Monday, July 11, 2011

Review: Cassis American Brasserie

Friday featured two new restaurant adventures, chosen to kick us out of our food rut. At lunch, we braved a torrential Florida downpour on a doomed food mission in Gulfport. A favorite beach dive closed several years ago, and I keep waiting for it to be replaced with something equally fantastic. No such luck. Its current incarnation as a faux-British pub is ripe for a visit from Gordon Ramsey.

Thankfully, dinner was an epic win. We ventured to Cassis American Brasserie, a newcomer to the upscale restaurant scene in downtown St. Pete. I've never been to Paris, but this place certainly felt like I imagine a bistro to feel--quite a bit larger perhaps, but pleasantly noisy and open. High ceilings, shiny white tiles, softly colored globes of light, and comfortable banquettes--and celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse, sitting just behind me, facing a massive tray from the raw bar. It all made for a thoroughly cosmopolitan, yet eminently comfortable, ambience. Dorian summed it up succinctly: "This place makes me want to move back to New York. NOW."

The food was more deftly prepared and presented than anything I've eaten before in the Tampa Bay area, save only for our first visit to Cafe Ponte in 2004. Dorian went for traditional bistro fare, selecting the onion soup gratinee and steak frites. Both were very good, if not outstanding. He said the steak was perfectly cooked, tender and very rare inside, and bathed in a rich demi glace. The frites were tasty but slightly limp, probably from being piled into a paper bag and left to sit for too long.

I was sorely tempted by the fried chicken with lobster mac and cheese, but I start training for a half marathon this week and couldn't justify the fat and calories. I went for much lighter choices--and was not sorry. A cool, refreshing cucumber-mint gazpacho arrived at my table, heaped with massive lumps of sweet, minimally seasoned blue crab meat. If Emeril hadn't been sitting so close, I might have licked the bowl.

My entree was beautiful and tasty--rainbow trout in brown butter, on a bed of roasted potatoes and crunchy haricot verts. There were a few plump shrimp on top, but they were completely extraneous. The sharp bite of capers in the butter surprised me, infusing every morsel of trout with briny joy. I've had a very similar dish recently, that took a richer route and added bacon, and that was perhaps more comforting; but those capers totally won me over.

I shouldn't have had dessert, but, you know...FRENCH food. A flaky (if slightly dry) pastry round, topped with tender, warm apple slices and swathed in caramel, is about as good as it gets. But the addition of homemade coriander ice cream, delicately spiced and melting, nearly put me into a happy food coma. I found it almost painful to choose a dessert, but I am so pleased with my choice.

We will definitely be back to Cassis for more. I want that fried chicken (though perhaps not until after my race in October), and I long to try the poached peaches with cassis sorbet and chantilly cream. I wouldn't mind making my way through the cocktail menu (my violet margarita was tart and very subtly perfumed). And they have brunch, too--I noticed an asparagus and goat cheese omelet. It wants to be inside my belly, and soon.

This is a great addition to the St. Pete food scene--and if it keeps attracting the chefs taping over at Home Shopping, it could soon become a foodie's paradise. My friend Jenn over at Jenn Likes It knows that Wolfgang Puck eats there frequently, and I'll bet word spreads around HSN quickly. Good luck to this fab eatery. We'll see you again.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Video games CAN be good for you!

Children are perverse.

Sometimes you can fool them--reverse psychology works like a charm. Other times...well, not so much. I've learned that you cannot give them a choice between something you want them to pick and something you don't; invariably, they'll choose the latter. "Do you want to go to the BEACH (voice goes up and out to indicate This Is The Best Option) or to the park (barely enunciated in hopes it won't register)?" always ends in "The park!!!"

Likewise, I once bought a Ratatouille-themed game for my 4-year-old, hoping that he'd merrily fry his brain while the game implanted subliminal "I love cooking!" messages. Instead, he ditched it for two years in favor of the Cars game, narrated by some redneck-y sounding NASCAR dude. #momfail

However, at some point during this school year, Max began playing Ratatouille on our daily commute to Tampa. I imagine this happened because the commute is long and boring and he had exhausted his less educational games. Desperation leads us down many unlikely paths.

So but anyway, a few weeks ago, Max says to me (apropos of nothing), "I know how to make eclairs. Chef Gusteau says I do it perfect. Let's make them for reals."

Let's hear it for delayed gratification.

Afraid he'd lose interest in French cookery faster than I lost interest in the first LOTR movie, I grabbed Amanda Hesser's beautiful New York Times Cookbook, found to my delight that we already had every ingredient in the list (including ONE BILLION EGGS), and pulled out the aprons.

I'm happy to report that Max read the recipe, fetched the ingredients, measured them out (after an impromptu lesson on fractions), and pretty much did everything except beat the living shit out of the pastry dough, which turned out to be my job. (It also turned out to be really, really hard, because I did not have a wooden spoon, but Max did--"in my baking kit," as he triumphantly announced--which was about five inches long, being obviously optimized for use by a toddler.) Oh, okay, I piped the dough onto the baking sheet and filled a few of the more deflated and difficult-to-fill eclairs. But he did the rest.

Normally, I'll copy recipes from books up here because I usually alter the hell out of them anyway and that's how I roll, but in this case not, because I don't fuck with baking recipes and because everyone should buy Ms. Hesser's book RIGHT NOW and use it every day.

They were delicious, if slightly unglamorous (they were made by a 6-year-old and an adult with the baking prowess of a 6-year-old), and fun to make. Except they took about 15 minutes longer to bake than the recipe suggested, and beating that dough SUCKED. Eating them, however, did not suck.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Perfect Meals

I turned...well, /older/ this week, and I celebrated with dinner at Bella's. This South Tampa eatery is a perennial favorite, and while toasting over a glass of Prosecco and a bowl of homemade noodles with peas and basil, I had occasion to think about perfect meals.

To me, a perfect meal denotes great food in the perfect context. The timing, ambience, service, and spirit of the meal must at least equal and at best surpass the quality of the food itself. It may surprise anyone who knows me that I'd rank /anything/ as important as the food, but I've had stellar food under miserable circumstances. In such instances, context taints the meal. By contrast, a perfect scenario can elevate the humblest cuisine to the status of "perfect meal."

Here are, in no particular order, a few of my Perfect Meals:

On our honeymoon in Florence, Dori and I stumbled into a tiny eatery down the street from our pensione. We were staying far away from the more ritzy or touristy parts of the city, and this joint was suitably "local" in feel. Our young waitress was so earnestly adorable that we still think of her and wonder what she's up to. She delivered to us mammoth plates of spaghetti alla scoglio, rich with chile-spiked olive oil, pungent with garlic, and piled high with briny clams and mussels. We were poor, young (well, one of us was!), and giddy with love, and nothing before or since has captured that essence as faithfully as the Florentine spaghetti.

Having successfully escaped Delaware after five miserable years, we never imagined that we'd miss anything from the First State. But we do miss something: Ali Baba's, a casual Lebanese place on South College right by the University. In grad school, this place was a divine gift--inexpensive, healthy, unusual, delicious, and suitable for a casual lunch or a take-your-parents-out-when-they're-in-town dinner. We ate there more than once a week. Last year, we drove to Maryland to visit my folks, with a side trip to Philly to see my sister. Full of great city food and exhausted from driving and walking, we nonetheless stopped at Ali Baba's on the way home (2 hour detour not really being "on the way") and grabbed late-night take out: eggplant salad, fattoush, Lebanese gyros, hummus, and ice-cold pear nectar. We couldn't even begin to eat it all, but it was a beautiful, joyful meal. And the waiter remembered me!

I recently attended a conference at Georgetown University, which put me in my old DC stomping grounds. As will surprise exactly zero members of my family (and Caron), my first thought was not about my paper or my outfits, but about when and how I might fit in a meal at Jaleo. I used to eat there with my mentor professor as a tender undergrad before performances at the Shakespeare Theater next door. I had no idea it was run by a celebrity chef, just that it served the most sophisticated and exquisite food I'd ever encountered. I /pine/ for this food, these beautiful tapas, nearly every day. So after I delivered my paper, we broke for lunch and headed off on a brisk walk to Jaleo. The food was, as always, transcendent (grilled octopus with pine nut praline, patatas bravas, wild mushroom risotto, smoky mussels), but it was the smart, witty, company and the day of melding my past and present lives that made this lunch stand out against all my other trips. I'll never forget a moment of it, and I'll never have another tapa or watch an episode of Made in Spain without being transported directly back to that bliss.

What are your Perfect Meals?

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Sunday, January 23, 2011


I hate cooking dinner after a prolonged grocery store visit. I rarely do it. Usually I claim wifely privilege, saying, "I just did all the shopping. I'll be doing all the cooking, all week. But not tonight." And so we get a pizza or something. This time, however, I noticed that we had all the makings of a fondue in the grocery bags, and I thought even exhausted I could handle some rough chopping and a little grating.

I steamed some baby potatoes (I didn't cut them or peel them, cuz, hey, this was supposed to be easy) in the same pot as a head of broccoli, ripped into florets. I tore up a chunk of sourdough baguette, chunked up a few apples, wiped off some button mushrooms, and I was ready.

The fondue came together so quickly! I boiled a bottle's worth of Guiness, threw in some whole-grain mustard, minced garlic, and English mustard powder, then added handfuls of grated sharp Cheddar (tossed with a tablespoon of cornstarch to prevent clumping). I whisked after each addition until smooth and kept going until my pound of cheese was all smooth and bubbly and delicious.

Poured into my fancy-pants All-Clad fondue pot, this did a great job of pretending to be a classy, time-consuming meal. We ate like pigs, and not for the first time (well beyond, in fact, the four thousandth time), I thanked the universe for not making me lactose intolerant.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Why I Am Not A Baker

I am not a baker, I am a cook.
Why? I think I would rather be
a baker, but I'm not. Well,

for instance, Max wanted
to make a blueberry pie. I said yes.

This is what happened:

I thought it would be adorable to make little pocket pies, and I just happen to have a heart-shaped sandwich cutter. Sounded easy and foolproof. But for me, no baking is fool-proof--because baking is Not. For. Fools. You have to be able to measure, for godssake. And that requires numbers. So right away I'm doomed.

I didn't know I was doomed until Max had cut out all those cute little hearts and painstakingly piled tablespoon-fulls of blueberries on top of each one. (NB: Do you know how many fresh blueberries fit in a tablespoon? Three. So, as I say: doomed.) (NB2: Do you know how hard it is to get a 5-year-old to painstakingly do anything? Much less pile three blueberries into the center of irregularly-shaped pie crusts? DOOMED.) The full force of the doom hit me when I went to place the top crust on each pie and realized--a tad belatedly--that the top crust couldn't possibly be the same size as the bottom crust, or it wouldn't fit over the berries. But I had just the one cutter. So I stretched and cajoled the unwilling dough, eventually just saying "fuck it" and patching up the edges with dough scraps.

When I pulled them out of the oven, they were so browned and crunchy with sugar crystals and beautiful and fragrant...and completely empty. Every single drop of filling had leaked out of every single pie and coated my expensive cookie sheet and my baking stone.

Good thing I thought to pour the leftover berries into some ramekins and stretch a little extra dough over the top. One even made a smiley face. See?

He seems to be saying, "Clearly, I was the better idea, dumbass." Yeah? Thanks a lot, pie.

** My sincerest apologies to you for both the blurry photographs and my egregious (and awful) appropriation of one of the loveliest poems I know: Frank O'Hara's "Why I Am Not a Painter."