Tuesday, January 30, 2007

She grows up and she grows up!

In the midst of writing three separate entries (can you believe?), as well as adding some tags and whatnot now that I've finally made the leap to Blogger Beta, I realized--

Today, this very day, is my bloggaversary.

One year ago I pulled myself up from my depressingly unemployed bootstraps and started writing about food. It's become the best thing I've ever done with my life, leading me to:

1. Get a fantastic job as a restaurant reviewer.
2. Make new friends.
3. Learn new things and approach projects I would never have dreamed of.
4. Pursue work I really love, like the TV production and food writing I'm doing now.
5. Find out that the uncertainty, the struggles in life are often really worth it.

And so, this is my third in a dull series of (mostly) photo-less posts, but I couldn't let the milestone go unnoticed. Sporadic as I may be in posting, I treasure this blog and each and every person that takes a minute to read it.

Review: Le Parigo

Originally published in the August, 2006 issue of CityView magazine.

You must go to Le Parigo:

French cooking finds an incongruous home in Bearden

There are many that would not predict likely success for a French restaurant in Knoxville. There are even more that would think an organic French restaurant doesn’t stand a fighting chance in the over-crowded dining scene our fair city is graced (or burdened?) with. I am here to tell these people—you are about to be proven wrong.

Walking into Le Parigo, I can’t help but notice the similarities and differences the décor has to the previous restaurant to hold court in this location. It is a disservice to an establishment, I think, to compare it to the previous tenant. But in the case of this small space, I couldn’t help but to seek out reminders of Mango, the Kenny Saio restaurant that was the inaugural inhabitant of the building. And reminders are indeed still there, in the palm leaf frieze on one wall (likely covering some sort of electrical panel), the smoke-reducing fans above the now smoke-free bar, and most jarringly, the vibrant russet, Bordeaux, and pumpkin colored walls. The art is different, of course, and the furniture has indeed changed. In fact, it’s the furniture that made the unchanged color scheme stand out so—pink velvet upholstered boudoir-esque chairs that did not, in any way, meld with the vibrantly earthy colors meant to match Mango’s eclectic fusion menu. Luckily, once you are folded into one of these admittedly comfortable chairs, the music sinks in, your attentive waiter brings you a glass of wine in a varietal-specific piece of stemware, and the food makes you forget any incongruities that the décor brought to mind. Because it’s the food, my friends, that really matters at Le Parigo. In fact, after eating (and eating, and eating), I quickly realized that this was not a restaurant that needed to rely on sleekly coordinated décor—just take one look, one smell, one bite of the dish in front of you, and suddenly your surroundings are oh-so harmonious.

From the moment I arrived at Le Parigo, the service was impeccable. Greeted at the door by the host I was immediately swept off to my waiting table, where another staff member swiftly pulled out my chair for me and handed me a wine list. When I requested to wait to order wine after ordering my meal, the dinner menu was in my hands seemingly before I finished the thought. A nearby table wobbled briefly and yet another waiter ducks in with a shim to stabilize the situation. I don’t even think the affected patrons broke their conversation. It’s these small touches—such as having your table crumbed between courses, never having to ask for a replacement for cleared silverware, or your water goblet never dipping below half full—that really do make the higher price you are paying for the food worth every penny. The service here evokes its Parisian ideal, where a career as a waiter is considered a noble profession worth dedicating your life to.

Not only is the environment evocative of a French dining experience, this is French food—replete with complex, labor-intensive sauces, showcasing perfect examples of classic ingredients—and yet it’s unique as well, paying homage to American cooking’s youthful ingenuity. I started with what is considered to be a classic warm weather French soup—vichyssoise (indeed created by a Frenchman, but in New York, not his native country). This dish ($5) showcases the French-yet-not-French parallel I mentioned: picture the lightest, silkiest potato puree you’ve ever tasted, packed with decadent cream…butter…the palest leeks…and drizzled with a trio of sauces, each bite a revelation. This took the very idea of vichyssoise I had ingrained in my memory (too cold, often thin and dominated by grainy potatoes) and knocked it out. The room temperature soup was so delicious I had to force myself to not scrape the bowl clean. This velvety, creamy essence of what potatoes and leeks aspire to be filled my mouth with a comforting, yet elegant, blend of flavors, topped with a dazzling drizzle of chive oil, carrot puree, and a red wine demi-glace so thick and jammy I would have sworn it was some sort of divine fruit reduction. These garnishes (if you can call something that adds so much a garnish) make a welcome reappearance throughout the savory courses.

With this auspicious beginning I was rapturously awaiting the next course. I purposely ordered the house special beef tartare ($12), because I feel that this is a dish that is easy to over do. High quality beef should not require too much fiddling, the idea behind tartare is to really let the exceptional flavors and textures of a supreme cut of beef shine through. And shine it did, with such aplomb that I began to wonder why you would ever want to cook such a meltingly tender cut of meat. Packed with flavor that complimented, rather than overwhelmed; the rich, unctuous steak was paired with wafer thin toast points and a lightly dressed salad of baby lettuces. If I had to offer a complaint, it would be that I would have liked more of the toasts with the dish, yet it seemed that I finished every bite of meat with no problems.

From here the evening took on the jovial, almost giddy tone that can only be set by excellent food. My dining companion and I were never rushed; rather I had the idea that our table was just that, our table, with no plans to seat another pair of diners at it for the rest of the evening. This added to the luxurious feeling of the meal, after all if you are going to have four courses of perfectly rich food you might as well take nearly three hours to enjoy it, which we did. After the first two courses, I took a moment to digest and enjoy the excellent glass of rosé I had ordered from the all-French wine list, a Caves des Papes Cotes du Rhone Heritage Rosé—pricey at $10 a glass but the tart raspberry notes summoned daydreams of summers in the south of France. After this breather came the entrée I had chosen from the tempting menu: pan seared sea scallops with pommes Anna, spinach prosciutto custard, carrot puree and buerre blanc ($27).

This is a masterful dish with sweet scallops perfectly complimented by the incredibly unique custard—the spinach and prosciutto concoction is light, with a flash of spinach flavor filling your mouth and then gone in an instant, leaving behind the savory chunks of prosciutto to compliment the buttery scallops. The crisp wedges of pommes Anna served alongside are a little dry and tough, but in the long run this is irrelevant, so entranced was I by the custard, the scallops, and the satiny carrot puree. Those with hearty appetites might balk at the four scallop serving, but they will find the dish so rich and ultimately filling that it might be difficult to finish.

Sated as I was by the parade of delights I’d just consumed, I felt it would be nearly criminal to not partake of one of the evening’s tempting dessert offerings. Crème brulee ménage a trios was in order—3 “shots” of the classic dessert, a perfect size after a decadent meal. Warm and crisp on top, perfectly cool and creamy inside—the mocha and pistachio flavors definitely outshone the classic vanilla, leaving my companion and me scraping each bit of smooth custard, following with a fantastic coffee from Vienna Coffee Company. The “Le Parigo Blend” custom-made for the restaurant is served with the rustic brown sugar cubes that can be found at any café in France, and can be purchased at the door.

Le Parigo is a restaurant that obviously prides itself on the small things that make a restaurant memorable, and they show that it’s these small things that can often matter most. Scrupulous attention to detail, exquisite ingredients and preparation, and an elegant yet relaxed atmosphere—these are the elements that will keep loyal customers coming back to Le Parigo again and again.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Review: La Costa

Originally published in Cityview Magazine in July, 2006. Since then the restaurant has changed its menu dramatically but is still a great place to eat. Also, be kind, it's my first real review ever and I think I've gotten better at it since then.

Neuvo Latino Cuisine Makes a Splash on Market Square
La Costa is the newest entry to the blossoming downtown dining scene
by Marianne Canada

Chances are, you’ve heard of Gregg White’s first restaurant endeavor—the outrageously popular Nama—which has found success with inventive sushi and envelope-pushing fusion. So why open a restaurant featuring “Nuevo Latino” cuisine? White explains that he “wanted to continue to do something different, take the concept of higher end, high quality cuisine to a new level,” and that he saw a niche that La Costa could fit into.

White feels that the principles of sushi (small plates, quality over quantity) relate to all good food, and so the philosophy of La Costa is quite similar to Nama, even though the cuisine is very different. Working with Dean Holsberry, former Executive Chef at Mango and Edison Park, he created a menu that offers truly inventive and delicious food to the discerning downtown crowd. When the location on Market Square became available, he jumped at the chance to be a part of the thriving nightlife of that area.

Walking into La Costa, you are immediately surrounded by the warmth of the space. Though sparse in decoration, La Costa resonates with a Moorish atmosphere that fills you with anticipation for your meal. The dining area is set up like its sister restaurant Nama, with a bar flanking one side of the long, narrow space, and booths and tables along the facing wall. However, unlike Nama, there are more tables, both inside and out, and La Costa can accommodate larger crowds, thanks to two oversized booths up front. Spare yet warm décor keeps the space inviting—rich colors on the walls, exposed brick, dark leather and lots of wooden accents create a luxurious, but simple, vibe.

Here at La Costa, Spain meets Mexico, and you wouldn’t believe what a happy union they make. The inviting menu is full of choices—from burritos to empanadas to ceviche—and almost every option is reasonably priced. La Costa offers a great wine and beer selection, including two custom draft beers from Woodruff Brewing Company—an “amber” and an “oro”. You’ll also find a variety of specialty drinks unlike anything you would ever encounter at your typical Mexican joint, so I happily settled into our cozy, high backed leather booth with a Blood Orange Margarita ($8.50) and began making my choices for dinner. The margarita was fantastic: the mellow, rosy pink juice made a better compliment to the tequila than the traditional lime, with just the right amount of salt to balance the sweetness.

The appetizer menu tempts from many different directions, but my dining partner and I settled on two—the Roasted Corn & Crab Dip ($7.00) and the Roasted Red Pepper & Lobster Bisque ($5). The crab dip was incredible, hot and savory with heaps of crab, studded with smoky corn kernels and crunchy bread crumbs, served with thin bread rounds. After being advised that we should stir the crumb layer into the rest of the dip I could see the genius behind this dish—layers of textures and flavors that satisfied until the bowl was scraped clean. The soup was a lovely compliment to the dip—this was no typical silky, cream laden bisque, so don’t let the word “bisque” scare those of you with calories on your mind—rather, it was a more rustic version of the old classic—sweet, mellow, and subtle roasted pepper flavors with big chunks of grilled lobster stirred in. I was really pleased by the amount of lobster meat in the soup, especially for the price. The soup was light and filling, and would make a great lunch paired with a salad.

To go with our main course choices I ordered a glass of Alancia Vinho Verde ($6.00), one of my favorite summer wines that I was thrilled to see on the wine list. Vinho verde is a very young, slightly effervescent white wine from Portugal, and it pairs well with light, spicy flavors.

I ordered a trio of main dishes to share with my dining partner, starting with the Duck Confit Quesadilla ($7.50). The quesadilla made me swoon—stuffed with shreds of house-made duck confit, roasted red onion, queso blanco, apricots, and cilantro, the flavors melded together in a most pleasing way. With a dab of the accompaniments, pica pica salsa and sour cream, this was really a sensation. For your money, you get quite a bit of the tender duck and could easily eat this quesadilla alone for a light meal.

When White found out that restaurants are the #1 generator of trash in the retail market, he made it a personal goal to have La Costa be the first “Certified Green” restaurant in Tennessee, meaning that they compost, use products made from 100% post-consumer waste, recycle, and are working to use organic, local, and sustainable products whenever possible. White is also committed to providing more options for vegetarians and vegans, such as the Chickpea, Walnut, Spinach and Cheese Empanada ($5.00). This good-sized hand pie came with a piquant cabbage salad and was topped with a sizable dollop of pumpkin seed mole. At first I found the sludgy green mole a little off-putting in appearance, but one taste showed me how it really complimented the flavors tucked inside the flaky pastry. I think anyone, vegetarian or carnivore, would be happy with this unique dish.

The last entrée we chose was the Twice-Cooked Pork Tamale ($7.50). Served in a traditional corn husk, the tamale is split open and generously stuffed with meltingly tender pork and roasted onions, and is served alongside a tomatilla salsa and cabbage salad. You can make a meal out of this dish by adding rice and beans for an additional $2.00. This was another winner of a dish; however, after the two appetizers and two entrees we had already eaten, our appetites were starting to fade. Luckily, the attentive but unobtrusive waitstaff scooped up our barely touched tamale and wrapped it up for us to take home (a touch I always appreciate, as I hate trying to wrangle the to-go box at the table).

It’s amazing, isn’t it, how you can feel so full and satisfied, yet when the dessert menu comes around you have no trouble reclaiming some of your appetite? My dining companion ordered an Organic Coffee ($2.25) and we agreed to split the Phyllo Banana and White Chocolate Relleno ($6.00). What arrived at our table was masterful—a gorgeous presentation of buttery phyllo encasing a whole banana, white chocolate, and walnuts. Served with seriously good cinnamon ice cream (from Hilton Head Ice Creams) alongside, this was a lovely end to a lovely meal.

Reservations are taken, and I would recommend them on weekends, as well as on Thursday nights during the Sundown in the City concert series.

La Costa
31 Market Square

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

My favorite explanations...

...for my prolonged absence:

I fell into quicksand.

I've given up cooking altogether.

I hate you all.

I no longer can taste food and am living in a cave.

I'm dead.

But my favorite is:

I'm still at the beach.

Oh, how I wish!

But really, it's nothing so exciting or tragic. I just got...busy. That's a lame excuse, but a valid one. After all, when someone that starts a blog called "The Unemployed Cook" starts being more and more employed, well, the blog is going to suffer.

And also I guess I needed a break. As good as it is to have an outlet, I was feeling more and more pressured to produce content for this wee site. And eventually it was easier to ignore than to put the effort into.

And so, I'm not making any sort of "I'm back" proclamations. BUT, I have been cooking like crazy, and the magazine I write for has given me permission to post my reviews once the current month has passed. I hate New Year's resolutions, but nevertheless, I'm hoping to post at least once a week. After all, I have so much to talk about.

Like Christmas...

Or pickles:

Or divine Country Cookin':

I mean, that's the very tip of a melting iceberg. Happy New Year.