East-West Grille

Chris texted me a photo - a list of duck specials, and there were several from which to choose. I called him immediately. "Where are you?" I demanded, "Are you eating duck without me?" He replied, "I wouldn't dare," and described the dish he was eating. I wish I could remember what it was, but I was still stuck on the duck thing. Mouth full, he raved about the new place he discovered, well, new to him anyway. Turns out it's been open ten years, and is right around the corner from his work. "Wanna come back for dinner tonight?" he asked. "If you don't mind going back twice in one day," I said, thinking he was kidding. When he said, "I could eat here every meal," I knew I was in for a treat.

And East-West Grille on New Park Avenue in Hartford is, in fact, a treat. Specializing in Laotian food, along with other traditional and fusion Pan-Asian dishes, the restaurant serves Eastern food in a "Western" setting - a diner, of all things. The decor is 50's diner-turned-Asian restaurant, and as expected has lots of red, with pretty curtains dividing the diner's booths, straw baskets and hats hanging about, and fresh flowers on each table. East-West is Zagat-rated, earns top scores from local food critics, has a small but pretty outdoor dining area, and serves beer and wine.

Let me describe our first outing together which occurred last week. The server is shocked that I have never tried sticky rice, and brings some to try in a small lidded basket. She teaches me to roll the white and purple mixture in my hands, flatten it into a patty, and dip it in one of the sauces she's delivered. Chris has been here before (four hours earlier!) so he's all into it. Excellent! We want gyoza but the server steers us in another direction, admitting that is one of the few things that is not made in house. She suggests the chicken curry samosas, featured on the spring special menu. The samosas are lightly fried pastries stuffed with minced chicken in a spicy curry sauce. They taste good, but there is a texture issue - the filling is a bit mushy and reminds us of baby food. I order the panang duck, described succinctly on the menu: "half boneless roast duck topped with kaffir lime leaves, mixed vegetables and coconut milk." It has two "spicy" symbols next to it. This is my favorite Thai dish, and I'm wondering if it will be as good as the one Sawadee (where I get my usual panang fix) makes. This duck ROCKS. Tender, moist duck with the crispiest skin ever is served over shredded lime leaves and sauteed red and green peppers, green beans, carrots and bamboo shoots in the cutest ceramic duck dish. Don't even ask me what Chris ate. Some salad I think since he wasn't that hungry for dinner (wonder why?). It was no surprise to me, but he wasn't too full for dessert, and we shared the deliciously sweet coconut ice cream with coconut sticky rice and go home to chill out in a food-induced coma.

I think about that duck all week and when we're planning this week's date night, much to Chris's delight, I suggest East-West. This time we get the gyoza which, although not house-made, are prepared lightly battered and fried. They're good, but the sauce they're served with is incredibly salty. While I enjoy the panang duck again (how could I not???), and it was fantastic again (add points for consistency!) Chris is very pleased with his spicy "tom-kar" - a soup made with coconut milk, mushroom, onion, pepper and ginger - which is offered with a choice of proteins that he opted out of. I try it and it's great - sweet yet spicy, it warms me right up. He loves his entree as well, jasmine rice stir-fried with egg, pineapple, cashews and raisins, which is both sweet and savory at the same time. We can't fit dessert this time but we're satisfied so that's okay.

After thanking Chris for "discovering" this gem (thanks also goes to Paul who recommended it!), I exclaim "So long, Sawadee! Sorry, but East-West has stolen our hearts." We highly recommend a visit (or even two in the same day!)

East-West Grille on Urbanspoon


Foodie Book Friday: A Homemade Life

In the effort to post more frequently, I've decided to institute "Foodie Book Friday," weekly posts in which I'll share my thoughts about food-centric books.

For the first of these posts, I think it's appropriate to start with the book A Homemade Life written by successful food blogger Molly Wizenberg, creator of Orangette. I have followed her blog for about a year and her recent absences from it make me grateful to have the book to turn to for an occasional fix of her writing.

The book is written in short chapters, each of which tell the story of a dish then give a very clear, well-written recipe for that dish. Her prose writing is as delicious as the recipes sound. Her wittiness made me laugh aloud, while many of the reminiscences of her family, in particular her late father, often brought me to tears. It is a sentimental book, but not in an over-the-top saccharine way. Rather, her father's presence is evident throughout as she tells stories of his cooking and how it influences hers. Along the way, she takes the reader to Paris, back to Seattle, and on the journeys of how her blog came to be and of meeting the man who will be her husband.

Like Orangette, A Homemade Life is charming, romantic, honest, insightful, passionate and moving. When you read it, you fall in love with Molly, with her writing, and with the food she creates and inspires her readers to create as well. I'm grateful to be one of them.


Springtime Risotto

Chris is the risotto maker in the family. I think it's because he's so patient, something for which I, and I'm sure his students, are grateful. All that stirring makes me want to turn the heat on high, and that's not what risotto is about, so I let him handle it. Luckily, he's happy to do so. He has wowed plenty of people with his various risotto concoctions, and last night, he did it again with what we're calling "Springtime Risotto." Having bought a pound of fresh spring peas at Apple Tree (a produce-centric market in Hartford), as well as some carrots and green onions, we decided that fresh spring vegetables would be the focus of the dish. That, and plenty of freshly grated parmegiano-reggiano, of course.

Here's the recipe, enough for two with some leftovers:

1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 medium onion, chopped finely
1 cup arborio rice
2 cups low-sodium broth (chicken or vegetable works best)
1 pound of fresh spring peas (about a cup after shelling)
1 carrot, chopped finely
1/4 cup chopped green onions
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
1/2 cup grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese, plus some for the table
salt and pepper to taste

In a large saucepan, melt the butter and saute the chopped onions until they become translucent. Add the rice and continue cooking over medium heat, stirring constantly, so that the rice is coated with the butter, mixed well with the onions, and starts to turn translucent as well (about four minutes). Add the broth 1/3 cup at a time, stirring constantly and adding broth as the liquid in the rice evaporates. After the first cup of broth is gone, add the vegetables. Continue to add the remainder of the broth, 1/3 cup at a time, stirring constantly until all the broth is gone and the rice is cooked through. Turn of the heat, then stir in salt and pepper, and the parsley and cheese. Serve hot and enjoy. Would be nice with a glass of chilled pinot grigio!


A Slow Food Spring Dinner

We are members of Slow Food CT, our local chapter of Slow Food USA, which is an organization that "links the pleasure of food with a commitment to community and the environment." Membership offers us an annual subscription to the worldwide movement's journal The Snail, a monthly newsletter called The Food Chain, discounts on Slow Food merchandise, and, most importantly, invitations to a variety of Slow Food events.

The last is what today's post is about - the Slow Food Spring Dinner held at Firebox Restaurant in Hartford Thursday night. If there is a restaurant in the Greater Hartford area that epitomizes Slow Food, it is Firebox. Their commitment to seasonal, locally grown ingredients is evident in everything they do, from the contemporary American menu to the weekly farmers' market that is held on the grounds of the restaurant. For Firebox, farm-to-table is what it's all about.

Robert Sinskey wines were featured at the dinner, an excellent choice since these are organically grown in Napa Valley. We liked the Pinot Noir so much we've already purchased two bottles for the cellar.

The Menu:
Urban Oaks Organic Farm Mixed Greens - With pickled baby carrots, watermelon radish, goat cheese crostini, white balsamic vinaigrette. Wine pairing: Abraxas," Vin de Terroir, Sonoma, 2007

Connecticut River Shad - With spring garlic soubise, asparagus, fiddlehead ferns, red wine gastrique. Wine pairing: Pinot Blanc, Los Carneros, 2007

Connecticut Lamb - With white bean purée, English peas, pea tendrils, Roman mint pesto. Wine pairing: Pinot Noir, Los Carneros, Napa Valley, 2006

Beltane Farm Goat Cheese Panna Cotta - With Jones Family Apiaries' honey comb. Wine Pairing: "Vin Gris," Pinot Noir Rose, 2007

Each and every dish was remarkably fresh tasting, wonderfully prepared and beautifully presented. Chris adored the shad which was served with a nice crisp skin, and I loved the lamb which was served medium rare and had a herby charred crust. Nonetheless, the star of the evening was the dessert. Airily light and not-too-sweet, it was a perfect finish to a refreshing spring meal. In honor of springtime, we urge you to get out to the opening days of your nearby farmers' market and support your local food producers. With ones like we experienced at this dinner, we certainly will be!


Guilty Pleasures - Mac and Cheese

I probably shouldn't admit this, being a self-proclaimed foodie and all that, but I love Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. I do. Yes, the blue box stuff, the neon orange stuff, the there's-no-cheese-in-that-mac-and-cheese stuff. I can't help myself. It think it's because it was the first thing I ever learned to "cook," and it's comfort food. In a box. In less than ten minutes.

I make mine a certain way, and my graduate school roommates love to tell (and retell) the story of the first time I gave them my Kraft-making instructions, apparently with gestures. "Firm but watery" is what they claim I said, that drunken night when we had little money for food, but plenty for cheap wine. "Firm but watery" actually is how I like it, which is why I ignore the directions on the box and cook my Kraft elbows for only five minutes (firm) and add 1/3 (not 1/4) cup of lowfat milk (watery), then eat it straight out of the saucepan.

And while I gave my school cafeteria a bad rap several posts ago, they make a mean mac-n-cheese. They sprinkle in tons of garlic salt and garlic powder, then top it with garlic croutons, so when I see it coming up on the monthly menu, I buy some mints and gum and indulge. I try not to think about the calories I'm ingesting as I fill myself up with that cheesy, garlicky goodness. I'm not even sure it falls under the new state department of education's "healthy foods only" guidelines, but what can I say? I don't really care. It's yummy.

These two very different macaroni-and-cheese "meals" don't belong in the same category as most, like the one my mom makes, like ones that everyone's mom makes. These are beyond comfort food - they are guilty pleasures. Shhhh. Don't tell.