I landed in Birmingham Alabama hungry, having been deprived of food since the night before. A quick drive got me from the airport to what the GPS told me was the center of the city, where I promptly started looking for a place to eat. Having cruised the crumbling and mostly shuttered city blocks of downtown Birmingham, a fine dining restaurant was the last thing I expected to find. I nearly chose chick-a-fil but last minute parking problems forced me to attempt the rather plain exterior of the oddly named Restaurant G.
Once past the door, the change was dramatic. The plain glass Eurodiner gave way to valuted celings and original artwork. A soaring staircase led the previous group of four diners into the heavens while we soacked in the smile from our glamorous hostess and occupied a table at the window. The extremely pleasant space, it turns out, was matched by some marvelous food. Right off the bat, bread basket came with excellent sesame nut and walnut raisin breads. My choice of spicy green tomato soup with apple-smoked backon bits and peppered shrimp was tangy, spicy, tasty and extremely well presented to boot. The special of the day - perch on spicy corn - was just as good. The menu is completely non-vegetarian, but my colleague managed to substitute cheese for bacon on his BLGT (green tomatoes again) and ended up with a sandwich that was, well, superb. In short, this place is highly recommended. A suit is suggested, though - a nearly full-house lunchtime crowd had everybody wearing one.
Equally satisfying though more basic was the Dreamland Barbecue near the University. It's a chain, kind of - the original was founded fifty years ago and fifty miles away in Tuscaloosa. It's now a franchise operation of seven locations, and I went not (alas) to the original but a much newer variant in Birmingham - a large comfortable dining room whose chimney spouted copious quantities of hickory smoke. The choice was simple; half rack of ribs with loaf bread, a side of sauce and a beer - and as satisfying as can be. The ribs were beautifully done and the barbeque sauce a rare version without that overpowering, cling-to-everything barbecue smell. Dont take the banana cream pudding, but this is a good place to come hungry, watch the game and leave happy.
A friend of mine recounts with much amusement how I once gave a long speech on cooking rice to some hapless woman at a grocery store. Here's the shortened version Rice is the staple of Indian cooking, so one should not treat it lightly. Basmati is the king, but making it as fragrant as the restaurant requires a little technique. There are four steps in cooking any kind of raw (as opposed to parboiled) rice - rinsing, soaking, cooking and fluffing.
In India they would always rinse rice to make sure it was clean, but also to wash away the talc commonly used as a milling agent. Most rice today is clean and has no talc, so rinsing isn't required. Some of the surface starch gets washed away in the rinse, so you might want to do it anyway.
Soaking is a 15-30 minute affair, where cleaned and rinsed rice is left to soak in warm water. It's supposed to soften the grains and release the flavor and should be done unless you're in a hurry. They say you should use the same water to boil the rice so that nutrients are preserved. Cooking - there are two basic choices. The simpler one is to put an exact quantity of water and let it all dry up - called the absorption method. The other is like making pasta; put in excess water and drain when the rice is done - lets call it the draining method. Which one is better? I can't make out the difference but the draining method does get rid of a lot of starch and gives lighter rice that's easier to digest. It also seems to give longer, fuller grains.
In the absorption method, I use just under two cups of water per cup of rice for basmati. The proportion varies with different kinds of rice, but most basmati uses this ratio. The favorite way to cook by absorption is the rice cooker, but be aware that most Chinese and Korean ones are made for sticky rice so don't have a small perforated plate at the bottom that helps to trap excess starch. Without that, the bottom layer of rice will not be edible. Rice can also be made in a microwave or on a gas with a close-lidded vessel that allows steam to escape slowly. You should put a cloth on top of the vessel before closing it, to absorb the water that forms on the underside of the lid.
By the drainage method, you cook rice uncovered in around three cups of water per cup of rice. Here you have to keep watch, or you might end up with an inedible mass of sticky, overcooked rice. It takes about 10-12 minutes for the rice to be cooked al dente - firm but without any hard chalky core. Then drain the water out. The drained water is edible - there are recipes with that too.
The last stage is to let the rice sit covered on very low heat for about 5 minutes while it dries and fluffs up. Most people skip this stage, but without it your rice will invariably be a little sticky and fragile, not the flowing grains you want it to be. The drainage method removes the water and steam trapped in the rice more evenly; in the absorption method you should stir the top layer of rice slightly with a fork.
Final tips - a touch of butter or ghee at the end of cooking adds dramatically to the natural aroma of basmati. Also, my friend puts a bay leaf into the rice before steaming it.
I never expected to like large slabs of meat barely cooked and served with nothing, but steaks have a way of growing on you - sometimes literally.
There are two steak joints of note inches from where I work - Rainwaters on Kettner and Ruth's Chris. One a resolutely independent steakhouse, one part of America's largest fine dining chain. Both, however, were very similar in appearance - dramatic curved stairways leading to a huge, heavily wood-panelled upstairs dining room. Ruth's has the advantage of better views, perched as it is just off Harbor drive, and also seemed busier than the very empty Rainwaters.
I had the ribeye in both places (no, not on the same day, not even the same month - I'm not that fond of cholesterol). To start with, both steaks were excellent, but there are differences. Ruth's gave me a detailed writeup of the special oven, the New Orleans rags to riches story and placed a sizzling medium-rare steak floating in butter in front of me. the butter added a wonderful, if extremely guilty kick to the proceedings, and was wonderful to mop up with bread afterwards. Rainwaters avoided the butter, but seemed to be the richer, tastier steak. It also had a better seared crust so I award them the crown by a slim margin.
The other steakhouse I tried was Georges on 5th, this time in the Gaslamp district. They had a much more elaborate story involving Wyatt Earp and a much busier ground-floor dining room in the middle of Gaslamp. It seems the dining room was formerly a den of vice, gambling and all that other good stuff - now it just serves dinner. There was plenty of buildup there about how it was the only place in San Diego to be hand selected, certified Angus prime. The steak - a filet mignon this time, with a port wine demi-glace - was unfortunately not quite in the league of the other two. First, it wasn't charred at all on the outside. Second, it lacked the robust beefy punch and was distracted by an ordinary demi-glace. Since the prices are the same as the others, my recommendation is to go there only with Wyatt Earp devotees.
America is a land of choices. In India you go to a store, ask the guy there to give you a kilo of chicken, and he hands you a bag of the stuff that you go home and cook it. That doesn't work in America. In the land of the choices, you're faced with breasts, thighs, legs, wings, portions, skinless, boneless, ground, fry, stir-fry, roast, antibiotic, biotic, organic, free range (there's a rumour the average American has to pass an exam before he or she is allowed near the poultry aisle). So which one is the one to choose?
Fear not, I have been there, done that research. Read on, if you're not chicken.
First, if you dont know what cut of chicken is, then here is a guide from the original Spam guys. Online grocer FreshDirect has an excellent section on cuts of chicken complete with pictures but you have to put in a New York zip code (say 10016) to look at it.
The absolute worst pieces to buy for most Indian food is breast. It is commonly recommended for western cooking, but in most Indian curries will turn dry and chewy. The problem is simple - breasts cook very quickly and can't stand up to the long slow cooking of the average Indian curry. No,my favorite part of the chicken is the thigh for the average Indian curry. A mixture of skinless and with-skin thighs on the bone give an excellent package of meat, skin and bone that is just right for most curries. The pieces from a grocer are usually too big though; I cut them up into smaller bite-sized bits. Thighs have a fat bone in the center - if you dont want to cut through the bone (you really need a cleaver for that or you'll get splinters and a damaged knife) then you can cut around it leaving you with four pieces one of which is still attached to the bone. You can even do four boneless pieces and a standalone bone that you discard after cooking.
The other cut that does well is the mixed portion, containing bits of everything. Choose the mixed portions with bone and skin, but throw away most of the skin since chickens here tend to be higher fat than India. American grocers seem to sell larger chunks than Indians usually like, so I cut the portions into bite-sized pieces. Wings (specially half wings and lollipops) cook very nicely in an Indian curry. They're nice juicy bits rich in fat but dont overdo it - many people find it irritating to eat only wings. Legs - they're just too big; they do fine only if you have the patience to chop them up. Drumsticks are often too big too (since the average chicken here is much bigger than its Indian cousin), but the occassionally available smaller drumsticks are very nice. Of course, you can buy whole chicken and cut it up yourself. Buy birds that are two pounds or less and avoid the roaster at all costs (unless actually roasting). Places like Costco sell surprisingly good whole chickens, and they're a whole lot cheaper if making large quantities. If you're worried about cutting them, well whole chickens can be pieced with nothing more than a good chef's knife, as shown here and here. These do it the western way, where the carcass is rejected. In India they don't usually do that but except for special cuts for certain recipes, there is no benefit to retaining the carcass. Just don't remove every bone; bones add volume and taste to the gravy.
There are recipes that call for specific cuts. Tawa Chicken or Kadahi Chicken must absolutely have breast; other cuts don't work because you're cooking quickly on moderate heat. Leg pieces are essential for Tandoori Chicken, Rezala or Chaap. Kalmi or Tangri Kabab needs small drumsticks. Indian food also makes very creative uses of minced chicken - in kababs, in meatballs and as fillings for many things.
There's also the question of which kind of chicken. Free range chicken seems to be the best, and frozen supermarket chicken is definitely the worst - rich, juicy but somehow completely tasteless. The unbranded chicken I find at my local grocer is very good too - that may be the way to go. Cornish hens are tasty, but I find those sharp little bones quite irritating.
As benefits a coastal town, San Diego is full of seafood restaurants, from hole-in-the-wall fish taco places to black-tie affairs. I've already written on some of them earlier, but I recently had a chance to go to the two that were the highest rated on downtown - Point Loma Seafoods and Top of the Market.
Point Loma Seafoods is much away from the beaten restaurant track, serving salads, cocktails and fish plates amidst counters of fresh fish for sale. It was rated the number one in magazine reviews so I went there with high hopes and, well, came away very disappointed. The location seemed the only thing worth the effort; I wasn't impressed either with the quality of the fish or the cooking. Though the jetty next door gives the impression that the fish just came off the boat, many of the offerings at the counter had names starting with "Atlantic" and "farm raised". I tried their smoked fish, but its a very far cry from the stuff at, say, Katie's Smokehouse in Trinidad, CA (where the fish is actually off a nearby boat). This one was dry, a little too salty and quite chewy. The fish plate - batter fried Atlantic halibut - was overcooked, limp and unexciting. How it can be fresh off the Atlantic ocean in San Diego adds that edge of mystery.
I'm not being overly harsh; the food was not special at all. Go there if you like standing in line or want to sit and watch the boats, but eat at Red Lobster instead.
Back to the top two in San Diego. Fish Market (along with Top of the Market, its upstairs cousin) also features the theme of fish store and diner. Its also on a pier and its a kind of chain (there are nine of them) but dont let that fool you - the seafood is outstanding. While Point Loma Seafoods wilts at competition from the corner fish taco shop, Top of The Market can knock the white-tablecloth-crowd flat. It is, in my opinion, the best seafood restaurant in town, and one of the best in the USA.
Fish Market looks suspiciously like a SGBP restaurant (Simply Grilled Butter Pepper) but it is magically more. The halibut (at the Top of the Market) was indeed simply grilled, but the thick slab was juicy, flaky and perfectly done medium rare. What came with it wasn't a butter sauce; it was a tomato cilantro sauce so good that I dug every drop out with the sourdough bread. My second visit focused on the Idaho trout, again grilled but brushed with a teasing barbecue sauce that I just couldn't get enough of. In most restaurants, the simply-grilled school makes for a disappointing experience, the lingering feeling that you could have done this yourself with help from the local grocer, that all you're really paying for are the table cloths and napkins. Not so for Fish Market; the touch is light but very much the kind that you despair of recreating in your kitchen.
In short - avoid Point Loma and head for the Market.