26 April 2008

Secret ingredient: Chili

In preparation for the Nelson Institute Chili Cook-off tomorrow and in response to some ground meat that really needed to be cooked, we decided to make some chili. The prep was rushed and lots was going on, but it came out ok.

I stubbed my toe on the cayenne and was undisciplined with the cumin and coriander. It was a bit too spicy for Francie and Zora, but the flavor was pretty good. I added another cube of the secret ingredient toward the end. A good daub of sour cream and some scallions improved the taste further.

(p.s. there is another secret ingredient, but it is a secret)

08 April 2008

Review: Harvest

food: 7/10 - service: 8/10 - ambiance 8/10

On Monday, one of our lecture series entertained the speaker at Harvest. We were a decent crowd and we had a set menu to choose from. The variety was reasonable if a bit staid. Actually I was a bit disappointed with the variety on the first course, but did find the slow roasted beets,toasted hazelnuts, buttermilk blue cheese, hazelnut vinaigrette to be an interesting possibility and started to build from there. The main courses included two beef choices along with a vegetarian pumpkin ravioli and a striped bass dish. I opted for the porcini salt rubbed angus tenderloin served with spinach and fingerling potatoes. For dessert I ordered the almond cake with bourbon ice cream.

The beets were not quite what I had hoped. I would have liked the vinaigrette to be a bit more present than it was; a bit more bite would have helped the beets and would have made me happy. The tenderloin was very nice and the almond cake was ok. The best dessert was one that I didn't order and whose name I can't remember. It was a gelled vanilla cream with a simple blood orange sauce - that was really good.

The service was pretty good. It can be spotty at Harvest, but this night our waitress was attentive and gracious.

All in all it was a good meal, but I felt that it was not particularly inspired. I found myself longing for a bit less fine-food aspiration and for more excitement in the dishes that come to the table. Looking forward to dinner at Levain up in the Twin Cities soon (I may review it, but I will definitely have a bias as my nephew is a cook there).

04 April 2008

Review: The Great Dane

food: 5/10 - service: 4/10 - ambiance 5/10

I have been on a minor quest here in Madison for a really good burger. My standard is Big Nick's (see the photo) just below 77th on Broadway in NYC. I say minor quest, because I haven't really tried very hard, but tonight I went to the Great Dane at Hilldale to give the burgers and beer a shot. It seemed like a good shot and Francie recently gave them a cautious thumbs up.

It was Friday in a serious college town, but Zora was at D&D and Francie was on a boat race trip so I was solo and found a seat at the bar without too much difficulty and a bit of luck. Point number one - the bar staff are easy on the eyes, but not too interested in a single stranger at the bar.

I ordered an IPA and a basic burger with fries. The burger promised to come with the basics plus bermuda onion. It was delivered promptly, but the onion (two rings) was disappointing. The pickle chips were good, and like the onion, I could have used more. Point number two - the burger itself was good, but the bun killed it. After a bite or two with the top and bottom bread, I discarded the bottom of the bun and ate the rest with only 1/2 of the bread. (There is another post coming that will address the sorry state of bread here in the Midwest. (Seriously, how hard is it to make a good hard roll?))

The beer was good. I wanted something a bit more bitter, but they were out of the ESB.

The Great Dane itself is new construction in the expansion of the Hilldale Mall. Across the intersection is the Sundance Cinema. It has that ordered-out-of-a-bar-decor catalog feel. It is clean if somewhat sterile. Plenty of TVs showing sports. Kind of noisy, but not too bad. Plenty of drinking, but this is Wisconsin and it is a bar.

All in all it was a burger in a bar on a Friday evening. Nothing to write home about, but the beer was decent and the burger was about what you would expect.

01 April 2008

Some thoughts on Chili

I have been invited to judge the Nelson Institute chili cook off again this year. My credentials as a chili cook are presented in the photo...

Last year there were some interesting interpretations of chili, so I think that it is only fair that I lay out some of my fairly strongly felt ideas about chili. I must admit to being on the conservative end of the spectrum and I definitely am not from the SouthWest on this issue.
  • Beans do have a place, although I have, on occasion, encountered good chili where they were absent
  • Meat is optional; if it is present, it should probably come from something with 4 feet
  • Collards don't belong, but did manage an award last year (see below)
  • Heat does not equate with good; well developed, and preferably complex, flavor matters a lot
  • It is hard to make good chili without cumin
There was some good chili last year. The one with the collards won an award for Best Use of an Ingredient not Usually Found in Chili; it was ok. There was one that was sweet; it won for Best Dessert Chili. I didn't like that one so much; chili should not be sweet.

Tune in after 27 April for tales of this year's cook off...