Sunday, July 20, 2014

Bonus Post: Family Meal

So, in my previous post about my birthday dinner at VOLT, I mentioned how I wanted to go back, and even try Chef Voltaggio's Family Meal restaurant.  Little did I know that I would try it sooner than I anticipated!  The kids stayed a couple of days with their grandparents, and we decided to meet at Family Meal, which is halfway between our house and theirs, for brunch.  I am so glad we did!  

Much more laid-back than VOLT, Family Meal, is more of an upscale diner experience (it is housed in a former car dealership) and definitely family-friendly.

Just a small part of their breakfast menu...Next time, someone MUST get the cinnamon toast waffles.  We saw them bring out plates of them and they looked amazing!

Clockwise from left: breakfast burrito, chicken pot pie fritters, hoe cakes with pimiento cheese and maple bacon jam, bourbon sticky bun with walnut pralines.

I loved the sticky bun!  The walnut pralines were delicious and the caramel sauce was outstanding, but what really make it was the pastry itself -- fresh, flaky, and tender with just the right amount of chewy. The breakfast burrito was also outstanding, with a really fresh-tasting smooth salsa-y sauce that they call "ranchero."  I also really enjoyed the hoecakes, but the balance was all off.  In my opinion, there was way too much pimiento cheese (which is very rich), and it overpowered the taste of the hoecakes and the bacon jam.  Unfortunately, because of this, it is hard to say much about the bacon jam, because I couldn't really taste it.  I have made bacon jam before and love it (I use Martha Stewart's recipe, if you want to try it yourself), but in this dish it was completely lost, which was disappointing, because I think bacon with the pimiento cheese is a fantastic flavor combination. Oh! And the chicken pot pie fritters were also a hit! My husband and son liked them a lot.

I didn't take a picture of it, but my son got the Ranchero pork loin with fried eggs on top. It was amazing! The pork was flavorful with that ranchero sauce (the same that is used with the breakfast burrito), shredded into a sort of hash, and the yolks from the eggs made a yummy sauce that brought everything together.  Also, order the home fries. You will not be sorry!

Even the kids were asking when we could come back, because there were so many things we wanted to try (next up: their biscuits and gravy! And cinnamon toast waffles!).  Luckily for us, they are planning on opening another Family Meal closer to us at One Loudoun in Ashburn, VA. I doubt, however, we will be able to wait until October to eat there again!

A night at VOLT

I normally am not one to make a big deal out of my birthday, preferring to leave all that party hooplah to the kids.  This year, though, we splurged and went to VOLT, a restaurant I've been wanting to go to for a while now. Brian Voltaggio, who was the runner up on Bravo's Master Chef one season,  is the chef who opened the restaurant, and I had been hearing that it was amazing, so I really wanted to see for myself.

Our meal was really memorable, not least of which was because of the company, two dear friends who accompanied us on this food adventure.  Surprising textures, combinations, and a little food "magic" (or science, whatever you want to believe) left an impression on all of us!

Me and my lovely husband.  I loved the tiled "EAT" on the wall.  Don't mind if I do!

The first thing to come out of the kitchen (besides the home made breadsticks, which were delicious) was this little bite of macaron.  But not any macaron.  This was a liver macaron, with a foie gras filling and cherry puree on top.  To be honest, I thought the cherry flavor got completely lost amongst the strong liver flavor, but the macaron was surprising in its lightness and crisp texture.  Intrigued (because liver is so fatty and normally when making macarons you need to keep all fat out, otherwise you deflate the egg whites and the cookie becomes chewy), I asked one of the staff for some insight, and a little molecular gastronomy was involved to dry out the liver before it was added to the egg whites.  It was surprising and delicious!

You have to take a leap of faith when ordering at VOLT. The menu items (at least on the a la carte side) really just listed ingredients/flavor combinations rather than tell you exactly what you are getting. For example, my first course was listed on the menu as "English peas, crabmeat, buttermilk."  It came out as a soup.  My husband's first course (listed first as "smoked beets with yellow fin tuna and tonnato), came out as these perfect red cubes (see the top of the picture to the left), which I thought at first were the smoked beets.  No, that was the tuna, with just a couple of small pieces of the beets.  So leave any preconceived notions and assumptions at the door, because the chefs at VOLT are going to mess you a little bit.  But in a good way.  All of the food was delicious!  And my pictures do not do any of this justice, because I was trying to be "covert" with my picture-taking, just using my phone, but totally geeking out over the food anyway. 

Even the breads were fabulous!  Our choices were cheddar-chive buttermilk biscuits, a sourdough roll, and a whole grain brioche (if I understand our server correctly, the grain used to make the brioche was left over from the beer brewing process, giving it a unique flavor).  Being a fancy restaurant, they did not leave a bread basket on the table, but served you your choice from a basket they carried with them to the table.  Probably a good thing, because I would have inhaled every one of those sourdough rolls!!

Next came our pasta course.  I had this really interesting carrot pasta (pasta with carrot puree as a sauce) with a coffee foam. Jonathan's was a lobster raviolo (yup, just one), with a pea foam, asparagus and greens.  Maybe it's just me, but I really don't understand the whole "foam" trend.  I think it just makes a weak sauce, but maybe I'm not sophisticated enough to appreciate it. The winner for the night though (and I don't have a picture of this, unfortunately) was the chard agnolotti (kind of like a raviolo in that it is a filled pasta) with applewood bacon. It was fantastic!

The main courses deserve their own photos!

On the right is halibut with white asparagus and rhubarb, and on the left is black bass with roasted cauliflower and a cauliflower slaw that was outstanding!

My entree was lobster with preserved meyer lemon (those are the little dots of yellow), pickled onion and broccoli.  I know the descriptions do not do any of this justice (similar to my photos, alas), but I was hoping to just use the on-line menu.  Our fourth companion had a delicious soft shell crab with rice. Unfortunately, the on-line menu is slightly different than our menu choices for the night.  I'm sure they put that up online just to give people an idea of the food, not the exact food choices for the night they will be there.  Bottom line, my interest in eating the food, trumped my interest in taking notes on exactly what the menu described.  Sorry, dear readers.

As a surprise, the staff brought out a little ball of gelato with an orange coating the made it taste like a creamsicle. With a candle.  :-)  We also ordered coffee and espresso.  The coffee comes in cute French presses for each diner.  Personally, I would hate to be the one who has to clean all of those, because I hate cleaning our French press...but I digress.

Dessert was another revelation!  The top plate was coconut, blood orange and yogurt, but (and I suspect more molecular magic was going on here), the coconut was almost like a light, freeze-dried coconut cream, that had a surprising powdery texture, but combined beautifully with the yogurt underneath. The bottom plate holds what was listed on the menu as "Chocolate, sesame, caramel."  I kid you not.  As I mentioned before, you have to take a little leap of faith at VOLT, but you will be rewarded.  This one was a white chocolate custard, with caramel sauce and a sesame tuile.  Soooo delicious!

We also noted how each food item was served on a different type of plate. Not sure if that was because each dish's presentation was different or what, but it was kind of cool.

Finally, at the end of our meal while we were waiting for our bill, the kitchen gave us these little treats:

From left to right, they are: a chocolate truffle, a financier, pomegranate fruit gelee, and a wee macaron (this one was sweet), with a chocolate ganache filling.  To be honest, if I had known they were bringing those out, I might not have ordered dessert, which is probably why they keep it a secret.  :-)

Not only that, but they gave us little cinnamon cakes to take home!

Thanks to VOLT and its staff for such a lovely, exciting and surprising dinner.  I hope to make it back there, as well as try another Brian Voltaggio enterprise, Family Meal, which is opening a location near us really soon.  I can't wait!!

Saturday, July 12, 2014

5-minute Lunch - No Kidding!

I love being home for the summer with the kids, but lunchtime can be a chore, ammiright? My kids could eat peanut butter and jelly every day, but I get bored with sandwiches and salads seem to take so long with washing and chopping, so I was trying to think about something quick and filling but didn't take tons of prep work.  Plus, it's hot, so avoiding turning on the stove or oven is a plus, so I came up with this:

Marna's 5 minute Lunch

1/2 avocado
2 radishes
one mini-cucumber (or half of an English cucumber)
olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

You want it to be a little chunky, so don't worry about getting small pieces making them exactly the same size. Just chop up the avocado, radishes and cucumber like this:

Then drizzle with a little olive oil (you shouldn't need more than 2 tsp, if you prefer to measure) and a squeeze of lemon, a pinch of salt and a little pepper. Toss it together and there you have it!  Simple, refreshing, filling -- just what I need for lunch in the summer.  You can switch things up, too. No radish? Use tomato.  Leftover green beans from last night's dinner? Throw those in, too.  Fresh herbs to use up? Use 'em!  Just don't get too carried away, though, since the main point of this is simple and easy.  :-)

What do you like to make for lunch when it's hot out?

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Travel log: Boston's North End

So last week we drove up to Boston because my oldest nephew had graduated from high school, and the family was gathering to celebrate. For the record, I don't even need a reason to visit Boston.  Or my nephews, of course. It's a great city!

The drive from Virginia to Boston is not the funnest thing in the world, but we make it manageable. Usually we get up at the butt-crack of dawn and head out, driving about 3 hours before we stop for breakfast at Cracker Barrel.  I love me some Cracker Barrel.  Who doesn't love a place where you can get a good meal, play checkers, and buy Abbot and Costello and Three Stooges DVDs for the drive in one stop?  We usually spend about an hour there.  Love it!

We also stop for lunch somewhere along the way. This time we stopped at a place called Rein's Deli in Vernon, CT.  Y'all.  If you like deli food (and who doesn't love it??), you MUST stop here.  The sandwiches are big:

That is just the regular. You can get a "fresser" which means it's double-stuffed.  The meat was really, really good.  Pictured here is the corned beef "Rachel." It's like a Reuben, but instead of sauerkraut, it has cole slaw. Also pictured are their fries and pickles. I personally preferred the double-sour pickles, although the rest of my family liked the regular pickles (pictured), which are not as salty.

Even though our main reason to go to Boston was family-related, we managed to carve some time out to do a little sight-seeing.  Initially, the plan was to take a duck tour, but turns out you have to buy tickets really early.  We got downtown around 11:30 and they were all sold out for the day. WTF? So, if you want to do a duck tour in Boston, be sure to buy your tickets ahead of time.  Our Plan B was to spend time in the New England Aquarium, but again we were foiled by our lack of pre-planning. It was a beautiful day, so A LOT of people were out and about, which meant they were also out and about at the aquarium, so we settled with a harbor walk, then headed toward the North End.

One of the cool harbor tour boats available around the Boston Harbor.

See? It was a gorgeous day! We consoled our youngest with an ice cream cone from Emack & Bolio's right at the harbor.  The ice cream was really good - at least good enough to make a nine-year old happy enough to hoof it to the North End for an afternoon of history, pastries and pizza.

First up was Paul Revere's House:

But then we needed sustenance, so off to Modern Pastry we went.  The hardest part of the day, I think, was trying to decide which pastries to buy.  In the end, this is what we got:

Chocolate Mousse Cake, a cream puff, sfogliatelle (sfogliatella?) and two cannoli.  I am happy to report that everything was delicious and I'm sorry I didn't save you anything. Well, not super sorry, because it was delicious.  But you can't go wrong if you head to Modern Pastry.  Apparently, there is a bit of a rivalry in the North End between Modern Pastry and Mike's Pastry, but unfortunately, I had already stretched the limits of my family's patience for anything pastry-related, so I'll have to save that one for the next trip.  But, as you wander around the North End, you will come upon random bakeries, and groceries.  I fell in love with this little Italian grocery with beautiful breads:

Next up, though, was some more history.  The Old North Church. You know, "One if by land, two if by see."  In all the times we'd been to Boston, I had never been in here, so I was excited.  We were fortunate that this was not that crowded:

Right next to the church is a chocolatier (Captain Jackson's Historic Chocolate Shop) and a colonial printmaker. I'm always in when it comes to chocolate.  At the chocolate shop, we learned how colonists prepared it (usually as a drink), plus we got to taste some (spoiler alert: it was delicious).

Next door is the Printing Offices of Edes & Gill. The boys got to print their own copy of the Declaration of Independence. It was really interesting and the gentleman who worked the press was extremely engaging.

One last North End site: the narrowest house in Boston. It's  only nine feet wide and you have to enter it through a narrow alley. I believe it is privately-owned, so we didn't get to see inside, unfortunately.

Completely exhausted, the boys were ready for some pizza.  As we were walking, trying to figure out where to eat, we asked a man carrying a pizza box where he got his.  He said "Ernesto's. It's the best pizza."  Then we took a look at his shirt, which carried a logo for Boston Pizza Tours. (side note: who even knew you could get a tour of pizzas in Boston? The only thing better? A beer tour. Guess what? They have those, too!)

I guess he would know, then.  Ha! Ernesto's it is!  The pizza WAS delicious:

We got the tomato and basil, cheese, and a Hawaiian. By the way, the two pieces on each plate is "one slice" according to Ernesto.  Who am I to argue?

If you are in Boston, I encourage to take a couple of hours to walk around the North End, especially on a nice day.  Even if it's not, you can hole up in a pastry shop taste-testing.  It's got history, food and architecture all in one compact spot.  What's not to like?  :-)