Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Rebirth of Club Isabella

As a student of Case Western Reserve University in the early 1990's, there were only a handful of really "nice" restaurants one could go to, although most of them were out of the range of most college students' budgets. Brandywine was probably the most accessible and I spent many an evening (and dollar) there throwing back the Wicky Wacky Woos and Fried Mushrooms with horseradish dipping sauce. Next up the scale were two sister restaurants, That Place On Bellflower (which, oddly enough, was on Bellflower Road) and Club Isabella. Topping the list was the penultimate dining experience that could be had at Baricelli Inn.

Of the restaurants listed, I ate at Club Isabella only once and didn't manage to get to the Baricelli Inn until after I had graduated college and was actually making money. Sadly, That Place On Bellflower and Club Isabella closed down many years ago. That Place was eventually reborn as L'Albatros Brasserie. Recently, I learned that under the direction of Chef Fabio Mota, Club Isabella was also to reopen, and while technically not in the same spot as the original, it was still situated on Case's campus.

The new incarnation was located at 2175 Cornell Road, Cleveland, OH 44106 and can be reached at 216-229-1111. Having been open for several months now, I decided to go on a Tuesday evening to check them out. As I pulled to the corner of Cornell and Random Roads, I caught my first glimpse of the newly revamped corner space:

Entrance/Patio to Club Isabella
Street parking was available, but for only $3, I could valet the car. No brainer there. The patio in the picture above was available for service, but since I was expecting a friend for dinner and didn't want to compete with outside noises (such as the metro train line that runs on the opposite side of Random Road), I opted to sit inside instead. I should mention that the front door to the restaurant was at the far right side of all of those windows. It wasn't particularly obvious and it took me a second or two to realize where it was.

Once inside, the host politely greeted me and because the restaurant wasn't busy that night, allowed me to choose the table at which I'd like to sit. Picking a nice, large four-top by the front window, he left me with the dinner menu:

Club Isabella Dinner Menu Top
Club Isabella Dinner Menu Bottom
Within just a few minutes, my server arrived to take my order. I had read about some of the dishes offered on the menu prior to my visit tonight and was eager to try some of them for myself.

The first surprise to come out of the kitchen was a complimentary amuse bouche, lamb terrine with cherry jam and fried shallots:

Lamb Terrine, Cherry Jam, Fried Shallot
This was a very tasty way to start the meal. The lamb almost had that gyro meat taste to it. The cherry jam was a bit hidden in flavor, and I think provided a bit of underlying acidity more than its own flavor. I was definitely looking forward to more from the kitchen.

Next up on the table was a small dish of softened, herbed butter:

Herbed Butter
And fresh bread, in this case a piece from an Epi:

Both were fresh and delicious. While I did try the herbed butter on a piece of the bread, I mostly ate the bread unadorned. Good bread doesn't need a topper and this one definitely fit the bill of good bread.

Having had my one bite amuse and nibbled on some of the bread, I was ready and waiting for my appetizer course to arrive, Sweet and Spicy Fried Cuttlefish:

Sweet and Spicy Fried Cuttlefish
This was one of the dishes I had read about before coming to Club Isabella and it wholly intrigued me. I have never eaten cuttlefish before, but I know that it is just another encephalopod, like squid or octopus, both of which I have enjoyed in the past. Visually, the plate was quite stunning and I eagerly dove in. The wait was totally worth it.

The cuttlefish itself was soft and tender and yet had just a bit of chew to it. I imagine that cuttlefish is as temperamental as its cousins and cooking it too little or too much would render it chewy beyond recompense. The sauce coating the cuttlefish was indeed both sweet and slightly spicy. For those who abhor spice, it might have been too much. I completely enjoyed it. The red peppers, scallions, and sesame seeds added additional notes of flavor and texture.

Two things to note, however. First, this was an appetizer that could easily be shared by two or more people. Second, and I didn't realize this until I had gotten home and was processing my photos on my large computer monitor, if you look closely at the picture towards the bottom front of the pile of cuttlefish, there is a long black hair in the dish. I didn't see it at the restaurant (or I would have sent it back to be re-fired) and I have no idea if I even ingested it. I contacted the chef the next day to explain what I had found and his response was:

"Thomas.....sorry about that! We in the kitchen all have very very short hair so I can't imagine how it got there but let me know the next time you are in and I'll set you up!"

Take that for what it's worth.

Following my appetizer course, the salad course, an Arugula and Ridicchio Salad, arrived promptly:

Arugula Ridicchio Salad
Topped with almonds, an onion marmalada, and Lake Erie Creamery chevre, the salad had that wonderful mix of pepperiness from the arugula and bitterness from the ridicchio. The almonds added a nice crunch to the salad and the onion marmalada a touch of sweetness. The only thing that didn't work for me was the goat cheese. By itself, it was lovely. But one of the characteristics of Lake Erie Creamery's chevre is its mild tanginess. The delicate flavor got completely lost against the bolder, stronger flavors of the other ingredients in the dish.

Until this point in the meal, courses had been coming out of the kitchen fairly promptly. Suddenly, between the salad course and the entree, the length of time lengthened considerably. It wasn't so much that I had any place to be, but the shift was noticeable. When my server finally approached my table empty handed, I knew something was up. She apologized for how long it was taking and asked if I would like an intermezzo while I waited. Figuring that my order had either forgotten to get fired or that it had been improperly cooked and needed to be re-fired, I agreed.

Minutes later, she returned with a small dish of Jenis Cherry Lambic Sorbet with a sprig of fresh thyme:

Jenis Cherry Lambic Sorbet
I've already written at length about my love of Jenis ice creams and sorbets, so I won't belabor the point here except to say that this was a delicious and refreshing way to segue from previous courses to the next.

Finally, my entree arrived at the table, the Salt-Crusted Bronzini with Lemon and Chervil:

Salt-Crusted Bronzini
Dressed with olive oil and micro-greens, what surprised me most about the dish was that it was served whole, head and tail intact. While this doesn't bother me, per se, I know many people would be put off by such a presentation. That said, I was looking forward to how moist the fish would be due to the salt-crust treatment. As I took my first bite, I enjoyed the simplicity of flavors, the tenderness of the flesh, and the slight anise flavor provided by the chervil. While the fish was moist, it didn't quite hit the level of moistness I was expecting. Don't get me wrong, it wasn't bad by any stretch of the imagination. But it wasn't that perfect "10" either.

Since the bronzini didn't come with a side, I decided to order my own, the Brussels Sprouts Gratin:

Brussels Sprouts Gratin
Just like the appetizer, the sides are meant to be shared. This was way more than I could finish alone (not to mention the fact that I had already eaten so much prior to this). The Brussels sprouts were topped with bacon and bleu cheese and then baked in this very cute enameled crock. While certainly tasty, the Brussels sprouts were cooked a little under al dente, and if you like your vegetables cooked all the way through, this might not be the side for you.

Amazingly, even after all of this food, when my server brought up the idea of dessert, I figured I would at least listen to the list of made in-house desserts (as opposed to the pastas, of which none were made in-house ... odd). When she arrived at the Lemon Tart, I figured that this would be the perfect way to end the meal.

By now, the sun had set and while I was full, I figured a bite or two of something nice and tart would be a great way to cleanse my palate. As with previous courses in tonight's meal, I should've realized that the dessert could've also been split between two people:

Lemon Tart, Strawberry Sauce, Vanilla Quenelle
This was a lemon tart with strawberry sauce, toasted and ground nuts, a quenelle of freshly whipped vanilla scented cream, all topped with a sprig of mint. As I've gotten older, I've come to appreciate the restraint of a pastry chef who uses less sugar and allows other flavors, like the tartness of lemon to shine through. Sadly, between the strawberry sauce and the lemon curd, it was a tad too sweet for me. The other components of the dish, however, were simply marvelous.

To accompany my sweet dessert, I paired it with an unsweetened espresso:

This definitely hit the spot and helped to balance out the sweetness from the dessert. I would highly recommend pairing these two together.

Having only had water to drink during my meal, in the end, my check with tax came to $58. While that does seem pricey, since the appetizer, side dish, and dessert could have easily been split between two people, were you to add in a second entree for an additional diner, you would be looking at an $80 check for two people, which isn't terrible for this level of cuisine. Unfortunately, like the original Club Isabella, this food is still not really accessible to the poor college students that walk by the restaurant on a daily basis. Then again, when mom and dad come into town for a visit, this would definitely be a place I'd recommend going.

There were a few issues with my meal tonight, but overall, I enjoyed myself during my inaugural visit to the reopened Club Isabella. Assuming that the hair incident was an isolated occurrence, I have no hesitations recommending you check out Club Isabella next time you are in the area.

Club Isabella on Urbanspoon

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Camera Never Lies ... But The Light Meter Might

First impressions are as important in the culinary world as they are in the business world. As human beings, we tend to embrace every experience with as many senses as we have available. Before we taste food, we smell it. Before we smell it, we look at it. And before we look at it, we can hear it being prepared and coming our way. How often have you been in a Mexican restaurant and heard the sizzling fajitas approaching before you ever see it? Like a Pavlovian dog, just hearing that noise causes you to salivate in anticipation.

For those of you who have been reading my blog for a while (and thank you, by the way), you may have noticed a trend over the last nine to twelve months that my food pictures have gotten better and better. Until roughly one year ago, I was taking all of the pictures you see on my blog with my cellphone camera. It was convenient, it was inconspicuous, and it did an okay job in better lit restaurants. The problem was trying to get a good picture at the darker restaurants, the Momocho's, the L'Albatros's, the Greenhouse Tavern's of the world. Even though my cellphone camera had a flash on it, it was so dark that the darn thing couldn't even focus.

So, I decided to upgrade to an actual camera. A Canon G12 point and shoot to be exact. And then over the course of the next year, I actually upgraded twice more, first to a Canon Rebel t3i and finally to a Canon EOS 60D. I won't go into the nuts and bolts of why I upgraded, but let's just summarize by saying that as I became more proficient, I realized I needed a more capable tool. And that is a perfectly valid reason why a lot of people spend more money and upgrade to a better camera.

The problem, however, is that from the cheapest point and shoot to the most expensive professional camera out there, if you don't take control of the camera, you will get crappy food pictures in restaurants. Many people put the camera in fully automatic mode, point the camera at a plate of food, and think that is all that needs to be done. In a well-lit restaurant or outdoors in the sunlight, you might be right. The camera can reduce the shutter speed enough where even being handheld is possible without blurring. But in a moderate to dimly lit restaurant? Game over.

Today I met up with a friend at Hudson's Restaurant in Montrose for a beer and some much needed catching up on our respective lives. We went back and forth about what we had been up to and when we got into my recent food photography, I was explaining to her that I always shot in Manual exposure mode because it gave me full control over the resulting picture. Since I am a bit of a control freak, this style of shooting perfectly fit with the pictures I was taking. She didn't believe me when I told her that were I to set the camera to one of the automatic modes, that it would take a crappy picture.

"Fine," I said, "I'll prove it."

We had ordered an appetizer off of the menu to split. I mounted my $1600 camera (including lens) to my tabletop tripod, set the little dial to the "green square" (which is fully automatic on my Canon), and pressed the shutter button. The on-camera flash popped up, the picture was taken and here was the result:

Auto Mode, Straight From The Camera
Wait a minute, now ... what is that large gray area at the bottom of the plate? That would be the shadow where the light from the flash couldn't reach to illuminate it. The other problem you may notice is that the light falls off the further back it goes on the plate, so even without the large shadow in the front, the light level isn't even.

Okay, then, so flash is out. By switching the mode from Auto (green square) to Program AE (P), the camera would still pick out all of the settings without using the flash. This would be equivalent to what most people would pick on their cameras when shooting food in a restaurant. Surely it must be better, right? Let's see:

Program AE (P) Mode, Straight From The Camera
Ack!! What's with all of the gray? Last time I checked, most restaurants served food on whites plates, not gray ones. The problem here is that the light meter built into every single camera (which basically measures the reflected light off of the subject) are programmed to expect 18% reflected light. This number was determined many decades ago when an analysis of thousands of photographs revealed that, on average, 18% of the light striking the subjects reached the film in the camera. So, in the case of Program AE (P) mode, since most of the scene above is reflected white light, the camera toned down the light in order to meet the 18% value. If you've ever taken a picture of a snowy day and wondered why the snow appeared gray and not white, this is the reason.

Okay, enough horsing around. It's time for me (the photographer) to take charge of the camera. In order to set the correct color balance, I pulled out my handy "gray card":

18% Reflective Gray Card
This is literally a 8 1/2" x 5 1/2" cardboard card that I keep with me at all times in my bag that is 18% reflective on one side. Resting the card on my water glass, I used my camera's controls to set the white balance. White balance, for those who might not know, is also referred to as color temperature. If you've ever taken a picture of something white and it appeared a bit blue or yellow, this is due to the type of lighting illuminating your subject. In Hudson's today, the lights above the bar were incandescent bulbs, which tend to make white look yellow.

After obtaining a proper white balance, I switched my camera into Manual (M) mode, selected my settings and took this picture:

Manual Mode, Straight From The Camera
This was the picture as it came straight out of the camera. The only alteration I made to all of the pictures above was to correct for barrel distortion and resize them for this blog post. As you can see, when *I* selected the shutter speed and aperture, I managed to capture what I think is a much better exposed picture. Of course, my camera thought the image was too bright, but I simply ignored its suggestion and went with my own.

Once out of the camera and into my photo processing software, I barely tweaked a few color settings to make the image look its best:

Manual Mode, Tweaked for Color
I'd suggest you open the images up side by side. The differences are quite subtle. And then open up the first two images and compare the first two to these last two. Big difference, eh?

Okay, fine, so this was in a moderately dim restaurant. What about a real challenge ... say, a really dark outdoor patio around 9 pm where I couldn't even see my dining partner's facial features anymore? I'll take that challenge.

Last Friday I met my friend Elizabeth at Basi Italian Restaurant in Victorian Village located north of downtown Columbus, Ohio. We arrived around 7 pm and they sat us at a quaint little table for two on the patio, just outside of the bar. As we ate and chatted, the sun began to set and by 8:30 or so, the only light source was from the thin sparse strings of white Christmas lights adorning the bar. At that point, I took this picture of our table:

The light you see reflected off the table came from those Christmas light strands. When the dessert finally arrived, it was so dark that not only did auto-focus fail to work, but when manually focusing the lens, I had to use the light from my cellphone in order to properly do so. Once I got everything ready, I pushed the shutter button to take the picture and fifteen seconds later, I got this:

Lemon Cheesecake with Blueberries
Now, granted, I did do some work on that photograph to optimize it. But it didn't take very long and I don't even think I could've gotten that picture had I set it to one of the automatic settings. By the way, just so there is no confusion, no flash was used to take that picture. And I don't lie, it really was that dark.

So what is the take away from all of this? If you want to take good pictures of food in not-so-great lighting conditions, you're going to have to take control of your camera and get out of the automatic exposure settings. You'll probably also need to get a tabletop tripod, too. Is my new rig a bit more conspicuous at restaurants? Absolutely. But I've discovered through a lot of trial and PLENTY of error, that there just isn't any other way to get consistently good pictures.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Kitchen Challenge: Insanely Good Cooked Cabbage

One would assume that by looking at the breadth and longevity of work on this blog that I come from a background of family members who love to cook. One might also assume that I come from a long line of adventurous eaters, always looking to try a new ethnic cuisine and going way off the beaten path in order to track down the little mom and pop eateries that don't just put out a plate of food, but a plate of food with soul. You'd be wrong.

My grandmother came from an era of convenience foods, a time when food companies successfully convinced mothers that they would have more time to spend with their burgeoning families if they used processed products and as a result, be better mothers and wives. Sure, we've all used a can of this or a box of that in a pinch, but this brave new world became so entrenched and so easy that many of the food traditions got lost along the way. And what one generation realized was a culinary shortcut, the next didn't recognize as a shortcut at all. Such is my mother.

Even though I have loved cooking since a very young age, the wool was pulled over my eyes, too. Want to make Green Bean Casserole? Well, clearly you need a can of Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup! To think any other way was simply inconceivable. My gastronomic epiphany came about when food companies were finally required by law to put not only nutritional and portion information on each product, but also list the ingredients in order from most to least. It has always baffled me when food companies try and separate themselves from the competition by announcing new products aimed at lower sugar, salt, or fat. Why not just change their current product line to make them healthier in the first place? But I digress.

My point (and yes, gentle reader, I do have one) is that I missed out on a lot of epicurean experiences because no one around me knew any better. One of those items was cabbage. Sure, we ate coleslaw during the summer and sauerkraut during the new year's festivities, but both were store bought and simply opened, possibly reheated, and plated. It wasn't until I started experiencing other ethnic cuisines during and after college that I realized I simply didn't know much about this cruciferous vegetable.

I had some basic knowledge of how to prepare green cabbage thanks to a Good Eats episode with Alton Brown, but other than that, it remained a mystery to me until one day when I had come over to cook dinner for my grandmother and found a head in her refrigerator after ransacking it for a side course for dinner. I've now made and tweaked this recipe enough times that I finally feel as if I can competently write about it. If all you can think of is the sulphuric scent that hangs in the air when cabbage is long-cooked, you'll be happy to know that this recipe has none of that foul stench.

Creamy Honey Mustard Cooked Cabbage
1 medium head green cabbage
2 medium (or 1 large) yellow or sweet onion
4 cloves garlic
1 box fresh chervil (you could also use tarragon)
Low-salt chicken stock/broth
Dijon mustard
"Lite" coconut milk
Rice wine vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste

Coconut milk might seem like a really odd item to add, but my grandmother is lactose intolerant. Substituting the thick, creamy coconut milk replaces the heavy cream I would have used AND has the benefit of lightening up the dish in terms of calories and fat. Use heavy cream if you'd like instead.

First, remove any dry or wilted outer leaves from the cabbage. Using a sharp knife, cut the cabbage into quarters, going through the core (the tough part at the end). Take each quarter and cut the tough core away from the leaves. Once you have cored all four, turn the quarter so that it sits longer from left to right. Using a sharp knife, thinly slice through all the cabbage leaf layers. As you finish each quarter, run the slivers through your fingers and into a waiting bowl. A medium cabbage will yield a LOT of slivers.

In a second bowl, cut off the root and non-root end of the onion and peel off the outer layer. Slice the onion in the middle from cut end to cut end. Lay the cut side down on the cutting board and use the knife to slice half-moons from one end of the onion to the other. Again, fan out the half-moons into a second bowl with your fingers. Repeat this for the rest of the onions.

In one small bowl, mince up four cloves of garlic. In a second small ball, take a small handful of fresh chervil and run the knife through it a couple of time to break it up. There is no need to pick the leaves from the stems as they are tender enough that it doesn't matter if some (or a lot for that matter) end up in the dish. Your initial mise en place is now done.

In a large high-sided saute pan (you could also use a stockpot or Dutch oven, too), add about two tablespoons of canola/grapeseed/vegetable oil and a tablespoon of butter. When the butter has melted and turned a brownish color (buerre noisette, anyone?), add the onions to the pot and stir to coat in the fat. Add a largish pinch of kosher salt and a couple grinds of fresh black pepper and begin to sweat the onions over medium low heat, until they soften up and turn translucent.

Add the garlic and stir until the garlic becomes fragrant, maybe 45 seconds. At this point, add about a cup of the chicken stock to the pan to deglaze it and get up all those wonderfully tasty brown bits off the bottom of the pan. Add in all of the cabbage and a small handful of the freshly chopped chervil. Using two spatulas or a pair of kitchen tongs, begin combining all of the ingredients carefully. Add another hit of salt and freshly cracked pepper, bring to a simmer, cover, and turn down the heat to low on the burner. At this point, it will simply take time to break down the tough cabbage. Probably about forty-five minutes to an hour. Fortunately, the only thing you have to do is every fifteen minutes or so, take off the lid, stir the contents, and return the cover.

When the cabbage is finally tender enough, you can simply re-season with salt and pepper to make sure it tastes good and serve as is, or take it a step further like I did tonight. At this point, I added two heaping spoonfuls of Dijon mustard, two spoonfuls of honey and half a can of coconut milk. I should address the coconut milk first before going any further in the recipe. When you buy coconut milk at the grocery store (and I got mine in the international aisle in Giant Eagle), likely it has sat a while. This is good because if you don't shake it up and carefully open the can, you will see one of two things: rich creamy coconut "cream" or thin, translucent coconut "water." Just like the days before milk homogenization, the contents will separate and the cream will float to the top. Using just the cream, add it to the pan, too. Also add about a tablespoon of rice wine vinegar.

The exact proportions of mustard, honey, and vinegar are a bit up to you. I was trying to go for a sweet and sour mustard taste. If you like it more sweet, use more honey. More tangy? Use more vinegar. You get the point. Stir this mixture into the cabbage and onions, re-season with salt and pepper if needed, and add another handful of chopped chervil. With fresh herbs, you want to cook with them in two stages, half at the beginning and half at the end. Now, with the lid removed, turn up the heat to medium and begin to reduce the sauce until it is a consistency that you like. Tonight, I decided to nestle quickly seared (but not fully cooked) pounded chicken breasts into the mustardy, creamy broth and braise for an additional five minutes while the sauce reduced around it.

When ready to serve, I plated up some of the Romano chive mashed potatoes I had also made to accompany the chicken and cabbage, placed a bed of the cabbage and onions on the plate, adorned it with one of the chicken breasts, and sauced the entire thing with a bit of the honey mustard cream. A gentle sprinkle of chervil over the top gave it some additional flavor and a colorful pop. Here was the finished dish:

Seared Chicken over Honey Mustard Cabbage with Romano Mashed Potatoes

I am usually harder on my own cooking than grandma is, but when she said how good this was, honestly, I had to agree with her. If you have lived with a fear of cooking cabbage or just needed something new to try, I'd suggest you give this recipe a go and discover a tasty treat that isn't particularly hard to make.
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