Wednesday, May 26, 2010

GREECE: Dining in Old Town Chania

My family and I traveled to Greece a few weeks ago visiting Crete and Athens...  On our first full day in Greece, we bravely ventured out on the roads of Crete in our rental car that had in some previous life lost its hubcaps and must have become very close with a few walls.  No worries, after driving to the hotel from the airport the night before, we were ready for the roads.  We knew the rules now.  Straddle the line between the actual lane and the shoulder, blind turns mean nothing, a "two-lane" road is in fact a four-ish lane road, and keep your eyes on the road -- not on all the pretty scenery that surrounds us!  Once we hit the road, it was clear that my dad was instantly a pro as that he was very quickly zipping past cars, passing them with oncoming traffic, and shifting gears with ease. 

We made it to Chania in about an hour -- we vaguely knew our way to the old part of Chania after accidentally driving through town from the airport to the hotel.  Chania, the second largest city on Crete, is now a fairly sprawling city, but is also one of the prettiest cities on Crete.  That is the old part of Chania.  In Chania, you see the distinct influences of both the Venetian and Turkish empires, with remnants of the Venetian walls, a picturesque harbour, restored Venetian townhouses, and Ottoman-style timber buildings.  Before locating our lunch destination, we walked along the path to the lighthouse and by chance I think got the best view of the town.  From the lighthouse path, you can see all the colorful buildings lining the harbor as well as a well-preserved mosque and the Venetian fortress.  The day was absolutely gorgeous (as it was most of the days we were in Greece) -- blue skies, bright sun, no clouds, and a comfortable 70 - 75 degrees during the day.  The water is amazingly clear and blue, in sharp contrast to the bright white boats that sit in the Chania harbor. 

We were warned by many a travel guidebook to avoid most of the restaurants that line the Chania harbor.  They do all have lovely views of the harbor, but we were in search of good food.  My dad had one place in particular in mind (well, possibly two places), so we began the search down the narrow, winding roads.  There were tons of little shops to see along the way, perfect for peeking into while my dad and J attempted to decipher the street signs.  As it turns out, we happened to stumble across one of the restaurants my dad wanted to try -- Ela.  Ela is famous for being housed in a roofless 14-century Venetian building and serves a variety of Cretan specialties.  Sadly, the inside of the restaurant was fully booked by a group of local Cretans (although I suppose that was a good sign!), but they had a smattering of tables along the stone pathway.  Because it was so beautiful out, we decided why not (plus we were starving).  The waiter appeared with an umbrella for our table (much needed as it turned out under the sun!).

The meal turned out to be quite good.  We tried out some Greek beer -- Mythos -- which quickly became a favorite (I liked it better than one of the other Greek beers, Alfa).  Mythos is a light colored lager, perfect for the warm weather days.  Ela serves up a lot of different grilled meats - yum - I was tempted by the chicken souvlaki, but (perhaps mistakenly) opted for the grilled chicken.  The chicken was very tasty but a bit on the dry side.  The best dish to me was my dad's dish -- the pork souvlaki.  Succulent, moist, and flavorful, it was excellent.  J had the lamb chops and my mom had I think grilled livers.  Best yet, at the end came a panna cotta like dessert with blueberries on top.  We were happy with our choice of lunch spots -- and also happy about wandering into the store next door where they offered us free tastings of different kinds of raki.  Little shot glasses of a non-sweet, anise flavored liquor -- they had different "flavors" (so not just the plain raki), but lemon (like limoncello almost), orange, honey (supposed to be the perfect remedy for a cold), and cinnamon (or as they called it, the "Christmas" flavor).  My favorites were the orange and the cinnamon.

After wandering around a bit more as well as popping into the archeological museum (as it turned out, free on Sundays!) that had some lovely well preserved mosiacs, we journeyed back to our hotel, tummies full, but ready for a little beach time...

Monday, May 24, 2010

Oyamel -- Mexican goodness, twice in two weeks

(The first dinner's desserts including the pastel de tres leches con pina)

In the past two weeks, I found myself at Oyamel... twice I had been to Oyamel a few times before over the years -- how could I not have wanted to go, after all I love Mexican food and Jose Andres -- but in general, I often forgot about Oyamel when thinking about restaurants to go to.  So when some friends from out of town were visiting and a mutual friend suggested Oyamel, I thought to myself ooh, I haven't been there in ages.  And this time, it all clicked.  Perhaps it was the margherita at the bar with the salt foam (the salt foam is a must, even for me, as someone who doesn't like salt with her margheritas).  Perhaps it was the spicy guacamole.  Or perhaps it was just the alive atmosphere Oyamel had that night and the fun company.  Whatever it was, I found myself the next morning craving Oyamel again and, oddly, in particular the queso fundido. 

Which brought me back to Oyamel last week for a pre-show dinner.  Mr. J and I were going to go see Anthony Bourdain and Eric Ripert (yay!!) at the Warner.  Oyamel is only several blocks from Warner and I don't recall ever taking Mr. J there -- with our mutual love for Mexican food (our first date actually was at a Mexican restaurant...), it seemed like the perfect option.  Even though we were eating on the earlier side, the restaurant was packed (good thing we made a reservation!).  The restaurant seems to have a very active bar scene despite the small(er) size of their bar -- the hora feliz (happy hour) deal is a good one ($4 class margs, ponche, and selected draft beer, 2 for $4 tacos, halff off all wines by the glass).  The festive atmosphere is punctuated with bright colors and a friendly staff. 

Our server recommended that we have three dishes per person -- although this proved to be a bit too much for us! The menu offers an extensive list of small dishes (like Jose Andres' other restaurants). The dishes run the gamut from various salsas/guacamoles (made tableside -- mild, medium, or spicy), a bevy of ceviches chopped up at the ceviche bar, various meats and fishes (on this occasion, quite a few pork belly dishes), a wide selection of tacos (served one per order), and so forth.  A number of new dishes have just recently been added to the menu -- in fact, in between my two meals there (so in about a week), the server informed us that they added a bunch of their specials to be official dishes on the menu.  One of those was the deliciously buttery black cod....mmmm.  It's not a bad idea to save some room for dessert (see above for the only pictures I remembered to take at the first dinner!) -- these were quite delicious and the perfect way to end the meal. 

Below are some of my favorite dishes from these two meals:

- Guacamole (of course) made to order with your level of spicyness!
- Ceviche de huachinango (red snapper ceviche with avocado, tomato, sweet onion, cilantro, and lime juice)
- Coctel de camaron y jaiba (shrimp & crab ceviche served with tomato sauce, avocado, and red onions)
- Cayo de hacha con pipian de chile pasilla (seared scallops with a pasilla chile and pumpkin seed sauce, orange segments, pumpkin seed oil and toasted pumpkin seeds)
- Albondigas enchipotladas con queso doble crema (meatballs in chipotle sauce with crumbled 'double cream' cheese and cilantro)
- Papas al mole (really, this is like crispy french fries with mole on top, but so good!)
- Queso fundido con tequila (with chorizo...mmmm)
- Carnitas tacos con salsa de tomatillo (confit of baby pig with green tomatillo sauce, pork rinds, onions, and cilantro)

Will I be back?  For sure.  Now that Oyamel is back on my radar, I don't think I can resist going back, especially for a refreshing margherita and spicy fresh guac during the hot DC summer months.

Oyamel Cocina Mexicana
401 7th Street NW
Washington, DC 20004
(202) 628-1005

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Cook Club: Cooking the Austrian Way

Bacon Bread

Highest Scoring Dishes: Cooked Potato Salad, Trout Vienna Style, and Tomato Baskets
Lowest Scoring Dishes:
Paprika Chicken and Broccoli Salad with Bacon

For March/April Cook Club, we decided to bring in spring with a taste of Austria!  Elaine headed up Cook Club this time and selected a cookbook that she received from her Austrian future mother-in-law.  The cookbook -- Cooking the Austrian Way by Helga Hughes -- is filled with "traditional" Austrian recipes for all sorts of occasions.  We had some hits and some misses, with presentation of the dishes often outweighing the taste of the food.  For the most part, these recipes were straight forward and easy to follow.  Check out below for all the reviews!


Breaded Veal (Wiener Schnitzel) Michelle's Breaded Veal (Wiener Schnitzel)
Scores: Mich: 2.5 and Joe: 3.5 = 3.0

The texture was good. I'd use this general process to bread stuff in the future (dipping it in flour, then egg, then the bread crumbs), but it just didn't have enough flavor for me. I used panko bread crumbs, because I'm partial to them and I find they're a little bit lighter. I'm not sure if the veal is different over here or what, but it just wasn't a very flavorful dish. I thought the lemon wedges would add a lot of flavor, but they really didn't add anything. I don't think I'd make this dish again.  Joe thought the breading was bland, and apparently I didn't cook it long enough (it could have been crispier). So his score was higher than mine, but I'm not sure why. Haha.

Lisa W's Paprika Chicken
Score: 1.0

My husband and I were deeply disappointed with the outcome of this dish. However, I do believe that this recipe has the potential to be delicious.  The sauce recipe was great, but the chicken recipe was not specific enough.  For example, it did not specify what part of the chicken to use.  I incorrectly chose boneless/skinless breasts, which rendered the dish dry.  Also, after breading the chicken in flour, the recipe requires drizzling of lemon juice over the chicken.  However, this caused the flour to clump together, therefore not cooking properly.  Because of this, the dish was not edible.  If you choose to make this, use bone-in chicken and do not drizzle with lemon juice. 

Anjali's Trout Vienna Style
Score: 4.0

So I've never cooked trout and thought this would be a good challenge. The recipe itself was very straightforward. And involved lots of butter! I rarely cook with butter so I had a hang up with this (I try to eat healthy!), but let's be honest...everything is better with butter. I found this dish very easy to make and it tasted great! The buttery, toasted almonds; the buttery fish; and the lemon to cut the fat. Our dinner party guests all enjoyed the dish! Overall, I would give the fish a 4.0 and I will definitely make it again!

Side Dishes

Austrian Potato SaladJackie's Cooked Potato Salad
Score: 5.0

Every year for Easter dinner, Mr. J's family always has potato salad as part of our meal.  So, when I saw this cooked potato salad as one of the possible cook club recipes, I went for it!  Although I was a little bit nervous to deviate from the usual potato salad that we would have, I am so glad I did -- this was delicious.  The recipe is really straight forward and took about an hour to put together (including cook time).  The dressing was made of (turkey) bacon, onions, spicy brown mustard, apple vinegar, chicken bouillon (the cubes dissolved in hot water), black pepper, and sour pickles ...  (I added a touch of olive oil when I sauteed the bacon and onions (to prevent sticking)) -- hurray for finding a potato salad that didn't use mayonnaise!  The result was a slightly creamy and flavorful potato salad.  I was really happy with the results and it received raved reviews at Easter dinner.   Definitely will make again!

Lisa W's Broccoli Salad with Bacon
Score: 1.0

This dish was extremely easy to prepare.  However, my husband and I did not like the flavor of apple cider vinegar, which is why it was scored so low.   If you like apple cider vinegar, then you will probably like this dish.  

Red Cabbage with ApplesAnjali's Red Cabbage with Apples
Score: 3.75

Again, I wanted to choose something unfamiliar so as to expand my culinary horizons, and after the success of Amanda's Tyler Florence braised cabbage, this seemed like a great pick! The dish was very straightforward. I will admit, I added a little more sugar and vinegar than was called for, but I really think I happened to have a large head of cabbage that required more seasoning. I think everyone enjoyed it and I will probably make this again. :) I give this dish a 3.75.

Tomato BasketsLisa H's Tomato Baskets
Score: 4

I think this was a good dish, but I would recommend using fresh summer tomatoes.  I used partially ripe winter tomatoes.  It was really easy to make.  These would be a great summertime side dish.  I would give this four stars.  (Also scored by Anjali: Presentation = 4.5, Actual taste = 3.25)

Elaine's Sweet Souffle
Score: 3.0

This soufflé was easy enough to make as there were so few ingredients but I found it lacked much flavor. Perhaps it is meant to be a dessert for those without much of a sweet tooth. I really liked the sweet crunchy top from the last sprinkling of sugar before baking, but would definitely add way more vanilla extract next time into the batter. Might consider adding some other more interesting flavors next time such as blood orange or lime.

Breakfast / Breads

Jelly RollJackie's Jelly Rolls
Score: 2.5

So, I think I made a few missteps along the way with making the jelly rolls.  You would think with only really four ingredients this would have gone off flawlessly...  The jelly rolls call for frozen uncooked rolls -- I was worried about finding these, but I actually found them in my local grocery store in the freezer aisle.  They basically looked like little frozen rounded cubes of dough -- excellent!  The recipe also calls for certain set periods of time for letting the dough defrost/thaw (3 hours) and rise (2.5 hours at 180 degrees).  I think this is where I went astray!  I let my dough thaw for way too long, so that it started to rise in the packaging (oops, next time, take the dough chunks out of the packaging first!) ... the dough then was all stuck together so I couldn't actually tell where each roll began and ended.  Then I stuck it in a 180 degree oven covered with a towel (as the recipe says, non-terry cloth) for about 2 hours.  This was apparently too long (seeing as that my dough had already spent time rising outside of the oven) or perhaps too high heat because the dough actually started to bake.  I continued to truck on forward though, added some jam to the middle of the dough, baked again, and voila, the finished product.  Due to all the rising and over baking, these turned out a bit... hard on the outside, but still soft-ish on the inside.  Mr. J thought they were pretty good.  I think I would try these again, but instead, I would follow the instructions that accompany the frozen rolls for thawing purposes and keep better time on everything!

Lisa H's Cinnamon and Almond Snails
Score: 3 

I should first start with the fact that I have a really hard time following directions. I got in trouble a lot when I was in elementary school. Anywho, I tried really hard to follow the recipe, but it started to go south when I left the dough in the oven at 200 degrees. It cooked the dough and didn’t let it rise correctly the last time. I cooked them anyway and put the sugar mixture in. They had a great flavor. We served them with ice cream. I would make them again. I would give this a 3 star, because the recipe was so hard to follow.  (Anjali also scored this dish with 3.75)

Bacon BreadAmanda's Bacon Bread
Scores: Appearance: 5/ Flavor: 2.5 = 3.75

I gave this dish 2 scores because I thought the bread was very pretty once it was baked, but somewhat lacking in flavor. I chose this recipe because I have not ever baked bread from scratch and wanted to give it a try (the recipe was also chosen due to a weakness for bacon). While the entire process was a learning experience, I was disappointed with the flavor...maybe I should have put more bacon down inside the dough. The first time I kneaded the dough, it seemed very sticky, so I added flour to it, as the recipe instructed, which could have hurt the flavor as well. All in all, I'm so glad I tried this recipe! Bread baking is no longer intimidating, and I would like to try this recipe again soon!  (Anjali also tasted the bacon bread and scored it: presentation = 4.5, actual taste = 3.25, average score = 3.875)

Thanks to everyone who participated in the March/April Cook Club!  Look out for the next Cook Club review in early July!