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Friday, February 27, 2015

The Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange

For the second year in a row, Chef Howard Hannah has been nominated for the coveted James Beard Award, the "Oscars for Chefs", according to our local news anchors. (I honestly don't like that term, but it's been coined, so whatever...) In company with Chefs Patrick Ryan, Nick Wesemann, and the Gerrelts, Chef Hannah is one of the finest Chefs in the America, in this humble blogger's opinion, for one reason: he. just. cooks.

I was having a conversation with a coworker the other day and we agreed that the best part about Chef Hannah's work is that he just cooks; no fuss, no frills, just honest-to-God cooks. He respects the ingredients, is all about nose-to-tail cooking, and just...cooks! He uses every part of the animal. When I was in Culinary school, I went there on a class field trip of sorts and he showed us his pig ear terrine. 

"It barely sells, but I like it, so I keep it around," said Hannah. I remember it, still, so clearly, those years ago.

Rabbit Liver Crostini
I loved his laid-back attitude about everything. So I was really excited to drag my boyfriend there for a Saturday night dinner. I should have known better than to just walk in and not call ahead, but it was a sort of spur-of-the-moment thing, so we just sat at a table in the bar. I had looked ahead at the menu, though, on Foursquare and immediately wanted a rabbit liver crostini appetizer. B got the winter greens salad. The whole menu was American-French in style; American ingredients with classical French techniques, it seemed.

I didn't take a picture of the salad because I was nearly blinded by the flash of my camera. One thing about the Reiger: it's dark. I mean DARK. It wasn't just "ooh, this is nice and relaxing and so intimate dark"; This was "I can barely see the plate in front of me" dark. Maybe it would have been better in the dining room, but come on.

I get that you're supposed to have a fancy restaurant with dim lighting to make it feel more intimate...but honestly if I hadn't used the flash on both the crostinis and the sweetbreads, I wouldn't have been able to even see my food, which is a shame: the food is beautiful! I just want to see my beautiful food! Even just the tiniest little nudge on that dimmer would have made a difference; just enough to see the food without getting blinded by the flash of the camera. Sure, sure, I don't have to take pictures of the food...but, in my defense, if I didn't, I would have barely any idea what's what. 

Then again, on another note, there are restaurants that are completely dark, totally blind, that you have to be guided in by your blind server to your seat. You eat completely in the dark and are completely encapsulated by every other sense, which opens up since your eyes can't. You enjoy the food more. You experience the food more. But I don't know if that's what was going on here.

Anyway, the rabbit liver crostinis were absolutely delicious. Honestly, I could have made a meal out of the entire thing. Just give me a tub of rabbit livers and a crust of bread and call me a happy girl. I just love liver. I think that it's a fantastic little morsel and the fact that chefs are turning their attention to these fantastic little morsels is one of the best things that could have happened to this modern age. People are thinking about food, now, in ways that we haven't in years. We show respect to the animal by using all of the parts, by enjoying all of the parts...nothing goes to waste, which is what 'nose-to-tail' cooking is all about.

Sweetbreads with grits and butternut squash
I got the sweetbreads, since I knew that if anyone would show them the proper technique and work, Howard Hannah would. B(who has never even heard of what sweetbreads could possibly be) took a bite and loved it. The hominy grit that it came with was so filling and creamy that I barely finished my proteins...my own fault, of course, since I loved it so much that's mostly what I ate. And the butternut squash was perfectly roasted. I loved the flavor of the sweetbreads, but I almost wish that it didn't have the breading on it...I almost wished that it was just simply pan-seared with some sweet cream butter with a little salt, not a layer of breading all around it to make it appetizing for the less-adventurous diner. Maybe I'm picking at it too much? Oh well, it's what I remember thinking.
The Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange on UrbanspoonB's flatiron steak was so tender he didn't need a fork. I offered to take a picture of it so he could see what it looked like, but he laughed and said no. We were both so full by the time we left that we were practically hobbling to the car. I really should have worn my "fat" jeans.

All in all, I loved it. Amazing, simple, non-pretentious food that's not trying to do anything 'special', necessarily...they're just respecting the food, the ingredient. The servers there know a lot about the food and the respect and love that Chef Hannah puts into every bite, and it shows.

So, yes. Great service, great food. Don't make the mistake of not wearing the fat-pants, though. You'll thank me when you walk to the car.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

An All-American Dining Experience(Happy Valentine's Day)

I must say that living your life while happy is a 10/10. I highly recommend a happy life. I also highly recommend allowing yourself to be loved. It's a very difficult thing in an American woman's life, especially for us Millenials, to really allow yourself to be truly loved. But I feel it. I feel love seeping into me. It's funny how that happens. It was a perfect and poetic time for this to happen to me for Valentine's Day at the American.

American on UrbanspoonThe American is the restaurant in Kansas City. It's the place to cut your chops as a Chef. The kitchen was designed to be a James Beard standard kitchen. The restaurant is so iconic that I don't think it'll ever go away. The American is so high on that list, so ingrained into the Kansas City psyche as the place to go to, or to aspire to go to, that it's easy to think that it won't live up to the hype. This young Chef says it does.

I didn't take any pictures at the American. The first reason is that I thought it was almost disrespectful, and almost...not right...in an odd way, to take pictures of the food, as I felt it was almost robbing someone else of that experience. The other reason is because my phone died. It died before I could even check-in on Foursquare.(By the way, if you aren't following my tips on Foursquare/Swarm, you're seriously missing out. I'm informative and hilarious.) I did make my boyfriend take a picture of me with the dessert. I'm squinting pretty hardcore because the flash was nearly blinding and the lighting in the restaurant wasn't exactly bright.

The journey itself to find the American is almost like a pilgrimage. We were staying in the Westin at the Crown Center and we had to walk through the maze of shops and escalators to find the entrance. The gilded elevator which raises you to the 4th floor, where the restaurant resides, seems to be a portal to another world. You know those fancy restaurants you see in movies, the ones with the grandiose staircases and chandaliers? The ones that you'll never, ever see for yourself? That's the American.

Walking around from the elevator to the host stand, you see before you a grand palace, while somewhat outdated (the fabric on the chairs wasn't my favorite) still had some kind of wonderful classic thing going on. A velvet-throated jazz singer's voice carries through the palatial room, respecting the four corners of a square, turning the nearly-intimidating space into the cornerstone of a man's monarchy. To tell you the truth, it would have felt lonely if she hadn't been there, singing, especially since we were practically the only ones there. I assumed that it was because it was a few days before Valentine's day, and everyone was saving it for the occasion...but B said that he rented out the entire restaurant just for us. (He didn't, but I believed him for a full 30 seconds, because that's how naive and trusting I have become.) I'm very happy I got to see it before they did their big renovations, which will be complete in March. I don't know what will happen, but I hope that I get to go again! (Maybe I can convince my boyfriend to take me for my birthday.)

Descending the staircase, the hostess leads you to your table, where she actually pulls out your seat for you. And then unfolds the napkin and places it in your lap for you. This was fancy to the point where I was oddly uncomfortable. Usually I'm quite comfortable with adapting to situations as such, but this was just weird. But nice! But still weird.

The server, whose name I (sadly) cannot recall, was so gracious and fun. The best part about him (was his name Josh? Jonas? Something...) was that he was not only knowledgeable, but passionate about food. A server, passionate about food! We even ended up talking a little bit about fresh Japanese wasabi, and how the import laws had changed over the past ten years. We even spoke about Wagyu versus Kobe beef, and he knew what I was talking about. This, in and of itself, is amazing. This really does speak volumes about the kind of people that they have working at this establishment. Chef Michael Corvino really knows what he's doing with this place.

The meal began, of course, with drinks and canapes. They were cute little shortbread cookies with quince gels and marscarpone, with brown butter financiers. B isn't quite what you'd call a foodie, and he'd never be caught dead in a place like this if he didn't know that I was so into it, and I swear I saw him sneer when he thought that every course would be this tiny little bite. After the sight of the first course, however, he began to change his tune.

We began with the King Crab, which had sliced black truffles(which he had never even seen before) and elements of turnip and passion fruit(don't knock it til you try it). To be honest, I'd never had fresh, raw black truffle slices before...only black truffle butter, truffles that had been roasted with quail, or white truffle oil, drizzled over potato or asparagus soup. I couldn't resist. I ate the first slice just on its own. I was shocked at how subtle it was...it almost seemed like paper. But the heat of my mouth somehow brought it to life, and I understood why it became an empire.

Our next course was oyster, which B had never had before. It was served raw, of course, and impeccably fresh. Accompanying the oyster was a beautiful cauliflower puree, fried quinoa(for crunch), and fresh dill fronds. I slurped it all in one mouthful, and it was like a straight-up bite of the ocean. It went down fresh, and every flavor was surprising, subtle, and expertly done.

The caviar came next, which was a beautiful sturgeon roe served on soba. Soba, for those who don't know, are basically a buckwheat noodle, which are all made in-house, and then cut to order. Fresh-cut soba is something they do in noodle-houses in Japan, and this practice immediately scored points with me for the Chef. (I mean, I know I shouldn't be impressed, necessarily...it's the nicest place in town...it should have crazy-high standards...but whatever! I'm allowed to be impressed!) The noodles were soft yet chewy, and served in an uni 'butter'/sauce that, upon tasting, I turned to B with stars in my eyes and asked "Can I just take a bath in this?" Oh, and he'd never had uni before either...but he loved it.

The abalone came next, which honestly wasn't my favorite, but B loved it. It had daikon, sliced in paper-thin sheets, with shiso, a Japanese cousin of basil. The abalone was, even though not my favorite, absolutely expertly prepared. I wish I had taken a picture of this dish, though, as it was just so darn beautiful.

Next came another highlight, which was a roasted hedgehog mushroom with walnuts, nestled happily on a bed of sunchoke puree. Sunchokes, also known as Jerusalem artichokes, are a giant pain to prepare for the average home cook, but are well worth the effort. It's a mild, wonderfully aromatic flavor, that goes down easy, and the kumquat element, which was really fun, made it pop all the louder.

The bread course came with a wonderful apple butter that was made from local apples here in Missouri. I didn't remember much else of what they were saying because I was too busy eating it. I'd never had apple butter before. Holy shit was that good.

The steelhead trout can only be described as miraculous, as the fish was so moist and so soft, yet had such a crispy skin, it made B like fish. Read that again: it made my meat-and-potatoes Midwestern man LIKE FISH. And you know what? He ate every bit of it. He ate it with the trout roe, with the cranberry bean, with the "naked" grapes, and with the big fried leaf of dinosaur kail. I swear to God, they called it Dinosaur Kale. I remember it because it blew me away. So did the fish. I think I would have said that was the highlight, had it not been for the steak that came next.

The ribeye with black trumpet mushrooms, fresh wasabi, and huitlacoche puree had both cut and cap of meat. I will have dreams of this perfect dish. I will have dreams about that huitlacoche and its perfect umami elements. I will never have any wasabi again unless it's fresh like this. I almost contemplated killing myself right after I ate this steak, because I felt like that it was so good, I'd never be able to taste anything better. I really didn't want it to end. Oh, and B ate up the huitlacoche, even after I told him what it was. He almost kieled over from how good it was, but he kept it together during the cheese course.

Asher blue cheese is much more mild than your Maytag or your Portland smoke would be. It was served with these adorable little gingerbread croutons that were perfectly uniform, and sliced radish and walnuts. The fact that this is where B sort of "tapped out" was borderline hilarious, considering that the most mainstream taste-having man I knew just slurped down raw oyster and trout roe without batting an eye. Don't worry, though, kids. I ate his cheese.

Dessert came with a "pre-dessert" little palette cleanser, which consisted of a bright lemon-y marscarpone cream-like thing, with lingonberries and graham crumbles on top. I really just wanted a tub of that after I tasted it. But oh my sweet merciful Jesus was I happy that I held on.
I'm squinting because the flash
was crazy bright. 

Nick Wesemann is easily my favorite pastry chef in the city. He and I had actually met on several occasions before that night, so he came out at a point during our meal to say a quick hello once he heard I was here. He's seriously one of the nicest guys ever, and is now teaching the pastry fundamentals class at the Art Institutes International in Lenexa, KS. It's hard to not go on and on about my glowing regard for this crazy-talented chef, so I'll just cut myself off now and get onto the dessert.

The dessert we had was called "grapefruit" and had beautiful, fresh, perfectly ripe grapefruit supremes cut and sprinkled in and out. It had a towering whisp of kataifi and a burnt honey ice cream, all with elements of olive oil and campari...and I can't even talk about it without drooling a little.

This is, of course, not to say that the other desserts on the menu were fantastic. The 3-course dessert options are crazy-good. The banana dessert is fantastic, with elements of rum ice cream and macadamia, towering up like some kind of Zion on the plate. The Pumpkin dessert had a toasted marshmallow ice cream that tasted so straight-up like a toasted marshmallow that I actually asked the server if they could just box up a whole tub of that for me. The pumpkin cake wasn't anything to shake a stick at, either, and I must say that I would think of the maple and pecan elements for hours after. The big boom at the end of the meal came, though, in what B and I will forever refer to as: the tangerine thing.

This was our final dessert. It came in a round black raku plate, all brown and orange and full of varying textures. A nutella-like chocolate hazelnut pastry cream was the foundation for a seriously unreal experience. The crunches of kettle corn and other textures of hazelnut were perfect compliments, and the tangerine granita was so intense. B said that it was probably going to be etched into his memory for the rest of his days. I can't even begin to relay how amazing it was without using cliches of elephantine proportions, so I just encourage you to get out there and try it for yourself.

And Nick, darling, from one pastry chef to another, you are more than welcome to come up to my restaurant, and I promise to give you the same treatment!

All in all, I can honestly say that the American lived up to the hype. At $95 per person for the Chef's tasting menu, I can tell you that it was worth it, and more than reasonable for what you're getting. Sure, it's expensive, but I honestly can't tell you that it's not a justifiable expense. It's seriously amazing. The fabric on the chairs could use a little love, sure, but the food is so stupid delicious that it's like your face will be blown out the back of your head. I could seriously say that you could put this restaurant and Chef Michael Corvino's food on your bucket list and not be disappointed with the results. Everything we had was great. Everything from the service to the coffee to the last crumb of macadamia financier that came as a mingardise  with the check was nothing short of quality. You can bet that I'll be a voucher for the American for a good long time, as long as they keep on cranking out this amazing stuff.

Here's hoping that your Valentine's Day was this great. Even if my company wasn't anything short of the most charming and gracious dining partner I've ever had, I still would have loved this meal. And you can take that to the bank.
Christopher Elbow's chocolates also help
Oh, but if you don't want to fork out the big bucks for the American, a box of Christopher Elbow's chocolates will do in a pinch. I was actually sad I didn't want any directly after those desserts from Nick Wesemann...but don't worry. I ate them after a 24-hour period of digesting. They were really great.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Macarons: A Basic How-to

Okay, so I'm really  sorry about not blogging, like, at all this year. I've had a crazy year so far! But, here we are, now into the first day of February, and I am ready to blog.
No feet in these ones...but they sure did taste great!

My utter lack of subject matter has caused me to have pause. I finally, however, discovered the perfect subject matter in the form of the elusive macaron cookie. These cookies aren't elusive in the form of "OMG where can I buy these???" You can buy them anywhere ever, now. They're ridiculously popular. The thing that makes these "elusive", though, is the amount of work and skill that's needed for this particularly magical cookie. They're hard. They're hard to perfect. They're notoriously finicky. This was something that I saw as a challenge when I decided to make them for the first time.

There's no shortage of pictures on Tumblr, Pinterest, etc. of these glorious little crunchewy little treat. You see them all around, in bright technicolor shades of flavor, with shiny round tops. I thought that they couldn't be so hard, so I would give it a go. I turned to the most-trusted Chef I could think of: Thomas Keller.
Thank you, Lela London.com for the image!
Thomas Keller is arguably the greatest American Chef ever, and he's got this great book out there called Bouchon Bakery, by Sebastien Rouxel, the very talented French Pastry Chef behind it. I love this book because it helps you go step-by-step in great detail of the recipe and what needs to be done. The times and temperatures are precise, and any time a recipe is in grams, you know it's going to be consistent. Look for the book on Amazon.com

This is the recipe for Thomas Keller's Vanilla Macarons, which I used as the base for my own. 

Vanilla Macarons
by Thomas Keller
  • 212 g (1 3/4 C + 2 1/2 Tbsp) Almond Flour/meal
  • 212 g Powdered sugar
  • 82 g and 90 g (roughly 4 medium egg whites) egg whites, in separate containers
  • 1 vanilla bean split and scraped OR 1 Tbsp vanilla paste
  • 236 g (1 c + 3 Tbsp) granulated sugar, plus a pinch or two more for the egg whites
  • 158 g (2/3 c) water
A note: don't even try this on humid days
Blitz the almond meal in a food processor to ensure that it's as finely-ground as possible. Combine the powdered sugar and the almond meal in a sifter and sift into a bowl with a pinch of salt, the vanilla, and the 82 g of egg whites. I used a spatula, and it combined into a nice thick paste. Set aside to let absorb. If you're adding/using a color, add it to this part of the recipe now.

Combine the water and sugar into a heavy-bottomed saucepot and bring to a boil, keeping an eye on the temperature using a candy thermometer. You can also do the "water" test in which you drop droplets into a dish of cold water to see what it does. You're looking for a final temperature of 248 F, or the soft ball stage. When the temperature of the sugar syrup reaches about 210, combine the 90 g egg whites and a fat pinch of sugar in the bowl of a standing mixer and begin to whip on medium speed. You want soft peaks, ultimately, but if you get there before the mixture hits your desired 248 degrees, just turn the mixer down to "stir". 
The end meringue should look like this, kinda
Carefully pour the hot sugar syrup into the bowl in a very thin stream while the mixer is running on medium-high speed until everything is incorporated. You are basically making an Italian meringue, which is ingenious, considering it's the strongest meringue there is, and you need solid bubbles. Turn the speed down to medium and whip for 4 minutes, or until the bowl is still warm-ish but the mixture is basically cooled. Fold the whites in with your almond meal mixture in 3 stages. The final mixture should be quite shiny and gloopy without falling in pieces. It should form a ribbon when dropped from the spoon. 

Scoop into a piping bag fitted with a 1/2" plain tip...or just do what I did and use a disposable plastic piping bag and cut off a round end. Even if you're proficient with a piping bag, it is absolutely IMPERATIVE that these little buggers are the same size, as you're sandwiching them. Use parchment paper and a round ring mould to trace the size you need, for goodness' sake. Once you've piped your macarons, give the sheet tray a few raps from the bottom to let air bubbles escape from the top. This will also help create the signature "feet" that macarons need in order to be considered successful. 

If you want to add color, I recommend using a gel versus a liquid.

The recipe doesn't call for you to let them rest, but you really should let the cookies rest on the sheet for 20-40 minutes, depending on the humidity level of your kitchen. The idea is to create a shell. You'll know the shell is formed when the shine on the top is gone and it's fairly dry to the touch. Bake at 330 for 9 minutes. If you have a convection oven, do 300. These bake much better in a convection oven, but I didn't have one at home. The one at work is a high-powered convection oven that baked some great macarons, but the temperature controls were a little iffy, so my second batch ended up a touch cracked.

The first batch I made had the successful texture, but had no feet. I also was a bit iffy since my oven at home is just a standard oven versus a convection oven, so I know what to do for next time. When I made the macarons at work, I didn't have almond meal, so I ground up sliced almonds in the food processor to as fine as they would go. The result was delicious, although technically flawed. These ones had feet, though, so that's a good thing!

I dyed these ones pink since I was using a raspberry jam to fill the hole!
Let's now talk about filling!

Macarons are filled, traditionally, with a buttercream. Thomas Keller's Bouchon Bakery uses a French buttercream, so I used that, too. Look up a good French buttercream recipe you'd want to try, or just use your favorite. Ring the buttercream around the edges to leave a hole on the inside for a filling. You can also use ganache to fill these beautiful cookies, if you so desire. Really, the sky's the limit on these ones. On the first attempt, I left my macarons snow white with a pink buttercream filling for Valentine's day, all with a Bull's eye of crunchy chocolate ganache, which is basically just your favorite ganache with crushed up cornflakes and rice krispies in it. On the second attempt I dyed the macarons pink to match the pink buttercream, and filled the bull's eye with raspberry. Again, the sky's the limit. But I do encourage you to think about compatible colors and flavors.

It kinda looks weird when it's open, but sandwiched, it will be amazing!

There are about a million different things that can go wrong with this magical, meringue-like cookie. I went through about four of them, myself, over the last week. I'm sure that I'll continue to struggle, since this is no easy feat. Food Nouveau has the best trouble-shooting guide I've seen thus far, so please bookmark that site, as I have, for your further macaron adventures.

If you try this, please feel free to post your results below! Good luck and happy eating!