Category Archives: Restaurant Journal

Mac & Cheese – Ultimate Comfort Food

Comfort food. It means different things to different people.

I have a friend who thinks of fried chicken as comfort food. To be completely honest, she thinks of fried chicken, period. In her world, fried chicken is its own food group on the pyramid.

For me, macaroni and cheese is the ultimate comfort food. Like most people, I grew up on the blue box of Kraft mac and cheese.

I’m all grown up now, and I want a better mac and cheese.

I found one at ZOOM in Park City, Utah.

It isn’t so gourmet that it loses the homey comfort of pasta bathed in cheese, but it’s gussied up enough to make the Kraft mac and cheese seem like child’s play.

I love the fat, ribbed shells, the gooey, herb-flecked cheese sauce, and the crunch from toasted bread crumbs.

I even found the recipe in a cookbook I bought. The book is called Park City Cooks: An Eclectic Collection of Park City Recipes.

All the proceeds from the cookbook go to The Peace House, a non-profit organization that provides education, shelter and support services to women who are victims of domestic violence.

The recipes are from members of the Park City community, and in the back of the book, there are a few recipes from the local restaurants, including this recipe from ZOOM.

ZOOM is owned by The Sundance Resort (Robert Redford’s remarkable property about 35 miles from Park City).

As I licked the plate clean, I thought to myself “I’d love to have that recipe.” And lo and behold, it appeared. I love when that happens.

Now you can have it, too.

ZOOM White Cheddar Mac & Cheese

from Park City Cooks

12 Servings

1-1/2 cups fresh breadcrumbs from crustless French bread
3/4 cup freshly grated Asiago cheese
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
8 tablespoons butter, divided
6 tablespoons all-purpose flour
6 cups whole milk
1-1/2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
4 cups grated white cheddar cheese (about 1 pound)
1-1/2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1 pound macaroni

Mix the breadcrumbs, Asiago and paprika in a medium bowl.

Melt 6 tablespoons of butter in a large, heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add the flour and stir for three minutes. Gradually whisk in the milk, then the mustard and pepper.

Cook until thickened, stirring often, about 1o minutes. Stir in the cheddar and parsley.

(The topping and the sauce can be made 1 day ahead, stored separately. Cool the sauce slightly, then cover and refrigerate. Refrigerate the topping, too. Re-warm the sauce, stirring frequently and thinning with more milk if necessary before proceeding.)

Heat the oven to 400 degrees F. Butter a 15″ X 10″ X 2″ glass baking dish.

Cook the macaroni in a pot of boiling salted water until just tender, but firm to the bite, stirring occasionally. Drain the macaroni well.

Return the macaroni to the drained pot; stir in the sauce. Season to taste with salt.

Spread the mixture in the prepared baking dish. Sprinkle with the bread crumb topping. Dot with the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter.

Bake until the cheese is bubbling and the crumbs are brown, about 40-45 minutes. Cool slightly before serving.

ZOOM
Park City, Utah

Where to buy the Park City Cooks cookbook:
La Niche
(435) 649-2372

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When in Venice, Eat Here

No, no, not here. Although, it is fetching, isn’t it? At least from the outside. But sometimes, appearances aren’t what they seem.

The fabulous restaurant I’m about to share with you doesn’t look anything like the idyllic Venice trattoria pictured above.

From the outside, Il Ridotto is rather nondescript. I’d even call it plain.

The adage “don’t judge a book by its cover” — even though we all do — should have run through my head. I almost skipped it because it didn’t look like the charming restaurant above.

Il Ridotto is near one of Venice’s main attractions, Piazza San Marco, but it’s not easy to find. (Frankly, nothing is easy to find — Venice is an exacerbating maze with more twists and turns than a Diane Mott Davidson novel.)

I wouldn’t have given Il Ridotto a second thought if not for my Twitter friend, Sharon Miro (@nicklemoon), who’d just been to Venice a couple of days before we arrived.

Sharon insisted we not miss Il Ridotto. I scribbled down the address and set off to have a look. I must have walked past it three times before I finally noticed it.

In hindsight, it was one of the best (of many great) meals across our 21-day Italian Affair.

What Il Ridotto lacks in “curb” appeal, it makes up for ten-fold by the charming interior and the exquisite food.

Il Ridotto is fine dining in a sleek, modern setting. (It reminded me of noca, one of the best restaurants in Phoenix and Frasca, one of the best restaurants in Boulder, Colorado.)

Thoroughly Italian — yet it bears no resemblance to the old-school traditional Italian ristorante — Il Ridotto is nuovo Italian.

The  small, 14-seat restaurant positively glows at night.

Il Ridotto doesn’t open until 7:30 p.m., but the chef graciously opened at 7 p.m. for a couple of hungry Americans, and for half an hour, we had the whole place to ourselves.

By the time we left, every seat was full, while a flock of foodies waited patiently outside.

When faced with a choice between navigating a several-pages menu versus a chef’s tasting menu, go with the latter. Especially at Il Ridotto.

The tasting menu reads “menu of land and of sea / light, beautiful, good / four plates / 50 Euro.

That’s it. No course descriptions. That’s because the chef, Gianni Bonaccorsi, a tall, thin, bespectacled man, comes to the table to discuss the menu. His halting English is charming, and he surprised me with his gracious manner. He apologized profusely for not being fluent. I assure you, that is not the norm in most Italian eateries, fine dining or otherwise.

Using English peppered with Italian and lots of hand gestures, he said that he’d received some beautiful frutti di mare that morning, and would we be happy if he just sent out dishes? Who are we to argue with such a kind, stately chef?

We both started with an amuse: two succulent shrimp on top of a sweet-sour caponata.

The chef and one server manage all 14 seats. I’m not used to plates personally delivered by the chef, but I think I could get used to it, especially if the chef is as engaging as Bonaccorsi.

Bonaccorsi had two cooks in the tiny galley kitchen tucked behind a mirrored wall, but every course we had was personally delivered by the chef, with a dissertation on the composition of the dish. (He had no idea I am a food writer, and throughout the evening he delivered most courses to the other diners as well.)

Because there were two of us, the chef made sure that we sampled different dishes with each course.

The first course was a white asparagus puree surrounding a mound of burrata and garnished with sauteed green asparagus, crisp croutons and a drizzle of olive oil and aged balsamic.

And the other, an eye-popping vision of the sea with lobster, mussels, clams, cuttlefish and canocce, swimming in a pool of silky potato puree.

Canocce is an interesting sea creature. It has very little meat — it’s mostly exoskeleton. I saw the finger-shaped crustacean in several seafood markets, and first tasted it in a trattoria in Bologna, where it was chopped it into pieces and cooked in a Marsala cream sauce. But it was difficult to eat with the shell on. When I inquired how to eat it, the server mimicked Tom Hanks in the movie Big, gnawing on baby corn.

At Il Ridotto, Bonaccorsi shelled it whole (a difficult, time-consuming thing to do), leaving the head and tail intact. The taste and texture was a cross between lobster and crawfish.

Moving to the second course, we tasted a lobster stock risotto studded with cuttlefish and garnished with squid ink powder. The dish, like most dishes in Italy, was finished with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. It’s a trick I’ve since incorporated into my own cooking.

We also tasted handmade ravioli, stuffed with wild herbs and ricotta and garnished with clams and mussels. The three fat pillows would have been a substantial meal on their own.

Our third courses were equally filling, although a mushroom topped sea bass was lighter than the other third course.

Two baby squids stuffed with potato and zucchini, with a salsa of sweet red peppers and green peppers, were garnished with tiny clams. The squid was a pleasant chewy counter point to the soft potato filling.

At this point, I didn’t think I could eat another bite but that’s before I saw the desserts. First up was a deconstructed tiramisu, served in a glass with a heavy dusting of rich, dark cocoa. The Marsala flavored mascarpone cream must have contained a dozen egg yolks, it was so rich and golden.

But it was the last dessert that wowed me. Maybe because it was so simple or maybe because I’m crazy about pistachios. The pistachio cake, obviously baked in a mold, was crunchy on the outside, and dense, moist and rich on the inside. The batter probably contained both ground pistachios and chopped pistachios — it was the very essence of the pistachio nut. The gelato tasted of rich vanilla — egg-rich French vanilla — and had plenty of texture from the chopped, roasted pistachios.

With the exception of the storefront, nothing about Il Ridotto was understated, yet nothing was over-the-top flashy, either. No molecular gastronomy, no bells and whistles, just beautifully crafted dishes with ingredients that tasted fresh-plucked from the ground and sea, served by a humble chef in a chic, elegant setting. In a word? Squisito.

Il Ridotto
Campo San Filippo e Giacomo 4509
Venice, Italy

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Strategies for Arizona Restaurant Week 2010

Put on your eatin’ pants. It looks like 114 Phoenix restaurants and 43 Tucson restaurants are participating in Arizona Restaurant Week, September 18-26.

The participating restaurants have put together three or four-course prix fixe menus, some with extras thrown in, priced at $29 or $39, excluding tax, tip and beverages (unless noted otherwise). If you’re headed to Tucson, eight of the 43 restaurants are offering $19++ menus.

Given that Restaurant Week is dinner-only, you have nine dining opportunities. How will you spend them?

We’ve scanned through the Phoenix list and have come up with a few strategies:

(click on the restaurant name to look at the Arizona Restaurant Week menu)

History Buffs

Photo © ericeatsout.com

Let’s say you’re in the mood for a side of Arizona history thrown in with your meal. You’ll want to check out Durant’s, the venerable old-school, clubby restaurant that opened in 1950. Even older than Durant’s, Stockyards (opened in 1947) is “Arizona’s Original Steakhouse.” Or you might try Avanti if classic Italian sounds more your style. Opened in 1974, Avanti is still owned by the two original partners from Sorrento, Italy. Even though El Chorro Lodge is sporting new owners and a $$$$ makeover, El Chorro grandly takes its place in Arizona history — it first opened as a lodge and dining room in 1937. And yes, the older-than-old-school relish tray and famous sticky buns are part of their prix fixe menu. (All $29++)

Fun & Funky

You think old-school is old news and you want high energy! Fun! Buzz, baby! Head to Cowboy Ciao, because even with wacky menu names like “pig & puddin,” the chow is seriously delicious. Eye-candy hangout Culinary Dropout is another option, and the slackers are even throwing in a wine cooler. Or try tapas new comer Iruña (from a been-around chef) for a little Spanish olé flavor in a hip setting — at least the menu isn’t the predictable steak/chicken/veg. (All $29++)

Stealth Health


Photo © FRC

Restaurant Week can wreck havoc on your good diet intentions, but it won’t if you hit up these restaurants. Calistro California Bistro ($29++) even has some gluten-free options as does True Food Kitchen ($29++), and TFK is tossing in a hummus starter, too. Ko’sin ($29++) at Wild Horse Pass has the local veggies down pat, and we’re even putting Roka Akor ($39++) in this stealth health group because they’ve got butterfish tataki and grilled salmon on the menu.

Chef Groupie

It’s no secret we have rock-star chefs in this valley, and three of the hottest chefs are serving up foodie dream menus for restaurant week: Josh Hebert at Posh Restaurant (the ORIGINAL improvisational chef; $39++); inked Chris Curtiss at noca Restaurant ($29++), and Aaron Chamberlin at St. Francis ($29++). We’re including the original *hot* chef — Mark Tarbell — on this list, too. (If you don’t remember when Tarbell was the hottest chef in town, perhaps you should stick to the Fun & Funky category.)  Tarbell’s ($29++) simple menu only includes one choice for each course, but his butterscotch tart with caramelized pancetta might be worth the trip alone.

Final Thoughts

We would have recommended FnB, Renegade Canteen or Christopher’s Crush, but all three are conspicuously absent this year. Maybe that’s a statement in and of itself.

Also, if you’re hoping to snag a glass of wine included with the price of the meal, you might want to consider 5th & Wine ($29++) or recent “Best Comfort Food” winner Cafe ZuZu ($29++), but, oddly, Cheuvront’s Wine Bar doesn’t include vino. Really? Go figure. In all, 27 of the 114 Phoenix restaurants are throwing in a glass of vino with the deal.

Lastly, if you’re seeking value above and beyond the great deals all of these restaurants are putting forth, you might want to consider one of the resort restaurants on the list, like Bourbon Steak (Fairmont Scottsdale), BLT Steak (Camelback Inn), Deseo (Westin Kierland), Lon’s (Hermosa Inn), Prado (Intercontinental Montelucia) or Talevera (Four Seasons). It’s near impossible to eat at these resorts for less than $40 on a regular night with just two courses. (All $39++ with the exception of Deseo, $29++)

Regardless of your ultimate strategy, you’ll want to make a reservation as the ones we’ve listed are likely to fill up fast.

And remember to be a good diner, too. Don’t ask for substitutions (you can do it, just this once) and tip well.

So, put some elastic in your eatin’ pants and let the feasting begin.

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Tipping

When the bill arrived after lunch in a casual, sit-down Mexican restaurant, I noticed the “tip amount” help printed at the bottom of the receipt.

I’d never seen it before, so I tweeted out “Terrific or Tacky?” The responses that flurried back were roughly split 50/50.

Some thought it was helpful, acknowledging a lack of math skills or as a reminder of more important things, like paying attention to you guests.

@RellaBellaK I like it, but then, I’m terrible at math

@ericeatsout I actually like it. A tactful reminder that 15% isn’t acceptable these days, and that most servers deserve a healthy tip

@jwillensky I like it. Convenient, and nice to focus on dining companions instead of math.

Others thought it tactless — even offensive.

@Dinnersforayear tacky. very tacky

@ttolmachoff tacky

@TheLargWhiteMan I’ve always found it unnecessary. #ijustusemynoggin

And still others were ambivalent — and funny.

@andrewkfromaz tacky but kinda handy at the same time. I guess it’s like a fanny pack.

It struck me as funny, too. How many people go to the trouble to calculate the tip to an exact amount, with no rounding?

On the same trip, I encountered another restaurant, this time a brewpub, that printed the “convenience” math.

What is the right amount to tip, anyway?

Everyone has their own idea of how much to tip, so I’m not going to tell you how to tip. That’s your decision, based on your experience.

I once got a $100 tip on a $50 tab from a couple oil men celebrating a strike over burgers and brews.

Another time I got one penny from a group of snooty women, one of whom I “accidentally” spilled a drink down her back. (Ladies, please don’t insult your server until after you’ve been served.)

In the end, it’s up to the server to give good service. It’s up to management to schedule appropriately so that servers can give good service.

And finally, it’s up to the diner to grade the service in the form of a tip.

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A Temporary Vegetarian

I’m doing something I’ve never done before.

I’m eschewing meat. On purpose.

There is no ulterior motive, and no need to get alarmed — it’s only temporary. How hard can it be?

Blame it on my working vacation in a mountain town filled with fit granola heads, and restaurants with plenty of menu space dedicated to veg-heads.

And I don’t have to review a single one of them, so I can order what I want, like a bowl of yellow curry with tofu and mushrooms at Squatters Brew Pub.

Blame it on my temporary housing, in the home of a lovely vegetarian, who has a pantry stocked with grains, beans, and nuts, and shelves stuffed with vegetarian cookbooks. (That’s her own cookbook in the middle, the blue Chocolate Snowball.)

The surprising thing about eating strictly vegetarian, to me anyway, is that it’s just not that hard. A piece of cake.

Breakfast has always been an easy meal to drop the meat, what with all the oatmeal and egg options, including one of my favorites, huevos rancheros from Loco Lizard — not to mention the smoothie kick I’ve been on lately.

Lunch and dinner, on the other hand, always seemed like meat meals to me.

But I’m finding I don’t have to struggle find something appealing without meat, like a juicy avocado, tomato and sprout sandwich with smoked Gouda from The Back Door Deli.

Of course, this — like all fairy tales — will come to an end.

Because at the end of the day, I’m a bacon-loving, steak-eating girl. Life without meat just doesn’t sit right in the saddle for me.

Maybe that’s why my temporarily vegetarian mouth and my permanent carnivorous brain had a failure to communicate just two weeks into this little experiment.

You see, I ordered a bowl of French Onion Soup at The Foundry Grill at Sundance Resort without blinking an eye. Delicious, caramelized onion soup with a toasted crostini and melted Gruyere — vegetarian, right? Wrong.

I had reached a turning point:

I could drop the charade and return to my flesh-eating ways, or I could dust myself off, wiped the sherry-drenched, rich veal stock off my chin, and climb back on the vegetarian horse.

In the end, I chose the latter (right after I drained the soup bowl) and, for now, I’m back on the veg-train with another week to go.

But I was wrong about one thing.

Giving up meat is lot harder than I thought, after all. It’s not a piece of cake (and I probably couldn’t give up cake for very long, either.)

How about you? Have you ever given up meat? Did you stick with it, or revert back to your old ways?

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Trend Spotter: Black Garlic

The first time I heard about Korean black garlic was back in October of 2008, in a NYT story by Florence Fabricant, but avant garde chefs, like Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin, had already started playing with it in early 2008.

It didn’t make any trend lists that year, but by the end of 2009, it was on several “hot new food trend” lists.

The fermented garlic started turning up on more restaurant menus like Blackbird in Chicago, David Paul’s in Lahaina (Maui), wd~50 in New York throughout 2009.

And in January 2010, it landed at Crudo, in Phoenix.

Now, home cooks can buy black garlic at Whole Foods ($12.99, 5.47 oz.), from a company called — straightforward enough — Black Garlic.

What exactly is black garlic? It’s real garlic that’s been through a 3-week fermentation process, and 1-week drying process, using a variety of temperatures and humidity levels.

Is it really safe to eat? I assume so, since I’ve been snacking on the tasty orbs for the past few months.

The sticky, black cloves taste sweet, almost raisiny, with the faintest hint of garlic flavor.

You can slice or chop them to use as a garnish on any number of dishes from pasta to risotto to bruschetta.

The Black Garlic website has a handful of recipes, but if you google “black garlic recipes,” you’ll find more and more chefs and bloggers experimenting with this new “toy.”

You can make a paste by mashing the cloves with some olive oil in a mortal and pestle, and use the paste to boost the flavor of soups and sauces.

I used the paste as a spread on a turkey and brie sandwich, with thinly sliced Granny Smith apples.

So, go ahead. Splurge. A little goes a long way, and since it’s fermented, once opened, it will keep in the refrigerator for months.

Have you used black garlic in your kitchen?

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Phoenix Files – The Cafe at MIM

Culturally speaking, Phoenix became much richer on April 24, with the opening of MIM, the world’s first global musical museum, a 190,000 square-foot, two-story complex featuring more than 10,000 instruments and associated objects.

Perhaps the best kept secret of the barely 3-month old museum is the bright and airy café located off the main wing.

And here’s another secret: you don’t have to purchase an admission ticket to eat in the café.

All you have to do is stop at the admissions desk and ask for a pass for the café.

Café might be a misnomer, as the set up is cafeteria-style, although this isn’t your run-of-the-mill cafeteria — or typical museum café for that matter.

The café is operated by Bon Appétit Management company, and the kitchen is run by Edward Farrow, a chef with serious credentials including the River Café in New York, The Inn at Little Washington in Virginia, and Kai, Arizona’s only 5-Diamond restaurant.

While the setting seems like a cafeteria — shuffling through a food line, paying at a register at the end, and eventually, placing your tray on a conveyor belt headed for the dishwasher — the cuisine tells a different story.

The menu is driven by Bon Appetit’s “Circle of Responsibility” philosophy. Crafted — and subsequently labeled — with identifiers like “Organic,” “Vegetarian,” “Gluten Free,” Low Fat,” and “Farm to Fork.”

The Farm to Fork label means the ingredients are locally sourced, and Chef Farrow is on speed dial with local producers like Queen Creek Olive Mill, The Meat Shop, Fossil Creek Creamery, and Seacat Gardens.

The menu features a weekly soup and another that changes every two days ($2.95 cup/$3.95 bowl), just like the global special ($8.25), a personal-size pizza ($7.25), an AZ local special ($8.25), and a grill special ($8.25).

The global dish might be a braised rabbit panni, with spinach, sun-dried tomatoes and havarti, served with a bowl of Mediterranean olives. (pictured above)

There are weekly deli sandwiches and burgers — beef, turkey and veggie — and even a hot dog.

House made potato chips ($1.75) with sea salt are made fresh daily.

Theoretically, you could eat here every day and never have the same dish twice.

The grill special could be a fine piece of halibut, rubbed with a sweet chile glaze, seared to just done, and served with a tomatillo-avocado salsa, and black, forbidden rice topped with pine nuts and sunflower seeds. (pictured below)

Did I mention it was only $8.25?

The Café at MIM makes all their desserts in-house, and they change frequently, too, like a cherry chocolate cream tart, a marble cake parfait and a Sonoran lemon cake, all $4.50.

For $6, there’s a local cheese plate, with cheese, flat bread, fig and date cake, and honey.

Could this little gem be one of the best lunch spots in the Valley? Maybe. It certainly exceeds the quality vs. price ratio.

And it couldn’t be easier to get to, located just one block south of the 101 off Tatum Boulevard.

On second thought, maybe we should just keep this little secret between us.

Café at the MIM
4725 East Mayo Boulevard, Phoenix
480-478-6000
Hours: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily

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