Saturday, March 20, 2010

Buttermilk Channel, Brooklyn

We entered the clean crisp space of Buttermilk Channel in Brooklyn at around 5:30 in the evening for an early supper before returning to Boston. The sun was just beginning to set and it cast a lovely light on the sparely decorated but welcoming space. It was beautiful. The tables were set and service was just beginning. My friend, Patrick, commented that this is the first time he has ever been here without at least a brief wait at the bar for a table. The meal that we were to be served is a testament to its popularity with Brooklyn locals and visitors from across the bridge.

Owner, Doug Cromwell, and chef, Ryan Angulo, have formed a winning partnership here in Carroll Gardens. The food overall had a light feel to it despite the use of ingredients that might otherwise produce heavy dishes. Reading their bio’s online, they both seemed to have worked at New York’s Picholine near Lincoln Center and both have culinary educations from top notch schools. I have had the pleasure of dining at Picholine, and I see the practiced hand of a great chef and the spirit of hospitality echoed in Buttermilk Channel.

Dan, Patrick, and myself were seated at a lovely table with more of that beautiful steely afternoon early spring sunlight streaming in. The wine list and menu were beautifully printed and the wording was clear describing the dishes in just enough appetizing detail. Though the wine list is completely American I found that it had plenty to choose from. It featured mostly stars of the California club such as Joel Gott, Edmunds St. John, Robert Sinskey, and Qupé, but there were also local producers such as Dr. Konstantin Frank, Wolffer, and Millbrook. I got really excited when I saw a bottle of Scholium Project Verdelho from California and ordered it immediately. It met with approval amongst our merry company and the staff that was attending us. Owner, Doug, even came over to chat with us a bit about the wine once he saw that we had ordered it later in the evening.

The maker of Scholium Project believes in letting the wine completely make itself. If fermentation stops, it is allowed to continue on its own when it’s ready. There is minimal handling of fruit and wines are made according to “Old World” customs. Our bottle of Verdelho was powerful, crisp, dry, and full of succulent stone fruit flavors. I couldn’t believe that the alcohol was over 16˚, something I usually have a hard time with. In truth, I may not have ordered it had I known this, but I was so pleased with the wine that the relatively high alcohol was a non-issue. It tasted like drinking dry peach nectar with a little kick and it was perfect with Buttermilk Channel’s simple but sophisticated fare.

While we perused the appealing menu, we ordered a round of small bites to start, which ended up not being so small. The house pork terrine was a generous slice of country style pate flavored with herbs and Bourbon accompanied by grilled sourdough toast, turnip greens and pickles. We also tried the house-cured bacon, adorned with honey and grain mustard, and a panzanella salad with parsley, raisins, and celery leaves. Both charcuterie offerings were well crafted and delicious. They may have been the stars of the meal for me. We had some of their delicious homemade pickles, both sweet and dill. They were a perfect counterpoint to the rich meaty flavors we enjoyed so much. Hopefully I will get to go back soon and make a meal just out of charcuterie and wine from their fabulous list.

For first courses, I had a delicious salad of seared kale and endive with a soft-boiled egg and buttermilk and anchovy vinaigrette. It was a really clever end-of-winter version of the classic Caesar riffing on the classic theme using wintry greens. Dan’s barbecued pork ribs were falling off of the bone and had a mild but complex flavor. Patrick ordered a nice little tart with delicata squash, goat cheese, and a lovely flakey piecrust. The portions were generous for first courses and we could have easily stopped the meal there, but we had two more courses to go. Undertaking completion of the meal was a yoke that we happily bore.

Main courses, or “second courses” as they are called here, were refreshingly smaller in size. In fact, I thought they were pretty much the same size as the first courses only more focused on protein. I guess this is why they are called second courses rather than mains on their menu. My bacon-wrapped trout was filled with more goat cheese and leeks and served with plum jam and roasted turnips. I wouldn’t have ever put all of these elements together in my own kitchen, but the dish worked quite nicely. Dan tried their crispy fried chicken, which was just as good as many I’ve had down South. I really liked the maple-balsamic syrup that accompanied the waffles with the chicken. I will try and duplicate the tart, tangy, and sweet syrup in my own kitchen sometime soon. Patrick’s duck meat loaf was tasty too – tender, rich, and nicely sauced with a light duck jus, and ornamented with mashed potatoes and a couple of perfectly crispy fried mammoth onion rings.

Desserts were equally satisfying. I was over the moon about the pecan pie sundae, which has also received lavish praise from Frank Bruni of the New York Times. Buttermilk Channel’s pie rivals my own mother’s exceptional pie. It tasted as though they used a whole stick of butter in each pie and the dark Karo syrup just like mom’s. Making a sundae with two pieces of pie and two scoops of ice cream is pure genius. I felt as though I had died, gone to heaven, and landed on a buttery pecan cloud.

The other desserts were also very good, but somewhat eclipsed by the fabulous sundae. The peanut butter chocolate bread pudding was topped with a lovely bittersweet chocolate sauce and had a nice velvety texture. Our pear and ricotta tart had the subtlest flavor of anything of the desserts with a touch of ginger and that same delicious piecrust that we had experience in the first course winter squash tart.

Service in general was kind, efficient, and thoughtful. We were impressively served our four courses in an hour and twenty minutes due to our time constraints without ever feeling rushed. Our plates were cleared at appropriate times and silverware was always in place in time for the next course. The waiters were well informed about the menu and were sure to get answers from the chef when they didn’t have all of the information to my more detailed questions. They were a more polished bunch than the typical bistro crew and had a professional demeanor that I often observe in many finer restaurants.

The word “clean” comes to mind most when I think back on the food. I aspire to cook this kind of food at home. I am constantly amazed at how much work it takes to turn out a dish of simple ingredients that is balanced without masking any flavor with too much of something else. I greatly admired Chef Angulo’s light touch turning out dishes that easily could have been cloying or too heavy given the ingredients. To say that we enjoyed ourselves would be an understatement and I will greatly anticipate a return in April on our next Brooklyn/New York excursion.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Fabulously Fierce Friends, Vera

CQ writes: Vera is a wonderful violinist who lives in Chicago.  I first met Vera in Luxembourg at a summer festival. It was just one stop on a tour of Europe for her with stops in Paris and Vienna!  She is most commonly seen dressed in beautiful clothes and drinking a glass of Champagne. Vera is just as passionate about food as she is about music, and is lots of fun to be around!

1. Who are your role models - food related or otherwise?

My mother and grandmother are the best cooks in the world. Their presentation is extraordinary. People fast for 40 days and 40 nights before they come to our parties/feasts so they can fill themselves up as much as possible and then talk about it for days thereafter. So I guess I'm next in line to continue that tradition ;)

2. What is your drink of choice?

Champagne, its the only drink that I am always in the mood for :)

3. What is your favorite cookbook or other food related book?

Any source that sparks some inspiration is my favorite source at that moment.

4. What was your most memorable meal and why?

Oh no, I have too many!!

5. What is your favorite kitchen gadget or tool?

A goooood Greek knife.

6. If you had to make dinner with ingredients at your home right now, what would you make?

I dont momentarily know what I have, but I love love love to clean out my fridge and pantry to the bare bone because usually the most creative dishes evolve from those situations.

7. What kind of music do you like to listen to while you cook?

Classical music.

8. What is your philosophy on cooking and eating?

Its ALL about momentary inspiration. If you dont have it, skip the cooking and make yourself a nice martini.

9. Are there any foods you can not stand to eat?

Just peas.

10. If you could use any super power in the kitchen, what would it be and why?

To be able to snap my fingers when I am missing an ingredient and have it appear before my eyes (that def goes for wine too).

La Bohéme at the Met

I’ve already written extensively about how beautiful the Metropolitan Opera House is in New York City. Still, I am impressed with its grandeur on each visit. This was our third visit this season, and I feel that this is a pattern that will continue for Dan and I for years to come. Seeing opera in this amazing hall makes the spectacle of the stage all the more appealing and you can’t help but feel as though you are amongst the cream of the crop when the curtain opens.

We saw the Zeffirelli staging of La Bohéme this past Wednesday night and were treated to some of the most amazing sets I’ve ever seen. The only thing that may have topped it was Turandot back in November, also a Zeffirelli production. I hear that these lavish stagings are slowly being phased out by the Met because of the enormous cost involved in showing them. La Bohéme involves a horse drawn carriage with a real horse, lavish costumes, and four multi-story sets. The short second act has the most elaborate set of all and includes a parade through “town” by a full batallion of soldiers just before the curtain closes. WOW!

It turns out that the Zeffirelli La Bohéme is also the most performed production at the Met since it first premiered in 1981. The Met has the reputation of selling out its seats for no matter who is singing, so often many young and relatively unknown singers end up starring in the difficult roles.

We were lucky that in the most recent revival of La Bohéme the singers are amazing, although I felt as though they could have spoken their roles and I would have been equally as impressed due to the extravagent production values. Anna Netrebko sang a beautiful Mimi and Ruth Anne Swenson’s Musetta was wonderfully delivered. Piotr Beczala was a sensitive and lyrical Rudolfo with never-failing control on the many difficult and rangey long lines that the part demands. George Petean’s Marcello was full of energy and Oren Gradus sang a wonderful “Coat Aria”.

I have seen La Bohéme a few times now, and I am still swept away with the storyline each time. The first act delivers some of the most beautiful music that Puccini ever wrote, and those themes dominate the rest of the opera. I usually start tearing up about twenty minutes in and remain misty until Mimi finally gasps her last breaths at the end of act four. Indeed, I saw many of my fellow audience members leaving the theater with red eyes and/or runny make-up. It’s an opera that I will never tire of seeing on the stage or listening to at home full of fantastic sweeping orchestral gestures and soaring lyrical vocal lines. For me, it epitomizes the operatic stage. I think many would be inclined to agree as it’s kept opera houses full since it premiered over a hundred years ago in 1896.

From a personal standpoint, La Bohéme especially appeals to me because of the artistic and hedonistic themes that permeate the work. All of the characters are passionate and tortured artists in their own right and there is a huge emphasis on culinary delights. The characters live on love in poorer times, and when they have money, they spend it on feasting and drinking. Much of the opera, in fact, takes place around a simple dinner table or in a café, and I can easily identify with the singers on stage due to my own love for the arts, my capricious temperament, and, of course, my obsession over food and wine.

The Zeffirelli production of La Bohéme is a must see. If you can get to New York before the run ends, do it! There is nothing to regret about seeing it live and if you can’t make it there in person, there is a 1977 video recording that is worth checking out starring the late great Pavarotti and the beautiful Renata Scotto. If you do make the pilgrimage to the Met, spend the money for amazing seats, or enjoy the bargain priced “Family Circle” seats that we opted for. The acoustics there are such that there are really no bad seats. You’ll have a fabulous evening of amazing music and awe-inspiring scenery either way.