10.29.2013

Dispatch from NJ: My Amada Consists of the Nina, the Pinta and theSanta Maria


In our last installment, before life got so busy, I once again failed in my blogging schedule, I was telling you about my super fun Miss America/Birthday weekend with Jill and Melinda in Atlantic City back in September. It’s true that AC is a bit of a fading diva – the boardwalk still has that sheen of dingy seediness to it, and the hotel we stayed in, Bally’s, while close to Boardwalk Hall and by no means moderately priced, has seen better days. You would do better saving your sheckles up before a weekend here and splurging on a room at one of the two newest properties in town, Revel, down at the very far end of the Boardwalk, or The Borgata, over on the Bay side of town. Both are gorgeous, Vegas-style in their luxury, though Revel is reportedly mired in backruptcy – it seems AC may not be able to bear the economic burden of two high-end resorts. We also discussed my disappointment in our hoped-for birthday treat Buddakan, and relative relief at a very casual lunch at Revel’s Yuboka the next day. It turns out that all of Revel’s eateries are in partnership with Jose Garces, the Philadelphia and Chicago-based Iron Chef. No wonder we so enjoyed our post-Buddakan Village Whiskey cocktails and lunchtime Yuboka break! Garces’ restaurants are some of the most lauded in Philly, and I’m happy to have discovered that his Amada had a Revel outpost in time to book that for our pre-pageant dinner while we were in town.

Prompted by Miss New York’s first name, Nina, and the idea of a spicy Spanish feast, we got gussied up for Miss America and dubbed ourselves The Nina, The Pinta and the Santa Maria. It seemed fitting. We went for broke, in the tradition of explorers before us, and ordered the tasting menu. The abandon of not having to choose the tapas we were served, and surrendering to the whims of the chef seemed appropriate for the culinary anticipation Yuboka had inspired in us at lunch. Our waiter was formal, but with a light-hearted twinkle in his eye, and provided impeccable service to our glittery trio.

Along with some wine and sangria, he started us with one of the most divine Andalusian cheese plates ever. Next to the nutty, just-crumbly, aged manchego, fresh slices of Granny Smith apple, and queso de cabra (whipped goat cheese) were syrupy balsamic strawberries, fig and cherry marmalade and the most sublime truffle honey ever tasted. It was light, like spun sugar, just barely sweet with a tinge of a bitter edge, and permeated by the alluring, earthy musk of truffles. We were spooning dribbles of the sensual honey out of its ramekin long after tiring of every other ingredient on that platter, and nearly moaning for more, such was its delectable appeal. Were I to read on the Internet that the entire resort was named after Amada’s diners’ desire to revel in this one, singular ingredient, I would totally buy it.

Next up, a plate of whisper-thin Serrano ham, with a few delightfully puckery cornichon, tart Dijon mustard, and collassal caper berries. I would be lying by omission if I didn’t reveal that I absolutely paired truffle honey with my ham and gobbled it up with reckless abandon.


A fairly standard cocas, or Spanish flatbread, was next. I expected more flavor from its pepperoni-adjacent chorizo and shrimp. This was perhaps the least exciting dish to hit our table, but still glistening with really good olive oil and just fine. I think the garbanzo bean paste with the cheese was what killed it for me – the beans and cheese melded into a kind of samey blandness, for me.  

The ham croquettes, I liked much more. These are a tapas staple, and I’ve had them before at Jaleo and Beso. The ultra-crunchy breaded coating was a pleasing textural contrast from the creamy, saline mix of minced ham, potatoes and cheese inside. I feel like if every bar in America would mix up these simple fried treats in place of frozen mozzarella sticks, we would all be better off.

I haven’t eaten a lot of octopus in my life, but I’ve been lucky that every bite I have eaten has been wonderful. At Blue Duck tavern a couple years ago, it was stewed, tender, savory, and comforting. Here, at Amada, its preparation in pulpo a la gallega, with confit potatoes, was spiced though not spicy, rich, with the barest hint at a kiss of bright citrus and the glorious tang of gorgeous Spanish paprika. When you get to Amada, in Philly or AC, get this dish.



Spinach empanadas were crunchy, cheesy, and packed with the subtle, metallic twang of fresh spinach. Imagine spanakopita, Spanish-style, served on a saucy little bed of peppers, onions, and artichokes. Lovely.


The one other non-starter brought to our table besides the pizza was the habas a la catalana, or fava bean salad, Catalan style. Despite the parmesan-like cheese on top and herbs in the vinaigrette, the beans were bland, for me. Again, I like beans, but in this meal of exciting flavors and nuances, the subtleness of the favas just didn’t compare for me.


We loved the Vieiras, just-seared diver scallops over a ring of Spanish chimichurri sauce. The scallops were perfectly seasoned and cooked, almost creamy tasting, and the herbaceous sauce packed a robust, peppery punch. The simple preparation and presentation displayed the gorgeous shellfish exactly in the matter it deserved. I have no idea how the chef sliced those scallops so thin, yet still managed to get a brown, crunchy crust on them without overcooking. This is Spanish plancha-style cooking at its best.


But hold on, because the mother load was coming. Madre e hijo was similarly simple, and yet the most decadent, rich, satisfying dish of the whole trip. Roasted chicken breast, salt-cured tuna, potato, truffle, and fried egg combined on one plate into a riot of yolky, earthy, briny delight. The chicken was really chickeny, concentrated in flavor yet still juicy and tender. The egg lent everything a great fried egg does – that almost indescribably unctuous sauce made by the yolk and the cleanness provided by the white. The truffle and flakes of mojama (tuna) brought the luxe, buttery nuttiness and fireworks, and the potatoes grounded everything else with earthy relief from all the flavor. I fell in love with this dish, hard.


For dessert, another home run, even though we were not the least bit hungry: torta de aciete de olive – olive oil cake with plums, pistachios, and honey ice cream. The cake was probably the most moist, savory cake I’ve ever had, nearly juicy in its mouth-feel, and relying on the stewed plums for sweetness and pistachios for salt. The ice cream, with that complex, sweet bitterness our earlier honey encounter brought, was almost like a sauce and frosting for this masterpiece. Nothing was too sweet, and I wouldn’t be surprised if no white sugar was even used in its prep. We ate it right up and wished for more, though our cocktail dresses were straining to contain our gluttony at this point.


Plain and simple, this was a sexy meal, you guys. I think Santa Maria and Pinta would agree with me. If Jose Andres’ Jaleo is the temple of tapas, this is the bordello, equal parts raucous funhouse and corseted pleasure. Eat at Amada after eloping, or buying naughty lingerie for your beloved, or getting engaged. Eat there before winning lots of money at the tables, or seeing a burlesque show at Revel’s Royal Jelly nightclub – just eat there. It’s a 10 on the BHS scale, and if word gets out about this place, and Garces’ other masterworks on property, Revel won’t be experiencing money woes anymore. This is destination dining, folks, and if Amada has lost anything in translation from its mother restaurant in Philly, it’s not showing. Our meal was phenomenal, and if I go to Miss America again next year, I’ll be back.


I have lots to catch you up on, Big Hungries. From Lebanese comfort food in London’s Marleybone neighborhood, to unexpectedly flavorful pub food in West Carthage, and April Bloomfield’s The Breslin in NYC, keep reading! My hunger is big; my personality is bigger!

Amada on Urbanspoon
 

10.28.2013

Take Me Down to Mexico City

I've Instagrammed and Tweeted a bunch before about this cocktail in Philly I'm kind of obsessed with. In fact, I'm obsessed enough that even though Big Hungry Jill actually lives in a NJ suburb of Philadelphia, we will often go into the city center just for this drink.

On South St., amid seedy shops and a uniquely diverse selection of pedestrians, sits a funky dive bar called Tattooed Mom. They have crazy decoupage decor, tater tots on the menu, and a fabulous cocktail called Mexico City Lunchbox. It is citrusy, bright, refreshing, spicy, and potent. And during our last visit, a couple weeks ago, I procured the recipe. I love you all more'n my luggage, so I'm sharing it.


Mexico City Lunch Box

Equal parts Espolon Tequila, Rhuby liquor, triple sec. Splash each of Rose's lime juice, sour mix, OJ, and hot sauce. A squeeze of lime. Shake with ice and serve in a salted rim glass on the rocks. 

If you like, you can serve it with a beer, drink half the drink, then top it off with the beer and make yourself a little beergaritas to stretch the drink.

The Rhuby liquor is actually a rhubarb spirit made in Pennsylvania. I bought my bottle right down the street from T Moms. Next time you're driving through, grab a bottle.

Enjoy your Mexico City lunch box like Jill and I do! And when you're in Philly next time, stop by this delightful dive. It looks scarier than it is, and we've always had really friendly service there and a good time. I'll be back with another dispatch from Atlantic City later this week, so stay hungry! My personality is big, my hunger is bigger!

 
Tattooed Mom on Urbanspoon

 

10.09.2013

Dispatch from NJ: Asian Face-off


This is the story of three girls who went to Atlantic City expecting to be blown away by a very famous restaurant, and were instead utterly wooed by a casino floor noodle bar. It is a harrowing tale, of spicy intrigue, unforeseen blandness, and no small amount of gluttony. Big Hungries Jill and Melinda were the two other ladies, and we were in the shore city for the Miss America Pageant, which was back in its hometown for the first time in nearly a decade. We also were in town to celebrate my birthday, and since I knew Top Cheftestants Dale and Angelo had both been Buddakanites in NYC prior to their turns before Padma and the panel, I figured the meal would be top notch. Plus, there was a giant Buddha. I love a giant Buddha.
 
Undoubtedly, it is lovely inside AC’s Buddakan. And the drinks were good. While our overall meal was not a home run, I’ll tell you the dishes we did like, because whether we were impressed or not, this is one of the hot spots on the Boardwalk, and if you’re traveling to AC anytime soon, I’m betting your group is going to want to eat here.

We began our meal with the sashimi, which was hamachi, and which was excellent. The citrusy soy wasn’t earth-shattering, but was tasty, and the “sizzling oil,” while not sizzling in any identifiable way, was herby and very nice with the clean-tasty, firm fish.


The shrimp bao were another hit with the table. The shrimp were sweet and clean, and a slow heat crept up on the palate as you made your way through the tender, steamed bao. We also invited spice to the table by ordering the Szechuan pork dumplings, but these were only OK. Not that spicy, and not that porky. The skin of the dumplings was very fragile and slippery as well, with none of the pleasing crisp you get when they’re pan fried.


The rest of the meal, a haze of small plates ranging from a very bland lobster fried rice, OK but not outstanding sui mai, a decent shrimp lo mein with savory, tiny mushrooms but not a lot else going on, and an overly salty vegetable tempura came to our table, but we just were not blown away. Not considering the alleged pedigree of the New York and Philadelphia brothers to this restaurant. I refuse to believe either Dale or Angelo from Top Chef would be OK with these ordinary dishes, nor that they would have even made it to the show had the food been of this caliber when they were both cooking for the organization.


In any event, this was not the spectacular birthday meal for which I had hoped. We had a good time, of course, but our after dinner cocktails at Village Whiskey at Revel were crafted with far more care than any of the dishes we tasted at Buddakan.

The next morning, we three spent a few ultra-luxurious hours in the Bask Spa, also at the Revel Resort. I’ve found myself many times since wishing I was back in the spa’s cool, glowing salt chamber, breathing easy and lounging in a cushy robe. The spa is pricey, and worth every blessed cent. From the mineral pool to the steam rooms and sauna, hot tubs, and posh relaxation rooms – this is the most peaceful place in Atlantic City, to be sure, and a welcome respite from the bustle of the Boardwalk. After all that luxuriant soothing, we were peckish, though, and wanting something cheap and quick before running back to our comparatively spartan room at Bally’s to prep for that night’s pageant.

My eyes spied Yuboka, a tiny noodle bar right on the casino floor. But alas, Yuboka is chef Jose Garces’ version of a humble noodle bar, and oh, it’s a splendid vision. For about $25, this simple, quick meal far surpassed our experience at Buddakan the night before.

Melinda had the Dan Dan Noodles, in a chile oil-based sauce, deep and earthy with zha cai, a pickled Chinese vegetable, and ground pork. The rich sauce was a slow-burning pleasure, it’s heat building through compounding bites, and the noodles were silky and had just enough chew.



Jill fell madly in love with the congee she ordered. I’d never had this dish before, only seeing it made on Top Chef (there that is again!). It’s basically grits, though, or some grain cooked into a porridge-like consistency. This was topped with pork belly, beef tendon, egg, and hoisin sauce. I avoided the tendon, because personally, that is not a texture I care to sample, but the egg/pork/congee medley created a very breakfast-like taste, and it was pretty great. I suspect Jill has been researching recipes to make this herself at home, and I don’t blame her.


I went for the soup dumplings, and was rewarded with my first ever TRUE example of this gastronomic feat. If you’ve not watched every Asian episode of No Reservations, and haven’t visited the dim sum palaces of Chinatown, you might not have heard of these wonders. Unlike potstickers, or meat-filled dumplings, these are filled with broth that’s been chilled down. If you’ve ever made stock or broth from bones, you’ve seen the effect that refrigerating the final product has on the liquid – the gelatin that steeps into the stock from the bones becomes jelly-like when chilled. This is how the dumpling-makers get the broth into the little soup pockets – when it’s chilled jello. Then, when the packets are steamed, the gelatin dissolves, and you have soup inside a dumpling. It’s a work of scrumptious genius, and the broth in question at Yuboka is rich, complex, and ultimately comforting. I loved them.


And so it was that a quick lunch at Yuboka outshone our big celebratory dinner at Buddakan. I would give Buddakan a five on the BHS scale, while I would award Yuboka an eight. It’s that simple. I will not be fooled by a gigantic golden Buddha, Big Hungries! Now, check back next week, because we had one more meal at Revel, and it was a doozy you’re going to want to read about. I’ll leave you with a fetching shot of my best ladies and me, mixing it up in the AC. My hunger is big; my personality is bigger!

 
Buddakan on Urbanspoon