Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Tru Dat

Two weeks ago, I was in Chicago, which is one of my favorite "eating cities." Some people rate places based on their architecture, museums, sports teams, etc., but I'm all about how awesome is the food there?! I keep a long list of eating spots I want to try in different towns. I think I'd have to live half the year in Chicago in order to make a dent in my list.

Sadly on this trip, my colleague (and awesome friend) and I only had one night to dine as we wished. To a girl like me, that's a daunting and depressing task. How to choose just one restaurant in such a foodie city? I thought if you've only got one shot, you might as well go big or go home. With all the recent hype around Next, that was first on the list, but it's nearly impossible to get tickets (unless you're my cool friend E.G. who somehow snaked some tickets 4 days after I left town and is now out of my will). We happily settled on Tru and decided to go for the over-the-top tasting menu.

I can still recall my first chef's tasting menu experience. It was a 2002 business dinner at Nobu in Manhattan. I was with a group of very sophisticated and successful professionals I'd met earlier that day. They choose the restaurant and insisted we get the 12-course tasting menu (did I mention they were also picking up the check?). I don't think I've ever seen such a parade of endless and exotic dishes in my life. Although I wasn't the most adventurous sushi eater at the time, I was not about to not eat each course in front of these men. What I learned was two-fold:
1) I needed to take more risks with food, as my palate was opened up to a whole new world of ingredients, flavors and dishes. It was liberating and exciting, like travel is for me.
2) There is a physical capacity the stomach can hold. Seriously, I actually threw up half the food later that night as I experienced first-hand what the term "gluttony" is —and it rightly should be one of the seven deadly sins.

OK, back to the tasting at Tru. . . . First off, math is not my strongest suit but the 9-course chef's collection menu somehow ended up being 13 courses. I was a little afraid of a repeat gluttony episode, so we took our sweet time savoring each course—almost 4 hours! That was probably also a good idea because did I mention that each course was paired with wine. . . and we started with cocktails? What a rookie move!

I don't want to be too indulgent here but let me give you a quick rundown of some of the highlights. The photos do not do justice to the taste or presentation. I have a new found appreciation for food stylists and photographers.

Cucumber salad on gelee, bouchot mussel veloute
(beyond sublime, near genuis)

White sturgeon "caviar," avocado, hazelnut

Duroc pork belly, stone ground grits, pickled ramps

. . . which I liked a lot.

Scottish salmon, sorrel, smoked cream

Glazed veal, fava bean, morel mushroom, tokyo turnip, prosciutto

Selection of cow, goal and sheep's milk cheeses

Gold flaked chocolate filled with liquid mint, which you must eat in one shot and close your mouth when you bite down or you'll find yourself covered in liquid mint but is insanely delicious! Give me a bib and I'd eat a dozen.

We closed the place down around 1:30 am, and Ronda was bold enough to ask for a kitchen tour. Our noble hosts let us ooh and ahh over the rows of copper pots, the industrial burners, the food prep for the next day, and all the other behind the scene stuff I found fascinating. It's like walking into the airplane cockpit for the first time when you're a kid.

Ronda enjoyed a moment of imagining herself in the kitchen fray mid-service. . . .

Somehow I get the feeling she wouldn't look quite so refreshed and glamorous on the job.

The time came when we had to say good-bye to our fabulous service team, Aaron and Chad, and head out for a night cap (because we needed more alcohol).

As a parting gift, they gave us a personalized menu, which we lost later that evening (keep reading for how that could've possibly occurred), but the hostess was nice enough to reprint for us the next day when we stopped by and had the chef sign it! It was TRU-ly a first-rate experience in every detail.

Per Ronda's suggestion, we ended up here, found some seats next to our favorite piano man and sang with abandon. Let me just come right out and say this: The more you drink the better we sound.

We certainly enjoyed ourselves on our one night out on the town. Unfortunately, the "night" ends in Chicago at 5 am.

Thankfully, I had enough sense to order a burger and fries from room service at 4 o'clock in the morning when we got back to the hotel. I'm embarrassed to say I ate the whole thing, which is impressive after our 9-13 course (depending on your math) tasting menu. And possibly more shocking than that is we ate a lunch of deep dish pizza at the famous Gino's East the next day!

It's no surprise that I've been on a diet since I got home.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Fine Swine and Wine

Greetings from Chicago! I have the esteemed pleasure of kicking off the weekend here — with my first stop at this spot, which I've been waiting to try. The theme alone makes me happy: Cheese, Swine & Wine. I mean, what's not to like?!

I have the good fortune of being here with my dear friend, Ronda, and we were happy to start things off with a beautiful glass (er, bottle) of the most lovely summer wine. It's very similar to Spain's txakoli but a vihno verde from Portugal. Light, fruity and slightly bubbly. Vinho verde literally translates to "green wine" but the name isn't referring to the color. It's a reference to the notion that this wine should be drunk right away, when it's very young, or green. So Ronda and I heeded the name and got busy sipping away and enjoying the beautiful afternoon in one of my favorite cities.

Wishing you a great weekend, wherever you might be!

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The British are Coming

My Club Med friend, Janine, recommended I bake something special in honor of the Royal Couple's impending visit to Santa Barbara. Since I can't pony up the $4000 to stomp divots with them, I'm hoping this gesture will temp them into at least a hand shake!

When I thought about something appropriately British to make, scones were one of the first things that came to mind. But honestly, I'm just not that into them. I think generally speaking there are muffin people and there are scone people. I'm in the former camp. I prefer moist, cakey baked options over dry, crumbly ones. Although I've never gotten that excited about scones before, this recipe got such rave reviews it did sound fit for royalty (not to mention the recipe title is a pretty strong endorsement). Plus the recipe said it took only 15 minutes to prepare which got me kind of excited. And it didn't use eggs. Is it just me or does anyone else think eggs are messy?. . . .

[On an aside, I just noticed the bottle of Marker's Mark in the background of this photo. What can I say? Doesn't everyone have that on their kitchen counter next to the bottle of olive oil?]

After whipping these up (in no more than 15 minutes), I think I know why these are a hit: they're essentially chocolate chip cookies masked as something much more refined. But per someone's suggestion, I did add more OJ than the original recipe calls for. It created a texture more palatable to me (read: less dry), but still preserves the essence of a scone.

The butter keeps them flakey and the orange zest adds a touch of flair. In short, I thought the result was a scone — but better. Some people may think this also captures Wills and Kate: royalty but better.

English Royalty Chocolate Chip Scones

1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup white sugar
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
5 Tbsp unsalted butter, chilled and cubed
1/2 cup miniature semisweet chocolate chips
8 Tbsp orange juice
1 tsp orange zest

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Spray a baking sheet with nonstick cooking spray.
2. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. With your fingers, a fork or a pastry cutter, cut in the butter until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Stir in the chocolate chips and zest. Mix in the OJ to form a dough.
3. Turn out the dough onto a floured work surface. Pat or roll into a 9-inch circle about 1/2 inch thick. With a 2 1/2-inch biscuit cutter, cut out 12 scones, pushing the dough scraps together for the last few, if necessary. Transfer scones to the baking sheet.
4. Bake in over until golden brown, about 12 minutes. Remove and move to wire racks to cool.