Sunday, July 25, 2010

A Maryland Tradition

One of my favorite afternoons during the year is the annual crab feast at the Baltimore Streetcar Museum. Held in July, it always seems to fall on one of the hottest weekends of the year. But, it matters not - Baltimoreans still come out for an occasion that is consistently satisfying. Held in the museum itself, the feast includes an unlimited amount of steamed crabs, plus sandwiches, salads and sodas. It's BYOB for adult beverages.

We have been regulars at this event for several years since another couple invited us to join them a few years ago. They bring their little girls along, mostly for the museum. Over the years, though, they have developed a proficiency for the Maryland tradition of picking crabs. You have not really picked crabs until you've been able to teach a child how to do it. I started picking crabs with their oldest. Now seven, this year she graduated from claws to full-blown crab-picking when she successfully pried apart the shells covering the crab's body. I got her younger sisters - age 5 and 3 - started on the claws. All three girls approach the claws with much enthusiasm, whacking their wooden mallets until the shells gave way and the claw meat could be picked out with their tiny fingers. It is not just about the satisfaction of being allowed to bang on the dinner table. While that is certainly an attraction, these girls are also fairly serious about the crab meat.

About an hour into the feast, the museum, provides rides on some old Baltimore streetcars. The cars have been restored and retain the advertisements from their era. The museum has restored cars from several generations, including one of the first cars they ran over 100 years ago to one of the last cars during the 1960's. A small line of track runs about a mile up the road. With bells ringing a driver provides historical details about the car, as well as the city during the time the car was on the rails.

Our favorite is one of the original streetcars. Made of wood, its benches run the width of the car without a center aisle. The sides are open for people to enter. As the car runs up the track, the evening breeze flows through, providing some gentler after-dinner relief. At the end of the line, everyone stands up and pulls the back of their bench over so that all the benches face the opposite direction. We all sit down again, and the streetcar heads back to the museum.

An ice cream truck arrives to provide a free cone for all. This tradition was started about five years ago when the crab feast fell on the birthday of one of the board members. It added to the festivities, so they kept it, along with a sheet cake decorated with the museum in sugar icing.

There is also a live band - a local act that plays top 40 from the seventies and eighties. There is definitely singing along, and even dancing, provided it is not too hot. This weekend, it was 103 in Baltimore. The band played a short set to a small crowd before everyone retreated indoors.

A silent auction of Baltimore memorabilia and a 50-50 raffle complete the evening.

The Baltimore Streetcar Museum is small and tucked away near the Baltimore River at the end of Falls Road where it empties into the city. It preserves the history of Baltimore's old streetcars and the impact they had on the city's growth and development. If you are in the area, it is worth visiting.

The Crab Feast is held every year in July.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Hot Dogs

I was over at my brother-in-law's house the other night for a summer favorite - hot dogs with all the fixings. They were cooked out on the grill and decked out with everyone's favorite condiments. Gareth's brother likes the traditional Chicago style - onions, tomatoes, mustard and cucumber, stating that if you ask for ketchup on your dog in Chicago, they give you a ketchup packet. His wife likes ketchup and pickle relish a classic combination (even in Chicago). Gareth likes ketchup and onions on his dog, but is also open to suggestion. He tried the tomatoes and cucumbers on one of his and thought it worked out pretty well. As for me, I am a cheesedog fan. I put two slices of American cheese in the bun and then put the hotdog in. I hold the bun closed for a couple of minutes so the cheese can melt a little. Then, I add ketchup and pickles like my sister-in-law.

As for the dog itself, Gareth and I are not entirely in agreement. He likes a smoked sausage while I prefer an all-beef dog in natural casing that you get from a meat shop. Given our options out in suburbia, a Hebrew National kosher all-beef dog is usually the best bet for me and my tastes. Although, I also have a tendency toward the Oscar Meyer cheese weenie despite my aversion to their weenies without cheese.

The smokes sausage we had the other night was pretty good once I got mine tricked out. So was the company.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

2010.07.17 Outback Steakhouse

After a gruelling week, Gareth and I decided we deserved steak and mashed potatoes. But where do you find a decent steak in Harford County? The Laraupin Grill in Havre de Grace serves a couple of nice cuts, and they will cater to your cooking preference, including my tendency toward blue meat. While we appreciate their support of local talent, we were not in the mood for live music. And, we were not up to braving the city on ArtScape weekend. So, we decided to put our aversion to chain restaurants aside and try the Outback Steakhouse in Bel Air located in the Tollgate Shopping Center across from the Harford Mall.

We arrived at around 8:00 and had a short wait. When the hostess promised a 20-minute wait, she was right almost to the minute. This quick and efficient service appears to be the rule at Outback. 

The dining room was nicely arranged, the music unobtrusive. A server took our drink orders almost immediately. We both ordered iced tea, which was delivered in a matter of minutes with the customary bread and butter. Outback serves a distinctive brown bread with whipped butter. As restaurant bread goes, this was more flavorful than most. 

The appetizers looked like standard chain restaurant fare, as did the entrees Outback offers in addition to steak. We passed on these choosing to go directly to the steak. We both ordered the ribeye, Gareth's 14 oz medium rare and my 10 oz the usual "as rare as possible". We also both agreed on the garlic mashed potatoes. I got the Caesar salad while Gareth chose the house salad.

Our salads were fairly run of the mill. The lettuce was fresh and crisp, but my Caesar was tossed with a salty dressing that overpowered the lettuce and Parmesan cheese and prevented me from finishing. The croutons resembled breaded, deep-fried bread and I removed them form my salad, as did Gareth. He also ejected the shreads of cheese but ate the lettuce and tomatoes that remained.

Gareth's medium rare steak was definitely rare, but not too rare for his tastes. My thinner 10 oz was cooked to a pink medium, and I sent it back. A few moments later, a gentleman from the kitchen came to confirm how I wanted my meat and promised me a new steak cooked to my liking. Again, the wait was brief, and a new steak was brought out. The gentleman from the kitchen stayed until I had cut into the meat. While still not rare, the second steak was closer to how I had ordered it. Shortly after delivery, our server came to check on me and my order. What impressed me was the time she took to make sure I got what I had ordered. While I told her that the second steak was better, she recognized that it was still not to my liking, and took it back again. The third steak that came out was the thicker 14 oz version that was seared on the outside and a lovely juicy blue on the inside, and worth the wait. Both our server and the gentleman from the kitchen stopped by to check how I liked the third steak - attention that I will not forget. On a busy Friday night, I could have easily been ignored, Instead of treating me like a difficult customer, they focused on providing me with what I came there for - a nice cut of meat cooked to perfection. My only criticism is that thinner cuts should not be offered rare if the kitchen cannot accommodate the request. This is a small complaint in light of the effort made to fulfill my order, especially given the prompt service.

The mashed potatoes were average and easily ignored. Which we both did. Clearly the steak is the star of the Outback menu. I am not sure why they bother with anything else. Fewer chain restaurant staples on the menu may allow them to put more effort into the sides that are part of a traditional steak dinner.

The desert menu was also a fairly standard collection of chocolate cakes and cheesecake. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find carrot cake at the bottom of the list. Being an aficionado, I had to order. Gareth, true to form, got the cheesecake, stating that "it's hard to go wrong with cheesecake". He declined the toppings, which included several varieties of syrup and fruit. This was a good choice as the Outback cheesecake stands on its own. A crustless, pure cheese cheesecake, the texture was smooth and the flavor was tangy without the cloying sweetness or recently defrosted taste of many chain restaurant cheesecakes. While Gareth felt it was lacking in lemon, it was still one of the better cheesecakes I have had outside my own home.

And, now for the carrot cake. Our server offered me the choice of the full sized slice or the smaller sample size. I ordered the sample size, which was the size of most full slices. The icing was scant, but what was there was rich and creamy and enamel-eroding with a generous dollop at the crest holding a pecan garnish in place. The cake was moist but bland, but also missing the raisins I find so disconcerting. While the menu claimed pecans and the forbidden coconut, both were undetectable. Unfortunately, so were the carrots, leaving the cake with just a hint of spice as its only flavor. A thin film of icing grazed the back edge of the cake with a dusting of crushed pecans and coconut. The cream cheese icing was very satisfying and could have been the highlight of the cake, but there was not enough of it to make a difference. Carrot cake is a complex confection, and finding one with the correct balance of flavors and textures remains one of my favorite challenges. The carrot cake at Outback did not meet that challenge.

When we got the check, Outback did not charge us for my steak. They understand that a steakhouse's reputation depends on how they cook their meat. The attention they paid to ensuring I got the steak as I ordered it guarantees my return visit. The next time I want steak in Harford county, I know where to go.

2010.05.20 Harbor East Deli

Late last year, one of my favorite lunch spots in the Harbor East area of Baltimore closed down. Elevation Burger served over-priced organic burgers on a bun that was never quite substantial enough, but the fries were perfection. And, given the right-round-the-corner proximity to my job, I was a regular until the franchisee parted ways with the franchise, and the doors closed, leaving me with a 10-minute drive to the Canton Five Guys for my weekly burger-and-fries fix.

The owner of the Harbor East Elevation Burger retained the site, completely renovated the space, and recently reopened as Harbor East Deli and Pizzeria. The new restaurant offers burgers and fries, although the burgers appear more mundane and the fries are provided by Boardwalk. They also serve a daily variety of pizza by the slice and a menu of sandwiches named after businesses in the area, including the Laureate - a grilled chicken sandwich named for my employer.

Since the opening, I have resumed my weekly visits with increasingly positive results. On my first visit, I tried the H&S, a Reuben named after the local bakery and served on their rye bread. The sandwich featured a generous portion of corned beef, but felt a little light on the kraut. And, much as I appreciate a call-out to the local guys, the soft rye bread from H&S was just not up to the task of supporting meat, melted cheese, kraut, and dressing. The sandwich fell apart while I was eating it. I also tried the new fries. The skinny shoestrings fried in olive oil have been replaced with the fairly run-of-the-mill Boardwalk fries available at any mall. Overall, if you want a Reuben, Atman's on Lombard Avenue is still your best choice, and their potato knish beats any order of fries.

The following week, I tried the Legg Mason - turkey, bacon, American cheese and avocado. Again, the meat portion was very generous, as was the avocado. The bacon was overdone, though, and did not add to the sandwich. It was easily removed, and the rest of the sandwich was very good. My side on this visit was macaroni and cheese. First, I cannot express my joy at having this ultimate comfort food so close to the office. Just seeing it on the menu made my stressed-out and over-worked heart sing with joy. And, it did not disappoint. Tender elbow macaroni in an ample amount of flavorful cheese sauce with none of the trappings that can over-complicate this dish, it tasted like it came right out of the pot. No fancy gourmet cheese or croutons interfered with the satisfying simplicity of this perfect side. The serving is just the right size to partner with a small juice and replace the 3:00 PM coffee-and-cookie pick-me-up routine I am prone to. 

This week, I went all out and had the Harbor Beast - roast beef, swiss cheese and horseradish mayo on a soft sub roll, warmed just enough for the cheese to melt. It was like a cheese steak but without the side effects of all those grilled onions. Sometimes you want 'em, but when you don't this is a great alternative. And, despite its name, it is not a gut-buster. The flavors are a classic combination that work together well. The portion was appropriate for a lunch-time meal and satisfied without over-filling. I ordered chips on the side, which I ignored in favor of desert. On this visit, I noticed the carrot cake.

Of course, a separate paragraph is required for this quintessential confection and primary fixation of my sweet tooth. The carrot cake featured at Harbor East Deli is moist and tender, slightly more spicy than sweet. While the earthy sweetness of the carrot is subdued, this cake is refreshingly uncluttered with nary a walnut or raisin to be found. The icing is white and creamy, but seems lighter than a full-on cream cheese icing and missing the characteristic tang as well. But, the slice of cake is topped with a happy orange carrot decoration that is definitely traditional cream cheese icing and made my incisors throb when I bit into it. It was a pleasant surprise on a busy day and got me through what turned into another working lunch. 

Harbor East Deli has a liquor license and serves a nice selection of beer, both bottled and on tap. Other menu items include several variations on the cheesesteak, a crabcake sandwich, and a Powerhouse. A word of warning to Powerhouse aficionados - the Harbor East Deli Powerhouse is missing the requisite hummus. I may try it anyway if only to offer this critique to the owner. Who, by the way, is still an active participant in the lunch rush. On my visits, he was expediting orders, always with the genuine smile of someone who enjoys their work. That in itself makes a difference in the daily ritual of trying to find lunch.

2010.02.05 CakeLove: A Remembrance

As the Baltimore location of CakeLove closes its doors, I am reminded of my one experience with their wares. The Baltimore store was located on Boston Street in Canton, not far from the ProMetric testing center where I took my CAPM certification exam. After six months of course work and three hours of testing, I passed the exam and was officially PMI certified.

To reward myself, I stopped at CakeLove for a splurge. I dropped about $30 for a two-layer carrot cake that was baked in the Canton location. When I asked, I was informed that the batter and dough for their baked goods was shipped in from their main location in the DC area. Still make from scratch, just in phases.

The cake looked like a carrot cake should - two hearty layers of moist, spongy cake with a generous amount of cream cheese icing between the layers and on top. And, really, the icing was the crown of the cake, as a good cream cheese icing should be. The perfect balance of tangy and sweet, it stuck to the insides of my mouth and made my teeth ache. It was thick and creamy and heavenly and sent me into a sugar coma of satisfaction.

The cake, however, was a confused and busy mess. The cake itself was spicy and delicious, but this was lost in a virtual trail mix of added ingredients that caused the cake to crumble while overpowering the spicy, carrotty goodness. By trail mix, I mean everything you've ever gotten in a carrot cake - walnuts, raisins (brown and golden) pineapple chunks, and shredded coconut, and in high volume. The cake itself, what I could discern of it, really was a fine carrot cake with a semi-sweet, earthy quality that spoke of genuine talent. When I caught a taste of that, I understood a little about the choice of names for the store. I ended up removing the pineapple and walnuts as I ate, and eventually abandoned the cake for the far superior icing (certainly not for the first time in my life, but the first time with a carrot cake).

So was my one and only experience with CakeLove. In all honesty, I had intended on going back for another try. Nestled next to Starbucks in the heart of Canton, I'm sure it will be missed as there are few things better than a nice cupcake with your afternoon coffee.

For a quality $30 cake, there is still Patisserie Poupon at Baltimore and President streets down by the old shot tower. While they do not have carrot cake, what they do have is hand-made from scratch on site. Their garnishes alone are worth the price.

2010.02.14 Kali's Court

For Valentine's Day, we double-dated with another couple for dinner at Kali's Court in Fells Point. Located at the end Thames Street just past The Sound Garden, Kali's has a reputation for seafood and atmosphere and was a good choice for the occasion.

The restaurant has a courtyard that buffers it from the street. It has every appearance of being a prime dining location in the warmer months. On our visit, it was covered in snow from the recent blizzard. Large candles were embedded in the snowbanks, creating a feeling of transition from the busy cobblestone street to a more intimate setting. 

The entryway to Kali's was separated from the dining room by a large curtain. While the entryway was small, the hostess was quick and efficient in confirming our reservation and directing us to the bar. We arrived early and had some time to wait for our friends. When they arrived, a table ready for us, and we were seated immediately. The only issue was transferring our bar tab to the dinner tab. We were instructed to settle up before moving to dinner.

The interior of the restaurant retains many elements of what was most likely the original structure. Rather than gutting the building for one large dining room, Kali's consists of several smaller rooms. This helps muffle the general chatter of the restaurant and creates the sense of intimacy they are known for.

We were seated in one of these smaller rooms on the second floor. The table was large enough to accompany both couples. We were soon greeted by our server who ensured we had water before reviewing the menu with us.

The menu presents three courses consisting of appetizers, salads and entrees. Kali's features a wide variety of seafood appetizers and entrees, as well as lamb and steak. Our server described the varieties of fish we were unfamiliar with and made recommendations, which tended toward standard Baltimore fare: calamari, a crab and artichoke phillo puff, a pear and walnut salad, and the crab cakes. We opted for two appetizer platters: shellfish and smoked fish. 

The shellfish platter featured one serving each of crayfish gnocchi, a fish and corn fritter, and the aforementioned crab and artichoke puff. Of the three, the gnocchi was the strongest, consisting of small, potato-filled pasta in a light sauce with pieces of crayfish. The fish fritter had a nice flavor but was a little bland for my tastes. The crab and artichoke phillo puff was average and the weakest of the appetizers.

The smoked fish platter featured slices of smoked salmon with capers and red onion, a smoked rockfish and potato cake, and a dollop of smoked whitefish. The rockfish cake was also a little bland. The delicate slices of salmon had a nice fish flavor that the smoking process seemed to augment rather than mask. The crowning grace was the whitefish. Smooth and creamy, it was also smoked to perfection and melted in my mouth.

We all ordered salads. Gareth and I both had the tuna nicoise. Our friends had the tomato and feta salad, and the recommended pear and walnut salad. The presentation was remarkable. Kali's also owns a tapas restaurant and allows a certain influence to carry over. The salad nicoise had all the requisite components, but were in miniature and arranged on an oblong plate. The hard-boiled egg was nestled on a delicate bed of baby greens mixed with a mustard vinaigrette. The tuna was shaped into a small cake, the asparagus was bundled and wrapped with a scallion slice. The salad was rounded out by a dollop of black olive tapanade and the requisite pickled potato. The separation of the various elements was attractive to the eye and tasted exceptional. Our friends were also impressed with the tomato and feta salad. A mountain of fresh tomatoes and cubes of feta tossed in a vinaigrette, it was flawlessly executed.

Our entrees were a mix of fish and meat, with the men opting for the rack of lamb, while I ordered the bouillabaisse and my friend chose the crabcakes. Our server assisted in selecting a bottle of Spanish red wine that went well with all three entrees.

The bouillabaisse was bland and a little flat in my opinion. The shrimp was tender and sweet and worked best with the tomato base. The clams were small, and the lobster was cut in half lengthwise. While this made for a remarkable presentation, the flesh was difficult to remove from the shell with the seafood fork that was provided. The broth also contained a firm fish and a drier fish. I am not sure what the former was, but it was meaty and full-flavored with the same sweetness as the shrimp. The latter was an over-dry shark that bordered on sandy. Unfortunately, this was in greater abundance than any other fish. The broth was full of celery, onions and peppers. Missing, though, was olive oil and wine which would have added the expected richness to the entree. Served with a single slice of toasted baguette, it could have also benefited from more bread.

The rack of lamb was exceptional. My husband ordered it rare, and it was seared on the outside and tender and pink in the middle. It had a buttery, melt-in-the-mount quality of a good cut of meat. The potatoes that accompanied the meat were deemed potato perfection by the men. The potato was thinly sliced and layered with a butter and olive oil mix, then roasted until the layers were almost fused and a golden crust formed on the exterior.

Dinner was concluded with coffee and dessert. The coffee was a light roast, which was a welcome change to the heavy dark roasts I have often received in Baltimore restaurants. We ordered the pistachio custard, the vanilla creme brulee, and the amaretto cheesecake. The pistachio custard was sweet without being too rich or heavy and went down easy after the large meal. Everyone was satisfied.

Overall, the service was attentive and well-paced without being obtrusive. We were not rushed during the meal, and were allowed to linger for an amazing three hours. When ready to leave, our payment and exit were handled with the same quick efficiency as our arrival. We all agreed that Kali's Court lives up to its reputation and that we would be returning.

2010.01.24 Flemings Prime Steakhouse

We visited the Baltimore Flemings on a Saturday night. Making reservations was easy using their website. We were running late and called to let them know. The front house staff was courteous and professional and assured us they would hold our table. We arrived about seven minutes after our reservation.

When we arrived, the dinner rush was well underway. The front house was crowded, which made entry problematic. A greeter was positioned to assist with the revolving door, giving it a gentle push as patrons entered. When I entered, I had no place to go and was not yet clear of the revolving door when the gentle push came. I was forced inward and into another couple. This appears to be the main issue with the Baltimore location of Flemings. The entryway is very small and consists of the hostess station and coat check. With a high volume of patrons waiting for different services, attention was slow and the crowd had little room to maneuver in or out of the restaurant.

Once our arrival was confirmed, we were informed that our table would be ready shortly. We were ushered a few feet away to the bar area. This is the second area of issue for this location. The bar is also small and is positioned between the hostess station and the kitchen. It is a main thoroughfare for waitstaff and patrons alike. There was no open seating, so we stood with a number of other patrons as waitstaff attempted to navigate the crowd. The wait station at the bar is also located at the point furthest from the kitchen, requiring servers to move through the bar repeatedly to place orders between the two.

After a 20-minute wait, we were seated. I was pleased to see that traversing the dining room was much easier than navigating the entry way. Tables are well spaced, and seating is comfortable. The acoustics allow for genteel conversation. While a conversational buzz pervaded the restaurant, the discussions at adjacent tables were not overheard, creating a cushion of privacy.

Our server was efficient and pleasant, providing us with information about the menu and the specials. We both ordered a glass of wine for dinner - I had a Spanish Cabernet while Gareth opted for a Shiraz. The wines were served from individual carafes and vigorously swirled in the glass to bring out the aroma. This presentation was pleasing and created a sense of anticipation.

The appetizer selection was interesting with notable items like Lobster Tempura and a Chilled Seafood Tower. However, we chose to pass this time. The salad offerings appeared fairly standard, and we opted to go directly to the main event. Gareth ordered the New York Strip cooked medium rare. I selected the Surf and Turf special - fillet mignon with shrimp and scallops with the fillet cooked as rare as I could get it. We also ordered the asparagus and the garlic mashed potatoes for sides.

My steak was a piece of perfection, seared on the outside and a cool, tender raw in the middle as indicated in the menu. Gareth's medium rare was closer to medium with most of the rare cooked away. We attributed this overcooking to regional preferences, Marylanders generally not being fond of raw or undercooked food. My seafood was cooked well but was not over-cooked. Both scallops and shrimp were tender and flavorful. The asparagus was a little uneven with some stalks retaining a bit of crispness and others being wilted. The overall flavor was good, though, and it was a nice complement to the meat. The potatoes were smooth and creamy with a delightful garlic undertone that was not allowed to overpower the starchy, slightly sweet potato.

We ordered coffee and dessert choosing to share the Creme Brulee as the restaurant was out of the Frozen Lemon Gingersnap Pie I initially ordered. The custard had a silky texture with a wonderful caramelized sugar crust on top. It was served with strawberries and blueberries which worked well with the custard. The coffee was fairly standard.

Our server also delivered a small box of dark chocolate truffles in honor of my birthday. This was presented on a serving plate with a single candle standing upright. I made my wish and blew out the candle.

Overall, service was polite and professional if a bit slow, taking about three hours from entry to payment. The atmosphere was very comfortable, though, and I was not aware of the time until we had finished dinner and were ready to order dessert. It appeared that the pacing was impacted in part by the high volume being served and the problematic front house. The steak was very good for the price. We agreed that Flemings is worth another visit, but on a slower night.