Friday, December 27, 2013

TRIP: Playa Del Carmen Day 3

Day Three was mostly a restful and un-eventful day. We moved rooms (this would be second of our total three room changes), but this was a planned "upgrade" (re: upsell when we got here) that gave us access to the premium "Chef's Plate" restaurant. This was the restaurant that required an upcharge of $80 per person and you had to dress nice (that's what they said but it turned out some people didn't do that). With the room upgrade all reservations at this restaurant were then free so we decided to check it out, after all we'd already paid for it.

I suppose since it was free for us I didn't know what to expect. The restaurant had about 12 total tables and started seating at 6:15pm with the last seating at 9:00pm in 15min increments. The restaurant was quiet, dark, and romantic. They had a maƮtre d to greet you, two waiters serving the tables, bus boy, dedicated bartender, chef with assistant (that were visible) to provide for the experience. The Chef cooked each dish in front of the restaurant, a lot of pre-prep happened in the back but cooking did occur as well as plating right in front for all to see. It was a calm preparation and they made it seem effortless. The menu was a six course tasting menu. They presented you with the menu so you could see what was being served. The menu rotated every day. (not sure if it was repeated at the beginning of every week)

The Chef started us with an amuse bouche of whipped cheese with red bell pepper and a strawberry sauce over garlic crostini. The bell pepper's flavor was well incorporated into the smooth mousse and the tart strawberry sauce helped cut the richness of the cheese.

For bread side we were presented with a Chipotle wheat bread and a brioche with cream cheese in the center. It was served with a compound butter made of garlic paprika and cognac. The table had some flavored salts to accompany the meal. I couldn't tell what the salts were made of but I saw in other restaurants salts flavored with various wines, strong possibility. I'm not a carb/bread person but I made an exception for these delights.

Onto the first course: Grouper Fillet au Pesto. The bottom picture shows you that the grouper was stuffed with corn, spinach and a bit of goat cheese. The fish was very flaky and tender. The dish was very lightly seasoned so the pesto could stand out.

The soup course was a Spicy Cream of Gorgonzola with a bit of zucchini and carrot. I loved the presentation of zucchini and carrot half spheres. The soup was delicious, no overwhelming blue cheese or heavy cream texture. Despite the name I can only describe this as a light delicious cream soup.

For a palate cleanser we were served with a guava sorbet.

The first entree was the Giant Shrimp Temptation, it was served with a green curry over a grilled slice of apple. The shrimp was well cooked and curry sauce went surprisingly well with the grilled apple and yellow bell pepper. It was accompanied with some sauteed mushroom.

The restaurant was very accommodating when I asked about an alternative to the shrimp (I was ready to go sans shrimp) for the entree and they provided me with a Beef fillet served with a red wine reduction. It was very nice of them to prepare a separate plate for my entree, being a fixed menu they get some sense of scale when they can prepare flights of the same dish all night long. Even with the curve ball the chef pulled the dish off and served it at the same time as my wife's as if it were part of the tasting menu.

Second Entree  was a "Pork Loin Crystal Au Pink Peppercorn". The plate didn't match the menu no pasta here there must have been an audible called at the last second. The pork was glazed in an apple balsamic sauce with the half sphere carrot and zucchinis, toasted potato with basil and accompanied with a Portabello mashed potato. My only complaint here is that they tend to overcook their pork (especially chop/loin) I think because of the old rules of cooking over 165F internal temp (USDA has since ruled it to be the same as beef 145F with 3 min resting period) this isn't just this restaurant but each of the ones where we had pork.

The Portobello mashed potatoes were very interesting, earthy mushroom flavor in potato is pretty new. "A+" for something new (to me) I'm not even sure how they did it? Did they cook and puree the mushroom into a liquid and mix it in? I'll have to try and figure it out.

Finally we had a "Cheese Symphony" for dessert, medley of tropical fruit over a "fluffy" cheese cake served with a raspberry white wine and caramel sauce. I guess the symphony part was the dark chocolate garnish. The dark chocolate was a good balance to the sweet cake but after all the food before I was only able to get in one bite.

The bartender surprised us with a tiramisu martini, the cookie tasted a lot like lady finger and dipped in the cream martini tasted exactly like a tiramisu.

The presentation and service were amazing. We really enjoyed ourselves and loved it so much we immediately booked the rest of our dinners here!

Thursday, December 26, 2013

TRIP: Playa Del Carmen Day 2

Day Two of my vacation at Playa Del Carmen. The daytime weather was a fabulous upper 70F and nights a warm 65F. They had nightly entertainment, above is a picture from their "Elements" show, obviously they were featuring fire.

Lots of food and drink so I won't bother you with a lot of yammering we'll just stick to the facts since there's more to write about for our day three dinner discovery.

I didn't bother with breakfast, it was the standard buffet, bountiful but just like any other you'd find. We were on the hunt to try out all of the restaurants in the resort and hit the Tapas and Pintxos. It was on the patio next to the Pelicanos.

The food was ok, they follow a very similar formula of plating and the same paprika red pepper sauce half crescent and very similiar pale colors.

I ordered the Cream of Artichokes soup which was a pureed cream soup they added clams, fennel and chives, very good combo. To the right was the grilled Cuttlefish, the cuttlefish/squid was extremely tender and had really good smokey flavor.

We followed that with the Mushroom Brochettes: shrimp and mushroom sauteed in garlic oil and white wine and Sirloin Pepito: Kind of a Mexican version of a philly cheese steak with a pineapple pesto.

Finishing up we had the "Little Patties" puff pastry stuffed with chard, goat cheese and green olives and Spanish sausage Chilindron Style. The Little Patties were good, they could have gone without the green olives, the Spanish sausage was a little too oily and reminded me of a kolache.

When we checked in we were told that there were a few restaurants that required reservation because they were quite popular. One even required an additional charge of $80 per person (not this one). Having had "pretty OK" food, above and beyond the low expectations that were set before us we figured we probably needed to start trying these restaurants. Il Pescatore was first on the list, it was located across the street at the sister resort. The chef started us with a amuse bouche of a serrano ham and potato mousse over toast it was tasty and a good start, we couldn't figure out what the blue stuff was and it didn't add any flavor (was it a play on surf and turf). It was quickly followed by my order of beef carpaccio au lime, the beef was marinated with anchovies which really gave this a unique flavor compared to carpaccio dishes I've had in the past we gobbled this up pretty quickly.

My wife ordered a minestrone soup and I had the florentine cream soup with mussels. The minestrone soup was light and surprisingly without beans (typically there are kidney or cannelini beans) my wife seemed to enjoy it. My florentine cream soup was very interesting, the spinach flavor was very present (not in a bad way) it tasted very fresh since they held back on the cream and the basil oil brought out a very fragrant note, it kept the soup from tasting like "pureed spinach soup", it was a pretty neat balance of flavors I've never had the chance to taste.

Time for the main course: My wife had a Fish Fillet A L'Orange served over polenta. The orange sauce was only a hint of citrus and the fish was very tender. I had the Pork Excalope Roman Style, basically pork pounded very thin over a tomato garlic sauce. The pork was extremely tender and delicious, I only regret how little I had. I opted to try their gorgonzola raviolis rather than the noodles in garlic sauce. The ravioli turned out a little dry in texture and the sauce was a little thin.

Finally dessert, Panna Cotta with kiwi and orange coulis, the green dots were the kiwi sauce that went really well with the Panna Cotta. I will say the Panna Cotta was a bit more gelatin-y than i've had before but maybe they did that so it could stand as tall as it did.

Worth going to the reserve ahead? Yes! This was definitely a finer dining experience than the day before.

Ok more later!

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

TRIP: Playa Del Carmen Day 1

We're on vacation in Playa Del Carmen. Here's a view of the all inclusive resort. The resort has quite a few restaurants and bars. I was pre-warned that the food was "meh" and not something I should count on being a highlight. To my surprise we've run into quite a bit of good food. So I'll be chronicling it here.

I've finally found a nice way to distill a bunch of pictures of food down so that I'm not leaving a giant post.

First meal was at the Pelicano, it's a Caribbean fusion restaurant. My wife got a green salad, nice presentation but hard to eat. I got a octopus salad, it was marinaded in a sweet tomato dressing with fresh avocado. I had a cream of something soup I'll update with the name, my wife's seafood soup had a very prominent saffron flavor.

I ordered the zucchini gratin, I thought it was a large cut of zucchini covered in cheese it turns out it was stuffed with seafood (possibly the same as the seafood soup above)

For entree I had a marinated lamb shank and my wife had a seared scallop dish served over grilled papaya.

Next the asian themed restaurant, Asiana.  For the appetizer, chef presented tuna and melon skewer, the tuna tasted smoked it was definitely cooked in texture not raw. Salmon and tartar sauce roll, interesting not quite for me but it caught my attention on the menu. Spring roll with a strawberry sweet and sour sauce, I liked the use of strawberry in the sauce better than the standard sweet and sour. For a soup I had a Sake and rice soup, a lightly poached salmon with rice in a very nice fish stock broth.

I didn't get around to taking a picture of the menu so this is by memory. My wife got a fish and calamari in coconut curry. The fish and calamari were fried and the dish delicious, it could have used some rice to round it out. (Asian food and no rice?) My dish was a duck breast with a Hoisin sauce. The duck was a bit over cooked and as a result stringy.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Tools of the Trade: Nomiku immersion circulator

So a while back I kickstarted this project called Nomiku (about a year and half ago). It's promise was to bring an affordable immersion circulator to the home kitchen and spread the promise of sous vide cooking technique to all. I was pretty intrigued an immersion circulator runs around $1000, it's chemistry lab equipment for pete sake. The idea is simple, a device that can circulate water and add heat and hold it at a very precise temperature. I've had other sous vide devices such as the sous vide supreme and pid controller tied to a steam table but both of those solutions heat the water passively. There's the possibility that parts of the water bath are not evenly heated to the same temperature. Certainly it was close enough, but neither solution was really portable. Do I really need a third sous vide device? Sure more the merrier!

(Nomiku unboxed) So in comes the nomiku, I waited with bated breath and waited and waited. This was my first kickstarter project, I didn't know what to expect. I will say the project founders were very communicative, reading their posts about the process from start to finish was a lot of fun. I almost felt like I was part of it with each success and each annoying setback.  They are a neat group of people with a mission and i'm glad they shared the process and I finally have my nomiku.

The nomiku comes with warranty, a sous vide primer/cookbook and a quick start guide (which I really appreciated). The box, unit and instructions are all very high quality, they didn't cut any corners.

They do warn you to read the manual first, the key is that you have to have the water level set between the min and max (the two little holes you see on the metal shaft). The unit starts immediately when plugged in, so it's possible you burn out the motor or screw up the heating element if you don't first have it sunk in water. The power supply box is there so they can send you power plugs depending on what your country's plug configuration looks like.

You set the temperature by rotating the green knob. It's pretty free spinning and increments by .1 degrees at a time so there's a lot of spinning involved to get it to a high temperature. I immediately saw why they made it very loose spinning rather than a ratcheting lock step spin as I twirled the knob to get from 33 degrees to 142. The screen is touch enabled and touching it will change the readout from Fahrenheit to Celsius and back. The readout turns yellow if you're picking a temperature in the "danger zone" where bacteria thrive and can rapidly multiply.

I did a readout with my Thermapen and it was well within one degree of difference. The nice thing about the circulator is that you can clip the device onto anything. In this case I put it in a eight quart stock pot. It got the water from 77 degrees Fahrenheit to 143 in about 14 mins, eyeballing the water at about 6 quarters.

And of course the first (and quickest) test was sous vide-ing some eggs so in they went for 45 mins at 143. The only comment here is that the eggs started to cluster around the intake of the circulator.

The results turned out perfect with that thick gel consistency of perfectly poached egg. My only concern is that I could probably be more efficient with the energy by using a cooler, the pot obviously got pretty warm and that's a large surface area to be losing heat. I'll have to look into that.

This was actually my second Nomiku unit. I was originally going to employee my new nomiku during Thanksgiving dinner but it was dead on arrival. But the folks at nomiku were very responsive returning my email within hours the day before thanksgiving and got me squared away quickly. It took a little extra time, but they were super nice and very apologetic about the delay. Anyhow, the device is on sale at their website. I highly recommend it!

I'm going on vacation next week I might get the gumption to put out a few posts of what we eat. Hopefully in the new year I can get back to the bentos. Thanks for visiting and Happy Holidays!

Monday, December 16, 2013

NIAB: Austin Aquarium visit

No I didn't eat a Moray Eel but I wanted to post a neat experience at the new Austin Aquarium that just opened up near me. They were having a half price sale on their annual price, which meant if I went twice this year it'd pay for itself. It's up by 183 and Anderson Mill for those that are in town and interested. I figure a quick trip report for the rest of the skeptics.

Now I'm use to aquariums being a lot bigger like the Shedd aquarium in Chicago or even the one we went and saw in Galveston at Moody Garden. This one is located in a strip mall and when I first drove by and saw that they were opening an aquarium I was thought that "Austin Aquarium" was going to be the name for a new fish store opening. When I saw a facebook post from a friend about half price memberships  I decided to bite the bullet, it was only $24 for the year pass I mean I've done more damage at a happy hour or the lego store.

I will say I am pleasantly surprised. The aquarium had quite a few installations and large "open tanks" allowing for people to "pet" the fish. I got some sort of ray swim up and brush against my hand. They weren't completely done, there's quite a few "coming soon" among them a pair of otters, seals and more jellyfish.

They have a insect and reptile exhibit as well as a tropical bird exhibit where you can pay to feed the bird. There were quite a few "eww it pooped on me" so I passed. There is an opportunity to feed the sharks too. There are plenty staff stationed in the various rooms to explain the different animals. All very knowledgeable, I quizzed the bug guy on the neuro toxin since I had just researched the puffer fish and he seemed delighted to have someone to talk more details with rather than the standard speal.

They have a party area for kids birthdays and the standard gift store. All in all I'm definitely going back.  They still have a few kinks to work out but they'll get that ironed out soon enough. I think after the huge rush of kids (they just opened a few days ago) this will be a pretty neat place to visit.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Fugu and lived to tell the tale

The above fish is 1200 times more lethal than cyanide and I ate it! Ok more backstory, we were at our new favorite sushi restaurant here in Austin and the Chef offered us the Fugu / Puffer fish. A rare honor considering they only had two and don't stock it.

So more on this deadly fish. The toxin is stored in several places but most notably the liver. Improper preparation of the fish can result in the release of the toxin and death to the eater. The toxin: Tetradotoxin, shuts down the ability for your nerves to conduct electricity paralyzing your muscles ultimately shutting down your ability to breath. Usually the effects start/end anywhere within 10-45 mins of consumption (yes I was watching my watch and wondering if I was really feeling a tingling sensation in my fingers) There is no cure or antidote, they basically have to keep you on life support until you've metabolized the toxin and can start breathing again that's assuming you're able to get the hospital in time.

Why? well, among the many foodie "lists of food you've eaten" I usually score pretty high. But most common to all of the lists is the deadly puffer fish. Always there preventing me from scoring a 100%. It's on my "bucket list" probably one of the few items that could actually cause a kicking of said bucket. I've heard of this "delicacy" as long as I can remember and honestly when the opportunity finally presented itself I was a little frightened. My wife's enthusiastic "let's do it!" pushed me over the edge. Also we trusted the chef.

Chef explained Fugu preparation, sale, and training are all highly regulated in the country of Japan. It takes a minimum two year apprenticeship training program where you practice cutting the fish and are required to eat the fish you prepare. So failure during apprenticeship is probably a "one time" deal. Most deaths occur from people catching a puffer fish and trying to prepare it themselves (without training). So no Fugu bento in the future. The chef did re-iterate he went thru the training and ate a lot of puffer fish in his time in Japan working in the sushi restaurants.

The chef prepared the fugu three ways for us:

Fugu soup with ginger broth. The broth was delicious the ginger helped offset some of the (best I can label it) "gamey" taste. The texture reminded me of frog legs. A little bit rubbery and had a similar taste that also reminded me of dark meat chicken. The meat came from the tail of the puffer fish. We each had our own bowl

Fugu cheek tempura. The spin and fins were tempura fried along with the two "cheek" morsels. The meat was very tender and delicate, it still had some of that gamey flavor to it. Parts of the spine had a bitter taste to it. This served to us as you see it we had to share this plate.

Finally Fugu sashimi. The Chef used a lemon peel with yuzu sauce which was a great pairing with the fish. The texture is a little hard to explain, the meat is very chewy not a Squid/Ika chewy that has something of a snap to it but similar. The meat also reminded me of red snapper a bit translucent. The chef made it a point to tell us to chew on the fish just a bit and the flavor will develop. The oil from the lemon peel really complemented the fish's flavor. I have to apologies because I can't think of a single comparable texture or taste to explain the experience. I did experience the slight tongue tingly sensation after the meal. We were each served with one of the above plates.

Ok bottom line would I do it again? Well there's two ways to ask that: would I make the same decision having not had fugu before? Yes! Would I roll the dice again? Probably not, better to leave a winner.  I'm glad I had the chance and enjoyed the experience.