Saturday, October 26, 2013

A Birthday Blunder Becomes An Introduction to Another New Kid in Town: Andrea's 25 North

It was SPP's birthday this week.  I told him that he could choose any restaurant he wanted for the big day.  We considered our local options, and he chose Fiamma.  We had only eaten there once, but it had made quite an impression on us and we were eager to go back and see what the night's menu would be.

Fiamma has only one big disadvantage.  It doesn't take reservations for parties of fewer than six people.  On a Tuesday night, we did not think this would be a problem.  How wrong we were!  We arrived at the restaurant to find another party waiting inside the door ahead of us.  Six more people were standing at the bar. (The bar has no seat and doesn't serve food. Waiting at the bar means standing around drinking wine and feeling hungry until a table becomes available).  We knew there would be no table available for us for a very long time.

When it comes to dinner, I don't do waiting on line.  If you don't take reservations and you want to keep hordes of people waiting at the door, then I go elsewhere.  As much as I liked Fiamma, I doubt I'll be going there again any time soon.  No restaurant is that good.  I never understood why restaurants that popular won't take reservations.  Do the chefs and owners just get an ego trip from seeing people lined up?

So we were left wondering what to do.  We didn't have reservations for anyplace else, although there were plenty of restaurants that likely wouldn't be so busy on a Tuesday night.  We considered our old standby Chef Antonio, which was only a block away, but we eat there at least once a month and it's not all that special.  We considered Piccolo Mulino, a small Italian restaurant right across the street from our building, but we had eaten there for our anniversary.  Kevin was really in the mood for Italian.

Then an idea hit me.  'What about that new place on the Post Road?'

The new place on the Post Road, was a steak house called the Toll Gate for many years.  I used to really love it, but once I met Sir Pickypants, I never went back (for obvious reasons).  When it went downhill and eventually out of business, another restaurant or two tried to occupy the building with no success.  Recently, it was renovated and Andrea's 25 North took over.

We walked into a very lovely bar area on the restaurant's ground floor level.  There was no one there to greet us.  That was a little annoying.  Getting frustrated and leaving didn't seem like an option since it was getting later and we didn't want to be driving all over town looking for a nice restaurant.  Finally a busboy came and seated us.

The restaurant is on three levels.  The first level is the entrance and the bar area.  The next two levels are dining rooms.  We sat on the second level, in front of one of the huge picture windows that make up the front wall of the space.  Decor is simple and soothing.  The walls are brick and the lighting is soft.  The decor is minimal and tasteful.

Since I hadn't been planning to eat in a new restaurant that night, I didn't have my camera.  All I had was my phone.  It's hard to get decor and atmosphere shots with your phone, but I tried.

The manager came to our table and apologized profusely for not being at the front desk when we walked in.  He kissed our buts the whole night after that.  I felt a bit bad for him.  We assured him as much as we could through the night that we were having a good time and that our little pre-dinner glitch didn't spoil anything.

We weren't lying either.  We really did have a lovely evening.  Our waiter came out and he was very attentive and just a lot of fun.  Then of course there was the food.

They placed a dish of some kind of powder on the table.  I wasn't sure what it was for, but then the busboy came along and explained they were dried herbsfor the bread and poured a glug of olive  oil into the dish, which become a dipping oil.

The wine list wasn't huge and cumbersome and had some great selections.  We sipped our wine and perused our menus.  The cuisine is, at its heart, is typical "red sauce joint" food, but expanded and creatively elevated with new angles and ingredients.

We started with salads.  I had arugula, parmesan, and tomatoes, while Kevin enjoyed a chopped salad.  Both salads were huge.  Andrea's doesn't skimp on portion sizes.

For the main course, the birthday boy splurged on both the wheat and the dairy and had lobster ravioli with pink sauce.

I had lamb chops.  This was the special for the evening.  The cabernet sauce on the side was to die for.  The potatoes on the side were nice and crispy.

One dish I had really been looking forward to at Fiamma was the Nutella-stuffed zeppoli.  There was no need to worry.  Andrea's had zeppoli too - filled with oreas and then dipped in Nutella!  See that white mound in the middle of the plate?  That wasn't whipped cream.  It was cannoli cream.  (I don't know why my flash wouldn't discharge when I tried to take a picture of the dessert.)

What started out as a confused and disappointing night ended up being an exceptionally enjoyable meal in terms of atmosphere, service, and food.  We definitely want to go to Andrea's again.  It's a little pricey for a casual weekend night out, but I would definitely come here for occasions.   This would be a great place to bring our families for special dinners.

Best of all, they take reservations.  They're even on Open Table.  Take that Fiamma!

Thursday, October 17, 2013

New Kid in Town - Dominican Kitchen

I have mentioned in previous posts my newfound love of Dominican cooking, which is a subset of my love for Caribbean cooking in general.  The thought of rice, plantains, and slow-cooked pork just sets my heart a-flutter.  With so many tasty Latin American options in my neighborhood, it shouldn't be too much of a surprise that a Dominican restaurant might find a place alongside the Mexican, Peruvian, and Salvadoran establishments.  Still I was surprised when it opened - and pleasantly so.  I couldn't wait to not have to wait until I was at work to get my Dominican fix.

As it goes with many new restaurants, it took longer than I wanted to eat there finally.  It's always hard to get Sir Pickypants to try a new place.  It's twice as hard if the restaurant in question is not the least bit busy.  He is always suspicious of empty restaurants.   It must be a sign that a new place is bad, rather than because potential new customers simply aren't aware of it yet and the owners can't afford big gala openings to promote it.  I took it upon myself to feel sort of responsible for their success.  If we ate there and I blogged and Yelped it, I might encourage more patrons.  If we didn't lead the charge and create more awareness to bring more patrons to the restaurant and it closed due to lack of business, I would feel terribly guilty.

Perhaps I do suffer from a sense of self-importance.  Why would I believe a new restaurant's fate would lie in my hands?

I finally did try the place this weekend thanks to a visit from a culinarily adventurous friend.  I am now here to tell you about it.  I feel much better now.

Various delis and coffee shops previously occupied Dominican Kitchen's space.  The decor doesn't do much to change that.  It is a very casual place that is still rooted in the coffee shop origins.  It's pretty plain with a few touches here and there to spruce it up and remind diners of its ethnic origins.  It has the deli counters still in place.

Our hosts were very nice, although they were women of few words.  English was clearly not their first language, but I'm not bothered by that.  Service might be called slow, but I think they were just mindful of the fact that my husband, my friend, and I were simply enjoying a leisurely evening of long conversations.  We were the only guests eating in the place, so they were in no hurry to turn the table. They paid attention to our water glasses the whole evening.

But enough about the atmosphere.  Let's talk food.

They brought a basket of toasted bread.  I didn't eat it as I was trying to be somewhat good that night. The word from those who did eat it was that it was good.

They have a regular permanent menu consisting of several seafood dishes and a few beef and chicken dishes.  In addition to that they have rotating daily specials.  I was hoping for pernil, but alas, Friday was not pernil night.  I decided to go with another Dominican (by way of Puerto Rico) specialty, mofongo, as did my friend.  They serve my favorite, mangu`, but only for breakfast.  I had to have my plantains in another form.

Mofongo is a molded dish of seasoned fried and mashed plantains mixed with meat  Dominican Kitchen offers it in pork or chicken.  We both tried pork.  It was a very filling and flavorful dish.  It was rather heavy on the garlic - I still had dragon breath in the morning - but filled with wonderful crispy bits of pork.  A small pitcher of jus-like sauce was served alongside it that helped add extra meaty flavor and moistened it a bit (plantains can be a bit dry when cooked).

The less adventurous member of our party chose something a bit more familiar - shrimp and rice.

There were no sides to speak of.  Things like rice or beans were sold a la carte.  We ordered no appetizers either.  It might have seemed like there wasn't much food, but my dinner was very filling.  I didn't need anything else.

While we were the only diners eating in house, I stopped worrying so much about the restaurant's fate.  The number of people I saw coming in for pickups demonstrated a fairly robust takeout business.  

I definitely want to eat here again and explore the menu further.  I must eat here on pernil day!  I will likely follow the crowd though and order takeout.  That way I don't have to worry about a husband feeling self-conscious in an empty restaurant.  Takeout has its advantages after all (like Domincan Kitchen doesn't serve alcohol).

Monday, October 7, 2013

A Little Seasonal Stuff

What is it with the weather this year?  We had a normal, hot July.  Then August came and the temperatures dropped. August felt like October.  Now September and October feel like August.

I'm not complaining too much.  I'm a summer girl.  To me fall is beautiful for only a short period of time.  The leaves turn, it's pretty for 3-4 weeks maximum.  Then it all falls off, everything dies, the weather gets cold, the days grow dark, and we just sit around waiting for winter so we can just get it over with.  No thank you! 

Summer weather is kind of inconvenient this time of year though.  I usually start putting away all of my beloved shorts, sandals, and sundresses by now.  What's even worse is that all of the pools and beaches are closed, so what's the point of warm weather?  Swimming is the biggest joy of summer after all.  I need friends who live close by who keep their pools open until Columbus Day or else I need to find a nearby lake or beach where you can sneak in a swim even when there aren't any lifeguards.

No matter what the weather, this time of year always brings forth the fall recipes.  That is the other aspect of this season I hate.  I can't stand the proliferation of squash.  Whether it's savory dishes with butternut squash (or whatever the trendy gourd du jour is) or sweet dishes with pumpkin (or sweet dishes with other squash and savory dishes with "pumpkin" - which usually isn't really pumpkin), this time of year makes me want to just bury my head in the sand and stay away from all food media until Christmas. 

There is one saving grace among the fall foods.  I do love pears and plums and apples.  You can always pile on the apple recipes.  Give me apple pie and apple tart and apple cake.  Put all kinds of apple sauces on my savory foods.   Here's a way to know how good a dish can be.  An apple tastes good as is.  You bite into a tasty crisp apple, and if you like apples, you will be happy.  Who opens a can of pumpkin (which isn't actually pumpkin) and thinks, "Yummy this stuff looks delicious"? As for real, fresh pumpkins, they're even worse.  I remember in the days when I carved jack-o-lanterns how nauseated I felt by the barftastic pumpkin smell as I gutted and carved them.  I sure didn't want to eat that!  You have to put a lot of stuff into a pumpkin to make it palatable.  Well, if you add lots of cream, butter, sugar, and cinnamon to anything, it's kind of likely to be palatable.

Yes, I know I do way too much anti-pumpkin ranting this time of year.  I know my War on Pumpkin is a lost cause, but I still seem to want to keep fighting the good fight.

So let's get back to fall-themed apple dishes.  This time of year dishes tend to get a bit heavier, a bit richer.   My recipe for this post is no exception, although I suppose it's not as rich and heavy as it could be.  My clothes are getting awfully big on me these days and while I don't know how I am going to afford shopping for new stuff, I kind of prefer having them too loose than too tight.  This dish uses skinless chicken and just a little touch of cream.  A year ago I might have made it with whole chicken pieces, bacon, and twice as much cream.  (I admit I almost decided to use bacon in this anyway.)  It also contains mushrooms, which are earthy and make me think of foraging in autumnal forests.  I don't use whole apples, but I do use one of my favorite fall derivatives - cider.  I tried to keep the flavors simple, but also wanted this to be somewhat unique.  I hope I succeeded.

Chicken in Cider Mushroom Sauce

  • 2 Tbl olive oil
  • 2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs or pounded boneless skinless chicken breasts
  • Salt and pepper for sprinkling
  • 1 medium onion, finely diced
  • 1 cup good apple cider
  • 10 oz. sliced cremini mushrooms
  • 1 tsp chopped fresh sage
  • 1/4 cup heavy cream
Sprinkle chicken with salt and pepper on both sides.  Heat olive oil in a large pan.  Brown the chicken breasts well on each side.  Remove from pan and keep warm.

Add onions to the pan.  Cook until soft and starting to take on some color.  Add mushrooms and cook until they are soft and releasing their liquid.  Add the cider to the pan, scraping up the browned bits at the bottom.  Bring to a boil and boil for two minutes.  Add the sage and reduce to a simmer. Return the chicken to the pan.  Cook until chicken is cooked through, about 15-20 minutes depending on the thickeness of your meat.

Remove chicken from the pan.  Boil the sauce another minute.  Return to a simmer and stir in the cream.  Serve the sauce over the chicken.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Experimenting with Chocolate Hazelnut Butter Cookies

I remember my first taste of Nutella.  One of my favorite candy purveyors was doing a promotion on it when I was somewhere between the ages of 8 and 10.  The store was selling it in big jars as well as in little snack packs.  Unlike many children, I loved nuts.  Plus the the base was chocolate, and I don't need to say I have always loved chocolate.  When I bought a little snack pack of Nutella and tried it for the first time, I was in chocolate Heaven.  I didn't realize there was a substance on this planet that could taste so delicious.

After the promotion ended I didn't see Nutella much.  It was an occasional treat that I probably had less than once a year.  I was happy to have it whenever I could get it.

Once I learned about Nutella I realized hazelnuts are my favorite nuts.  Hazelnut flavoring just by itself is exceptionally delicious.  It makes coffee palatable.  It makes a delicious ice cream.  Hazelnut praline paste made up a cake fililng that was so delicious that I almost didn't have anything to fill the layers of my mother-in-law's birthday cake last year.  Adding chocolate to hazelnuts just takes something already delicious to a new level.

I know some crazy people aren't into it.  I remember in college I had bought some hazelnut chocolate truffles at a new gourmet store in town.  My boyfriend turned up his nose declaring that he only liked plain chocolate with no other flavors in it or mixed in with it (although he ate the various brownies I baked him filled with nuts and other treats). He also most decidedly did not like hazelnuts.  In her book Miss Media, Lynn Harris's main character declares hazelnut as an ice cream flavor "overrated".  I have been on internet forums where some crazy ladies have declared that Nutella is nothing special.  Today's recipe is not for these people.  If you're not a Hazel-nut, then go someplace else.

As much as I love Nutella, I am painfully aware of its drawbacks.  I know it's full of sugar and trans-fat.  No matter what they say in the commercials, it's not a nutritious or low-calorie treat.  What's a Nutella lover to do?  If you have a jar at home, it's awfully hard to keep the spoon out of it.

In the past year I discovered this.  Behold Justin's Chocolate Hazelnut Butter.

Although it's not pure hazelnut (it contains almonds too), it has enough hazelnut flavor to satisfy.  It has less sugar than Nutella and no trans fats.  As far as I'm concerned it's plenty sweet enough.  It's not as smooth as Nutella - it's more like natural peanut butter that is well-integrated and has sat in the refrigerator for a while- it works in situations where Nutella works.  I used it to make cake frosting for my mother's birthday earlier this year and everyone ate the cake.

When I considered its similarities to peanut butter, I began to wonder, could I make peanut butter cookies with Justin's Chocolate Hazelnut Butter?  Could I simply swap out peanut butter in a recipe?

I decided to give it a try.  I not only made the cookies with Justin's butter, but I also added chocolate chips and toasted chopped hazelnuts.

The only fault with these was I should have baked them a bit longer than I did.  Peanut butter cookies are usually not soft, but I wanted a soft cookie and underbaked them a bit, which made them a bit flabby and delicate.  They tended to break when you picked them up.  Otherwise, they were delicious.  Since the dough needs to be chilled, they were convenient to bake since I mixed them up in the morning, spent the day riding, and then baked them off in the evening when I came home.

I brought them to my office and I ended up coming home with some.  I don't get that!  At my old job these would have been gone by 10AM even if they were terrible.  No one finished these.  At least the folks who ate them enjoyed them.

Chocolate-Hazelnut-Butter Cookies


  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 1 stick butter at room temperature
  • 1/2 cup Justin's Chocolate Hazelnut Butter
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 1/4 cup flour
  • 3/4 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp baking power
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1 cup toasted, chopped hazelnuts*
  • 1 cup chocolate chips
In a small bowl mix together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt.

Beat the butter until it is soft and fluffy.  Add both kinds of sugar and beat until the mixture is fluffy and sugar is incorporated.  Beat in the peanut butter and add the egg until well blended.  Beat in the vanilla.

Stir in the dry ingredients.  Gently stir in the chips and the nuts.  Gather the dough into a ball, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 3 hours.

When ready to bake, heat the oven to 375 degrees.  Drop 1.5" balls onto a cookie sheet.  Bake for about 10-11 minutes.  Cool before removing from cookie sheet.

*I like to toast my nuts, rub off the skins, then place them in a plastic bag where I proceed to beat them with the blunt side of a meat hammer.