Eaten: The Petit Mendiant Pendant from La Maison du Chocolat

I hold a special place in my heart for La Maison du Chocolat, having had the fortune of having had a meal composed entirely of chocolate while in Paris.  I’m not kidding in the least – there were truffles, and a demi-tasse of hot chocolate, accompanied by a bowl full of billowy whipped cream.  Oh, and there was a glass of cold chocolate.  And maybe a macaron or four.

So, when La Maison du Chocolat reached out to me and inquired as to whether I would be interested in sampling something from their holiday collection, there was absolutely no hesitation.  What arrived in the mail was their Petit Mendiant Pendant, a glorious combination of nuts and chocolate designed to be hung from a Christmas tree as an ornament for as long as your chocolate-hungry soul will allow.

Opening the package reveals 180 grams of exquisite dark chocolate, almonds, hazelnuts, pecans, and pistachios, covered in edible gold flake.  And, seeing that it had arrived weeks before a tree would ever grace our livingroom, we had no choice but to dive into it immediately.

The verdict?  There’s a reason why La Maison du Chocolat is one of the leading purveyors of luxury chocolate, and the Petit Mendiant Pendant is a just one example.  The piece is no delicate work, far from it – I used a butter knife to crack the thick pendant into rough quarters, and the combination of rich chocolate and nuts ensured that I would be satisfied extending the experience over several nights.  And when all was said and done, I still had that beautiful red ribbon as a reminder of it all.

The Petit Mendiant Pendant is available in La Maison du Chocolat boutiques and online.

December 15, 2011   Comments

In Which I Revel in My Breville

Everyone has probably owned a toaster oven at one time or another.  It’s one of those things that you pick up – along with sheets, laundry baskets, and a mini-fridge – when you’re about to embark on your freshman year of college.  It’s cheap, it gets the job done and it very quickly becomes an indispensable part of your student budget dorm meal prep routine.  In fact, many of us remain allied with our toaster ovens long after graduation, first jobs, and first marriages have come to pass.

If you’ve moved on from your toaster oven to bigger and better things in the intervening years since your college days, you may be surprised to know that, much like Cylons, they have evolved.

For the past three months, I’ve been using a review sample of the new Smart Oven that was graciously provided to me by Breville.  To even compare the Smart Oven to a toaster oven immediately does it a disservice – even though the Smart Oven shares elements that are common to your old standby, such as heating elements and an adjustable rack, the similarities end there.

Featuring 1800 watts of cooking power, the Smart Oven comes equipped with a simple interface that offers three primary dials and a single on/off button.  A turn of the function knob brings the LCD display to life, backlit in a brilliant blue that makes for easier reading of your available options.  Just scroll through the available modes – Roast, Bake, Broil, and Toast, among them – then set the desired temperature on the second dial and the timer with the third.  Pressing the on/off button starts the cooking process.  I appreciated the ring of red light that outlines the button when the unit is in operation – providing me with the assurance that the Smart Oven is on, even if I’m standing  across the room.  Nothing throws your meal pacing off more than when you forget to, you know, turn ovens on and such.

By default, the Breville Smart Oven prepares your food using convection heating, which can be toggled on and off using a small button.  When it’s on, air is circulated around your food by a small fan, providing more even heating and reducing cooking times considerably.  If anything, experimenting with different cooking times is the one learning curve that one would face with the Smart Oven.  Preparing some frozen items, for example, according to the directions on the box may sometimes result in overcooking.

Since bringing the box in from my doorstep, I’ve spent weeks throwing everything that I could think of into the Smart Oven, and have been very impressed with the results.  Bone-in chicken breasts roasted to perfection in about a half hour.  One of my favorite sides, roasted brussels sprouts, cooked in half the time of the original recipe, with the added benefit of freeing up our oven for the preparation of the main course.  The ‘Reheat’ function works extraordinarily well for leftovers, and I never had to worry about overcooking since the Smart Oven shuts off when the timer runs out.  Of particular convenience is the ‘Warm’ function, which maintains a consistent minimum temperature of 160 degrees (or whatever temperature you wish) – this feature is very useful for parents of infants, where eating dinner in shifts is common.

From an economic perspective, I always felt a little wasteful whenever I would heat my large gas oven just to warm dinner rolls, and with the Breville Smart Oven, I no longer have to.  It’s the perfect size for small-batch cookery, such as the aforementioned rolls, a few cookies, or scones for breakfast.  Since it’s considerably smaller than a standard kitchen oven, it heats to temperature much more quickly, ultimately using less power but still delivering fantastic results.

March 18, 2010   Comments

Nirvana in the Kitchen – A Review of the New d5 Line from All-Clad

It all started with a simple message, floating out of the darkness of the Internet: “Can you keep a secret?”

Behind those five words were an invitation to be a part of one of the largest product launches in culinary history, to have the opportunity to become the Chuck Yeager of cookware and push the envelope.  But this was no covert training program, no secret military aircraft were involved, and this was no test rocket – this was a saute pan.

Along with a handful of others, I have been selected as an All-Clad ambassador, and have had the privilege of testing a piece of their new d5 line of cookware.  Those of you who are familiar with All-Clad’s line of products are already well aware of the enhanced performance and level of control that can be achieved and, like me, are wondering how All-Clad could have possibly improved on their build quality.

Having owned a couple of pieces of All-Clad in my arsenal of well-used cookware, I was already well versed in their ability to heat quickly and evenly, so I approached testing the d5 series with high expectations.  I’m happy to say that the d5 line not only meets those expectations, it completely surpasses them.  Combining five alternating layers of high and low conductivity metals, All-Clad has created a line of cookware that excels in even heat control and stability, with a few surprising usability perks thrown in for good measure.

From a design standpoint, the d5 line sports a few highlights that are worth mentioning.  For one thing, the handles on the lids are now oversized, allowing you to slip an oven mitt-clad hand through them, which provides greater stability than using mitten-y fingertips.  A redesigned pour lip enables the transfer of hot pan sauces from any side of the pan without the associated random splattering and loss of control, like those people on late night infomercials that need locking perforated lids to avoid a trip to the hospital.  The handles are now broader, allowing for less fatigue when dancing your meal across the flames of your burners.  Fans of the ‘tip and roll’ technique of making omelets, take note.

As with prior All-Clad lines, the surface of my d5 saute pan heated quickly and evenly, and sustained sufficient temperature to maintain a steady sizzle even over medium heat.  Over a few weeks, the pan held a starring role on our stove, serving as the stage for preparation of our usual weekday dinners of chicken, fish, and the occasional pork chop.

My wife, who absolutely rules the kitchen when it comes to seafood, professed that the All-Clad d5 saute pan provided “the best skin ever” on a recent fillet of salmon, prepared simply with olive oil and some garlic.  Indeed, the salmon skin came out as crisp as pork crackling, while the flesh remained a rosy pink throughout, a testament to the ability of the pan to accommodate minor temperature adjustments.  This matched my own experience with chicken breasts, coated with salt, fresh ground pepper, and a dusting of flour – searing them in the d5 saute pan yielded evenly browned, crisp medallions that, when paired with a simple pan sauce, yielded a quick and easy dinner.  As a side note, the 2 quart saute pan is appropriate for couples and single cooks – if you are cooking for more than two people, I would highly suggest going with the 3 quart pan or larger.

Cleanup was quick and easy – since the d5 line maintains such even heating, there are no hotspots, so there are no burnt spots of food that need to be scrubbed away after the meal.  Plus, as any cook knows, the secret to easy cleaning is deglazing – why wash with water after dinner when you can wash with wine or stock and end up with a killer sauce to serve with dinner?

January 13, 2010   Comments

At Home With the CitiZ: A Review of Nespresso’s Latest Espresso Machine

When I was in college, in the days before Starbucks had transformed into the behemoth that it is today, I worked for a small coffee chain which was located in a well-trafficked corner of the food court at the mall.  For up to eight hours a day, I pulled hundreds of espresso shots and made hundreds of cappuccinos and lattes, frequently for an audience that didn’t even know that the word ‘espresso’ does not contain an ‘x’.  At that time, people bought espresso-based drinks as status items, and I can’t tell you how many times a customer tried to return a cappuccino because “it wasn’t sweet”.

Truth be told, I never understood what the fuss was about.  I had free reign to sample everything that we sold, and the espresso didn’t really appeal to me.  I found it to be a bitter, acrid concoction that was only improved by the addition of disproportionate amounts of sweetener and milk, and by that point I would have been better off with a regular cup of java.

I could have lived happily ever after never tasting espresso again, but then something happened that served to change my perspective forever.  I got married, and we went to Italy for our honeymoon, just two young kids going out of the country for the first time.

We found ourselves in Venice, and on the first morning after our arrival in the city, we had breakfast on a rooftop hotel cafe overlooking the Grand Canal.  With the morning sun glinting off of the waterway, which was beginning to fill with the early rush hour traffic of water taxis, gondolas, and speedboats, the setting was absolute perfection.  A light breeze tinged with the faint smell of marsh, bright skies, and a stellar buffet of platters of prosciutto crudo, cheeses, and pastries completed the scene.

Feeling adventurous, and determined to sample the local product in the one nation that would definitively know how to make it correctly, I ordered an espresso.  What was presented to me was nothing like what I had produced so many times by my own hand – the espresso was topped with a luxurious cap of crema, and the bouquet of the bean, instead of being acrid, was almost sweet, even without the addition of sugar.  Tipping the cup to my lips, the taste was a revelation – intense, yet not bitter, and smooth on the palate.  I spent the rest of our trip ending each of our meals in Florence, Capri and Rome with a single shot of espresso, accompanied only by a single sliver of lemon rind.  Since then, I’ve often considered buying a machine for our kitchen, but was hesitant to do so, having heard unkind tales of inexpensive, underpowered machines, but also unwilling and unable to spend thousands of dollars for a higher quality one.

I’ve spent the last two weeks testing a demonstration unit of the new CitiZ espresso machine, manufactured by Nespresso and available for purchase in the United States on August 1.  For you espresso geeks, I will certainly revel in all of the details of my experience, but for everyone else, here’s my summary:  The Nespresso CitiZ produces a perfect cup of espresso, one that rivals the depth and quality of the product that is served in European restaurants.

If you’re in the midst of performing research on espresso machines for home or office use, you probably already know that the key to high quality espresso, one that features a thick layer of crema and maximum extraction of flavor, is the amount of pressure produced in the process.  While most consumer-level espresso machines produce 15 bars of pressure, the pump-driven Nespresso CitiZ outputs 19 bars.  The results speak for themselves – each shot of espresso that I have made has consistently been capped with a generous layer of golden foam, and the flavor profile is spot-on for how espresso should taste.  Honestly, I never expected an espresso machine that is designed for home use to deliver results that so closely matched restaurant quality.

From a design perspective, the CitiZ offers an extremely easy user experience, with virtually no learning curve to speak of.  The 1 liter water reservoir detaches easily from the back of the machine, giving you the freedom to carry it to the sink instead of using a receptacle to bring water to the machine.  Once you’ve got the water reservoir filled, just plug the CitiZ into the nearest outlet and hit the power switch – the two buttons on the top of the machine (one for regular 1.5 oz shots, the second for the larger lungo shots) start blinking.  Once they remain steadily lit, about two to three minutes in my experience, the machine is ready to do its thing.  Just lift the lever, drop an espresso capsule into the machine, close the lever, and push a button.  After the machine is finished expelling its golden elixir, a second lift of the level ejects the spent capsule into a holding area cleverly hidden behind frosted plastic.  As the owner of the CitiZ, you’ll know if there are empty capsules to discard – but casual observers will never be the wiser.

With respect to physical dimensions, the CitiZ manages to occupy only 5 inches of horizontal space on your kitchen counter, although it is worth noting that the machine is around 14 inches deep – you may need to store it at an angle to prevent it from jutting out into your workspace.  At nearly 11 inches tall, it easily fits underneath my kitchen cabinets.

I used to be an espresso snob, and wanted a machine that would allow me to measure, tamp, and pull my own shot.  After all, I was a barista for quite a while, and part of me considered using capsule-based espresso systems to be cheating.  The Nespresso CitiZ has changed my mind.  You can tell that a lot of research went into creating a machine that’s calibrated to deliver the perfect shot, time and again.  Plus, there really is a measure of convenience in being able to go from craving to satisfaction without all of the manual fuss.  Granted, there will always be purists who insist on sourcing their own beans, grinding, measuring, and tamping, but when you’re pressed for time, or find yourself making many shots of espresso for a crowd, you’ll be grateful for the push-button ease of this machine.

The other mark in favor of Nespresso’s capsule system is the sheer variety of espresso variants that’s available, which allows you to serve espresso for hardcore enthusiasts as well as newcomers who aren’t sure whether they’ll like it.  For benchmark purposes, I used Nespresso’s Ristretto variety as my definition of a “standard” espresso, which did not disappoint.  Nespresso rates the Ristretto variety as a ‘10′ for intensity – if you were preparing a shot for someone who thought that the Ristretto was too bracing, you could easily opt for a Livanto (rated as a ‘6′) or even go as low as the Cosi (an intensity level of ‘3′, and way too low for my taste).  The intensity of each varietal changes based on the origin of the beans and the depth to which the beans are roasted.  Nespresso even goes as far as to recommend which varietals are appropriate for standard and lungo shots, or as components of cappuccinos and lattes, and offers a handful of varietals specifically designed for lungo shots.  The cost per shot comes in at a reasonable .55 cents.

At a suggested price point of $279, the Nespresso CitiZ should definitely be on your short list of candidates if you’re looking for an espresso machine for use in your home or office.

July 30, 2009   Comments

Meeting the Meat on the Main Line

I’ve recently started contributing content to West Chester Dish, a site dedicated to all that is hip and happening in and around the quaint college burg of West Chester, Pennsylvania.  As part of this new gig, we were invited to a press dinner for Georges’ (formerly Les Mas, formerly Le Mas Perrier) in Wayne to preview their new Butcher Shop menu, a collection of supremely high end cuts of prime beef and veal.

Here’s an excerpt:

My entree, the strip steak, was a 14oz platform of perfectly medium-rare goodness, seared to perfection on the outside, a uniform crimson throughout, with no bone to interfere with the coordinated attack of my knife and fork. The meat possessed that telltale mineral flavor that’s indicative of beef that’s been aged.

My writeup of that evening has been posted to West Chester Dish and can be found in its entirety here.

May 12, 2009   Comments

Game On at the Victory Brewing Company

I’ve wanted to write about the Victory Brewing Company for a long time, and I would have pushed this review out close to a year ago, but chose to wait on it.  Don’t get me wrong, Victory Brewing has some of the finest craft beers around, and is home to one of my favorite beers ever.  But when they emerged, butterfly-like, from their renovation last spring, having transformed from a dark, moody neighborhood hang-out (think brewery with some tables and a bar thrown in for good measure) to a full fledged restaurant – something didn’t feel quite right, despite the gorgeous overhaul that included a Brewmaster’s Table, where up to a dozen people can sit underneath a copper brew kettle top.

Prior to the renovation, which took around two months and, at its height, limited the available food items to about six tables and a handful of sandwiches, Victory had offered a decent selection of dishes.  The best output of the kitchen was always to be found in foods that one naturally would pair with beer – pizzas, burgers, the excellent buffalo wings and buffalo chicken wrap, a serviceable steak sandwich.  The menu offered some higher priced items, and whenever we would dare to venture outside the realm of “bar food”, we would invariably be disappointed – a dish described as “osso bucco” was clearly not the shank that the rest of the world has come to recognize as osso bucco, and its texture was closer to pot roast than anything.  So, we would stick with the bar food, and we were pretty happy with that.  The great beer lent a lot of leniency to the food, which wasn’t outstanding, but pretty good for what it was.

For me, the benchmark of any brewpub is the quality of its cheeseburger, which is the perfect pairing with a pint of beer.  So, in my mind, it was an unimaginable sin for the “new” Victory Brewing Company to have taken its burger, which was fine, and replaced it with two thinner patties which surrounded a “filling” – in other words, they took the toppings and tried to get fancy by “stuffing” the burgers with them.  The result was a disaster – the grill cooks could never turn out a proper burger after that, and we’d always get two overcooked, dried out burger patties.  Everyone we spoke with echoed the same sentiment – why can’t Victory just put out a regular cheeseburger and be done with it?

Well, recent excursions to Victory for their monthly “Follow the Liter” event ($5 liters of beer, plus arm wrestling!), as well as an impromptu midweek lunch, has shown the kitchen to be much improved.  Creative burger configurations are a thing of the past, and I am happy to report that the burgers are once again single patty wonders of beefy deliciousness.  They are also better than they were prior to the renovation, thanks to a switch to aged beef.  Having conquered the beer (the renovation enabled Victory to expand their offerings, so today they offer upwards of twenty different drafts plus another four on cask), it was only a matter of time before the kitchen caught up.  As a server recently remarked, the owners kept all of the food items that were working, tossed what didn’t sell, and now introduce new items on the right-side of the menu.  If you want to play it safe, stick with the left side of the menu – but that doesn’t necessarily mean that a pick from the right side is doomed to disaster.

There are certainly more high notes to the menu as compared to last year.  The wings are as good as they’ve ever been, just the right heat, accompanied by that traditional tang of vinegar and always, always a requirement when we go there.  The burgers, as I’ve noted, are large and in charge, well enough of a meal in themselves to make you regret ordering the wings (but yet you’ll finish everything anyway).  The pizza selection has been trimmed to reflect the varieties that were actually not, you know, bland disks of bread – so you have a much better shot of ordering a pie that you’ll want to eat.  The buffalo chicken wrap is still on the menu, just as good and spicy as ever.  A hot roast beef sandwich was, in my wife’s words, “what Arby’s must taste like in heaven.”

Perhaps the best new addition to the food offerings at Victory, though, is a dish that I tried the first time we went to a Follow The Liter event.  It’s called Schweinshauxe, and it’s a pig ankle.  Actually, it’s two pig ankles, served with a cream sauce, sauerkraut mashed potatoes, and red cabbage, and it’s all kinds of amazing.  The meat falls off the bone, and the cream sauce pairs with the potatoes and the tart crunch of the cabbage very well – it’s a perfect rendition of traditional German cooking.  That, and one of Victory’s huge pretzels served with cheese dipping sauce, will always make me regret ordering the wings.

Somehow, though, I don’t think I’m ever going to learn from my mistakes.

April 27, 2009   Comments

Kobe Beef at Teikoku

Most of our economic stimulus payment is going to go towards painting our living room and padding our savings, but we couldn’t resist splitting off a little chunk of the money into a nice evening at a good restaurant.

The restaurant that I speak of is Teikoku in Newtown Square, PA.  I’m not at all prepared to give a full review at this moment, and probably won’t be until we return there again.  For now, you’ll have to make do with a review of the two Kobe beef entrees that we ordered.

Kobe beef is regarded as the finest beef in the world, and if you’ve never had a chance to try it, you may think that all of the hubbub is marketing hype.  The worst part of this is, this may become a self fulfilling prophecy simply because Kobe beef, originally from Kobe in Japan, is becoming bastardized by variations from other countries including, now, America.

True Japanese Kobe comes from Wagyu cattle that are raised in accordance with strict traditions which include a diet of sake and beer, and massaging that purports to result in more tender beef.  It may be marketing hype, but they’re doing something right over there.

Like most things when they become diluted and start to enter mainstream channels, the quality has begun to suffer, and “American” Kobe-style beef now appears on menus more and more frequently, compelling diners to pay higher prices for not-much-higher quality beef, then leaving them to wonder what all the fuss is about.  It’s a sad day when a mall food court restaurant advertises a Kobe burger on its menu.  It’s similar to what happened with Black Angus beef a few years ago – it started as a specialty item in steakhouses, and now it’s a fast food staple.

We had the fortune to try Kobe beef for the first time before the Australian and American versions started to take hold.  It was Valentine’s Day, a few years back, and we had gone to Morimoto in Philadelphia.  We had ordered the Omakase, and as the steady stream of dishes progressed from light to more weighty items, we were served a small, grilled Kobe steak.  It was as tender as butter, with the finest marbling of fat, giving way to an intense beef flavor that put every other beef dish that I’ve ever had, in my lifetime, to shame.  Yes, it’s really that good.  Until now, I haven’t had the opportunity to have Kobe again.

True Kobe beef works best in simple preparations that let the quality of the beef shine through (and not, say, ground up and served as a burger).  You have trust your sources, and Teikoku is definitely a restaurant that would serve a genuine Kobe steak, although they do make a trendy concession in the form of a Kobe cheese steak.

We ordered and shared two of their Kobe selections.

Kobe Beef Hot Rock

As I’ve said, Kobe is best in simple preparations, and you can’t get any simpler than the Kobe Beef Hot Rock at Teikoku.  The platter consists of a small portion of thinly sliced, raw Kobe beef, a citrus-soy dipping sauce, and a big, square sizzling rock.  You place the beef on the rock, let it sizzle just a little bit, and then eat it.  Having it this way definitely allowed us the opportunity to compare it with Morimoto, and, for what it’s worth, it was on par with what we had in Philadelphia.

Kobe Beef Steak – 5oz

Another simple preparation, the Kobe steak is grilled, sliced, and served with a shallot sauce.  Just as interesting were the fries that are served with this dish – Japanese sweet potato fries, glazed in honey.  Overall, a nice upscale variation on steak and fries, and definitely recommended.

May 20, 2008   Comments