New Blog Site: Change your Bookmarks and RSS Feeders!

Hi! So. After 5 years of having this blog on a free hosted site, I’ve finally taken the initiative to switch to my own site. If you’ve been accessing the site via thegastrognome.wordpress.com, please start doing so at TheGastroGnome.com. If you have it bookmarked, please change it! If you read this on a reader of some sort, please be sure to subscribe to the new site–if you go there, it will tell you how. In big letters.

In reality, for the next year (at least) this site and all the links should forward directly to the new site, so hopefully this will all go seamlessly. If you have any troubles, please let me know!

I look forward to continuing to update you on food and related thoughts at the new site.

Thanks,
Naomi

Beijing Part 5: Regional Chinese Food

As I finish my summary of eating in Beijing, China for eleven days last fall, I contemplate the irony of the fact that an 11 day trip took me 11 months to finish writing up. Yet, the impact that the food of Beijing made on me is fully worth the patience of my readers and time I’ve spent thinking about what was so amazing about it.

While I’ve already written about the foods from two regions, Sichuan and Xinjiang, as well as Beijing’s Street Food and own cuisine, the thing that truly floored me, amazed me and made me feel as though I knew just so little about the cuisine of such a vast country was all the regional dishes. I knew the basics, Peking duck is from Beijing, Sichuanese food is common in Seattle, I knew Cantonese, but with the guidance of my amazing friends, Nick and Even, we took a tour of the foods of so very many different foods.

In summarizing the foods of these various cultures, it is hard to get beyond broad generalizations. The foods of Sichuan were hot with spice and cool with Sichuan peppercorns. The foods of Western China, aka Xinjiang, were closer to Indian or Afghani or even Turkish food than anything else I’d had. Those I at least had known something about before the trip. Then Nick led us down a whole new path. I’ll be summarizing a few of those ‘new path’ meals here.

With a group of six people–assorted ex-pat friends of theirs joined us–at a Shaanxi restaurant, we were able to order a good amount of food. The restaurant was a great little spot, just off of a main road, where I never would have thought to look. I took a card to remember the name of the place, so I could recommend it in the future–I can still remember the frustration when I opened a coat pocket, months later to see the washed, shredded, card. Fear not, the powers of Google returned it to me! (Yeah, I just spent 20 minutes Google-ing it so you can get to it. Thank me later). This was probably the first recommendation I’d give for a traveler to Beijing, as it was totally different from anything you get at home, yet totally identifiable. And totally, completely and utterly delicious.

From the top left corner, you can learn that I have no idea what that first dish is. But it involved noodles and spicy sauce. Next to it was the century egg, my first experience with them, which I enjoyed, despite their reputation for stinkitude. In the bottom right is longevity noodle, which is all one noodle. Yeah, that was hard to share between all of us (especially since it was topped with an egg). The fourth dish shown here is a wasabi buckwheat noodle, which reminded more of Japanese food than anything else. I always find experiences like that refreshing, to remember that no culture is in isolation–authenticity is such a relative term. But before we dwell further….the rest of the dishes (not all of them. I spared you photos of the more boring looking, but no less tasty dishes, such as bitter melon).

Okay, now we’re at the good stuff. In the bottom left, you see Brett and I looking extremely apprehensive at the amount of food that has just arrived and continues to arrive. By the minute! Next to that is a mutton and dumpling soup. That is, mutton, in dumplings, in soup. On the top right is one of my favorites from a meal that was full of amazing food, the green noodles (okay, them being green helped them in that favoritism) which you pulled out, dunked in to the murky, chile-spiked sauce next to it, then ate. The real winner, though, overall, was the lamb-burgeresque thing pictured on the top left. Like a soft, buttery English muffin, filled with tender, savory, roast lamb, topped with cilantro. Oh, damn, I just drooled on the keyboard remembering that dish. Unrelated: I think we’re planning a return to China soon. Oh, wait, that was totally related.

At this point we took it upon ourselves to continue exploring regional foods and ended up at the rather upscale, highly recommended, Three Guizhou men. I knew basically nothing about Guizhou food, so it was a learning experience, for sure. What I found so interesting as I traveled the various culinary regions, was, as the old saying goes, the more things change, the more things stay the same. For example, that dish in the upper left? For all the description I could give you, it was basically a sweet corn tamale. A damn good one. Lower right? That’s a potato pancake. I’ll hesitate to say ‘latke’ and give away my own heritage, but the similarities were there. Note to self: this Chanukah, add spicy chili peppers to latke plate. The other two pictures are a dish that, as it arrived we slowly realized was basically hashbrowns and bacon. And chilis, of course. Okay, conclusion? American breakfast+chili peppers=Guizhou food. Overall the food was good and quite spicy, but I’m not sure I would recommend it unless you were specifically seeking out Guizhou food and a nice meal. Also–it was hard to find, hidden in an alley behind an Olympic venue.

After having ventured on our own, we decided to return to the wisdom of Nick and Even for a little weekend lunch. Even had lived in Yunnan province prior to finishing school and moving to Beijing, so she offered to be our tour guide through the food.

This food was slightly more towards Thai or even Vietnamese food, I thought, especially ‘Crossing the Bridge Noodles’, not shown, which are the signature dish of the region. Basically a big bowl of noodle soup with stuff in it, but I agreed with Even when she said she didn’t think it was really the highlight of the cuisine. We did learn some really great things at the meal, and I enjoyed the food that was further from what I’d had before. We started with a salad of Chrysanthemum greens (bottom right), which were lightly dressed and slightly spiced. The texture was surprising, not at all reminiscent of the frisee which it resembles, but lighter, friendlier. We had a few other, non-pictured dishes (the noodles, a purple fried rice in a pineapple), but the chicken in the bottom left was one that stood out as being exceptionally perfectly cooked and spiced. The whole fried fish (served with spices) on the top left was a favorite of mine–though whole fish always will be–and it taught us a great fact: in China, you don’t flip the fish. You have to pick the meat on the bottom from the top, because if you flip it over to get to that meat, you flip the boat that we are all in. Makes sense to me, I sure as hell haven’t flipped a fish since then. Lastly, in the upper right, you’ll find Yunnan Fried Cheese. Somewhere between doughnut and mozzarella stick, lies these. Crunchy on the outside, stretchy on the inside and dusted with what I think is a combination of sugar and MSG, I secretly loved them. Though we all know I have a mozzarella stick issue.

What, you’re still reading? You’re either bored, hungry, or planning a trip to Beijing. Okay, here it is though, the final meal to go up on the blog, the final meal we ate on the trip. Before leaving, Nick insisted on taking us to one more stop, lunch on the way to the airport, at a Hunan restaurant. There are a million restaurants in the U.S. that use the word Hunan in them. Very few of them serve Hunanese food. I’m eternally thankful that I had the chance to experience real Hunan food though, because I now understand a tiny fragment of this wild, mysterious cuisine.

What do I mean by wild and mysterious? Well, on the upper right, you’ll see a dish that I am told is “wild Hunan vegetable”. No other info and no English name, because, well, why give an English name to something that only grows in Hunan Province? It was sort of halfway between a mushroom and a green, which only belabors the point that in addition to having no English name, it is very difficult to describe. So I won’t. Below that, you’ll find stir-fried donkey meat, which was far better than I would have guessed. Donkey seems to do very well at absorbing the flavors around it, so the meat was fragrant with the peppers that surrounded it. Cold tendon, bottom left, is fast becoming my go-to dish on any Chinese menu that has it, and this Hunan version was up to par. Above that is a classic Hunan dish, a special, Hunanese type of bacon, with a deep, rich, smokey flavor. I believe here we had it over tofu, which soaked up additional smokiness from being cooked with the bacon. Imagine the best bacon you’ve ever had? Now imagine better: Hunan Bacon.

And with that, we hopped in the cab and headed to the airport. Arriving back in Seattle, we made our next meal the same as the one before we left for China: Sichuanese Hot Pot. Yeah, we’re incorrigible.

My own Mexican Renaissance: El Mestizo and Taqueria Latinos

I had Mexican food twice this week, without having to drive. Within the last few months, it would appear that there is a new food group moving into the neighborhood, and I for one am here to support it. We had actually been to El Mestizo once when it first opened. It’s a brick and mortar store in what had been a pizza restaurant for many years, then briefly an Italian place. The taco truck, Taqueria Latinos II, I had not noticed until the minute we ate their food.

El Mestizo has been open for a few months. When we went before we thought it had potential, but nothing terrific. After reading rave reviews around the internets (including a certain local newspaper that as far as I can tell reviewed it based on a meal or two there the first week it was open) we decided it was time to return. We started with drinks and an appetizer. The service was stilted, but decent–our appetizer arrived prior to our drinks. We were hungry though, so we dove into our quesadillas. These were not traditional American style quesadillas. Nor were they like any I’d had in Mexico. A fried shell, filled like a taco, served with a slightly smokey pepper sauce. It was good, though the only issue I had with the food throughout was present here–not enough salt or pepper (like the vegetable, not black pepper). I understand not all Mexican food is spicy, but it does usually have a lot more flavor derived from peppers than these did. The salt was easily over come via the shaker on our table.

Then the drinks came and my whole outlook changed. These drinks were fabulous. Blow me away delicious and knock me down strong. I started with the Mango-Jalapeno Margarita–not sure why I chose this, since I usually find margaritas a bit too sweet. This, however, seemed to draw all its sweetness from the mango. That mango flavor was pure and delicious, tasting fresh and clean. The drink was strong, though the jalapeno pepper slices floating as a garnish seemed to be the only sign of that–like the rest of the meal, pepper was lacking. B ordered a Cilantro-Lime mojito, at my urging. It was amazing. I believe I described it as an alcoholic taco. This is not for those who don’t like cilantro. It was strong, both in flavor and in alcohol, but perfectly balanced.

We finished our drinks while waiting for our entrees and I tried to flag down the cutely androgynous bartender, but failed so when our meal came, we talked to the waitress about another drink. We requested that the bartender make us her choice, but the waitress was not a good listener and picked them herself, choosing just to give us the traditional versions of the drinks we had previously ordered. This was frustrating. They were still delicious, but we had hoped for more creativity. And maybe the waitress making an effort to understand what we were saying. The most incredible part about amazing cocktails being around the corner from our house? The price–just $7 each.

Finally we got to our meal, I had ordered the Birria. While I was sad their birria was beef instead of lamb or goat, it was very good. A few small misses–meat could have been more tender, could have a bit more spice, more salt, it was good and the handmade hot tortillas were terrific. The last time we had been here, the tortillas tasted as if they were made earlier and reheated. These tasted fresh off the comal. B had the Huarche with Al Pastor and it was extremely good. Also lacking pepper in the pico de gallo and salt overall.

Altogether, it was a good meal to have around the corner from our house. I noticed in the newspaper review they had criticized the spice level and the salt level of the food, which makes me wonder if they toned it down and that is why ours was so bland. That said, it’s good enough that I’ll be going back soon to check on it.

I was already to write this up about how exciting it was to have Mexican food in our neighborhood when I was delayed. B came, by bike, on a run with me. On the way home, about a mile from home (on 12th, between Jackson and the bridge to Beacon Hill) we ran across a taco truck. It was a beautiful 70 degree evening, and like a shining light, the tacos called to us. “You bring your wallet?” I panted to B. He did. I assigned him to stop for food while I finished the run.

There are few things as beautiful as a nice evening in Seattle, and to cap it off with one of the most delicious tortas I’ve had in ages had beaming from ear to ear. The place is called “Taqueria Latinos II” and has a few stools to sit on. The torta was terrific, the quesadilla good and the birria/rice/beans plate a little subpar. I’ll be back to check out the rest of the menu.

The many cuisines of Seattle

This list of the 203 countries that Wikipedia considers “Sovereign States” plus one more that I felt needed to be on there is matched up with the restaurant in Seattle (or the greater Seattle area) that serves their cuisine. I by no means think this is a complete list–first of all most of it was done off the top of my head, second of all, it is constantly changing as restaurants open and close. But it is a start and I hope that my readers will chime in with additions, changes and corrections. I used an old Chowhound post to fill in some gaps in my own knowledge so there are about three or for places on here that I’ve never even heard of, which makes me nervous. Most of the rest I have either been to or know someone who has and can vouch for its existence and possibly even quality. Hence the system of stars: If I’ve been to a place, it gets one asterisk. If I’ve been and would recommend it, two asterisks. I’ve divided certain countries (right now I believe just China and India) into regions that I believe are required when discussing national cuisine. As I get more suggestions, I’d like to do that with other countries, so please leave anything you know in the comments. Especially Italian Region, Japanese, More about Indian or Chinese, Thai, French. All of those places I think could easily be split apart. Otherwise, please enjoy this and use it to help you in your quest for new and delicious foods!


Hi, I’m here, I was in San Fran and now: BYE!

I recently got this email from my grandmother:

“Are you too busy to keep up your blog?  I click on every day and see that same photo of the egg looking at me.”

Aw, Jeez. Okay, I’m sorry guys. I have been busy! Amongst other things, planning an 11 day trip to China, which is at this point, really, still entirely unplanned. And I leave in 3 days. Anyone know anything about Beijing? So that is to say, I’m going to disappear again shortly. But when I get back I will have memory card upon memory card filled with food porn straight off the plane from China. I’ll even have 2 weeks before I start my new job (see, I told you, very busy) in which to upload them.
In the mean time I’ve also taken a great trip to San Francisco (yes, again!). This time stops included lots more time at the Ferry Building, an evening at Heaven’s Dog (win), brunch in the ferry building (fail, fail and more fail–my $9.00 breakfast sandwich was average at best) and dinner at Incanto.
Incanto was fabulous. I had to order so much food to get to try everything that the waiter tried to stop me and tell me it was too much food. Yeah, I ordered it all anyway. Aside from having all the bits I love–Beef tendon salad, among them, it also did perfect pasta. And I happen to love pasta. Because I had so much food I shared it among the four of us. We all agreed the Beef Tendon salad was good save for the bitter slices of buddha’s hand that blended in with the tendon. My entree, grilled sardines was extremely good, if simple. Then there were the pastas. One of mine was bone marrow and parsnip ravioli, which while delicious I wouldn’t say was unbelievable. But very good. The mindblowing dish was my second pasta, which I may have hoarded a bit because it was so good I could barely part with pieces of it! Spaghettini with egg yolk and cured tuna heart. Runny, soft egg yolk, salty, savory tuna heart and perfectly cooked pasta. I loved it. Even if not all the dishes were complete wins, none were bad and it was all pretty reasonably priced. I would liken it to Anchovies and Olives here in Seattle, though in a darker, more romantic and meaty sense (and yes, those two descriptors are very compatible).
On our final day I got to live out what is an life long, albeit pathetic, dream of mine. I went to dim sum at Yank Sing, where the hot sauce that I was raised on and live on is from. And it was ‘meh’. I’ll spare you the details and send you to Lorna’s post on it, as we had different meals, exact same reaction: good soup dumplings, mediocre at best dim sum. Dim sum, which I might add, cost nearly 3 times what I pay for perfectly good, though mediocre dim sum here. I suppose I do miss the soup dumplings though.
Once again I had so much fun in San Fran that I immediately booked my next trip there upon returning, so keep me filled with suggestions!

Wine Dinners and Wine Learning: Matthews Estate at Monsoon

MonsoonEastPorkBelly
“Oh, I don’t know anything about wine” or “I just like the kind that gets me drunk” I hear these phrases all the time from my peers, even my most food and flavor obsessed friends. Yet, despite happily dropping $50 on a dinner and another $40 on cocktails in a night, it seems that people my age don’t seem to attend wine dinners. Brian Otis, the representative of Matthews Estate and I mulled over this. It strikes us both as disappointing that these opportunities for great food, amazing wines and education are dismissed. I had chosen to accept the free media pass to Monsoon East’s Matthews Estate wine dinner to discern if there was truly value in attending such a dinner. Yes, I do see the irony. I began a mental tally of how many things went above and beyond my average $45 a person night out with friends–that’s figuring splitting an appetizer, my own entree and one glass of wine. This meal was 5 courses, plus an amuse bouche and a dessert (with cocktail), 6 glasses of wine (refilled, so really more like 8 or 9), and coffee. Tip and tax all included.

Before the food was served I struck up a conversation with Mr. Otis and we discussed the donated Veuve Clicquot. He explained to us the origin of the wine’s name, the widow who basically invented the modern champagne. I asked a few more questions about various champagne type wines, cavas and proseccos. It was a little like having a private wine encyclopedia. Chalk up one point for being very worth while.

Unfortunately, that point is counteracted when the first course is served. Our beautiful Kusshi oysters must have been plated a while ago, as the oyster is warm and the smoked dill cucumbers overwhelm the oyster with smokiness. A beautiful presentation, matched well with the champagne, but an unfortunate bite.

I began to worry as we started the next course. One look at my scallop told me the sous-vide then searing around (as oppose to the top and bottom) of the scallop had somehow overcooked the scallop. I heard someone remark the texture reminded them of chicken. That’s not a good thing. However, there were two saving graces to this course. The first was a marvelous yuzu curd which lifted the muted flavor of overcooked scallop and lent it the luxurious feel of a curd and bright flavors of a citrus. The second saving grace of the course was the wine. The Champagne matched up perfectly and kept the weight of the dish from pulling down the palate. Ups and downs even out this dish on the points scale.

MonsoonEastTrout

I could detect the crispiness of my Idaho trout from across the room, and while it was a well cooked piece of fish, the start of the show was the roasted sweet corn with smoked bacon vinaigrette. This was like bacon popped popcorn, that crisp flavor of popcorn, with a this time not overly smokey flavor. A Sauvignon Blanc from Matthews Estate which was much inquired about but not actually available for sale, as it has been sold out was our wine. The wine was bright and matched well with the fish, yet finished with a crisp flavor that was caramel, but without the sweetness. This was a trend, these wonderful wines with absolutely beautiful finishes. Definitely a point here for the wine pairing and for the bacon popped corn flavor–which reminds me to pop some popcorn in bacon fat and top with bacon salt in the near future.

MonsoonEastShortRibs

The next course took the dinner in a new direction: that of it wowing me with the food. 72 Hour braised short ribs had the texture of a perfectly medium rare steak. The gnocchi beneath it could have used a little bit of a sear, but were as light and fluffy as any I’ve seen in Seattle. Listening to chef Nathan describe the process and theories behind the dish helped me to understand not only what went into the dish, but into the thought behind the wine pairing. This dish went with the Claret. In describing the Claret, winemaker Aryn Morell (whose name was sadly, misspelled on the menu) corrected the definition of Claret I had learned from NPR. It is made from the second class grapes, those that didn’t go into the prime Bordeaux blend. Ding, Ding, Ding, this dinner was racking up points with me as my wine education skyrocketed and I ate a fantastic piece of meat, which in and of itself would have made a great $25 entree. The wine might not have been their premium blend, but the things that brought it further from a premium wine were the same that matched it up well with the fatty braised meat.

The dinner till now had gotten better and better with each sip and each bite, and while the wine in our next course continued that trend, the beef tongue, while tasty just had a rough time improving upon the short ribs. The expertise of the chef still shone in his horseradish buttermilk and apple and parsnip salad, but I needed more of that sauce to amp up the somewhat bland flavor of the beef tongue and the lack of cohesive texture on it. Some parts were mushy, others chewy, all in all, I just like the pieces I could dip into the sauce. Like the yuzu curd on the scallop, the dish was excellent as long as the condiment lasted. This was paired with the Columbia Valley Red Wine, an easy drinker that was heavy on the Merlot. One point for the sauce and wine, but one also denied for mediocrity with the meat.

At this point I was still dreaming of those shortribs, wishing I had taken Aryn, the winemaker and his wife Edith’s offer of the extras on their plates, when the pork belly landed. That’s the picture atop this post. This dish nailed, with precision, the intersection of great wine and great food. The perfectly cooked pork belly both melted in my mouth and had ample outer crispness to give great feeling while eating. Meanwhile the mustard greens and the fried quail egg, aside from contributing to a visually stunning dish, made textural contributions of their own. But once again the condiment, the sauce, stole the show, this one in the form of a cabernet grape reduction made with grapes from the same place as those in the wines we tasted. This sauce was like wine flavored crack and astutely bridged the gap between our food and our wine, melding the experiences to the point where they were nearly indistinguishable. That’s a three pointer. Wait, no, a million points. Forget this system, I just want to go swimming in the cabernet sauce, floating around on an island of pork belly. In the shade of a mustard green tree and under a blanket of fried quail egg. Oh, what? Where was I?

It would have been near impossible to one up that course, but from the heavenly scent of the vanilla cream cocktail that came with the dessert, I might have admitted it could happen. While the scent oversold the dish a bit–seriously it was the best thing I’ve smelled in years–the dish was a well conceived, well executed take on apple pie a la mode, with crisped lumpia wrappers as crust and an apple jelly (with apple chunks) as filling, the cocktail as the ice cream.

To me, to deny that this wine dinner wasn’t worth every penny of the $100 it was charging would be near impossible. I wouldn’t expect this to be an every day experience for people my age and salary range, but I think for a once or twice a year thing, to delve deeply in to the wines we drink and the food we eat, and more than that, the point at which they intersect, is an important part of understanding great meals. In between times, wine educations can come from the blurbs on the grocery store aisles or at free wine tastings (I highly recommend 12th and Olive wine shop if you’re in Seattle).

Asian Dumplings: A Book Review

Baozi If I had to choose my two favorite foods, it would be noodles and meat, so the dumpling is my own personal superfood. Andrea Nguyen, my new hero, has recently written my dream book: Asian Dumplings. Yes, all about dumplings. Oh, dear. I’m drooling already, just thinking about it.

When my copy first arrived on the doorstep, thanks to her generous publisher, I opened the box and sat down on the couch. It was ten o’clock at night, I was exhausted, I had just returned from a long dinner meeting and just wanted to relax with my beautiful book. And then I opened the book.

My advice for readers of this book? Do not read without your favorite dumpling joint on speed dial. Two minutes in I was already begging B for a trip to the ID for a late night dumpling run. Five minutes in and I was debating going by myself, so as to prevent the need for sharing an order.

Luckily B. remembered that I had made some soup dumplings with K. the previous week and our leftovers (which I was supposed to share with her, oops, sorry, K.) were in the freezer and he was able to convince me a road trip wasn’t necessary.

What is it about this book? Aside from gratuitous pornography of the culinary variety, more specifically, DUMPLING PORN, it jumps around the continent giving recipes for things I barely thought of as dumplings, but love just the same, like Samosas, as well as for the classics. I was pleased to see all my dim sum favorites like har gow and shu mei, alongside the foodie favorite, Xiao Long Bao, or soup dumplings.

I was ready to write about how amazing and wonderful the book was without ever having dove into a recipe. But that, darling readers, would not be fair to you. Or me, and my incredible need for daily dumplings. When we were in Southeast Asia I declared I was born on the wrong continent because I did not have the opportunity to buy noodles in soup on the street each morning. I have now decided the problem is compounded because I don’t have a daily dumpling. I’m pouting, just so you know.

Regardless of my pouting, I went about following a recipe, so that I can be sure that I can give this book my seal of approval (HA! Like it didn’t already have it from name alone). In the morning before work, I put together my dough for Baozi. I came home to it and followed all the instructions. Soon enough I had the most darling little dumplings! Golden brown and crisp on the bottom, meaty and delicious inside.

I had chosen to make these because I had everything I needed in the house. Now I can’t wait to go out and get the ingredients for all of the other ones. Were my dumplings perfect? No, making dumplings is not like making Kraft Mac n’ Cheese, simple from the first time. There were ugly ones and broken ones, but they all tasted perfect, so I think that’s what matters.