Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Charleston in Baltimore: Another winner

We dined at Charleston, the best restaurant in Baltimore (easily) and possibly in the mid-Atlantic, with Mom and Dad, catching up on much family business that had taken place over the past month or so.

Our favorite waitperson, Leslie, had moved rooms so we dined in a small back room lined with wine bottles and with only two other tables (both quite large -- 8-10 covers each). One table went through an inordinate amount of wine, so much so that they had to keep the bottles on a side table in the corner. In due course we recognized famous wine writer and rater Robert Parker who was dining with the staff of his Wine Advocate...well, that certainly explains the massive wine consumption.

At our table consumption was comparatively modest. We started with a bottle of Pinot Gris from Zind-Humbrecht and it went so well with everything that we continued with a second bottle. The Charleston format, most refreshing, is not to divide food into courses but to allow diners to pick their own multi-course formats from among the list of available options. Menus are priced according to the number of courses chosen, starting at $74 for 3 courses (plus dessert, which everyone gets) and going up at the rate of $15 per extra course.

Well, I apologize that I cannot fully report on what everyone ate because there were too many courses crossing the table for me to take accurate notes. I do remember that Michael had the seasonal menu of five courses (plus dessert) which is a relative bargain at $89, but I wanted too many things that were not on that menu. Michael did admit later that it was probably one course too many for him to enjoy comfortably, as he ended up being only able to manage a little sorbet for dessert. My mom started, as usual, with fried green tomatoes with crabmeat which is one of Chef Cindy Wolf's signature dishes although not often on the actual menu.

I started with...well, I'm embarrassed to admit I can't remember the first course. I think it was a salad of some type. I then followed up with tuna, then duck breast, then buffalo tenderloin. The last one was of the finest pieces of meat I have ever had, as tender as a filet mignon but with infinitely more flavor. My dad had the same two final courses with a salad as a starter. For dessert I had a warm Venezuelan chocolate cake....with the traditional, possibly even cliched, molten center. However this was more cakelike (i.e., more cooked) than the traditional cake and was accompanied by sublime, and quite appropriately bitter, coffee ice cream.

Service as usual was highly professional although the flutter of activity around Robert Parker's table made us feel a bit like second class citizens for a while. On the other hand we did get 3 separate visits from the chef, which is unusual.

For a wide variety of options, a flexible menu, a pleasant setting with perfect service, Charleston is hard to beat.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Grenadines: Best Beach Lunch Ever?

Recently got back from a week sailing in the Grenadines with friends Adam and Jeremy. Ate (and drank...and drank) on the boat for virtually the whole trip rather than eating ashore. Did have one extremely non-memorable meal at the marina in St Vincent before heading south, which shall not be mentioned further in this space.

The one meal we did have ashore, however, was a standout. It was at the beach bar/restaurant/hotel in Saltwhistle Bay on the little island of Mayreau in the Grenadines. I cannot remember the formal name of the restaurant but since it is the only restaurant on this particular beach, it is easy to find. Saltwhistle Bay is itself a picture-perfect little harbor fringed by palm trees and with the wind blowing through a cut between hills.

After having spent a couple of days anchored out on the very unspoiled Tobago Cays, we sailed over to Mayreau on our way to Union Island. We seemed to be the only patrons and had our choice of large stone and concrete tables. Fortunately the large and placid lady who also took our order brought some cushions; otherwise it would have been quite uncomfortable.

We ordered a round of beers (as we had agreed not to drink hard alcohol while sailing). Unfortunately the only choice was the local Hairoun, pronounced by us Hair-on (as in, "there's a hair on my beer") but we managed to force down a couple of rounds. Meanwhile, Adam had inquired from Large Lady about the "local curry" as in "what kind of curry is it?" The bemused response was, "well, the normal kind". Being an adventurous type, Adam ordered it anyhow. Jeremy had the fisherman's platter and I opted for a simple fish sandwich with fries.

There then ensued a very long wait. We could have taken a stroll around the harbor, but we had already done that, so we sat and drank our beers and waited. Eventually the waiter/bartender appeared staggering under the load of two massive platters, plus my fish sandwich.

All of the food was fantastic. We quickly surmised that the curry was conch...and very tender indeed, which is not easy to bring about. The curry was quite mild but very flavorful. The fisherman's platter had a very large portion of delicious snapper plus vegetables and rice (also with the curry). My fish sandwich was large, on fresh bread, and stuffed with lightly fried version of the same snapper.

It was one of the simplest and most perfect al fresco lunches I can remember, on a deserted beach overlooking a beautiful harbor, and all for about $60. Hard to beat that! Kudos to the chef at Saltwhistle Bay.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Santa Fe Report: May 2010

Hi everyone, sorry for the long delay between postings but we took a break from eating out, mostly, while Michael was creating his spectacular room at the DC Design Show House (which took up a lot of April and May).

However, we are just back from a trip to the Southwest including 3 glorious days in Santa Fe, our spiritual second home, so I am happy to report on the restaurant scene there as we experienced it, even though the reviews themselves are uneven.

1. La Boca: This was touted by our friend and real estate guru Todd Davis as one of the hip new places in town. It is in a small cozy space downtown just a couple of blocks from the Plaza, and is clearly quite popular. It is a tapas restaurant which allowed us to try a number of dishes. Of these, the boquerones (small sardines) and cucumber/avocado soup were standouts. The roasted asparagus and the Mediterranean salad were good, although the figs and honey-laced vinaigrette of the latter made it quite sweet. The flatbread with chorizo and cheese was not...kind of a thick doughy pizza with very muted flavors.

With a couple of glasses of wine each, the bill came to about $150. Service was provided by a slender young man with spiked hair and plenty of attitude, who was efficient but not particularly welcoming.

I supposed if you lived in Santa Fe and were anxious for a change of scene, we might drop in on La Boca every once in a while, but as casual visitors, we would not put it very high on our list for a return visit. We can get tapas at home, better than this.

2. Bumblebee's: Dropped in here for lunch after a morning exploring downtown. Good as ever. Michael had the usual taco sampler, while I, having learned that the shrimp tacos are the best, concentrated on those. Good, quick, cheerful. Always a winner. We were glad to see it hadn't gone downhill since our last visit.

3. La Choza: We had had a great traditional New Mexican meal on our first visit and were anxious to get back. After an evening strolling the galleries on Canyon Road, we showed up at about 8 to find a waiting room of people and an estimated half hour wait. Fortunately, two seats opened up at the bar and we sat almost immediately.

Unable to choose from among our favorites, we both opted for combination plates: I went for an enchilada, carne adovado, and chile relleno. Michael's was, I think, similar, but it was hard to tell. All of the food was excellent without being fancy in any way. The meal came with a small amount of rice and a nice helping of pozole. We also had some green chile stew (we shared) to start. Plenty of food. Unlike most similar places, La Choza charges for chips and salsa ($3.75) and they were not worth it...hard and oily. Salsa was good, but not outstanding. Guacamole is even more. The sopaipillas that came with dinner also were not up to the old standard, but otherwise the food was excellent. We drank two rounds of killer margaritas whipped up at the bar, and weaved our way home.

3. Tune-up Cafe. This had been one of our favorite little unpretentious SF places on two previous visits but it has really gone downhill in our experience. For lunch Sunday we were both craving green chile cheeseburgers. I ordered mine medium rare with cheddar, while Michael's was medium with jack. Well, surprise, they mixed up the orders. They also forgot the green chile, which we didn't notice until we were halfway done. The counter person, who had messed up the order, seemed rather unfazed...she did put in an order for extra green chile but after waiting 10 minutes for it we gave up and finished our chili-less burgers. The fries were crispy but not hot. Big disappointment. We went back for breakfast on Monday and also had a disappointing experience: my burrito was filled mostly with potato and Michael's basic breakfast was, well, basic. Based on these two lackluster meals, I'm sorry to say that we can't recommend this place any more, although we will give it one more chance.

4. Cafe Pasqual's: We saved this for our last dinner and it was as outstanding as we remembered. Michael started with a simple arugula and grapefruit salad -- similar to what we make at home -- while I had a special appetizer of skewered dates wrapped in prosciutto with some cheese. Very tasty, but a little skimpy (two skewers, one date each). However, we'd had some cocktail snacks at home so it was just as well. For the main course Michael had enchiladas with mole sauce, which he couldn't stop raving about. Being a sampler by nature, I opted for the Plato Supremo which offered a chile relleno, taco barbacoa, and one of the chicken mole enchiladas (so Michael didn't have to share), all of which were excellent. We shared a chef's sampler platter for dessert which was excessive with a slice of very good chocolate budino cake, banana cream pie, coconut cake, and some sort of vanilla-y ice cream. Oh, and chocolate mint bark scattered around the plate, as if the above wasn't enough. With dinner Michael had a couple of glasses of viognier and I had some Mt Difficulty Pinot Noir from New Zealand, which tasted much better than it did at the winery back in October!

We had very professional and very friendly service. One particularly nice thing is that any available waiter seems to be willing to serve any given table, which makes things much more efficient. Pasqual's has some of the best food in Santa Fe. It is decidedly not fancy, and not the place to linger (despite our full menu, we were in and out in a bit over an hour). So it doesn't necessarily appeal to someone wanting an "occasion" meal, but we love it.