Archive for February, 2012

The Phillips Collection

This post isn’t about food. It’s about art. I suppose it’s relevant enough – food can be art, and art can be food. With that said, let me write about something different for a change.

Lately, I’ve been missing the daily dose of art I used to get in college. With most of my time taken up by culinary school during the week, it is difficult to do anything else during the week.

I was an art history major at Hopkins, and loved nearly every class I took in the program. While it’s probably not a career I will end up pursuing, I still love studying and analyzing various works of art.

There is a small museum near my apartment called The Phillips Collection. After reading about the museum’s impressionist collection, I decided to visit last Saturday morning. Instantly, I was very impressed by the array of works the museum had – Monet, Degas, Renoir, Van Gogh, and one of my favorite artists, Matisse. One painting in particular by Matisse, “Egyptian Curtain” (on right), stuck out to me.

While this is a later work by Matisse (1948), it still exemplifies the flat, bold strokes of color seen in his earlier, fauvist works. The work is at first visually frustrating, as it is difficult to tell what objects are in the forefront and which ones are in the background. There is no clear focal point of the painting, as Matisse treats all objects in the work with equal emphasis.

Matisse also uses bright splashes of color to flatten the objects and skew the sense of depth in the scene. The location of the curtain in the scene is visually confusing – where is it in relation to the table? The treatment of brushwork with the palm tree outside of the window is just as complex as it is with the curtain on the right of the picture. On the other hand, the fruit on the table is painted in a simple way that does not match the complex patterns in he scene.

To me, this work evokes the open window motif that Matisse often displays in many of his works. For example, Open Window (1905, on left), The Blue Window (1913) and The Piano Lesson (1916) all show the open window motif, but in very different ways.

Because The Phillips is a small museum, I had plenty of time to mull over works such as Matisse’s. I was able to see nearly everything in the museum in an hour and a half (this would NEVER happen at the National Gallery!). For its size, The Phillips houses some very impressive works.

Duncan Phillips, who helped introduce modern art to Americans, founded the museum in its current house in 1921. He intended the museum to be a place where visitors could enjoy art in a warm and inviting setting. Today, The Phillips is still committed to Duncan’s values.

It’s a great little museum that’s definitely worth a visit.

The Phillips Collection is located at 1600 21st St NW, Washington, DC 20009.


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After four months of culinary school, I thought I had learned how to work fast in the kitchen, especially under pressure. Last week’s restaurant challenge proved to me otherwise. Over the course of two days last week, we transformed our kitchen at school into a mock-restaurant, planning to serve nearly 200 guests. Our menu was enormous. We prepared dishes from an a la carte menu, off of which Chef Patrice (our instructor) had pre-selected a three-course meal for each customer.

For the first day, I was assigned to the saute station, specifically working with chicken, pork, veal, beef and duck. This station also included preparing accompanying side items such as mashed potatoes, haricots verts, rice pilaf and snow peas. Here are all of the dishes for which we were responsible:

Chicken Roulade with Spinach and Sun Dried Tomatoes, Madeira Sauce, Pommes Darphin and Snow Peas

Chicken Leg Chasseur, Riz Pilaf, Haricot Verts

Grilled Flank Steak, Sauce Choron, Pommes Darphin, Haricots Verts

Veal Scallopini with Mushrooms, Madeira Sauce and Squash Risotto

Braised Duck Leg over Sauteed Cabbage

Pork Tenderloin, Sauce Charcutiere, Broccoli a l’Anglaise, Mashed Potatoes

Steak au Poivre, French Fries, Haricots Verts

Seared Duck Breast a l’Orange, Pommes Sautees a Cru and Ratatouille

We had two hours to prep our station. Two hours went by a lot faster than you might think. In fact, it was not nearly enough time. In general, one of the most important part of prep time is figuring out what you can do ahead of time and what you have to do a la minute (at the moment of service). Fortunately, most of our dishes could be cooked in advance and warmed up in the oven right before serving them.

We divided the work up among our group, deciding who would be in charge of what dish. I was to do most of the prep for the Chicken Chasseur, and then help out whenever I could after that. The first thing I did was create a prep list for myself, which looked something like this:

  • Whole chicken
    • Breast, thighs, legs
    • Bones to fortify stock
  • Braising liquid
    • Chicken stock
    • Mirepoix (Onions, carrots, celery, chopped small)
    • Bouquet garni (thyme, parsley, bay leaf)
  • Sauce chasseur
    • Braising liquid
    • Tomato concasse
      • Tomato, rough chop
      • Tomato paste
      • Onion, very finely chopped
      • Thyme, bay leaf
    • Mushrooms, sliced thin
    • Shallots, chopped fine
    • Tarragon, finely chopped

As long as I could sear my chicken and let it cook slowly in its braising liquid well ahead of time, I would be safe. While my chicken cooked in the oven, I could prep for the sauce. This included slicing and sautéing my mushrooms, simmering tomatoes with onions in olive oil over low heat for my concasse and chopping my tarragon and shallots finely.

Because we had no break between prep and service, we had no time to clean and organize our station. After two hours of frantic prep, everything and everyone was an absolute mess. Chicken and duck blood had splattered on my chef whites while spilled sauces, stocks, vegetable scraps and whatever else were strewn about the table. We wiped down everything as best as we could.

Two members of our group moved to the expo station. Here, they would receive the orders from the chef and yell them back to everyone else in the group. Expo was also responsible for the finishing touches on all dishes, whether this meant making sure the plate was clean or spooning sauce over the meat.

The rest of us were back at the stove and oven, preparing all of the components of each ordered dish. For the Chicken Chasseur, I made sure that each plate received a hot thigh and a drumstick. The haricots verts were already blanched, so all I had to do was heat them up in warm water for about five seconds. The plates for each dish had to also be warm, a tedious but essential detail.

The first hour was frantic, chaotic insanity.

The communication between expo and the rest of us was horrible. When a dish is “ordered,” it does not mean that it is needed immediately, but when a dish is “fired,” this means that it is. At first, I was confused, not understanding the difference between the two commands. I’d have a pork tenderloin plated and ready, when a Chicken Chasseur was needed right away, while a braised duck leg was getting cold because I had sent it out too early.

Meanwhile, Chef Patrice is screaming – Where is my Chasseur and medium rare Steak au Poivre? It’s been way too long! Get it out NOW!

I don’t remember hearing expo tell us we needed a Steak au Poivre, but that doesn’t matter. It just needs to get done!

Later, as I was sending out a chicken and duck, I accidentally dropped my wooden spoon into the deep fryer. I stared at the spoon with a weird fascination for a few seconds – the hot oil crackled around the spoon as it bobbed up and down. I snapped out of my trance and fished it out with a pair of tongs. Later on, another member of our group dropped another wooden spoon on the flaming stove. It took two of us to blow out the flames.

Gradually, we figured out a system to send out our food more efficiently. After all was said and done six hours later, I realized I hadn’t had a single drop of water. As dehydration and exhaustion hit me, as I plopped down in a chair. It felt incredible.

I can’t imagine it is this crazy in a real restaurant. The cooks know the menu well, and prepare the same dishes night after night. Being exposed to the demands of a real kitchen, however, was a useful experience. I survived by telling myself to keep calm and stay in control no matter what – even if I had no idea what the hell I was doing, I had to look like I did. I am beginning to see that working on the line in a kitchen is serious business that is not as easy as it looks. It requires a lot of concentration and a lot of multi-tasking. Although I’m improving everyday, I’m still not quite there yet.

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Revisiting Eastern Market

A few months ago, I reported an unsatisfying experience at D.C.’s Eastern Market (read it here – Eastern Market). I arrived 30 minutes after The Market Lunch closed, and instead found food at a mediocre deli inside the covered market’s main building. The soggy chicken sandwich I bought was an utter disappointment. Clearly, I did not visit the market on the correct terms.

So, I decided to do Eastern Market the right way. Instead of coming on a random weekday, I went on a Saturday around 1 p.m. Right away, I noticed that the market was much more lively – vendors were set up outside the main building selling produce and other knickknacks. There was also a weekend flea market set up in a parking lot across the street, and the portion of 7th Street next to the building was blocked off to traffic. Already, this was a huge improvement.

Inside the market, Paul and I made our way through the crowd, taking in the food vendors around us. Everywhere I looked, there was beautiful, fresh food. Most exciting of all was the seafood stand that sold whole fish, including red snapper, rainbow trout, grouper that looked to be about 10 pounds. How cool was this? I’ve had a tough time finding whole fish in grocery stores, so this was truly a treat! Filleting fish has become one of my favorite new skills that I’ve acquired (does that make me a bit sadistic?) since starting culinary school. I decided to pass up the chance to buy one of these beauties, but I knew I’d be back.

Hungry and slightly creeped out by my fish obsession, Paul reminded me of the real reason for why we had come. Our destination was The Market Lunch, an Eastern Market mainstay for many, many years.

Surprisingly, there was no line. I mean, no line whatsoever. Almost every review I have read about The Market Lunch quotes waiting at least 30 minutes to place their order at the counter. I’m not sure how this happened at lunchtime on a Saturday, but I was in no position to complain. We studied the menu written on a long chalkboard over the lunch counter. Today’s special was shrimp and grits with andouille sausage. Already, this place had won me over.

I ordered the North Carolina style pulled pork sandwich with a side of fries, and Paul ordered a double-cheeseburger. Perhaps it was risky on my behalf to order something “North Carolina style” outside of my home state (I was born in Charlotte, NC), but I couldn’t pass it up. Call it the southerner in me, but I am absolutely powerless to a good pulled pork sandwich.

After some minor confusion with the “cash only” policy, our food appeared at the end of the counter on a red plastic tray. The generous portion of pulled pork sat perfectly molded on its bun, with two small cups of cole slaw and vinegar-based barbecue sauce next to it. I grabbed a fork, knowing this monster sandwich was not going to hold together for long.

My first bite was bliss – this was not too far from the pork I knew from home. The sauce was not overwhelming in vinegar, and paired nicely with the pork. As I predicted, the bun fell apart instantly, but the pork was too damned delicious for me to care. Perhaps if the bun had been toasted, it would have been sturdier.

The fries were great, as well. Full and satisfied, I left Paul (who enjoyed his cheeseburger as well) at the table to gaze at the whole fish again. On my way, I heard live bluegrass music coming from another part of the indoor market.

Returning back to an also full and satisfied Paul, we scurried out of the market before I could spend the rest of my money on the fish (they weren’t cheap!).

The Market Lunch serves up comfort food at its best, which is way better than a soggy chicken sandwich, if I do say so.

Market Lunch on Urbanspoon

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While it is a great excuse to dine out, Restaurant Week in Baltimore can sometimes be a hit or miss.

The pros – sometimes, Restaurant Week can be an unbelievable deal. In my memory, the best example of this was The Prime Rib, which I visited last year. For $35.10, we received a three-course meal, including the usual $50 prime rib. Damn. This year, the prefix dinner is $30, but with an additional $4 tacked on if you order the prime rib. Fair enough, I suppose.

The cons – the prefix menu can be a downright rip off at many restaurants (Who wants to pay $30 a person at La Tasca? Really?). Moreover, a menu made up of the cheapest offerings (a Caesar salad at Cinghiale?) is disappointing.

The point of my ramble is this – Restaurant Week is reasonable if the prefix menu is a reflection of the establishment’s specialties. This year, the deal is $30.12 for a three-course dinner and $15.12 for a two-course lunch. Corner BYOB, which I had neither tried nor read much about, caught my eye among the long list of participating restaurants. Corner BYOB, which opened last year, is known for offering “exotic” meats on its menu, including frog legs, veal bone marrow, kangaroo, antelope and rattlesnake.

The restaurant week menu offered three dishes that intrigued me – frog legs, pork cheeks, mussels and frites. In addition, the restaurant is BYOB (hence the name). Despite a silly corkage fee ($3 plus $1 per person), I still think it is a pretty good deal. While on the topic of silly fees, there is also a credit card “convenience” fee of $2 if you choose not to use cash. Oh, well.

Corner BYOB’s dining room is small, cozy and intimate. On our visit, we were seated in front of a big window that looked out onto West 36th Street (better known as “The Avenue”). The hostess, after pouring us water, spent a few minutes going over highlights of the restaurant week menu.  Our waiter soon arrived and went over the menu again, excitedly describing the pork cheeks and one of the house specialty’s, the roasted duck. If the front of the house had this much enthusiasm for the food, I couldn’t even imagine what the kitchen was like.

We started with the frog legs (pictured, left) pan seared with a lemon, white wine and garlic butter sauce, and also the braised pork cheeks with Parmesan polenta and foie gras froth. Although I found the presentation of the frog legs sparse (a simple, frisee salad on the side would have been nice), they were quite tasty, reminding me of a cross between chicken and fish. I guessed that I was supposed to use my hands to eat the frog legs, evidenced by an accompanying bowl of warm water for rinsing after I finished.

The pork cheeks (pictured, below) were outstanding. They do infact come from the cheek of the pig, and must be slow cooked to fully render the flavor of the meat. Corner BYOB’s were incredibly tender, and paired nicely with the polenta. Although the frog legs were fun to eat, I think I preferred the pork cheeks flavor-wise.

For my entrée, I ordered the mussels and fries, one of my all time favorite dishes. Corner BYOB’s did not at all disappoint. The one-kilo pot of steaming hot mussels was paired with a cone of French fries and a delicious golden mayo dipping sauce. The mussels were cooked in a spicy sauce called Red Devil, containing red peppers, tomatoes and celery.

Paul ordered a perfect medium-rare pepper steak (pictured, below), flambeed in brandy and served with Brussels sprouts and potato croquettes. The potato croquettes excited me – we had made these gourmet “tater tots” a few months ago in culinary school! Of course, mine were not nearly as beautiful as the ones that were so artfully arranged on Paul’s plate.

The desserts were good as well, but not as notable as the appetizers and entrees. I wished the caramel sauce with my dessert, a fancy ice cream sandwich, was warmer. The menu labeled my dessert as “ice cream layered between genoise,” or sponge cake, which I found a bit misleading. The flaky pastry that sandwiched the caramel ice cream seemed more like a puff pastry than a genoise.

Overall, our meal at Corner BYOB was excellent. I loved the atmosphere, especially our view out onto 36th Street. Highlights from the meal were the mussels and fries, and the pork cheeks. For the Hampden neighborhood, Corner BYOB is a strong addition. With frontrunners  The Dogwood, Grano and wine bar 13.5%, Corner BYOB fits into a neighborhood that is gradually becoming more upscale.

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