Saturday, April 25, 2009

Spring Break Shenanigans, Part 5: Farmer's Table, Han Kang Korean Restaurant

Catch up! Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4
The morning TL was due to fly back to NYC, we sat down to breakfast at Farmer's Table, whereupon he casually mentioned that if we left early enough, we could eat another meal of Korean food in Aurora. My kind of thinking! TL's flight wasn't until 4:30 pm, so even though it meant we'd be eating breakfast and then eating lunch only an hour or two later, that's exactly what we ended up doing.
But first, there was breakfast. Along with a fried egg and a sausage patty, I ordered the pancake of the month—whole grain with toasted almonds, and served with almond butter—but it turned out I wasn't fond of the crunchy almond slices on the bottom (I guess I like my pancakes to be soft and fluffy through and through). And though I usually never put syrup on my pancakes, I ended up pouring and pouring from the little carafe on the table, not because I really liked the syrup, but because no matter how much I poured the pancakes didn't seem to taste any sweeter. It was definitely a strange experience.

I ended up eating only half the pancake anyway. Had to save room for Korean food, after all.
I took a bite of TL's "Farmer's Benedict," though, which was pretty good. The bacon was thick and crisp, and I really liked the hash browns too.
After running a few last-minute errands, it was off to Aurora. As it turns out, Aurora is a bit farther from Fort Collins than we knew, so we ended up with less time to eat than we anticipated. No matter—we walked into Han Kang Korean Restaurant, a few doors down from Seoul BBQ, looked quickly at the menu, and ordered. And because we had mentioned to the waitress that we were in a hurry, the panchan came out in just a few minutes.

By the way, though Han Kang and Seoul BBQ are practically neighbors, they couldn't have been more different in atmosphere. Han Kang is a small, home-grown joint with worn furniture and a television tuned to a Korean channel in the corner; Seoul BBQ is large, sleek, and modern-looking, as I mentioned. It's a total switch in vibe.
I went for the spicy seafood bibimbap, which came out in a hot stone bowl that gave the rice a crispy crust on the bottom, and was chock full of squid as well as diced onion and zucchini. This is my kind of comfort food.
TL got another order of bulgogi, which was less heavily sauced than the version at Seoul BBQ, and seemed pretty happy with it. Because the food came out so quickly, too, we managed to finish our meal within a half hour, and the waitress was prompt with picking up the check and giving us our change.

We got to the airport without any trouble, and then it was time for me to brave the road alone again, for the drive back to Fort Collins. Spring break was officially over.

Spring Break Shenanigans
Part 1: Braving the Road for Seoul BBQ
Part 2: Pikes Peak donuts, Phantom Canyon Brewing Company
Part 3: Rodizio Grill, Suehiro
Part 4: Dim sum at Star Kitchen, Red Robin redux
Part 5: Farmer's Table, Han Kang Korean Restaurant

Friday, April 24, 2009

Spring Break Shenanigans, Part 4: Dim sum at Star Kitchen, Red Robin redux

Catch up! Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3
Maybe it's just me, but from the outside, Star Kitchen really didn't look like the kind of place that would serve up good dim sum. The restaurant was located in a dingy strip mall in Southwest Denver, and I would never have thought to stop in on my own. But we were trying to figure out where to tell TL's friend BN to meet us for lunch, and since Star Kitchen had gotten a number of good reviews, we just went with it.
Once I got inside, all my fears were alleviated at the sight of the full tables, bustling servers, and the array of goodies they bore on their carts. The skins of the shrimp dumplings were a little thicker-skinned than usual, and the fried items a little greasier, but we got all my favorites (char siu triangles, shao mai, fried mochi stuffed with pork, and shrimp wrapped in rice noodles) and on the whole I was really happy with everything we picked out.
I especially liked the scallop dumplings, which I'd never had before anywhere else. The belly of each dumpling was filled with shrimp, and a tender piece of scallop lay on top. Yum.
The egg custard tarts were good too, despite their suspiciously DayGlo centers. Heavy on the yolk, perhaps? We also split a bowl of dofu fa, jiggly tofu custard in sweet ginger syrup, and it was excellent.
After lunch TL and I headed to Red Rocks Amphitheater, which is open to the public whenever concerts or events aren't taking place. The amphitheater is framed by gorgeous natural red rock formations, and I was delighted by the sight of people picnicking, sunbathing, and running up and down the stairs for exercise. I can't wait for the opportunity to go to a concert here.
After walking around downtown Denver for a while, we drove back to Fort Collins and tried to think of someplace good to go for dinner; after the previous night's depressing meal at Suehiro, I wasn't in the mood to be disappointed again. So we went for the tried-and-true: burgers at Red Robin. This time, I got the California Chicken Burger, which is TL's favorite and which was awesome: a juicy chicken breast topped with cheese, guacamole, bacon, lettuce, tomatoes, mayo, and pickles. Say what you will about chain restaurants—I'd totally go back to Red Robin anytime.

Spring Break Shenanigans
Part 1: Braving the Road for Seoul BBQ
Part 2: Pikes Peak donuts, Phantom Canyon Brewing Company
Part 3: Rodizio Grill, Suehiro
Part 4: Dim sum at Star Kitchen, Red Robin redux
Part 5: Farmer's Table, Han Kang Korean Restaurant

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Spring Break Shenanigans, Part 3: Rodizio Grill, Suehiro

Catch up! Part 1 and Part 2
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Our first meal of the day was at Rodizio Grill, a Brazilian restaurant that had opened up not long ago in an old train station building. Since I wrote an article about it for the Coloradoan, check out my writeup here! (Um, and I'd just like to emphasize that I did not come up with that "You'll be glad you said yes to this experience" line.) The food was quite good, and both of us were stuffed by the time we left. I felt certain we wouldn't need another meal.

But after a day of shopping, running errands, and bumming around town, the clock struck eight and we found our stomachs rumbling again. In the mood for something light, I suggested Suehiro, a Japanese restaurant that had been consistently voted as one of the best in Fort Collins. As we drove to Old Town to where the restaurant was located, I had no idea what a depressing meal we were headed for.
It began auspiciously enough, with bowls of miso soup brimming with chunks of tofu, and a pickled carrot and cucumber salad that was a welcome change from the ubiquitous iceberg lettuce with carrot-ginger dressing I was expecting.
And our $24 Sushi Boat looked pretty good, too, with tuna and cucumber rolls, California rolls, crab rolls, and tuna, yellowtail, egg, shrimp, scallop, salmon, crab, octopus, halibut, and eel nigiri.
Even the Sunset Roll, eel and cucumber with avocado on top, seemed promising.

But once we started eating, the excitement died. The fish was—not unfresh, exactly, but not really fresh, either. The Sunset Roll came in a pool of sauce which completely overwhelmed the rice, avocado, and eel. And the rolls were so badly constructed and sloppy looking I concluded I could do much better myself. Our chopsticks moved from the plate to our mouths at a slower and slower place. Finally, midway through, TL put down his chopsticks and looked at me. "Bleh," he said, and I couldn't have agreed more.

The service here was super friendly, and I felt bad directing our waitress to throw out the rest of the sushi, but that's exactly what we did. She seemed concerned about our lack of enthusiasm, but it wasn't her fault. The place had served up some seriously mediocre food and neither of us wanted any more of it.

Both of us were in low spirits from eating such a bad meal, so we went home, ate some more chocolate cake, and headed out to see Watchmen in an attempt to cheer ourselves up. And while I didn't think much of the movie—I ended up falling asleep for the first third, and then giggling at its absurdity for the remainder—at least it wasn't depressing. Thank goodness.

Spring Break Shenanigans
Part 1: Braving the Road for Seoul BBQ
Part 2: Pikes Peak donuts, Phantom Canyon Brewing Company
Part 3: Rodizio Grill, Suehiro
Part 4: Dim sum at Star Kitchen, Red Robin redux
Part 5: Farmer's Table, Han Kang Korean Restaurant

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Spring Break Shenanigans, Part 2: Pikes Peak donuts, Phantom Canyon Brewing Company

Catch up! Part 1
Early the next day, after a breakfast of bagels and scallion cream cheese, TL and I drove two hours to Colorado Springs to board the Pikes Peak Cog Railway, which takes passengers up to the Pikes Peak summit and back in three and a half hours. At fourteen thousand feet, the air at the top of the mountain was extremely thin, and frigid even while it was 80 degrees at its base.
Inside the lodge, people were lining up for donuts. And no wonder—maybe it was just an effect of the altitude high, but they were some of the best I'd ever had. Still hot from the fryer, the edges were crispy and the innards sweet and soft, and they were all the more miraculous for being fluffy and well-risen at such high altitude. Immediately after scarfing down two each, TL and I fantasized about more. The train was about to head back down, though, so we didn't have time to get back in line, which is probably a good thing.
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After our train ride, we drove to the nearby Garden of the Gods, a gorgeous park filled with striking red rock formations. I loved it, and found the area actually more scenic than being at the top of Pikes Peak. The photos don't really do the place much justice.
For dinner, we drove into downtown Colorado Springs and ended up at Phantom Canyon Brewing Company. It looked like a typical restaurant/brewery, but once we looked over the menu we noticed some unusual touches to the dishes. For instance, we started with the artichoke dip, which arrived not as the usual molten vat of cheese and artichoke with chips, but as a thicker spread with delicious garlic beer bread and fresh vegetables (including a few surprising pieces of jicama) for dipping.
TL ordered the "Rocky Mountain Rainbow Trout" entree, which came in a honey chive butter sauce with a sweet potato hash. I took a bite and was surprised by how fresh and well-prepared the trout was, and the hash made a good accompaniment for the delicate fish.
I opted for the "Mile High Pork Chops," a pair of thick, juicy, smoky pork chops glazed with barbecue sauce and topped with fried jalapeno peppers. It also came with a pile of bacon and cheddar mashed potatoes beneath, buttery sauteed vegetables to the side, and a pair of tiny cornbread muffins perched on the rim, a good deal for $13.95.

Unfortunately, I discovered after a few bites that the pork chops were raw in the middle, so I had to wait while they took them back to the kitchen to cook them to proper done-ness, which they did graciously but which really put a kink in the timing of the meal. TL had to endure me staring at him while he ate, and then once my plate came back I had to endure him staring at me while I ate. I hate when that happens!

We were pretty tired after that, so we drove the two hours back to Fort Collins and spent the rest of the evening just vegging out. We did have some chocolate cake, though!

Spring Break Shenanigans
Part 1: Braving the Road for Seoul BBQ
Part 2: Pikes Peak donuts, Phantom Canyon Brewing Company
Part 3: Rodizio Grill, Suehiro
Part 4: Dim sum at Star Kitchen, Red Robin redux
Part 5: Farmer's Table, Han Kang Korean Restaurant

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Spring Break Shenanigans, Part 1: Braving the road for Seoul BBQ

Last month I drove to the Denver by myself to pick up TL from the airport. It's only about an hour's drive from Fort Collins, but for me, this was a big deal. Having grown up relying on NYC’s mass transit system, I didn't get my drivers’ license until age twenty-four; afterward, because I still rarely drove, I never got too comfortable with operating a vehicle. But the cost of TL renting a car from the airport was twice the cost of me renting one from Fort Collins, and so I mustered up my courage and got behind the wheel.

Turns out there are benefits to driving to the airport besides saving on the cost of car rental. For one, after the airport TL and I could drive twenty minutes to Aurora, where there is a giant HMart and authentic Korean restaurants galore.
We went to Seoul BBQ, a spacious restaurant with a shiny, modern interior. Each table had its own ventilation system, which seemed to keep the place free of the thick, meaty smoke that usually fills these types of places. Better yet, they had a great lunch special: soup, rice, and entree for $6.95, which also of course includes panchan. The selection here was pretty good: pickled cucumbers, omelette, acorn jelly, fish cakes, marinated bean sprouts, seaweed salad, and kimchi.
A bowl of turnip soup came out with the panchan, and while I'm normally not one to get too excited over these simple offerings, the clean, sweet flavor of the rich broth really hit the spot.
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We got dumplings, too, and they were excellent. The dough was of perfect thickness, and they were pan-fried just enough to impart crunch and flavor. Inside, the pork and vegetable filling was juicy and well-seasoned.
We chose two different kinds of bulgogi for our main courses, a spicy pork version and the standard beef version. They each came out on a sizzling hot plate (amusingly shaped like a kneeling cow) and the meat was well marinated and beautifully charred. It was just the thing to eat with a hot bowl of rice, and TL totally cleaned up both plates after I was too full to eat anymore. It was probably one of the best meals I'd had in months. And all this for $26 bucks, including tax and tip! Totally worth my white knuckles on the steering wheel.

Spring Break Shenanigans
Part 1: Braving the Road for Seoul BBQ
Part 2: Pikes Peak donuts, Phantom Canyon Brewing Company
Part 3: Rodizio Grill, Suehiro
Part 4: Dim sum at Star Kitchen, Red Robin redux
Part 5: Farmer's Table, Han Kang Korean Restaurant

Monday, April 20, 2009

Olive Garden, over a decade later

The last time I remember going to an Olive Garden was in high school. Back then the place was the sh*t, particularly because of their unlimited salad and breadsticks. When school let out we'd head over to the Times Square location, excited about going for a meal in a real restaurant. Free, unlimited salad and breadsticks paired with a bottomless pasta promotion: Olive Garden offered the finest bang for the buck my friends and I could imagine.
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Over ten years later, in the Fort Collins location of the chain, nothing about Olive Garden has changed much. The salad and breadsticks are still free and unlimited, and they taste just as I remember—a tasty vinaigrette over bagged greens and croutons, and hot, squishy, salty buttered bread reminiscent of soft hot dog buns.
SD and I opted to split a full order of the Seafood Portofino, an assortment of shellfish and seafood with mushrooms in a garlic-butter wine sauce over linguine, so what you see in the bowl above, and in the top picture, is only half of the full entree. (I appreciated that they gave us each portion in a nicely presented separate bowl.) While it tasted pretty good, the pasta was so rich we found that sharing one entree was a great idea—the amount we received was huge. NH, who went for a full entree of Chicken Alfredo, ended up full only midway through his plate.
Being sensible creatures, we split our dessert, too. The Chocolate Ciottoli Cake ("dark chocolate cobblestone cake chunks layered with chocolate mousse and a soft brownie topped with hazelnuts") was too heavy and too sweet, and tasted like the frozen and thawed cake it was. But I hadn't expected any different, and maybe that's the key to eating in restaurants like these—embrace these chains for their consistency, average level of tastiness, and huge portions; don't wish you were at Otto or Max. You'll end up okay.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Tortillas galore at Las IV Americas Tortelleria y Panaderia

I'm never going to buy tortillas in the supermarket again.

Just a few blocks from my apartment is Las IV Americas, a Mexican tortilleria and bakery, and when I finally stopped in, I was hit by the fragrance of cornmeal and baking tortillas and wondered why I hadn't come in earlier. Stacks of tortillas were piled on the counter, still warm.
So of course I got some corn and wheat tortillas, both super fresh. I think that package of corn tortillas was a buck—and what's pictured here is about a third less of what I purchased, since I gave some away to my neighbor, SD. The whole wheat tortillas were two bucks for the pack.
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When I was paying, I spotted a tray of churros on the counter, too, and couldn't resist buying one. The churro had a tube of milky custard running down the middle, too—a nice surprise, making it just the thing to nosh on during the walk back to my apartment.

Friday, April 17, 2009

And here I thought it was the altitude…

After finally having maintenance use a thermometer on the thing, I just found out that my oven has been operating at 150 degrees higher than indicated on the dial.

All those times I ended up burning things, or lamented how the high altitude seemed to be messing with my bread! I already knew something was off with my oven, and had been adjusting the dial down by 50 degrees in order to compensate, but I had no idea it was 150 freaking degrees off.

Honestly, I have no idea how I ever managed to successfully bake anything in there.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Ice cream sandwiches

This is something that happened a few years ago.

I and four other friends piled into a car. We drove to our friend's house in New Jersey, making our way there by memory. As we stood on the porch, his dogs barked furiously. We came into his house. He was not expecting us. He had not spoken to any of us in a long time.

We drank juice in his living room. We managed to convince him to leave with us, to spend the afternoon with us. On the way to the driving range, we stopped at a Dairy Queen. Their machines were broken and the only thing they had were ice cream sandwiches. We bought two packages. We ate them in the car. We took bites between going up to swing our golf clubs. The wafers were crisp and the ice cream cool and sweet. My friend was quiet. He seemed at ease. Those were the best ice cream sandwiches.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

A round of cheese, a braided loaf

Sometimes you say no, and sometimes you say yes.

When Ile de France contacted me with an offer to send over one their cheeses to sample, I hesitated. I generally don't like exchanging samples for blog posts, because I don't like being obligated to write about something I might not be excited about. But then I thought about it again—hey, it's cheese! What's not to be excited about?

So when the wheel of Camembert arrived in the mail, I went off in search of a good way to use it. There were chicken breasts in the freezer, and onions on my counter; a batch of bread dough nestled at the bottom of a mixing bowl in my fridge. Once I spotted this post, I had my plan: I would bake a stuffed bread.
After dicing and caramelizing two large onions, I poached three chicken breasts, which yielded about a pound of moist, flavorful cooked meat (I used this method, but omitted the ginger and sherry because I didn't have any). I had about four ounces of turkey ham in the fridge, too, so I diced that up too. For the Camembert, I simply cut the entire wheel into slices after taking off the rind.

I had originally envisioned one loaf, but I soon realized I had enough ingredients for two—even after nearly eight months of living alone, I haven't broken the habit of cooking in mass quantity! To assemble each one, I rolled out the dough on a floured cutting board, trying to achieve an even thickness. I arranged half the chicken, half the turkey ham, and half the caramelized onions down the middle, and then layered half the cheese slices on top. Because the dough was so sticky, my first attempt at braiding the dough pretty much failed miserably, so for the second one I just ended up pressing the ends together on top to seal the dough around the filling. An egg wash would have made them prettier, but I went only with a sprinkle of grated smoked Swiss cheese, and after moving the loaves to a greased cookie sheet and letting the dough rest for ten minutes, I put them both in the oven at 400 degrees for half an hour.*
The resulting loaves came out just as I'd hoped: crusty, chewy bread with a center of chicken pieces, sweet caramelized onion, and salty, smoky bits of turkey ham, all bound by the rich, earthy-tasting Camembert. Not exactly light fare, but utterly comforting and delicious.

I think this recipe is quite flexible, too. You can substitute homemade or store-bought pizza dough instead, or any kind of bread dough really. Roasted chicken instead of poached; a different kind of ham, or bacon; a different type of cheese. Even the caramelized onions can be swapped out for something else—I've been thinking that the cranberry chutney I've got in my fridge might work pretty nicely. Next time!
Camembert, Chicken, and Caramelized Onion Loaf
by Soopling

Makes two large loaves

Bread dough, divided into two portions (I used half the yield from this dough recipe)
16 ounces poached chicken breasts (about 3 medium sized breasts), cut or torn into chunks
4 ounces turkey ham, diced
8 ounces caramelized onions (from about two large onions)
1 wheel Ile de France Camembert (7.7 ounces), sliced into pieces
Egg wash (optional)
1 ounce shredded smoked Swiss cheese (optional)

On a floured cutting board, roll out one bread dough portion into a 9x12 rectangle about one centimeter thick.

Layer half the cheese slices down the middle, and then layer half the chicken, half the turkey ham, and half the caramelized onions on top. Lift the sides of the bread dough up to close over the filling and press the ends together to seal—there shouldn't be any holes in the dough. Transfer to a greased baking sheet, flipping the loaf so that it rests seam-side down on the sheet.

Repeat with other bread dough portion and remaining ingredients. Let assembled loaves rest for ten or fifteen minutes.

Brush loaves with egg wash and/or sprinkle with shredded cheese, and bake in 400 degree oven for 30 minutes.*

*Originally I had written that these loaves should be baked at 350 degrees for half an hour. But I recently learned that my oven has been running 150 degrees too hot—which means that while I had my knob at 300 degrees while baking these loaves (to compensate for my oven running what I thought was 50 degrees hot), they were actually baking at about 450 degrees. And though these breads miraculously came out okay, I did have to rescue them a little early to prevent them from burning. I'm going to say 400 degrees, for half an hour, is the best bet for this recipe.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Risking addiction: Chick-fil-A

As a general rule I avoid fast food. I find myself at one of the chains maybe once or twice a year at best, when for whatever reason a completely random craving will hit me and I'll find myself stepping into a KFC. (Popeye's was another instance, but that was in the name of experimentation.) The one exception is when I'm on a road trip: fast food then seems not only wholly appropriate, but actually appealing. Can someone explain why that is?
Nonetheless, my semester's spring break had begun, and with my free time I decided to pay a visit to my local mall, which incidentally is a near-twin of the one I used to frequent as an undergrad, both in vibe and store selection…which is to say, there's not a lot going on there. Except for the food—Foothills Mall happens to house the city's only Chick-fil-A, a chain that people always seem to be raving about if you do a search on Chowhound or many other food sites. I figured it was high time I gave the place a try. I ordered a chicken sandwich, waffle fries, and a drink.
Here's the thing: I'm kind of sorry I ate at Chick-fil-A, and not because it was bad, though the waffle fries were forgettable. My issue is that I can't stop thinking about their chicken sandwich.
Yes, this one. Fabulously crunchy seasoned breading over breast meat so juicy it practically dripped, encased in a soft white bun and needing little more than the two pickle slices it came with. I had foregone the standard slather of butter that usually goes on the toasted bread, so I can only imagine what that extra touch of dairy would add. In my opinion, the sandwich doesn't need it: the whole thing was a perfect combination of textures and flavor on its own.

Seriously, I know fast food can taste good, because that stuff is manufactured to taste good. It's just that the results so rarely are good, and they are even more rarely this good.

Now I find myself trying to concoct reasons to visit Chick-fi—ahem, the mall. I haven't been back yet, but I have a feeling I should have never gotten started.