Thursday, October 26, 2006

Restaurant Week '06

Last year my Richmond Restaurant Week experience was outstanding. My
boyfriend and I went to Comfort, which serves Southern style cuisine
in a casual (but not too casual) environment. I've only been once,
but I'm just waiting to go back for macaroni and cheese, fried
chicken, and bread pudding.

The basic Restaurant Week meal is three courses - an appetizer, entree
and dessert - for around $20. I'm not sure if all of the restaurants
have to coordinate the price, but they give a tenth or so of it to
local food banks, so it's almost silly to not eat at one of the twenty
or so participating locations.

This year we went to Rowland Fine Dining, a small Fan eatery that has
always seemed a bit fancier than the others. I'd seen some excellent
reviews about it and some that weren't as interesting, but Restaurant
Week seemed like a good excuse to try a place like Rowland. Wednesday
also happens to be half price wine night, which I absolutely did not
plan on, but it was a lovely perk. Most of the wines on the list
were around or under $30, and we had a nice bottle of Italian Barbera.

My first impression was that it's not much different from any other
Fan venue - a small, narrow room with booths and cozy tables on one
side and a bar on the other. The decor was a little more polished
than some of the neighboring bars and restaurants, and the food,
though not overly exciting, was also slightly upscale from other Fan
cuisine I've sampled.

I had the most trouble choosing a Starter, and I'm still not sure that
I made the right decision. I chose the "Creamy Cremini Soup," which
was quite tasty, and it was garnished with two strips of roasted duck.
While I enjoyed the soup, I was also deciding between "Sweet Scallops
with Corn Pudding and Leek Butter," and "Butterbean Cake with
Cucumber, Tomato and Avocado Salsa." My boyfriend had the Butterbean
Cake, and it was delicious, and the perfect starter size.

There were three entree selections: Cinnamon Pork Tenderloin with a
Granny Smith Cider Sauce, Iron Steak with some variety of mashed
potatoes in a generic brown mushroom sauce, and the Fish of the Day,
which was blackened with Crawfish Etouffee. If I hadn't eaten pork
tenderloin last night, I probably would have gone with the first
choice (I can never resist cinnamon). However, considering last
night's meal, I had pretty much settled on the Fish, and was even more
pleased when I found out it would be rockfish. The Etouffee, a New
Orleans "stew" usually made with vegetables and seafood, was
spectacular with the Cajun flavors of the blackened rockfish. I
haven't eaten okra since I was pretty young, but I have a newfound
appreciation for it after the etouffee. My dish was garnished with a
whole crawfish, which I was happy to break apart when I finished.

Dessert was the most disappointing point of the meal, though it may
also be the part I scrutinize the most. The special was a "chocolate
torte," which was more like a 2" square of light chocolate cake with
chocolate glaze in the middle and whipped cream on top. There was a
pear and apple cobbler for dessert, which was decent but didn't
compare to the apple pie I made recently. It wasn't even warm.

I'm glad that I can cross Rowland Fine Dining off my list of places to
try; without Restaurant Week I probably would have been wondering
about it for quite some time. Comfort may now be sooner on my dining
rotation than I would have expected.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

A Pastry Breakthrough

On the night of the Apple Harvest Festival, after being surrounded by all sorts of apple products and happy people eating them, I decided to dive into my 1/4 bushel and make my very first apple pie. I've had my mom's crumb top deep dish pie recipe for a couple years; I just haven't been ambitious enough to make my own crust, plus I'm not always partial to desserts that aren't made with chocolate. I was also inspired by Shannon, the friend I went to the festival with, because she was planning on baking that night too.

One of the differences between Shannon's endeavors and mine was that she has an apple Peeler/Corer/Slicer, and I don't. I didn't even have a recipe for pie dough, but the Food Network website came to the rescue (as it often does). Barefoot Contessa's "Perfect Pie Crust" - the link is at the bottom - has both butter and Crisco in it, which I remember my grandma using, so I figured that would be worth a try. The instructions also said that she uses a food processor, which seemed much easier for a beginner like me.

The dough seemed to turn out alright, and while it was in the fridge I mixed the crumb topping (more butter...the pie couldn't be that bad). Then I realized that my mom's recipe involved lemon juice to keep the apples from turning brown. I only had orange juice, which worked just as well, although it definitely made the pie sweeter.

I didn't have enough of just one kind of apple, nor did I have the recommended varities, so I ended up using a special blend of Fuji, Staymen, and whatever else happened to be on the top of my overflowing produce drawers. As I worked on the apples, I kept hearing the words "apple Peeler/Corer/Slicer" in my head. My first attempt at peeling was with a paring knife, which was OK for a small red apple with soft skin, but some of the others were tougher. I'm not sure if I committed some kind of baking sin, but I got out my vegetable peeler and from then on I could strip the apples more quickly (though not as quickly as an apple Peeler/Corer/Slicer probably could).

Cutting wasn't too bad, and soon I had coated the apple pieces in orange juice. That was when I realized that I don't have a rolling pin. I do, however, possess various types of liquor. My Triple Sec bottle still has some flour on the outside, but it did the trick, and I assembled the crust, apples, and crumb topping just as my oven reached 400 degrees.

After a few hours of work, the smell of the pie baking was enough to make the whole experience worthwhile. I enjoyed eating it too, because it was very sweet and had an equal ratio of topping and crust to apples. It wasn't the same as my mom's or grandma's pies, but it was the way I like my non-chocolate desserts, so I consider it a personal baking victory. The only problem is Barefoot Contessa's "Perfect Pie Crust," which makes enough for two pies. I might need to borrow an apple Peeler/Corer/Slicer for my second attempt.,,FOOD_9936_29717,00.html

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Autumn Harvest (Another Festival)

Considering there are so many seasonal festivals that go on in the Richmond area in September and October, it's not surprising that I managed to attend two in three weekends. The first was the Carytown Wine Festival at the very end of September, which involved a small tasting glass and several local wineries giving tiny samples in the Carytown Court parking lot. I'm nowhere close to being an expert, but almost all of the wines I tasted were too sweet to appeal to me. The souvenier glass and the experience were worthwhile, although I'm not rushing out to buy any Virginia wines quite yet.

The second event I went to was in Syria, Virginia, about an hour and a half northwest of Richmond. My friend and I drove through miles of countryside to Graves' Mountain, to check out one of their two Apple Harvest Festival weekends. The Graves' Mountain Lodge and farm includes several acres of orchards, a restaurant, picnic pavilion, and other features that allow them to host entire festivals.

Compared to the small scale of the wine festival, the Apple Harvest Festival was enormous. With several arts and crafts vendors, huge outdoor and indoor seating areas, multiple activities for children and adults, and large bins filled with freshly picked apples, I had a hard time focusing my attention. Aside from the apples, my first priority was to try Brunswick Stew, and the cornbread, apple butter, cider, and applesauce that came with it.

I'm not a fan of lima beans, and avoided them to the best of my ability. The stew was otherwise quite tasty - it had a tomatoey base, potatoes, corn, and small pieces of pork. After I smeared apple butter on my cornbread, I finished it off with a spoon, and the other apple goodies were fine but not exceptional.

Somehow I managed to resist funnel cake and homemade apple butter donuts. I did however, listen to a bluegrass band, browse the tent crafts, and do a lot of walking around in perfect October weather. I spent the last half hour leaning deep into some wooden bins to hand pick Staymen, Fuji, Winesap, York, and Red Delicious apples. My friend and I ended up with a half bushel between the two of us, and we had a drowsy drive back to Richmond in the midst of colorful fall foliage. In my opinion, days like those are the most appropriate way to celebrate autumn.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

A Farewell to Serving

I can only recall one occasion on which I've been so mad at a waiter or waitress that I wanted to leave a bad tip. Ironically, it occured on the day that I found out that I was hired for a full time job and wouldn't have to serve anymore.

One of my good friends was visiting that weekend, so we went out with a few other people to celebrate, and to try a wine bar that I've been interested in since it opened about six months ago. Enoteca Sogno, a small wine bar on Broad St. in the Fan, is run by the same man who owns Mamma Zu, Edo's Squid, and 8 1/2 - three amazing venues for Italian food. None of them are known for friendly service, but I've never had an issue like I did at Enoteca Sogno.

I have to admit that it wasn't even my issue, nor would I have cared so much if I hadn't spent the past 11 months in the restaurant business. From the very beginning of my time waiting tables, I was taught to never argue with a guest, to always make the customers feel comfortable, and to act as if you were hosting them in your own home.

I never felt fully at ease that night, and I don't think that anyone I was with felt like they were being graciously entertained either. During the process of ordering, one of the members of our table asked for the NY Strip well done, and the waiter flat out refused to let him order it that way. Not only did he insult a customer's taste by saying that the meat would be ruined, he broke what is essentially the first rule of serving: to never, ever let a guest feel wrong.

In my restaurant experience, I was always instructed to gently tell a diner that the chef recommended a dish a certain way, but if the customer didn't change his or her mind, to recommend something else or simply accept the order as it was and move on. If I was afraid of putting in an order for well done steak (which I never was), I might have even put medium well on the ticket in the hopes that the guest wouldn't notice or wouldn't care. Arguing with a guest just isn't part of serving - it's left to the managers.

If the meal had been exceptional and I felt strongly about returning to Enoteca Sogno I might have considered speaking with one of our waiter's bosses, but the food didn't make up for what happened. I had fresh pasta with wild mushrooms and truffle oil, which was was delicious, but the gnocchi pesto (a sad replacement for a steak) was mushy and close to inedible. I tried another pasta dish on the menu that was only so so, and the view onto E. Broad St. isn't the most desirable in Richmond. I'll continue to patronize the owner's other three eateries, but Enoteca Sogno is one home to which I don't want to be invited back.