Thursday, July 23, 2009

Xios Greek Restaurant, Apex, NC


Aparna and I decided to stop by Xios restaurant on a whim - it was a Sunday evening and we had ventured away from home for blueberry picking. Xios happened to be close by according to google maps and we gave it a go. As I've mentioned in the past, greek cuisine, as part the larger family of mediterranean foods is one of my favorites. I've come to expect a variety of flavors, textures and temperatures from cool dips to light pastries and rolls. We are perfectly content making a meal out of the starter menu that is typically vegetarian. In that regard, Xios was no different. It offered plenty of vegetarian choices in the appetizer section. We did make a meal out of the appetizers but we weren't impressed and more importantly had a rare feeling - that of being stuffed and bloated. I'm willing to take some of the blame - I could have chosen a more balanced selection - but the dishes we were served were thoroughly disappointing.

The one redeeming part of this meal was the Flaming Saganaki (pictured above) - which sounds more Japanese than greek - a pan-fried kefalograviera cheese finished with brandy and lemon. It was a impressive presentation, arriving in towers of flame having been lit up by our waiter on its way. The alcohol, lemon and salty flavor of delicious not-so-chewy melted cheese made for a great dip with the pita bread pieces. Unfortunately, that was the beginning and end of the enjoyable part of the meal.

The other two starters I ordered were the Spinakopita (a lightly flavored small spinach pastry) and Tiropita. Let me quote the descriptions for these - "Spinach pie made with paper thin layers of phyllo dough inside which you'll find a delicious blend of spinach and feta cheese" and "Greek pie made of paper thin phyllo layers inside which you'll find a delicious blend of cheeses". First off, these didn't look like restaurant-class food as can be seen. One couldn't distinguish between the two. At $6 a pop, I expect something a little more .. umm .. "appetiz"ing. At this point, Aparna was fuming. Still, I was willing to look beyond that and went for them expecting the taste to vindicate my still unflagging faith in the restaurant. The minute I bit into the first pastry (I don't know which but it doesn't really matter), I knew it was a lost cause. The "paper" thin layers were hard, dry and incredibly thick. The cheese (with and without spinach) was fried beyond recognition. It was plain obvious this was batch just heated in the microwave. To charge $6 each for these disappointing dishes was atrocious.

I will allow for the fact that my cheese greed got ahead of me. I should've ordered something else - like a hummus or eggplant dip to contrast with the fried stuff. I would have, had these been even remotely edible but by that time we'd had enough. All said and done, you won't starve if you go to this restaurant. You'll get something very average for the money you'll dish out. Had this been a food court stall, I'd find it excusable. At $30 for what we ate, Xios is very well deserving of the single beet for quality.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Sage Vegetarian Cafe, Chapel Hill, NC


At the moment of writing this entry, Sage Vegetarian Restaurant is an unconditional favorite of Aparna and I in the triangle area. In fact, its among my top 3 favorite non-Indian vegetarian restaurants anywhere. We come here at least once every 3-4 weeks and it is our destination of choice if we need to wow guests visiting us in Durham. In addition to scoring top marks in the food department, Sage is also a very cosy and quiet little romantic getaway. If you are a party of more than 2, you'll need a reservation. It has almost always been full at nights in our experience.

While acknowledging a generally great menu with decent selection of starters including salads and dips, I will skip thru to my favorite - the Fesenjoon. I've been to this restaurant at least 10 times in the last 10 months and I've ordered Fesenjoon as my entree 9 times. This usually goes against the grain of my logic which is to go for variety. However, I lose that battle at the entrance to Sage. Fesenjoon (also Fesenjan) is a heavenly stew with a rich creamy texture featuring pomegranate, walnuts and tempeh. With a delectable interplay of sweet and sour flavors and a tart aftertaste (from the pomegranate), this is a dish I've come to worship.

What Fesenjoon is to me, the Chicken Cutlets in Coconut Curry is to Aparna. At the risk of sounding repetitive, I will keep saying that its not easy to pull of faux-meat/chicken dishes. This is another (rare) example where the 'chicken' is drenched in the coconut curry. It is important to note that this isn't a typical thai style preparation. While every bite is incredibly soft and tender, sweet coconut underlines the subtle but rich flavor of the creamy sauce. I believe these dishes are cooked for hours at a stretch - and not surprisingly, the dish comes thoroughly saturated with flavor.

On rare occasions such as today, our guest decided to order what neither of us could in our many visits in the past few months. The Bud-m-Joon, is another great stew featuring eggplant, tomatoes, lentils, onions and several different spices. In the past, I've also ordered their ravioli and gnocchi - which were among the better italian dishes I've had. While Sage is a vegetarian restaurant, it isn't necessary fat-free. All the dishes are incredibly rich and creamy and the serving size isn't something to be sneered at. Come prepared to enjoy a sumptuous dish - you are not skimping out on anything.

While Sage has a good-looking dessert menu, we weren't very impressed in the past with our selections. That's probably why I'd give Sage only 4 beets. If I ever figure out how to assign a 1/2 beet, I'd give it 4.5 beets. Still, if you are in the Triangle area, Sage is not to be missed for it's unique and lovingly prepared dishes.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Guglhupf Bakery, Durham, NC


Guglhupf Bakery and Cafe is a Durham institution. I first came to know about it while looking to buy Aparna's birthday cake last year. After almost a year in Durham, and several recommendations from friends who had been there, we finally made it for lunch today afternoon.

The cafe is primarily a Salad & Sandwich place. While the menu isn't rich in vegetarian options, it did contain a few options that showed some imagination as opposed to a run-of-the-mill apologist vegetarian selection that's more of an afterthought than anything else. We started off with the do-it-yourself bruschetta featuring warm toasts, roasted red peppers, olive tapenade and ratatouille - the tapenade was an easy standout. The cheese plates were particularly eye catching but I left them for another day. I had to pace myself - the sandwiches and pastries were still to come.

I ordered the roasted beet sandwich which was excellent. While I'd have preferred slightly crunchier red beets for their sheer beauty, the golden beets weren't bad at all. The bleu-cheese dressing and the pungent flavor of the arugula leaves made it a memorable meal. Aparna got the half-n-half combo with Eggplant Panini and lentil soup. The former was excellent with melting fresh mozzarella cheese, the latter was passable - it was the only vegetarian option available at that time.

We ended with a rich chocolate mousse (pictured above) and lemon panacotta. As it often happens, I forget that I have pictures to take before attacking a dish and the pannacotta suffered as a result. It was a tidy little package and had all the attributes of a great pannacotta - a light but firm texture, not overly sweet with a hint of lemon and creamy without tasting milky.

While the cakes and pastries are top-notch, Guglhupf Cafe is a charming destination for a relaxed weekend lunch. It may not have a great vegetarian selection but it does well in terms of "quality not quantity".

Friday, July 17, 2009

Summer & Chocolate

Summer is a great time to be eating dark chocolate because even at room temperatures, these beauties are primed to melt in your mouth. Too often, I see folks eating chocolate stored at less than 60F ambient temperatures - which is almost criminal. Here is a rule of thumb - if stored at an ideal temperature, the chocolate should start to lightly smear up your fingers within a few seconds of coming into contact. While it can be messy, you are assured that you are getting the most out of the chocolate.

Dark Chocolate doesn't lend itself to instant gratification - its pleasures are surrendered in a delayed action sequence. First come the texture and smoothness which, if consumed at the right temperature (65-75F) should become apparent with minimal effort from your mandibles. After traversing the insides of your mouth for a few seconds, the flavors should start to announce themselves. Apart from the varying levels of bitterness and sweetness, one should start to sense the infusions - most commonly dried fruit bits, coffee, spices, seeds/powdered seeds, wine and other alcohols. These flavor notes can arrive in waves hiding and surfacing unpredictably. Here is where you palate and the skill of the chocolatier come into play. Allow yourself the time to experience these and if you aren't a convert already, you'll be one.

Pictured here is my sister Manju creating what turned out to be among the best truffles I'd eaten for my birthday earlier this year. In addition to conventional orange rind truffles, she got a bit creative with wine soaked dates and amaretto soaked raisins. The latter were a huge hit - in particular the wine soaked dates - which almost seamlessly disappeared into the ganache. I've been trying to get her to mail me more of these ever since.

Finally, an honorary mention for chocolate bars made by Santander which are among my recommended picks and a great value for money. The bars cost between $2-$4 each and pack a lot of quality at that price. If you are like me and try to justify nibbling square(s) of dark chocolate daily as a nutritious health supplement (yeah, right! :-)), this one is well suited and won't set you back by too much.

Of late, I find that I only eat their coffee/fruit infused 70% Cacao bars because those are the ones that really set Santander apart. A nod to Colombia's rich coffee producing culture, both the "70% Dark Chocolate with Coffee Nibs" and "70% Dark Chocolate with Espresso" have rich, deep, lasting flavors with great texture. Both of these can really wake you up - so if you are sensitive to caffeine, don't consume them at night. At about $3 or less, these are among the very best you can find at the price.

Pictured above is something I recently tasted, their "70% Dark Chocolate with Passion Fruit bits". Again, this was a great creation - the acid and sweetness of the passion fruit bits perfectly complementing the chocolate base. There is another one with Pineapple bits that I haven't yet tried.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Palakkad Special

Last night, we were invited to Remya's place for for a yummy "palakkad" dinner. For lack of a better term, I called this dinner Palakkad Special as Remya is a Palakkad Iyer. These are Tam Iyers (redundant, I know) who can trace their roots to Palakkad which became part of Kerala state in 1957. Their traditions including language and cooking is reflective of that association.

The menu for the night started off with a (relatively) simple fried beans and included a Koottu, a typical Tam/Mallu stew featuring (in this case) snake gourd, coconut, toor dal and chana dal. Remya started off boiling the snake gourd pieces, added toor dal and patiently worked her way thru roasting and grinding a mixture of ground coconut and chana dal. While I'm blissfully unaware of the intricacies of the process, the end result was bursting with flavor and spice from all the ingredients.

Also interleaved into this was the sambar. End of the day, Remya is a Tam and you gotto have sambar. At it's heart, Sambar is a tamarind and lentil broth packed with a tonne of stewed veggies and can be found in all south indian restaurants. I'm a sambar snob among other things and 9 out of 10 restaurants come a cropper when it comes to delivering a balanced sambar. Unsurprisingly, this one had the right consistency and flavor. Again, you'd be hardpressed to find a Tam household that makes bad sambar. It's the basis of their food. To rubbish a Tam's Sambar would be good way to get really personal with one.

I thought I'd take a moment to mention what to me is the quintessential element of south indian cooking - termed tiragamutha/popu (Telugu), thaalithal(Tamil) and chaunk/tadka (Hindi). The south indian version almost always features a mix of mustard seeds, methi seeds, dry red chillies and hing heated in oil or ghee. The resulting concoction gives rise to the most intense aromas that I've ever come across in a kitchen anywhere. While it can often lead to a bout of coughing and cause the resulting aromas/odor (depending on your perspective) to hang around the kitchen for a long time, nothing beats its contribution to the end result. There would be no sambar, charu, pulusu, upma, daddojanam and countless other delicacies that define South Indian cooking.

The aroma transports me to a world many miles and years away - to the magical confines of my mother's and grand mother's rustic kitchens back in India. Often times, I come home to the lingering smell left behind by tiragamutha and I just close my eyes and sink into a meditatory repose. Few things can be as evocative ..

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Cobbling together a feast

Every once in a while, Aparna has a knack of creating a feast out of seemingly nothing. Yesterday was cook_with_what_you_have day. We had very little of a few things like Chamadumpa, Thotakura and chinese eggplant. Since none of these individually stood a chance of sating my usual appetite, she got started cooking all three of them - in parallel. I've known a few good cooks in my life but none come close to the ruthless efficiency Aparna displays in the kitchen. To me, it just seems like a blur and I learnt very early to stay out of her way. Cooking isn't a team activity as far as she's concerned.

Anyhoo, the first dish was a stuffed and sauteed eggplant. Eggplant is the king of vegetables in Telugu culinary tradition and the great cooks are rumored to be able to cook eggplant in 30 or 40 different styles. Aparna used a groundnut based stuffing and slow-cooked the 4 or 5 pieces.

Cooking alongside was Chamadumpa vepudu. This is without doubt my favorite dish anywhere - the golden exterior of the cooked taro discs lightly crisped up and adorned in a proprietary Andhra seasoning can get me to drool in an altogether unwholesome manner. The benchmark for this dish was set over the years by the formidable talents of Mom and Ammamma (Maternal Grandmom). Aparna is therefore up against very high taste thresholds set by the best cooks most people know (Moms and Grandmoms). Also weighing against her is the small matter of trying not to use too much oil - something my Mom and Grandmom never had to contend with. I have to admit that to the eye, the dish appeared a little too desiccate and I was fully prepared to bite into brittle pieces. Surprisingly, it was just right - juicy at the core and crispy on the outside. She did a great job with the seasoning as well.

Finally, there was Thotakura (Amaranth leaves) vepudu. Frankly, I don't know if thotakura is used in any other cuisine save Andhra. I grew up eating this as a dal mostly. It is part of a trio of leafy vegetables that were a staple growing up - Thotakura, Bacchalakura and Palakura. It's hard to find in the US but this little bunch was actually given to us by relatives who grow it in their backyard in NJ. Aparna cooked it with groundnuts and a savory tiragamutha. As can been seen above, the stems are very edible and give a delightfully crunchy texture to the dish.

Mmmm .. life is good.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Vegetarian Paradise 2 (VP2), West Village, NYC


VP2 is all vegetarian Chinese restaurant on the lively McDougal street in West Village. Veggie lovers have waxed eloquent about this restaurant along with it's neighbor - Red Bamboo. Both restaurants have a heavy asian tilt and feature numerous faux-meat dishes.

This was my second visit to VP2. The menu is laden with faux-meat options and I remember having tried the shrimp noodles and peking duck back in 2007. As I mention often, it's difficult to pull off a dish with a huge faux-meat component. The peking duck was average and so were the "shrimp" in the shrimp noodles.

However, that could've been because both Aparna and I were floored by the sugarcane drumstick chicken. This is a deepfriend piece of tofu-chicken set on a piece of sugarcane stick. The chicken was juicy, the tofu textured to mimic the chicken fibres. I've since held it as the gold standard for faux meat. I stopped by VP2 just to get this one dish.

One must try the very reasonably priced fresh juices - my favorite being the carrot/beet/cucumber juice.