Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Maui Bound..............

J and I are doing something we've never done: take a domestic vacation for a whole week and hunker down in the same spot for the entirety of the trip. We've taken lots of trips before, but they usually involve a 10+ hour flight, bouts of jetlag, currency exchange and weak attempts to speak a language we are not very good at all while hopping from city to city. So we decided to do what millions before us have done- go lay on a beach in Hawaii and fahgettaboutit! We're off to Maui tomorrow, so hopefully I will return with many tales of delicious meals, blue waters and snorkeling adventures. Since we plan to hit Plantation House, Lahaina Grill and the Hali'imaile General Store, I'm pretty sure the delicious meals part is covered.

If you have any recommedations, I'd love to hear them!


Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Bar Celona, Pasadena

I basically grew up in Pasadena. My family lives in Temple City and my sister and I spent many, MANY teenage/twentysomething nights in Pasadena, usually at the old E Bar or eating at many of the good restaurants the town had to offer. I remember my parents took us to a place called Julianne (not the one in San Marino) where I had my very first duck l'orange and I thought it was the best thing I'd ever eaten. Pasadena always had a festive, special-occasion quality about it and I spent much of my time there while growing up.

Cut to now. Pasadena, especially Old Town, has seemingly turned into a chain restaurant mecca, wait, the "high-end chain restaurant mecca" is more like it. Cheesecake Factory? Check. Il Fornaio? Check. Louise's? Check. Houston's? Check. Toss in a few strange fusion places like Thaitalian (wait, they went out of biz) and sushi-for-the-masses like Afloat Sushi (still in biz) and you have the odd, uninspiring food scene in Pasadena, save for a few gems like Vertical Wine Bistro, Parkway Grill (which has had it's share of ups and downs) and Arroyo Chop House. Then Bar Celona came along………well, more like Chef Josef Centeno came to Bar Celona.

NOT Chef Centeno, but a patron of the restaurant that looked straight out of Spain, thus the photo!

Chef Centeno gained popularity while at Opus Restaurant and has brought new life to Bar Celona. I'd been there before his arrival and it was good, but now it is really special- I mean it's food that hasn't been available in Pasadena before, in my opnion. It's SO NICE to go to my beloved neighborhood and sit down for plate after plate of inventive, fresh, creative and well prepared food such as the offerings of Chef Centeno and Bar Celona.

Last week I was invited to dine at Bar Celona to celebrate their five year anniversary and their annual "Running of the Bulls" celebration. I'd been to Bar Celona a few times in the past and had mostly good experiences there, so I was excited to go. In the interest of full disclosure, I will say that my meal was comp'd, but since I'd had many of these dishes before I can tell you that the freeness of the food didn't change the flavor, ha. Now, onto the food, and there was a lot of it, my friends:

An amuse of crisp fried sardines with honey water. Sounds strange, tastes salty and sweet and then, it's gone cos you popped it in your mouth.

Oyster & cremini mushrooms- I'm a big fan of mushrooms, garlic and wine, and this was all three with a dash of cream. What's not to like?

Wild arugula with baby tomatoes, hazelnuts, roasted garlic vinaigrette- again, a combination of a few of my favorite things- peppery arugula with crunchy roasted nuts:

Chard and goat cheese croquetas: My favorite of the evening, but as you know from many previous posts, croquetas (korokke in Japanese) are in my "Top Five" of favorite foods. These were perfect- golden, hot and crisp on the outside, tender with a slight tang from the goat cheese on the inside. I mean, just look at them. They're nuggets of golden goodness and a great match for the albariƱo I was drinking

4 oz pork shoulder conserva: potted meats/fishes seem to be everywhere these days, from Barbrix (except they don't serve it in a pot…boo!) and Palate (the potted lamb is truly outstanding) and this one was rich, meaty and again, perfect for wine. We barely made a dent in it so they offered to let me take it home…..then I promptly forgot it at the restaurant. Imagine all of the fantastic sandwiches (the conserva on rye bread w/ pickled red onions, cornichons, and dijon mustard!!!) missing from my life now that I left that pork conserva behind……I pay for my mistakes. Damn me!

Warm octopus salad, white nectarine, herbs, smoked paprika- normally I don't really love savory food with fruit in it, but this worked out so well- it also had hearts of palm in it which added a nice contrast in texture to the tender octopus. I wonder what cooking method Chef Centeno uses to get his octopus so tender? I've heard Italians put wine corks in their poaching liquid, Japanese put dried adzuki beans in it but beat the raw octopus with a daikon radish before poaching………what’s your method?

Quail stuffed with tart cherries, apricots, chorizo, roasted figs: you're like, "uh, aren't you the girl who said she doesn't like savory food with fruit in it?" Yeah, that's me, so what's this dish containing - count 'em- THREE different fruits in it doing on my table? Well, to be honest, it was recommended, and I'm glad it was- there's nothing like spicy Spanish chorizo to offset the sweetness of fruit, and quail is one of my favorite birds. S declared this dish his favorite of the night.

And, finally……..drum roll please…………Crispy pork belly, brussels sprouts, fried egg, salbixtada (a sauce made from almonds, tomatoes, garlic). This is a dish that would have Anthony Bourdain rolling his eyes into the back of his head in ecstacy. Several slices of crisp, fatty pork belly on a bed of fragrant, tender lentils drowned in the runny yolk of a soft poached egg. It reminded me of my friend D who is a fan of all things pork fat and drippy egg.

After we were done eating, we rolled ourselves into the other rooms of the expansive restaurant to check out the "Running of the Bulls" party, complete with mechanical bull set up for daring patrons! S and I didn't think it was a great idea to participate after gorging ourselves on 60% of the menu and hey- I watch "Wipeout" and know what happens to people who partake in those kinds of activites….it ain't purty. Bar Celona was also promoting their "all you can eat paella" which happens every Sunday this summer and had a paella station set up on the back patio, along with tables of different sample cocktails for people to try. It was kind of like wine tasting- you sip a little here, you sip a little there, then a little while later you realize, oops, I'm sorta drunk! Although the two bar areas and back patio were fun, the main restaurant dining room is much more my speed, with exposed brick walls and an open kitchen.

I'm happy that Bar Celona has become a true food lover's destination with the Centeno menu and hope it continues to showcase fresh, local ingredients prepared in such creative ways. In a land of chain restaurants, it's nice to know that there is a place to get some really well prepared dishes and have a reason to revisit my old stomping grounds often.

Bar Celona
46 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, CA
(626) 405-1000

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Father's Day Meal

Oy……..man I can't get back on the blogging train for some reason. I guess I don't have much of an excuse for the last month or so but the last week has been absolute hell at work. The passing of MJ has rocked the world, and the entertainment news world has been in a frenzy. Since I live in both universes, it's been bananas. And in this case, bananas is bad.

So even though Father's Day was awhile ago, I am finally getting around to posting pics! My dad taught me to cook and instilled in me a love of good food and wine, so the only appropriate present is, well, food and wine of course! I invited my family over for a Mexican fiesta of sorts, and after much consulting with Homesick Texan, got to work on all of the dishes.

Two days before Father's Day, I made a big ol' pot of black beans. Actually I made two pots. Why? Well, I didn't follow my instincts and decided to toss in the epazote (a Mexican herb I've never worked with) into the pot, despite its twiggy woodiness. I stopped and thought to myself, "maybe I should put it in some cheesecloth or whiz it in my spice grinder" but then talked myself out of it, thinking that the hours of slow cooking beans require would break down the fibers. I think you can probably figure out that the little twigs retained their twigginess after hours of simmering, and vain attempts to pick it all out were……uh, all in vain. So I packed it into a Tupperware and tossed it into the freezer (hey- I may come home from work starving one day and really want some homemade black beans, at which time little twigs won't bother me) and promptly made another, this time putting the epazote into some cheesecloth. Crisis averted.

On the same day I made a paste out of guajillo and ancho chiles, cinnamon, coffee and other spices for a barbacoa- which is traditionally made with cow's head but I went with a pork shoulder instead, slathering the marinade onto large chunks of meat and packing it all into a ziploc bag. After sitting in the fridge overnight, they went into a roasting pan lined with onions and carrots, covered tightly and placed into a low oven for several hours. The house smelled so good I think even my cat noticed!

After the main components were done, I just whizzed together some roasted tomatoes, onions, serranos, garlic and bunches of fresh cilantro into the blender for a quick salsa and made a basic guacamole. An entire head of red cabbage, green onions, cilantro, vinegar, sugar and olive oil made up a simple Mexican slaw. Then I started on the part I was most excited about……..making flour tortillas from scratch! I had seen this post on the aforementioned Homesick Texan site awhile ago and had always hoped for an occasion to make them for.

The dough came together quickly and easily, then after a short rest, I tore off 1 ounce balls of dough which, after another quick rest, were easily rolled out w/ a rolling pin and a touch of flour. 30 seconds on each side in a dry pan was all it took to turn into real, chewy, flavorful and toothsome flour tortillas! Some came out a bit thicker than others, and now I definitely have a better gauge on how thin to roll them out (since they get thicker as they cook). They reminded me a bit of Trader Joe's Truly Handmade Tortillas since they were all slightly irregular in shape, but of course these were a lot better.

The meal turned out great- the meat was tender and flavorful, the beans rich and tasty….it was kind of nice to sit down to a make-your-own taco type of meal. Really casual, fun and interactive. We made a nice dent into it all but I packed my dad up with enough leftovers for one meal for him and my mom, plus I had lots of meat and beans for myself- I mean, this kind of food really does taste better the longer it sits.

A special thanks to Homesick Texan for helping and answering my incessant questions, and a shout-out to Papa, my dad, for being the best dad ever!