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...