Thursday, April 20, 2017

BBF Travels: Asheville, NC Eats

I had the pleasure of traveling to Asheville, North Carolina last week for work. Asheville is surrounded by the Great Smoky Mountains and has a reputation for being a bit of a hippie, artist town, albeit one that is growing and gentrifying à la Portland. 

Two good friends of mine visited last summer, and they reported its food and drink scene is also similar to Portland's. Naturally, after I booked my tickets, I immediately started planning my eating itinerary. 

I flew into Charlotte, about two hours east of the mountains, to spend the weekend with some friends from Maine who have migrated to warmer climes (can't say I blame 'em right about now). The plan was to then rent a car and drive up to Asheville for the week. My bf accompanied me too, working in his own professional development trip. 

In Charlotte, I quickly confirmed my reputation for being singularly minded when it comes to food and suggested dinner at a unique sounding Korean food/Southern BBQ fusion restaurant. But first, my friends wanted to take us out of town a bit to Muddy River Distillery, a rum distillery on the bank of the Catabwa River. 

We signed on for the long tour, an hour and a half, which made me wonder what in the hell there was to discuss for that long in a microdistillery. But the owner Robbie did a great job of filling us in on his backstory, the process, and the rum tasting while keeping us entertained. 

We tried the silver rum; Queen Charlotte, a barrel-aged rum; coconut rum; and spiced rum. The last two were surprisingly delicious, using real ingredients to flavor the rums rather than artificial ones. The rum is only distributed in North Carolina, but is available in all counties, so if you find yourself in the state, you should pick some up (and it's surprisingly affordable for a craft distillery). 

After some cocktails on the porch (not to brag, but it was 80* and sunny in Charlotte last weekend), we headed across town to Seoul Food Meat Company. I'd scoped this place out via the Eater Heatmap, and while my friends apparently never venture over to Charlotte's South End, they obliged my foodie agenda. 

After a wait for a table and some stella people watching (so. many. bros.), we dove into the best Korean-style chicken wings, fatty brisket tacos, ramen mac and cheese, bao buns, pickled deviled eggs, and braised beef ribs. The ribs were our least favorite—we figured later we should have ordered pork spare ribs. Or a million more spicy barbecue and soy garlic chicken wings. 

We drove to Asheville on Monday, where I bided my time in cold conferences rooms until I could sprint outside and soak up the sun. Spring was like 😍  in the mountains, with flowers at every turn, baby green leaves, and temps in the mid-70s every day. 

Asheville allegedly has the most breweries per capita in the country, which, I know a lot of stats regarding "the most" of anything are inflated, but there was seriously, like a brewery on every corner in this town. 

We stopped into Wicked Weed Brewing for happy hour our first night. It's one of the larger breweries in town, with two floors of seating and large patios on each level. They were out of my first choice, Pernicious, the flagship IPA, so I turned to the sour section and enjoyed Marina, a peach apricot sour. 

After our beers, we headed over to Buxton Hall BBQ for a late dinner. This was high on my to-eat list, ever since I'd seen a Bon Appetit video about the making of their famous banana cream pie. 

The pulled pork was delicious, very m-word with tons of flavor, despite the lack of barbecue sauce. I say lack of barbecue, since being in North Carolina meant the two options on the table were a yellow mustard sauce and straight vinegar. I opted to eat my meat naked. Aside from the RC Cola baked beans, the sides weren't particularly noteworthy. 

My cocktail, a Humdrum Paradise was anything but with rum, hibiscus, grenadine, lime and egg white. A's fried chicken sandwich with white barbecue sauce and pimento cheese was delicious, and that much anticipated banana cream pie made an appearance in my dreams that night.

Other highlights included dinner at Cucina 24, a great Italian restaurant. I was out with coworkers, and we tried all the handmade pasta, naturally. Mine was orecchiette with spicy sausage, tomato, and what she said was broccoli raab, but looked more like Brussels sprouts leaves to me. 

We ventured over to the River Arts District another night for beers at Wedge Brewing Co., where the Cajun food truck Root Down was parked. I had a heaping plate of crawfish poutine to soak up some IPA. 

The only meal that was a "miss" was our dinner at Local Provisions. This buzzworthy restaurant was underwhelming, which left me disappointed and with a sense of regret that I didn't maximize my meals better. 

But lunch the next day at the vibrant Chai Pani, which served Indian street food, more than made up for it. The okra fries (on the right) were the sleeper hit, crunchy and with an addictive tang. 

When we hit the road back to the Charlotte airport, we certainly felt like we'd "done" Asheville, and were ready to fly home...mostly to see our cats! But I was loving on the warm spring weather, the friendly company, and the vibrant brewery and restaurant scene. Maine has a lot of things going for it, but spring weather is not one of them (not to beat a dead horse). 

I could have easily kept eating and drinking my way through Asheville. In fact, we've already started floating plans for a family trip back there next spring. Any stir crazy Mainers should consider flying to Asheville for a getaway—it's a short flight to Charlotte, and while a car is nice to have, you don't need one if you stay downtown. 

And Chai Pani owners, if you ever read this, we'd keep you in business should you open a place in Portland, Maine! 💜

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

First Look at Baharat

CN Shawarma was one of my favorite food trucks—it was always parked at my favorite breweries, the owners are so friendly, and its food was that elusive combination of meat with enough fresh vegetables to make you feel like your lunch had a semblance of health. 

I loved their big, fried hunks of crispy potatoes coated with toum, a garlicky sauce that stuck with you for the rest of the afternoon. There were zippy red onions tucked into their sandwiches with chunks of shawarma meats, moist and dyed yellow from turmeric, wrapped up Iraqi flatbread that was far more interesting than a flabby tortilla. 

So when the owners announced they'd sold the truck and planned to move into a restaurant space on the first floor of some new apartment buildings in East Bayside, I eagerly awaited its opening. 

Baharat, the business' new name, opened mid-March, and like a dream come true, there were all my old favorites: falafel, shawarma, and fries, but now available with a full bar and comfy seating. As you'd expect, the new menu is larger too, with mezze like crispy fried chickpeas, za'atar deviled eggs, and baba ghanoush, and of course, that full bar. 

The food truck family is tight—the bartender, Arvid, ran the popular seafood truck Fishin' Ships (which he and his partner sold last year). His speciality cocktail menu has a Middle Eastern theme, with a Charred Lemon Collins, chickpea foam on The Adventure Capitalist (rye, Cynar, spiced grenadine, citrus), and Return of the Sumac, which I ordered—a blend of sumac-infused tequila, mezcal, citrus, and a dehydrated lime rim. 

There's also unusual wines from Lebanon, Patagonia, and Austria, and of course, as you'd expect from a food truck that parked outside of breweries on the reg, plenty of local beer on tap.

After an onslaught of dips and other mezze, the main course arrived. I ordered a plate of two kebabs, minted rice, a pile of pickles, and Iraqi flatbread. The kebab options are falafel ($12), chicken ($14), and lamb kofta ($16). 

The same options are available in a wrap or as single kebabs, and The Shwarmageddon wraps up chicken, falafel, house fries, and sauce in a glorious mess. Hungry diners should go for "The All In," a large platter of kebabs, dips, pickles, and and flatbread available for 2 at $45 or 4 at $70. 

The 2 kebab plate is still a lot of food—tender chicken with a nice char, a pile of crunchy pickled carrot and radish, and warm rice flecked through with mint. The thin bread is perfect for tearing off pieces and wrapping around a hunk of chicken. 

We passed on dessert, much to my regret after seeing the menu which included some sort of custardy thing (my fave). Reportedly the desserts are great, with options like baklava cheesecake and chocolate with tahini buttercream to end the night on a sweet note.

It's exciting to watch food truckers grow their business into something that's familiar and yet grows the concept of the original truck. Baharat takes the bright, unique flavors of CN Shawarma and gives them a home in East Bayside, where you too will be "all in" at first sip and bite.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

BBF Preserves: Blood Orange Shrub

Shrubs, a sweetened, vinegar-based fruit syrup, have been appearing on cocktail lists for a while now, and while I usually like them, they can easily verge on too acidic. Inspired by Food in Jars' Mastery Challenge, I decided to make my own, thinking if I could control the amount of vinegar, I could create the perfect tart and tangy syrup. 

I used Cara Cara and blood oranges sent to me by Limoneira in California—I figured a wintertime citrus shrub would go well with either the bottle of Portland-based Hardshore gin I recently purchased or else would serve as a nice, non-alcoholic beverage for a weeknight (I know, who am I??). 

I roughly followed the Food in Jars recipe for blood orange shrub: squeeze juice, mix with an equal amount of sugar and let stand until fully dissolved. I ended up with a cup and a half of orange juice. Then I added a cup white wine vinegar—a little less than equal parts, since I was trying to keep it more on the sweet side than the acidic one. 

I also added the spent orange halves to the sugar and juice mixture. I figured letting them macerate in the sugar would extract any juice or pulp I may have missed. And I was right—the rinds were nearly completely empty when I extracted them a few hours later. I strained the juice before I added the vinegar, opting for a pulp-free shrub. 

I ended up with about three cups of blood orange shrub. The shrub needs to be refrigerated and will last a few months. 

I tried it with some gin, which wasn't anything special. I'm really trying to recreate a cocktail I had in the tasting room that involves pine syrup, tonic, grapefruit bitters, and rosemary. I feel there's room in that recipe for some blood orange shrub. I enjoyed the shrub most as a spritzer—about 4 tablespoons diluted with some sparkling water. 

Blood Orange Shrub

4 blood oranges, washed
1-1/2 cup sugar
1 cup white wine vinegar

Juice oranges, then pour juice into a clean quart container. Add sugar and stir. Let stand until sugar is fully dissolved, stirring occasionally. Strain juice, if desired. Add vinegar and refrigerate.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Maine Restaurant Week at Sur Lie

When Maine Restaurant Week, the much-lauded, oft-maligned dining promotion, rolled around this year, I took the opportunity to dine out with fellow Portland food blogger Steffy Amondi. We narrowed down our choices to a short list of places we'd either never been or only been for drinks and appetizers. Sur Lie emerged as our top choice—at $35 for four courses, it seemed to be a true Restaurant Week deal. 

We arrived at 7pm for our reservation, but learned that a group was camping out at our table, meaning that they'd paid the bill but showed no signs of leaving. We were nonplussed—we enjoyed the time to order drinks at the bar and chat for a while. 

Sur Lie is known for its bar program—specifically its craft cocktails, so we all took the chance to order from the list of nine speciality drinks. I ordered You Can't Handle The Chartreuse ($11) with Back River gin, Chartreuse, arugula, Thai basil, grapefruit, lime, and lemongrass bitters. It was tart and herbal, as you'd expect, although I wish the arugula/basil/grapefruit flavors had been more pronounced, since the Chartreuse overpowered them. 

Once we were seated at our table, we spent a considerable amount of time digesting the large Restaurant Week menu—each course had three to five choices. Sur Lie's menu is an eclectic mix of cuisines and is made up of small plates, the portion somewhere between an appetizer and an entree. Our server told us that while each of us would order one dish from each course, the portions would be enough for the table to share. 

The first course, "To settle and nibble..." included five dishes from the restaurant's regular menu, and we ordered nearly all of them: warm marinated olives, sweet pea hummus, and cheese and charcuterie board. The sweet pea hummus was light, almost bordering on too mild, but great for spring (if it ever arrives), while the snack board was a crowd-pleaser with contrasting textures and strong flavors. 

Sharing these snacky courses helped create a nice homey vibe at our table—it's always fun to dine out with a fellow food blogger, since you're free to talk in-depth about the food without feeling like you're boring your company. Our boyfriends bonded over sports talk and the ups and downs of dating a food blogger (they concluded it's mostly "ups" 😘 ). 

Our next course was a round of small plates in true Sur Lie style: the fried milk-braised cauliflower, celery and fennel salad, and crispy pork belly over wheat berries, kale, and white beans (the pork belly was the first dish we encountered that isn't on the regular menu). 

The celery and fennel salad was my favorite of this round: fresh and crunchy with great pops of flavor throughout from candied pecans and Pineland Farms cheddar. The cauliflower was a little soft for something being billed as fried, but had great flavor, while the pork belly was very rich—a bite was plenty for me—and hearty with its classic combination of pork, beans, and greens.

Next up, a round of "Sur Taters," a bowl of fried potato cubes topped with roasted garlic, crumbled blue cheese, and pickled jalapenos; fried haddock with a salsa verde squiggle; and lamb bolognese over casarecce pasta. 

The potatoes and the bolognese were the winners in my book—the fried haddock suffered from a soft, rather than crispy, battered coating, and its flavors were too mild to stand up to the other dishes on the table. The bolognese was my favorite, with a tangy sauce and lots of orange zest. 

Dessert was largely what drove me to choose Sur Lie in the first place—I'd spied strawberry-jelly filled donuts on the menu, so my choice was obvious. The others ordered a flourless chocolate cake with cara cara orange puree and gelato, and a passionfruit panna cotta with granola. 

The donuts were perfect—crispy and sugared with the right ratio of filling to dough. Dessert was one course we didn't share, or rather I was only interested in my donuts, so you'll have to read Steffy's report for her panna cotta feedback. 

Sur Lie's Restaurant Week menu was a great choice—a nice mix of regular menu items and new dishes, and at $58 a head (includes a $10 glass of wine, tax, and tip), was a bargain compared to a regular meal there. While it's maybe not the place for those of you who like to make the joke, "I spent $100 and still had to go to Five Guys afterwards," the unique approach to the food and drink menu will please foodies and comfort food-lovers alike. 

Sur Lie | 11 Free St, Portland | 207-956-7350 | Open for dinner at 4pm, Tuesday through Saturday

Thursday, March 2, 2017

My Attempt at Whole30

Now that it's March 2nd and my Whole30 is technically over, I feel I'm ready to share my experience with you. For the uninitiated (oh, how I envy you), the Whole30 is an elimination-style diet where one doesn't consume *deep breath* grains, dairy, sugar, alcohol, legumes, and some preservatives/food additives for 30 days. In avoiding the foods that can cause inflammation in the body, the diet's creators argue, your gut can heal and your mind will reset its unhealthy eating habits. 

A ban on ice cream, danishes, and margaritas can be expected in any healthy eating plan, but no quinoa, brown rice, or beans?? Yeah... on the Whole30, all that's left to eat is high-quality meat, vegetables, fruit, and blessedly, coffee and kombucha. Fortunately, there's great support online and in branded cookbooks to help with recipes, meal plans, and shopping lists. 

Winter citrus salad with mint and Meyer lemon vinaigrette
While this diet claims to help mediate everything from bad skin and allergies to digestive issues and weight loss, I didn't come into it with too many issues. But who knows? The gospel that is Whole30 success stories would have you believe you've been living your life in a fog and that a radical change in diet will lift the veil. Maybe I've been operating at 75% my whole life and stand to gain enlightenment and self-actualization. 

Plus I like a challenge, and I had some help—my partner A. was in, looking to avoid the weight gain that seems to come along with every winter in Maine. And my friend G. was in, because, I dunno, she's a masochist like me. 

We started by clearing the cabinets of any non-compliant items and restocking them with Whole30 staples and snacks. I gave away the granola, composted all the moldy cheese ends, and froze (breaded) fishsticks. I spent $75 at Trader Joe's and Whole Foods on nuts, unsweetened dried fruit, almond butter, fresh fruit, kombucha, and chicken thighs for a slow cooker dinner. I may or may not have eaten a Micucci's slab pizza, "last meal" style. 

A variety of Whole30 breakfasts
On Day 1, I was riding high (as true to the Whole30 Timeline prediction "Day 1: So what's the big deal?"). I had scrambled eggs, home fries, avocado, and salsa for breakfast; leftover compliant beef stew for lunch, and came home later in the evening to what I thought would be delicious Greek-style chicken over green beans and tomatoes. It turns out the recipe was an utter failure—greasy, overcooked and bitter. But as I was coming down with a cold, I didn't have much of an appetite, so I ate some olives and salami and went to bed. Despite the recipe fail, day 1 didn't prove to be a hardship; after all, any diet is pretty easy for just a day.

I also sailed through Day 2, not feeling like I'd made too much of an adjustment in my eating habits. By Day 3, I was feeling really good, as far as pride and a sense of accomplishment. Look at this fabulous lunch I made! I wasn't feeling deprived at all. This was going to be easy.

Butternut squash soup with pistachios and proscuitto; spinach with beets, pine nuts, balsamic vinaigrette 
But after an early evening yoga session and then an ill-advised "quick errand" to the mall with no emergency food on hand, I was feeling grumpy, low-energy, and resentful of the diet (theme alert!).

Fortunately, a chicken ranch salad saved the day—I had the ingredients on hand to make Whole30 mayonnaise and then from that, Whole30 ranch dressing. I seared chicken breasts and crumbled prosciutto over a salad, and enjoyed that I was eating something that didn't feel like deprivation.

*Mind you, I've made it three whole days and was starting to feel pretty over it already. Red flag.

BLT salad—Whole30 ranch + bacon = game changer
Day 4 brought my first Saturday on the plan, with plans to go to a concert at the State Theater that night. I foresaw multiple challenges: my normal routine for a show is to go out to eat beforehand and have a drink at the concert venue. Was I ready to tackle both eating out on Whole30 and a stone cold sober concert?

As per Whole30's advice, I scoped out the menu of a few restaurants near the State and suggested Norm's (excuse me, Congress Street Bar & Grill) to my friends. There were several menu items there that could be modified for Whole30 compliance.

At this point in the Whole30, I was suffering from what they call the "carb flu." As I understand it, your body switches from burning carbs to burning protein and fat during the Whole30 and this adjustment can take a few weeks (!!) with negative side effects. I felt out of it (almost completely biffed a stop sign by the mall), exhausted, and hungry all the time. I was also sick with a cold, compounding the issue I'm sure. I took several multiple-hour afternoon naps during this transition.

So Saturday, after my nap, the 3 Whole30ers ventured out to "pregame" in solidarity at Vena's Fizz House. Since Vena's serves a great variety of mocktails, we figure we'd find something with no added sugar to sip. Jackpot. Spirits were high as we enjoyed Blood Orange Cordials (blood orange puree, apple cider syrup, lemon, blood orange bitters) in fancy glasses with a snack of kale chips.

At Norm's, we enjoyed steak salad (hold the bleu cheese) with balsamic vinaigrette and bunless burgers with salsa instead of ketchup. I broke a rule and ordered fries with my burger. Homemade oven-roasted potatoes are ok but fries aren't? Whatever, Whole30. 

I left Norm's feeling good—satisfied but not unpleasantly full. Who needs buns on burgers anyway? Since I was sick, I didn't even want to drink and had great energy for the entire concert. Usually I fade at the end and rely on the boost from the booze to keep me up until midnight. 

Next up...Super Bowl Sunday. 

So A., being a huge Pats fan, built in a "cheat day" (yes, I know those are not a thing on Whole30) for the Super Bowl. He ate compliant food, but enjoyed beer with the game. Since I'm not a Pats fan, I packed up my kombucha to bring with me to the party like a good girl. I snacked on only compliant foods (ribs and beanless beef chili) and didn't ask any questions about what was in the barbecue sauce. 

Cold Thai salad with "sunshine sauce"
During the second week of the diet, I had varying degrees of success coping with my new eating habit. Gradually, my cold went away—although I'm convinced it took longer to than if I wasn't on Whole30—my brain fog cleared, my energy returned, and I was sleeping great (I started sleeping great after one day without any alcohol though). 

We found compliant bacon at Whole Foods, learned that we love butternut squash zoodles in place of pasta, and were generally loving how many fresh fruits and vegetables we were eating. I ate all of my CSA share vegetables before the next delivery—something I'd never accomplished before. Because easy foods like grilled cheese and breakfast sandwiches weren't available to us, it forced me to actually cook the food in my fridge, rather than staring at a crisper drawer of vegetables, declaring there "wasn't any food in the house" and heading to Rosemont for a sandwich. 

Day 12, one I labeled as "the wheels have come off," I awoke to a very happy A. making pancakes from eggs and bananas. I had to burst his bubble and tell him that wasn't allowed on Whole30. While Paleo eaters can make treats out of complaint ingredients, Whole30 wants you to avoid this for 30 days, arguing the treats will still perpetuate the same unhealthy eating habits. They call this "sex with your pants on" food—eating it will only serve to increase your craving for these unhealthy foods. They were right. Egg white pancakes with almond butter were nowhere near as good as fluffy gluten-filled ones covered in butter and maple syrup. Into the compost my half-eaten pancake went. 

Whole30 lunch at Terlingua: beanless chili (hold the cheese), salad with vinaigrette
Around Day 8, after I moved through the "constant hunger" phase (in which I frequently joked I was starving to death), I entered into the "constant stomachache" phase, which ultimately was my downfall. I must confess I didn't finish my Whole30, but rather bailed on Day 16. 

Digestive issues can be part of the transition, which can take up to three weeks (again, !!!) to resolve. As someone who didn't have any stomach troubles going into Whole30, I found this increasingly frustrating. Maybe I was eating too many nuts? Maybe I was eating foods too high in FODMAPs? Or insoluble fiber? I thought maybe it was all the cauliflower rice (cauliflower can be hard to digest, and if you think about eating half a head of cauliflower instead of a cup of rice, you can see why that might give you a stomachache). 

I went down the rabbit hole trying to suss out the cause of my daily stomach pain, but nothing I did seemed to make a difference. It didn't help that the Whole30 Timeline prescribed that I'd be feeling "boundless energy" and "tiger blood" coursing through my veins—kind of the whole goal of the program—by now. Where was my damn tiger blood?? 

Sitting at my computer one grouchy afternoon, I realized I didn't have to do this. I was an adult, I could voluntarily choose my diet. I'd previously never had any issues around what I ate—no guilt, no shame, just unfettered joy. I realized I could quit Whole30 at any time. And I felt free. 

So if I was going to bail, what was it going to be for? What was I going to eat to reclaim my own personal food freedom? I ran/walked down to Standard Baking and scarfed this sucker so hard: 

Butter, sugar, gluten all in one. Heaven. I waited a few hours, expecting to feel some sort of systemic shock. Nothing. I ate a compliant dinner of cauliflower fried rice (ugh) and delicious chicken lettuce wraps. When a friend used bottled hoisin sauce that surely contained sugar, I didn't say boo. I felt so much better about eating. 

My trouble came two days later on a Saturday, when I tried to resume my normal eating habits: an innocent-seeming egg and mushroom breakfast sandwich. I ate it at 10am and was full for five hours. I had a lunch date at 12:30, but was so full I had to get my food to go, and then didn't feel like eating until 3:30pm. After eating two tacos, I tried to clean my apartment and had to lay down multiple times to rest because I was so full. What was happening?!? 

Since the "full on two tacos" incident, I finished the month out eating largely compliant Whole30 meals. I've given myself the freedom to eat treats when I want them (hello, Honey Paw soft serve) and to have a drink occasionally—although after taking the better part of a month off from drinking, I find my tolerance so severely reduced that I don't really want to drink very much or often. I've added half and half back into my coffee, since the coconut milk as creamer really was sucking all the joy out of my morning cup. If I eat out, I stick to protein and vegetables, still fearing that unpleasant, overly-full feeling. 

Crispy mango chicken with cauliflower rice (seriously, I ate a lot of cauliflower)
As for A., he stuck to the Whole30 for the month and felt pretty good about it the whole time. I made him weigh himself yesterday and he's lost a whopping 15 pounds. We've agreed it was easy to swap out empty carbs for vegetables (like squash noodles) and to stop relying on cheese and crackers for our after work snack. We like that we don't drink at home every weeknight—two beers a night wasn't doing anyone any favors. Kombucha from the Urban Farm Fermentory has been a good stand-in. 

While I don't regret attempting Whole30, I'm definitely glad it's over. There were some undeniable perks and habits I'll continue going forward, but it will take me a while to unwind all the negative feelings around food I've internalized. 

Oh, also another casualty of the Whole30? ALL OF MY HOMEBREW. It unceremoniously exploded after four weeks in the bottle. Apparently I bottled it before fermentation was complete. I blame Whole30—if I'd just drank it after 2 weeks, as per the kit's recommendation, it wouldn't have been around to explode. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Valentine's Day at Izakaya Minato

We braved the towering snowbanks and poorly shoveled sidewalks to walk down to Izakaya Minato, the newest addition to Portland's Washington Ave., last night. This petite Japanese eatery opened a few weeks ago next to Terlingua and has gained an instant following within the neighborhood. The bar has been consistently full the few times I walked by after its opening. 

When we visited, there was some seating available at a communal table, but the hostess offered us a table in the dining room—which I didn't even know existed, since it's not visible from the street. There's another room off the bar that has table seating for about 20. The whole place has a very homey vibe and was full of friendly people. We waved to some neighbors, and throughout our meal compared rave reviews with the couple seated at the table next to us. 

interior of Izakaya Minato
Once settled with our menus we checked out the drink choices. There's a selection of Japanese bottled beers, mostly local drafts, sake, and cocktails (many made with sake). I went with a ginger kombucha from the Urban Farm Fermentory and turned my attention to the dinner menu. 

The menu has a good mix of vegetable, seafood, and meat dishes, as well as noodle and rice dishes. While there were many items we wanted to try, when our server came, A. ordered sashimi omakase for two (market price that night was $14 for one serving) and three other dishes. As is common in small plates restaurants, we hung onto our menu in case we wanted to order more food later. 

The sashimi came first, a beautiful arrangement of uni, scallop, tuna, fluke, and...ah, shoot, I was on a roll there, but forget the last one. The plate also had artful arrangements of thinly sliced vegetables and herbs that added some flavor zings to the cool, fresh fish. 

Our server came back to check on us and declared the uni his favorite—I had to tell him it wasn't mine, but that I was working on it. I think that's the first time I've ever had straight uni; usually I encounter it in other dishes. It has a buttery texture, but a pretty strong briny flavor that, like oysters, may be an acquired taste for some (including me, I guess!). 

We finished all of our courses before the next one came, which was kinda fun—we sat eagerly awaiting the next surprise. 

Our next course, the kani dashimaki or crab and egg omelette ($9) was juicy and savory. So much flavor was packed into the thick slices of egg. The pile of shreds on the plate was daikon radish with some soy sauce, which I didn't love, so I went without after sampling it. 

The tsukune shiitake arrived next—mushrooms stuffed with chicken sausage and served with chili Kewpie mayo ($8). Fortunately, they were sliced in half (we all know how crazy hot a stuffed mushroom can be) since we devoured them so quickly. The little caps were salty, savory bombs and dragging them through the spicy mayo gave it a smooth richness. If I had any food guilt issues, this dish would have triggered them! 

And lastly, another savory meat treat—the kalbi or Korean-style short ribs with kimchi ($14). These thinly sliced ribs were doused in a spicy, sweet sauce then charred on the grill, and the combination of crispy fat and tender meat was addictive. They're also fun to eat, gnawing around the bones for little bits of flavor. The kimchi added a nice crunch and cut the fatty meat with its tart, fresh flavors. 

Deciding that we'd ordered the perfect amount of food, we declined another round and dessert as well. Our tab came to $76 before tip (includes three kombuchas), which while not cheap, was a fair price for the high-quality seafood and skillfully prepared small dishes we enjoyed. 

My takeaway is that Izakaya Minato a great hangout spot that's different enough to feel casually hip, while the food is a good mix of the familiar and novel. As of now, the Izakaya opens for dinner at 5 p.m. and is closed Sundays. 

Friday, February 10, 2017

My First Homebrew: Everyday IPA

I joke that there are certain hobbies I'm saving for later—like knitting. I figure I've got a long life ahead of me (knock wood), so I've got to save some things for later. Homebrew fell into that category for a long time, and plus it seems like a mid-30s hobby... your taste in craft beer needs to develop and you need to have enough disposable income for the pricy supplies. So this past fall, something finally clicked, and I stopped seeing homebrewing as a somewhat boring activity, and became interested in trying it. 

Fortunately, a lot of the men in my life have dabbled in homebrewing, so there was no shortage of family members who wanted to give me their equipment and dole out advice. I started by slowing gathering the equipment and helped a friend brew a Scotch ale in order to get an overview of what the process was like. 

homebrew supplies

After receiving a beer kit for Christmas (thanks, Liz!), the time had come to jump into making my own batch of beer. I started with a one-gallon kit from Brooklyn Brew Shop for Everyday IPA. The idea behind Brooklyn Brew is for city dwellers with limited space to make small batches of beer, so the kit comes with everything you need minus some common kitchen items. My next batch will be five gallons of beer or about 50 12-ounce bottles (!!).

The first step is heating the grain (aka mashing) to create the wort. This involved heating the grain with water to a certain temperature, maintaining that temperature for a period of time, then straining out the grain. This step does a few things, but its primary purpose is to turn the starches into fermentable sugars.

The next step is to boil the beer and add hops as you go. The boil takes an hour, but my IPA recipe called for me to add hops every 15 minutes. Hops are added in different stages to contribute to flavor development (i.e. creating bitterness when added at the beginning of the boil and more volatile hop flavors, like pine or citrus, when added at the end).

After the boil was complete, I put the pot in the sink to cool. I do have a fancy wort chiller, but it wasn't worth it to hook it up for a gallon of beer—an ice bath in the sink brought my beer down to 70*F fast enough. 

After the wort was cool, I add the yeast and funneled the beer into its fermentor. I used the one-gallon growler that came with the kit, but my next batch will go in the five-gallon glass carboy my dad gave me (thanks, Dad!). 

After sealing the beer off with a tube/cup of sanitizer situation, I let the beer sit on the counter for two days. I was pleased to see signs of active fermentation happening, which was a sign that I hadn't killed my yeast off by adding it to wort that was too warm and that my yeast wasn't old/inactive. 

Two days later, I replaced the tube with an airlock and put the growler in a dark place for two weeks to fully ferment. 

After two weeks, the beer looked pretty much the same, save for the couple of inches of sediment at the bottom of the growler. This is called the trub and is made up of yeast that has died after living its short, but useful, life. We thank you for your service, yeast. 

And now bottling time! The part where I probably screwed it up, due to sticking my less-than-sanitary hand into the beer a few times. 

In order to create carbonation, I added some honey to the beer, before I siphoned the beer into four 22-oz. bottles (only four?!?) and capped them. Theoretically, the remaining yeast will feed on the sugar, create gas, and fizz my delicious-tasting IPA. There's a lot that could have gone wrong, so we'll see. 

Two more weeks in the hole, and the beer will be ready. Stay tuned to Instagram for the taste test.