Saturday, December 31, 2016

Our Year in Food: 2016

2016 has been a trying year in many ways, but it was a good year for us in terms of food. We didn't leave the country this year, but our travels unintentionally led us on a tour of some of the best of America's craft beer. Here's our quick year-end summary:

The first restaurant meal we ate in 2016: Our traditional post-movie lunch of burgers and fries from Five Guys after going to a matinee showing of The Force Awakens. Good movie, good fast food to start the year.

The first homecooked meal we ate in 2016: Our first "new" homecooked meal didn't come until the fourth day of the year when we had Korean braised tofu, one of the few dishes that is part of our usual rotation. (All the other at-home meals before that were leftovers or snacks like cheese and crackers.)

The last restaurant meal we ate in 2016: Chicken and meatball parm sandwiches from Parm in Nolita. We got a late afternoon lunch after a spontaneous visit to the Pixel Forest at the New Museum, and some Italian comfort food was a nice way to wrap up the year.

The last homecooked meal we ate in 2016: A made bacalao a la vizcaina (Basque-style codfish stew), as we avoided the crazy crowds outside and had a very healthy, clean last meal of the year. It was our first time working with bacalao and it was a success.

# of different restaurants we tried in 2016 (together and separate): 244. Even though we cook so often at home, the number seems to go up every year which means we're making the most of our time out!

Cities explored (outside the NYC metro area): Washington, DC; Silver Spring, MD; Rehoboth Beach, DE; Milton, DE; Portland, OR; Vancouver, WA; San Diego, CA; Chula Vista, CA; Escondido, CA; La Jolla, CA.

Most visited restaurant of 2016 (together): Ample Hills Creamery (9x), but that's more of a snack than a meal. For full meals, it would be New Spring Garden (7x), Genki Sushi (6x), or Qdoba (6x), but like I said last year, those are spots we go to with family and we often frequent the same places. For non-family, actual meal spots, it would be Otto's Tacos (6x). We're clearly very happy they opened in Hell's Kitchen last year.

Favorite food memories of 2016: A's list is here and mine is here, but we had a few in common, like crab dip, banana blossom salad, naem khao, and our Ethiopian meal at Zenebech.

Progress on WorldEats challenge: We've now posted about 49/196 countries (with others not yet written about). Hoping to do more and make more progress next year!

2016 blog series that will someday be completed: DC mini-break, Delaware summer getaway, Portland family trip, San Diego vacation.

Favorite overall meal of 2016: Our Laotian feast at Thip Khao in Washington, DC back in March. So many great dishes, such fantastic flavors. Can't wait to relive that when we post about that one. Runners-up were our Ethiopian lunch at Zenebech (already mentioned in the favorites posts) and dinner at Chesapeake and Maine in Delaware. We have a lot of recapping to do!

Hoping for good things in 2017!

A's Favorite Food Memories of 2016

This was an interesting year for me with regards to eating and drinking. M and I did a decent amount of travel this year, and that's reflected in my list. This list, as always, isn't necessarily the best things I ate or drank all year, but it's a list of the most memorable events. It just happens that most of these are the best things I ate :)

1) Chesapeake and Maine - Warm Maryland Crab Dip
This is a dish of pure comfort and decadence. It's cheesy, sweet from the succulent crab meat, and simply amazing as a dish. We went to Chesapeake and Maine twice on our visit down to Rehoboth Beach, and we got this each time. In fact, it was so good that it was the only thing we duplicated.

2) Convivial - Scallop Boudin Blanc
I included this because it was so different from anything I had ever eaten before. It was scallop that was ground up and formed into a sausage of sorts. They topped it with sliced snow peas, sea beans, and roe. We couldn't place all of the flavors on this, but it tasted like a smooth, silky chowder.

3) Craft Beer
One thing that seemed pretty constant with most of our trips this year was amazing craft beer. With trips to Delaware, Portland, and San Diego we hit some of the biggest names in craft brewing, and these also happen to be some of my favorites. The highlights for the year are definitely Dogfish Head, Cascade, Stone, and Ballast Point. I had initially debated between adding in small batch coffee instead, but I opted for craft beer because it's something that M and I can enjoy together.

4) Dominique Ansel Bakery - Cronut
The original Dominique Ansel hype food! We finally took advantage of the pre-order option for cronuts this year and were able to taste one of their monthly flavor offerings. We got the June flavor: Blueberry Elderflower with Lime Sugar. Having had the real thing, I understand the hype. I've tried a couple imitation versions, and they never seemed like anything special, but after eating an actual cronut, I see that the imitators have yet to figure anything out. The combination of light and airy croissant turned into a denser donut is a magical mystery, and the fruit flavors and custard made for an amazing flavor. We're looking forward to getting more of these in the future.

5) Fork and Flask at Nage - Smoked Half Chicken
This is a dish that I know I wouldn't be able to eat every day even though I included it on this list. The reason for that is because it's just too rich and heavy for that to happen. The chicken was good and had a nice smokey flavor to it, but it was the accouterments that really made this dish shine. First and foremost was the black garlic infused mashed potatoes. They had such a rich and umami-filled flavor from the black garlic and butter, and I can still taste it today in my head. The roasted root vegetables offered a subtle sweetness to the combination, and it was also nice to have a bit of vegetable matter on the plate. While I couldn't eat this every day, I would certainly love to try my hand at making that black garlic mash at some point.

6) Mofongo with Pork - Vendy Plaza Harlem (La Marqueta)
I love mofongo, and I've always been intrigued by it since I first read about it over a decade ago. It wasn't until back in 2014 that I finally got to try some, and I instantly fell in love with it. Funny how it took me another year and a half before I got it again, but that wait was totally worth it. I don't remember the name of the stand this came from, but they had a wait because they made all of the mofongo fresh. The additional wait time made this even better because the anticipation built it up in my mind, and it lived up to its billing. The fried pieces of pork had just the right amount of fat on them to keep everything moist and flavorful, and the freshly made mofongo was so rich and hearty. The bowl came with a small cup of garlic water/sauce, and the heavy garlic flavor really tied everything together.

7) Seabra's Marisqueira - Acorda de Marisco (Dry Soup)
This year M and I finally made the trip out to Newark, NJ to get some authentic Portuguese food. For me the highlight of this meal was the Acorda de Marisco which is a soup that is then filled with cubes of bread that soak up the broth and make it a thicker, stewier concoction. I'd never heard of a "dry soup" before, but I could totally go for some right now in this cold winter weather. It has the right amount of saltiness to go with the sweetness of the seafood in the soup, and it's a hearty, comforting dish.

8) Thip Khao - Naem Khao (Crispy Rice Salad)
M and I have had really good luck with Southeast Asian rice salads in our lifetime, and this was no exception. The perfect combination of spice, heat, herbs, and crunch meld to form a near perfect dish. It's clean and light while still bursting with so much flavor. This is definitely something I could eat every day and not get tired of it.

9) Uncle Boons - Banana Blossom Salad
This wasn't my favorite dish of the night for this meal, but it was up there. The reason I chose this dish, though, is because it reminded me so much of a dish M and I had back in Chicago at a different Thai restaurant. It's creamy and fresh tasting, and the fried shallots offer that salty, crunchy goodness that we know and love. This dish brought M and me back to delicious and simpler times in our lives before all of these "adult responsibilities" came into being.

10) Zenebech Injera - Vegetable Combo with Doro Wat
This isn't the first Ethiopian food we've had in our lives, but it was a completely transcendent experience. Zenebech was known as being the bakery that provided injera to almost every other Ehtiopian restaurant in the area. They also had their own restaurant where they served, easily, the best Ethiopian food we'd ever tasted. The injera was light and fluffy, and it didn't leave a sticky residue like all of the versions here in NYC. The stews were so full of flavor and were like nothing we had ever tried before. The doro wat was so rich, and the chicken pulled off the bone so easily.

M's Favorite Food Memories of 2016

It's hard to believe that it's already time for another year-end favorite food memories list, but here we are at the end of 2016. In alphabetical order by place name, here are my top 10 favorite food memories from the past year.

1. Garlic roasted brussels sprouts from Ballast Point Tasting Room and Kitchen (San Diego, CA)

After a trip to Mission Beach, we decided to head down to the Ballast Point Tasting Room and Kitchen where we got beer tasting flights and lots of small dishes to share. One of those, crispy brussels sprouts with a poached egg, housemade kimchi, and pancetta, was so good that it inspired me to mix kimchi with some brussels sprouts when we got home. It was nowhere near as good as the one at Ballast Point, but I love it when things on vacations inspire me to try new things at home. I also picked this one for the atmosphere of the tasting room. It was awesome to be able to get flights and try so many different beers in a really relaxed environment with really solid food. There aren't really any places quite like this at home that we know of.

2. Warm Maryland crab dip from Chesapeake and Maine (Rehoboth Beach, DE)

During our summer beach vacation in Delaware, we ate a lot of good food, including a couple of dinners at Chesapeake and Maine, the seafood-focused restaurant from the Dogfish Head folks. Both times we got the warm Maryland crab dip which came with toasted bagel chips. We intended to order different things the second time so we could try more stuff, but I just couldn't not order the dip. There were so much real crab in there and the flavor was so good. I could go for more of that right now as the dip was so comforting.

3. Poultry and potato salad from Hometown Bar-B-Que (Brooklyn, NY)

A had been to Hometown Bar-B-Que in Red Hook before and always talked about how good it was, so we planned to take my dad there for his birthday or Father's Day since he loves BBQ. We didn't make it there until late this year, but it was so worth it. Everything we got there was good - brisket, pulled pork, lamb belly, beans with burnt ends, cole slaw, collard greens - but to me the real standouts were the smoked turkey, the Oaxacan-marinated wood fired chicken, and the backyard potato salad. I could eat that stuff all the time, if not for the long lines there and the fact that it wouldn't be the healthiest diet. The BBQ there is definitely some of the best in NYC, which was proven even more when I ate some pulled pork from another BBQ place later in the week which didn't even come close.

4. Tostada mixta from Mariscos El Pescador (Chula Vista, CA)

We ate a lot of good food in San Diego, but the meal that stands out the most to me is our splurge lunch from a food truck, Mariscos El Pescador, down in Chula Vista. It wasn't a splurge lunch because the items were expensive, but because we ordered a feast that took up almost the entire length of the truck's counter. There were tacos and tostadas and burritos, way more than we should have ordered for a single meal, but everything was delicious, especially the tostada mixta. It was filled with all types of seafood, so fresh, such good quality, perfectly seasoned. Everything was just perfect, and I could eat this every single day if that were an option.

5. Khao man gai from Nong's Khao Man Gai (Portland, OR)

Khao man gai is one of those dishes I order when I want something simple, healthy, and clean but with really good flavor. After going to Nong's Khao Man Gai in Portland, I knew I had to wait a while before ordering this again at home because it was that good there. The chicken was tender and flavorful, the sauce was completely addictive (no wonder they sell it in bottles), and the soup that accompanied it just tied it all together well. This could be a daily lunch if they were in our neighborhood.

6. Pupusas from Salvatoria (Astoria, NY)

This fall, we went out with some friends to Salvatoria, a Salvadoran spot in Astoria, for a giant pupusas dinner. The table split a bunch of them for appetizers, and then A and I ordered another set of pupusas for our main courses. There were pupusas filled with loroco, pork, beans, cheese, jalapeños, and combinations of all of those, and they were so good. I know in theory how to make pupusas but there is no way that they would come out as good as these. They were perfectly griddled and the fillings were delicious. We definitely want to go back there for more pupusas.

7. Octopus salad from Seabra's Marisqueira (Newark, NJ)

We've already written about the salada de polvo, the cold octopus salad, at Seabra's Marisqueira in Newark from our visit earlier this summer. The octopus there was so tender, and the dressing, filled with onions, garlic, parsley, and oil and vinegar was so simple but tasty. Every time I look at pictures of this salad, I want more. It was so delicious that I knew it would make the top 10 list this year as soon as I ate it.

8. Naem khao from Thip Khao (Washington, DC)

One of our most memorable meals this year was at Thip Khao, a Laotian restaurant in Washington, DC, where the hour's wait was most certainly worth it. This rice salad - crispy coconut rice, lime, scallions, sour pork, peanuts, and cilantro - with lettuce to wrap it up was so packed with flavor, especially from all the herbs and seasonings. We had something similar when we went to Khe-Yo, but since this was in salad form and not rice balls, it was even better. So much of what we ate at Thip Khao was awesome, and we wished we lived closer so we could investigate more of the menu. But it would be hard not to order this every time.

9. Banana blossom and chicken salad from Uncle Boons (New York, NY)

From one Southeast Asian salad to another. We finally made it to Uncle Boons this year and one of the things we knew we definitely had to order was this spicy rotisserie chicken and banana blossom salad (yum gai hua pli) with cashews, crispy shallots, and roasted chili dressing. When we lived in Chicago, we used to go to a restaurant with a banana blossom salad on the menu and it was our favorite thing there. It's been tough to find anywhere with it since then, and we weren't sure if we had maybe built that salad up too much in our memories for anyone to meet our expectations. This absolutely did. The chicken was delicious (and it was later too when we ordered it on its own), all the ingredients worked well together, and there was a nice heat to it. So glad we were able to get this.

10. Vegetarian combination and doro wat from Zenebech (Washington, DC)

One of our priorities during our time in DC was to eat Ethiopian food, and in doing so, we were rewarded with what was possibly the best Ethiopian food we've ever eaten at Zenebech. The injera there was fluffy and pillowy, and unlike some others, left no residue on your fingers which was great. We got the vegetarian combination with generous portions of lentils, peas, and other vegetables, along with doro wat (chicken stew). There was just so much flavor to every single part of the dish and  we completely cleaned the plate. Sadly Zenebech closed recently so we'll never be able to have this exact experience again, but hopefully they will open somewhere else as this food was too good to think about not eating again.

I could eat all ten of these over and over again and not get sick of them, which is probably why they all made my favorite food memories list. There were so many more things that missed the cut but with so much good food over the course of the year, that was inevitable. Hoping 2017 brings some great eats as well!

Friday, December 30, 2016

SeaPlex Dog House

We didn't make it to the SeaPlex Dog House until the final set of sea days, even though we had been really interested in going from the start. From what we remember, there were constantly long lines there and they kept very odd hours. Often we would walk by during off, non-meal hours only to find them closed. The Dog House was basically a hot dog stand where you could choose the type of sausage, toppings, condiments, and sides. Conceptually it wasn't anything special, but the idea of a hot dog stand at sea just appealed to us. Day 9 ended up being the perfect time for us to stop by for an early lunch when they opened before another one of the shows/parades on the esplanade.

We ordered two different sausages and sides to split. The first was the "Smoke House," a smoked bratwurst made of pork with traditional spices on a cheese roll, which we topped with sautéed peppers and onions, and also some German mustard. We thought this was fine, but nothing special.

The other dog we got was the "Coney Island," a classic American all-beef Kosher hot dog, which we topped with onions, sauerkraut, and mustard. Again, our assessment was fine but nothing special.

The two sides we got were the only two offered, potato salad and cole slaw, and both came in really, really tiny cups that you would normally use to put sides of sauce or other condiments. The potato salad was okay but didn't have much flavor and was kind of boring. The cole slaw just didn't taste very good, and it wasn't because of the strange inclusion of the raisins.

We were kind of unsatisfied with our visit to the Dog House, which came not longer after our unsatisfying breakfast. Since we were headed down to the esplanade anyway, we stopped by the Cafe Promenade for some snacks after this. At least those were good.

An American Breakfast

On the first of our return sea days, we decided to go for a leisurely sit-down breakfast at American Icon Grill, the only non-buffet breakfast location on the ship. It was pretty crowded since it seemed most people had the same idea. On most cruises we've been on, we've usually gone for the sit-down breakfast most days, with this cruise being the exception, so we were excited to try what sounded like a good menu.

To start with, we both got cereal with sliced banana and milk. M got Cheerios and A got frosted flakes. M had thought about getting the "Seattle granola with seasonal fruit salad topped with natural yogurt," but when the server said the seasonal fruit was predominantly melon, she passed.

M chose the Southwest huevos rancheros for her breakfast entree, which was described on the menu as "fried eggs, tomatoes, avocado, jalapeños, sour cream, and salsa picante." M was expecting those ingredients to be combined into something resembling every huevos rancheros plate she'd seen before and even made at home, but what arrived was exactly what the description said. Slices of tomatoes, avocado (3 pieces), and jalapeños with a dollop of sour cream, a drizzled circle of salsa, and some fried eggs on top. This was the strangest version of huevos rancheros she had ever seen. Probably should have been called fried eggs with vegetables instead. It wasn't great and she wouldn't get this again.

A got the eggs benedict, toasted English muffins with country ham, hollandaise sauce, and poached eggs. He found this odd. The hollandaise sauce was foamy, thick, and congealed, and not an actual sauce. The ham had no flavor. We had read a lot of message board posts prior to our cruise to get a feel for what people thought, and one thing that kept coming up was people complaining about the lack of eggs benedict on the menu. They would go on and on about how it was a staple of cruise breakfasts and that the Royal Caribbean version was so good. After having ordered and tasted this, A was confused as to what people were complaining about with it not being on the menu and also why they thought it was good. This was easily one of, if not the, worst eggs benedict he had ever eaten.

We didn't particularly like our breakfast at American Icon and had no plans to return on any other sea day. We thought it would be pretty easy to get a good meal with standard breakfast stuff like huevos rancheros and eggs benedict, but we were wrong. Maybe we should have picked the "bodega breakfast" (bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich) or the old bagel and lox standby, and it would have been better, but no guarantee.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Goodbye to the Grande

We had an early dinner at The Grande after our day in St. Kitts. We hadn't initially booked any restaurants for that night, figuring that one of the points of Dynamic Dining was to figure out what you liked and then make arrangements later. This proved to be much more difficult than it sounded, since when we tried to add a second dinner at The Grande for day 8, they kept telling us there was no availability until we persisted and they finally allowed us an early time. Very "dynamic," for sure. We had originally only booked one dinner at The Grande because of the more formal dress code, but our first dinner was good (and better than some other restaurants) so we wanted to return and were glad we were able to.

While the menus had a lot of options at each of the restaurants, and in most we tried lots of different things, at The Grande we found ourselves gravitating towards a lot of the same dishes as our first visit. The meal started off with some champagne and also the same bread as the first dinner.

We also both ordered the prawn cocktail again, which was fine.

For a second appetizer, we both (at least we think it was both of us) got the bacon and egg salad. M had really liked this the first time, but this one wasn't as good. The arugula had been replaced with shredded lettuce, and that substitution just wasn't up to par. We weren't sure how it was day 8 out of 12 and the ship was out of arugula, but that certainly seemed to be the case. Even the servers weren't certain why the greens had changed, but said people had been asking them about it.

M chose to get the eggplant napoleon again for her entree. It was tasty, light, and healthy just like the first time, one of the real standouts from the dinner entrees across all the restaurants.

A got the roasted beef tenderloin this time, which was served with duck pate, asparagus, puff pastry, and truffle-madeira sauce. He ordered it rare, but it came out closer to medium rare. He mentioned it to the waiter while also saying it was fine, but the waiter went ahead and had another order made, and this one was cooked up properly. He really didn't need two orders, but, eh, it's a vacation. The meat was very tender on both cooks and had good flavor. The meat had the right bit of salt but could have used more pepper. The pate was rich and paired very nicely with puff pastry and the meat. 

There was also a truffle-madeira sauce that came on the plate and some asparagus. Having never had this type of sauce before A wasn't sure what it was supposed to taste like, but it was good with the steak and all other ingredients combined. The asparagus was welcome since there was so little vegetable matter on the dish.

For dessert, the chef sent out a special dairy-free dessert because M's mom can't eat dairy. It was an almond cake with a raspberry sauce that was also topped with raspberries and blackberries. This was delicious and reminded us of an almond cake we had tried in Barcelona (but have not yet posted about). This was one of the best desserts we got on the ship, and while it was nice for the chef to create this special for the dairy-free folks, we wished that it was on the regular menu and we could get it all the time. Especially since A had to use the restroom after the desserts came out, and by the time he returned, M had eaten almost all of the almond cake.

We got a chocolate cake off the regular dessert menu, which was pretty much the same as last time and fine, but we didn't finish it because we were so much more interested in the almond cake. The key lime tarte was pretty much the same too. As with most key lime tartes (good or bad) A couldn't help but finish it.

We had a nice dinner at The Grande, even if some of the dishes didn't live up to the first night. Most of that could be explained by the ingredient shortages though. It's funny how we thought that we wouldn't want to spend that much time at The Grande for formal dinners, yet it became one of our favorites. At the end of the day, it seems that cruises still just do their best work with formal dining.

Mini Greek Spirals

Trader Joe's has a bunch of different Greek snacks in the freezer these days, and A spotted these mini Greek spirals with leeks and feta cheese ($2.99) on one of our recent visits. Neither of us remembered seeing them before, but they sounded good. After all, we love leeks.

The spirals are made of phyllo dough and stuffed with leeks, mizithra cheese, and feta cheese, along with some dill, parsley, and other seasonings. (Although the box says feta, the mizithra is actually higher up on the ingredients list.) It was pretty quick to make, about 25 minutes in the oven. There were 12 spirals in the box (6 servings, so they say), and we ate the entire box for lunch.

M's review: I was happy when I took these out of the box and could see all the green leeks through the dough, since my biggest concern when I looked at the picture on the box was that it just looked like lots of phyllo dough with not much filling. The taste of the filling was very mild. The Greek cheeses were pretty subdued, and the leeks didn't have that strong, powerful leek flavor that I really love. That said, these spirals were fine and a nice snack, but I was just expecting much stronger flavors from the leeks and cheese.
Buy again? Maybe. They weren't bad but I would rather just mix leeks and feta cheese into some frozen spinach (even though that's apparently "out of stock" at TJ's until January) and stick it in the oven.

A's review: I liked these a lot. It won't replace the spinach and kale pie, but nothing ever will. It's a quick and easy meal that has good overall flavor. The leeks are a bit lost in this, but mizithra gave it a nice flavor. The phyllo crisped up nicely to give a bit of crunch on the onset with a soft, chewy texture inside.
Buy again? I would. If we ever see the spinach and kale pie again we'll probably buy out the whole store's quantity, but I doubt we ever do. These are fine as a sort-of-replacement.

Korma Fish Curry

I regularly read the Trader Joe's threads on Chowhound, and recently I saw a lot of people recommending the frozen fish curry. It costs a little more than some of the other frozen lunch options since it's fish, but it made for a nice end of year "treat" lunch.

Product name: Korma fish curry with basmati rice

Price: $3.49

Quick review: This was exactly as advertised, fish in curry sauce with rice, which meant that one of the big drawbacks for me was that it was a lunch without vegetables. But the dish itself was good - swai fillet in a curry made with onions, coconut milk, tomato puree, cashews, spices, tamarind, cilantro, garlic, turmeric, sesame seeds, coconut poppy seeds, fenugreek leaves, onion seeds, and bay leaves, with a side of basmati rice that was speckled with mustard seeds (and apparently curry leaves according to the ingredients but I didn't notice those). The flavor of the curry was excellent, the fish wasn't tough or dry, and it all worked well together. If there were some vegetables with it, then it would have been better, but they didn't misrepresent that on the box. It was 380 calories but felt more filling than the salad I ate the other day which had more.

Buy again? Yes. Probably not every visit, but once in a while as a treat.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Five Spice Chicken Salad

Product name: Five spice chicken and Asian style rice noodle salad

Price: $4.49

Quick review: This was pretty good - a layer of rice noodles, cabbage, five spice seasoned chicken, a small container of peanuts, and a chopped salad of cucumber, carrots, red bell pepper, red onion, mint, and cilantro. Everything was very light and fresh, but on its own didn't have too much flavor or seasoning. I was expecting more flavor from the chicken because of the five spice, but I didn't really taste much of that. Once the chili lime dressing (which included rice vinegar, fish sauce, and jalapeños) was thoroughly mixed in though, the salad got so much better. The dressing had a decent amount of heat to it which I wasn't expecting but liked. Although it was 500 calories in total, it didn't feel all that filling in the end, but at least it tasted good.

Buy again? Maybe. I don't really buy many of the pre-made salads from Trader Joe's because they're on the more expensive side for a stay-at-home lunch (cheaper than going out though), but I would get this again if in the mood for a fresh salad without going out or doing the work for it.