Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The hits and the misses.

There's a downside to learning to cook great food at home: most restaurants just don't do it as well as I can.

This isn't a conceit - it's the truth. I get to focus on two or four plates, not an entire restaurant. I can tailor the flavors to my own palate, the nutrition to my own needs and the level of execution to my own standards. This isn't to say I'm rigid in what I like and dislike - on the contrary. Those who know me know there aren't many flavors or foods I won't eat. When I give it real thought, it's a short list, and based on experiences I can pinpoint:

  • Yuzu and lemon together - an unfortunate tart at a restaurant in Denver

  • Duck confit - overly-greasy at a school in Kansas

  • Torchon of foie gras - a much-too-large portion at a bar in KC

  • Baby corn - general disappointment each time it appears

Even those examples aren't deal-breakers for me. My rule is, if I don't like something, I need to try it prepared by a chef I trust. If I still don't like it, I don't like it, but I gave it the best effort. I learned to love Brussels Sprouts because of a dish at Room 39. I crave beets thanks to a preparation at Rioja in Denver. Both of these items were on my short list before I had them prepared in the right way. Who knows, there might be a right way to prepare baby corn. I doubt it, but I'd love to be proven wrong.

I digress. The downside to learning to cook at home. It's like learning to knit. Now that I can, and I know how simple it is, I can't get myself to pay $40 for a cowl at the GAP. I will, however, spend $30 on yarn and make the cowl myself, with improvements. Same with cooking - spending money on a meal that I know I can do better at home is just aggravating. So I seek out places that hopefully can do things better or, at the very least, inspire me to do something new in my own kitchen.

Such was the mindset as we made reservations at The Farmhouse last Saturday. We'd never been, but the reviews were positive and the menu looked very good. Unfortunately, our experience didn't meet our expectations.

The Farmhouse is located in the River Market area at 3rd and Deleware. The restaurant space is quite nice - it has that rustic upscale feel that's been popular for a while, with dark hardwoods and antique furniture alongside bright artwork and twinkling lights. The feel is romantic and cozy, and we were charmed. I especially liked the chalkboard towards the back of the main dining room which listed the sources for all of the ingredients used in their dishes. A very nice touch indeed.

It wasn't easy making dinner choices - everything sounded so delicious in the menu. We each ordered a different salad, but chose the same entree, and split dessert.

The salads were just okay. The ingredients were fresh, and both had high points - a perfectly fried slice of goat cheese on mine, and some beautiful polenta croutons on his. But they both had lackluster dressing with little flavor and too much oil. They were overdressed to the point that the oil flavor masked the fresh, local vegetables the restaurant is so proud of.

Our entrees were sort of a disaster. We both ordered a chicken roulade dish with smoked mushroom duxelle, sweet potato puree and arugula.  The presentation was lovely - the chicken was browned and crisp on the outside, the puree was smooth and creamy, the arugula was bright and fresh. The first couple of bites were very good. But then things went south. Neither of us could cut through the center of our chicken - they were completely raw in the center. At about this point, the smokiness of the mushrooms became overwhelming, then intrusive and ultimately boring. We ate about 75% of the dish (the cooked part) and informed our server that the rest of our chicken was raw. We didn't want replacement meals, and asked that he simply inform the chef so that future diners didn't suffer such a dining fate.

Not completely satiated from our entrees, we opted finally for a slice of pecan pie for dessert. Again, nothing special. My molasses pecan pie is much better, and Pillsbury crust is flakier and had more flavor. We both agreed that our meal at The Farmhouse was less than stellar, but we also agreed that some of that is due to our own culinary skills at home.

Some good things did come out of the meal. We'll be making polenta croutons soon, and will also be adding some thinly sliced pear to our salads on occasion. The biggest revelation, though, is the chicken roulade. After some discussion, we decided that we can perfect this dish by tightly vacuum-sealing the chicken roulades, and cooking them sous vide until done. Then a quick sear in a hot skillet to finish. This will guarantee tender, perfectly formed, perfectly cooked roulades. I'll let you know how that works, when we try it.

The Takeaway: The Farmhouse (http://www.eatatthefarmhouse.com/) just didn't rise up to our admittedly high standards. Overdressed salads, raw chicken, lackluster pie - nothing was outstanding. However, their commitment to locally sourced ingredients is commendable. This may make a good brunch spot, but someone else will have to fill me in as we won't be returning any time soon.

The Farmhouse
300 Delaware Street
Kansas City, MO

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Somewhere, out there...

Since my bone marrow donation in October, I hadn't heard anything about how my recipient was doing. Paulette from Be The Match said this happened sometimes, that no news was good news, that we might hear something at the 6-month mark. I resigned myself to not knowing anything about her, other than her age and disease, hoped for the best regarding her recovery, but prepared for the worst should I get an unfavorable update somewhere down the road.

But yesterday, I received a welcome surprise: Paulette called and told me that my recipient had send me a letter and small package, and that "because of the language" I would be able to figure out where my recipient was from. Since knowing those sorts of details before the allotted time period is a no-no, Be The Match had to approve sending the package on to me, and had to black out some specific information that would give away more information that they thought appropriate at this point in time.

In a matter of minutes, I learned that my recipient was not only alive, but doing well enough to put a letter and package together. Not only that, she wasn't from the United States as I thought, but from another country. When my cells were rushed to the airport, they caught an international flight to points unknown! I was overwhelmed with happiness at these developments. To know that my recipient was alive and relatively well is, well, I just don't have words.

This morning, I received a FedEx envelope at work containing a typed letter (with names of towns and people blacked out). I started to read the letter out loud to Mr. Awesome over the phone, but I couldn't finish because I started to get all teary. It's one thing to think about how my recipient is doing. It's another to read what she thinks about my contribution. Her words are ones that are burned into my heart, and as much as she tells me I have done for her, she has done just as much for me.

It's clear from the letter that English is not my recipient's first language, but it didn't give away any country of origin. However, included with the letter was a Christmas card and small wooden ornament.

There was German writing inside - my recipient is from a country that speaks German!

The text on the card is from a poem by German poet Arno Holz. Here is the Google translation:
And now again be in the dark,
the stars twinkle their Christmas
Thr lights illuminated even every home
and the Christ Child tells out the gifts.

I took a minute to read a little about Arno Holz. He was fascinated with the work of Charles Darwin and believed it was scientifically possible to eliminate subjectivity from art. He summarized this philosophy in the following formula:

Art = Nature - x, where "x" is the materials needed to produce art

While I don't agree - I believe art is based on subjectivity and it's value is derived from the emotional impact is has on a participant - I respect the attempt to quantify such a broad idea.

My patient wants to meet me someday. I would like to meet her, too. Perhaps we could talk about life and art and nature. Or we could just hug each other and be happy for one another's existence.

I have a little scar just above my clavicle from the central line, and whenever I think about my patient, I reach up and touch it and send a good thought into the universe for her. The scar is my badge of honor, a reminder of my experience and how fragile we all are. I send good thoughts into the universe for my patient a lot. I like to think it helps her heal. I know it helps me. Maybe one day we can talk about that, too.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Salad days.

When I was a kid, one of my favorite things to eat was the Caesar salad at the Savoy Grill in Kansas City. The salad was prepared table-side in a large wooden bowl and I was fascinated that so many odd-smelling and -looking components could combine to make something so delicious.

I was thrilled to open my copy of Ferran Adria's The Family Meal to find a very workable version of this classic salad, conveniently portioned for two.

With anchovies and egg yolk at the ready, I prepared to take on this classic... and won the day, with a few minor adjustments from the original recipe.
Perfect Caesar Salad for 2
Servings: 2 (just like in the title :) )

1 garlic clove, minced
1 anchovy, minced
1 egg yolk
1 tsp. sherry cooking wine
1 1/2 tsp. red wine vinegar
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1/4 c. grated Parmesan cheese, divided
Salt and pepper
14 croutons
1 medium head Romaine lettuce, tough outer leaves removed, cut cross-wise into 1/2-inch strips

Combine the garlic and anchovies in a jar or glass using a hand blender until smooth. Add the egg yolk and continue blending, then add the sherry and vinegar until fully incorporated. With the hand blender running, slowly drizzle in the oil and blend until mixture is thick, sort of like mayonnaise. Add half of the Parmesan cheese to the dressing and stir by hand, then season with salt and pepper. If the dressing should be thinner, add a little water or vinegar, depending on your preference.

Toss the dressing with the lettuce and the rest of the Parmesan cheese in a large bowl. Divide onto two plates, then divide the croutons between the salads.

A salad fit for an emperor, or just your average Monday night. Hail, Caesar!