Friday, October 31, 2008

Spice Route Runs Down Interstate

Where do you go when you need an exotic spice called for in a recipe? And I mean one most people have never heard of. One that's used infrequently, even in its country of origin. One that really can't be substituted for.

Sometimes, when a recipe calls for something I don't have in my spice drawer, I've left it out altogether. But this time, when a lamb shank recipe called for black cardamom pods, I went on a mission.

I stopped at a couple of Asian markets. No dice. I thought my luck might change at Caribbean Spice on NE 42nd and, while they said they used to carry it, it hadn't sold well. As I was heading out the door, the woman behind the counter called me back and recommended trying Fiji Emporium, a store that carries spices and ingredients from Fiji, India, Australia and New Zealand.

Score! Not only did they have the black cardamom pods I was seeking, but a dazzling array of other spices and grains in a crowded but very clean little store. The fellow behind the counter even seemed interested in what I was making with it, and pulled out a large container of lacy orange mace for me to sniff, saying it was often used with lamb as well.

So now I can add this spot to my list of great ethnic sources along with Rose International and Uwajimaya in Beaverton. And this one's a lot closer to home. Now, can anyone tell me what Junglee Chicken is?

Details: Fiji Emporium, 7814 N Interstate Ave. Phone 503-240-2768.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Market Watch: Hollywood Farmers' Market

This Market Watch column that I write every week? I gotta come clean. It has a nefarious purpose. In that it allows me to ogle, squeeze and sniff some of the best stuff being grown in this bounteous region. And get paid for it.

So this week's Market Watch report on the Hollywood Farmers' Market? It allowed me to shop for ingredients for a paella dinner I was cooking up for friends. Yes, the beet salad dinner (see below). Am I a bad person?

Details: Hollywood Farmers' Market. Saturdays, 9 am-1 pm. NE Hancock St. between NE 44th and 45th Aves. Phone 503-709-7403.

Worth the Drive?

The question was whether it was worth it to drive to Hillsboro for sushi. I'd heard good things, my brother had run across positive comments and Chrissie from Kookoolan Farms, who'd suggested it in the first place, said she'd had nothing but great food there. But wimpy city-dwellers that we are, we needed to whine a little and drag our feet. After all, we've got good sushi places nearby. Why go allllllllllllllll the way out there?

But when we walked through the front door and into the little warren of rooms that makes up Syun Izakaya, it felt like we'd stepped through a portal to central Tokyo. All bamboo and bustle, wood plank tables and sushi chefs slicing away behind the counter. And our first plate of sashimi made us wish we'd made it to this place a lot sooner. Fresh, clean and perfectly sliced fish tasted like it had been pulled from the ocean no more than five minutes ago.

We ordered dish after dish, swinging from sushi to noodles to soup, and from the beef salad to the sesame noodles to the tofu soup with mushrooms, it couldn't have been more traditional or more delicious. And the prices were extremely affordable, with wine, beer and an amazing selection of high-end sakés.

So whine as much as you like, but do get out and try it.

Details: Syun Izakaya, 209 NE Lincoln St., Hillsboro. Phone 503-640-3131.

A Tart by Any Other Name

Please don't tell anyone, but my pots and pans are talking to me. It always happens around this time of year as the temperature dips and the leaves start falling from the trees around the house. Just the other day I distinctly heard my 9 1/2 quart Le Creuset whisper, "Choucroute would be lovely. Or maybe a nice braised lamb."

Bacon crispy, onions browned: Check!

As if that weren't enough, the tart pan began chiming in. "Quiche is really easy, you know. And you could use those Jonagold apples for a tasty tart." So it was with some relief that I read a recent e-mail from Luan at Foster & Dobbs and discovered it contained a recipe for an onion and bacon tart. Maybe that would shut that pan up for a few days!

And, btw, it was delicious. Now to silence the Le Creuset...

Fall Onion & Bacon Tart

1 1/4 c. all-purpose flour
1 stick (1/2 c.) unsalted butter or frozen margarine
1/4 tsp. salt
3 Tbsp. ice water

3 slices good bacon
1 big onion, thinly sliced
Pinch of sugar
1 c. milk or Half & Half or cream if you’re feeling indulgent
2 eggs
1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
Generous pinch of salt
4-5 oz. mountain cheese (use a good full flavored cow’s milk cheese like Spahn, Fontina D’Aosta, or Gruyere), grated

Cut together flour, butter, and salt in a small bowl with a pastry blender (or pulse in a food processor) just until mixture resembles an uneven, coarse meal with some pea-sized butter lumps. Drizzle 3 tablespoons ice water evenly over mixture and blend (or process) until incorporated. Squeeze a little in your fist. If it crumbles, add a little more water, blend in and squeeze again. Repeat if necessary, but don’t work the dough too much or it will be tough. When you’re satisfied, press dough into a disk about five inches across, and chill for at least an hour.

Preheat oven to 400°F.

Roll out dough so it will fit in a 9-inch tart pan with removable bottom. Press it into the pan and up the sides, and then pierce it with a fork. Freeze 10 minutes. Line it with foil and fill with beans or pie weights [I use heavy-duty aluminum foil alone] and then bake crust 10 minutes. Take out the weights and foil and bake until it’s starting to turn golden, maybe 10-15 minutes more. Pull it out and let it cool while you make the filling.

In a medium skillet, sauté the bacon over medium-low heat until it’s crisp and has rendered its fat. Pull out the bacon and drain on paper towels. Raise the heat to medium and sauté the onion in the drippings with a pinch of sugar until they’re deep golden brown (15-20 minutes). Spread the onions over the bottom of the crust, break bacon into bite-size pieces and sprinkle over onions. Top with grated cheese. Blend together the milk, eggs, salt and pepper, then pour into the crust.

Bake until filling is set, about 25 minutes. Cool tart on rack for a few minutes and then remove pan sides. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Shanghai Honeymoon

If you want to read about one hungry guy eating his way through the streets of old China, check out my brother's blog from Shanghai where he and his (amazingly slim) bride are honeymooning.

Oh, and make sure you've got something to nibble on while you're reading or your drooled-on keyboard may never be the same. Pictured above are some chicken xiaolongbao from Jia Jia Tang Bao in Shanghai's French Concession. I'm so jealous!

Friday, October 24, 2008

In Season: Sprouts on a Stick!

This is the way I love my sprouts...the tiny ones at the top brushed with olive oil and roasted with cloves of garlic; a hash of the larger sprouts chopped with nuts and tossed with pancetta.

And a new one on me was Tatsoi (left), an Asian green I ran across at Persephone Farm's stand. Manager Seth Belber says it's great in salads and in stir fry and has a mild peppery flavor similar to nasturtiums.

If Opie Says So...

I couldn't have said it any better myself. So vote!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Curry for Kids

Eat well and do good for some of the poorest kids on the planet? Count me in!

Ten Portland-area Indian restaurants are donating a portion of their sales on Oct. 30 to Progressive Health Worldwide (PHWW), a local nonprofit organization that brings food and medicine to children in India suffering from life-threatening malnutrition and tuberculosis (TB).

Participating Portland restaurants are Curry Leaf (extending from 10/24-30), East India Co., India Oven, Plainfield's Mayur Restaurant, Tandoor Indian Kitchen and Vindalho. In Beaverton go to Lentil Garden or Mayuri Indian Restaurant and in Hillsboro head to Swagat Indian Cuisine or Chennai Masala.

Let me know if there are any restaurants in your area participating in this event!

Photo by Meena Khadri.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Market Watch: Tigard Farmers' Market

This week's Market Watch report comes from the Tigard Farmers' Market, which has perhaps the oddest location for a farmers' market in the entire state. Every Sunday its vendors set up their lively gathering of tents in the parking lot of Young's Funeral Home on Hwy. 99.

Details: Tigard Farmers' Market. Sundays through Oct. 26, 9 am-2 pm. Young's Funeral Home, 11831 SW Pacific Hwy., Tigard. Phone 503-244-2479.

Livin' in the Blurbs: Fried Chicken, Van Gogh and Chocolate?

Nick Zukin of Kenny and Zuke's writes to let y'all know that KZ's fried chicken is back in the shack. You get three pieces of local, natural chicken soaked in buttermilk, pan-fried in a cast-iron skillet in duck fat and served with smashed potatoes, creamy gravy and veggies. But note that it's only available on Wednesdays after 5 pm and will set you back $16.75. Oh, and those wild and crazy guys have added a new sandwich to the lineup, the "Meshugaletta," piled high with pastrami, salami, roast beef, turkey, swiss and a spicy pickle salad for $14.75. Oi vey!

Details: Kenny and Zuke's, 1038 SW Stark St. Phone 503-222-3354.

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Portland's favorite arty string band, Caravan Gogh, will get that pre-election groove going when they bring their eclectic playlist to the Sapphire Hotel on Sunday, Nov. 2, from 8 till 10 pm. For a preview of their sound, check out their psychedelic new video, Vertigogh. Just don't watch it while you're voting, OK?

Details: Caravan Gogh at the Sapphire Hotel. Sun., Nov. 2; 8-10 pm. Sapphire Hotel, 5008 SE Hawthorne Blvd. Phone 503-232-6333.

* * *

Chocolate is the theme of Ted Coonfield and Tricia Leahy's series of classes where they guarantee you'll learn all about chocolate and get messy making it. Get hands-on experience tempering, making fine chocolates and creating your own signature chocolates in six sessions at Sweets, Etc., in Multnomah Village. Sounds like the perfect holiday gift for the chocoholic in your life!

Details: The Chocolate Course. Six sessions (Jan. 14 & 28; Feb. 11 & 25; Mar. 11 & 25); $120, reservations only. Sweets, Etc., 7828 SW Capitol Hwy. Phone 503-293-0088.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Unbeatable Beet Salad

Pentimento is an Italian phrase for the reappearance in a painting of a design that has been painted over, a shadow of the past that shimmers under the surface. I'm not sure what it is, but autumn is like that for me. Maybe it's the falling leaves closing another chapter on a year of memories.

Last night was an evening with friends that capped a season of memorable gatherings and will go down as one of our all-time faves. Meant as a tribute to my recent foray into the Basque culture of Boise, it was an evening of great food, wonderful wines, much laughter and lively conversation. And for feeding a crowd, it doesn't get better than paella on the grill made with a slightly spicy chorizo from the Basque Market in Boise, along with chicken thighs, mussels and local green beans.

It would have been an ideal one-dish meal had I not been swept away by the beets at Persephone Farm's stand at the Hollywood Farmers' Market. After roasting, their sweetness, not to mention their glorious fall coloring, was the ideal compliment to the smoky heartiness of the paella.

Fall Beet Salad

3 lbs. beets, ideally different colors
Olive oil
Aged balsamic vinegar
Kosher salt
Fresh-ground pepper

Preheat oven to 400°. Place washed and dried beets on square of heavy-duty aluminum foil (three or four together if small, individually if large) and drizzle with olive oil and a sprinkle of salt. Roast for45 min. to one hour till slightly tender. Unwrap and cool.

Peel beets, then slice thinly by hand or in mandoline and arrange in rows on platter. Sprinkle with olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper and serve.


I figured there would be at least six, maybe even sixty. But six hundred posts? Who would have thought?

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Letter from Manhattan: Come Taste the Wine, Come Hear the Band….

In this installment, transplanted Oregonian Mark Dundas Wood gives us a taste of the nightlife on his street in the Big Apple, yet reveals that his ears never stray far from his roots in Oregon.

I live a block west of what is known as Manhattan's "restaurant row"—a strip between 8th and 9th Avenues, on 46th Street. An alternative name for this block might be "cabaret row," as it's traditionally been one of the places to go to hear live music in the city.

That may be changing a bit. Don’t Tell Mama (photo, above) one of the favorite "niteries" in the city, is still going strong. But, a year or so ago, Danny's Starlight Room—across the street from DTM—closed. It reopened several months later as the Bourbon Street Bar and Grille, a Big Easy "theme" restaurant with sports-bar TV screens—in lieu, alas, of the inimitable song stylings of Blossom Dearie. I was hoping there'd maybe be some live Dixieland jazz at the new place, but it hasn’t seemed to materialize yet. And though the statue near the front door, depicting a plump alligator dressed as a waiter, has its own kind of Disneyish charm, I’ve yet to be lured in to try the Cajun cuisine.

While New York has traditionally been cabaret capital of the nation, Portland is no slouch when it comes to performers mining the Great American Songbook tradition. Take for instance, the fantastic Susannah Mars, warm, poised and lilting. And, in a somewhat different vein, there’s of course Thomas Lauderdale and China Forbes and their hip, eclectic now-global phenomenon, Pink Martini—blending World Music and retro pop in a whirling pastel pinwheel of fun. (Does anybody besides me recall pianist Lauderdale playing solo at the Hobo's piano bar several years ago, puckishly running piano improvisations on the theme from I Dream of Jeanie?)

On a visit back to Portland late last spring, at the Pine Street Bistro, I was lucky enough to catch what is probably my all-time-favorite Portland-based act: vocalist Rebecca Kilgore and pianist Dave Frishberg. Both are world-class jazz musicians who just happen to live in Portland. I had not heard them live since their long stint at the Heathman Hotel ended several years ago. But I listen to their recordings over and over. Now they have a new CD, Why Fight the Feeling?, a collection of songs by the great Frank Loesser from Arbors Records.

Kilgore's reliable, buoyant voice has been compared to Doris Day's, but when Kilgore teams with the droll Frishberg—whose wit and ingenuity never flag—her own vocal logo gets stamped on a song. The two performers know each other so well that they complete each other’s musical sentences...and what a conversation ensues! Plus there’s plenty of lesser-known material beside the Loesser-known (Kilgore loves to uncover musical rarities). Though "What a Rumba Does to Romance" ventures into Latin American territory, we don’t get the treat here of listening to Kilgore sing in Portuguese, as she does on Brazil-based tracks on other albums with Frishberg. My wish is that the next album this duo records together will be all-Brazil, all the time. Muito linda!

Top photo by Shanna Ravindra for New York Magazine. Susannan Mars from Rebecca Kilgore from The Mainstay.

I Can't Stay Away!

It's like driving by the house you grew up in, or your first apartment or...well, you get the picture. All your memories are still alive there, waiting to be relived.

The same is true of restaurants, where your favorites stay on the menu but, even better, there are always new dishes to be tried and new memories to be made. Evoe, the tiny spot next to Peter DeGarmo's Pastaworks, is like that for me. All Chef Kevin Gibson has to do is walk through the archway connecting the two and grab the best ingredients from one of the city's best selection of meats, fresh produce and imported items.

The magic happens on the broad wooden table in front of you, where he conjures a wide-ranging and oft-changing menu of salads, meat and cheese boards and small plates. On the day I was in he made a salad of zucchini with ricotta salata and glazed nuts that he sliced and mixed it, talking about the importance of the right balsamic vinegar and oil as he mixed the dressing.

The meat board that day was a selection of cured products made even better by the addition of his hand-pickled condiments, another great benefit of having Mr. Gibson in charge. Plus his obvious delight in having a whole leg (including hoof) of serrano ham sitting on the front counter for passersby to admire.

Evoe...I can't get enough!

Details: Evoe, 3731 SE Hawthorne Blvd. Phone 503-232-1010.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Chillah of a Thrilla

Seth Sonstein, maestro of the cinematic salon that is the Clinton Street Theater, gives GSNW the scoop on what looks to be the movie equivalent of a tectonic event. In its first showing on an 11-city road tour, director Darren Lynn Bousman and co-writer and actor Terrance Zdunich will debut Repo: The Genetic Opera at the Clinton on Nov. 10. This end-of-the-world rock opera/thriller describes a world where an epidemic of organ failures has caused a boom in loans for organ transplants but, if you fall behind on your payments, well, the title says it all. Seth says he's already getting reservations from as far away as New York, so get your tickets soon!

Details: Repo: The Genetic Opera. Mon., Nov. 10, 10 pm; $8. Clinton Street Theater, 2252 SE Clinton St. 503-238-8899.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Market Watch: Hillsboro Farmers' Market

Out on the far reaches of the Silicon Forest, nestled against the hills of the Willamette Valley, lies the town of Hillsboro. Every Saturday citizens gather to celebrate the harvest in the center of town, and this week's Market Watch was there to report on what's fresh and local.

Details: Hillsboro Farmers' Market. Saturdays, 8 am-1:30 pm at Main Street and Second Ave., one block northwest of the Third Avenue MAX station

The Bites Have It!

We all have our accept-no-substitutes, go-to foods that we simply must have when the craving strikes. So when Karen Brooks of the Oregonian's A&E section asked me for a list of my top faves for their Best Bites '08 section, I fired off my picks faster than a Corgi can down her dinner.

And the picks that made it in? Here they are:

Best Waffles: Belgian Waffles at the Waffle Window, SE 36th Ave. at Hawthorne. Phone 503-239-4756.
Forget the gooey, cloying versions around town. These are the genuine yeast-raised street waffles found in any Belgian city. The secret to their unique taste and satisfying crunch? Pearl sugar. Have them plain or with nontraditional toppings like hot apple pie, pumpkin pie or sacher torte. Either way be warned: One taste of the real thing and there’s no going back. Available on weekends (look for the blue Dutch door) - or packaged at the attached Bread & Ink restaurant for $9.50.

Best Brownies, Cakes and Cupcakes: Almond Cake at Bar Avignon, 2138 SE Division. Phone 503-517-0808.
This newcomer to Division Street’s burgeoning restaurant row is known for simple meals and wine savvy, but insiders come for the almond cake, a small round of light, sweet cake surrounded by a fabulously crunchy crust with a perfect almond flavor. The formula changes - recently, that meant a topping of citrusy balsamic orange reduction. Be sure to ask owner (and former Wildwood wine director) Randy Goodman to recommend the perfect foil for its airy richness.

Best Gelatos and Ice Creams: Ice creams at Bread & Ink Cafe, 3610 SE Hawthorne. Phone 503-239-4756.
Owners Bruce and Mary Fishback love conjuring up new ice cream flavors for their Hawthorne cafe. The dream du jour might be orange blossom crunchy with Guittard bittersweet chocolate chips or perhaps the herbal sophistication of lemon verbena or even a refreshing grapefruit spuma, an airy type of sherbet made with sugar syrup and egg whites. Mary also is pastry chef at Rimsky-Korsakoffeehouse, so inspirations usually come with a bonus: a specialty cookie.

Best Chocolate...To Drink: Chocolate milk at Pine State Biscuits, 3640 SE Belmont. Phone 503-236-3346.
Forget Ponce de Leon. If you want to drink from the fountain of youth, just pop into this outpost of biscuit deliciousness and order the rich, thick, luscious, not-too-sweet chocolate milk made with a magical mix from Portland chocolatier David Briggs of Xocolatl de David truffle fame. One sip, and you’ll be skipping down the sidewalk in no time.

Best Sandwiches: Hot and melty Beecher's Flagship Cheddar at Foster & Dobbs, 2518 NE 15th Ave. Phone 503-284-1157.
Luan Schooler and Tim Wilson have an advantage over most sandwich shops: Their Irvington cheese-shop-cum-gourmet grocery is stocked with local and international cheeses, condiments and artisan-made charcuterie. The seven or so daily options, made to order with Pearl Bakery bread, feature scrumptious combinations like molé salami with cheddar and chili jam. Our current fave: Hot & Melty Beecher’s Flagship Cheddar (a Seattle cheese) with mango chutney and sweet hot mustard. Grab a glass of wine or beer and settle in at a table.

Boise: Wait...There's More!

If all this Basque culture gets to be a little much, there are plenty of opportunities to shop and eat your way through other cultures in the compact downtown area around the capitol (above; note the snow dusting the early October!).

One night we ventured to an Italian place called Gino's Italian Ristorante on the recommendation of Chris from Epi's. Located on the second floor of a shopping mall, red flags went up when I saw the kitschy walls painted to look like an Italian villa and garlic braids strung around the room. But we forged ahead, knowing Chris wouldn't steer us wrong, and were delighted to find Italian comfort in this far-flung outpost.

With a starter of calamari and a couple of bottles from their decently priced wine list, we got the evening off on a mellow footing. I chose the lamb shank with gnocchi (above left) for my entree, with the falling-apart shank smothered in a fabulously rich tomato sauce and the gnocchi in a slightly lighter sauce. While not a pillowy version, they complimented the lamb with their hefty (but not clunky) texture.

The Dungeness crab ravioli ordered by my dinner companion was a fabulous find, fresh and full of crabby flavor drizzled (but not drowned) in a light cream sauce. The table of five ordered several desserts and all were lovely, including a boysenberry chocolate torte that required an espresso (decaf, of course) to make it perfect. Gino himself came out and gave us a hug as we were leaving. No wonder Chris likes this place!

Another day we needed a quick lunch and, as we were discussing whether to be sucked into the drive-up window of the fast-food joint near our hotel, a taco truck appeared before us, shimmering like a vision from the Old Testament. The El Rey #2 (Is there a #1?) offered tacos for just a buck, each one a pearl of deliciousness on homemade corn tortillas. We sampled their barbacoa, carnitas and asada tacos and were not disappointed on the two pilgrimages we made. All I could say was, "Hallelujah!"

* * *

One last note: In a "You know you're in Idaho when..." moment, I walked in to the Fred Meyer across from the Expo center (where my friend was showing her Corgis) to get a latte from (gulp) Starbucks when I was confronted by a rack of Sarah Palin "Hockey Mom" t-shirts. In their defense, the back of the rack held Obama shirts, but seeing her grimace before I'd had my coffee was a little too much to bear at 7:30 in the morning. Just had to share that.

Read the rest of the series: Beautifully Basque, Basque Home Cooking and Basking in Basque-ness.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Boise: Basking in Basque-ness

Chinatown? Meh. Japantown? Been there. But a whole historic block dedicated to the Basque community of Boise? Now that piqued my interest.

Especially when I found out that in addition to a museum, a community center and the oldest house in Boise that was also a Basque boarding house, the block also boasts a Basque market, two restaurants and a pub. And, though it's not Basque, on one corner is one of the only restaurant and distillery combinations in the country. You can see the attraction, no?

The Basque Market (photos, top and left) was started by Dan Ansotegui, the brother of Chris at Epi's, who wanted to create a place where Basque people could buy ingredients unavailable at local grocery stores. It's also a Basque deli of sorts, where there are Basque tapas and wines, as well as sandwiches, soups and desserts to sample.

Bar Gernika was also begun by Dan, who sold both businesses in the last couple of years to local folks committed to staying true to the Basque identity he had established. This small pub has a good selection of microbrews on tap, and many Basque regional specialties especially suited to pub grub like a slice of potato-egg tortilla, grilled chorizo sausage, some of those lovely croquetas and even a mini-paella.

As you might expect, there are also Basque festivals scheduled throughout the year, such as the San Inazio Festival in July, Mortzilla Dinner in November featuring traditional Basque blood sausages (left) and the Sheepherders Ball in December. And every five years there is an international Basque festival called Jaialdi that sounds like a don't-miss opportunity to experience this unique culture. So mark your calendars for July, 2010...I sure am!

Read the rest of the series: Beautifully Basque, Basque Home Cooking and Wait…There's More!

Monday, October 13, 2008

Boise: Basque Home Cooking

Growing up, if we went to the store to pick up milk, we got a hug. Heading off for school or coming home got the same treatment. Going to bed? Hugged again. So, needless to say, as an adult I'm hard-pressed to keep my arms at my sides.

Cooking the "ink fish" before stuffing.

For some people, though, a handshake is about as much physical contact as they can stand, and we huggers try to respect their space. But be warned that when you walk into Epi's Basque Restaurant in the Boise suburb of Meridian, owner Chris Ansotegui (top photo, right) will most likely wrap you in her warm embrace.

She can't help herself, she says, because she's Basque. On both sides of the family. Her grandmother, Epifania Lamiquis, came to this country in 1929 to join her husband, David Inchausti, in Idaho. Like many Basque immigrant women, Epi opened a boarding house for the Basque sheepherders coming in from the hills, eventually attracting a following among non-Basques for the quality of the food she served.

Dorothy Ansotegui (Chris's mom) making the sofrito for that night's tongue.

In 1999 Epi's granddaughters, Chris and Gina, opened Epi's in honor of their grandmother. Their effort was aided by the fact that Gina had married Alberto Bereziartua, a Basque chef, who brought with him a passion for authenticity that made Epi's the place I wanted to go for a taste of this intriguing cuisine.

With a friend in tow, I ordered ham croquetas and calamari for appetizers, and Chris insisted that we had to taste the piments d'espelette, mild, sauteed green chiles similar to anaheims that a local farmer had grown from seeds brought from the Basque region. Simply fried in olive oil and sprinkled with coarse salt, their sweetness took center stage. These would be amazing on a platter with cheeses, and I'm going to try to get some seeds from Chris so I can grow my own next year. And we could have eaten a dozen of the grape-sized crunchy croquetas with their oozing creamy centers, but the crisp calamari, steaks that had been cut in french fry-style sticks, were too hard to resist when dipped in the little pot of smoky pimenton sauce on the side.

For the soup course we chose the Basque red bean soup, a luscious stew that I could imagine had warmed many a sheepherder's bones in the cold mountain passes. It was described as entirely vegetarian, and though I could have sworn on a stack of Bibles that it had come in contact with pork at some point in the preparation, Chris assured me that it hadn't.

Our entrees were equally smashing, the tongue I ordered having been gently braised in a rich tomato sauce from Grandma Epi's recipe that Chris's mom, Dorothy, makes. My friend had the night's special, a citrus-crusted halibut, the citrus a combination of lemon, lime and grapefruit zest that had been dried in the oven for a day, which was then mixed with herbs and salt to make a mild but lively crust when broiled.

We were too stuffed to try any of Epi's desserts, but I'll definitely be going back to survey more of Chris's terrific menu, including their signature "ink fish," baby squid stuffed and served in a sauce made from the jet-black ink. And I'll also insist on another one of her hugs.

Details: Epi's Basque Restaurant, 1115 N Main St., Meridian, Idaho. Phone 208-884-0142.

Read the rest of the posts in this series: Beautifully Basque, Basking in Basque-ness and Wait…There's More!

Boise: Beautifully Basque

Normally I wouldn't recommend driving seven hours just to have dinner. But the city of Boise, with its richly complex Basque community, makes it well worth the drive. And you might just consider staying a couple of extra days to give the place its due.

I was there last week researching a story for NW Palate magazine (thus the dearth of posts recently) and, far from being yet another deadly recounting of historic highlights, I found a thriving culture that is a celebrated part of the city as a whole. So much so that the city dedicated a whole block just steps from the capitol building downtown that is a magnet for tourists as well as a gathering place for the city's Basque community.

In the process of conceiving this cultural area, the design committee used Portland as an inspiration and created sidewalk panels (photos, top and left) incised with Basque surnames and traditional Basque songs (with music!). Even the street surface was decorated with the red and green colors of the Basque flag and the four-pronged lauburu, the national symbol of the Basque region.

With restaurants, a museum, a Basque market and more, there's lots to talk about!

Read the rest of the series: Basque Home Cooking, Basking in Basque-ness and Wait…There's More!

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Japanese Jumble

I have to start by saying that Yakuza seems very promising. The physical setting is unlike any other in Portland, with its sweep of long, low-slung tables and intimate lighting. And the sheltered courtyard with its garden out back looks like a terrific place to sit on a warm summer evening, sipping drinks and ordering little plates of nibbles.

Along with a few other members of Portland's food press, I was invited to sample their fall menu on the house, which usually means that all the stops are pulled out, air kisses float through the room like moths and fawning is the order of the day. The latter activities I find particularly repellent, but since bloggers don't have any power to make or break restaurants, we're pretty much left to talk with people we know and generally have a decent time.

Yakuza's sushi chef, the brother of owner and chef Micah Camden, came down with the flu the day of the dinner so we didn't sample the sushi, but I have to say that the food, while sometimes stunning, seemed a bit of a jumble of half-ideas and odd combinations. The shredded filo-wrapped sea scallops (photo, top) were outstanding and, with the cucumber and avocado salad with toasted sesame seeds and togorashi, the best dishes I tasted.

The red and gold beet carpaccio (left, above) was gorgeous and, while chevre and candied walnuts are standard accompaniments in a beet salad, the avocado, while adding nice color, took away from the sweetness of the beets and its creamy texture felt strange. The grilled duck with raisins and yakitori sauce was underdone and chewy, the burnt caramel sauce with the panko-fried banana (right, above) was more burnt than caramel, and the panko-fried goat cheese with caramelized onions and honey, while tasty, didn't resemble anything even vaguely Asian.

So I'm kind of at a loss when it comes to recommending the place. Mr. Camden obviously has talent and high ambitions (he also owns Beast and DOC nearby), but I left a little confused about what he's trying to do here. I'd be curious to hear what your experiences have been, so let me know!

Details: Yakuza Lounge, 5411 NE 30th Ave. 503-450-0893.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Love Those Lamburgers

The first time I had a burger made with lamb, prepared by my brother, a 'cue-meister of the first degree, it was like I'd been living in a forest and had never noticed the trees. If I was Homer Simpson, I would have slapped my forehead and said, "D'oh!" A light went on, I woke as if from a dream...use whatever hokey phrase you want, but I couldn't believe I'd never had one before.

Step 1: Form 1/4 of burger mix into two patties and top one with cheese.

What really got me was how simple they were to make. All it takes is ground lamb, some chopped garlic and herbs and, to take it to the level of celestial, all that's required is a slice of cheese inserted in the center. Throw them on the grill and you've got one of the most flavorful, delicious sandwiches the world has ever seen.

Step 2: Slap "blank" patty on top and seal edges, then get 'em on the grill!

Oh, and it also helps to have small ciabatta rolls (way better than hamburger buns) crisped on the grill, fresh-from-the-garden tomatoes and our favorite Kosher dills from Bubbies. It's dinner in your hand!

GoodStuffNW Lamburgers

Makes 4 burgers

2 lbs. ground lamb
1/2 c. pitted, chopped, oil-cured black olives
2 tsp. oregano
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1/4 c. bread crumbs or crushed water crackers
4 slices cheese (feta or cheddar work fabulously)
4 ciabatta rolls, halved lengthwise

Mix lamb, olives, oregano, olive oil and bread crumbs in mixing bowl till well-combined (mixing with your hands works best). Separate into fourths, then take each portion and form into two thin patties. Lay cheese slice in middle of one patty, slap the other patty on top and seal the edges. Repeat for other three patties.

Grill over hot coals, turning once, for four minutes on each side. Brown rolls on grill, insert burgers and apply whatever fixin's you prefer.