Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Cajun Bangkok's Heaven and Hell

Last week, I convinced my wife that she deserved a treat for carrying our first child for the past five months. On the way home from errands, we stopped in Carytown and ventured into Cajun Bangkok, which replaced the Thai Curry House, which replaced Chopstix. I told Karen, "you and the little boy in your belly should order whatever you like" (big talk from a cheap-skate like me). The subtitle of the restaurant is "spicy cuisine," and that's one of our favorite flavors, despite the queasiness associated with pregnancy. (it's a boy, by the way)

With the unveiling of Cajun Bangkok, Carytown has gone from four Thai places down to three and a half – a babystep toward moderation. The menu seemed to show appetizers and entrees that pulled from both Thailand and the Mississippi river delta region, but the food that we ordered showed the two inspirations represented on each plate, a la fusion cuisine. Considering that there is another branch of this restaurant in Alexandria (where Thai has been plentiful for years), the concept must be successful enough to franchise.

We started with the calamari, which was described as being "southern fried" or something that conjured up a cajun influence. However, what we received were perfectly lightly breaded ringlets (not unlike Mom Siam down the street). The squid was tender and the citrusy Thai chili sauce was finger lickin’ good to say the least. We sopped the stuff up too fast and were fighting over the last drops of dip before the calamari was all gone. Home run.

Next came Karen's bowl of she-crab soup, which was also described with some yee-haw down home verbiage. The soup, however, was stark white opaque and refined. My wife's spoon brought up loads of crab meat and an enormous smile spread across my wife's face. The soup was seasoned with a touch of red curry and plenty of sweet coconut milk. Holy sh*t, was this stuff good! Again, more fighting over the last drops. Folks, go to Cajun Bangkok and order this soup.

Across the room, a couple tables had ordered an exotic looking coconut appetizer that was the day's special. There were 8-10 ingredients spread out on a platter and you had to wrap them all up in a collard green leaf and eat it like a mini-wrap. They seemed happy and I felt pretty jealous as I got acquainted with my entree, which didn't measure up to the previous two items.

My order was a blackened tuna steak, topped with crawfish ettoufee, and served over rice. What came was a big chewy piece of overcooked fish. There were specks of cajun seasoning, but it wasn't blackened or even seared - broiled maybe. All of the pink was gone from the center and most of the juice as well. It gets worse. I think they overcooked the fish because it wasn't fresh. It tasted fishier than any tuna I'd ever eaten before. "Are you sure you want to finish that?" asked Karen after trying a tiny bite. I resolved to take my chances and see what happened. The rice was buttery and delicious and the ettoufee wasn’t bad either, but I felt pretty deflated. Going from ecstasy to revulsion so quickly made my head spin.

Meanwhile, Karen sat in front of a boring iceberg lettuce salad whose pecan vinegrette added only the flavor of sour burnt nuts - a half-hearted attempt to keep in line with the theme of the restaurant. It needed sweetness and spice – maybe they should have gone for a Thai curry prailene vinegrette or something like that. To her credit, Karen knew she wasn’t very hungry (one of the reasons that I said, “order anything”) and so she hadn’t placed much stock in the salad. Instead, both of us were happy to have discovered the two dishes we’d already gone ga ga over.

At the time of this writing, I’m not too excited to be writing another mixed review. Is it realistic to fall for the idea behind a restaurant (or the image I project on it) and expect it to change over time to suit me? Viva Mexico is still garnering negative blog entries on top of the bad RTD piece. They don’t seem to have changed their bland ways. For every homerun she-crab curry soup, there are dishes that fall short – both prepared by the same chef. For every plate of light and flakey squid ringlets, there will be smelly fishy shoe leather. Signature dishes and cutting corners is the name of the game in the restaurant biz. I don’t think that it makes sense to go Gordon Ramsey and verbally abuse and physically shake sense into the chefs and owners of wayward eateries. Personally, I’m just a foodie who wants to spread the word about the best stuff and warn people about the pitfalls.

Don’t let me forget that, yall.

Ps: I did not get sick from the fish. In fact, we went to Ben and Jerry’s where Karen’s appetite picked up again. She got a Hot Float (ice cream in steamed milk) that was served up by a confused teenager who hadn’t quite figured out how to sell or prepare his store’s latest featured item. But, I got to be the gracious big spender, which is sometimes worth more than tasty vittles.

update: I went back and things went much smoother. Check it out.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Sunday Brunch at Cirrus Taken Too Seriously

I should have written about Cirrus at Allen and Main before having brunch there. I would have talked of the chic interior, homemade biscuits and vegetarian white gravy, and moderate entrée prices. These points still make up the bulk of my story and will probably bring me back to eat there again. But, after my Sunday brunch at experience, my Cirrus sales pitch comes with some disclaimers, and now I’ve got my fingers crossed that Cirrus’ potential and obvious good ideas will turn into a great eatery.

First off, I want to fess up that I’m somewhat biased in favor of any restaurant at Allen and Main. My first Richmond apartment was right across the street ten years ago, and my wife and I celebrated our engagement at Dogwood Grille (RIP), the space’s previous occupant. Also, it’s within walking distance of my house in Byrd Park. Lastly, and for the record, the good folks at Cirrus have enabled me to write about one of my favorite foods of all time: biscuits and "sausage" gravy. And for that, they'll always have a place in my heart.

For these reasons, I was excited when I saw the brunch menu in the window at Cirrus. Seeing the vegetarian biscuits and gravy on the menu put a trip to Cirrus at the top of my priority list. (Well, that and the allure of reasonably priced entrees, with an modern black/white backdrop.) Surely, this place was going to be a hipster brunch destination. That said, I want to acknowledge that you really can’t judge a restaurant by it’s brunch service. The head chef is rarely on duty weekend mornings and the dishes don’t usually receive the attention that you’ll find on the dinner menu (aside from Millies, of course). So, please take this review for what it is: a story of brunch, over scrutinized.

Considering that Style Weekly had just posted dueling reviews (both relatively positive), I was sure that Cirrus would be crammed with people enjoying a holiday weekend indulgence by going out to brunch. We walked up to the place at 11:20am, but were the first customers of the day. Inside, we sat in the two-tone dining room feeling kind of awkward and receiving loads of friendly attention from our server. My wife loved the interior design, but I would describe it as severe and cold (not that there’s anything wrong with that). I kept wondering if I had anything in my wardrobe that would disguise my crunchy granola look and help me fit in with the austere environment. Nonetheless, the shimmering pendant lights and matte silver and white sconces are touches that deserve to be seen by everyone, regardless of your attire. Hopefully, they’ll complete their design by painting or replacing the wood grain entrance, which sticks out like a sore thumb.

At first, I was worried about the brunch menu because there was no mention of sides. Would a plate of quiche, or eggs and bacon come unaccompanied, like at Can Can? Paying extra for must-have elements is a major pet peeve for me. Luckily, everything comes with homefries (except for the breakfast pizza, which sounded so decadent that you wouldn’t want anything more).

My wife ordered eggs benedict (we'll address my dish in a minute). When our respective plates arrived, I was alarmed at the whiteness of the home fries, so I rushed to put one in my mouth before the server left. Yup. Raw potatoes. Some feint skillet marks could be seen on a few of he diced spuds, but most of them actually crunched like apples. For the rest of the meal, we were showered with apologies. We laughed it off. "Hey, at least we know they’re fresh, right?” was all I could muster. Potatoes take time, so one would think that an 11am brunch opening would have given them time to prep the side dish that accompanies every breakfast item on the menu.

The potato mistake turned out to be a good thing, actually, because they quickly brought out some potatoes wedges and thin cut sweet potato fries. Both were seasoned heavily and put smiles on our faces. This was ironic, because the uncooked potatoes had next to no flavor, making me wonder if they would have been worth eating regardless. At any rate, they quickly brought Grey Poupon when I requested it for my sweet potato fries. This is a perfect combination, as I learned from years of eating at Ipanema Café. They should just bring a bottle of the stuff out with each sweet potato fry order to ensure that every diner experiences that revelatory flavor combination. The eggs benedict wasn't bad, with it’s perfectly poached egg and rich hollandaise. The only fault was the piled-on rough-cut ham, which, according to my wife, made the dish too salty. She just removed some of it and moved on.

Like clockwork, I ordered the vegetarian biscuits and (fake) sausage gravy. At this point, I should probably stop and explain my fixation with this dish. My parents have been ordering the real sausage stuff at diners and Denny’s since I was a kid. When I got serious about vegan cooking, I quickly learned that it is ridiculously easy to make tasty white gravy at home and then spike it with store bought fake meat (that link is the best recipe). When this gloppy goodness is served on top of fluffy biscuits, it’s the ultimate comfort food. My wife, who eats meat, loves my vegan version and frequently urges me to make it for her. For me, to have this brought to my table at an eatery just blocks from my home was a dream come true.

Well, almost. The version served at Cirrus featured some great homemade biscuits, but the gravy lacked the copious amounts of black pepper that gives white gravy it’s punch (and the charming black speckles in white sauce would fit the aesthetic of the Cirrus decor). Hopefully, they’ll refine their recipe in time, because I know that there is a constituency in Richmond that will beat a path to their door for good vegetarian biscuits and peppery (fake) sausage gravy. Okay, while I’m being a know-it-all critic, I’ll say that the barely flavored TVP that was added to the gravy needs to be replaced with commercially produced soy sausage (from Twin Oaks, Gimmelean, Morningstar Farms, etc.). Homemade “soysage” rarely packs the punch that puts this dish over the savory edge. Store-bought may be expensive, but it saves prep-time, and a little goes a long way in white gravy. Did I mention that constructive criticism is an act of love? I really feel like a heel for airing all of my pet peeves and smug suggestions. And in the end, flawed vegan biscuits and gravy is better than no vegan biscuits and gravy.

All in all, I’m excited about Cirrus, despite my complaints. All the indicators point to the probability that the details that I focused on were exceptions to the standard practice at Cirrus. Next time around, I’m going to try their dinner service where I've noticed more veggie options and I'll find something fashion forward to wear for the occasion.


After reading this post, my wife informed me that a) Cirrus has brown and white interior and not black and white (more evidence that I'm going color blind) and b) that I went overboard with my dissection of the biscuits and gravy. Ya know what? She's right. The food at Cirrus all smacks of homemade goodness and care - undeserving of my anal-retentive vegan-nazi fundamentalism. Shit, I'm not even vegan anymore. My point is that the inspiration for my diatribe wasn't Cirrus' food, it was my adoration of the perfect batch of biscuits and gravy that exists in my mind. Sunday brunch was simply a convenient excuse to prattle on about one of my favorite foods.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Food was meant to be enjoyed, but...

A recent comment on my blog "gently" blasted my critical approach to
dining out. Although Ibelieve that most of my posts heap praise on
tasty dishes, I do consider it my obligation to share my questions and
concerns with other consumers. For me, part of the satisfaction of a
good eating experience is not only the flavor, ambiance, service and
company (hi Karen!), but also the monetary value of the meal, the ethic behind the operation, and the educational opportunity of a new experience. Therefore, when an meal is puzzling or troubling, then I feel compelled to share my thoughts. For instance:

I love to eat fish and, for me, Carytown Seafood is the most convenient place to buy it. I'm also an admitted cheapskate. I'd rather pay $6.99 a pound for mahi or wahoo and heap on the marinades and rubs, than pay $11.99 for grouper that sings with a squeeze of lemon. Of course, I waffle back and forth depending on the occasion or if I need to impress my wife. Either way, the folks at Carytown Seafood usually don't steer me wrong. However...

One day while at Carytown Seafood, I saw the most beautiful looking fillets for only $5.99/lb. They looked like Chilean Sea Bass, only smaller (and hopefully not nearing extinction). The sign read: Escolar. The firm cuts would be perfect for grilling. I went with a simple salt/pepper rubdown, figuring that its mackerel-like oiliness would offer a flavor to be savored.

Let's fast forward. The meal was great and my wife and I were happy with the
bargain fish. But, as the night went on, we both independently sequestered ourselves in separate bathrooms. Why? Let's ask Wikipedia about Escolar.

Like its relative the oilfish (Ruvettus pretiosus), it cannot metabolise the wax esters (Gempylotoxin) naturally found in their diet, which accumulates to give an oil content in the muscle meat of 18–21%. These wax esters may rapidly cause gastrointestinal symptoms following consumption; however, these effects are usually short lived. The gastrointestinal symptoms, called "keriorrhoea", caused by these wax esters may include oily orange diarrhea, discharge, or leakage from the rectum that may smell of mineral oil. The discharge can stain clothing and occur without warning 30 minutes to 36 hours after consuming the fish. The oil may pool in the rectum and cause frequent urges for bowel movements due to its lubricant qualities and may be accidentally discharged by the passing of gas.

If you dare read further in the Wikipedia entry, you will find out about the legislation against commercial use of the fish, or the ban on escolar in certain countries, or the list of fish that you buy regularly, but might actually take home escolar. At any rate, I don't think Carytown Seafood should sell the stuff, and I told them as much. Their response amounted to a shrug and I don't blame them. Being a bargain hunter, I'm still almost tempted to buy it every time I see it in the case. Well, almost.

Another food that seems almost too good to be true is the sunchoke,
or Jerusalem Artichoke. The other night, Karen and I had them sauteed
with garlic as well as a razor-thin-sliced raw preparation drizzled with
olive oil. Both were awesome - possibly the best tubers I'd ever had.
The next day, my wife wound up conferencing about the effects, a
pattern that is becoming all too familiar for us. That night, when
Karen went to bed early, I went down to my basement office and didn't
consider my bubbling combustion to be abnormal or offensive, since I was by myself. However, in retrospect, I probably could have levitated on a pillow of air that night. It was my polite and dainty wife's experience at work the next day after having leftover sunchokes for lunch that inspired this post (and probably a few gripes from her co-workers).

Again, let's consult Wikipedia about Sunchokes (Jerusalem Artichokes):

The inulin is not well digested by some people, leading to the misconception that sunchokes are not edible or an assumption that they cause flatulence and gastric pain. Gerard's Herbal, printed in 1621, quotes the English planter John Goodyer on Jerusalem artichokes:

"which way soever they be dressed and eaten, they stir and cause a filthy loathsome stinking wind within the body, thereby causing the belly to be pained and tormented, and are a meat more fit for swine than men." [4]

This account was not typical of most peoples' experience eating the tubers and they were cultivated in the gardens of Native America and the Pilgrims. They continue to be planted and consumed.

Yeah, right. I'd like to know if others have had this experience to these squash tasting parsnip-like root veggies. And how about a little warning next time, huh? While at work, coping with her intestinal distress, my wife found a blog post from a sympathetic foodie who uses a Rolling Stones song to summarize thesunchoke experience. I also turned up a fart-free
preparation tip that might inspire me to try these root veggies again one day.

Culinary misadventures aren't only suffered at home. Often times they begin while dining out and we are rewarded for patronizing a restaurant with stabbing pains in the gutz and hours sweating it out on the commode. I hear it's a common risk, but what is a consumer to do for recourse? Can you imagine going back the next day and complaining that you got the runs? Do people do that? And who wants a free meal in return? I'd like to name names and rattle off some restaurants that I can't bring myself to visit ever again, but it could be construed as slander and it's just plain embarrassing all around. Of course, not every customer gets struck by a bacterial chain reaction. So, as much as I'd like to break the apparent silence, I don't really know if it's right to mention offending restaurants by name. And who knows, maybe it's me (no matter how infrequently it happens or the fact that everyone around the table is usually victim of the same symptoms). Do any of you have any suggestions? Do you want names? Is it safe to say?

I will say that I used to live near El Rio Grande Cafe on Cary Street in the Fan. Since it's closed now, I can say that no matter how many times I went and ordered different (always vegetarian options) I had the worst digestive response. I started calling the place ElDiarrheo Grande. And then there's OBurrito , also thankfully defunct. Really painful problems thanks to a bunch of teens shoveling who knows what into enormous tortillas. This is usually my favorite recipe, by the way. But my problem isn't just withtex-mex, the unnamed establishments are mostly asian , but I don't think it matters. If you readers respond with your tales, I'm sure that every type of cuisine would be charged with allegedly poor practices in terms of hygiene.

As you can see, I like to point out the potholes in the roads that cut through an otherwise splendid neighborhood. For me, it's worth navigating a minefield to have those few transcendent experiences where I wind up talking endlessly about a restaurant (see Taqueria del Sol) and becoming a regular customer. But, as a guy who likes to write and share, it's the questions that really compel me, even to the point that I'm willing to paint myself in the most unflattering scenes and admit my own guilt as a frugal freak. But I'll make no apologies, because it's my curiousness that keeps me going. One day, you'll probably read my obituary: RVA Foodie, died of botulism from eating food from dented cans purchased at his favorite grocery store, Salvage Barn. My dying word, "It was 75% off the retail price. I couldn't help it."

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Build Schools Now! Take Education OFF the Back Burner in RVA

Hey BLOGGERS! YOU ARE INVITED. In lieu of local MSM coverage of this grassroots mobiliation, your attention is sorely needed. COVER THIS CAMPAIGN KICKOFF aimed at breaking up the power-struggle in City Hall and demanding that Richmond's elected officials start prioritizing public education. Please read the following press release for specifics. Big things are on the horizon for the Build Schools Now! coalition and YOU ARE INVITED to spread the word and participate in this community mandate.


News Release

NOVEMBER 5, 2007 - CITY HALL - 5:15PM
Contact: Art Burton (804)467-6408

Richmond City Council of PTA outlined the BUILD SCHOOLS NOW initiative prior to the regularly scheduled School Board meeting today.

The BUILD SCHOOLS NOW initiative was born in response to the letter written by the business community calling for the elimination of the elected school board and is the people’s cry to leadership to end fighting and finger pointing and make a capital investment in public education.

The BUILD SCHOOLS NOW initiative is the creation of a coalition to begin a public movement on behalf of the children in Richmond City Public Schools that calls for the groundbreaking and development of new schools as the first phase towards enhancing the public school system. On November 5, 2007, at 5:15pm you are invited to come and meet the organizational and community leaders of this coalition. At this press conference we will share details of our plans to end political in-fighting and advance educational opportunities for our children and move this city towards a new vision for public education.

We are calling on the leadership of this city to make good on its promises. These promises began as early as 2001 with the Facility Study conducted by the RPS system, in addition to the City of the Future plan developed in 2006, by the Mayor and City Administration. To date all promises have gone unfulfilled. Phase One of BUILD SCHOOLS NOW provides for new and improved facilities beginning with the following:

A. New Fulton Elementary School - the 2001 Facility Study showed over 300 students attending elementary schools live in the Fulton areas, and if an elementary school were built in that community, many of these students would attend that community school.

B. New Huguenot High School - addresses the issues of the lack of high quality middle and high schools to reverse the negative trend of losing middle class families from public schools after elementary school.

C. New Summerhill and Broad Rock Elementary Schools - addresses the issue of out-dated school buildings and shifting population south of the river.
D. Richmond Technical Center - addresses the business community need to have high school graduates who are prepared to enter the workforce.

These locations were largely selected as a result of the Facility Study recommendations; however, being aware of the recent draft Facility Study provided to the School Board which gives consideration to other schools and considering necessary funding, the BUILD SCHOOLS NOW initiative includes necessary flexibility to address the most important needs for all students and what should be the most reasonable course of action.

The BUILD SCHOOLS NOW initiative also has two other critical components that should be introduced in the beginning phase. These two components are:

1. Local School Councils - individuals should be selected from local unit PTAs, parents, community leaders, business leaders, school board, school administrators and teachers, and city officials to provide a voice for all stakeholders during the creation and implementation of projects relating to new school facilities, including; but not limited to, the building design and identification of curriculums and programs.
2. Fiduciary Control Board - individuals selected from the same groups as identified in item 1 to have the responsibility of financial accountability to allow for a third-party check and balance system.

The BUILD SCHOOLS NOW initiative opens the door for collaboration between all stakeholders committed to ensuring a 21st Century public education system that allows equal access and success for all children in the city of Richmond. To do any good for the public education system we must have a clear and specific discussion of the only things that really matter - children and classrooms. No plan to improve the schools can succeed without input from the parents - and parents must be included from the beginning.

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