Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Restaurant Week: Round 3

Last year's mediocre trip to Rowland Fine Dining during Restaurant Week was not enough to deter me from trying a new Richmond eatery in 2007. After a very tough decision, I chose Zeus Gallery Cafe, which is only six blocks away from my place of residence. It's sad to think that I hadn't given it a chance before last night, because now all I want to do is go back.

Despite unbelievable October warmth and humidity, the walk to Zeus was pleasant. On the way, I was reminded of another local business that I haven't yet experienced, the Belmont Butchery, which is already a year old. It's also a popular little shop, and I'm guessing it has the same type of feel as the Zeus Gallery Cafe - that of an endeared neighborhood locale.

The owner (or manager) who greeted us was personable and accommodating. He explained that there was going to be a large party in the room where our table was, and that he could try to move us if they became too noisy. I overheard him talking to the couple at the two-person booth next to ours; he wanted to make sure they were full after their three courses, because their portions are bigger when it's not Restaurant Week.

Our server was just as pleasant and helpful, which isn't always true of restaurant staff during this particular week since the fixed price menu can hurt profits. She informed us of two items off the menu - a filet dish and spectacular sounding salad with figs, prosciuitto and goat cheese - before pouring our Dievole Sangiovese.

Although I was tempted by the $11 salad, I settled for organic mixed greens with pumpkin seed brittle and a house vinaigrette as my starter. Cilantro calamari and butternut squash and apple soup were also appealing options, but I decided I should get something healthy out of the meal. Davy had the calamari, which was tender and flavorful, followed by filet meatloaf with mashed potatoes and green beans. I'm not the biggest fan of meatloaf, but his dinner was moist and tasty.

My flounder stuffed with crab meat was rich and delectable. A light lobster buerre blanc covered the plate, and the fish rested on a nest of tomato coulis and swiss chard cous cous. I'm not sure if cous cous can look like pearl pasta, or if the kitchen decided to serve the dish with a slight variation from the menu. The swiss chard also looked and tasted more like pesto, which was not a problem considering I will eat pesto on just about anything.

As the large party next to our booth started getting rowdier, we had a short but satisfying dessert course. I had gone back and forth between the Belgian Chocolate Pate and Tiramisu, but in the end I can never resist trying tiramisu, and Zeus' did not disappoint. The waitress brought a respectable piece with two layers of airy lady fingers sandwiching a thing smear of espresso-flavored mascarpone. The bottom component of the tiramisu was a healthy dollop of the coffee cream, which I happily finished. Some of Davy's warm granny smith cobbler also found it's way into my mouth, and I have no complaints about that.

There's a good chance that my next visit to Zeus Gallery Cafe will be soon after Restaurant Week ends. The restaurant has been established for more than a decade (maybe even two) in the Museum District, and it took me way too long to discover it. Plus I'm long overdue for browsing the Belmont Butchery, and I wouldn't want to shop there on an empty stomach, would I?

Friday, October 05, 2007

Is it really October?

I just looked back at my most recent post, which actually wasn't recent at all, and I'm ashamed that it's been so long. In almost a month, we're suddenly into fall and the first week of October! Even if this weekend is going to be summery and warm (predicted temperatures are in the 80's), my cooking instincts have definitely shifted.

Heartier recipes look more appealing now than they did just a few weeks ago, and when I saw one for butternut squash and leek risotto, I couldn't ignore it. The picture was enticing, but I was also anxious for the comforts of autumn flavors.

Of course, I wasn't completely satisfied with the recipe and ended up adjusting it a bit. Rosemary stood in for sage (I couldn't bring myself to buy a huge package of sage when I have a healthy rosemary plant on my front porch), and I substituted 2% milk and half of a tablespoon of butter for the whipping cream. Hoping to include more vegetables in the meal, I also included bite-sized pieces of steamed green beans.

The addition of a hot Italian pepper made the biggest difference in the dish.
After a sizeable harvest in August, the one ripe bulb on the plant on Monday was begging to be picked. It was smaller, yet significantly more potent, than its summer relatives. The fiery vapors steaming out of the pot should have clued me in, but it took a taste of the risotto in the middle of the stirring process and an afflicted finger in the corner of my eye to to figure it out. I promptly removed the pepper pieces and hoped the risotto was edible.

Similar to many one-pot meals, the concoction was more developed the second time we ate it, and it provided multiple sensations in each bite. The squash was sweet and tender, and melted in my mouth with every bite; the leeks were subtle with a soft onion essence. Creamy rice stood up to the crisp green beans, and the spice of the hot peppers was pervasive but not overpowering. While I'm not sure I'd make the risotto again, it was definitely one of the more interesting combination of textures and flavors I've encountered in my own kitchen.

The recipe, which yielded four dinners and a large lunch, is below. I recommend a little bit of tweaking, but add ingredients at your own risk.

Risotto with Butternut Squash and Leeks

1 large butternut squash (about 2 pounds), peeled, seeded, cut into
1/2-inch pieces
4 tablespoons olive oil
6 cups (about) chicken stock or canned low-salt chicken broth
3 large leeks (white and pale green parts only), thinly sliced (about 3 cups)
2 cups arborio rice or medium-grain rice
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup whipping cream
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons chopped fresh sage

Preheat oven to 400°F. Place squash on large rimmed baking sheet.
Drizzle with 2 tablespoons oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper; toss
to coat. Roast until tender and beginning to brown, stirring
occasionally, about 40 minutes.

Bring stock to simmer in heavy large saucepan. Reduce heat to very
low; cover and keep stock warm.

Heat 2 tablespoons oil in another heavy large saucepan over medium-low
heat. Add leeks and sauté until soft but not brown, about 10 minutes.
Add rice; stir 1 minute. Add wine and simmer until absorbed, stirring
constantly, about 2 minutes. Add 1/2 cup hot stock; simmer until
absorbed, stirring frequently. Add remaining stock 1/2 cup at a time,
allowing stock to be absorbed before adding more and stirring
frequently, until rice is tender and mixture is creamy, about 25
minutes longer. Add roasted squash, cream, Parmesan cheese and sage;
stir until heated through. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve

Makes 6 first-course or 4 main-course servings.