Sunday, June 28, 2009

Brazilians Eat Cupcakes...Right?

Yesterday, I attended a really fantastic Brazilian churrasco hosted by my friend Phillip. Phillip's annual meat-shindig is a must-attend; nowhere else are you ever going to find a better piece of beef.


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Phillip doling out a portion of the 20 lbs of meat he purchased for the event.

One of the reasons the meat at Phillip's churrascos is so good is that he always uses a lot of picanha, which is a cut of meat not often found in the United States. Phillip procures his beefy goodness at Ana Brasil, which I understand is one of the few places locally where it can be purchased. It's utterly juicy, incredibly tender, ever-so-slightly gamier than most cuts of beef, and just melt-in-your-mouth delicious. Here, see for yourself.

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Sorry, vegetarians.

In addition to the meat centerpiece, there are also always lots of other Brazilian treats available at these churrascos. Wonderfully sauteed couve (Brazilian collard greens); gallons of feijão (Brazilian black beans), and delightfully rich brigadeiro. And, of course, no Brazilian party would be complete without lots and lots of caipirinha, a delicious and rather dangerous drink made from a Brazilian alcohol called cachaça.

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After a serving of this, you can justify another pound of meat.
And another caipirinha.

As for me, I needed an excuse to use my new cupcake caddy, so I strayed from the theme and brought a version of these cupcakes made with French vanilla cake, chocolate filling, and caramel buttercream icing topped with chocolate chips. When Phillip heard I was bringing cupcakes, he told me he looked them up in his dictionary and the proper word for them was "queques," but despite checking several Portugese-English and Spanish-English dictionaries online, I can't collaborate this. In fact, the only thing I found online that translated "queque" for me was this.

Phillip?

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Well, whatever it is that queque actually means, suffice it to say that I like it.

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Friday, June 26, 2009

Diving in to Max's Wine Dive

When I hear the word "dive," I think of places like the Poodle Dog Lounge, or Deep Eddy Cabaret, or maybe Ginny's Little Longhorn. So the first time I went to Max's Wine Dive, I was not at all expecting it to be so...fancy.

But fancy it is, at least as far as dives go. Once you get past the misnomer, though, there is much to love. I mean, how can you NOT love a place that has the motto, "Fried chicken and champagne...why the hell not?" Why the hell not, indeed. I had to see what all the fuss was about.


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Swankiest little dive bar in Texas

The first time I visited was for a Yelp event. All the food I tried was passed hors d'oeuvres, most of it fried. I tried some fried alligator, fried chicken wings, some highly messy baby back ribs, and the Nacho Mama’s Oysters, which were crispy fried oysters served atop fried wonton skins with aioli, habanero salsa and cilantro. The Nacho Mama's Oysters were so good that they made me forget my snobbery toward fried wonton skins; a beautifully balanced blend of textures and flavors that somehow managed to be crunchy, yet melted in your mouth. Unfortunately, every time they came around, I was so busy cramming them down my gullet that I didn't get a photo of them.

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I offer you this plate of fried chicken wings, instead.

Not long later, I went back for brunch, which cemented my fandom of Max's non-divey ways. We started our meal with a round of mimosas made with fresh-squeezed orange juice. I attempted to take a beautifully composed photo of a vibrant orange mimosa with one of Max's elegant menus behind it, but unfortunately, the menu decided to take a swan dive into the mimosa and no photos were achieved. So you'll just have to imagine how lovely it looked.

For my entreé, I ordered the Eggs Max - Texas toast covered with prosciutto, sautéed petit greens, two farm fresh poached eggs, and black truffle cream. Truffle cream, you say? Yes, please.

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This should probably be renamed Eggs To The Max.

Everyone agreed that the Eggs Max was a HUGE winner. The Texas toast was made with a super-thick piece of ever-so-slightly sweet brioche, which made an excellent sponge to catch the warm yolk and the gravy-like truffle cream as it melted down over the prosciutto and greens. I nearly swooned with every bite.

Of course, I had to taste my friend's Nutella Banana French Toast ($10) - thick-cut brioche stuffed with nutella and banana, then battered and fried. In case the French toast alone isn't sufficiently artery-clogging, Max's serves it with a side of bacon. Genius.

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Workin' too hard can give you a heart attack-ack-ack...and so can this dish.

Perhaps it was my hypoglycemia talking, but while I thought the french toast was nice, it didn't quite live up to my high expectations. The brioche was so thick that it didn't sufficiently absorb the milk/egg dredge and seemed a little on the dry side. Good, but not good enough to make me stray from that luscious Eggs Max on the next go-round.

I understand that the bread here is made at Sandra Bullock's latest retail venture, Walton's Fancy & Staple. There's really no love lost between me and her other restaurant, Bess Bistro, but I'll try anything once, and this introduction via Max's may be just the prodding I needed.

In the meantime, get thee over to Max's. Why the hell not?

Max's Wine Dive
207 San Jacinto Blvd.
Austin, TX 78701
(512) 904-0105

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Monday, June 22, 2009

Sagra Fashion Brunch - Where Foodie Meets Fashionista

On Saturday, I was lucky enough to attend the first of Sagra's Fashion Brunch series. The idea behind the brunch is simple and delightful - grab a gal pal (or two, or three), arrive at Sagra at noon (reservations recommended - this first one sold out), and indulge in a fantastic brunch + a short fashion show. All for $20. How could we possibly go wrong?

We couldn't. My dear friend Liz and I arrived on the scene at the appointed hour. Within moments, the mimosas and bellinis started arriving. That's "mimosas" and "bellinis" plural...because they were only a dollar. This brunch was getting off to a good start.

The meal opened with a basket of bread, muffins, and scones, along with a little cup of fruit salad. The tiny scones were delightful, with an unexpected hint of anise, and I really liked the muffins, too; perfectly sweet without being overpoweringly so.


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Liz and I were having difficulty choosing our second course, so we opted to split two: a plate of shrimp marsala with capers, currants and mint served over creamy toasted corn polenta; and an oyster mushroom risotto with crispy heirloom squash.

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Shrimp marsala. Butter + wine makes everything better


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Oyster mushroom risotto

Both were fantastic. I was not sure what to expect, as my two previous experiences at Sagra had left me feeling overcharged and underwhelmed. But I was very pleasantly surprised by the generous portions and the excellent execution of both dishes. The marsala sauce was perfect - the butter and wine were balanced just so, and the polenta was smooth and rich and impossibly creamy. And they nailed the texture of the risotto, as well - soft, but not the least bit mushy or runny. The dish was resplendent with beautiful oyster mushrooms, and the lovely fan of squash on top became even more lovely on the palate.

It was about this time that the fashion show began. This first show was staged by Soigne Boutique. Honestly, this part was a little anticlimactic; the models simply walked through the restaurant while we were eating, and there was no music or anything to focus the energy. I saw some cute pieces, but I did tune the emcee out a little when she described a pair of $90 jeans as "affordable." I guess I am not fashionista enough to be shopping at boutiques, as my favorite pair of jeans cost me $8.

Fortunately, I was quickly able to drown the cold reality of my overly-frugal nature in dessert. I ordered the roasted peach with vanilla bean meringue, and Liz opted for the terrine of pistachio and white chocolate gelatos with blackberry compote. Liz was the clear winner of this round. My peach was adorable, but the dryish texture of the meringue with the firm peach just didn't work for me. On the other hand, the presentation of Liz's gelato was horrible, but it made up for it in spades in the flavor department.

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Further proof that looks aren't everything.

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Gloopy, but delicious

As parting gifts, we were each given a little bag with coupons for both Sagra and Soigne and a little Perugina Baci chocolate. Delightful.

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Did I mention this brunch only cost $20? I'm sitting by my computer waiting for the announcement for the next one.

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Sunday, June 21, 2009

Easy Chocolate Mint Filled Cupcakes

It's 10 p.m. A tweet comes across your computer with photos of cupcakes your friend just made. A massive craving sets in. What do you do?

You make cupcakes, of course!

But since it's 10 p.m., you need to allow yourself some shortcuts. Or maybe you're just naturally a shortcut kind of gal (or guy). That's cool. Nothing wrong with that at all.

But maybe you also want something that tastes homemade, and maybe kind of non-standard and interesting. Maybe you need these Chocolate Mint Cupcakes.

Oh yes, you do.


* * *

Easy Chocolate Mint Filled Cupcakes

• 1 (18.25 ounce) package chocolate cake mix (I used Duncan Hines Dark Chocolate Fudge)
• 1 (8 ounce) package cream cheese, softened
• 1/2 cup white sugar
• 1 egg
• 1 cup Andes mint chips + extras for garnish
• 1 tsp mint extract
• any additional ingredients required to make the cake mix as instructed on the box

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C), or to the temperature recommended on the cake mix package.

2. Prepare chocolate cake mix according to package directions, but do not bake.

3. In separate bowl cream together cream cheese and sugar until smooth. Beat in the egg and mint extract until well blended, then stir in Andes chips.

4. Line cupcake tins with cupcake papers. Fill 1/4 full with chocolate cake batter. Add 1 Tbsp cream cheese mixture to the center, then top with more cake batter, filling to about 2/3 full.

5. Bake according to package directions for cupcakes. Cool and frost with mint buttercream frosting (recipe below) and sprinkle with Andes bits.

Makes about 2 dozen cupcakes.

* * *

Mint buttercream frosting*

*(you'll need at least double this recipe if you want to pipe the frosting as opposed to spreading it with a knife)

• 1/2 cup butter (no substitutes), softened
• 2+ cups confectioners' sugar (the recipe I used called for 4 cups; I used just over two and I thought it tasted great)
• 1 teaspoon mint extract
• 1/4 cup milk

In a mixing bowl, cream butter. Beat in sugar and mint. Add milk until frosting reaches desired consistency (I only ended up using about 1/8 cup of milk in mine).

Chocolate Mint Cupcakes

Not too sweet, and delightfully refreshing out of the refrigerator on a hot summer day.

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A Yelpaversary Party to Remember

As my profile mentions, the seeds of my food writing were germinated on Yelp.com. My friend Dave first told me about the site in November of 2006; I signed up right away and have since written 519 reviews of restaurants and other businesses on the site. It's been a terrific outlet for sharing my passion for food - and, as it turns out, the Austin Yelp community is full of fun, hilarious, like-minded people with whom I thoroughly enjoy spending time. Needless to say, the site and its community have been a big part of my life for the last couple of years.

Austin is one of I think 24 cities that has its very own Yelp community manager, the one and only Kevin N. Besides handling a busload of details behind the scenes, part of Kevin's job is to throw fabulous parties for the Austin Yelp community. Many of these parties are open to all registered Yelp members (or "Yelpers," as we are wont to call ourselves), but the large majority of them are only open to Elite Yelp members and their guests. I tend to enjoy those parties the most; the smaller scale makes it easier to find and visit with your favorite Yelpers, and the larger shindigs have become so crowded that it can get a little overwhelming.

The most recent Yelp Elite event, this past Tuesday, celebrated the two(ish) year mark of our existence as an "official" Yelp community (as defined by our having our own community manager). Kevin pulled out all the stops for this one; it was the best Yelp party yet. Hosted at Finn & Porter's in the Hilton downtown, it featured a smorgasbord of absolutely fantastic food; Maker's Mark cocktails and wine; spa treatments by the Hilton spa staff; and live music by the Dime Store Poets. All free! Everyone got all gussied up and had a wonderful time...I know I certainly did. Below are a few shots from the event.


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Yelpers decked out in their finest

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Hello, copious amounts of free sushi.

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Shrimp bathing in tomato bisque

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Lobster salad on fried pasta sheets

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Some of the most melt-in-your-mouth beef tenderloin
I have ever tasted

Amazing free food & drink and the delightful company of some of the coolest people I've had the great fortune to meet...this is why I Yelp.

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Saturday, June 13, 2009

Chris' Little Chicago

The very large majority of my restaurant reviews reside on Yelp.com, which is where I first started writing about food. When I started this food blog, I grappled a bit with whether to put new reviews here, instead; I ultimately decided to leave them on Yelp, because I think it's very useful to have a pool of information about a restaurant in a single, easily-accessible place.

However, because Yelp doesn't allow me to integrate photos into my reviews the way I can here, sometimes the temptation to cross-post is just too strong. So, below is a verbatim cross-post of my new Yelp review of Chris' Little Chicago - seen here with the photos, for your viewing pleasure.
---

I was first introduced to Chicago style hot dogs at my beloved Red Hot Lovers in Ann Arbor, where I went to college. It was love at first bite; the big, juicy dogs smothered in toppings I'd never even heard of (hello, sport peppers and celery salt) took my breath away. And the waffle fries...ohhhh, those perfect, perfect waffle fries...

But I digress.

Since moving to Austin, I have many times bemoaned the fact that there aren't any good Chicago dogs to be found here (or Jewish deli sandwiches...what is up with that?). So when I heard about Chris' Little Chicago, I hurried down for a visit just as quickly as I could.

Chris' Little Chicago is just a little red trailer in the middle of a totally overgrown field off S. Lamar. There are a couple of ramshackle tables surrounding it...definitely not an upscale dining experience.


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Service was extremely friendly, and I was able to place my order very quickly and with little fuss. I had eyes only for the Chicago style dog - an all-beef Vienna dog covered in tomato wedges, a pickle spear, day-glo-green relish, chopped onion, mustard, sport peppers, and celery salt. The sweet woman working there told me that Chris went through 25 bags of fries before he found the right ones, so I had to order a side of those, as well. The combo - dog, drink (canned soda or bottled water), and fries - cost $6.50.

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I thought the dog was very good. The toppings were perfect, really; my only minor beef (rimshot) was with the dog itself. It was a little on the small side and kind of watery - I really like my hot dogs to have a firmer, more dense texture. The fries were perfectly cooked and tasted great, as advertised, although I'll admit that I personally prefer plain fries to seasoned fries, particularly with a very flavorful dog (like those waffle fries at Red Hot Lovers...ohhhhhh). But if you like seasoned fries, these were a nice representation of that genre.

The dogs at Chris' Little Chicago don't quite live up to the Chicago dogs I hold so dear in my memories, but they're about as good as any you'll get in Austin.

(4/5 stars)

Chris' Little Chicago
3600 S Lamar Blvd
Austin, TX 78704
(512) 300-1791

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Friday, June 12, 2009

What Does Your State Bar Taste Like?

Have you ever wondered what goes on in the inner recesses of your state's bar association? Who governs the lawyers of your state? What goes through their minds when they wake up each morning, focused upon the lofty twin goals of serving their members and the public at large? And, most importantly, what do they taste like?

I attended a State Bar committee meeting this morning, and I got the inside scoop on exactly that, just for you. I was just nonchalantly wandering over to check out the breakfast so generously provided to me by my State Bar, and I stopped short in my tracks. The secrets of the Texas State Bar were laid out right there before me in one nice, neat package. Nestled between the raisin bread and the fresh fruit, I saw...


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All the answers.


Of course, I immediately broke open the package to examine the contents.

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This is your State Bar on raisin bread.

In case you're wondering, the Texas State Bar is sweet, rich and smooth. It takes hold of you without being overwhelming...subtle in certain ways, yet unforgettable in others. Sure, it's a little fruity, but then, aren't we all?

So next time you're talking to a lawyer and you ask about their state bar association, don't smirk if they describe it as being "like buttah." They just might be right.

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Sunday, June 7, 2009

Mushroom & Goat Cheese Tartlets

I had an unexplained craving for mushrooms this week, so had the idea that I would bring mushroom tartlets to a shindig we attended this weekend. I found an interesting recipe for some mini tarts made with crimini mushrooms and goat cheese on Tony Tahhan's blog, so I'd bookmarked the recipe and gathered together the ingredients.

As it turned out, the day got away from me and Tony's recipe turned out to be more involved than I really had time for, so I modified it a bit. I thought the final product turned out just fine, so I'm posting it here for my fellow shortcut-loving chefs.

Mushroom & Goat Cheese Tartlets

* 1 lb crimini mushrooms
* 2 tbsp butter
* 1 tbsp olive oil
* 3 tsp fresh thyme
* 3 cloves garlic, minced
* 1/8 c red wine (I recommend drinking the rest of the bottle while you're making these)
* 1 box (2 sheets) Pepperidge Farm frozen puff pastry
* 6 oz goat cheese
* 4 oz mascarpone cheese
* zest & juice of 1 lemon
* chives, for garnish

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees.

Thaw the puff pastry as instructed by the box (40 minutes) and roll it out a bit on a lightly floured surface. Cut circles out of the pastry and gently press the circles into mini muffin tins, forming a tart shape. I used a 2-3/4" biscuit cutter to cut mine, but the top side of a narrowish drinking glass would probably work just fine if you don't have a biscuit cutter. The shells tend to shrink while baking, so if the dough is a little larger than the holes in the muffin tins, that's not a bad thing.

Using a fork, poke holes all over the bottom and sides of the shells in the muffin tins so they retain their shape and don't puff up too much.

Bake the tart shells for about 15 minutes, or until golden brown.

While the tart shells are baking, de-stem the mushrooms, wash and dice them into small pieces. Sautée mushrooms with butter, olive oil, wine, thyme and garlic for a few minutes until browned. Lower heat and let simmer until most of the liquid has evaporated.

Beat the ricotta, goat cheese, lemon juice, and lemon zest together with a mixer until well-blended.

Scoop some mushrooms into each tart shell and top with the lemon-cheese mixture. Tony Tahhan piped his; I used a cookie press with the spritz attachment, which worked very well. Garnish with chopped chives and serve. Makes about 36 tarts.


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Back in the Saddle

I've been remiss in posting here, of late; a little emergency eye surgery threw me for a bit of a loop. But now I'm back to my eatin' and bloggin' ways...

Last night, we were invited to the home of some friends of my friend Kimberly. Long story short, I was basically introduced to hosts Kurt and Michelle via Kimberly's Facebook page, and after weeks of making snide remarks on each other's status updates, Michelle finally decided to kick it up a notch and invite us over (along with a few of their other friends) so we could all meet in person.

Michelle had made this out to be a casual tapas party, but she and Kurt really pulled out all the stops and put together a fantastic spread. We started with a beautiful plate of olives, cheese, crackers, fresh blackberries, and kiwi; plus a platter of wonderful bread served with some mind-blowingly garlicky (in only the best way) homemade pesto...and an endless supply of excellent wine.


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A preview of things to come

Kurt, an architect and real estate developer (who, BTW, designed a lemonade stand for the freakin' Neiman Marcus Christmas book in 1992), gave us a tour of their gorgeous home. Since I was just meeting these people for the first time, I didn't think it was appropriate to be taking pictures of their house, but I couldn't resist this shot in their son Miles' room:

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The Kings of Pez

Following the tour, which included tons of amazing stories and a viewing of a signed speech given by former Texas governor Pat Neff introducing the first female governor of Texas, Ma Ferguson, Kurt and Michelle kicked the kitchen into high gear and started to turn out some seriously awesome food. There was prosciutto-wrapped shrimp, lamb chops with fresh rosemary, fried yucca with incredible homemade aioli, and an asparagus salad with toasted cashews. If it is true that the way to a person's heart is through their stomach, Kurt and Michelle must have a LOT of friends.

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Prosciutto-wrapped shrimp

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Lamb - the "after" shot

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Nothing yucky about this yucca

For dessert, we had Kimberly's healthy, yet surprisingly addictive, concoction of steel-cut oats covered with goji berries, fresh blueberries, and luscious lavender-agave whipped cream. Heavenly.

We feasted outside, enjoyed the gorgeous evening, and reveled in the company of our new friends. What better way to spend a Saturday night?

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Out past the birthday girl's bedtime...

Oh, and I dropped my camera on the ground - again - exacerbating the war wound it had previously sustained at Mindy's "doggie shower" last year. It might just be time to splurge on that Canon G10 I've been coveting...

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