Archive for June, 2007

Thai ‘Tapas’ at Silk Elephant

Saturday, June 30th, 2007

I haven’t quite been able to accept tapas as a language-neutral word meaning ’small plates.’ In my mind, it’s still in Spanish, referring to Spanish food, but my visits to Silk Elephant have me much closer to accepting tapas as a general term than I had been.

It’s not that I think smaller portions ought to be limited to Iberian cuisine; it’s more that I want there to be an English word or a Thai word or an {ethnicity of restaurant} word that meets the same need without having to use the Spanish word to describe southeast Asian cuisine. But there’s not, apart from the awkward ’small plates,’ a two-word construct that doesn’t flow from the tongue.

When the food is well-prepared, though, the etymology falls by the wayside as you enjoy a smattering of what the restaurant has to offer. It’s an opportunity to construct your own tasting menu. And whatever your tastes are, you’ll find three or four options that pique your curiosity.

At Silk Elephant in Pittsburgh, I had expected a pureed asparagus soup, because that’s what I’m accustomed to; my fear with any other construction is that overcooked asparagus is slimy. Silk Elephant gets around this issue, though, by either throwing the asparagus in (apparently) to order. I can’t remember precisely because I had the soup during my first visit almost a month ago—but for many of Silk Elephant’s soups, the vegetables are just thrown in raw. That was the case with the mushrooms, onions, and peppers that appear in their Tom Yum and Tom Kah. I was a bit disconcerted by this raw vegetable concept at first, because I’m a big proponent of building a flavor base in soups by sauteeing the vegetables to start: caramelizing the onions, the garlic, the mushrooms; deglazing with sherry and reducing; adding the stock to let simmer and envelop what’s been infused in the oil. If I want to add garnishes, I’ll usually sautee them briefly and add to order. A culinary school maxim, really, that as a cooked dish, soup ought not to contain raw ingredients. But with Silk Elephant’s soups, though, I think it works. They slice the vegetables thinly so they’re not tough to chew; the broth is full-bodied. It’s not what I would have done, but it works, which means that to start the meal, I’m already enjoying myself because I’m not thinking I could have done it better.

If there’s a flaw with Silk Elephant’s salads it’s that the lettuce is very American: romaine for the most part; and there may have been some iceberg in the mix. No bitter greens. The foci of the two salads I tasted, though, were not the lettuce. Mango was the star attraction of one, crispy duck the other. The crispy duck was also offered as ‘faux duck,’ I should have, but did not ask what the faux duck consists of. Both had tasty, sesame-oil-based dressings (and sesame is one of my favorite salad oils).

Silk Elephant’s tapas are available with chicken, beef, pork, seafood, or vegetarian components. The menu is long and builds upon themes: several menu options are available with your choice of filling. It’s a fairly easy and very considerate way to make diners with most any dietary inclination be easily able to find something to order.

All of our tapas were attractively presented and well prepared.The pork chop, though thin, was still moist and had a faint trace of pink to it. The scallops, though thin, were seared in a smoking hot pan for the appropriately brief instant. The rice wrapper rolls had a pleasing variety of fine-julienned vegetables to accompany the crab mousse. Aurora and I highly enjoyed every option we ordered. The small portions made it easy for us to share everything as a couple (you’d need to order more than one of each dish to share everything among a larger party), and we left pleasantly sated as opposed to overly stuffed.

The atmosphere was pleasant, with curious wood carvings adorning the walls. The ceiling in the main dining room area is an illusion of woven ropes that eliminates the cavernous feel that may have existed had they not painted the true ceiling matte black.

All in all, my visits to Silk Elephant were the most pleasing dining experiences I have had in quite some time. It’s obvious that the restaurant hired a top notch staff. Don’t tell anybody about this restaurant because I want to still be able to easily get a seat next time I go back.

Rating: 4 oranges.

I did not taste the Thai iced tea, and so I can’t testify to its exact flavor, but the three folks at my table who ordered it found it to be sickeningly sweet. When the situation was pointed out to the manager at the end of the meal, he discovered our waitress had mistakenly used the syrupy tea that’s supposed to be featured in a dessert sundae.

The Orange Scale

Friday, June 29th, 2007

Out of how many oranges does your scale go to? After searching some of your other reviews, it seems like four oranges might be the highest on the scale?

That is correct, sir. I always feel like there’s some sort of inflation going on when a scale is out of 5 stars/ oranges/ kumquats, etc. because the obvious reference for any such scale is the 4-star movie review scale. Then, I see something got four stars and I think it must be superb but it turns out that the fifth star would have indicated superbity.

My wife points out that Michelin and AAA operate on five stars. Their rating systems, though, pay as much attention to luxuriousness of the decor as they do to the quality of the food, and you can’t get the fifth star without chandeliers and maitre d’s and really, how many of us actually eat in places like that on a regular basis? No one I know. And the few times I have eaten (or worked) at establishments of that caliber, I’ve gotten the feeling that they pay so much attention to appearances that they forget sometimes that the food should also be top-notch.
I’m more concerned about the quality of the food. Too often, I visit a restaurant and my reaction to what I’m served is, “I could’ve done this better myself.” So, I place a premium on well-executed dishes that go beyond my culinary repertoire. Tomorrow, I’ll let you know about the first place I’ve visited since starting this page that I think is worthy of a 4 orange designation.

On a side note, I realize that I haven’t been posting much information to this page this month. There’s been a lot going on in my life as a whole, and unfortunately, Corduroy Orange has been one of the areas to suffer as a result. I’ll try to get back in the swing of posting more regularly. But, please, help me out—if there are any areas about which you’d like more information, let me know, and I’ll try to use that as a guide for where to concentrate my attention. Click here to email me your thoughts / questions / queries / concerns / most intimate secrets.

Nominate Your Favorite Farm

Saturday, June 23rd, 2007

I’ve just found out about the Harvest Awards from the Glynwood Center. I’m not really familiar with the center or what they do, but the awards seem like a great way to give recognition to some of the most important people in our lives: the farmers who grow our food. If you know of a farmer that deserves some recognition for what he/she does, please consider going to

http://www.glynwood.org/programs/harvest.htm and nominating them for recognition. Details from the website follow:

Nominate Someone whose work you admire
Glynwood Center is calling for nominations for the 5th Annual Harvest Awards which recognize innovative farmers, organizations, and businesses that are supporting sustainable regional food systems. Please help us recognize outstanding work by nominating someone whose work you admire in the following categories:

The Glynwood Harvest Farmer Award is awarded to a farmer who has developed a sustainable farming operation and built effective relationships within his or her home community and other places where the food is eaten.

The Glynwood Harvest Good Neighbor Award is awarded to an individual or organization that has helped sustain regional agriculture in new and effective ways.

The Glynwood Harvest Connecting Communities, Farmers, and Food Award is awarded to recognize outstanding work that unites farmers and other community residents in building a local food system.

These categories are not intended to limit the nature of the nominations. We welcome nominations even if the “fit” is not precise. We are particularly interested in projects that demonstrate one or more of the following:

  • The farm, food, and health connection
  • How sustainable agriculture can further social justice
  • The key roles being played by younger leaders

    Nominations must be postmarked July 10, 2007.

    Bethlehem Brew Works, Bethlehem, PA

    Saturday, June 16th, 2007

    If you’re ever in the far reaches of Eastern Pennsylvania, it’s worth stopping in to visit the town of Bethlehem. It’s a beautiful little place, with a very attractive downtown area in which there is a charming brew pub, Bethlehem Brew Works.

    BBW produces eight types of beer at a time, and has a great feature whereby you can get a sampling of six of them. On my two trips to BBW, I tried each of their beers except for the apricot coriander which, while intriguing in name, still contains fruit, and I’m biased against fruity beers. The others, though, were all quite good.

    The BBW menu features probably the best description of the brewing process I have yet seen, complete with excellent diagrams of the path that the various beer components take from start to finish. At this point, I’m wishing I’d nicked a menu because the diagram doesn’t show up on the BBW website, not even in the pdf of their menu.

    I only ate one meal at BBW, and it paled in comparison to their beer. I got a steak, medium rare, or at least that’s what I asked for. The grill cook obviously had the heat on his equipment turned up way too high. The outside of the steak was seared with attractive grill marks, but there was a sharp line between the portion of the meat that was affected by heat and the portion of the meat that wasn’t it was still quite rare in the middle.

    The steamed vegetables that accompanied it were apparently all cooked together, broccoli, carrots, and snow peas. The broccoli and snow peas were both fine, but the carrots were still garden-crunchy.

    The mashed potatoes were the highlight of my plate. Excellent consistency, well seasoned, and very tasty; it’s a shame the rest of the food wasn’t up to their caliber.

    Beer: 3 1/2 oranges
    food: 2 oranges

    Counter-Intuitive Strawberry Rhubarb Pie

    Tuesday, June 12th, 2007

    I know what you’re thinking: “What’s counter-intuitive about strawberries and rhubarb? They’re a natural match!” And you’re right—the two together are the all-time classic late spring duo. It’s the other portions of the pie that were a bit risky in the implementation, but paid off in the full, rounded flavor of the finished product.

    I had some pie crust left over from a quiche that I had made a few days prior. All I had to do was thaw it and roll it out—almost like a ready-made crust, just that I did the work for myself ahead of time. Thing was, as a special touch for the quiche, I had made a curry crust. But, what the heck, I figured. Curry has cinnamon in it, along with several other spices; let’s give it a whirl!

    Then, as I was tossing together the strawberries and the rhubarb, I got to thinking about the strawberry-basil combination that one sees every so often that is decent enough to keep it occasionally springing up. I’m not entirely sold on the combo myself, but that some people really dig it was just a short step away from me thinking about the possibilities of strawberries paired with my favorite herb: oregano. And so it was that I made a strawberry-rhubarb pie with oregano in a curry crust. That’s what I mean by counter-intuitive.

    (more…)

    Summer!

    Sunday, June 10th, 2007

    I know that summer doesn’t officially arrive for another eleven days, but as far as I’m concerned, it got here yesterday. During the course of an afternoon bike ride, I found a bumper crop of black raspberries at one of my foraging patches, with several berries already ripe! It’ll still be days before the majority of the windfall starts turning from red to purple, but to taste the few berries I was able to pick was sunshine on my tongue.

    Swift Kick in the Rear

    Saturday, June 9th, 2007

    (more…)