Friday, January 30, 2009

Rusty's Grass Finished Beef

An email from DailyCandy last Friday piqued our curiosity in a way that no shoe sale or new lipgloss ever could...

The message in question touted the products of a company called Rusty's Grass Finished Beef based in East Texas.  Specializing in pasture-raised, grass-fed beef and lamb, the company believes in creating a "stress free and holistic environment" for its animals.  This careful handling makes for a healthier, and likely tastier, end product.

Now, you know that we here at DallasEats will seldom recommend a product that hasn't passed over our own two (um, make that four) lips, but this company sounds like a real gem.  And after reading about this on Tuesday, we're even more interested in finding local, independent sources of meat.  Why haven't we heard of Rusty's before?  Who knows... But we're glad to have finally found it, and our Beef Sampler Pack is on the way.  (By the way, Rusty himself called to confirm my order after I placed it online, and he is just as sweet as he can be! - C&S)

Check out the website for more info on Rusty's Grass Finished Beef, and to peruse a menu of their steaks and roasts and sausages and such - all of which can be delivered right to your door.


Thursday, January 29, 2009

Super Bowl Munchies!

What's hot and crunchy, packs a spicy punch 
and will disappear before half time?  

...Give up?  

It's Susie Buck's Texas Rumaki (a.k.a. Jack's Bites), and you can learn how to make this easy crowd-pleaser in today's Appetite for Instruction on the Dallas Observer's City of Ate blog.  Susie, chef and co-owner of Jack's Backyard in Oak Cliff, is a pro when it comes to giving hungry, fun-loving guests exactly what they crave.  I had the pleasure of visiting with her earlier this week, and she provided step-by-step instructions for putting together this popular appetizer at home.  

Read all about Susie's Texas Rumaki today and your guests will thank you Sunday.  Take my word for it - bacon never had it so good.


Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Rise No. 1: A Sinful Stay-cation

The thought of a soufflé brings many words to mind:  rich and decadent, lighter than air, perfumed with the essence of melting cheese.   The list could go on.   In reality, however, this seductive dish may very well leave you speechless…

Rise No. 1
5360 W. Lovers Lane
Inwood Village Shopping Center

Rise No. 1 opened in early 2008, a joint venture between partners Hedda Dowd of Antique Harvest, chef Cherif Brahmi and well-known restaurateur Mark Maguire. Dowd’s desire to share the flavors of her childhood summers in France inspired the restaurant’s menu, most notably its signature soufflés. A rarity on the Dallas dining scene, those ethereal egg creations were quick to charm local audiences, and over the past year word of mouth and favorable reviews have done well by Rise No. 1. Comely crowds consistently pack this cozy spot that soothes each of the senses, first by setting a scene part Alpine chalet, part Grimms' fairy tale.

Rise is not large, but the many shadowed nooks and crannies of its unusual space give the feeling of a more ample venue. A dramatic grouping of tall, sparkling trees at the center of the restaurant divides the front dining room from a small bar area in the rear. Those trees, barren as in winter, are flecked with tiny lights and dotted here and there by woven nests filled with translucent eggs. It is an eye-catching focal point that, rather than coming across as precious or Disney-esque, strikes a somewhat dark, romantic chord (hence the reference to those Gothic Grimms). Off to one side of this faux forest is a gleaming open kitchen which operates a muted hum.

Once treated to your own corner of this cottage, warm, knowledgeable staff members will carry on the sense of calm. Balance is key when serving a specialty dish with which many diners are unfamiliar – no one likes to be lectured, but there are often many questions to be asked and answered. Servers at Rise are informative without veering into know-it-all territory.

A soufflé is little more than eggs and air and a kiss and a prayer.

Needless to say, my first visit focused on soufflés, and our server that night was helpful in guiding me and my companion through our many choices. We settled on the Jambon and Gruyere Soufflé ($14), a classic choice, as well as the Herb and Spicy Sausage version ($16). Both arrived puffed and fragrant and I don’t believe a word was uttered across the table as we lifted our silver spoons and punched into their golden caps to carve out our first steaming bites. My little dish of heaven was heady with the rich flavors of sweet ham and nutty Gruyere, soulmate of the egg. The soufflé’s airy center evoked an omelet of the lightest sort, while browned exterior layers offered a chewy, toasted counterpoint with the irresistible flavor of caramelized cheese.

This magic, by the way, was achieved in record time in Rise’s specially-designed ovens, described in detail by that first astute server. They can bake off a perfect soufflé in about 15 minutes, as opposed to nearly an hour by traditional method.

Our second entrée choice that evening was also perfect in form, but its flavor failed to dazzle. Spicy sausage, while given top billing on the menu, took a backseat to the sweet variety in this soufflé, resulting in a fennel free-for-all that nearly overpowered the dish. The Rise No. 1 Salad ($11) also suffered from a heavy-handed performance by a single ingredient. In its case, an abundance of sweet pecan vinaigrette muted the delicate flavors of mild blue cheese and an uncharacteristically timid Granny Smith apple. Baby greens, however, were fresh and vibrant, and a lighter touch with the dressing would have saved this salad from its soggy fate.

Cherif Brahmi and Hedda Dowd

Speaking of starters, the soups at Rise are standouts, including a Soupe a L’Oignon ($7), which puts that other French bistro’s puny potage to shame. Featuring fragrant beef broth and tender, sweet onions, this classic version is capped off with a gorgeous gratinéed topping of melting cheese over a baguette crouton.  Marshmallow Soup, a frequent off-menu special, has earned something of a cult following among local foodies. A rich, sweet tomato and carrot purée, this soup is topped by a trio of feather-light goat cheese soufflés (the “marshmallows” in question).  Further gilding the lily, the bowl is drizzled with a vibrant basil pesto upon service. Who needs grilled cheese when tomato soup gets this kind of top-notch treatment?

Quick on the heels of that first visit, I was downright stunned by the Salade Nicoise ($15) upon my return. An artful composition of traditional ingredients and a seared ahi filet, the generous entrée featured tender French green beans (haricot vert), roasted potatoes, hard-cooked eggs and dusky nicoise olives dressed in a well-balanced vinaigrette. The tuna, glistening red and crusted in sesame seeds, offered a silky counterpoint to the salad’s many contrasting textures. Looking with longing across the table, my dinner date noted that she was surprised “to be jealous of a salad while eating a soufflé”. Yes, it was that good.

To accompany your meal, Rise offers a full menu of wines by the glass and bottle, presented with cheeky tasting notes. It’s a fun read between courses. The restaurant also features merchandise for sale, including kitchen accessories, vintage books and gourmet foods. While pricey, the selection was tempting nonetheless, and many items also reflect Rise’s commitment to earth-friendly practices.

On a final note, desserts at Rise are not taken lightly; there are as many sweet endings offered on the menu as entrée soufflés. Choices include sweet versions of their signature dish, as well as Crème Brulée and other classics. I sampled the Chocolate Soufflé ($10), and while creamy and decadent as expected, it did not pack the bittersweet punch I craved. With a flavor likened to “hot chocolate” by my date, it instead offered a gentle, comforting chocolate experience. This final quibble did nothing, however, to dull my glow as I exited the restaurant that evening, feeling relaxed and sated after something of a mini-vacation. Rise No. 1, in this girl’s humble opinion, is a must-visit when you’re in the mood for romance or a relaxing mid-day repast.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Top Chef: New York, Episode 9

Restaurant Wars

I would like to start this episode review with a side note, and after that I'm not going to discuss it any further (at least in this review). I am totally annoyed by this whole Hosea/Leah romance sideshow Top Chef has going this season. The whole reason I like this show (and Project Runway for that matter) is that they are about talented people working hard to display that talent. They are not The Real World, where the whole premise of the show is following around a bunch of drunk teenagers waiting for them to hook up with each other.

This is why I am so irritated by the Hosea/Leah hook-up. I want the only drama on Top Chef to be, "Did she put enough salt in that?" or "How many scallop dishes will Jamie make this season?" I don't need sexual tension to make the show interesting, and I don't want to hear grown-ups whining about how they've really messed things up with their girlfriend/boyfriend back home. This is about the greatest professional opportunity these chefs will ever get, and squandering it like a couple of drunk teenagers at their first frat party is insulting to everyone on the show and everyone at home wishing they were on the show.

That being said, nothing can ruin Restaurant Wars for me. It has been one of my favorite challenges every year, and this year was no different.

So, Padma announced at the beginning of the QuickFire that this week was Restaurant Wars, and therefore, the "prize" for winning was that they would be the chef/owner of one of the two restaurant concepts they chefs would open. The challenge was to come up with a dish that would reflect the style of the restaurant they would open.

The first winner was Radhika, who made Pan Seared Cod, Chorizo, and Cream Sauce (pictured above). I thought her explanation of her concept (globally influenced cuisine) was cohesive and interesting, so I wasn't surprised she was picked.

The second winner was Leah, who seemed to have no direction whatsoever when she was cooking. I also found her explanation to be kind of vague. She made Tempura Fried Poussin with Dashi Soy Sauce (pictured above), which could either be gross or great. I have to admit that I've never tried Poussin, but I might in this concept.

Did anyone else get the feeling that Radhika was in trouble from the second this challenge got started? First mistake - never run the front of the house if you're the chef/owner. She should have been back in the trenches making sure the food turned out perfectly, according to her vision. She did absolutely no cooking whatsoever. She also let her teammates (Jamie, Jeff and Carla) walk all over her throughout the planning process. She should have made Jeff work the front of the restaurant (the ladies would have loved it). Radhika doesn't have the temperament to greet guests and manage the wait staff. Most of all, she should have paid more attention to what Carla was doing in the kitchen. Yikes. Carla pretty much (with a little help from Radhika's lack of front of the house skills) cost the group the competition by completely screwing up the desserts. Both of them. Pretty much to the point of inedibility (once again, I reserve the right to make up words).

Leah's team (Hosea, Stefan and Fabio) seemed to be in trouble from the beginning as well. Mostly because Leah seemed to have no idea what she was doing. What was with the whole fish/bones thing? Seemed like a bad choice on her part, although I was kind of confused about how exactly that happened. Did she just buy a really bad, bony cut of fish? This team did have two major things going for it, though: Fabio and Stefan. If I were either one of the team leaders, I would have picked Fabio with my first or second pick strictly to run the front of the house. The guy was a natural, and everyone loved him. Stefan was the last pick of the draft (presumably because he can be kind of a douche to work with), but he's also clearly one of the most talented chefs of the show. He proved it tonight by producing not one, but two outstanding desserts.

Leah's team won the challenge by the skin of their teeth, thanks to Stefan's desserts and Fabio's charms. Leah was told that if her team had lost she would have been the one booted - no question. But she lives to cook (and annoy me) another day. Stefan is named the winner, and wins a kitchen full of the appliances they use to cook on Top Chef. Not too shabby! Certainly beats an autographed book.

Poor Radhika. She never had a chance, did she? If only Radhika had concentrated on the food instead of running around like her hair was on fire, she might have been around for awhile. I think she was pretty talented - what did she win, like three or four QuickFires? But I think it was when she had too much time on her hands to over-rotate on her decisions that she tripped herself up. Carla once again screws up royally and slips through the cracks. I'll bet she felt pretty guilty, because if her desserts had been even half-way decent, her team probably would have won.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Comment Card

aphrodisiac:  An agent (as a food or drug) that arouses or 
is held to arouse sexual desire.
- Merriam-Webster

Asparagus, almonds, ginseng and, of course, oysters are just a few of the many foods that are said to ignite the flames d'amour.  Based on our experience, however, we've come up with a very different list of go-to treats when we're looking to set a certain mood...  

Likewise, while your significant other may enjoy the occasional briny bi-valve, we're willing to bet you know of a better way to his or her heart.  So, in honor of Cupid's big day, what are some of the foods you whip up when it's time for a little romance in your house?

Friday, January 23, 2009

This Spud's For You!

BuzzBrews' Garlic Marbles?  Yum!

Check out this week's Appetite for Instruction to learn Ernest Belmore's secret to delicious potatoey goodness.  Belmore, founder of Cafe Brazil and BuzzBrews Kitchen, knows his way around a Yukon Gold - and these famous Garlic Marbles are an ideal side dish for breakfast, lunch or dinner. 



p.s.  If you missed last week's lesson, click here to learn how to make an easy and sophisticated pasta dish from another top Dallas chef:  Appetite for Instruction #1

p.p.s.  And if you have a suggestion for a future installment of this series, please do let me know!  I'm sure there are some tips, tricks and dishes you'd like to learn from restaurants/chefs around town...

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Joan Nathan: "Tom Colicchio saved my life."

This just in:

Speaking of Top Chef, a story in this morning's New York Times reports that TC Head Honcho Tom Colicchio came to the rescue of cookbook author Joan Nathan in Washington Monday night.  

Nathan, while hosting a charity dinner benefitting local soup kitchens, "slumped to the floor choking" in front of a crowd of guests.  Alice Waters, who was among those who witnessed the incident, called out for help.  And faster than you can ask Is there a chef in the house?, Colicchio rushed to the rescue.  Our hero!

Nathan is now doing just fine.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Top Chef: New York, Episode 8

Down on the Farm

What a fun episode this week! It started off with a bang - I was so excited when Padma introduced Hung as the guest judge. Like the contestants, I figured that he would be presenting some kind of crazy fish challenge. However, I was psyched to see that it was actually a prepared foods challenge.

The contestants had an enormous pantry full of packaged foods from which to prepare a dish of their choosing. I have to say, the stuff they came up with looked pretty bleak. I think Lisa and I did much better during our CVS challenge! Of course, they only had 15 minutes to cook, so I guess that's understandable.

The winner was Stefan with his Baked Bean Soup and Grilled Cheese and Spam Sandwich. That was pretty funny that Hosea basically handed him the win by sharing his Spam. But, he seems like a nice guy. I know I'd have a hard time not sharing stuff if I had extra.

After the challenge, the chefs were broken up into three groups and told that they would be planning a fresh, seasonal meal around their team names: pork, chicken and lamb. What they weren't told was that they wouldn't be shopping at Whole Foods - they'd be visiting a local farm from which they would be sourcing all of their ingredients. This threw off their menus to a degree, but most of them seemed pretty exciting about the opportunity.

Team Chicken was composed of Jamie, Carla and Stefan (who had the immunity from the QuickFire). My initial thoughts were that Carla would likely be escaping the bottom three this week, as Jamie and Stefan are arguably the two strongest chefs on the show. There was TONS of arguing between Jamie and Stefan (which he clearly thinks is sexual tension and she clearly thinks is totally annoying) and Carla was pretty much stuck in the middle. However, when they started planning their menu, it sounded pretty strong. The chicken paillards with the salad looked very tasty and the roast chicken sounded pretty strong too. Stefan's chicken soup looked like it was probably pretty tasty, but soup outside on an 85 degree day? No thanks.

The lovebirds (Hosea and Leah) and Ariane were teamed on this challenge. Was it just me, or did they seem to take this challenge pretty lightly? It seemed like they just threw some ideas up in the air and went with whatever Hosea and Leah thought sounded best. Ariane definitely came off like a pushover. I thought the idea of the braised lamb sounded wonderful, but instead they went with roasted baby lamb and a roasted tied up lamb loin. Huh? And Ariane handled the lamb from beginning to the end, and it seemed like Hosea and especially Leah didn't do much of anything. Leah even pointed out that she really wasn't doing anything.

Team Pork seemed to get along pretty well, and came up with a yummy-sounding, if a little boring, menu. The corn salad with fried pork belly sounded particularly tasty, and then they also made a pork loin. Again, huh? They did make fried green tomatoes, though, which would have made them a winner in my book. I love those suckers.

To nobody's surprise, Team Chicken was named the winner. All three of them, for a change, which was nice. I always think when you have a team victory that the whole team should be recognized. And I think in this case, it was well-deserved.

On the losing end, however, I was VERY surprised at the outcome. I thought for sure that Leah would be the one to go home, seeing as how she didn't do anything (and what she did do was sloppy), but instead they sent Ariane home for her faulty work with the lamb. I guess the lesson here is that you have to stand up for yourself, otherwise it's your own fault if you get booted. It's a shame, though, as I had started to root for her a little over the last few weeks. At least she comes out of this with some great publicity for her business.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Dear Food Network: We Get It Already!

After a combined 20 years of dedicated Food Network fandom, we DallasEats girls think it's high time we declared a few culinary lessons officially learned...

Months ago, FoodiePrincess and I started compiling a list of those rules and tips and faded old facts that seem to come up time and again (and again and again) when we're watching our favorite cooking shows or reading foodie magazines.   We decided we were ready, with regard to these subjects, to announce "We Get It Already!", thereby encouraging all our beloved hosts and writers to move on past their pre-recorded loops and on to more interesting instruction.

It took us quite a while to whittle the list down to the final top ten - a few items that were only marginally annoying didn't make the cut.  Here's hoping we've satisfied all our fellow Food Network frequent fliers...and if not, tell us about your pet peeves in a comment!

The DallasEats We Get it Already! List
2009 Edition

1. Salmon, blueberries and sweet potatoes are very nutritious.

No kidding?  That's only the 100th time we've heard that.  This week.  Ditto almonds, whole-grain breads and spinach.

2. A well-stocked pantry saves time and money.

We are totally on board with this fact.  However, we're sick and tired of folks telling us what we should be stocking.  Sure, a can of cannellini beans can be used to whip up a quick dip when unexpected company drops in, but what if we prefer hummus?   (And we're still staring at that orzo from ’06.)    We’ll stock our own darned pantry according to our own darned tastes, thank you very much.

3. Adding a pinch of salt to sweet dishes doesn't make them taste "salty".

We know that adding a dash of salt to brownie batter or raspberry coulis will help to bring out all the flavors.   We've been doing it for years, and it doesn't scare us even a little.

4. Add salt to aromatics when sauteing, to help them release their natural juices and soften.

Okay, duh.  Why would you not add salt to begin with?  It's what makes everything taste delicious (see rule number 3).

5. When hosting a party, try to do as much as possible in advance, so that you're not stuck in the kitchen the whole time.

Ina, Giada, Paula, Sandra...we get it.  And we agree.  But is there any regular viewer of your shows who is still making individual omelettes for New Year's Day brunch?  We think not.

6. Always salt the water when cooking pasta.

Indeed, we always have.  So did our Moms.  Maybe Grandma didn’t, but two generations is proof enough that we’ve got a handle on it.  How about going over a specific salt-to-water ratio for a change?  That would be helpful.

7. Only use real parmesan cheese.

This rule is one for the ages, but those of us who love to cook gave up the green can and its chalky, salty contents quite a while back.  We promise - you can even search our fridges.

8. This one’s for Alton:

We’re sorry, guy, but it’s been years now and we don’t know of one single person who has converted to measuring ingredients by weight.  It might be time to throw in the towel.  We even have one of those nifty digital scales, but it rarely sees the light of day.

9. Only cook with wine you would drink.

We do not now, nor have we ever, used “cooking wine”, “cooking sherry”, or anything of the sort.    Neither does anyone we know.   Please put us in touch with these Holland House devotees - we’ll personally deliver a bottle of acceptable cooking (and drinking) wine right to their door, so that we can all move past this tired old lesson.

10. A Final Note on Hand Washing

The last straw for us on this subject came in the form of a recipe we read in the paper recently which began, "Step one: wash hands".  Please.  We are doubly offended when television hosts remind us to use soap.  What is this, Cooking with Toddlers and Hobos?   Let's all agree that we are in favor of hand washing, especially after handling raw proteins, and that we pledge to continue doing so even if no one reminds us ever again.

And now, a shameless plug: For news you can really use when it comes to cooking lessons, check out Appetite for Instruction every Thursday on the Dallas Observer City of Ate blog!

Friday, January 16, 2009

Nonna: Behind the Scenes

I walked into Nonna on a chilly afternoon, right on time for a private cooking lesson with chef Julian Barsotti.  This lesson was to be photographed and posted on the Dallas Observer's City of Ate, and I was a little nervous about breaking the ice.  How to make casual foodie chit-chat with a guy who extrudes his own pasta and fires entrees in a wood-burning oven that reaches 750 degrees at its hottest point?  I fidgeted, picking invisible lint from my coat as I awaited my instructor in the dining room.

Turns out, I had no need to worry.  Chef Barsotti bounded into the room and greeted me with a warm, disarming smile.  The young chef was quick to dive into an easy conversation about his popular restaurant and the dish he would be demonstrating in the kitchen. 

"We've been really fortunate,"  Barsotti said of the success of Nonna, open just one year as of last November.  A steady stream of diners hungry for handmade Italian fare were flocking to the restaurant even before a feature in Bon Appetit sang its praises.  The article, detailing a variety of dishes from restaurants representing the "new breed" in Italian cooking in America, showcased Chef Barsotti's Taglierini with Bay Scallops and Meyer Lemon.

For our lesson, the chef selected another simple pasta preparation: Bucatini all'Amatriciana.  It's the sort of rustic, satisfying dish you'd find in a neighborhood trattoria in Italy - the kind of place food travel shows are always raving about.  And as an added bonus, we'd also be working with one of Barsotti's favorite ingredients.  (Here's a hint:  it doesn't have feathers.)  

Barsotti's picture-perfect pancetta.

Like many of his colleagues, this chef professes a love of all things pork-related.   At one point he raved, "Swine is definitely my favorite animal to eat!"  Now that's enthusiasm.  In the dish of the day, we'd be incorporating Barsotti's house-cured pancetta into a rich, tomato-based sauce with hefty dose of heat.  

After the chat, we made our way to the back of the house to tackle the task at hand.  Following Chef Barsotti through the kitchen door, I was greeted by the beautiful, bustling chaos that lies in the heart of most every restaurant.  Men and women in fresh whites and aprons swirled around us, filling bowls and bins and ramekins with colorful bits and pieces.  Dollies loaded with boxes and crates criss-crossed the room, and a radio blared classic rock in the background.  I was reminded of my restaurant days as the familiar sights and sounds and smells of this behind-the-scenes work played out in front of me.  But it was no time for a trip down memory lane; there was cooking to be done.

And speaking of cooking, you'll have to click here to see the rest of the story:  

This container of leftover pasta lasted about five minutes after I got home.

I left Nonna that day with a tiny pink box of leftovers and a new dish to flaunt to my friends, but most of all I was thankful to have observed firsthand this talented chef's energy and enthusiasm for his craft.  I hope his lesson inspires you to toss together a little pasta for dinner tonight!


Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Comment Card

This time around, let's have a little fun:

Canned chili?  Cookie dough?  Stale Easter Peeps?
What do you eat when nobody's looking?

Tell us all about your guiltiest pleasure, foodwise...
We can't wait to hear all about it!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Ideal Bite

Looking for do-able daily tips
to help you get a little greener?

Look no further than Ideal Bite!

This stylish website and tip-a-day service is all about small changes that can add up to a big difference.  Whether you sign up for daily "bite-size ideas for light-green living" or just take a few minutes to explore the site, I think you'll agree that Ideal Bite is pretty darned tasty.  

I got lost in the Food & Drink tip library for an hour the other day, and emerged a little smarter and hungry for more!  Daily emails bring tips on a wide-range of topics right to your inbox, on everything from choosing eco-friendly candles to all-natural (and surprising) diet tips.

Ideal Bite was founded by Heather and Jen, two fun-loving gals that remind us of another pair of online pals we know.  ...Who could they be? 

While we try to figure that out, check out this awesome site to help kick off a greener '09!


Monday, January 12, 2009

Top Chef: New York, Episode 7

Whew - after two weeks off, I couldn't wait to have Top Chef back. And this week didn't disappoint. With a new judge, an open-format challenge and a *double* elimination (which, for the record, I totally called), Top Chef was definitely full-throttle.

She then shared that the "Diet Dr. Pepper" QuickFire Challenge (GAG!) would be to create a tasty dessert for today's diet-conscious diner - without using sugar. Interesting challenge, but I find it down-right laughable to somehow equate Diet Dr. Pepper with healthy. Sure, it's calorie-free, but there's a reason that I haven't touched a diet soda of any kind since I got pregnant. I just don't trust that whatever's making Diet Coke taste so good (believe me when I say that I love nothing better than a DC out of the fountain) isn't also rotting my insides.

Needless to say, in the absence of sugar, fruit and honey dominated this challenge. I was personally intrigued by Stefan's dish (you had me at chocolate mousse) and Radhika's dish (bread pudding is a gift from God). They chose Radhika, Leah (A crepe with ricotta, strawberries and balsamic reduction), and Jeff (frozen yogurt and a dessert spring roll - I think - this dish was kind of confusing). Radhika was named the winner for the second week in a row, and was awarded with immunity.

Because Padma didn't share their challenge with them after the QuickFire, it wasn't a big surprise to see Tom show up at the apartment later to speak with the chefs. He explained to them that their elimination challenge would be very open - they would be free to make any dish that expresses their culinary viewpoint that can be served family-style for a party of 12. He also told them that since this challenge would be the first for the new judge (replacing Gail while she basks in newly wedded bliss, apparently), the tasting would be blind. Interesting twist, huh?

Tom split the chefs into two groups (group 1: Fabio, Hosea, Jamie, Eugene, Melissa and Radhika; group 2: Stefan, Jeff, Leah, Ariane, Carla) because the kitchen they would be cooking in would be too small to accommodate them all at one time. Group 1 was then whisked off to Whole Foods to get started.

As the chefs from this group started to get prepared, it was obvious from the start who would be in trouble. Not surprisingly, Eugene and Melissa fell into that group. Eugene was making a whole fried snapper (not a bad choice) but would be serving it with daikon "pasta" with a tomato basil sauce. Um, no. That does not sound good. I love radishes as much as the next person, but this combo sounded kind of rank to me. Melissa thought that her fried tuna tacos would wow the judges. Seriously? Fried tuna tacos? Hello, bottom three. Jamie did something that could have bit her in the ass, once again choosing scallops as her protein, to be served with a salad of fennel, oranges and olives. Sounds yummy, but seriously - scallops again? This prompted Fabio to utter the best line of the night (and possibly the season thus far), "This is Top Chef, not Top Scallop."

Once group one was ready to serve their dishes, it was revealed that their judges would be not only Tom, Padma and new judge, Toby Young, but also the chefs from group 2. AND, they would get to watch them all taste the food and comment. Ouch. This was especially painful for Melissa, as Toby (who is like a foodie Simon Cowell) said that her tuna tacos tasted kind of like cat food. Wow. Eugene was also universally panned, as was Radhika's bisque, although that was pretty much moot since she had immunity anyway.

Then it was time for group 2 to head into the kitchen. I was intrigued by Stefan's dish right off the bat, as I love German food. He made a duck with bread dumplings and braised cabbage, which sounded yummy and hearty. Ariane proved once again that she knows how to cook her proteins (and how to make pureed cauliflower) with her skate wing w/pineapple and pureed cauliflower. Both of these dishes were clearly loved by the judges. Not so much with poor Carla's seared scallops with pea risotto and gremolata topping. The gremolata was apparently uber-garlicy and overpowering and the scallops were deemed an after-thought.

After the challenge was over, the top three were called into judging: Ariane, Stefan and Jamie. All three dishes were praised, and Jamie was named the winner. Finally. This dish didn't sound all that strong to me (although it did sound tasty, as I love the combination of fennel and orange), and I thought Stefan's was so much more of a risk. But Jamie finally got her win anyway, and was clearly over-joyed. I think the top three tonight are pretty much the favorites to wind up in the top three at the end of the season, although I could see Hosea, Leah or Radhika sneaking in there as well. In my heart I hope that Fabio makes it that far, because he and his one-liners have become my favorite part of the show this season.

I don't think there was a doubt in anyone's mind who would be heading to the bottom three. Poor Eugene and Melissa have already outstayed their welcomes, and Carla is getting there very quickly. I thought for a second that Toby was going to talk them into keeping Eugene for another week (ugh, no!), but I guess the judges who knew their histories talked him into giving Carla another chance. Although I fully expect her to be eliminated next week, I think she deserved to stay, because her dish didn't really sound all that bad compared to radish "pasta" and cat food tacos.

Friday, January 9, 2009

A Slice of Heaven

Chocolate Angel Too
1109 Preston Road, Dallas

Sometimes you just need cake.

I'd been de-commissioned for almost a week, moping around the house with a double ear infection, cursing the day I was born alternately with the day I grew ears, and sometimes cursing the world in general for being so lousy and, in my condition, remote.  Quite a week.  One morning, however, the clouds parted (literally and figuratively), and while I still wasn't quite at a hundred percent, I did feel up to a little exploration.  

A post on the newest location of Chocolate Angel over on The Dallas Cookbook blog piqued my curiosity, and at the moment one neuron fired on another, sending its electronic signal for "chocolate" along one of my brainwaves, I knew that this was just the outing for the day.  Wrapping a wool scarf around my neck (sunshine or not, I wasn't about to risk a step backward on the path to wellness), I skipped out the door and up to Preston and Forest, dreaming of a freshly-baked cure.  I felt better already.

Chocolate Angel Too Cafe and Bakery is located in the same lineup as Chic From Barcelona and The Mercury, across the parking lot from Snappy Salads.  Its sun-drenched (on this day, at least) storefront features a minimalist decor - dark wood furniture is neatly arranged in two dining areas, with a drink station on one side offering self-serve soft beverages.  Orders are placed at the counter, where you can feast your eyes on all manner of goodies on display.

Here's where I should mention the most annoying aspect of having two hopelessly clogged ears:  Chewing anything, especially anything challenging to the teeth, sounded like feeding time at the hippopotamus pool inside the stuffy echo-chamber of my head.  Therefore, when I laid my eyes on a tall, frosted Red Velvet number under the glass dome alongside the register, it called to me in more ways than one.  

"Pick me," cooed that cake, looking all sweet and homemade and comforting. "I'm rich and creamy - see how the light catches my moist, delicate crumbs?"  

Sure, being sick afforded me the perfect excuse to skip main dish in favor of dessert, but the added bonus was avoiding the fingers-on-chalkboard effect of trying to chew a Chicken Salad Sandwich with dried cranberries and toasted pecans in my condition.  Sold.  A nice man behind the counter carved me a generous (shall we say entree-sized?) slice of the aforementioned cake, and I helped myself to a steaming cup of coffee to sip alongside.

Now, those who know me well know that I don't mess around when it comes to desserts.  I'd rather not have it than have it less than perfect.  Trust me, then, when I say that this cake was delicious.  It defined the term moist, with two tall, dense layers that all but dripped with deep red, Southern sweetness.  Those layers turned darker at their bases and edges, where excess moisture had created subtle, fudge-like layers-within-the-layers that almost rendered frosting obsolete.  But that smooth cream cheese concoction, spread with a fair and even hand, definitely managed to hold its butter-rich own.

I devoured most of my mountain of cake, stopping only to sigh with pleasure or drink from my mug, while watching Chocolate Angel fill with ladies who seemed very interested in salads and soup.  Perhaps I'll go back and try those sometime.  For now, I'll say that my experience with the Red Velvet Cake was (forgive me) uplifting, and that the Chocolate Fudge Coca-Cola Cake looked pretty damned good, too.  Before re-wrapping my scarf and heading back out into the day, I savored a final forkful of my decadent lunch and silently apologized to whoever was listening for even once considering the world a lousy place.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Shout Out to Texas Wine in February Bon Appetit

Flipping through Bon Appetit's February feature, 50 Easy Ways to Eat Green, I was pleased to discover on page 83 that the magazine has suggested we all support our local winemaker in an effort to do better by the planet, culinarily speaking.  

Becker Vineyards is listed as B.A.'s Texas winery of choice, and by now I'm sure you're all aware of how much we here at DallasEats love Becker's Iconoclast Cabernet.  And that's just the tip of the iceberg!  With so many wonderful wineries to choose from here in North Texas and throughout the Lone Star State, I wholeheartedly agree with this suggestion.  Let's all pick up a bottle of Texas wine tonight, and raise our glasses to the greatness of eating - and drinking - green.


p.s.  Becker Iconoclast is widely available in Dallas at grocery and liquor stores and wine shops.  I buy mine at Kroger or Dallas Fine Wine & Spirits.  Click here, here or here for other Texas wine recommendations.  And there's plenty more where these came from!

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Nero d'Avola: Natalie MacLean's Picks

Hot on the heels of last week's post, I sent an email to one of our favorite wine gurus, Natalie MacLean (award-winning journalist, Epicurious blogger and author of Red, White, and Drunk All Over) asking if she had any favorite Nero d'Avolas to recommend to our readers.

"You bet," she replied, friendly and enthusiastic as always.  "I’m a huge fan of this delicious, incredibly priced wine."  

I've shared her top picks below, including tasting notes and pairing suggestions.  In fact, Ms. MacLean has recommended several Nero d'Avolas in her e-newsletter in recent months.  Click here to subscribe - it's an awesome free resource for wine lovers.  In the meantime, on with the picks*:

2006 Centare Nero d’Avola, Sicily: Incredible value for this robust, rich red with aromas of black plums, tobacco and mocha. Pair with: steak, stew.
$14.95 Score: 88/100.

2004 Fazio Torre Dei Venti Nero d’Avola, IGT Sicilia, Sicily: A huge, tannic wine with full-bodied richness and dark ripe fruit with some notes of chocolate. Pair with: hamburgers, steak. $16.95 Score: 88/100.

2002 S.I.V. Spadina Una Rosa Signature Nero d’Avola, I.G.T. Sicilia, Sicily: A juicy, mouth-watering, full-bodied wine with aromas of cherries and smoke. Pair with: prime rib, shepherd’s pie.
$19.95 Score: 90/100.

2005 Donnadicoppe Nero d’Avola Nativo, IGT Sicilia: A lovely, plump, juicy red that makes a great food companion. If you like merlot, you'll love this. Pair with: pasta with tomato sauce, lasagna, moose, venison.
$19.95 Score: 89/100.

*Prices are estimates only.  And if you try this wine with moose, please do let me know!

Monday, January 5, 2009

Sunflower (aka Newflower) Farmers Market

A DallasEats Preview!

We here at DallasEats have been very curious about Sunflower Farmers Market, a new chain of health, planet and budget-conscious grocery stores that just arrived in North Texas.  Promising "Serious Food...Silly Prices", Sunflower's down-to-Earth mindset and no-frills esthetic (along with other cost-cutting measures) allow them to pass big savings on to the consumer.  As detailed in the company's Mission Statement, Sunflower offers "Better-than-supermarket quality at better-than-supermarket prices".  Sounds like a plan to us!

Late last week, I ventured north to visit the chain's first Metroplex outpost in Plano, and got a taste of what to expect when their Dallas location opens on Henderson Avenue next month.  With two grown siblings and one Dad in tow, I explored the store from entrance to check-out, snapping pics and taking notes.  Below are our group's impressions, in words and snapshots: 

Picture #1:  First of all, the store is called Newflower, not Sunflower.  A friendly checker told us that this change was necessitated by the fact that a store in Fort Worth has already laid claim to the original name.  A quick internet search turned up a small chain of vitamin stores called Sunflower Shoppe, There was no mention of a legal situation, so it may just be a move to avoid confusion in this part of the state.

Picture #2:  The store is small, but packed full of merchandise.  Along the perimeter are breads, meats and produce, with grocery and bulk items in the center.  Wine & Beer and Health & Beauty cozy up cheek-to-cheek on the right-hand side (as you walk in).

Picture #3:  Bulk snacks are a big player at Newflower.  Free-standing displays held nibbles to satisfy just about any craving - trail mix, assorted pretzels, licorice in several flavors, wasabi peas and more.  In the words of one group member, it was "nosherai heaven".

Picture #4:  Instead of an "International Aisle", more free-standing displays held Asian and Italian ingredients ("Mama Mia" sign visible in rear).

Picture #5:  The frozen seafood section held a wide selection but, frankly, was not very appealing.

Picture #6:  On the other hand, we loved the fill-your-own-bear bulk honey station!

Additional Observations & Comments:

C&S:  "Loved the large selection of Texas wines!  Prices were low, as promised, however I had quality questions about several items. "

Rachel:  "I saw a lot of brands I'd never heard of...but some I've also seen at Whole Foods.  I also saw a lot of Texas gems."

David:  "They're great, but Whole Foods would have an advantage in bakery and meats - not pricewise, but in selection and presentation.  Staff seems like a very happy group!"

Dad:  "I have no problem with the store as a whole, but the meat department leaves something to be desired.  Also, I'd like it if the local products were labeled more clearly, like at Whole Foods."

And now it's your turn, folks:
Has anyone been to Newflower in Plano?
What did you think?

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Comment Card

This time, let's do a quick survey:

In 10 words or less, where was the last place you ate a meal 
other than at home?

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Trendspotting: Nero d'Avola - Try a New Wine in '09

If I had a deck of Tarot cards or a Ouija board or, heck, even a Magic 8 Ball, I think now would be the perfect time to test its mettle with regard to an upcoming trend. You see, I think I'm on to one, and I'm ready to pass along this little prediction to all my wine-loving friends.

Come to think of it, I did used to be a phone psychic myself, so maybe I should test my own darned mettle, right? Now, I wasn't one of Dionne's Friends or anything, and it was a really long time ago, but maybe I retained a teensy bit of that second sight - at least when it comes to food and wine. You never know...

Anyway, my prediction today is that in the year to come (hooray, '09!) we'll be hearing lots more about Nero d'Avola, a red grape from Sicily that produces a rich, full-flavored wine that's been gaining in popularity here in the U.S. for the past couple of years. This inky purple variety (nero is Italian for black) is Sicily's most popular red grape, but until recently, it was used primarily for blending. Much like many of our other favorites from the vine, Nero d'Avola was content to forgo the spotlight for many long decades in favor of lending its talents to various ensemble casts. In recent years, however, Nero (for short) has come into its own, and I'm getting a pretty sweet crush on this outgoing Italian newcomer.

Many experts liken the flavor of Nero d'Avola to Syrah/Shiraz, as they both often present rich, ripe fruit flavors and hints of spice.  I have also run across comparisons to Sangiovese, that famously food-friendly Tuscan variety so often enjoyed in Chianti.  Whether sipped with a meal or alone as an aperitif, it should also be noted that Nero tends toward the high end when it comes to alcohol content, a trait to be expected from a fuller-bodied red.

Back in 2006, James Suckling, a Senior Editor of Wine Spectator, raved, "...I think that Nero d'Avola is the grape that is going to make the island's (Sicily's) reputation for world-class reds."  That's high praise from a reliable source.  Looking back at '08, Prosecco was a big story in wine, and folks from coast to coast fell in love with the budget-friendly bubbly.  So why not give another affordable Italian gem a try?  To get you started, here's a little shopping list of recommendations available right in your own back yard.  Enjoy!

Villa Pozzi
Nero d'Avola
$9.99 at Eatzi's
It's been quite some time since I tried this wine, but I remember it fondly.  We enjoyed it pre-dinner with bruschetta and goat cheese, and it worked well with assertive, earthy flavors.

Nero d'Avola
$9.99 at Dallas Fine Wine & Spirits*
What I first noticed about this plucky wine was its nose.  (groan)  Sorry, couldn't help myself!  Really, though, I loved this one, right down to the sketches of that adorable marionette on the label.  It offers bright, berry-centric fruit flavors and crisp acidity.  Next time, however, I might decant it first to help those flavors mellow just a tad with a breath of fresh air.

Nero d'Avola/Sangiovese
$14.99 at Whole Foods
This luscious blend underlines the comparisons that have been made between Nero d'Avola and Sangiovese.  It features the close cousins in tight, palate-pleasing harmony.

*I'd also like to take this opportunity to give a shout-out to Harshad and Johnny at Dallas Fine Wine & Spirits (3518 Oak Lawn Ave).  This is a great shop - friendly, knowledgeable staff and an excellent selection of standards and new "finds".