Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Riad Badi - Marrakech

Riad Badi in Marrakech, Morocco was the third of our three great Moroccan riads. The riads have forever changed how we will think about lodging. They are a combination of a nice room, a very nice common area, a good breakfast and an optional evening meal, all for a very reasonable charge. Riad Badi, including the room and breakfast, was less than $80.00 per night, is inside the medina very near the Badi Palace and about a ten minute walk from the Jema el Fna, the main market square of Marrakech. It is a windowless three story building, recently restored, with a covered courtyard and a rooftop area with a great view of storks nesting on the Badi Palace walls.

Isabelle and Christian, the owners, are very accommodating. They offered to show us around the medina (we already had a guide arranged), walked us out to meet up with our transportation to a cooking class we took and early one morning when I was taking pictures of storks on the roof, Christian brought me up a pot of warm milk with sugar. For all of these reasons and more, Riad Badi was ranked no. 1 out of 1,126 hotels in Marrakech on Trip Advisor when we made reservations and it is currently no. 9 out of 1,174.
This is as showy as the front of the riad gets. 
The entrance is down a narrow, non-descript, corridor. The ground floor has the kitchen, several rooms for guests to relax and lounge around, and I believe games and t.v. (we never visited this part of the riad - we had too much else to do).
A couch and some chairs downstairs.
Judy sits at a table downstairs waiting for dinner.
A view of part of the downstairs from the second floor.
We also had dinner in the riad our first night after driving in from the southeastern side of the High Atlas Mountains. For a starter we had a pastilla which was a combination of bread filled with raisins and chicken. Our main course was a tagine of chicken with olives and couscous. I find that in general most chicken is overcooked for my taste and that held true in Morocco. The olives were quite large and a little more bitter than many we had and we had way more couscous than we could handle. We ate a lot of tagine cooked food in Morocco and lamb was always by far the best, followed by beef, a distant second, and chicken a more distant third. Finally, for dessert we had fresh strawberries in a cup with a sprig of mint and some whipped cream. Isabelle went to the market daily to get fresh fruit for the meals.
Pastilla with slice of orange on top.
A look inside the pastilla.
Tagine of chicken and olives.
The guest rooms are on the second floor arranged around the outside of the atrium. In addition to our bed, we had a nook with a coffee table and a couch, and a nice-sized bathroom with a walk-in shower.
The second floor and doors for some of the guest rooms.
Our bed
The nook with the couch.
Door into our room and bathroom off to the left. A beautiful wall hanging near the door.
On the third floor, which is the roof, there is a covered area as well as lounge chairs and a little hot tub. We had all three of our breakfasts there, outside and in the morning sun.  For breakfast Judy always got a pot of hot chocolate and I got a pot of warm milk with sugar (which I'd never had before Morocco and learned to love there). We always had fresh orange juice, some other fruit - an orange, strawberries or dates and several kinds of bread or cake along with butter, honey and fresh jam. We also had plain yogurt which I did not eat, but Judy did eat every morning.
Lounge chairs and a hot tub just visible to the left.
The covering over the atrium and the stork wall to the back.
Breakfast one morning.
Breakfast another morning.
Breakfast the third morning.
Best of all, we had a view of at least six white stork nests nearby on the wall of the Badi Palace. Two mornings I went up with my camera and watched them and took pictures. This was a very fun vantage point.
Four of the stork nests are visible in this photo.
Storks on their nest.
Taking flight.
Leaving the wall.
Overall, our three riads in Morocco were all marvelous. I would rate Riad Laaroussa in Fez and L'Ma Lodge in Skoura as the best, each being wonderful for different reasons, and I would rate Riad Badi a little behind the other two (the physical facility was not as large or as open and the food was not on the same level, but it was still fantastic and cheaper - in a more expensive city). 

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Red Rooster - Harlem, New York

When in New York recently, Judy had on her "have to do" list a visit to Red Rooster, a restaurant in Harlem owned by Marcus Samuelson. In her classes at Crafton Hills College she has been using the book, Yes, Chef: A Memoir, by Samuelson. Samuelson was born in Ethiopia, but adopted to a family in Goteborg, Sweden after his mother died. He got interested in cooking through his adoptive grandmother, went to culinary school in Sweden, did apprenticeships in Switzerland and Austria, then apprenticed at the Restaurant Aquavit in New York where he got a three star review from the New York Times at age 24. In 2004 he got the James Beard Award as Best Chef in New York City and started a restaurant Ringo in New York. There is much more to his resume, including guest-chef for the first state dinner of President Obama in honor of the Indian Prime Minister and many appearances on various food shows. He opened Red Rooster in Harlem in December 2010. Several months later Red Rooster hosted a fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee attended by President Obama which raised $1.5 million at $30,800 per plate. This is by far the most celebrity restaurant we have visited. Fortunately, our brunch cost substantially less than $30,800 per person. 

We visited Red Rooster on a cold Saturday morning, arriving right when it opened about 10:00 a.m. We'd been told it was virtually impossible to get reservations in the evening without substantial advance notice, but that we would be able to walk-in if we arrived early for the brunch. We may have been the first two customers in the restaurant as we waited for Andrew to meet us. It was slow to fill, but by the time we left it was packed. 

The decor was fun, had kind of an eclectic, home-grown, feel to it. For example, the bench we sat on had swaths of colorful fabric attached to it, including a piece with a sphinx. On one wall was a beautiful star-shaped quilt and there were photographs, collages and other items that made it fun to survey the room. Many of the people, both staff and customers, were even more interesting than the decor. Wild looking hats, hairstyles and clothing that I don't normally see. 
Judy's scarf fit the decor.

For starters we ordered deviled eggs with duck salame. The egg yolk filling greatly expanded its volume so that it towered above its hard-boiled egg-white base. The eggs were held in place by what appeared to be peanut butter (or perhaps cashew butter) and each had a chunk of bacon on top. The eggs were good, certainly visually different, but the taste was not significantly better or different than other deviled eggs I've had.
We also ordered cornbread with honey butter and tomato jam. I'm not sure I even tried the jam. I did use the honey butter. The corn bread was good, but not great or memorable.
Andrew ordered "the bird and the egg," consisting of fried chicken, an egg, a waffle and red eye gravy. I might've ordered this if he hadn't. The fried chicken was very nice, but I've had very good chicken at KFC. And I love an egg with anything. Very good - yes, spectacular -no. 
Judy ordered "el jefe," a short rib, black kale, eggs and grana padano cheese. This is the other item I might've ordered if Judy hadn't. Two eggs are better than one and I always love eggs with beef. It was good, I look at the picture and it looks good, but it was not memorable. I had no angst for not ordering it.
My top two choices taken, I went for "shrimp & grits," which was cheddar grits, "piri piri" and "frogmore stew." Frogmore stew is a Low Country (South Carolina) dish also known as "low-country boil" and "Beaufort stew." Frogmore is the mailing address for the residents of St. Helena island off the South Carolina coast and has nothing to do with frog legs, or any other part of the frog. The two main ingredients are fresh shrimp and freshly-shucked yellow corn. Piri piri is a chili pepper that grows in parts of Africa and then was taken to India by the Portuguese. It is also called African bird's eye chili. The shrimp was tender and the frogmore stew, with just a tad bit of piri piri spiciness, inundated the grits like a heavy rainfall swamps our back lawn. The grits were creamy, but I focused on spoonfuls of frogmore and left the less saturated grits mixture behind. This was creative, different and good - but you've got to really love grits to put that much away.
For dessert, yes dessert, even though its not yet near noon, Judy got "music roots" pie with hot fudge and marshmallow ice cream. It was visually different, like a combination waffle iron, wash basin and coon-skin cap. I took small tastes of the different elements and nothing tempted me to go on beyond that.
But, the dessert I ordered, the "creme de coco" with coconut panna cotta, mango and pistachio was incredible, probably the best of our menu items. It was smooth and creamy and the fresh mango taste dominated it wonderfully.
I'm a little conflicted about this restaurant experience. The setting is wonderfully fun and the clientele is even more interesting. So many stories I'd love to hear from backgrounds so different than mine. Judy was excited to be there and her excitement rubbed off. Having Andrew and his take on the world also added to the mix. The food was good, very good, but aside from one of the desserts, I didn't really feel like it was world class - President Obama, $30,800 per plate class (although I know the menu of that night had to be substantially different than what we were eating). I don't feel any particular need or desire to go back, although I would certainly do so. The dinner menu does look like it has more pizzazz. I give it a five (of five), but among the subset of five it would range in the middle, not toward the top. I also may be biased because of the chicken theme. If it was the golden calf, the black sheep, the galloping goat, Pilate's pig, or the magi's camel, I probably would have had more of an affinity for it. 

Friday, May 13, 2016

Lala's Argentine Grill - Los Angeles

I recently had a young friend return from an LDS mission to Argentina. I wanted to take him out for an Argentine meal and hear about his mission, something I've done with some other returned missionaries. They get a meal with food from where they have been living and I get to hear about the mission and ask questions, a mutually beneficial situation. 

I did some research on Argentine restaurants in the Los Angeles area and chose Lala's Argentine Grill in Los Angeles (we went to the one at 7229 Melrose Ave). It gets four stars on Yelp with 1,427 reviews and is rated number 355 our of 8,017 in Los Angeles on Trip Advisor with 134 reviews. 
I loved it. I give it five stars. Taylor (my friend) also enjoyed it and he said it was very authentic. The drive into and back from Los Angeles gave us some good time to talk and now I'm looking for an excuse to go back. 
We were seated outside under a patio.
First, we started with some nice bread and a chimichurri dipping sauce. Wikipedia says it is used for grilled meat, but we found it also makes for a nice dipping sauce. It appears that chimichurri has many different variations, but one recipe I am looking at includes Italian parsley, thyme, scallions, peeled garlic cloves, crushed chili flake, apple cider vinegar, lemon juice olive oil and salt and pepper. Another recipe uses oregano leaves and sherry wine or red wine vinegar instead of apple cider vinegar. Wikipedia credits Argentina for originating it and says it includes white vinegar and oregano and sites Uruguay for the addition of red pepper flakes. I found that in dipping the bread, it made a big difference if you got mostly olive oil verses a big smattering of the added ingredients. The olive oil by itself was bland, but the mixture made it quite exceptional. We finished our bread and chimichurri and ordered another round of it. 
For starters we got morcilla, two grilled traditional blood sausages. Taylor saw blood sausage in Argentina but never tasted any. I like to taste the boundaries and Taylor was a good sport and tried some with me. Morcilla is similar to what is called "black pudding" in England. It is pig's blood and ground up pieces of pork or pork offal. It may also include seasonings like salt, pepper, garlic, onion, paprika and other fillers like rice, breadcrumbs and nuts. I've eaten blood sausage before, at least once, but my experience is limited. This blood sausage had a higher ratio of blood to filler than what I've eaten previously which made it a little more difficult to deal with mentally. It tasted fine, nothing off-putting, but I do prefer more filler. Taylor courageously ate quite a bit of it.
Taylor was excited to eat some empanada. Lala's had a choice of beef, chicken, spinach, cheese and onion or ham and cheese. We chose ham and cheese. The empanada originated in Portugal. Wikipedia notes that in Argentina, the dough is made with wheat flour and beef drippings and that fillings differ from province to province. They can be baked (Salta-style) or fried (Tucuman-style). I'm guessing the one we shared was fried and it had a generous filling of white cheese and ham. It was good, but had a pretty high ratio of bread to filling. 

We also shared a chorizo sausage which Taylor was excited to try. He really learned to love chorizo. Chorizo originated in Spain and Portugal and is usually a pork sausage with an intestine casing. Argentine chorizo is usually made of pork, but can be made of beef, but tends to be less spicy than Spanish, Portuguese or Mexican chorizo. It was good, but I do like spicier chorizos. 
Argentina is known for its beef, so I had to try the "gaucho," a ribeye steak with grilled onions and an Anaheim pepper. The menu says the steak is aged at least 25 days. It came with a choice of french fries, mashed potatoes or salad and I chose the mashed potatoes. Taylor comes from a family where his father eats his steaks well done and we were going to be sharing. So I went for medium rare rather than rare. This item was worth the drive. The potatoes were some of the best I've had at a restaurant, I was wishing Judy could be there because she adores mashed potatoes. The Anaheim chili and onions were a very nice complement and the steak was fantastic. Nicely cooked, nice flavor. Taylor even voiced, when it was all over, that he usually ate his meat well done, but that he'd really enjoyed it medium rare. 

Here the steak is uncovered to reveal it is liberally peppered with garlic. 
Taylor ordered the suprema napolitana. It is boneless chicken breast, breaded and lightly fried, topped with basil tomato sauce and melted cheese, like a pizza. It was huge, nearly filled the plate. This dish was created in Buenos Aires and is not named after Naples, but after the restaurant Napoli in Buenos Aires where it was first sold in the late 1940s. Taylor was particularly excited about this dish, something he really loved there and he loved this. I'm not a major fan of pounded and breaded chicken so I had some and thought it was fine, but nothing I would order on my own. It did have a very large quantity of melted cheese on top of it. It also came with mashed potatoes.  
Finally, we got panqueque de banana condulce de leche, a pancake with warm caramel and diced bananas and caramelized sugar. Dulce de leche is made from whole milk, sugar and sometimes vanilla bean. It gets its taste from the Maillard reaction,  a chemical reaction between amino acids and reducing sugars that gives browned food its caramelized flavor. It looked good and was very good, although it did have somewhat of a burnt flavor. 

The caramelized milk of the dulce de leche.
Overall, I loved Lala's and would like to go back again.