Sunday, August 1, 2010

Hibachi Grill & Supreme Buffet on Urbanspoon

With a name like Hibachi Grill Supreme Buffet, how could you go wrong?  We went here because it was ranked #3 overall for Baltimore on UrbanSpoon, and we weren't disappointed.  I don't think it would be my personal #3 for all of Baltimore, but it was good, and an incredible value.  Dinner is only $10, and the buffet has over 150 items on it!

There are some negative reviews on UrbanSpoon concerning the service, but we had no complaints.  Most of the negative reviews were from large parties, and there were only two of us, so I'm sure that helped.  Service at a buffet is pretty simple, as you only have to do four things: keep drinks filled, clear empty plates, bring the check toward the end, don't pressure the customers to leave.  They nailed all four.

As for the food, many buffets, especially larger ones, don't maintain quality across all the dishes.  While there were two misses (the Shanghai rolls were pretty awful, and the cream puffs were just as bad), everything else we had was above average, with some really excellent ones.  If you know me, it might surprise you to learn that I didn't count how many different things I had, but I'd guess it was maybe 25, so 23 out of 25 isn't bad!

The buffet consists of a mostly Asian menu, with a fair amount of American food (mac and cheese, carved ham, poached fish).  The exciting bit about the carved ham is that it's DIY - they leave a giant carving knife out right there on the buffet for you to wield!  They also have fresh sushi (with the sushi chefs making it right there behind where it's served), and it was excellent!  I only had a few pieces, but it would rank high on my list of Baltimore sushi, if I had such a list.

There is also the "Hibachi", which you may remember from the title of the restaurant.  The preparation is similar to Mongolian barbecue, with a selection of stir-fry veggies, and shrimp and shaved frozen meats.  You select what you want and hand them to the hibachi chef.  The inconsequential difference between this and Mongolian barbecue is that this is cooked on a flat top, not the big round grill.  The more important difference is that you don't get a selection of sauces to add, the hibachi chef adds some standard stuff while he grills.  While I enjoyed my stir fry, I would have liked the ability to add some sauces of my choosing.

Overall, I'd highly recommend.  5 pieces of sushi out of 6 (but not based on the sushi - that was great!):

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Italian Delights

Piedigrotta Bakery of Baltimore on Urbanspoon

An Italian friend recently had her 40th birthday, and for the party she wanted to replicate a cake she remembered from her youth, one with cannoli cream.  She asked a well-known local Italian place that I won't mention to make one for her, and they turned her down.  However, she found Piedigrotta, who had no problem accommodating her wishes.  Photos of the cake are at the end of this post.  Several weeks later, we decided to check the place out, since they serve breakfast and lunch.  Here is our story.

Piedigrotta is on the eastern edge of Little Italy.  It is primarily a bakery, but they serve an excellent lunch.  The owners were present, Carminantonio and Bruna Iannaccone, and both were extremely friendly and accommodating.  As we were considering our lunch selections, Bruna informed us that rather than choose a single item, we could choose several smaller portions.  While we were eating, Carminantonio walked over to show us one of his latest creations, a Nutella pizza he had just made for some long-time customers at a nearby table.  There are many stories of the invention of tiramisu, and Carminantonio lays claim to one of the more believable ones.  He's even mentioned on the Wikipedia!


I had a potato pie stuffed with meats and the meat lasagna.  The lasagna was excellent. I don't really have any specific comments about it, it was as good as I would have expected.  However, the potato pie really stood out.  It was basically layers of potatoes, meat and cheese served with tomato sauce on top.  The flavor was amazing, and while there was a fair amount of potato, the meats really rose to the top (not literally, that would be weird).

The three friends I was with had, among them, eggplant parmesan, ravioli, and a pasta pie with lots of vegetables.  Everyone spoke highly of the food, with special mention of the ravioli as "among the best".
Bruna prepares our food

Pasta pie and veggies

Potato pie, laden with meat

Ravioli, meatballs, and eggplant parmesan in the back


You can't come to an Italian bakery for lunch without getting dessert.  Actually, I could, as I was stuffed!  But I did sample the hazelnut gelati one friend got, which was very tasty, and had an great exspresso (except for the handle of the coffee cup, see below).  My friends also got some cream puffs and cannoli.  I had their cream puffs at my friend's birthday party, so I got some to go (hands down the best I've ever had).

Cream puffs and gelati


Everything was great, but I am contractually obligated to complain about something trivial.  My only complaint is the handles of the coffee cups.  They are TINY!  So small, you can't get a finger in, and your hold on the cup is tenuous.


Incidentally, my "Italian Friend" mentioned above, is none other than Julia Romano.  You may remember her from such blog posts as "Top Chef Questionnaire".  Here's the cake:

If you don't care about tiny coffee cup handles, and you enjoy Italian food, this is a must!  My rating - 5 cream puffs:

Sunday, July 11, 2010

On Par with Kansas City

Andy Nelson's BBQ on Urbanspoon

Tonight's food-based adventure was Andy Nelson's BBQ.  I've been to many barbecue places, including some great ones in Kansas City. Andy Nelson's easily ranked right up there with the best of the best. My favorite is probably KC's Arthur Bryant's, but this was a close second. Andy Nelson's is mostly "Memphis style" 'Q, but I think it's fair to compare it with KC, as the sauces are generally similar, just applied at different times.

The first thing you notice, before you even walk in the door, is the smell. The heady aroma of delicious meats smoking pervades from the moment you get out of your car. The inside is exactly what I would expect of a quality barbecue joint - lots of wood, and almost too much pig paraphernelia, nothing too fancy.

Pigs abound:

For my meal, I got the rib combo with pulled pork and "Turkey Q" (pulled turkey); collard greens, potato salad and corn bread on the side. Our table also split an order of wings. My meal was easily enough for three people, so at about $20, it was an excellent value, especially given the quality.


Guy's Pig Dip - a much thinner, vinegar-based sauce. I tend not to like the more vinegary sacues, so this was not a favorite.

Betty's South Carolina BBQ Sauce - a slightly sweet mustard-based sauce, very tasty!

Bama BBQ Sauce - this is their signature sauce, smoky and a strong but not overpowering black pepper taste, an easy favorite.

Sweet & Sassy Salad Dressing - vinegar-based, but not as thin as the "Pig Dip" - ok, but too vinegary for my taste.


The wings were among the best I've ever had. As the menu says, "BBQ'd...not fried!" The seasoning was amazing, not sure if it was just their normal rub. It was hard to place all the flavors used, but our group cited cumin, garlic, onion, salt, pepper. I normally prefer crispy wings, and often don't eat the skin unless it's super-crispy, but the flavor was so good, I had no problem eating everything but the bone. They were also incredibly tender; I'm not clear on what kept the bones attached to the meat.

The wings:

The ribs are served with the (Bama) sauce on them, although you can also order "Memphis dry", with just a dry rub. The ribs were so tender, at one point, I looked at them a little too hard and the meat fell right off the bone.

I had heard the pulled pork here was amazing. I would only rate it as "really, really good".  It had a hint of vinegar that I could have done without. But as with everything else, it was extremely tender.

The "Turkey Q" was a definite highlight. It didn't have the vinegar that the pork had, and the seasonings seemed more robust and more balanced. I think I enjoyed the turkey more than the ribs!

The pork and turkey:


The corn bread was great! It had a hint of sweetness, with a nice crunch to the top. The collard greens were decent - I've not had a lot of them in my past, so I didn't have a good basis for comparison, but I enjoyed them. The highlight of the sides was the "Redskin Potato Salad". Unlike most potato salads, the potatoes were not in chunks, but sliced thinly, like scalloped potatoes. The dressing was vinegar and maybe a touch of mayo, and seasoned very well. 3 of the 4 of us got the potato salad, and we all enjoyed it, but none of us could come up with what seasonings we thought were at play. The dressing was slightly orangish, so we thought there might be some mustard, but it didn't taste of mustard. I would definitely get the potato salad as a side next time (and probably every time) I come here.

The sides:


This is very trivial, but I feel I must mention it. This is a barbecue place, and you're bound to get your hands dirty. The sink in the men's room did not have that much water pressure, and the angle of the stream made it such that it was less than an inch from the back of the basin.  I couldn't get a good scrub on and found that frustrating. But this is the ONLY thing I could find wrong with the place. Even if you're an obsessive hand-washer, don't let that keep you from the amazing food at Andy Nelson's!

MY RATING: On a scale of 1 to 7 pigs, I give this place 7 pigs.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Top Chef Questionnaire

The season finale of Top Chef Masters asked the chefs to prepare three dishes based on three questions.  I asked the same questions of some friends and family (and of myself), and here is what they (and I) had to say....

What is your earliest food memory?

Calvin: "A dish my mom used to make of braised chicken wings in a sweet soy sauce. It was super easy to make and probably accounts for my love of the wings even today."

Erin: "My Grandma's corn bread & black-eyed peas & okra."

Jess: "My first strong memory associated with a food would have to be the smell of stale popcorn. My uncle took me to a 'Sesame Street on Ice' or something and the concessions included old popcorn. I don't remember anything about the ice-capade show, but I know that I had fun, and to this day I enjoy stale popcorn in addition to fresh popcorn."

Jim: "Old fashioned homemade macaroni and cheese; Eggs fried over easy in bacon grease - yum; still love 'em both!!"

Julia: "One is of eating raspberries straight from the bush in my grandparents' garden. Another is of cheese ravioli with butter and cheese. As a young child we were always given butter and cheese with our pasta and then when we were older we graduated to tomato sauce. My grandmother's tomato sauce was amazingly delicious. She browned beef and pork cuts in olive oil and garlic. Since my grandparents' owned a butcher store there were always good cuts of meat available. Then, she added tomatoes and simmered it for hours. It was amazingly tasty."

Kas: "Boiled turnips. I wish I was kidding. That was, continues to be, and shall in the future be my 'furst food memory'."

Kha: "eating sticky rice and chinese sausage when i was maybe 3 or 4 years old. next distinct memory-my dad showing me how to make scrambled eggs when i was maybe 7 or 8. interesting time lapse . . . ."

Maggi: "Eating a worm while in a playpen in a yard when I was maybe 1-2. Don’t know if this is an actual memory or one that was reinforced over the years by Mom talking about it!!!! Other than that, eggs and Campbell soup play highly in my memory. Also memories of Mom cooking many Christmas cookies which I’m sure influenced me to continue the tradition of making many millions of Christmas cookies every year to give away – cookies can be the food of love ya know – especially during the holidays!"

Jason: My first "taste memory" is of the punch in Kiddy-Garten, but I don't know why, just remember it strongly and not unfondly.  My first real memory of food I appreciated was when my Dad made pancakes on (most) Sunday mornings.  He'd often drop some batter in the shape of a smiley face, then pour a pancake on top of that.  When flipped, there would be a smiley in the pancake.  This probably accounts on some level for my appreciation of food presentation.
What made you want to cook/be a chef?
Erin: "Cooking is like doing something creative & then you can eat the results. You gotta eat, right? It might as well be good!"

Jess: "Some combination of being able to make a product of which I was proud (through the flavor and presentation of a dish), make a product that gave the purchaser enjoyment (and the praise that came with it), and working with my hands (rather than push papers)."

Jim: "Learned to like cooking as an early teen when I often fixed my own dinner because of scheduling issues. Began to really enjoy fixing different things and learning cooking techniques. Some foods I really loved and I wanted to be able to make them - i.e. crab cakes, comfort foods like pot roast, macaroni and cheese, etc. Still love to read food magazines, tear out recipes that I want to try, and only make a tenth of what I tear out."

Julia: "I think what made me want to cook (bake) was the apple strudel that my grandmother used to make. I remember helping her pull the dough as a young child. The strudel that she baked was amazing. Flaky dough with a warm apple middle. (She also made cheese strudel and carrot strudel. While carrot strudel may not sound tasty it really was wonderful.)"

Kas: "Me hungee. Also, I do the same thing for a living, but with really nasty chemicals."

Kha: "i like food!"

Maggi: "I didn’t develop a real appreciation for food or cooking until I was in my 20s. Food in Mom’s house was mostly plain, no nonsense food until Mom was in her 40s’s or 50’s when her passion for food began to shine thru in her cooking. I think I wanted to be a cook once I found out that if I make it myself it would be really good!"

Jason: My Dad often did the cooking, and I always enjoyed it, so I'm sure that contributed.  I had a recipe book around age 7, some kind of "cooking for kids" book, and I fondly recall forming meatballs around a piece of cheese, from the book.  As I recall, it was well received, and I think this made a mark.  It also demonstrated how combining things in non-typical ways could be interesting and gratifying.  Also, from family holiday dinners throughout my youth, I have very fond memories of most of the meals, and whether true or not, I attribute most of that to Gus Askins, my Mom's Mom.  I have very fond memories of her gravy, and while her recipe was lost with her, I have strived to recreate it at every Thanksgiving I've ever cooked.  Basically, I find cooking to be one of my creative outlets, and I enjoy making stuff other people dig.
What defines your cooking?
Calvin: "Growing up in an Irish-Italian neighborhood, my culinary leanings are towards the Italian side, but i do make the occasional corned beef and cabbage. If I had to characterize myself as a chef/cook, I'd go with American experimental fusion. I tend to make classic dishes, but with flavors and methods borrowed from other cultures. I don't use recipes as I rarely have the exact same ingredients on hand, plus I tend to go by instinct for how much to use. One of my new favorites (tying it all together), is braised chicken wings in a soy sauce base with brown sugar, maple syrup, five spice, crushed red peppers and SrĂ­racha. After braising, I broil them in the oven for 10 minutes or until the skin has crisped up. It comes out crispy, but tender, lower in fat than deep frying and with a sweet, hot, savory flavor. Buon appetito!"

Erin: "I'm more of an Italian/Mexican food type cooker than standard American stuff like pot roast & such."

Jess: "Perhaps the color palette of my meals, though I wouldn't want to be known for it. I haven't yet mastered the aspects of cooking that are important to me. I would much rather be defined by:
a) turning out plates with punches of flavor that remain well balanced -- e.g. a stew where the main flavor is chicken and garlic, but that the garlic is well-married to cumin, coriander, and caramelized onion with hints of orange and pepper in the background;
b) cooking food that is not oversalted;
c) composing meals where all of the components are linked and uphold a flavor theme, but where each still retains its identity and doesn't disappear into an identical flavor palette as another part of the meal -- e.g. to go with the aforementioned chicken stew: a side of chick peas that might also feature cumin, garlic, and onion, but utilizes a bit of fresh coriander (cilantro) and parsley to bring out a fresher aspect and maybe even a whisper of cayenne so they don't get left by the wayside; and
d) achieving great food textures -- e.g. to round out this theoretical meal, a cucumber yogurt salad (with parsley and spring onion) would introduce crisp and smooth textures, and the use of a bit of vinegar in the salad would heighten the orange flavor due to the taste association of acid AND would texturally influence the flavor associations because of the astringent prickle vinegar can exert on the mouth -- this textural awakening would not be quite so evident if one relied on the acid in the yogurt alone."

Jim: "Simple recipes and meals with a fresh taste and appearance."

Julia: "I am definitely more of a baker than a cook."

Kas: "Meat+garlic+fire"

Maggi: "I want to say that comfort food (which can be both plain and fancy) is what defines me as a cook. And the most comfortable food of all is SOUP!!!!!!!!! So maybe soup is what really defines me. But casseroles are also a very definitive comfort food that also comes into play when I think of what defines me. But a seared Diver Scallops on a delicious risotto sounds like a VERY comforting dish to me as well!!! Yum Yum! While seafood RULES, I have to say 'GO SOUP'!!!!!!!!!!!"

Jason: Four specific things jump to mind: grilling, Thanksgiving, unexpected flavor combinations, presentation.  While grilling was never a part of my childhood, when I discovered it in college, I fell in love.  I particularly enjoy the additional complex flavors that grilling, especially over charcoal, brings to the table.  As for Thanksgiving, I have helped prepare Thanksgiving dinner for and with friends for years (especially Kha and his wife Daranee).  This goes back to the down-home cooking my parents (and their parents) always appreciated.  Also, there's the joy of preparing something others enjoy, plus I consider the gravy a bit of a family legacy (Gravy Master, red wine and MSG!).  From the meatballs-around-cheese days, through age 9's dipping Cheetos in chocolate pudding, to preparing bacon brittle a few years ago, unexpected flavor combinations have always been an important part of my cooking.  I'm never afraid to try something new, even if it doesn't sound good.  There once was a point when nobody even considered chocolate and peanut butter together!  Finally, presentation has always been important to me.  As the old saying goes, you eat with your eyes before you eat with your stomach, and it's amazing how little effort it takes to make something look good.  There's a reason professional chefs wipe the edges of the plate before service.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Soup and a Sammich

Atwater's/Ploughboy Soups on Urbanspoon

Today, we went to Atwater's, in Belvedere Square Market.  Their angle is freshly-made food from mostly local farms.  The stuff that isn't local is still direct from the farm.  You can view their sources by clicking here.  They specialize in sandwiches and soups, and the three of us thoroughly enjoyed our food.

My friends got soup and a sandwich, while I just got a sandwhich, a breakfast special with cheddar, scrambled eggs and bacon.  While the sandwich took a while to show up, it was worth the wait!  One friend got a seafood soup (shrimp, crab, fennel, sweet pepper, pasta, artichoke hearts and basil) and the grilled pastrami and Swiss, with green peppercorn mustard and red onion.  I had a taste of the soup, and it was delicious, expertly seasoned.  The other friend got the watercress, potato and mushroom soup, with leeks, cabbage and sundried tomatoes, and a chicken salad sandwich (with apples, cranberries, raisins, lettuce, basil and mayo).  I also had a taste of her soup, and it was tasty, but all three of us agreed the seafood soup was better.  Soups were served with a huge chunk of bread.

I thought the prices were reasonable, especially for the quality.  Soups were about $4 for a cup and available by the quart ($11-$16).  Salads range from $4 for a side salad to $12.50 for the "Red Leaf and Asparagus", with chicken salad added (also includes pee wee potatoes, marinated onions, roasted portobellos, and lemon caper dressing).  Most sandwiches are available half or whole (about $5/$10).  They also have Scottish Pies, and a featured daily dessert.  As they are "farm-to-fork", their menu varies with available product, so check their menu daily.