Thursday, January 29, 2015

High Standards at Second Empire - Raleigh, NC

People often ask me if I was raised in a barn. They usually ask me that while I'm cursing and waving a plastic gun with one hand while holding a beer in the other at Dave & Buster's so it's not entirely unjustified... But the answer is always the same: No, I was not raised in a barn, I was raised in a den. The den of tiger mom, to be exact, and what an adventure that has been.

When you cross your eyes as a child, your mother would warn you that they will stay like that. I think that's what happened to tiger moms, too. They kept thier eyes critical for too long, and now they're permanently stuck on scrutinize. 

When dwelling in the den, be prepared for unrealistic expectations. Expecting a six year-old to do long division was almost as "reasonable" as California's former ban on foie gras. After two years in a Golden State of deprivation, I was craving foie gras almost as much as six year-old me craved a playdate where I didn't have to do math. Each piece of Foie Gras is perfectly seared and bursts in the mouth, spreading a savor that smothers the tastebuds even more than helicopter parents. When contrasted with a Sauternes that tastes as sweet as five fleeting minutes in front of the TV, the combination is unstoppable.

The den of the tiger mom is never quiet. If the sound of scratching pencils and rustling paper isn't there, expect to hear the crucial chords of the sixth symphony by [insert name of famous composer here] because, obviously, you've mastered the other five. You will do what everyone else's kids do, but you will do it better. And while plenty of kids do quail, Second Empire does it better. The Pan-Roasted Moroccan Spice Georgia Quail is tender with a capital "T", tempered by moisture-locking crispy skin topping a manic mix of pickled turnips, grainy hummus, and a smooth Greek yogurt sauce.

I don't always like my tiger mom, but I do love my tiger mom. Her methods weren't ideal, but her heart was always in the right place. A lot of people crack under tiger-mom pressure, but if you can't take the heat, get out of the kitchen. I don't always like swordfish either but I do love the Citrus Grilled Latin Spice Swordfish at Second Empire.  Swordfish is often bland and possesses a propensity to turn to rubber with even the slightest sear, it's rarely my first choice. But this swordfish can clearly take the heat. The fish was firm but still soft and seamlessly seasoned, a salty spackle with a little sass.

It's easy to complain about having a tiger mom, but it isn't always a bad thing. The inability to accept compliments will plague you for the entirety of your adult life, but while you're starved for praise, you'll never hunger for food. When my mother cooks, her portions put Second Empire to shame. And believe me, that's really saying something. We shared everything at dinner, and all of my packed-plate photos are actually only halves. Just imagine what a full portion of the melt-in-your-mouth-medium-rare Cajun Seasoned Grilled Ribeye must look like. Better yet, imagine what it tastes like; bite after bite of perfect medium rare in a bed of soft potato ragout and sweet butternut squash compote with greens and a potent cherry port.

The ultimate upside of having a tiger mom is the genes you inherit, and my tiger mom is timeless. She may spend as much time on her skin as the Empire Chocolate Souffle takes to be baked-to-order, but a porcelain complexion as smooth as the chantilly cream is worth every extra minute.

The inability to age isn't the only thing I inherited from my mother. We're fierce and we're fighters and we're temperamental but we're fair. We are forever our own harshest critics, and we don't know how to fail. We laugh at the same shared jokes, we can't say no to a sale, and not a single person questions our impeccable fashion sense when we flash our matching flats. But trends will come and go, and food is almost as fickle as fashion. It's hard for a restaurant to grace a the top of the list for any longer than a year, but I feel like the food at Second Empire will be fabulous forever.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Parlour - Durham, NC

I'm always freezing while other people sweat. In my messed-up mind, 75 is comfortable, 70 is borderline, and 68 is an arctic chill. You'd think that the last thing I'd want to do is walk a few freezing blocks to have ice cream at The Parlour, but on a brisk November afternoon, I just had to give it try.

If I'm going to risk turning into a giant pillar of ice a la Anna from Frozen (spoiler alert!), my ice cream better be a creamy, caloric nightmare. The Vegan Devil's Food, a dense, somewhat bittersweet bite of flourless cake in liquid form did the trick. 

The Salted Butter Caramel was pure sugar in several different strains, a buttery vanilla based laced with gooey strands of caramel. 

When it comes to ice cream, I like the caramel classics best, but I dig this crazy-creative Coconut Curry with Candied Cashew. The sweet, crunchy cashews caress a smooth coconut curry like a sweetened version of Massaman for a taste Thai on the tongue.

I was visibly shivering in The Parlour despite the central heating, and I was freezing my gluttonous gluts off for the entire walk back to my car. But nothing was going to get between me and my homemade ice cream that day, come hell or high wind chill, and I think my parlay with The Parlour was worth freezing for.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Classic Rue Cler - Durham, NC

I love southern food, but after 5 straight days of Bojangles, I might have needed a break. After last year's mind-blowing dinner at Saint-Jacques, I figured I couldn't go wrong with a brunch a la French.

I love my southern buttermilk biscuits, but I'm never above begging for Beignets. These lightly-fried, sugar-sprinkled delights didn't disappoint.

The theme here is frite, and the Moules Frites were well-frite
 in a fine white winewith a side of crispy pommes.

Rue Cler knows how to frite, but they don't bake nearly as well. I was in no way gratinee for ordering the Soupe a L'oignon Gratinee. The baguette had barely soaked, the beef consomme was barely there, and the gruyere hadn't been broiled. 

La soupe was la fail-beyond-repair, but redemption came in the form of the Oeufs Rue Cler. The poached egg yolks flow over the salty ham and soft asparagus to soften the toast, and add a savory note to the sweeter Bearnaise.

I de-duck-ed that I couldn't go wrong with the Duck Confit Crepe, and there was definitely no ducking the flavor-explosion of fatty duck encased in a textbook crepe.

After those oof-free oeufs and a delectable duck, I wasn't about to drown a lovely brunch experience in one unfortunate crock. Next time I want a break from my biscuits, I'll be clinking mimosas at Rue Cler.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Stunned by Stanbury - Raleigh, NC

In case you couldn't tell from my previous reviews, I might be the tiniest bit cynical. And if you really couldn't tell from my previous reviews, you haven't been reading my previous reviews. My latest reviews have been centered around my cynicism about me, but sadly, that's just the tip of the iceberg. My skepticism spreads far and wide, to all corners of the earth, especially to Raleigh, North Carolina, the city I used to call home.

I love visiting my family, but I need a pretty stiff drink to get through anything over a week. The Maple Leaf does the trick. A burly bourbon, smoothed by maple syrup and frothy egg whites will take the edge off of just about anything.

isn't a bad place, but my frustration centers around stagnation. I didn't exactly complain about being sandwiched between mountain and beach, but the chefs tend to play it southern-and-safe. I've had many a Grilled Quail, for example, but BBQ sauce didn't make for a pleasing variation. When combined with collards and rice, the dish is fine dining with a southern flair, but the BBQ overshadows the delicate quail entirely.

But sometimes better-safe-than-sorry still applies. I bake on a beautiful beach every summer, and I visit the Blue Ridge Parkway every fall because they take my breath away every time. The fall leaves are a deep autumn orange, like the butternut squash Crostini and with pumpkin that lent its toasted seeds. The whipped ricotta peaks like ocean waves, and the bread crunches like sand beneath your flip flops.

Turns out, not everything stays the same. Things have been changing slowly but surely in recent years, and Raleigh has been raising the bar. Places like Stanbury have popped up in obscure areas, and their food has started to shift.

I didn't think I'd ever see Crispy Pig Head in this pristine, white-bread neighborhood. The duck egg adds richness and moisture, and the bed of field peas gives it a little texture, a tried treasure beneath a sharp, bitter arugula.

Raleigh isn't exactly tobacco-spittin' backwoods, but I couldn't see them venturing into the risky territory of non-skeletal muscle without some push-back from the white-meat-only clan. But plenty of people go for the Braised Pig Cheeks for the tender texture, well-balanced with tart kimchi on crispy, bitter brussel sprouts and soft, chewy mushrooms.

A lot of my cynicism stops at Stanbury, but cynicism isn't my only issue. Did I mention how judgmental I can be? One dish I will always judge is Steak Tartare. I've never disliked it, but vinaigrette just isn't my thing. The steak is irreproachably fresh and flavorful, but vinaigrette gives it the look and taste of ketchup, an American tradition I detest. Plus it feels incongruent with the cilantro and crab chips.

I also easily get bored, and when I saw the entrees at Stanbury, I almost fell asleep. Seared Scallops with roasted turnips and creamed greens? Where will I ever find something so unusual? Oh wait, at every restaurant by every southern beach. But these are exceptionally seared...(not sure if that's a thing)... After one bite into a fresh, tender scallop with a taste of sweet turnip and hint of creamy green stuff, I didn't care how many times it'd been done. All I know is it has rarely been done this well.

The scenery is breathtaking but so much of it boils down to trees. Miles and miles of monotonous treeeeees. But the color scheme is always a little different from one fall to the next, and small variations of a solid theme are nothing to sneeze at. When you make a good pasta like the House Made Tagliatelle, it hardly matters that it's not original. When coated with a pistachio pesto of pure genius, and scattered with fall favorites like kale and butternut squash, this winning combination is anything but boring.

My time in Raleigh had a definite beginning, middle, and end, and I think the best part was the end. Same goes for my Stanbury splurge. The Apple Tart is a delicate, down-home comfort with a flaky crust, sweet, polished apple slices in a cinnamon-y, fruity finish.

Pig parts aside, I saw mostly southern at Stanbury and was starting to think that they could only cook country with an occasional change-up in the ingredients. After all, you can only heart "y'all" so many times before you start to reckon it ain't a real word. But then Stanbury surprised me. The S'Mores features chocolate between dense cookie-crackers and a marshmallow charred to the max, a campfire favorite with a modern, new-age spin. 

I'll never believe that people can truly change, but apparently cities can. Raleigh was always so static in my motorized mind, but Stanbury proves that a slow but steady shift is forming in the world of food. I don't re-visit Raleigh very often, but I'm excited to see what evolves now that Stanbury is leading the way.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Milk - Los Angeles

Everyone gets a guilty pleasure. I've whittled away hours laughing at the lists on Buzzfeed, my friend Tariq sings Taylor Swift. And who doesn't get hot and bothered at the sight of Oberyn Martel every time they watch Game of Thrones?

Well Milk knew just how to cater to all my guilty pleasures. The Thai Tea Macaron Ice Cream Sandwich was a sweet drink in melty, solid form with a ton of tea-taste in a golden Oberyn-orange, reminiscent of the dusky hues of the tunic he would so readily remove. 

I do love gawking at a good-looking man, but sometimes being a girl is best. There's nothing that makes me laugh more than shaking it off around my kitchen and telling the haters to just hate, hate, hate. The Vanilla Bean Macaron Ice Cream Sandwich is as lightly vanilla as Taylor Swift, carefree and only moderately sweet, the perfect treat to burn off with a little dance.

When I'm done dancing, I start trying to get sleepy before bed. But one episode of Law & Order SVU leads to another, and next thing I know I'm up half the night, as if I had an entire Strawberry Shortcake Shake before bed. It's a sugar-load for sure, with piles of strawberry sorbet and vanilla ice cream, layered with cookie crumbles and sponge cake sin.

Some may argue that Milk can be a bit too much, but IMHO, a guilty pleasure is supposed to feel like a cardinal sin. The way I see it, there are much worse sins than getting fat at Milk so I'll be milking it for all it's worth.