Monday, July 20, 2015

Disney Cruise Eats (Nassau and Remy)

I recently embarked on a Disney cruise with the family. This was our second time cruising with the Great Mouse, and like our previous excursion, my in-laws were part of the traveling party (the occasion being their 50th wedding anniversary). We followed the same itinerary as before, leaving Port Canaveral, Florida and making stops in Nassau, Bahamas and Castaway Cay (Disney's private island). On the first trip, I did some exploring on my own while we were in Nassau and managed to find Arawak Cay, an enclave of dive bars and casual seafood restaurants about a 15-minute walk from the port, where I had a very tasty meal of snapper, conch fritters, and local Kalik beer at a place called Goldie's. Sadly, this pre-dates my blog, so no further record of this visit exists; however, my hope was to repeat more or less the same experience on the latest cruise, this time with my brother-in-law Dan (who's usually up for any interesting diversion involving food/drink) in tow.

Once you leave the bazaar-like atmosphere of Nassau's main business district behind, the path to Arawak Cay grows pretty mellow. We passed mostly locals going about their daily routines, a couple of construction sites, and a few intrepid tourists like ourselves hanging out on a quiet public beach. Before long, we reached a number of beach shacks, all of which offered fresh seafood plates for sale and all of which (save one or two) were closed. A bit further up the road lies Arawak Cay, with more bars/restaurants than I recall seeing in 2008 (many of them looking like they hadn't had a visit from the health department anytime recently) and Goldie's (no longer advertising themselves as "the King of Conchs") still at the end of the street.

Inside Goldie's, the only thing that seemed to be different is that now they appear to host groups of cruisers on shore excursions for lunch (probably paying a mint to be driven over here from the port) - I wasn't immediately sure if this was a welcome development or not. Luckily, the conch fritters were just as good as the first time I had them. Conch meat can be pretty chewy if it's not tenderized properly, but the bits in these fritters were fine by me. Served with a thousand island-like dipping sauce, I reached my limit before I'd eaten my share (Dan was happy to take the remainder off my hands).

All the gringos around us were ordering the fried snapper, so I had to be different and tried the grilled snapper. What appeared in front of me about 20 minutes later was a foil pouch (not unlike those I plop on campfires with the Cub Scouts) containing a whole snapper topped with some sort of vegetable combo (broccoli, cauliflower, onions, and carrots) in a spicy Bahamanian sauce, plus a scoop of white rice to sop up all the juices.

Although the bones proved to be a bit of a hindrance, it was well worth the trouble. I daresay this fish (which I assume had been swimming in the Atlantic earlier that morning) simply prepared was the single best thing I ate on our trip (including all of the gourmet fare being whipped up on board the ship). The sauce was piquant, but not overpowering (no doubt dialed down for the tourists), and I didn't even much mind later that afternoon when I had to spend a little extra quality time in our cabin's lavatory (beer, fried foods, and spice are usually a recipe for disaster in my colon).

On the way back to the boat (and before the tummy troubles), an extended cloudburst flooded the narrow avenues of Nassau and forced us into a trinket shop to dry off. Upstairs was an ice cream parlor and we took it upon ourselves to grab some dessert. I asked the proprietors to suggest a flavor that I wasn't likely to find back in the States and I was directed to soursop, a tropical fruit found throughout Latin America, the Caribbean, and Africa. Soursop is purported to have cancer-curing qualities - I can't attest to that, but the pulp reminds me a little of kiwi fruit when featured in ice cream, slightly tart and mellow and a tad refreshing when you're dripping wet.

Back on water, the missus and I separated from our party group the following night to dine at the adults-only upscale restaurant Remy way up on Deck 12 of the behemoth Disney Dream. On our first Disney cruise, we had eaten a terrific meal at Palo, a similar Italian-themed restaurant, so our expectations were pretty high this time. You certainly can't beat the view up here.

Remy (named after the star chef rodent from the movie "Ratatouille") offers a pair of tasting menus, one primarily featuring French-inspired dishes developed by Chef Arnaud Lallement (who helms the 3-Michelin Star l'Assiette Champenoise in Reims, France) and another, more American-influenced menu by Victoria & Albert Head Chef Scott Hunnel (who we briefly met at the Norman's Gala in Orlando a few years ago). Add in desserts and bakery goods conceived by the crack pastry staff at both restaurants and you have the makings of a formidable culinary team. Once we were seated, the slightly tense (but friendly) servers asked us if we wanted to add the sommelier's wine pairings for each course, which we did. Unfortunately, the upselling continued throughout the meal (caviar, ultra-premium beef, extra wines, etc.) and eventually reached the point where it started to detract from the experience. Still, I can put up with a lot if I'm pleased with what's on my plate, and we were very pleased with the first two courses, an amuse-bouche of whipped potato/cheese croquette and a tasty and foamy concoction featuring caramel and foie gras in a martini glass, the likes of which I'd never before encountered.

At this point, my menu started to diverge from Mrs. H's - I'm always a sucker for French cuisine and she chose the American menu so that we could try both sets of dishes.  My first course was an elegantly plated langoustine (lobster) and hers was a single large prawn with the meat sectioned up and enrobed in ham.

Next up for me was a single seared scallop paired with celery in a yuzu citrus sauce, while the #2 America course was a wonderful salmon-crab-asparagus combination.

Staying with the seafood theme, I continued with a piece of halibut served with navet confit (turnip cooked in some kind of animal fat - I'm guessing duck) and a sauce of Noilly Prat Vermouth.  Mrs. H. fawned over her medium-rare lamb loin and carrot sauce dish.

Slowed, but not defeated, I fought my way through a tremendous Wagyu Beef filet with artfully-prepared fennel, while my wife did battle with a similarly-rich veal loin and braised onion dish.

Desserts were world class.  I received a poached pear served two ways - one featuring the fruit's outer core dressed in a fruit syrup, the other "middle" piece in a cylinder and geleed (the only adjective I can think to describe it).  Mrs. H. liked her airy chocolate square and custard (served in an eggshell), but was more taken with my pears, so I was happy to swap with her.

No French meal is complete without a selection of cheeses, of course, and a bit of Sauternes to wash it down (yes, that was totally an upcharge worth indulging).

The kitchen staff was kind enough to bring out a couple of tarts for us to conclude the meal (not that we needed them), plus they bid us Bonne Nuit with a baggie of housemade lollipops and traditional Bordeaux sweets called canneles (basically burnt butter cakes).  We ended up not finding the baggie in our luggage until we got home a few days later, so we busted out the sweets for all to enjoy.  The canneles were a bit of an acquired taste (were they maybe a bit stale by then?); however, the lollipops were great (and this coming from someone who's not a fan of hard candy).

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Indoor No-Bake S'Mores Bars

Back on June 19, the Serious Eats website published a treasure trove of No Bake Summer Dessert Recipes that caught my attention. For those of you that are geographically challenged, Florida gets mighty hot this time of year owing to its location in the tropics, so any time I can avoid turning on the oven in the Canteen, it's a good thing. The perfect opportunity for me to try out one of these recipes came around when my sister and her family (which includes a very hungry teenager, a near-teen, and a 9-year old with a second stomach) came to Tampa for a visit. Perusing through the list, I decided to attempt the Indoor No-Bake S'Mores Bars as part of a cookout (think hot dogs and hamburgers, much like one would find at a camping meal where actual s'mores would be prepared via bonfire). The Serious Eats people maintain that this is an easy dish to prepare and they're right. To make the crust, you simply combine a whole box of Keebler graham cracker crumbs (which equates to about 14 oz.) with some brown sugar, a little salt, and a bit of water, along with what seems like an unholy amount of melted butter (13 Tbsp., to be exact) until you realize that it's distributed over the bottom of a 9x13 baking dish. Then you melt the chocolate chips (I used dark instead of bittersweet) in the microwave, mix in 1 c. heavy cream, and spread the resulting slurry over the crust, topping the whole shebang with a covering of mini-marshmallows (I passed on the smoked salt). After 30 minutes of chilling in the refrigerator, the marshmallows can be roasted by either using the oven's broiler setting or using a handheld blowtorch (like the kind for creme brulee), or if you're extremely patient, you take a long lighter and individually torch each marshmallow (which is what we did) until the recipient is pleased with the level of caramelization on their slice. I'd show pictures of the final dish; however, it disappeared so fast, there were none taken. If you have children and no oven (or the desire to leave it off), I highly recommend this dessert...

Thursday, July 2, 2015

NYC Trip - Day 3 (Spice Market, Anissa)

Our third and last day of visiting NYC began a little slow, as the work dinner party from the evening prior had eventually spilled out of the hotel banquet room and migrated up to the rooftop bar, where nightcaps (probably a few too many) were enjoyed by all. After a fortifying buffet breakfast, Mrs. H. and I began a long walk northbound along the Hudson towards the Village, our ultimate destination being the Meatpacking District (near 13th and Greenwich Street) and Spice Market (403 W. 13th St.) for lunch. Once grimy and utilitarian, this part of town (like many others in lower Manhattan) had recently transformed into a trendy playground of upscale stores, insanely-expensive lofts, and hipster dining venues - naturally, Spice Market (Alsatian Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten's tribute to Southeast Asian street food) fit right in. Our friends Adam and Ellen have eaten here many times and have never been disappointed by the kitchen staff's reliable (if not spectacular) versions of Indian curries, Thai dishes, and Vietnamese noodles, covering a large chunk of geography in the process. When first arriving, I was immediately awestruck by the design of the space (no accident, by the way - clearly, the restaurant's look was key to the owners), which reminded me of a Buddhist temple inserted in the middle of a 1940s colonial mansion.

According to the website, the former warehouse now sports teak flooring from a 200-year old "Bombay palace", antique wall carvings, and other "Eastern exotica", all of which must have cost a small fortune to acquire and reconstruct here. In keeping with the, um, sensual vibe, I noticed that the outfits for the servers (burnt orange, flowing, and yoga pantsuit-like) were pretty much backless if you were female. In spite of the distractions, the 3 of us (Adam had also joined us today) persevered and ordered up some appetizers/cocktails to get started.

What you see above in the background are fragrant mushroom egg rolls with a galangal (like ginger, but more peppery) emulsion (which arrived at our table by accident, so they let us keep them, much to my chagrin) and a batch of heady spiced chicken samosas plus some cilantro yogurt for dipping.

We also tried a plate of tempura bass steamed buns garnished with crispy herbs and chopped peanuts, a terrific combination of flavors and textures.

Adam said that the ginger fried rice was a can't miss item and, although they ruined it with a fried egg on top, I was inclined to agree in the end.

We followed these with a couple of entrees served family style, a snappy copper bowl filled with pork vindaloo (featuring crispy herbs, leeks, and lemon yogurt) and a Vietnamese grilled salmon filet served cha ca la vong style (with rice noodles and tumeric peanut broth).

As tempting as it was, given the quantity of grub just consumed and the excesses of the past few days, we opted out of dessert and bid adieu to Adam, partaking in another extended walk through lower Manhattan to hopefully reset our systems before the next fantastic meal. We had made arrangements to dine that evening with Mrs. Hackknife's boss and significant other at Annisa, an elegant establishment on a mellow street (13 Barrow St., to be exact) yet again in the middle of Greenwich Village (I definitely spent a lot of time there on this trip).

A complete contrast from the bacchanalia that is Spice Market, Annisa is a place where Chef Anita Lo uses subtle Asian influences to enhance classical French cuisine in an environment that can best be described as "chill". The dining room is compact, elegant, and done up in soothing yellow cream, the perfect atmosphere to experience some first-class cooking.

My first dish was a terrific plate of 3 soup dumplings (served with a large spoon to contain the escaping hot broth, thus keeping my shirt from getting soiled) topped with jicama and seared bits of foie gras, an inventive marriage of East and West.

Mrs. Hackknife opted for a bright lotus root salad with spring pea puree and hon-shimeji mushrooms.

When dining in high-end restaurants, I tend to avoid ordering chicken since you can usually find more decadent-sounding menu items; however, in this case, I put my complete trust in the hands of the kitchen to prepare a knockout pan roasted chicken with a sauce of sherry, white truffle, and pig feet, plus some fresh chopped asparagus. I also suspect there might have been a little butter in the sauce (not more than a pound, I'm guessing).

Although it looked good both in print and on the plate, Mrs H.'s entree of duck and spring vegetable garbure (a French stew normally made with ham and cabbage) with foie gras and pickled verjus grape toast was a tad underwhelming when compared to my chicken (she wasn't suffering, mind you).

After all that rich French-Asian fare and a couple of bottles of red Burgundy, our table still managed to consume the house specialty dessert of pecan and salted butterscotch beignets with a boozy bourbon milk ice on the side, which was the ideal ending to a very fine meal. I'd have no problem recommending Spice Market to a large, energetic group for brunch or dinner, but Annisa would be my preferred choice for no-nonsense dining...

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

NYC Trip - Day 2 (Katz's Delicatessen, Brooklyn Food Tour)

As I get older, I've realized that marathon eating weekends like this more frequently wreak havoc on my digestive system, sometimes for days after the fact (it's hard to be cavalier about overconsumption with your posterior almost permanently fixed to a porcelain throne). I've also realized that a little orange pill consisting of acid reducer (ranitidine, 150 mg dose) taken before a meal that I know is going to be especially egregious can be my best friend. I firmly believe it was said pill that allowed me to rise from bed the next morning with little to no ill effects from the previous day's gastro-sins and continue onward with my dining plans. My first destination was Battery Park at the foot of Manhattan for a quick walkthrough of historic Castle Clinton, followed by a pass of the old Fraunces Tavern (used for, among other things, a temporary headquarters for George Washington during the Revolutionary War) a few blocks away, then a hop on the subway back to the Lower East Side for my morning snack (I needed sustenance to help get me to my food tour in Brooklyn at 11 o'clock).

I had missed out on visiting Katz's Delicatessen on all of my previous trips to NYC and I was determined to rectify that oversight this time. Open since 1888 (in more or less the same location at the intersection of Ludlow and Houston Streets), Katz's is known for their legendary pastrami (cured for up to 30 days) and other Jewish delicacies, not to mention an infamous, um, risque scene from the movie "When Harry Met Sally".

Given the number of tourists that pass through its doors, I was pleasantly surprised to find the place mostly empty at 9:45 am, the perfect time apparently to snag that pastrami sandwich. When you enter, a host gives you a paper ticket on which each waitperson records your order as you pass from station to station.

Instead of Yiddish, Spanish now appears to be the language most spoken behind the counter. Regardless of national origin, however, in keeping with that great New York tradition of mediocre customer service, I practically had to do a striptease to draw the attention of a server to take my order, most of whom were engaged in casual conversation and not much else. A bit later on, I gave up in frustration while trying to get a Dr. Brown's Celery Soda since I guess that only the drink station server, who was AWOL, is allowed to take drink orders (not the other 3 guys in white smocks standing around nearby doing nothing).

I tell you all of this to emphasize that it's worth whatever minor hardships you have to endure to get the pastrami (it's absolutely fantastic). Sliced warm in front of my eyes and piled high between slices of rye bread with a slathering of brown mustard, the meat is fatty, peppery, juicy, and messy in all the right ways. I saved a couple of bucks by opting for the half sandwich served with a bowl of matzo ball soup (still, all told it was close to 20 bucks) and also received a complimentary bowl of pickles two ways (both the bright green Jewish sour variety and the vinegar-laden Gentile kind) so I could get some vegetables in my diet.

By the time I was finished, my sandwich had degenerated into its primal components, but I certainly paid no mind. I can't ever recall eating pastrami this good, with the possible exception of Fumare in Chicago (and even that's a distant second). While well worth the stop, I definitely wouldn't want to see what the line was like here at lunchtime.

Feeling all toasty and good on the inside, I made my way over to 215 Smith Street in Brooklyn for the start of my food tour with Joe, a tour guide who moonlights as a writer, actor, and part-time waiter at Barbuto (Chef Jonathan Waxman's flagship restaurant in Manhattan's West Village). The company he works for is called Local Flavors of Brooklyn (or at least that's the name of the specific tour that I was on), which specializes in matching up enthusiastic tourists (in this case, intrepid foodies) with local small businesses (in this case, mom and pop joints pushing artisanal grub in the Carroll Gardens neighborhood of Brooklyn). Our little group of 7 began the proceedings at a small shop selling cheeses, meats, and other gourmet goodies called Stinky Bklyn (no, I have no idea what happened to the rest of the letters).

The kind owner of Stinky Bklyn briefly spoke with us about the history of her business (she and her husband also run a nearby wine store) and passed out small sandwiches of the tasty house pimento cheese spread. The spread reminded me of some of the better versions of pimento cheese I'd sampled in the South, except this one had a solid kick owing to the addition of sriracha, jalapenos, and piquillo peppers to the mix. The bread was also really exceptional and fresh (as it turns out, we'd be visiting the bakery that turned it out very soon).

After a quick stop at a tavern/restaurant that provided beer samples and a couple of paltry snacks (I tried a housemade spicy pickle and decided I'd had enough spice and pickles at that point for the rest of my day), we made our way over to Bien Cuit (120 Smith Street), a modern bakery using old world techniques to turn out amazingly flavorful bread loaves. We were able to sample some of the traditional baguette, as well as the miche, which features blended flours of rye and wheat and a 68-hour fermentation. I think this was about the point I was beginning to regret not bringing an extra suitcase with me to tote some of this great stuff back home.

We had now reached the first dessert break of our tour. The place providing the sweets was One Girl Cookies (68 Dean Street), a shop awash in baby blue and sinful-looking creations. I had an eye on a certain decadent chocolate layer cake displayed under glass, but was perfectly satisfied with 3 cookies - one chocolate and two butter shortbread.

Getting back to bakeries, we proceeded towards the heart of downtown Brooklyn (who knew there was a downtown Brooklyn? I sure didn't...) to a longtime Middle Eastern favorite, Damascus Bakery, open since 1930 and alleged birthplace of the American-style pita bread, which they now churn out in mass quantities at a factory in New Jersey. I really wanted to like this place more than I did - the spinach pie we received for our food sample was mediocre at best and I was a little put off by the layer of dust atop some plastic containers of sweets on the deli counter (apparently, they're not selling too many of these).

Our next destination was a small, hipster-heavy breakfast and lunch diner called Ted & Honey (264 Clinton Street), started by a brother and sister team and located adjacent to leafy Cobble Hill Park. Given the tight confines inside the restaurant, our tour group took our tasty ham and cheese sample sandwiches over to the park to chow down.

Time for Dessert #2. We arrived at another longtime borough stalwart (since 1948), Court Pastry (298 Court Street) to try out a smattering of traditional Italian goodies. I again had higher hopes for this place that remained unfulfilled. The house specialty is the sfogliatella, a shell-shaped pastry filled with ricotta and candied orange peel - it took me 2 tries of flagging down some waitstaff to get one (regular customers clearly receive preferential treatment here) and, in the end, I wasn't particularly impressed with the product. I wonder if both Damascus and Court suffer from a bit of the same affliction; that is, institutional calcification (i.e., we've been here for so long that we don't need to change anything we do, even if it's not entirely working anymore).

After one more side trip for coffee (I politely declined), Joe brought us over to our final taste of the tour, a chocolate egg cream soda at the whimsical and fascinating Brooklyn Farmacy (513 Henry Street). The owners of this place bought the old Longo's Pharmacy (which had occupied the building since the 1920s) with the intention of turning it into a soda fountain and, with a substantial amount of assistance from the Discovery Channel's "Construction Intervention" reality show, managed to restore it to its original glory, tin ceiling and all.

As for the egg cream (I'm pretty sure it was my first), I found it to be a bit like a diet version of a milkshake, with seltzer water taking the place of the ice cream (chocolate syrup and a splash of milk are the other ingredients). Refreshing, for sure, but I usually crave a little more substance (and calories) in my sweet drinks.

By this time, I was happy to drag my stuffed innards back towards the subway and my comfortable hotel room back in Manhattan. I might have had delusions of a snack at the nearby Shake Shack or a wander through the Eataly-like French market in the building across the street from the hotel, but this was not meant to be...