Tapas: Spanish for Snack or Over-Priced Snack?

Food, much like fashion, goes thru trends. Although I’m not certain if the culinary arts follows a similar circular trend, there are trends that can be seen careening from each coast and crashing simultaneously here in Colorado. One of such trends: tapas.

I have said before, and until it changes I will continue to say: Colorado Springs is not a culinary melting pot. It is a collection of many less than stellar franchise restaurants, mixed with fewer privately owned and publicly failing restaurants (whose owners were encouraged by “friends” to open said restaurant) and spotted with even fewer restaurants that boast a price that is justified because of their culinary prowess. (Less than an hour north, there is a much more vast and pleasant culinary culture, but some days I don’t feel like taking my own life in my hands with the morons on I-25.) My husband and I have fairly successfully identified these “diamonds in the rough”, which doesn’t necessarily matter because of how much it costs to dine there. But Friday my husband gifted me with a night off and I was told to select a restaurant.

I had a small list and one of them included a sister restaurant to one of our favorite brewery/restaurants where I celebrated my new job over a year ago(only to be laid off 3 weeks later). The chef at Blue Star is known for being very seasonal (which helps reduce costs, but mostly his) and changing the menu weekly, if not daily (Don’t get attached to a dish). We had amazing food at Blue Star, amongst the tables of brightly colored prom dresses and found out they had a sister restaurant: Nosh. It was fairly new and I was not interested in trying it until I had heard more about it. Well, over a year later it was time to research this whole tapas thingy…

It took 2 calls to make a reservation. I called before their lunch rush and once I was able to secure a person to help with my reservation, I went into research mode to learn more about the “tapas” trend. Tapas is Spanish for ‘appetizer or snack’ and has been part of their dining culture forever. So, why is it so special here? I have a few thoughts:

Go to Cheesecake Factory and order a salad. 20 minutes later you are presented with the sliced/grilled/dressed parts of abetter part of an acre of farmland, delightfully placed in a trough for you to shovel in your face with a pitchfork. It’s an obscene amount of food! And EVERY time we would eat there, we would say to each other “next time, let’s just do appetizers so we have room for cheesecake”. I have been a tapas-style diner for most of my life because entrée portions are out of control. Most have tried to quantify ordering an entrée with the value of “how much you get”, but I end up wasting most of it. I am, admittedly, the girl who orders the artichoke dip or the sampler platter as my entrée. The bane of existence for most wait staff. But I get the amount of food I want and don’t leave with the environmentally destructive styrofoam food-coffin.

I also save money by making appetizers my main. Until tapas crashed into the culinary world locally, appetizers were the less expensive snacks consisting of a myriad of fried cheeses, vegetables or rolls to get your appetite ready for an entrée. Not anymore. With tapas, you can order from a selection of snack sized food, which you are supposed to share and get charged more because it has been translated into Spanish. I love the size of tapas orders because I don’t leave the restaurant waiting to get to the truck so I can exhale and loosen my belt. But I do not love what they charge.

Finally, tapas is popular because it’s new and different here. It is being able to try new things and not having to commit to a full size entrée (but having to pay 4 times as much to get the same amount of food as an entrée). It is going with others and sharing said snacks. (I worked for a national chain of Italian restaurants that only served Family Style, which resulted in many customers being unhappy because “they wanted to choose their own food and family style is stupid”. Once the restaurant chain gave in and provided individual servings, they compromised the food and closed many chains.) Somehow, it becomes an event where people get to share their tastes and try the preferences with their friends/family in a culinary knowledge pissing-game of sorts. So, having made the reservation, we went for tapas, fully aware of what we were getting ourselves into.

The restaurant is in the corner of a business park, thankfully directed by signage starting from the entrance to the parking garage to the sign at the end of the hallway of their entrance. Their patio was closed because of the storms we had been expecting (I appreciate that forethought, because their patio seats at least 2 times what their dining room can…so your essentially screwed if you sit on the patio with a full dining room and Mother Nature percipitates), so we got a seat as close to the window as was available. We were first given a happy hour menu which included drinks and a very limited selection of tapas at their happy hour prices. After ordering drinks, we were asked what we wanted to order for food. The happy hour menu was so limited and we had to request a full menu, which is only available after 5. Thank goodness our reservation was for 5.

The menu is a pleasant mix of cheese plates, light fare, traditional items, odd delicacies and breakfast for dinner. We decided to start with a cheese platter, selecting a smoked goat’s cheese and the most amazingly smooth, extra-sharp white cheddar. Each platter, regardless of cheese selection, is served with cracker-thin flat-bread, home-made apricot preserves, candied walnuts and roasted cashews. There was nothing that came as part of enhancing the cheeses selected. No pickled Granny Smith apple to set off the sharpness and creaminess of the cheddar, no sausage to give the creamy texture of the goat’s cheese some toothiness: there was nothing special. The cheeses were amazing on their own, but nothing about the platter was made to compliment the cheeses individually. We followed up by ordering spicy shrimp (with garlic, chili, peanuts and cilantro), the Nosh burger (with chili relish, cheddar and crispy onions) and chicken and waffles (with smoked Serrano maple syrup). Each was different enough to stand on its own, and all of them were thoroughly enjoyable. My personal favorite was the chicken and waffles (bottom left):

The chicken was admittedly slightly over-cooked, but the crispy waffle and spicy syrup were just amazing. My husband enjoyed the burger and we both loved the shrimp. I am not a fan of cilantro because it is rarely used with a light hand. this dish was a lovely balance of spicy, sweet and cilantro. We debated trying more items, specifically this one: “Local Something Or Other”. See ingredients:

After deciding that we had just enough, we wanted to see what tapas desserts were. I am used to getting a mound of baked something, covered with a sauce, whipped cream or mascarpone cheese and who knows what else…most likely a la mode. But I have been noticing a dessert trend: minis! Dessert minis that come in a shot glass or are 1/4 the size of what the original dessert is. I ordered a Mexican Moon Pie and the husband ordered a vegan chocolate pudding. My selection did not have any description, but I did have some expectations. A moon pie is the portable s’more sandwich with the right combination of crumbly cookie, chewy marshmallow, all enveloped  by a tin layer of chocolate. Without a description, I expected my dessert to be a combination of all the aforementioned with some cinnamon (Because that is what Mexican chocolate is). What I received could be used as ordinance for the United States Air Force. It was a dense bullet that exploded into crumbs with pressure from my fork. There was a microscopic smearing of cream, that was little more than the glue keeping the layers of cookie together, also devoid of moisture. Nothing specifically tasty about it. I’m still trying to get moisture back into my palette. My husband’s pudding came in a double-shot glass. It was a deep, rich brown, topped with raspberries and made with…avocado. No eggs, no milk, just avocado and dark chocolate. It was a bit firmer than a pudding, almost like a mousse. Regardless of what it was, it was brilliant. The bitter dark chocolate was complimented by fresh raspberries, with no hint of avocado. Long story short: his dessert was better than mine.

After the check was paid, we sat in a brief moment of satisfaction. We had just taken part in the tapas trend and I was still left wondering. What was so special about this? While I can appreciate the ability to try so many things, I certainly don’t appreciate the price that comes with the label of “tapas”. I even found out that one of my favorite chefs, Hubert Keller, is closing his Fleur de Lys restaurant in Vegas for, what else, a tapas restaurant. But why not capitalize on the trend.

I still don’t have a firm opinion on tapas. I think it’s a light was to dine in the summer, a means of trying new foods without being subject to an entrée size of something the chef dreamed up while smoking pot the night before and I’m looking forward to seeking out tapas restaurants when we visit Las Vegas. But let’s be honest with ourselves, tapas is anywhere in the form of a selection of appetizers or even sharing entrées. I still have yet to experience the difference between a tasting menu and tapas, which I am almost certain involves a price. So, with the gourmet burger trend in the rear view mirror, tapas incessantly merging on the culinary road, I look to the future for the next big trend. (And in light of the events in the Gulf, I can confidently say it will not involve seafood.) I’m seeing Eggrolls: the Epicurean Purse You Can Stuff Like Your Own Purse, with EVERYTHING!


Curry:The Answers or the End?

I’m not feeling terribly great about my efforts today. In an attempt to further my culinary training, I decided to give making a curry dish a try. I thought it only fitting, with the gorgeous lamb shanks I got a hold of and seeing as how I have not made curry, it seemed like an obvious direction to go. Now, I’m regretting it.

Curry is not something I am very familiar with. The dishes I have eaten that used curry were not exactly stellar, and didn’t make me seek out the next great dish. But, I feel it is something I need to learn about. How can I call myself a chef if I pick and choose the types of ethnic foods I want to cook. I should at least have an understanding of how to properly utilize curry. I spent many days researching how to make my own curry spice mixture, and how to incorporate the lamb shanks, and even found multiple recipes to help give me a better concept of the technique and what the end result should be. So, I felt confident that I could at least execute a decent lamb curry that would suffice for dinner, and have something to build upon from there. I had tasted and adjusted the seasoning (based on what I thought tasted good…again, no real experience), but there was a consistent problem. I just didn’t like it. I didn’t like the smell, the taste, the color…nothing. I kept hoping that I would find something to change it dynamically for me. I added the coconut milk…still nothing. I then felt a lump in my throat…and it wasn’t the curry.

After seasoning, searing and braising the lamb shanks for hours…I thought it was time to give it a shot. Thank god for my husband, who was ready and willing to give it a shot. He seemed to enjoy it, which was some consolation to the effort I had put in. I fixed myself a small plate. I knew in my heart I probably wasn’t going to enjoy this, but I had to give it a shot.

So, here I am now. As much as this may sound like me throwing a “pity party”, I’m beside myself with questions and doubt. How can I, as an aspiring chef, NOT like curry? It seems so…wrong. But I don’t. How is that possible. I mean, I have not had what I would consider genuine curry, but I combined all the spices and didn’t like the way it smelled before I combined it with meat. Now the “what if’s” are going thru my head: What if I had fresh lemon grass? What if I made a curry paste instead of a curry powder? What is I didn’t sear the lamb well enough? Too much? And worse…what if I don’t like curry?

I’m so very disappointed right now. In what I made, what I’m feeling and the thought that this could impact me a chef. I’ve tried just about everything, from escargot to Rocky Mountain oysters to tripe to yak. and there’s so much more waiting for me, but I’ve never disliked a “type” of food. Part of me wants to give it another shot, finding a restaurant that excels at curry so I can maybe (and hopefully) determine I’m the problem (and figure out how to fix it). The other part is terrified I just won’t like it. The worst part now is not knowing…the scary part is finding out.

The final downside is the spicy, pungent and enriched smell that has permeated my clothing and the apartment. Hopefully my frequent investment in Yankee Candle can help out a bit.

Creating Your Own Kitchen Nightmare

When my husband and I started out, we didn’t have a lot of anything: money, furniture, cooking apparel or knowledge of how to use said apparel. It pains me dearly to admit, but we used to be “whole store” grocery shoppers. Hit EVERY aisle, finding sales on pre-made/mixed dinner items and many more things we shouldn’t have considered, just to go home and “cook” it. We were spending SO much money on the boxed meals, which was only exacerbated by our frequent eating out because the food we were making was awful, which insulted the money spent on produce which was thrown away after doing a lovely job of rotting in the decorative bowl. Despite our many attempts and the desire to cook, we didn’t know where to begin. (Looking back, I think it began with a grill.) Since we were hermits, our spare time was spent finding television programming that would keep our interest. and there it was: the birth of the cooking reality show.

I became enthralled with cooking reality shows: Hell’s Kitchen, Top Chef, Kitchen Nightmares, Iron Chef, Food Network Challenge. These people were cooking with what appeared to be so little effort. Obviously, they had the experience or training to make it look effortless, easy and do-able. Well then, why the  hell can’t I do this? I would watch these shows, trying to learn skills, concepts, recipes and execution…huge mistake. While I was motivated to cook with reckless abandon, my sheer determination and Julia Child “fearlessness” did not translate. There is nothing more frustrating for me than massive failure in the face of exhaustive effort. I wanted to know what the hell I was missing. It wasn’t obvious until much later that I was missing years of proper training. The mistake I feel these type of “culinary-competition based reality shows” is making the statement “it’s an easy recipe you can do at home”. Well, yes. But HOW? I was infuriated at hearing Gordon Ramsay dictate the ease at which the recipe could be prepared, but I never saw it fully executed. So, i got nosey.

The beauty of cable TV is it allowed me to do research. I started looking into Gordon Ramsay and was introduced to a reality show of him saving restaurants digging their own grave, (I thoroughly enjoyed watching, especially when restaurant owners who had asked for his help would fight every inch of the way.) but was not learning anything about cooking. Of course Food Network was always there, but I was learning the “how”, not the “why”. That’s when I stumbled on Gordon Ramsay’s “F-Word” (that word being ‘food’). It was a brilliant combination of putting self-proclaimed chefs in a real kitchen to execute a 3-course service, Gordon Ramsay going into detail of how to prepare one of his restaurant meals (and the “why” of what he was doing-thank Gouda), along with many celebrities and segments teaching about everything from controversial foie gras to making mozzarella out of buffalo milk. I finally had something teaching me everything I wanted to know. I would go back and forth between the TV and my kitchen, pausing my TV to go and complete the next part of the recipe. I even learned how to properly hone knives. I was so excited that I kept snooping around for more information, how I could develop these obviously limited skills. My further research took me to Food Network, where I was reintroduced to Alton Brown. As I have admitted, I was not initially a fan. I would get so annoyed with his banter on Iron Chef, I would watch the whole episode in closed caption. I thought a show featuring him would be a bad idea for me. Luckily, I was wrong. His “culinary chemistry” instantly hooked me and continued to provide the “how” and “why” I was looking for. I was learning the skills not only to make bread, but the why it works and how to use it for other recipes. What had started as a spark lit by the reality chef show turned into a full inferno.  Then I lost interest. Not in cooking, but in the reality shows. I am still in awe of the amazing feats that trained chefs & students accomplish, but the reality show is not my reality anymore. I suppose I can still get some great ideas, but I’m still learning.  Watching Chopped is a stretch for me, even though some evening it could be funny to present my husband with a basket of the most random-ass ingredients for him to create a meal. But I don’t feel like I learn anything from the show. The shows that had initially planted the excitement, had lost the value they once had.

Such is the cycle of learning, I suppose. I still watch some of the reality shows, but not with the same excitement and anticipation I once did. It gives me something to think about when I really get my career rolling: what can I use my training for? I had actually considered  entering into a amateur reality cooking competition on a major cable network, which I still may do. But now I have many episodes of mentioned shows waiting on my DVR…and they will wait while I soak up more information like a lady finger soaks up brandy. Perhaps I will have more appreciation of the feats when I get more training. As for now, it’s time to keep trying new things, always with success in mind. Happily, I’ve adjusted my average int he favor of my success. Another sign, I feel, that I’m learning something. However, my current cupcake idea could prove otherwise.

I Just Don’t FEEL Like Cooking

It’s been several days since I’ve written anything, mostly because I was desperately trying to figure out where the dump truck that hit me every night was coming from. It was not fun at all. Despite my desire to wake up, I would make it to the couch to fall asleep again. It got to the point I could barely move around. And the pain compelled me to move that much less. This does not help me to be productive by any means. Especially when I have a husband who works hard all day and I want to do something nice for him, like have dinner ready. Thankfully, I have a very compassionate, understanding and sarcastic husband.

I do not like to cook when I’m sick, for many obvious reasons. There’s something about handling food when I have the flu that disgusts me, and probably those I would be cooking for. The unfortunate truth now with the economy, is there are probably chefs and line or prep cooks that go to work when they’re sick because they need the money and don’t want to risk their job.(I was working in a warehouse and 2 people who were diagnosed with Swine Flu still came in. Layoffs had happened several weeks back, but they didn’t want to give management any excuse to continue that trend. Unfortunately, lots of people {myself included} got very ill and had to stay home. I had to leave my job because of how sick I got. So, for the 3 people who came in ill…15-20 took time off because they caught it.) Honestly, if I don’t want to cook when I’m sick, I don’t want anyone who is sick cooking for me.

I am not suggesting that working in a kitchen is disgusting. I think there are places to work that don’t involve meat/produce that are beyond disgusting…on a daily basis. I have worked in two industries that have exposed me to some pretty disgusting stuff: banking and retail cellular sales. Banking seems pretty obvious: touching cash all day, processing huge, disgusting jars of cash that are wet, or worse…sticky. Being handed money that smells: especially when your told it was retrieved from the Golden Retriever. (Hey, I guess $20 is $20…no matter where its been.)  There was not enough Purell in the world. As for cell phones, on a daily basis people would try to hand me a damp phone that took a dive in the toilet. What makes you think I want to hold your toilet phone? Phones that were covered in many an unnamed or unknown substance made daily appearances. At least a kitchen is someplace people want to be clean! Not just that, it’s required by law to have a clean kitchen in your restaurant. But it’s not just the sick vs clean for me.

When I’m sick, I’m a miserable bitch. Unhappy, groggy and sick. Why would I want to create when I feel that way? I’ve found that my “give a fuck” is in direct proportion to how poorly I’m feeling. Cooking without caring is useless to me. I don’t make the caliber of food I like to make and end up more pissed off, and still sick. And sometimes taking a break rejuvenates my creative impulses and I find something new, fun and tasty. (Like seeing when Mr. Lifton made chocolate covered bacon!) And a few times, a recipe that is buried with the leftovers.

So, feeling better today, I plan on making one of my husband’s favorite dishes: lemon-butter chicken and some roasted brussels sprouts. I also have a non-bacon related dessert I want to play with. (I’ve been a bit heavy on the bacon recipes lately…) Yesterday, my plan was Raman Noodles. Thank goodness for a snowstorm, a few days “off” and a lot of time on my hands.

If You Don’t Like My Career, Then Don’t Eat My Food

I am glad I took a break from writing this weekend. It was a much needed gap to relax my mind and open my eyes to absorb more around me and put my thought to it. We finally had some amazing sushi, which filled the void of the awful experience from a week before. And I got the chance to create my own version of a cupcake to share with my family.

As I had mentioned in one of my previous blogs, I was asked to bake cupcakes. They were for a birthday celebration for my family and I was terrified. I mean, just because I have been exposed to and am learning all this new culinary concept, it does not by any stretch mean that anyone will enjoy it. But I took that chance. Thankfully, pretty much everyone was interested in and enjoyed the cupcakes. Obviously, submitting food that would be considered “new” to anyone leaves you open for criticism and you have to accept it. You put it out there, they can dish it back. I just found family is specifically scary because you have to see them again…you may never have to see a perfect stranger in your restaurant again. It was a swing and I got a base hit, which was more than I could ask for.

Maple Bacon Cupcake

And the cupcakes bring me to the title of my blog. The cupcake was my attempt to not only show my family I’m learning, but I’m trying new things and applying what I’ve learned. And for the most part, they have been beyond supportive and asking for my advice/knowledge. That was until it became the topic of discussion with a specific family member. I will not divulge their specific relation, as that is not important. It was the how, the why and the lack of any attempt to learn about and not criticize without any knowledge that frustrates me.(And I fully understand that using “they” to speak about one single person is not grammatically correct. My mother was a friggin English teacher…but it’s how I choose to indicate “them” so “they” aren’t outed.) So, here goes:

It has been some time since I’ve seen this family member, and I can only imagine that they found out my desire to go to Culinary Arts school thru the family I see more frequently. They approached, looked me right in the eyes and said “So, you’re going to take cooking classes?” I was baffled. I do not expect everyone to know what Culinary Arts IS, but it is a degree. An accredited degree. I replied, very confused “No? It’s actually an accredited degree program. I will be taking classes to learn culinary arts and achieve the degree.” “Oh” they replied. “When do you start?” I was happy to find they they were perhaps taking a genuine interest, not just asking questions because I am related to them. I went on to explain the class schedule, my plans to attend in the fall, the general gist of what my degree would entail and another class I would be taking at another school to become an accredited sommelier. Then came the part of the conversation that I wished I had the audacity to just walk away from.

I should have known it would happen. Just like I had previously discussed my family’s knack for baking, the question came: “So, are you going to be a baker then?” It should be natural right; passed down like some cupcake adorned sword of baking heritage. “I’m not really interested in specializing in pastry.” I mentioned. I did not get any reaction from other family members who spend a great deal of time baking, because they knew it wasn’t anything personal. However, this individual (who rarely cooks, let alone bakes) decided to shame me, solely based on the fact I didn’t want to specialize in pastry. I probably shouldn’t have taken any of the comments to heart, but what truly hurt is someone who is not familiar with culinary arts (casually or otherwise) decides to form uneducated opinions based on nothing! How could this person say such things? Everyone else has been so positive, so supportive and given me chances to flex my still developing culinary muscles. And this one person managed to over-simplify and under-appreciate something they have no experience, training or even daily experience. I tried to explain what culinary arts “is”, what it means and the ideas I have with it. To anyone else it is a degree program…to them it was “cooking classes” at the local community club.

What I wanted, more than anything, was to be given the chance to help them understand what I was doing. I didn’t want them to understand culinary arts, knife skills, or even how to truss a turkey…I just wanted them to understand and not be so damn snarky. The perspective I’ve had to give myself is this individual is not known for their cooking. Every time there is a family function, they ask for plates to take home to their significant other as to avoid cooking. Baking to them involves melting chocolate and peanut butter, then pouring it over Chex. All of this came from the person who only cooks with Stevia and flaxseed because some program on NBC said it’s good for you. I wanted to share this journey with people, but this person has decided to remove themself from the entire experience I wish to share. And I know, and have been told, both of them will be the same people to show up at my restaurant someday (My goal is eventually Vegas…the best culinary melting pot in the world, in my opinion) and ask for a free meal. The beauty is, they probably could have enjoyed the same meal years earlier when I was developing my menu. It’s not my intent to hold a grudge, but I will not have busted my ass in culinary school to give away free meals to the people who found my ambitions silly, fruitless and unnecessary. In the end, I will do it for myself. But it won’t hurt to have a stellar restaurant on the strip in in the new “mega colossal metropolitan center”, serving simple food done beautifully with a few twists and boasting a breathtaking panoramic view of the Las Vegas strip. Someday…someday.

With that mess of “hurt feelings” off my chest, I’m off to work on a recipe for Devil’s Food cupcakes with some roasted chilies inside, and a chipotle chocolate frosting. Any guinea pigs?

The Luck (And the Food, And the Beer) of the Irish

If you close your eyes and listen very carefully, you can hear the groans of the individuals who took part in the only part of St. Patrick’s Day they wish to….drink excessive amounts of flat green beer. However you wish to celebrate, is up to the individual. I prefer to have a pleasant recollection of my St. Patrick’s Day, rather than pray to “the porcelain god” all night. I actually took almost 10 days preparing for my St. Paddy’s day, which resulted in what I consider a full (if not exceeding) recovery of my crimes against corned-beef last year. I truly wanted to show my husband what good Irish food tasted like.

It began with my list of things that I had to get done. Thankfully completing my census form was a blip on the radar and the weather was absolutely stunning. Adorned with my Mayo County, Ireland tartan (where my family hails from), my Celtic knot broach, Claddagh earrings, Trinity pendant and an emerald green shirt…I was off to do what needed to be done. First, drop off my Tassimo to be sent in for repair. (Tangent time: my Tassimo hot beverage maker is something I’ve come to love, hate and pretty much rely on. It is quite an amazing machine, being able to not only produce coffee by the single cup, it makes Lattes, Cappuccinos, Hot chocolate, Tea…it is pretty spiffy. I must have asked for it for years until my husband finally gave in to what he thought was a silly obsession. Now he, and his father, are hooked. Unfortunately, mine took a turn for the worst. And since it was a gift, I don’t have any receipt to get it repaired under warranty. Preparing my French Press every morning has not been awful, but I’ve become accustomed to the ease of brewing one single cup of my choice. Not to mention the money saving capability of it making a latte for me. I did not have to bow to Starbucks any longer! For crying out loud, it makes a macchiato! I have found it to be worth it’s counter-space depleting size, so I get to live without it for a bit longer and pay to keep it from that great electronics graveyard in the sky. At least I have a Dunkin’ Donuts nearby and they brew a mean cup of coffee.) With my coffee maker on it’s way, it was time to get the missing piece for my St. Patrick’s Day cooking/celebrating: the beer.

I truly do not understand why anyone would want to drink green beer. I mean, St. Paddy’s day makes it pretty much acceptable to eat or drink anything green, but any other day we would give consuming green goods a serious second or third thought. Aside from green veggies, we’ve been taught green is not necessarily good. Not to mention, most bars just mix green dye in a relatively inexpensive light beer and it makes it go flat! But again, to each their own. I prefer Guinness, which I am learning is a acquired taste. But it’s not about only eating and drinking “Irish”, it’s about participating. So, I went to the local “liquor super mart” where I’m sure they had more than enough Guinness. (Now, this digression may suggest that I should be attending some kind of meeting, but it’s an observation I’ve made in the last 12 or 16 months. We have a few large liquor stores {none nearby} that sell an amazing variety of wines, liquors, mixers and things I’ve never heard of. We would go there frequently when we lived closer not only because we could shop for new and exciting things, but also because they were able to offer pretty good prices. You could even join a club of theirs to get general discounts, and take part in sales, {And they would forward your information to the nearest AA chapter.} which we did. However, since the decline of the economy began to hit here, {we literally watched the destructive “economic tidal wave” come from both coasts, and blast us here in Colorado..simultaneously} I noticed it hit this liquor store pretty hard. One day not long ago, I drove into the parking lot and immediately noticed the iron mesh over all the windows and huge construction-style concrete barriers all across the front of the store. This place could probably take a direct mortar hit and fare pretty well. Even the sliding glass doors were slowed when opening by the metal mesh installed on them. Needless to say, it was a drastic change since I had been by last. I went in to get some wine, and brought my purse. I don’t carry a diaper bag for a purse, just enough to hold the essentials. As I walked in, I noticed a sign stating “NO BACKPACKS OR LARGE PURSES ALLOWED!!!” I didn’t think anything odd about it, to be honest. The NATO blockade let on that they had experienced some theft. Apparently when the economy gets tough, the tough get drunk…on stolen booze because they can’t afford it. Also, the flat screen TVs hanging at every register and many location all around, showing photos tagged with ‘Have you seen this thief?”, made it painfully obvious that they were taking a hit. As I waited for the blast-reinforced sliding door to squeak open, I was immediately intercepted by a woman working for the store. “You CAN NOT bring that purse in here!” No “hello” or even asking to have me leave my purse in the car. My purse could barely fit a few of those “airline” size bottles, but I couldn’t have stolen them anyway! That section was guarded by a large chain and person standing guard. I look just past this woman to see another woman checking out…holding her purse. I gesture towards this young lady {holding a larger purse} and ask why she gets to bring her purse in. I have had my purse stolen from my car before…I get seriously nervous about leaving my purse in my car for nay period of time. Not to mention, now all the store knows I have to leave my purse in my car. The argument with this woman will obviously be futile. I return to my car and come back with my wallet. At this point, her “pleasant mode” kicks in and she apologizes for her very blunt behavior. I’m uninterested in what she has to say…I just want my damn wine. I get what I’m after and make it a quick checkout. This woman is still accosting females coming into the store, scaring the hell out of some of them. At this rate they won’t need to worry about theft, they won’t have any customers left. Even when the economy recovers, they’ve created a less than pleasant environment that will take a while to recover from.) When I cook with alcohol, I usually purchase more than what I think I need. For a few reasons: 1)I end up using more in the recipe than I thought I needed and 2)I love to pair that drink with the food I cooked it with. It just tastes great. So, I got an 8 pack of Guinness (in the can) and a 4 pack of an Irish beer I had not tried. After a quick pit stop to visit with a great friend, it was time to come home and get to celebrating.

I had began brining my corned beef 10 days earlier, with the intent of getting some amazing flavor out of it. So, it was time to get that cooking. It had to simmer for 4 hours! It may not be the quickest preparation, but I was hoping it was going to be worth it. I had found a great traditional recipe to prepare it, but took some liberties by adding Guinness to the stockpot it would be cooked it. I was completely dedicated to the preparation I had found for my corned beef, cabbage and potatoes…until I found another recipe. That is always my downfall. I have my plan set…then something else catches my eye. I had a mental battle with how to prepare my cabbage and a Guinness later, I finally settled on a new method. I cut the cabbage into quarters and browned each side of the quarter in some very hot bacon fat. Once I got the color I wanted, I added some of the cooking liquid from the corned beef and let them braise. Another “We shall see” moment presented itself…(Recipe from Michael Ruhlman. http://bit.ly/9D3pJ4)

With everything simmering away, and my husband on his way home, it was time to pour him a Guinness. I wanted to attempt the shamrock that I’ve received in my Guinness on so many St. Paddy’s days. I took to the one true teacher of my generation: YouTube. I quickly learned I did not have the tools to create this little symbol like the pros do. After my pours settles, I gave it a go with a martini olive pick…this is as good as I can do:

My husband walks in the door and I greet him with a plate of snacks and his Guinness. The truth is about to be told. As I slice the corned beef it is just the right color! The cabbage is just falling apart and the potatoes are nice and tender. I had off a plate to my husband and disappear back into the kitchen to begin work on an idea I just came up with. I don’t hear a peep from him. I have to chime in and ask what he thinks, I’m dying to know. Before I can ask, he tells me the beef tastes great and he loves the cabbage. That stone that has been residing in my gut is finally gone. He likes it!

I munch on the dinner that I have become very proud of and stir the dessert idea I just came up with. We have some leftover cheesecake and I decide I need to pair it with a great Guinness sauce! I combine some Guinness, brown sugar, star anise and cinnamon and let it cook itself into a syrup. It’s just tart enough to not make the dessert sickening sweet, but sweet enough to pair wonderfully with the cheesecake. The anise gives a depth only licorice can and the cinnamon spices it up. For last minute, it wasn’t bad.

As we sat back to play “Rockband” on Xbox, sipping on our Guinness, I felt exhausted and so very content. My husband, willing to try corned beef again despite my crimes, was a satisfied and happy man. I couldn’t help but feel a sense of pride. I felt like I did my heritage well. Between my display of my Celtic garb, cooking with Guinness, enjoying the music of Bing, the Murphy’s and Molly, Sin E Ri-Ra, and executing a satisfying meal, I felt pretty proud. Maybe I am really learning. More importantly, maybe I am understanding.

Next on the agenda…pastrami. Not a far cry from corned beef by any stretch, but certainly far more involved. I’m sure I will find out very soon (thru trial and error), if buying it from the deli is less expensive…most likely less laborious.We’ll see if I have the guts to make sauerkraut. For the sake of my kitchen, I’m going with “no”.


Celebrating St. Patrick’s Day the Best Way I Know How…With Food!

Well, today is here! The Irish Christmas. I have a great deal of pride in my Irish heritage, so much that I have purchased the tartan of where my family comes from in Ireland and I am learning the bagpipes to someday participate in Irish and Celtic festivals. And it has to be one of my favorite culinary holidays. Irish food has a stigma of being bland (and frequently associated with English food…for obvious reasons) and contain not much more than potatoes. Of course the entire world knows of the Potato Famine, and apparently canned sauerkraut (which is a German preparation of cabbage) is consumed today in lieu of actually cooking cabbage properly for an Irish meal.But, to each…his/her own.  I am freaking thrilled to be cooking the traditional corned beef, cabbage & potatoes. I actually started it over 10 days ago…

So, let’s not envision a rancid hunk of meat in my refrigerator. I began my preparation with a look back at my corned beef last year. And my god, was it awful! I had no clue what I was doing and was attempting to honor the holiday. I believe I made St. Patrick roll in his grave. Well, that’s not gonna happen this year! I spent a great deal of time researching and learning about St. Patrick’s Day cuisine with the intent to nail it this year. About 2 weeks ago, I bought my corned beef brisket and began the process of brining it. That’s how you get the most amazing flavor! Corned beef basically means brine-cured beef…a mixture of water/stock, large amounts of salt, seasonings and sometimes sugar. So, on day one I made a brine with lots of kosher salt, brown sugar, allspice, pepper, juniper berries, ginger, and who knows what else. And then I let it sit for 10 days. The salt keeps it from going bad, but it filled my fridge with an amazing aroma. And made me terribly impatient.

So, today is the day! I have my soda bread with Irish butter (has higher butterfat which makes it incredibly creamy and smooth), some amazing Irish cheddar to snack on, and will be making my corned beef in a Guinness stock, along with cabbage and potatoes. (and a few extra Guinness to assist with the cooking and eventual singing) I shouldn’t be this excited, but I truly want to recover from my horrible showing last year. With that said, it is time to get my St. Patrick’s Day started. Here are a few of my favorite blessings/toasts fit for today: (one last thought…it’s St. Paddy’s Day…not Patty’s.)

‘Beannachtam na Feile Padraig!’
Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

May those that love us, love us.
And those that don’t love us,
May God turn their hearts.
And if he doesn’t turn their hearts,
May he turn their ankles,
So we’ll know them by their limping.

My friends are the best friends
Loyal, willing and able.
Now let’s get to drinking!
All glasses off the table!

May you have the hindsight to know where you’ve been,
The foresight to know where you are going,
And the insight to know when you have gone too far.

The Baking Gene

A long time ago, in a bakery far, far away…………………………………..

Not quite that epic, but baking is something I remember my family doing for countless years. I’m not talking casually, every so often kind of thing. I’m talking weekly endeavors of baking dozens of multiple types of treats or cakes for birthday, some form of “shower”, the breaking ground of a new building, congratulatory or for a number of any holidays. My family even made our 4 tier wedding cake. And every Christmas, there is a confectionery undertaking which I often imagined put Keebler Elves to shame. (If my memory serves me, over 3,700 cookies/bars/toffee/fudge were made this past year.) Many Kitchen Aid stand mixers have been repaired, rebuilt, or sometimes sacrificed to the Gods of Pastry. What never failed is that every time, the cookies were chewy, the cake was moist and the frosting was sweet, but not too sweet. In a word: perfect. Time after time, after time, after time. And once someone had tasted anything they had baked, there was the inevitable request to duplicate a recipe that had been dubbed “The Stuff We Had in the Pantry”. It’s an art that I can’t help but admire. My family, selflessly, makes baked goods every week for their respective employer. And yes, I said good(S). Plural. Not just a dozen chocolate chip cookies. I’m talking different bars, multiple dozens of multiple different cookies, fudge…just so many things. And when I was managing our boys’ tennis team in high school, my family would load me up with baked goods as a reward to the team after the match. My family’s dedication to providing these young men with a treat earned me the superlative our senior year of “Most Likely to Appear on the Food Network”. One specific baked item made such an impact on my coach, that when my younger step-sister mentioned she had him as a teacher, I showed up one day with 2 bags of his favorite oatmeal-fudge bar and she got some extra credit. Sending him the recipe got her a bit more.

The reason I mention this is I will be baking this weekend: willfully at the request of someone. I’ve found myself falling into the same path of having what my husband has deemed “the touch” when it comes to baking. I’ve sent him to work with many extra baked goods and he always came home telling me “I said I don’t know how, her family just does it.” Truly, I don’t know what it is! Maybe we don’t over-think it, maybe it’s part of what I’m destined to do. What always baffled me was my family never did it professionally! Ever! They are beyond gifted with creativity and they obviously do something right to have people request them to make their birthday, shower and wedding cakes. Let’s be honest, a bakery doesn’t sound like the most stable or necessarily fruitful business endeavor. But we have a Dutch bakery nearby that does AMAZING business. And there are these “designer cake or cupcake” places opening up EVERYWHERE, boasting exotic flavors and such. (QUICK DEPARTURE: I have a fundamental issue paying $10 for a damn cupcake. I don’t care if it is passion fruit & mango cake with lemon meringue frosting. ITS A FUCKING CUPCAKE. Now, layer cakes, I believe those are worth the money most of the time. Beyond the obvious requirement of baking to get to the cake point, the fillings and frosting must be prepared {any bakery worth its name will make these from scratch} and then the cake has to be put together and decorated. A cupcake is a compact, portable bite with a smear of frosting. Layer-cake=Mercedes C class, Cupcake=Miata.) The other item to consider is baking is more of a hobby for them. And would one get burned out if they had to perform their hobby every damn day? Well, it’s not a hobby at that point. It’s income, the sole function of paying their bills. I don’t know the answer, because I won;t bring it up to them anymore. My brother and I have tried. Let me offer you some perspective on where he and I are coming from: lets say that we don’t bake at home from scratch (cake flour, baking powder, cream of tartar) and we use prepared cake mixes. I purchased 2 boxes today for .94 each. (I do not have room in my kitchen for AP flour, cake flour, wheat flour, bread flour….). I need water (faucet) eggs (.98 for 6) and vegetable oil ($2 for a small bottle). I’m barely at $5 and I will have 2 dozen cupcakes. As for frosting, a quart of milk, some powdered sugar and whipping cream. See where I’m going with this? Even if I sold these for $2 each, the profit margin is huge!!! Which got me thinking….

Sure, it could be cool and fun! And based on my research, aside from grocery stores, there aren’t many “bakeries” around. But I should probably just get through baking tomorrow first. I’m excited to try to make a truly white-white cake. Egg yolks turn the color enough to piss me off, so we’ll see what I can do with that. No to mention my adaptation of many recipes I’ve seen using “meat candy” as a garnish. At least I know my husband and I will eat yellow butter cupcakes with maple cream frosting and sprinkles of bacon.

I never mind baking for anyone (until they become entitled and feel they deserve baked good because of who that are. There have been many times I’ve said “no” because of someone’s bad attitude. A specific example, is when I would deliver baked goods to certain people, I would deliver them in sturdy, zip top bags. They were baked fresh, so why not enjoy them fresh for a while. I would go by days later to notice half the bag consumed, and sitting there wide open, going stale. My family busted their ass, sent you these cookies and you let them go stale? Fine…if you don’t care enough to close a zipper bag, I guess you just don’t deserve free cookies. The next time by I got asked where their cookies were. Nailed em: they apparently thought they deserved them. The baked goods were a labor of love. Since you didn’t appreciate what you were getting, you don’t get anymore. I probably took it personally, but that was my family doing all the work. Of course I took it personally!), but baking for my family scares/motivates me. They do this weekly! I just hope I can make something enjoyable, and possibly something a little different. That is, if we don’t eat the all the bacon before it becomes sprinkles.

The Beauty of Hash

I woke up yesterday in a particularly foul mood. No reason that I can discern, other than I had watched the morning news before I fell back asleep. Unfortunately, my impromptu morning doze didn’t help my mood, as I had forgotten to thaw some protein for our dinner. Well, hell. Knowing just how effective our freezer is, I set out some bone-in chicken breasts in hope that perhaps my sink is in a parallel universe, therefore the laws of water convection are somehow accelerated and would thaw my chicken just in time. No dice. Besides my obvious foul mood (no pun intended), I knew I just didn’t want to cook dinner.

So, how blasphemous of me!! “You don’t want to cook?! But you want to be a chef! That must mean you always want to cook.” Not exactly. I’ve recently discovered there are many facets to my culinary self. The one who want to cook to for the sake of creativity, the one who cooks for necessity, the one who found an amazing new recipe, the one who wants to tweak and recipe, and the one who would rather not set foot in a kitchen today, thank you. I feel there is a massive difference when you are cooking for your career. You are serving it to the masses (hopefully…instead of your wait-staff) and it is your income. That doesn’t make cooking for nutrition (sometimes) any less important. But let’s be honest, cooking 7 days a week gets old around day 4. I don’t have the restaurant budget to make things like venison ragu or prime rib that I want to make. I’m learning how to make everyday cuts and try to make it something 1)edible-most important 2)tasty-still important 3)memorable-hopefully for the right reasons. Recent sample: sweet tea ribs. I found this recipe in my Food Network magazine and thought it fit some of my recipe criteria: new, creative, different & innovative. And having made them, I already have ideas for the next go round. Learning to cook with less than stellar cuts of meat is a bitch of a learning curve, but I hope to find that in the end I have a higher appreciation for the proteins I long to cook. Plus, I’d rather fuck up a tri-tip than an Elk loin. And someday, god willing, I’ll prepare fresh(out of the water) seafood! (There is truly no such thing as “fresh seafood” in Colorado. Seriously….it does not exist.)

We used to cook because…because that’s just what you do. It wasn’t fun and hardly ever tasted great. I’ve learned that cooking, just like to pretty much everything else, turns out better with training, knowledge and some care. The last part: care, is what scares me on a daily basis. There are some days I truly just don’t care. I feel exhausted, indifferent and just don’t care. That sounds terrible! How can I not care? I’m hoping it’s because I want something more than what I have developed in my self-taught “culinary arsenal”. And honestly, we all need a break sometime. A chance to not be in the kitchen all afternoon in pursuit of the perfect roast, and rather watch the inconsistencies of the footage talking place in Colorado Springs on Dog the Bounty Hunter-all the while pointing out landmarks and how shameless the self-promotion is. A catharsis, a break…I just needed a break.

I am unemployed and looking for employment on a daily basis. I had never been laid off before and that was a crushing blow, especially after being hired 3 weeks earlier. The one thing that got me out of the tunnel-vision of finding employment and wallowing in self-pity was cooking. It was something I could do for my husband; a means of showing him  I may not be able to find work, but I’ll take good care of him. It replaced my self-worth, because I was contributing to our household with something. My husband has been amazing about it, never making me feel awful about not being able to find a job and supporting the days I have a melt-down (usually related to a certain Aunt Flo coming for a visit), by cooking. It has been funny as well, because he asked me not to cook so often because now he misses cooking! Oops. I have been known to be overzealous, full of zeal…vehement. Thank god he’s here to step in and tell me to have a glass of wine.

So, I have some semi-thawed chicken breast in the sink and am thinking how to propose an evening of leftovers (aka help me eat this to make cleaning the fridge easier) or making our own personal meals.  I took a seat to read my latest Food Network Magazine and see if something, anything would jump out at me. (TANGENT: I am a huge fan of Food Network and the magazine. I limit my programming to shows that teach the how and why more than just combining ingredients the host selects. I don’t learn how to cook that way, I learn how to make a dish. Not much of that translates to technique for me. Good Eats has to be the best program for learning the how, and why and has provided many “OH!” moments for me. Not only does he provide the recipe, he provides the chemistry behind every ingredient and what it contributes to the overall success of the recipe. What that has provided me are the tools to understand the difference between baking soda and baking powder, when you melt butter and when you don’t and how I can apply those concepts to other recipes. As for the magazine, I enjoy the massive amount of recipes! Other cooking magazines seem to have more advertisements than legitimate culinary direction, which is not worth it to me. Also, every Food Network mag has this awesome little booklet in every issue that I love. They take something basic: cookie dough, mashed potatoes or this month:eggs, and they give you 50 different ways to prepare them! Which bring me nicely out of my tangent to a gorgeous segway! {I feel the need to thank fivehundy & anitamartini for teaching me the art of the segway and tangent.}) As I’m reading my magazine, I notice the booklet “50 Egg Dishes”. After a mental inventory of the fridge, I feel confident that I can proceed with an egg dish. One thing I have learned is to keep eggs and bacon/sausage in the fridge for days that breakfast sounds good for dinner. (And now for a RECIPE DIGRESSION: the best breakfast recipe I fell upon while watching Man V Food was bacon waffles. Cook your bacon so it still has some toothiness/not too crispy and drain on paper towels. Prepare your waffle batter and heat and grease your waffle iron. As a point of experience/education, set your waffle iron to its highest setting. You’ll get a crispy outside, fluffy inside and the waffles come off the iron much easier and usually intact. I have what is called a restaurant-quality Belgian waffle maker which flips over after I pour the batter and close it. It makes amazing waffles, but isn’t necessary for this. Pour your batter and add a few strips of your cooked bacon. I usually snip my bacon in half and put one half in every quarter of the waffle. Close, let cook, remove and enjoy!) I have eggs and begin reading some recipe options. Scotch eggs: no, Nest Egg: not enough eggs, Fried Eggs: boring…Hash-Brown Eggs-PERFECT! A hash! Why did this not occur to me earlier!? A hash is so simple, uses fresh and leftover ingredients and takes one pan. One of the pitfalls of trying to learn culinary arts is I have the tendency to look “upwards”, as it were, towards the better, more complex things I want to cook. I often forget the simple and very satisfying dishes like a hash. The beauty of a hash, is it can be anything you want it to be. Hash-a dish of diced or chopped meat and often vegetables, as of leftover corned beef or veal and potatoes, sautéed in a frying pan. Brilliant. Now the spark of creation has been relit.

I shred a russet potato and soak them in some water to remove the extra starch. I look into my crisper drawer to find a bell pepper and Pasilla pepper. After chopping half an onion, and both peppers I can start to put everything together. I drain  the potatoes and fry them in my cast iron skillet (I do them first to get them crispy), add the rest of the vegetable until it starts to smell wonderful. All the while, I’m cooking some bacon in the oven. (Yes, the oven. I use a deep pan so I can cook more bacon at one time, it stays flat and it’s easier to pour the bacon grease into a jar for later use.) Once I’m happy with my stove-top hash, I make 3 small indentations in the potato-veg mix and crack 1 egg in each indentation. I then cover it with some shredded cheddar cheese and place it in the oven. Now, my mistake was putting cheese over the eggs. The melting cheese on top of the eggs made it visually difficult to determine the done-ness of the eggs. Mental note for next time. I pulled it from the oven, drizzled some green chili sauce and served it with bacon…and I called it dinner. It had protein (eggs & bacon), vegetables (bell & Pasilla peppers) and starch (potato). I had wished the yolks would be a little more runny, to get that great sauce-like component, but otherwise it was good.

After finishing dinner, I couldn’t help but feel a little lackadaisical with my efforts. Then again, it didn’t cost mt anything extra at the store or Chinese take-out and it was an idea that I now have for my arsenal for when the bitchy-monster wakes me up again. I was reminded that cooking isn’t that hard with the right motivation, a simple recipe doesn’t mean it will necessarily have a simple taste, and the sense of accomplishment is always something that goes great with a full “breadbasket”…or “hash-basket”, so to speak.

Beginning the Quest for Epicurean Greatness- Allison Wonderland, Sushi that left a bad taste & NY Pizza surviving on Sinatra

First, I’ve been considering a blog for quite some time. I fancy myself as a creative individual, which lends itself very nicely to my frequent insomnia. So, I figure a blog is going to provide many services, including a creative outlet, a buffer to prevent me from driving my family insane with thought, a reflective record of my “epicuriquest” and therapy (all at little to no cost). Secondly, I would like to say a nice big “F U” to the individuals on this blog site who have domain  names that they aren’t using. Not cool….but I do like what I eventually came up with.

I’m still not certain what I want to do with my culinary and sommelier degrees (when I get them) because there are so many ways to go! One thing I have become fairly good at (according to myself, of course) is being able to analyze and dissect restaurant food. I always thought being a restaurant critic would be interesting, and I was hoping that getting my culinary degrees would give me more credibility. It is a very intense relationship between chef and critic…

So, with that in mind, I feel it necessary to write about a particularly disappointing restaurant/customer service experience we had last week. Let’s be honest, Colorado Springs is nowhere near a gourmand destination, as most of the restaurants are huge nation-wide chains that focus more on price & quantity. I know my limits. We have had a few “diamonds in the rough”…but so many of them fall by the wayside or fall into the same “mass” standards as the huge chains. This is a story of one such restaurant:

On a Friday evening, I will always make reservations for dinner out. It’s just something I deem necessary. Since most restaurants are now not taking reservations on their busiest evenings (Friday & Saturday, respectively), I try to make them for a restaurant that I am aware still takes them. We made the decision to see Alice in Wonderland (not Allison Wonderland…moron at the theater), and since my husband was home early we established our game plan. First: matinée! The last time we tried to go to Hollywood Theater on a Friday evening, we were there with about 87,000 high schoolers. Shrieking, macho, obnoxious high schoolers. I could barely stand most of the people I went to high school with at that age, so my threshold has diminished significantly by now. (A thought of Darwinist homicide crossed my mind, and how to justify it.) If we hit a matinée, we can avoid all that crap and save some $. Second, make a reservation for our favorite sushi joint nearby and have some good sushi. (Let’s be honest, there is no such thing as great sushi in Colorado. It just doesn’t happen. And no, Rocky Mountain Oysters are NOT seafood.) Seeing as it was the premier of the movie, we got our tickets online to ensure (to an obvious limited degree) we would have seats. (To go on a tangent, I am not a fan of viewing movies in theaters. In the past 4 years, I have been maybe 4 times. That is a function of my historically bad experiences: first time seeing 300, I was incessantly kicked in the back of the head. Once I snagged the offending appendage, I applied enough pressure to let them know they would not have the luxury of feeling that same pressure if the kicking did not cease. Another visit, a couple next to us spoke the entire time and as the movie got louder, so did they. When I had someone with “power” tell them to please be quiet, they did so. However, after the movie they began to heckle me and my husband. Once we got tot he parking lot, it got worse. We turned around to confront them and they were 30 years our senior.  Despite the harassment, I was not about to go to jail for “geriatric assault”. Because of those experiences, I prefer to sit certain places. Let’s go back from that tangent.) I will spare the details of the drive, as it is unnecessary. With our printed tickets in hand, we get our drink and ask the young man if our printed tickets will suffice for entry. I’m given a not so reassuring “ummm…sure”, and we go towards our movie. Upon approaching the ticket podium, we present the printed tickets and are immediately met with a “oh, you have to have those printed out front.” I don’t expect everyone to know how all the jobs are done at the theater (I’ve learned not not expect terribly much from most), so we exit the complex to their box office out front. A young lady doing everything but her job, finally notices our presence and asks how she can help us. We present her with the paper to which she responds “oh, you can just take that to the ticket podium…”. Now this begins to irritate me. Someone must know how to get me into a theater. It’s not like they are on hold…these are paid tickets. I tell her nicely we were just told the opposite and all we want are our tickets. We finally get to head inside and wait in line for the theater to be ready. However, part of our plan may be backfiring. Many adults with gaggles of tweens (or younger) begin showing up. (I now loathe Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber even more.) It is funny to watch each person approach the ticket podium with the exact same response: show ticket, “we’re not seating yet”, they look at the line and become irritated at their current place in it. One youngster even attempted the pity look on the first few of us…no sale. We finally got our seats and begin watching the previews. The first few are in standard 2D, and nothing special by my account. However, there was one cartoon that looked like what an absinthe & acid fueled bender must look like. My husband made the comment “what the hell happened to Looney Tunes?”, which solicited a laugh from anyone over 25. NOW ITS TIME TO PUT ON YOUR 3D GLASSES  Here come the “woah”s and “ooh”s. the next 7 previews were 3D. Seriously? We live 3D folks, but any movie coming out next year will be 3D. Personally, I didn’t feel 3D did Alice in Wonderland any justice. But I did enjoy the story. But who cares about a movie review…we’re hungry!

I made the reservation anticipating some lag time for who knows what reason..it seems to always happen to us. Now let me give you the history of this sushi restaurant. For so many years, Jun Japanese restaurant held the “best sushi” restaurant, according to so many local publications. We would drive across town to enjoy their sushi whenever the craving hit. And they did not disappoint. A new sushi restaurant, Kura, opened near where we were living and curiosity led us there. Initially, it had a gorgeous interior, wonderful menu and great service.  However, part of that service may have been due to the lack of clientèle. We were so impressed, not only did we recommend Kura to friends and family, but we took them there too. I even developed friendships with the wait staff that banked with me at a previous employer. We frequented the restaurant enough to be “known”. Now I never thought we had any relationship parallel to something seen in The Sopranos where we expect a table at our arrival, regardless of how busy they may be. The last few visits were bringing to light what I feared may eventually happen. Upon our arrival about 10 minutes early, we were greeted and I made sure to mention our reservation. We were seated at a table with a reserved placard (we had a reservation…) with one dinner menu, one sushi menu and no pen. While we waited for our server to introduce themself or for water or something, I began looking around. They were busy…which is a universal good sign. But then I noticed it wasn’t a “buzzing with activity” kind of busy…it was a “desperate to catch up” kind of busy. I also noticed 2 things that were a tell tale sign that they were en route to the restaurant equivalent of an iceberg to the Titanic: 1)a net of blinking Christmas style lights hanging from the ceiling near a window, probably about 1 foot from the top. Why? Seriously, why? 2) A flat screen TV broadcasting ESPN. I don’t know about anyone else, but I’ve never thought to myself “hey, lets go to the sushi bar and watch the Red Sox game!” Sorry, but no. This was a sign of nondescript desperation. By now, it’s been about 5 minutes and no one has made contact with us. No “hello” or “I’ll be right with you”. at 10 minutes, a young man approaches us and tells us “this table is for a reservation and I need you to move.” Well, I explain to the young man “we have a reservation.” He seems pretty new to the restaurant, and then entire restaurant career field, so he returns to the entrance to seek direction from the manager. I was not trying to be snarky, but I had a reservation. What’s the difference? He returns to explain that it was reserved for a party of 4 and needs us to move to a 2-top. So, we grab our menus and move to the table behind us. He leaves without so much as an offer for water or a pen. We’ve been here 15 minutes now, and I’m getting more frustrated. We have people milling around the tables around us, and not a single acknowledgement of our existence. (Before anyone comes down on me, I have worked for restaurants as a hostess and waitress before. I try to take my previous experiences and not only be a good customer, but teach those around me who have not had said professional experience to be a good customer. Yes, I said good customer. While they may be there to “serve” you your food/drink, you can have a huge impact on your own experience. If you have seen “Waiting”, I consider that an exaggeration, but it’s not that far off. I encourage anyone who has or even has not worked in a restaurant to read “Waiter Rant”…lots of good info in there.) So, it has been 15 minutes without anyone even bringing us water or a pen. I realize its a Friday night and the truth of the matter is you will experience your worst food/service on a Friday or Saturday night. They are the highest volume nights and they will use that to get the highest turnover, which means the food is not of highest quality and servers are pushed to turn tables over. I’m not stating its going to be awful, but it certainly will not be the best. And that is what were were in the middle of. We hit the 20 minute mark and that was enough. My husband had put his napkin on the table and was getting up when the same young man who moved us came and asked us is we wanted something to drink. Now, was it his fault we hadn’t gotten service? Partially. Was I going to make a scene and be nasty to him No. It’s never justified. My husband very tactfully explained “we have been sitting here for 20 minutes, no one offered us water or even acknowledged us. We will be leaving, but thank you.” Without knowing how to proceed, this young man returned to the entrance to dictate to his manager what was going on. We did not say anything to anyone, we just got up and left. What struck me as odd is we got out the front door, past the manager without any contact. I didn’t realize it was that bad. As we walked into the parking lot, we heard a the voice of a lady asking “excuse me! excuse me!”. I knew what she wanted. This was her chance to change our outlook on our experience. So far, we were on strike 2 with them for the evening, let’s see what she would pitch. “Come inside and I’ll pay for your dinner.” STRIKE 3. Why do I say no to a free sushi dinner? Well, first of all, I didn’t have 3 hours to spend at a restaurant for the sake of a free dinner. There wasn’t any value she was providing me. So, I get a free sushi dinner, to not return again? It doesn’t solve the problem. We told the young man the problem. Secondly, we felt slightly insulted. Are we the sole reason they had the business? Of course not, but we certainly made a dent. We would have friends and family (and even customers at the bank) come back to us and say “thank you for recommending Kura, it was great!” It felt nice to share something we thought was “special” with people, and being previously employed in sales, we both appreciate the value of a personal referral. We felt like we had ultimately contributed to the awful experience we just had. We politely declined, and left.

Now, I’ll tell you what I thought she should have done. 1)Don’t let us pass the “threshold” of the front door. If we’re physically out, we’re already in the car mentally. Had she spoken to us in the entryway, we may have stayed. At the table, much better odds we’ll stay. Nip the dragging service in the bud, personally. 2)Don’t offer to just pay for our dinner. First of all, that is such a HUGE financial liability. At a sushi restaurant no less! You are going to screw over your servers tips, your bottom line and odds are we won’t be back. You haven’t given us any reason to return. 3)Give us something to make us return. A gift card, something we have to come back to use. Odds are, we’ll spend in excess of the gift card, and even if we don’t…we came back.

We got to our car and sat there in disbelief. That had never happened. Some of these people knew who we were and that we’d been going there since they opened. It’s not their fault…but this restaurant may not be much longer. I’d call Gordon Ramsay for Kitchen Nightmares but I don’t think he goes any further than the east or west coast. So, here we are, on a Friday night with no reservations and no food. Some light must have gone off in my husband’s head (most likely the “fuck it, I just want food” light) and we proceeded to our next destination. A “New York Style” pizza place. Oh boy…

Apparently, Borriello Bros is a well known pizza chain, brand new to Colorado Springs. I can’t comment on NY style pizza, because I’ve never had it. What I do know is the only things New York about this restaurant were the Yankee Stadium photos. They had Sinatra photos all over the walls and playing his music on the stereo, which was a huge disconnect for  me: Sinatra was born in Hoboken, New Jersey. Moving on to the menu. I cannot wait for the trend of “Italian” (term used VERY loosely) restaurants to let go of their desperate and white-knuckle grip of anything Godfather/Goodfellas/Sporanos in relation to their menu. With Borriello Bros menu sporting sandwich names like the “Grandma Marie”, “The Godfather” and “Uncle Sonny” in lieu of “chicken parmigiana”, I just can’t take this seriously. My husband made a comment that he would respect the menu more if they wouldn’t take themself so seriously and take a cue from “Analyze This” by naming sandwiches “Benny the Groin, Sammy the Schnazz, Elmer the Fudd, Tubby the Tuba, and once as Miss Phyllis Levine.” (Per Billy Crystal). The other beef I am currently having with so-called “Italian” restaurants is when they take a ravioli, fold it a different way and call it something completely different. Olive Garden, you’re on notice. But, I digress. We ordered what is called a Sicilian Pizza and it was decent. Not sure if its truly Sicilian, but it was food. I then took notice of the dessert menu. A NY style restaurant hocking NY style cheesecake from the Cheesecake Factory. Ummmmm, no. Cheesecake is not that hard to make, not to mention I know of a cheesecake bakery out of NY that even ships, called Juniors. Having had the opportunity to taste their cheesecake, I find it delightful. Expensive, but tasty. Then again, how hard is it to bake a cheesecake. However, the pizza does not re-heat well.

There is a hard truth I’m learning in my desire to become a chef/sommelier: I’ve learned to cook food that I like better than what I can get at a restaurant. I’m trying to find a voice as either a critic, chef, both…who knows. It has been interesting to observe the restaurant world in a different light and I hope that maybe I can provide some perceptive to myself and others. Unfortunately, considering the lack of dining options here, I hope to write more about my at home culinary adventures/disasters. This will not be a recount of the famed Julie & Julia (despite the impact it has had on my life), but it will be a reflective collection of random thoughts, ideas, tangents and perhaps a few epiphanies. So begins my “epicuri-quest”…couldn’t get any cheesier. Mmmm…extra sharp cheddar sounds great.