Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Source

I enjoy an adult beverage from time to time. And, by "from time to time" I actually mean a few nights each week, to be honest. That's okay, right? Say right. After a long day, there's nothing like putting your feet up, watching some tv and sipping on your favorite drink. Happiness.

Luckily, I live just a few measly blocks from The Wine Source in Hampden. I noticed a while back that I must go there a lot - it's funny to be greeted with "Hey, Ame!" Perhaps I need to slow down on my wine sourcing...but I know I won't.

Not only is the Wine Source's selection of beer, wine, spirits, cheese, etc, wonderful, the people and service there are even better. I coordinate lots of events in my day job at an independent school and when I need beer or wine, the folks at the Wine Source make it easy as pie. I simply email the seemingly unflappable Ian Stalfort and tell him about my event (# of guests, type and time frame of event, menu, etc...) and he figures out what we need and has it delivered - and the drivers are always courteous and on time. Every time. They just send me a bill and also pick up any unopened bottles and credit our account. The prices are excellent, too - Ian never recommends anything over the price point I give him - and we get GREAT stuff! They make my work life sane and for that I am eternally grateful. Also, he suggested a wine for an event several years ago and it's still one of my all-time favorite whites, Ducasse White Bordeaux. I buy it all the time and it's super affordable. Perfect.

Other folks at the Wine Source we love:  David, Carey and Jed. 

David Wells is one of the owners of the joint and is such a nice man. Whenever I volunteer on something around town, he is always happy to donate. Love that. Recently, I organized an event at for Dishing Up Maryland, a local cookbook shot by a friend of mine. David was kind enough to help us out with some amazing local beers from The Brewers Art and Stillwater as well as wonderful local wines from Boordy and Black Ankle Vineyards. 

To say that Carey Williams knows wine is quite the understatement. And she knows my wine...and how to steer me to ones I might never even notice or think of trying. She respects my budget, too, which is very imporant. She even helped me find a great boxed wine to try...hey, don't mock it til you try it, smarty pants. It's not for everyone, but I do enjoy it every once in a while.

When I started getting into wine years and years ago, I tried a sip of my friend's White Zinfandel. Hmmm, that's kinda tasty, I thought. Well, fast-forward to now: not so much. But don't call me a wine snob. I'm not one. I will try almost any wine, but do tend to avoid wines that might be described as  sweet or my most unfave description, buttery. But...to each his/her own, and I say drink up!

Back to Carey...she has guided me from Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc to Prosecco and unoaked Chardonnay...and now I'm way into Viognier and Torrontes (but I gotta give my friend Lucien at the oh-so-fabulous Wine Market in Locust Point credit for introducing me to Torrontes a few years ago.) I'm also trying lots of reds, too...my fave lately continues to be Pinot Noir. Last summer, I was remembering having a chilled red wine in Paris a few years ago. That experience has stayed with me not only because the wine was delicious and the lunch was with someone amazing, but also because I'd never had a chilled red before. So, I stopped by the Wine Source and Carey suggested again, something different, a Claret. Oh my gosh - it was perfect (and on sale for $14.99.)

Then there's Jed Jenny. He's my beer guy and he really, really knows his stuff (much like my great pal and fellow blogger Scribbleskiff.) The beer selection at the Wine Source seems quite overwhelming at times, but at the many tastings I've attended there (especially during Baltimore Beer Week) I've discovered lots of my now-favorites like Lagunitas, Ommegang, Allagash, Weyerbacher, etc. Yet there is still a huge number of beers I've yet to try. Jed patiently guides me through the maze like the pro he is and if he suggests it, nine times out of ten, I will give it a shot. Like Carey, Jed knows my likes and dislikes. That, my friends, is service. A few years ago, he suggested that I try Dale's Pale Ale (it's in a can and is a longtime fave of one of my best friends, Jimmer - he even has a Dale's hat!) I now love Dale's - thanks to Jimmer and Jed.

The Wine Source also has a fabulous cheese shop within the shop. Adam, Caitlin and Scott in the cheese cave are so, so good. They can help you maneuver through the cheeses, cured meats and more. I am obsessed with chorizo and coppa at the moment...and, the asiago cheese dip is insane. Insane.

Here's what I wanna know...if you live in Baltimore, do you shop at the Wine Source? (Do you wear a disguise so they can't track how often you go?) Maybe you have a similar shop where you live? Create a working relationship with your local wine/beer person - chances are, they will help you find many new faves - the folks at the Wine Source certainly have done that for me. 

Oh, and when I hiked up to the Avenue during Snowpocalypse 2010, they suggested that I try Bulleit Bourbon. I'm not sure if that was a good thing or not, but whatever. I am still in love with them for that.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Food memories...

Food memories...everyone has at least one. Maybe it's your mom's potato salad that takes you back to 4th of July barbecues...your grandmother's coconut cake that makes you remember special birthdays...or maybe crepes make your mind go to Paris or beignets make you wish you were in the Big Easy?

For me, my strongest and most beloved food memory is steamed crabs. As soon as I open that shell and see the mustard, I'm back in my parents' backyard. We never ever went out to eat crabs...we really could barely afford them, so it was a real treat to have them. We sat out there for hours...watching the lightning bugs and telling the same funny old stories over and over and over. Rolling in laughter. We took turns picking for my dad...his MS didn't allow him to actually pick the crabs...but he did get to enjoy the meat. Real love is sharing your backfin, don't you think?

And the other big one - foodies will scoff but I don't care - is a cream cheese and olives sandwich. My fave comfort food to this day. It has to be on very soft, white bread. Big 'ol pimento stuffed queens sliced nice and thick and laid in a layer of cream cheese. Smoosh the bread a bit. Yum. That sandwich, that's my mom right there.

What are your food memories? Do tell...

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Lunch with Ina

I love having parties. It's so much fun to get people together to share great food and drink. It doesn't have to be fancy. For me, it's about the people, not just what's on the plate. Whether it's a barbeque, dinner party or holiday soiree, I'm in. So, years ago when I saw Ina Garten's book, Parties, I snatched it right up.

In the cookbook, she describes a brunch she gave early on - a sort of cautionary tale of what of how not to do it. She tried to do too much and everything just fell apart. Not many people would put their mistakes out there for the world to see, so naturally I liked her right away.

She gives great advice for folks who might be new to cooking or intimidated by entertaining. For example, she recommends buying some simple hors d'ouvres like tapenade, pate, cheeses, nuts, olives, etc. Don't make things that are too complicated and prepare as much as you can ahead of time. You should be with your guests having fun, not working in the kitchen while they're noshing. After cooking from the Parties book, I began buying the rest of her cookbooks over the next few years.

Then, something really fun happened.

Lia - my best friend of 30 years - is an architect in Paris and she often works with American clients who have homes there. She told me she was designing an apartment for Ina and her husband Jeffrey. I must admit, I was thrilled. Like, silly giddy, actually. When she came home for the holidays, she took my Parties book back to Paris and had Ina sign it for me. Oh, how I love my bestie.

Fast forward a few years: I took an amazing trip to London and Paris for my 40th birthday - the trip of a lifetime for sure. Before I left London for Paris, Lia called to say that Ina was going to be there at the same time as me and that we might have lunch with her. Deep breaths. This is sort of like one of my five brothers grabbing a beer with one of the Ravens...seriously. After Lia set up the lunch, I'm sure she was hoping to God that I didn't flip out and completely mortify her. I had to be on my best behavior.

As I walked with my best friend, in my favorite city, about to meet someone I admire immensely...I felt so, so lucky. How did I get here? What would we have in common? What could we talk about? Would she be as nice as she seems on television? Would it be awkward or fun or what?

It was perfect. Ina is incredibly warm, funny, engaging and full of life. We talked about food, music, travel, wine, flowers, parties, Paris, etc. I told her that I was really getting into cooking at 40 and that she'd been very, very helpful to me. She seemed pleased and kind of touched, actually. I also had the pleasure of meeting her husband, Jeffrey. He's quite friendly and genuine. As we sat in their lovely, yet simple, Paris living room, he asked about my work and life in Baltimore. Seriously nice people.

I have no idea what we ate at lunch, but remember that we had chilled red wine. Don't you just love Paris...wine with lunch. Wish the US would embrace that concept. As we neared the end of our visit, I felt a little silly asking her to sign my favorite of her cookbooks, the first one - The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook - but she was so nice about it. We chatted some more and said our goodbyes.

Best day ever. Ever.

To me, Ina makes everything she does look un-scary. You think, "I could do that." And then you actually do. I made roast chicken for the first time after I saw on her show. Grilled a pizza on the grill for the first time after I saw it on her show. Bought my first Le Creuset dutch oven after I saw it on her show. Yes, I'm a nerd, but I know what I like. Of course, I do use many other cookbooks, but I tend to go to my Barefoot Contessa cookbooks first. For the most part, her recipes are not super complicated, with very few ingredients you can't find at an area grocery store. I like that.

Here are some of my favorite Ina recipes.

Perfect Roast Chicken
Cheddar Corn Chowder
Fresh Pea Soup
Bibb Salad with Green Goddess Dressing
Salad with Warm Goat Cheese
California Pizzas
Mac and Cheese
Outrageous Brownies
Coconut Cake

Being able to meet someone who's inspired you and thank them for that, well...that's something special.

Thank you, Ina.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Gastro Goodness

In my twelve years in the Hampdens, I'd walked by the Aveue Diner at the corner of 36th + Elm a hundred times. Quite the non-descript, local joint. Always seemed fine, but nothing I'd really seek out.

Then last spring, the Avenue Diner became Corner BYOB. While I don't want my 'hood to become too fancy pants [I don't really do fancy pants], after visiting for dinner I was positively giddy about this change. Chef Bernard Dehaene serves up an eclectic, kinda Belgian-inspired menu like moules frites, potato leek soup, beef stew and so much more.

On my first visit, I tried the mussels bruxelles with goat cheese, bacon and leeks. Mellow, smooth and tasty. If you like a bit of a kick, try the red devil mussels with tomatoes, garlic and peppers. And, the fries - wow! Crispy on the outside and soft on the inside - and excellent dippage on the side. Also, I had the crab and corn chowder, which was ridiculously good. I'm a soup gal - I love making it - so I'm pretty picky about soup. I'd gladly have that again anytime.

On my next visit, I had the dover sole in caper butter sauce over whipped potatoes. Extreme goodness filleted tableside. My friend had the steak with potato croquettes and applewood smoked bacon sprouts. She pretty much licked her plate.

Third time was the absolute charm. I had one of the specials - I highly recommend seriously considering the specials here. This special entree was sauteed [no breading, thank you] soft crabs over fiddle heads and a fava bean aoili. Oh. My. GOSH. The soft and oh-so-slightly crisp soft crab dipped into the creamy aoili. I was done. For my friend, it was the dragon herb moules frites with tarragon and cream. We shared a lovely bottle of Muscadet and the wine was a great match for our food.

The Corner is a tiny place. Tables are close together and I find that creates a bit of comraderie with your neighbors [if you want...if not, you're fine.] On a recent visit, I sat smack dab between lovebirds holding hands between sips of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and an older group enjoying mixed drinks made from miniature bottles of Glenlivet. Most everyone's libations, of course, were purchased at the wonderful Wine Source. The Corner offers a small selection of mocktails, to which you can add your own vodka, gin or rum [or not...and just leave it mocked.]

Some friends of mine have told me they think Corner BYOB is expensive. I disagree completely! If you enjoy an alcoholic drink (I do, I do) you save right there. Yes, there are corkage fees, but you still are saving dough. I'm a big fan of hors d'oeuvres for dinner and love making a meal out of snackage. Here, you could certainly make out of the appetizers like escargot and wild mushrooms in a Zinfandel reduction over brioche, inventive salads, in-season soups, etc.

Or...dive into the entrees and you can have a really fabulous dinner for a pretty reasonable amount of money. Menu entrees run from $17 for the Resurrection Ale beef stew and fries to $26 for the dover sole...more for some of the specials. But I don't mind paying a little more for something I really wouldn't make at home. Chef Bernard and the kitchen consistently turn out fun and inventive dishes. From time to time, you'll see foodie-esque items on the menu like things topped with a quail egg, bone marrow, bear and yak. On a recent visit, I enjoyed a perfectly tender kangaroo steak! If you are particularly interested in adventurous dishes, consider joining their Gastronaut Society. Membership entitles you to prix fixe Gastronaut Society Dinners throughout the calendar year at membership prices, 10% plate discounts on special adventurous fare featured on the menu, as well as an Official Gastronaut Society knife engraved with your name, identifying you as a member. A knife with your name on it. Seriously. In Hampden.
Check out Richard Gorelick's review. When Corner BYOB first opened, they did not take resies. That's now changed [you called it, Richard!] And..even though they prefer cash, you can use a credit card with a small fee attached. this note on the menu cracked me up: "Behaved children are most welcome." Classic.

I've been to the Corner about six times now. Stalker much? Each time I've gone, the service has been good. a little odd, quirky at times - but never rude or super slow. One thing I wish they would do? Print up the specials so that you can refer back to them. Sometimes the server lists about six or seven things and you definitely lose track of the first one they mentioned.

On my most recent visit, I ran into one of Baltimore's most beloved filmmakers, perfect mustache and all.

The Corner is not your average restaurant. That's why I like it - you will, too!