDominic Armato
By this time the little fellow had had quite enough, so we quickly stuffed some desserts in our mouths and ran off. I remember a moist cake with sweet frosting, punctuated with pomegranate seeds and nuts that provided a lovely textural contrast in addition to their flavors. I'm not a fan of baklava that's drowning in honey, so it was nice to get a version that let the pastry and nuts share the stage. I would have liked to sit and savor them over some Persian tea or coffee, but it wasn't in the cards.

All in all, a lovely meal with a couple of exceptional dishes where even the misses were enjoyable, if flawed. I hate to keep coming back to LaLa Rokh, but at the moment that's my only basis of comparison when it comes to Persian. LaLa Rokh was very refined, with pure flavors and ethereal aromatics. It's clear that Orchard Market & Cafe comes from the same tradition, but here the food is hearty and comforting, more evocative of the kitchen table than the grand dining room. One gets the sense that Vaezpour is cooking for the restaurant in much the same manner that she did for her children back in Iran. Some dishes are more successful than others, but they're all welcoming, all prepared with love, and each a lesson in the flavors of a cuisine that demands and deserves to be considered an entity all its own.

Orchard Market & Cafe
8815 Orchard Tree Ln.
Towson, MD 21286
Tue - Thu11:30 AM - 4:00 PM5:00 PM - 9:00 PM
Fri - Sat11:30 AM - 4:00 PM5:00 PM - 10:00 PM
Sun11:45 AM - 4:00 PM5:00 PM - 9:00 PM

May 07, 2008

Case In Point

For those who felt the $10 challenge on Top Chef last week was obviously rigged, this is the exact dish (thanks, Mr. Vongerichten) I'm making for dinner tonight:

Dominic Armato

My itemized bill from Whole Foods:

4 bone-in chicken thighs$2.18
1 lemon$1.00
1 lime$0.50
1 grapefruit$0.67
loose greens$1.12
1 red chile$0.21

Out of my pantry, I'll be using some leftover sour cream, a spoonful of miso, half a cup of rice (not pictured), oil, salt and pepper. There's easily enough room under $10 there to get some more chicken (I'm only feeding two and a half, and am only using half the citrus and greens) and some sour cream. A tub of miso would put me over, but I'll let you decide whether or not you believe I could have come up with a tasty alternative. And I assume we can all agree that a cup of rice, oil and salt are pantry staples that, even if you added in prorated costs, would be dirt cheap.

Point being, $10 for dinner for four, even at Whole Foods, is not only doable, I just did it without even trying.

May 06, 2008

Opening Day

Dominic Armato
In our household, the opening of the Baltimore Farmers Market has been received like a holiday.

It's been marked on my calendar for a few months now. I spent the winter in a culinary rut, and couldn't wait to be inspired by some beautiful, fresh produce. We didn't arrive in Baltimore until the middle of last summer, so I was curious to see if it would be in full swing off the bat. I'm pleased to report that while it isn't quite summer abundance, the spring market is just barely off its peak. Asparagus is all over the place, and that'll be my primary target next week. But for opening day, we hit some old favorites. The mushroom stand, in particular, was looking fantastic and I splurged on some morels, as well as some fresh eggs, onion chives and ciabatta to go with them.

Dominic Armato
We also grabbed some snacks we'd missed since the fall. The mushroom stand makes some outstanding mushroom fritters, fried on the spot and served with feta cheese, mesclun greens, basil and hot sauce. This is one of my favorite mushroom dishes anywhere, light and crisp but still juicy and moist inside. They're worth the trip all on their own. I'm also a fan of the chive buns from the Vietnamese stand and the chicken tamales, though the latter was absent this week. So we wandered around, snacked a bit, and went on home to cook up some breakfast.

It isn't the most unique recipe, but I don't know of any better way to celebrate the opening of the farmers market than by preparing its bounty as simply as possible. If you're somebody who has always cooked scrambled eggs hard and fast, you owe it to yourself to make them this way. There's no going back. Here, I've just dressed them up with some of Sunday's haul. It's a snooty-looking recipe, but it doesn't have to be. I like the little bit of tartness that the buffalo milk butter provides, but don't go hunting it down. Plain old unsalted butter will be just as awesome. Similarly, any old chives will do, and of course this would work great with a myriad of mushrooms. I'd avoid the really watery mushrooms like button and crimini in favor of varieties like shiitake or oyster, but again, it's all good -- use what you have.

Dominic Armato

1 Tbsp. buffalo milk butter
1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 pint morel mushrooms
1/4 C. chopped onion chives
6 large eggs
2 Tbsp. unsalted butter
1 Tbsp. grated parmigiano reggiano
salt and pepper

Scrambled Eggs with Sautéed Morels and Onion Chives
Serves 2

The eggs require a lot of attention and the morels can sit, so you want to prepare the morels first. There are two schools of thought on whether or not morels should be washed, and I'm still on the fence. But if you wash them, try to give them plenty of time to dry before sautéeing them. Halve or quarter them lengthwise (depending on their size) so you can remove anything that might be inside the hollow stems. To cook the morels, heat the buffalo milk butter and olive oil over medium-high heat, then add the morels and sauté until they just soften. Toss in 1 Tbsp. of the chives, remove the mushrooms from the heat, salt and pepper them to taste and set them aside.

Then, to make the eggs, combine the unsalted butter and eggs in a cold nonstick skillet, preferably one with sloping sides. Put the skillet over medium heat, and gently whisk the eggs as they warm up. You don't want to beat them and make them foamy, but you want to keep them moving. As the eggs start to heat and thicken, you need to watch them very carefully. Whisk them constantly, making sure to scrape the bottom and sides of the skillet. If they start to stick just the slightest bit, remove them from the heat, keep whisking for a bit, them return them to the heat. After five or six minutes, small curds will start to form. At this point they can go from liquid to overcooked in a matter of moments, so periodically remove and return them to the heat, whisking the whole time, until they reach kind of a loose oatmeal consistency. At this point, you want to get them off the heat, stir in 2 Tbsp. of the chives, salt to taste, and quickly split them between two plates. You want them to be loose and a little wet (they're actually a little overdone in this photo), and they'll keep cooking for a good 20-30 seconds after you remove them from the heat, so don't wait too long to get them off the heat.

Top the eggs with the morels, the parmigiano reggiano and the rest of the chives, and serve with toast.

May 02, 2008

Eastern Avenue Taco Crawl

Las Palmas - Dominic Armato
Last week, I rather enjoyed putting off the Top Chef Power Rankings until Monday. It gave me a chance to dig a little deeper and to work on the podcast, which seems to have been received pretty well so far. So we'll stick with that schedule going forward -- new rankings on Monday. And in the meantime, much as I love reality TV analysis with an obsessive level of detail, it'll be nice to get back to Skillet Doux's regular restaurant and recipe analysis with an obsessive level of detail. This week, tacos, specifically those in my backyard. One of the things I love about Baltimore's Little Italy is that it's a classic, old ethnic enclave bordering on a new, vibrant ethnic enclave. Eastern and High street? Pasta. Three blocks east to Eastern and Broadway? Tacos. In preparation for a Chowhound outing, I've been scouting a lot of tacos lately. Not that I like to reduce Mexican cuisine down to its best known street food, but it's a big neighborhood with a lot of ground to cover, and a taco crawl seems a good way to benchmark some of the local eateries and identify the ones worth focusing on. I've already posted my thoughts on Tortilleria Sinaloa in extensive fashion, but I figured I'd run down some other recent explorations along Eastern Avenue in rapid fire fashion.

Las Palmas - Dominic Armato
Starting on the west end of the strip is Las Palmas. It's a cute little shop on the north side of the street with a fairly extensive menu of standards and it's the nicest room of this bunch. It's still very small and exceedingly downscale, but it's bright and well-maintained and generally pleasant to hang around. Unless you're doing battle with the chef's son over an appropriate volume level for Power Rangers (I felt 8 was reasonable, but he seemed to feel that 23 was necessary for the full effect). But the folks are friendly and it's easy to drop in and grab a bite. I'm pretty sure they're using Sinaloa's tortillas (most of the taquerias in the neighborhood do, and with good reason), but unfortunately Las Palmas' tacos are a little weak. They just seemed underseasoned all around, though the texture on the lengua I tried was a medium dice seared to a nice crisp, and I loved it. Frankly, what excited me most about Las Palmas was the salsas. They serve a red and green with the tacos, and both are very simple, clean and delicious. The red was smooth and a little oily with a nice smoky chile flavor. It clearly wasn't meant to stand on its own, but as a taco accent I thought it was particularly nice. The green, however, was awesome. It's very watery, which I mean as an expression of its consistency and not an indictment of its flavor, which is excellent. It's a tomatillo base with jalapeno, cilantro, very finely diced onion and bits of avocado (among other things, I'm sure). Nothing special or unusual in terms of ingredients, but it was exceptionally fresh, green, light and vibrant -- obviously made with great care. The bistec ended up being one of my favorite tacos in the area on the strength of that salsa, even if it wasn't particularly noteworthy otherwise.

Palomino - Dominic Armato
Moving further east and a couple of blocks up Broadway, there's a silver taco truck on the east side of the street that goes by Tacos Jalisco. I tried their chivo and some manner of beef (I've now forgotten which) and both were good, but speed and convenience aside I didn't see a compelling reason to pick them over some of the other options in the immediate area. They were significantly cheaper, but the size seemed proportional to the price. The next place down the line, however, is very compelling. Back on Eastern, just east of Broadway and directly across the street from Tortilleria Sinaloa, is a funky joint that goes by either Palomino Restaurant or the Starlight Bar & Lounge, depending on which sign you believe. I can't find evidence of either name anywhere on the internet, so it remains a mystery. Palomino is long on character, an impressive bar running one side, pool tables in the back and a tableful of guys playing cards that seems to be a permanent fixture. If you aren't deaf when you enter, you will be by the time you leave, since the stereo blares an odd mix of Mariachi music and Mexican hip hop at Friday night levels even on Tuesday afternoons. However loud you think it is, it's louder. The fact that I return probably says something.

Palomino - Dominic Armato
Palomino throws in a small bowl of soup with every meal, which is nice, but the fact that the soup is usually quite good is extra nice. I've never had anything subtle. They've all been potent, spicy, slightly oily broths with varying bases. The one you see here was a spicy chicken soup with a drumette thrown in. Once you get to the tacos, Palomino certainly has its style. Grilled and griddled options are completely absent, and the taco selections instead focus on braised and roasted meats. The carnitas, pictured here, were quite lovely if not as porktastic as you'd expect from the places that specialize in carnitas. They were also the driest of the tacos I tried (though only on a relative scale), as the rest of the list is rather saucy. The barbacoa, in particular, is bold and wet, almost more stewed than what I think of as barbacoa, but delicious nonetheless. The one complaint I could make is that Palomino is often very heavy on the grease. Given the nature of my old 3 AM haunt back in Chicago, the grease feels like home to me. But it might put you off and I wouldn't think less of you for it.

El Taquito - Dominic Armato
Though it's been inconsistent at times, El Taquito, another block east, is where I had the best plate of tacos I've yet tasted in Baltimore. I had the puerco, cecina and lamb barbacoa on that particular occasion. The puerco was moist and tender and had the fat that Sinaloa lacks and Palomino has in abundance. Simple but great flavor. I loved the cecina (salted beef), pleasantly chewy with a nice marinade, seared and crispy on the edges. The lamb barbacoa was probably my favorite on that day, tender but with substance, lightly seasoned, and chock full of meaty lamb intensity. I later sampled the pollo, not a typical choice for me, and loved it. I suspect it was roasted, then shredded and crisped on the griddle. But in any case it was crusted in places with a great seasoning mix, and even the tortillas had been skillfully griddled, taking on just a little crispy texture in places. And the price is right. Three great tacos, a Mexican coke, tax and tip for $10 says winner in my book.

Tijuana Tacos - Dominic Armato
All of these restaurants already mentioned have their merits, but one place for which I can universally recommend a pass on is Tijuana Tacos. I had a good feeling upon walking in the door, but it's possible that's because, based on the name, I was anticipating Tex-Mex and tequila. In actuality, it's a humble little taqueria/bodega with all of the usuals on the menu. The tacos section has seven or eight offerings, each for $2.50 apiece. In what may be the deal of the century, ordering three tacos will earn you the privilege of paying an extra 50 cents, since an order of three tacos is listed at $8.00. My first visit was mediocre, but my second put me over the edge. The carne asada was sautéed. Not a hint of fire or smoke to be found. Also, when you order carnitas and al pastor and can't determine which is supposed to be which, that's really not a good sign. Fortunately, other options abound. And I've still only gotten to about half of the taquerias on my hit list. More later.

Las PalmasPalomino
1622 Eastern Ave.1700 Block of Eastern Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21231Baltimore, MD 21231
El TaquitoTijuana Tacos
1744 Eastern Ave.2224 Fleet St.
Baltimore, MD 21231Baltimore, MD 21231