after dinner sneeze

a lot of g says, t says

Posts Tagged ‘Iron Chef America

Chifa and Sampan: Battle Pork Banh Mi

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t says: On Saturday, g and I had a hankering for Sampan’s Pork Banh Mi.  By the way, it has come to our attention that although Sampan spells it “Bahn”, it might actually be “Banh” – so we apologize for mis-spelling it and will slowly go back through our old posts to fix it.  Regardless of how it’s spelled, we wanted it again, as we’ve had it twice so far <#1, #2>, and were happy both times (although we liked it better the first time).  Then I remembered that Chifa also has this  sandwich on their menu; we’ve never had it, but it’s Jose Garces – could his be as equally as awesome?  We felt the storm clouds gathering, casting thick shadows on the grassy field upon which an epic battle was to take place … could Iron Chef Garces beat out Challenger Michael Schulson in Battle Pork Banh Mi?  Furthermore, because Chifa’s more known for its Bao buns (steamed buns with pork belly), should that dish also be taken into consideration – perhaps as an exhibition match?  Thus, we devised a pig-centric three-way battle.  Here we go …

Chifa: 4/2010, Saturday 6pm, Party of 2.  We decided to go to Chifa first.  We did this for a couple of reasons.  The first is that clearly Chifa was going to be the challenger with regard to the sandwich, as we knew that we liked Sampan’s already; Chifa deserved the advantage of being eaten while we were the most hungry.  Furthermore, we wanted to end up at Sampan because it was closer to home (thus a shorter distance to walk afterward on a full stomach) and because if we were still hungry, we knew there were plenty of other delightful items on Sampan’s menu (overall, we and our wallets liked dinners at Sampan more than those we had at Chifa).

We were seated promptly (without a reservation) and we apologized in advance to our waitress that we wouldn’t be ordering a lot as we were doing a pork banh mi face-off.  She seemed amused by and was happy to entertain our ridiculosity.  We ended up ordering a spicy margarita, the pork belly bao buns (Chifa’s signature dish), and the pork banh mi (which apparently was added to the menu around January).

The first dish that was brought out was complimentary “bread”.  When it first hit the table, I was highly suspicious.  I didn’t recall them having a bread basket the last times we went.  In the back of my mind, I reasoned that it was obviously the chef’s attempt to fill us up so that by the time we got to Sampan, we’d be too full to eat.  Obviously, I was too smart for him/her.  Well, whatever the reason/delusion, that was some fine bread.  These were the size/shape of the steamed buns, except that they had more of the baked-brown look with the smell of cheese.  They were served with a spreadable brown spicy sauce.  When I bit into it, the first thing I noticed wasn’t a taste, rather, a texture; it reminded me of slightly undercooked Pillsbury dough.  Sounds gross?  Nope.  It brought back childhood memories of home baking experiments – awesome!  The bread was savory and soft and warm and gooey, and when coupled with the spicy sauce, it was a flavorful way to start our meal.  I eventually reasoned that this obviously must not be the chef’s intention to sabotage our perception of Sampan’s food, as to do that, he would have had to given us more than four of these … because if there were more, we would have definitely eaten them all throughout the course of the meal (our other dishes had some sauce “smears” on the plates that we would have also sopped up with the bread).

The bao buns were next.  You know – that Jose Garces is always so slick with presentation.  I just don’t know how you can make pale-looking buns and brown-colored meat look that appetizing on a plate, but he [or whoever is actually in the kitchen constructing it] does it superbly – it looks like it’s ready for a photo shoot.  Of course, I had to re-structure the components so that it could be handled and eaten more easily (a pretty stack isn’t always the easiest-to-eat), but I appreciated the effort to appeal to my eyes.  Like my eyes, my mouth also appreciated the buns immensely.  The very tender pork belly screamed sweet and savory.  The daikon and carrot added some salty sour.  Mix all of those with the texture of the light, fluffy, pillow-y bun and it was even better than the first times we went!  I did notice, however, that the pieces of meat I had weren’t as fatty as pork belly can be – which is good or bad depending on your stance (I kinda like the fat).  In any case, these really make me want to taste Momofuku’s …

The pork banh mi came out last.  Although of a similar size, Garces’s sandwich isn’t wrapped in craft paper like Sampan, rather, is presented naked, cut in half, and accompanied by yet another sauce smear.  The first thing I noticed was that the bread looked particularly delicious – it appeared golden brown, crusty, and not the least bit squished from cutting.  And you know what – that was some good bread, with an awesome outside crust that resembling a Tony Luke’s cheese steak.  As soon as my teeth broke past the bread, I inhaled a breath of vegetable/herb freshness – there was cucumber and carrot with some mint and cilantro.  As my teeth chewed on the pork pieces (the waitress said it was pork shoulder), it released sweet, but was quickly followed by another salty, savory, mushy-textured experience: the pate!  Apparently Jose likes to add pate to the sandwich, which was only so-so in terms of taste (the flavor of the pate is kind of muted versus the rest of the ingredients in the sandwich, so I didn’t want it to dominate).  Furthermore, with later bites, I found that it’d aid the pork in sliding out the back of the sandwich as I chomped on the bread by acting as a lubricant – that was annoying.  Finally, upon swallowing, I noticed a bit of heat.  At first, I thought it was the spicy margarita, but it was not; sliced jalapenos were hidden among the greens.  The heat was nice just so long as you didn’t happen to get an overwhelming piece of chile.  Overall, the sandwich was good – the vegetables were very bold and up front, the bread and sauce were excellent, and the meat was tender.  I deduct points for the pate (just leave it out!) and too little sauce (put it on my sandwich, not a smear on my plate).  Not bad a bad showing …

After concluding these tastings, we paid our bill and walked over to Sampan.  I was no longer “hungry” but “I could eat” …

Sampan: 4/2010, Saturday 7pm, Party of 2.  We were seated promptly at the “bar” the faces the open kitchen.  This time we were further from the salamanders, and closer to the appetizer prep stations.  As we sat, we watched a pork banh mi being made – it looked simple enough – take some bread, slice it, add some sauce, add the meat, add the veggies, add the herbs, sprinkle some ?nuts? on top, wrap it up, and send it out.  As we watched this one being made, we placed our order, and lo and behold, the one we had just watched was delivered to our table!  It was like they were expecting us!  I guess the reality is that they probably always have one ready to go because they have to make it so often …

First things first – how’d it look?  Well, it was wrapped in paper emblazoned with “Sampan” … I kind of like the old school craft paper they had used the very first time we went.  Furthermore, gone was the blue painter’s tape – they were now using masking tape.  Once again – give me the blue painter’s tape!  I don’t like change, damnit!

I opened up the paper and saw our victim.  While it looked similar to Chifa’s, the bread definitely appeared softer – likely because there was some squishing in the wrapping process and the warmth from the meat was softening the bread.  To be honest – I liked the bread at Chifa better because I like a nice hard outer crust – but if you want soft, then Sampan is the way to go.  But when it comes to flavor, there’s a slightly different story …  Sampan’s veggies and herbs and meat didn’t give me clear distinct notes, rather, a single harmonious flavor, including sour and sweet from the pickled vegetables, light heat from the sauce, a zing from the cilantro, and savory from the pork.  Yes, all the flavor components were the same as in Chifa, but they all worked together at once – there weren’t phases of evolving flavors, rather, one big flavor up front that eventually gave way to the individual components later on, after you swallowed.  It was so good.

After some thought, g and I felt that it was definitely better this time than at our last Sampan visit (and almost as good as our first).  Why?  Well, as we watched from our seat, we realized that the woman making the sandwich with “Fernandez” embroidered on her coat did an excellent job ensuring the right veggie:herb:meat:sauce ratio; this time was near perfect (maybe a little less sauce as our sandwich was a little drippy towards the end), but last time there just wasn’t enough meat.  Thank you Chef Fernandez!  You the woman!

We concluded our meal at Sampan with dessert – the chocolate banana “tart” in which a chocolate crust filled with bananas that were bruleed.  It was an excellent idea, but there were some flaws in execution.  The torch definitely burnt some of the exposed crust, so after the first accidental taste of burnt-bitterness (it’s hard to see the burnt parts as the chocolate crust was a dark brown), we had to seek out and remove the burnt areas.  Also, there could have been some other sauce or ganache or something to bring together the mushy bananas (they were mushy in a good way!) and the firm, somewhat dry, crust.  The waitress did recommend the ice cream to go with this dessert when we ordered, but we ignored her, and now we wished we hadn’t.  Like each time we’ve been to Sampan, the desserts are theoretically great, but taste only “good” – int his case, it wasn’t quite good enough to order again (but they keep rotating the dessert menu, so I’m sure I’ll find something new to order next time).

Conclusions:  Ok – super long post – let’s summarize …

1)  I prefer Sampan’s pork banh mi to Chifa’s primarily because of the bold, harmonious flavor that hit you from the very beginning.  While Chifa did have superior bread and more of a “freshness”, the pate subtracted from the dish, and perhaps adding more sauce and allowing the ingredients a chance to meld together (perhaps wrapped in some kraft paper with blue painters’ tape?) would help it?

2)  Chifa’s pork buns, however, are superior to Chifa’s banh mi – the way the flavors are integrated makes this dish hit you with flavor the same way Sampan’s bhan mi hits you – you get a nice strong, combined flavor up front that eventually gives way to subtler flavors later.

3)  Sampan’s banh mi vs. Chifa’s buns … gee … that’s really close …  I think it’d have to come down to what kind of mood you’re in … do you want bread or buns?  Ceviche (Chifa) or Brussels sprouts (Sampan)?  Personally, I think that Sampan might have the edge because the rest of the menu (or at least, the things we like to eat) are priced more aggressively.  We only wish they could execute the desserts a little better – there’s untapped potential there …

Epilogue:  As we got up to leave Sampan, g tried to direct my attention to the kitchen.  Eventually, she succeeded in doing so (I’m not too good with picking up on her non-verbal signals, and she didn’t want to say aloud, “Hey – look at the guy with the fish.”)  I looked over just in time to see Chef Forneas (the real person in charge at Sampan) pull out this huge fillet of fish (looked like yellowtail) and do some trimming.  He was showing another one of the kitchen staff how to cut the fish [I think].  Then, he attempted to slice off a piece, but was disappointed and left, hurriedly, to the back of the kitchen.  I was psyched because I thought he was going to get a sharp, Japanese knife (one of those single-beveled ones known as a yanagi) and show this fish a thing or two.  This was going to be so cool to see him do some sashimi slicing right in front of us (I’m a little obsessed with kitchen knives)!  After a few seconds, he then came back into sight … with one hand holding the same knife he was holding before … and the other holding a honing rod …  He then proceeded to hone his knife, Gordon Ramsey style, as he walked towards us (and the fish).  I counted the offenses …  He was going to slice this beautiful fillet not with a yanagi.  He was going to use a knife that he was clearly abusing with a honing rod (any knife that you should be using to cut sashimi should not be honed as such).  He appeared satisfied with this solution, as he walked with an air of pride in his honing technique.  With those three strikes, I had no choice but to leave in utter disgust.  Condoning such practices is abominable.  I fought back the urge to reach across the bar, snatch the fillet, and run out the door in an attempt to rescue the meat.  I vow to you here that I will order sashimi from Sampan nevermore

Written by afterdinnersneeze

19 April 2010 at 7:32am

An Ode to Bobby Flay

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k says: This is an ode to my culinary hero. I have been eagerly awaiting the arrival of Bobby’s Burger Palace (BBP) just a few blocks away from our apartment. First, a little background on the topic that is so close to my heart —

I love Bobby Flay. Now, I know there is some controversy here. t himself has bashed Bobby on a few occasions, even in this very blog. And yet we’re still friends … t thinks that Bobby is inferior to Morimoto and that he was kind of a whiner in that classic Iron Chef episode where they first faced off, and similarly childish when they rematched in Japan. While I agree, it’s now over 10 years later and the new Bobby is not like that. The new Bobby makes shrimp and corn tamales that still make my mouth water one year after eating them. The new Bobby has humility. He is always a little embarrassed when he wins a Throwdown. The new Bobby knows how to share the stage and is always open to learning from others on Grill It. t will mention that Bobby is sometimes criticized for playing it safe in competitions, only sticking to the cuisine he knows best, relying heavily on southwestern flavors and his favorite chipotle. True, but who sticks to what he knows more than Morimoto? And nobody criticizes him…because it’s delicious! A robust statistical analysis will show that Bobby consistently wins in the “taste” category during Iron Chef competitions. Bobby has cultivated a style with bold and complex flavors, as evident by the Mesa Grill menu, that in my opinion is quite delicious.

Still, even Bobby knows that not every dining experience needs to be, or should be, a Mesa Grill type of event. BBP shows Bobby’s enjoyment of simple, every day foods. (I was going to write that he is “a man of the people,” but I’m pretty sure cm would laugh in my face, and rightly so.) But back to the burgers. In my opinion, there’s nothing more boring than greasy meat on bread. But Bobby takes burgers to the next level. There is watercress and avocado, goat cheese, bacon, and my favorite of all…pickles. All for just $7.50. (See my previous comment on Ladder 15.)
So…you can imagine my excitement when construction started on a BBP in my very own neighborhood. We have walked past it many times in the past few months, peeking in the window for signs of new development, and recently, for signs of the man himself. I have been scoping out the menu and have already decided that the L.A. Burger will be my first order (this also happens to be Bobby’s favorite.) I have also been contemplating what I will say to Bobby if I get the chance to meet him. I realized that I may have only a brief opportunity to speak to him. What is the perfect opening line to catch his attention? I’ve been brainstorming ideas. Any suggestions will be considered. Tomorrow is the big day…my stomach is a flutter.

A full restaurant review is forthcoming …

t says: If I see Bobby tomorrow, I’ll fight the urge to buy a burger from Supper (or a burrito from the nearby Chipotle) and challenge him to a throwdown …  But on a serious note, I’m totally down for a good burger – I hope he delivers the goods …

Written by afterdinnersneeze

5 April 2010 at 11:19pm

Bacon Bacon Bacon!

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t says: This past weekend, g said, “I want some mac and cheese.”  A quick trip to google led me to Ina Garten’s recipe.  I was psyched to use bacon – but the same ‘ol “problem” came up: the recipe called for far less bacon than one can purchase in a package at the supermarket.  So what should I do with the rest? I made it my mission to use the entirety of the bacon to complete the meal.  This is what I did …

Step 1 was to cook nearly all of the bacon (I’m saving some for some eggs this weekend) in the oven as per Ina’s recipe.

9 went into the oven - only 8 made it to the picture ...

3 of the strips of the bacon would serve as the 4-oz required by Ina’s recipe (which I also modified a little – upped the cheddar by an ounce and lowered the blue cheese by an ounce – a good thing, too cuz that blue cheese I got was kickin’ – g thinks it still has too much oomph!).

What next?  Well, I figured that I needed a side dish.  But what could I make that incorporates bacon?  As I sat there looking at the dirtied pan, something shiny caught my eye … I knew what I had to do …

The grease says: "Don't forget about me!"

Through some crafty aluminum foil bending, I reserved the liquid gold ...

Inspired by Tyler Florence’s “Bacon-Braised Brussels Sprouts” that I must have seen 57 times around the holidays, I used the bacon grease to coat some halved Brussels sprouts, which I then seasoned with salt, pepper, Cayenne powder, and garlic powder before roasting in the oven at 400 degrees (turning every 5-10 mins).  The end result was one appetizer and one side.

Main and Side ... both with bacon!

I didn’t originally intend to use bacon grease for the Brussels sprouts, but when I realized I used the last of the oil in the house for our eggplant parmigiana-lasagna, I had little choice.  I must admit that I was a little disappointed with the color of the Brussels sprouts – I got a bad bunch so I had to prune way a lot of the dark green outer leaves – so what I used looked a little pale.  They were also kind of small – so they were tender before their leaves got nice and brown – I guess a frying pan would have given me the char that I wanted, but I didn’t want to deal with high heat frying tonight – I was having a lazy day).

Ok, so you probably see where this is going …  I have several strips of cooked bacon … and a need for dessert … I had the perfect solution …

A while ago, a friend of mine and I attempted bacon-chocolate-chip cookies.  They were phenomenal – but quite annoying to make (you had to make the bacon ahead of time and incorporate it into the dough).  I wanted to do something similar, but all of my cookie dough was already made and sitting ready-to-go in the freezer; incorporating bacon pieces wouldn’t be easy.  The solution?  Well – one time at Talula’s Table, a component in the dish called “Asparagus, Asparagus, Asparagus” featured bacon “powder” (which was genius).  And there I had it – I’d dust the cookies with some bacon powder (or very tiny bits – I didn’t want to bring out a food processor to actually get a powder).

Bacon bits in a baggie - ready for cookies!

Pig and chocolate - before the oven ...

Savory and sweet, in one luscious package ...


So, I obviously still have bacon bits left over, but I’m going to rim the drink of a margarita glass like I saw on Iron Chef America recently.  Can’t wait to see how that’ll taste (I’m hoping for a melon-based mixed drink so it’s like prosciutto-wrapped melon).

And … there we go!  Three courses and a drink incorporating bacon!  I must confess that I didn’t make the cookies the same night as the sprouts and the mac-n-cheese – I was just too full!  But I could have!  And isn’t that what really matters?

Oh … and a complete freak coincidence … a day or so after I thought of dusting my cookies with bacon (and didn’t tell anyone!) – look what lc sent us in the mail:

Pig and chocolate ... in bar form!

Can’t wait to try it!

Bold Flay-vors Coming to Philly

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t says: Some people love Bobby Flay.  Some people love to hate Bobby Flay (often referencing the epic Morimoto vs. Flay battle on the original Iron Chef).  Regardless of which you are, surely you’d be interested in the spring opening of Bobby’s Burger Palace in West Philly.  As a Flay-hater, I know that I’ll definitely go and try one of these burgers in the hopes that it will single-handedly change my mind about him.  Additionally, surely my patronage will make up for all of those hurtful, sarcastic comments I’ve made about him over the years (e.g. I’m sure that “what these burgers lack in appearance, they’ll make up for in flavor”).  But, if/when the flavor doesn’t make up for it, I’ll just have to comfort myself by writing a scathing review (and visiting Capogiro that’s right around the corner … you know … the one that serves gelato and alcohol – why aren’t there more of these?) …

P.S. Yes, I do love that Tony Luke beat him in the cheesesteak throwdown and that Morimoto beat him in the recent Iron Chef America battle.

Written by afterdinnersneeze

17 February 2010 at 10:16pm

Garces Strikes Again (with a store!)

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As I’m sure everyone’s aware – Jose Garces (Philadelphia restauranteur and our favorite of the current American Iron Chefs) has opened up a new establishment in Philadelphia today: Garces Trading Company.  I’ll let google fill you in with the details; I’ll just tease you by saying that it seems to offer (among other things) unique selections of olive oils, vinegars, cheeses, and special wines (i.e. not offered by most PA’s Wine and Spirits Shoppes!).  Yea, there’s food, too!

Written by afterdinnersneeze

16 February 2010 at 9:03am