Monday, February 28, 2011

The Free Meal Report: Beck's Cajun Cafe

Disclosure: I'll Eat You dined at Beck's compliments of the chef/owner.

Maybe it was all the hours of watching the likes of Justin Wilson and Emeril when I was growing up, but I've always had a thing for New Orleans cuisine, so I was excited to have the opportunity to sample Chef Bill Beck's spin on the Cajun and Creole genres at his stall in the Reading Terminal. A native New Yorker (but we'll forgive him for that), Beck has been in Philly for the past twenty-plus years, but he drew his first culinary inspiration from the Big Easy. After putting in stints at the old Pompano Grille and catering for events like the Jambalaya Jam, he opened his spot in the Terminal over a year ago and is now finding great success with bringing NOLA cuisine to the Philly lunchtime crowd.

Beck's menu covers many of the New Orleans favorites like jambalaya, gumbo, muffalettas, red beans and rice, and po' boys. Many of the ingredients (like the alligator sausage and catfish) are imported from New Orleans and picked up at the airport by Bill himself, and everything's made from scratch right there in the market stall. You'll also find Zapp's potato chips, Community Coffee, and Abita Root Beer (sorry, no Turbo Dog).

Being a big fan of the sandwich, I had to try the oyster po' boy. There are two areas where Beck's rendition breaks with tradition: the roll is a chewy, dense French number from LeBus rather than the more typical baguette-like bread, and the oysters are breaded with panko instead of corn meal. Though I'm more a fan of the lighter touch in both of these areas, the sandwich was enjoyable, with great oyster flavor. (Bill says the denser rolls survive the day better than baguettes, which went stale quickly in testing, and that the panko-crusted oysters stay crunchy better when confronted with the lettuce, tomato, pickle and Creole mayo on the po' boy.)


The Train Wreck (photo courtesy Beck's Cajun Cafe)

The other sandwich I tried is decidedly not traditional: the Train Wreck, which I would describe as Beck's entry in the ongoing crazy-sandwich arms race. In a clear expression of Philly-meets-New Orleans, the Wreck is basically a cheesesteak with the addition of chopped-up andouille sausage and salami, served on the same French bread as the other po' boys. Though I would be hard-pressed to consume an entire one without clearing my schedule for a nap afterwards, the fact is that it is delicious, and the smoke and spice of the andouille and salami bring a new level of complexity to the Philly classic.

Bill was kind enough to send me home with a sample of the alligator gumbo to try later. Served over white rice, it's a bit on the thick side, but nicely spiced and deep in flavor. I'm going to have to make a return visit to try out the jambalaya and étoufée some time.

I also tried out a little bit of the bread pudding. Beck started with a recipe from the famed Commander's Palace and then tweaked it for several rounds, adding apples, raisins, and topping it with a very pronounced whiskey sauce. Despite all the cream, it's quite light and worth at least a sample. There are also beignets on Wednesday and Sunday, which I'll have to go back and try as well.

As if that weren't enough, Beck's also offers a variety of spice blends, and he sent me home with his Angel Dust and Devil Dust. A sprinkle of some of the finely-milled Devil Dust on some portobello burgers lent them a nice kick, and I'm looking forward to try the subtler Angel Dust on something. (Bill kindly requests that you refrain from saying "bam" when using these seasonings.)

I think the Train Wreck is a must-try for "extreme" sandwich fans and cheesesteak fiends, and if you've been looking for a place to get some alligator, well, now you know where to find it. Overall, Beck's is a welcome addition to the Terminal, and a pretty quick and authentic way to acquaint yourself with New Orleans flavors if they're new to you.

Beck's Cajun Cafe on Urbanspoon

Monday, February 21, 2011

Review: Bobby's Burger Palace

For those who don't know, the "Bobby" in Bobby's Burger Palace is none other than the chipotle-slinging, omnipresent darling of the Food Network, Bobby Flay, who makes Philly a legitimate three-Iron Chef town. Of course Bobby himself wasn't there for our visit, much to the dismay of my visiting mother-in-law, who also mused whether Bobby would show up to challenge himself to a Throwdown. The metaphysical ramifications of such an event would be truly staggering, but it's all beside the point if the guy doesn't put out a good burger. So, does he?

BBP is located on what's becoming a Penn Kid Restaurant Row, on the same block of Walnut Street as the likes of Capo Giro, City Tap House, and Hummus. The interior is very sleek and modern, with a thick multicolored-stripe theme throughout, and a broken-up, undulating counter that takes up the full depth of the restaurant. You'll get in line to order, have your order confirmed back to you (with a graphic description of what the various levels of doneness mean; no doubt a safeguard against tort-happy law students in the area looking for a quick buck), and then get a little numbered placard and put it at your seat. This is a pretty nice compromise between a traditional fast-food model and true table service.

The menu is pretty simple; burgers with various themes, available in beef, turkey, or chicken-breast-sandwich varieties. The Cuban, dressed up like a Cuban sandwich with ham and pickle and then pressed, sounded intriguing, but I was won over by the sound of the Burger of the Month, the "Louisiana Burger", with a blackened-style crust, tasso ham and remoulade. Any burger can also be "crunchified" with the addition of potato chips on top of the burger for no additional charge.

I think the end product is decent, if not spectacular. It seems like good-quality ground beef is used, and the soft, sesame seed-coated bun is a wise choice in that it's innocuous enough not to overwhelm its contents. The crust on the Louisiana burger was quite tasty, even if the burger's presentation was slightly unappetizing (with the top of the bun half-off, revealing the sloppy muddle of remoulade, ham and hot sauce underneath). The patty itself is juicy, but not terribly thick.

The "crunchburger", a standard patty topped with double American cheese and potato chips, is a good concept, but the laws of osmosis mean that your crunch isn't going to stay crunchy for long ... which is especially problematic when your burgers are sitting at the window waiting to be picked up for several minutes, as ours were. This might also be to blame for the fact that they arrived overcooked – our medium-rare orders turned out medium-well, with not a blush of pinkness in sight.

The fries are another mixed bag: they're available in standard and sweet potato varieties, and they're quite pleasant to eat given that they're not overly greasy, but they're also not too big on flavor. I was wondering why, until I looked at the bottom of the fries' cup and found a good bit of loose, coarse salt. I think coarse salt on fries is a non-starter to begin with because it tends not to stick the way you want it to, but the total lack of salt adhesion leads me to suspect that our fries weren't salted while fresh out of the fryer.

Still, for $7.50 a burger, it's not all that bad. I would liken the quality more to an upscale fast-food burger experience than something like a good gastropub burger. The sane portion size and non-greasy fries also means there's less post-lunch regret than you would get from a more hard-core burger.

If you're in the neighborhood and after a burger, it's worth a shot to try the place out, but I wouldn't see myself making a special trip. The concepts and flavors are good, but the execution is certainly not Iron Chef-worthy.

Bobby's Burger Palace on Urbanspoon

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Review: JG Domestic

This is important, so I don't want to wait until later to say it: the front leg of rabbit at JG Domestic is easily one of the top three delicious things I've eaten in the past year. I'm not even entirely sure how it was prepared; it was almost like a confit, but not at all fatty, and it had the most sublimely, delicately crispy crust on the outside of each piece. Sharing a plate with a tiny rack of rabbit, some loin, and nicely braised back legs, it did justice to ol' Thumper.

And respect for ingredients is the organizing theme behind Garces's latest joint. You're hit over the head with it a little bit, from the farmstand-blackboard theme of the walls, to the page behind the menu telling you where seemingly every ingredient comes from, but it's in the well-edited concepts behind the dishes that you can sense the desire to get out of the way and really let the ingredients do the talking.

The wood-heavy, vegetation-surrounded space of JG Domestic is a vast improvement over the "I'm-sitting-in-the-lobby-of-an-office-building" ambience of Rae, the Cira Centre's former first floor restaurant tenant. The front space is welcoming and lively, though on this Valentine's weekend Sunday, we found ourselves seated in the somewhat more secluded and boring back room.

If you've eaten at any of Garces's other restaurants, the menu at JG will be no surprise: there are no explicitly-defined appetizers and mains; just an array of items to choose from, which get coursed out depending on what and how you order. There's also a $65 tasting menu, and on this night, a special passionfruit-themed Iron Chef tasting (based on dishes from Garces's recent televised annihilation of Michael Solomonov). The IC tasting was tempting, but it meant all three of us would have to get it, and there were too many appealing items on the menu to pass up ordering a la carte.

Aside from the rabbit mentioned above, there were a few other standouts. The lobster "cappuccino" was a rich and smooth soup, containing a butternut squash "dumpling" (more like a ravioli), but with a sage-y flavor that was almost reminiscent of Thanksgiving stuffing. A very simple sauteed black kale dotted with melon-ball-sized spheres of kabocha squash made for a lovely vegetable combination. Anyone who's had the setas at Amada knows that Garces has a way with a mushroom, and the maitakes were no exception: the brandy cream they were topped with really set off their earthy flavor, and the rich corny taste and texture of the polenta they were served with was very satisfying. We also tried the crosnes, which we had never even heard of before; they are a tiny seashell-looking, crunchy tuber, here served with potato dumplings and artichoke.

And the rabbit. Yes, the rabbit ... just dynamite. Elmer Fudd and the Tasmanian Devil were wholly justified in their pursuit of Bugs if he could be made to taste so delicious.

There were a few things that I felt came up a little short. The popcorn topped with cheddar and fresh grated horseradish was a bit greasy, and not in a flavorfully redeeming way like Royal Tavern's truffle and Parmesan popcorn. Though it was hard to resist, the cheese fondue was missing tanginess to offset its creaminess, and the breadsticks that came along with it lacked complexity. Finally, the chicken, roasted and served with cipollini, carrots and a pan gravy, fell a little short in the flavor and crispy-skin departments.

Desserts were very good: the beignets captured the spirit of Cafe du Monde's heavenly fried dough pillows, though with a great deal less powdered sugar to get on your shirt. They came with a very Bourbony dipping sauce that almost begged to be drunk as a shot. The golden crown of the maple soufflé was punctured tableside, allowing for the addition of nocello ice cream and crème anglaise, which all melted together into a concoction that was light, creamy, and not too sweet.

JG Domestic won me over for good when they presented us with some post-dessert treats: "hot chocolate" squares of dark chocolate and marshmallow, which were fine, but then my absolute favorite: pâte de fruit! Blood orange pâte de fruit!

I don't know why, but these sugar-coated morsels brought a dumb smile to my face. Maybe it's the simplicity behind it: taking a delicious flavor from nature, and concentrating it, refining it, recontextualizing it into a magnified expression of itself. From his other restaurants, we know that Garces has the technical chops to pull it off, but now freed from any constraints of cuisine or nationality, there's a new sense of purity that shines through. It's not perfect, but it's definitely on the right track.

JG Domestic on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

I'll Drink You (Finally): Regulus Brown Ale


Every time I walk down the street these days, this is all I hear: "Hey! You're the guy from 'I'll Eat That', aren't you? What's the deal with your beer? It's been months since you wrote about it and there haven't been any updates! I hate you." For God's sake, settle down. The beer came out just fine.

I chose the name Regulus because of its Christmasy association: Regulus was (supposedly) the star that the Three Wise Men followed on their way to Bethlehem. I liked this idea of seeking out and following the light, a way to elevate the spirit in the midst of the winter doldrums. Plus, as Lauren was quick to point out, there's a character in Harry Potter by that name. (Come to think of it, I should have called this Regulus Brown, just to play off of that some more.) Here's the label:

I was pleased with how the beer itself ended up. The level of hoppiness was nice, there was a faint touch of residual sweetness, and the spices I added towards the end of the boil (cinnamon and fenugreek) provided a sense of mystery without being overpowering. It also leaves behind some nice lacing as it's being drunk from your glass.

So this was a success, and my friends and family were happy with the bottles I gave away as gifts. If I can remember exactly what I did, I might even brew another batch next year (but I'll probably want to try something different). Next up is an English-style Extra Special Bitter that I just boiled up today, made all the more British by the addition of some Lyle's Golden Syrup. Come back in several months to find out how that goes, should I remember to write about it!

Monday, February 7, 2011

Pumpkin Whoopie PIes


Hey everyone, I'm back with a dose of something sweet. The Whoopie Pie. Whoopie pies appear to be a bit of regional specialty (at least I never saw them in California) but I see them branching out from the world of the Amish farm stand these days. The outer layer of the whoopie pie, for those unfamiliar to this treat, is like a cake-cookie hybrid: soft and pillowy, but with a bit more integrity so that you can pick it up and eat it with your hands. Pumpkin and its ubiquitous spice mates cinnamon, ginger and clove add a tiny bit of nutrition and a whole lot of warm comfort. Cream cheese frosting is spiced up with cinnamon and a teensy bit of spiced rum for complexity. The best part? Whoopie pies are only minor-ly more complicated then cookies but don't require fussy decorating skills to make 'em pretty.

Pumpin Whoopie PIes (adapted from Martha Stewart and Baked: new frontiers in baking)

Makes 12 whoopie pies

FOR THE PUMPKIN WHOOPIE COOKIES
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon ground ginger
1 tablespoon ground cloves
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
2 cups firmly packed dark-brown sugar
1 cup vegetable oil
3 cups pumpkin puree, chilled
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

FOR THE CREAM-CHEESE FILLING
3 cups confectioners' sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
8 ounces cream cheese, softened
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Cinnamon and spiced dark rum ( I like Sailor Jerry's) to taste. This will require more cinnamon then you expect.

Directions

Make the cookies: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or a nonstick baking mat; set aside.
In a large bowl, whisk together flour, salt, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and cloves; set aside. In another large bowl, whisk together brown sugar and oil until well combined. Add pumpkin puree and whisk until combined. Add eggs and vanilla and whisk until well combined. Sprinkle flour mixture over pumpkin mixture and whisk until fully incorporated.
Using a small ice cream scoop with a release mechanism, drop heaping tablespoons of dough onto prepared baking sheets, about 1 inch apart. Transfer to oven and bake until cookies are just starting to crack on top and a toothpick inserted into the center of each cookie comes out clean, about 15 minutes. Let cool completely on pan.

Make the filling: Sift confectioner' sugar into a medium bowl; set aside. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat butter until smooth. Add cream cheese and beat until well combined. Add confectioners' sugar and vanilla, cinnamon and rum, beat just until smooth. (Filling can be made up to a day in advance. Cover and refrigerate; let stand at room temperature to soften before using.)

Assemble the whoopie pies: Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside. Transfer filling to a disposable pastry bag and snip the end. When cookies have cooled completely, pipe a large dollop of filling on the flat side of half of the cookies. Sandwich with remaining cookies, pressing down slightly so that the filling spreads to the edge of the cookies. Transfer to prepared baking sheet and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate cookies at least 30 minutes before serving and up to 3 days.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

English Muffins

Having previously tackled bagels, the next breakfast breadstuff we set our sights on was English muffins. Before we got nookin' and crannyin', we had to pick a recipe, so we went with the time-honored "just use the first one that comes up in Google" technique. This just so happens to turn up with this recipe at allrecipes.com. After parsing it out, it was clear there were some efficiency improvements that could be made, so the modified version is below.

The resulting dough, made with a portion of whole-wheat flour to cram a little more nutrition into it, was very supple and easy to work with. A bit too easy, in fact, because I rolled the dough out too thin, resulting in flatter and crispier muffins than I would have liked. (A nap that went into overtime while the muffins were rising also contributed to this problem.)

The fun part about these is that rather than baking them in the oven, you cook them on a griddle. This gives them that honest-to-goodness pattern of browning that you're used to seeing in your packages of Thomas's and whatnot. Given the muffins' unfortunate thinness, they cooked quickly, but the end result was still tasty, crisp on the outside and soft on the inside, and quite irresistible fresh off of the griddle with a nice pat of butter between their fork-split halves. Next time, I will heed the half-inch thickness guidance in the recipe, which is:

1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup water
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon active dry yeast, or about half a package
2 tbs vegetable oil
3 cups all-purpose flour, substituting whole-wheat for up to half the amount
1/2 teaspoon salt

Microwave the milk, water and sugar together until the milk is lukewarm (but not too hot! or you'll kill the yeast). Add the yeast, mix, and let sit for 10 minutes until mixture is bubbly.

Mix the remaining ingredients in a stand mixer with the dough hook attached, then add milk/water mixture and mix until combined. Knead with the dough hook for 5-6 minutes, adjusting amount of flour and liquid as necessary to make a soft (but not sticky) dough. Put in a greased bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let rise until about doubled.

Roll the dough out on a lightly floured surface until it's 1/2 inch thick (but no thinner!). Prepare a baking sheet with parchment paper, and sprinkle some corn meal over the paper. Use whatever sharp, cylindrical, English-muffin-sized object you have to cut out the muffins, then place them on the cornmealed parchment. When you're done, sprinkle some more corn meal over the muffins-to-be. Cover with a damp towel and let rise in a warm place for about 1/2 hour or until puffy (note: if you take a nap at this point, set an alarm).

Heat a griddle or cast-iron skillet up and lightly spray with cooking spray or brush with oil. Place the puffy muffins on over medium heat and cook until toasty on one side, then flip and cook the other side. When nicely browned and firm, remove and cool on wire racks. Before serving or freezing, use the tines of a fork to puncture around the circumference of the muffin for that authentic "fork-split" look. Enjoy!