January 21, 2012

Casual Chinese

Casual Chinese, on Grand Avenue in Newport, has been my go-to Chinese place for the last four years.  I wouldn't say it's the best Chinese I've ever had but I've grown fond of it.  Their egg rolls and crab rangoon are always hot and fresh and my usual order of Szechuan vegetables with shrimp never lets me down.  Never lets me down, that is, until my last visit when the sauce tasted...off.

In my experience, you choose a Chinese restaurant based on its proximal location to your house, not necessarily on it being the best place in town.  I didn't want to let this one bad experience deter me completely, cause let's face it, everyone has a bad day.  So on a recent trip I ventured off the well-beaten path of Sunday night Szechuan and took some time to consider their other menu items.  Much to my delight Casual Chinese offers a small Thai menu along with their traditional Chinese-American cuisine.  The menu includes red curry, yellow curry, pad Thai, Siam noodles and a few others; on this particular day I was rather in the mood for Thai, win! 

The Chicken Pad Thai was excellent.  I've ordered this menu item at countless places over the years and this order really held up to those I've had in exclusively Thai restaurants.  The portion is HUGE.  It filled an entire large styrofoam container and weighed about a ton; if I remember correctly I made three meals out of this order.
Another surprise on the menu was the "small dinner" offerings.  Casual Chinese offers about 10 variations of small dinners ranging from pepper steak to chicken with broccoli to sweet and sour chicken; each dinner is served with a decent portion of fried rice.  I chose the shrimp with vegetables from the small dinner menu.  The shrimp and vegetables were juicy and crisp and served in a very light-colored brown sauce. It was really the perfect dinner portion and at the lower price of $6.95 it's a deal, especially if you're not looking to stuff yourself with a quart of Chinese food.  I snapped this picture after mixing in some of the pad Thai and taking quite a few bites.  
With such an encouraging visit to Casual Chinese I hope to change things up a bit each time I go back. Or maybe I'll just keep ordering the Pad Thai, it was that good.

 Casual Chinese on Urbanspoon

January 20, 2012

Pho Lang Thang

Pho Lang Thang has been on my mind for months so with the day off work I made my way over to Findlay Market and finally managed for our paths to cross.  I'm not navigationally savvy when it comes to the market's layout but after 2 full trips up and down the length of it I eventually found the restaurant's location on Elder Street.

Entering Pho Lang Thang at the height of the lunch rush was chaotic but I was quickly calmed by the beautiful aroma; the aroma I can still smell as I type this as it lingers on my clothes.  If you're looking to avoid crowds and a wait, during the week at least, I suggest going no earlier than 1pm.  By the time I left at 1:15 there was no longer a wait for table service and the to-go orders had died down.

It was less than a 10 minute wait for a seat at a long, narrow high-top table with bar stools and I shared my lunch with the strangers who happened to be seated next to me.  I heard one customer mention the dramatic increase in business as he waited for his food, apparently he used to be able to come in and sit down right away with no wait.  A great thing for Pho Lang Thang and a bad thing only if you have a Bahn Mi habit and zero patience.

I waited about another 15 minutes to place my order but I was understanding as I had no specific place to be and was quite entertained observing the flow of the restaurant.  I chose the pork Bahn Mi (pork sandwich) and Pho Bo (rice noodle bowl) in a beef broth with brisket.  You can order the Bahn Mi and the Pho Bo with your choice of meat; vegetarian versions of both dishes are also offered.  After I placed my order the server repeated back to me "so you want the Bahn Mi and the Pho Bo?"  I guess this is technically two entrees but I wanted soup and sandwich, what can I say?
The rice noodle bowl was decent and had a light delicate flavor, I could have sworn it had either a touch of cinnamon or nutmeg but I can't be sure.  At first glance it appeared to have an appropriate noodle to broth ratio, but the noodles seemed to multiply as I stirred.  This is a much more substantial dish than I anticipated and I ended up only eating half of it.  The Pho Bo is also served with a side dish of garnishes including: bean sprouts, lime, jalapeno and cilantro.  I wasn't certain if the garnish went with the sandwich or the noodle bowl and didn't get a chance to ask my server. When she came back to box up my food she apologized and informed me the garnish went with the noodles.  I don't think I missed on anything but perhaps the jalapeno would have added some depth.
I made the picture of the Bahn Mi extra large so you would be extra jealous when you see all the yum in this bun.  Oy. The airy french-like bread has a very thin crust and successfully absorbs the marinade from the pork and the garlic butter mayo. The bread is not dense in the least; perfect for containing all the insides of this sandwich including: grilled marinated pork, garlic butter mayo, pickled carrots and daikon (white radish), cucumber and cilantro.  The marinade can take credit for most of the amazing flavor and it meshes with the other toppings in an uncanny sort of way, which as I mentioned before, could create a habit i don't need.

Oh!  I almost forgot, I also tried the Vietnamese limeade.  It was refreshing and a welcome reminder of summer on this 20 degree day; it didn't have a fake green tint so I know it was home-made.

I boxed up half of each dish to take home and then headed back into the market for a little shopping.  White chili spice from Colonel De's, and one hunk each of New York sharp cheddar and Mexican white cheese from Krause's .

No matter the weather, there's never a bad time for Dojo.  Today I did half churro half pistachio.  The churro tasted amazingly like churro batter and although it was frozen, the cinnamon notes seemed to warm me up.  I didn't want this cup to end.

Pho Lang Thang on Urbanspoon

Dojo Gelato on Urbanspoon

January 18, 2012

Chabela Wedding Cake

I distinctly remember the book, Like Water For Chocolate, recommended to me back in high school by a classmate who was an avid reader.  Last week I finally got my hands on a copy from the library and was able to read through it in a couple days.  Each chapter in the book begins with a recipe.  And each recipe is woven into the love story between the main characters, Tita and Pedro- everything a romantic foodie could ask for in a book!
Since I didn't happen to have any quail, powdered potassium or ox tail on-hand I chose the Chabela Wedding Cake as my first attempt at one of the recipes from the book.  It calls for17 eggs, 175 grams (about 1.5 cups) of sugar and 300 grams (about 2 3/4 cups) of cake flour sifted 3 times and the grated peel of one lime. 

Although the recipe sounded impossible to me it was all I could think about for an entire week. I contemplated and searched and searched online to see if anyone had attempted to bake this cake and write about it.  I couldn't find anything.  This recipe is the closest I found but as awesome as the site is and as delicious as the cake looks I really wanted to be a purist when it came to this cake.  Unfortunately, the thought of wasting 17 eggs if the recipe flopped sort of broke my heart.  So, much like the love between Tita and Pedro, a pure version of this cake could not be.
The cake in the book includes an apricot filling, a lime fondant and a meringue.  I've never attempted fondant or meringue but I definitely wanted to include the apricot filling and have hints of lime in the icing. 

So....without further ado, here is my version of the Chabela Wedding Cake from Like Water For Chocolate

For the cake I adapted this recipe and this recipe to create a light and fluffy buttermilk base.  I substituted butter for shortening and added 2 whole eggs and 2 egg whites instead of 4 egg whites and also increased the amount of baking powder using the following recipe:

Buttermilk Cake
2 3/4 cups cake flour
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
2 eggs
2 egg whites
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. vanilla
1 1/2 cups buttermilk

First cream together butter, sugar and 2 whole eggs.
In a separate bowl sift cake flour, salt and baking powder.
Beat 2 egg-whites until fluffy and stir in vanilla extract.
Alternate mixing the flour mixture and the buttermilk into the butter/sugar/egg mixture.  Once everything is incorporated, fold in the egg whites and it should look like this:
Divide batter into three 9-inch round cake pans and bake at 350 for 28-30 minutes and you will get three of these beauties:
The apricot jam is a simple recipe I tweaked a bit in order to use the ingredients I had on-hand.  I combined a cup and a quarter of apricots (skin removed and diced), 1 cup of sugar and the juice from half an orange in a skillet and cooked it on medium heat until it came to a boil.  I then let it simmer for several minutes until it thickened and had the consistency of jam.
I suggest using half the amount of sugar or doubling the amount of fruit; this turned out very sweet and I was hoping for more of the fruity notes of apricot to come through.  I was tempted to go to the store and buy a jar of apricot preserves and mix it with my apricot jam but that sounded like too much work after I had already devoted a couple hours to this cake. 

I found this recipe for lime butter cream which was perfect for incorporating the lime flavor mentioned in the book.  It was very simple to make and the result was smooth and sweet and tangy.  The recipe called for an entire 32oz. package of powdered sugar but I left out about 8oz and probably could have cut back even more. Since I chose a plain buttermilk cake I went more intense with the frosting, but one tablespoon of lime juice and 1 teaspoon of zest would still yield a get great lime flavor.

Lime Buttercream
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
3 tbsp. grated lime peel
3 tbsp lime juice
24oz powdered sugar
2 tsp. vanilla extract
2 tbsp. buttermilk

When it was layering and frosting time Georgia wanted to help..wanted a bite...wanted anything that happened to fall her way.  I'm fairly certain she's saying "Please mommy, I've been a good girl all day."
I started layering the cake by putting a blob (1 blob = approx.1/2 cup) of frosting in the middle of a plate and spreading it around the center.  I placed the first cake on top and pressed it down into the icing so it would keep from sliding off the plate.  I then topped the first layer with a very thin veil of frosting followed by 1/2 of the apricot jam.  I did not end up with as much jam as anticipated, it turned out to be less of a filling and more of some fruity texture added on top of the icing in each layer.  It worked.
Frantic puppy eyes.
I placed the next cake on top and repeated the icing and jam and then placed the final cake on top and frosted the entire perimeter of the cake generously with the remaining lime butter cream.
This was my first attempt at baking a layer cake completely from scratch and the finished product turned out better than I anticipated.  The cake was very dense but with a nice soft texture and certainly not too sweet.  Because it was not overly sweet it meshed well with the super-sweet lime frosting; a couple small slivers after lunch was just enough to take care of my sweet tooth.  The funny thing is that after a couple days of sitting in the breakroom at work the cake somehow tastes better than it did the first day.  I don't know how to explain this except that maybe the lime in the frosting intensified and soaked into the cake??

Eventually, I intend on baking the Chabela Wedding Cake exactly as it reads in the book, (recipe here).  But for now I'm more than happy with this substitute.

January 15, 2012

Bayou Fish House and York Street Cafe

I drive down York Street in Newport quite often and pass Bayou Fish House every time.  I've been waiting and waiting to check it out (no idea why I've waited) and decided Friday was the perfect time for some comfort food.  It was the evening of the snow, it didn't really snow, it was actually more like a bunch of snow flakes blowing around from one place to the next in freezing wind but it kept everyone else in their houses and allowed us to get front-row parking all night long.

I used a groupon I purchased several months ago for 2 fish dinners including 2 drinks.  The space is small but open and I like that you can see the food prep; almost gave it that eat-in kitchen feel.  We were greeted and received a description of the different types of fish ranging from light to full flavored in terms of fishyness.  The menu is basic and includes 3 varieties of fish meals for $6.95 and the shrimp meal for $8.95.  Each meal includes one side and separately the sides are $2.25 each including fries, slaw and gumbo.

I ordered the whiting and Katie II ordered cod.  We each went with a side of fries and I added on a side of the gumbo in addition to the complementary grilled onions and peppers. Our food was ready in about 10 minutes and our eyes lit up when it was placed in front of us.  I sprinkled a small dusting of salt over everything and went to town.  The thin filets of whiting had a nice flavor and were generously coated in crunchy batter which was substantial and hearty. The meal didn't come along with the usual puddle of grease underneath everything.  The fish was crunchy but not too crunchy and the fries were nice and crisp on the outside and soft on the inside. I took a bite of the cod and it was delicious as well, tender and a much meatier fish than the whiting.    

The fish was great, the fries were prepared to my liking but the gumbo was my favorite part.  The flavorful brown broth was full of rice, sausage, okra and chicken.  It wasn't mild but wasn't so spicy I had to take sweat breaks between bites and it paired nicely with the fish.

Bonus points for offering Mr. Pibb...

The service was also one of my favorite parts.  Two people were running everything on this unusually slow night (due to the snow) but the owner told us it is typically standing room only.  And I believe it. I would put up with a little bit of discomfort for this food.  Bayou is about 1.5 miles from my house and a quick drive but will make a nice walk in the warmer months.  I already know what I'm going to order on my second trip- fried shrimp with gumbo and cole slaw.  Their 2nd location will be opening in Price Hill on Price Avenue in about a week. 

We decided to head out for a drink after dinner and went up one block to York Street Cafe.  I dined at York Street about 2 years ago and Katie II use to swing dance here but  neither of us had been recently.  They seated us on the couches which lent itself to some nice people watching.  It gave me a bird's eye view of the restaurant and I honestly could not stop staring at everyone and all the delicious looking trays of food that passed us.  Must organize a girl's night here soon!

We each ordered a drink and just as I was wondering-out-loud what their dessert menu was like I looked over and saw a counter full of cakes.  The server brought over a listing of one of the best selections of home-made cakes I have ever seen.  We went with the Lemon Buttermilk but they also had a banana mocho cake, butter rum cake and a flourless chocolate tort to name a few.  The cakes are all made in-house and they will prepare them by request for birthdays and special events at the restaurant; just need to give them at least a week's notice.
I love lemon flavored anything but this cake was to die for; even though I was stuffed beyond belief I couldn't stop taking bite after bite.  The frosting was silky and flavored with just enough lemon intensity.  The cake was great too and I've been busy scouring the internet for made-from-scratch cake recipes so I can replicate this.

Another great evening in the KY.  I think most people would be amazed at the awesome independent restaurants Newport has to offer if they would step away from the Levee.  I'm determined, at some point in the near future, to eat my way down Monmouth Street.  Sounds like fun, don't you think?

Bayou Fish House (Newport) on Urbanspoon

York St. Cafe on Urbanspoon

January 8, 2012

Pasquale's and Avenue Brew- 1st Friday in Bellevue

My intentions were to try Buono Vita in Dayton, KY but I did not intend for an hour wait.  Luckily heading a bit further west into Bellevue offers plenty of dining options.  We walked past Pasquale's and didn't see any tables available but Bellevue Bistro was hoppin' and even had an acoustic guitarist.  We went in and looked at the menu, ordered drinks, began placing our order...and they were out of the one thing on the menu my friend would touch with a ten foot pole- the coffee rubbed burger. I didn't want to force my friend to order something unpleasing for the picky palate so we walked back to Pasquale's and a couple tables had opened up. 

As soon as I walked in I was secretly happy we had to leave Bellevue Bistro (although I plan on going back soon for brunch).  Nothing against BB but I can't remember the last time I had a steak hoagie and Pasquale's is sort of known for them.  They offer about a dozen different styles of hoagie but I went with the regular steak hoagie- provolone, pickles, onion, pizza sauce with a side of the mushroom sauce and a small order of crinkle cut fries.  I love how they butter and salt the top of the hoagie bun; it's a small detail but it puts a little flavor on your tongue before you actually get to the meat and toppings on the hoagie.

I was going to order a large hoagie, they seemed to fit in the cardboard boats just perfectly, but I do question the nutritional value in a steak hoagie and the side of fries wasn't exactly steamed vegetables.  The pickles and onions meshed with the cheese and pizza sauce; the mushroom sauce didn't do too much for me, maybe if it was warm?  At times hoagies seem a little bland.  I take a bite, start chewing, it's good, I'm getting the flavors of the toppings and then it's like I'm expecting something else, somethings missing.  I've experienced this with most hoagies except for maybe Riverfront Pizza in Covington but I have to say Pasquale's comes in at a close second.

My friend ordered the 10 inch pepperoni pizza and it was plenty for one person with a big appetite or for 2 people with smallish appetites.  Just realized I didn't ask for a bite  since I was very focused on my food.  This isn't the kind of fare I daintily eat and engage in conversation over, it's the kind of food I sloppily stuff in my face with no regard for anyone or anything going on around me.   

After dinner it was still early and there were people standing at the front of the restaurant waiting for tables to open up so we headed out.  Avenue Brew was still open and had a band so we stopped by.  I've been meaning to check this place out for forever and it turned out to be a great end to the evening.  I ordered a chai tea latte and just as I was ordering someone brought out a plate of brownies.  I figured it wouldn't hurt to add some more nutritionally devoid food to my body.  The brownie was honestly as big as my face.   

They were getting ready to close for the evening and I think they may have given me all the brownie left in the pan.  I ate off of one corner of it consuming about 1/5 and then gave up.  It was good, tasted like a box mix but that's my favorite kind.  Pasquale's and Avenue Brew turned out to be a fun Friday night combo, who knew?

Pasquale's Pizza on Urbanspoon