Monday, July 25, 2011

Restaurant Review Monday: Café Berlin

Cafe Berlin on Urbanspoon

Boring… Clichéd… Vacuous…

It would appear, at least to this reviewer, that the Grand Dame of Huntsville’s German culinary tradition has finally goose-stepped its way to irrelevance.  The food was uninspired.  The atmosphere and ambiance were marred by a small flock of Drosophila melanogaster (fruit flies), which provided ample entertainment for my younger brother.  And our waiter, though attentive, wasn’t exactly the “sharpest crayon in the box.”  In short, it would seem that the final solution is for Café Berlin to close its doors!

Over the years my family has made it a tradition to celebrate our birthdays with a meal at Café Berlin, so I may justifiably argue that the golden era of this venue was waned.  The evening began without incident.  Our server was pleasant but overly chatty with a penchant for prattling.  However, by the time I placed my drink order I could see trouble on the horizon. 

As with most beer snobs, I try to pair good food with a beer that compliments or accentuates certain flavors in the dish.  In this case I had my heart set on the honey-orange duck breast, so naturally I gravitated toward the only hefeweizen they had on the menu.  It was from the mid-grade German brewery Tucher Bräu Fürth (commonly just abbreviated as Tucher in the States).  As a side note, the lack of acceptable German beers on the menu and the inclusion of domestic “beers” should serve as a true indicator of its authenticity. 

After the delivery of my drink, I was informed that the kitchen had “run-out” of duck for the evening, and having already consumed some of beverage I was forced to alter my selection in favor of the beer.  I finally settled on the honey-pecan crusted trout with German potato salad and a house salad with a balsamic-vinaigrette that our waiter assured me was excellent. 

Well our salads arrived, and I was a bit surprised to see an off-gray thick dressing coating my salad.  It turns out this was their idea of a vinaigrette.  The flavor of the dressing was fair, but was not transcendent and the croutons were exceptionally stale.  Imagine, stale croutons? 

Our entrées arrived shortly after the salad plates had been cleared.  As with most German restaurants in the U.S., the portions were gargantuan!  However, as any experienced diner will tell you, size isn’t everything.  The flavor of my trout was descent and the pecans added a welcome textural contrast.  But…the whole thing was cooked in far too much grease which immediately coated the palate.

Since it was a birthday celebration, our waiter informed us that we were entitled to a free piece of cake.  And when we asked what varieties they were serving, he nonchalantly informed us that they were on display and we could go look at them. 

Since the 1950s German food has been a gastronomic mainstay in Huntsville.  It is an unfortunate loss for the entire community that this beacon of upscale dining has fallen so precariously into oblivion. 

Eat good food.  Drink good beer.  And above all, stay classy.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Torta de Tres Leches

(Easy Mexican Milk Cake)
By: Sam Parks (July 2011)

This easy American twist on a Latin classic, combines the richness of ice cream in the body of a cake!  Topping this dessert with fresh berries or fruit takes the flavor to another level and will instantly transport you to the shores of Mexico.  OLE!
(shaped version of the Mexican Milk Cake, topped with toasted meringue and coconut)

Ingredients (Cake)

1 Box Yellow Cake Mix (replace the oil with melted butter, replace the water with low-fat buttermilk, and add an extra egg)
2 tablespoons of rum
1 ½ teaspoon coconut extract
1 (12 oz. can) evaporated milk
1 (14 oz. can) sweetened condensed milk
1 cup half-and-half

Ingredients (topping)

2 cups heavy whipping cream
¼ cup sugar
1 teaspoon. vanilla
*can be topped with fresh berries (e.g. strawberries), toasted coconut,  or certain dessert sauces (e.g. blueberry)

Preparation (Cake)

1)      Prepare cake according to box directions in a 9 x 13 in. pan/ baking dish (adding extra egg, rum, and coconut extract to the batter prior to baking)
2)      Let cake cool completely
3)      Using a fork, punch surface of cake with tines until it is well aerated.
4)      Combine evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk, and half and half
5)      Pour milk mixture over cake and refrigerate for a minimum of 48 hours prior to serving

Preparation (Whipped Topping)

1)      Combine heavy whipping cream, sugar, and vanilla
2)      Mix until soft peaks forms
3)      Spread evenly onto the surface of the cake.
*Topped with fresh strawberries and a blue berry dessert sauce this Latin dish is sure to please!

(Classic verstion of the Tres Leches Cake topped with blue berries and strawberries and served right out the pan)
(Tres Leches Cake served with simple blue berry sauce-Thanks to my trusted assistant Sue for her expert drizzle skills!)

Eat good food.  Drink good beer.  And above all, stay classy!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

New Food Wednesday: July 20, 2011

A slice of lemon ice box pie? Caramelized ginger cake? Some new genetic apple hybrid?

Monday, July 18, 2011

Restaurant Review Monday: Sun Café

Sun Cafe on Urbanspoon

Sun Café
Ste 3, 930 Old Monrovia Rd
Huntsville, AL
(256) 585-1394

Hours: Mon-Sun 11 a.m. – 9 p.m.

Not the best…but not the worst…just there.

This is the most tactful way that I can describe my dining experience at Sun Café.  Admittedly this establishment is more affordable than some of the other Japanese restaurants in town; just remember that you only get what you pay for.  If you have the means, I would recommend I ♥ Sushi in Jones Valley.  The atmosphere is more relaxing, and the food is of a superior quality. 

Upon entering this little hole in the wall, I was greeted by the large face of some FAUX News anchorwoman who was trying to explain that the current problems with America can be solved by removing all of the Latinos, Asians, and Blacks…After managing to choke down the bile rising in my throat, I proceeded to the bar and was attended to by woman whom I can only presume was the manager.  She was brief in her remarks but not dismissive or rude, and her service was polite and prompt.

For my meal I ordered the seafood soup ($6.00 for a quart size) and the 6 piece spicy tuna roll ($4.50).  As a connoisseur of spicy tuna rolls, I thought that this would be an excellent way to judge the quality and skill of the tiny establishment.  However, I now think that I may want to reconsider this standard. 

The tuna for the spicy tuna roll was finely minced, mixed with a spicy mayonnaise and something that I can only hope was panko bread crumbs or tempura pieces, and then rolled in the standard fashion.  Its flavor was not un-palatable, but this mincing technique simply did not impart the satisfying firm texture and mouthfeel imparted by leaving the tuna whole.  I am not sure of origins of this method, and “who am I to judge Japanese culture?”, but from what I know about sushi preparation this was probably invented to accommodate squeamish Americans unaccustomed to dining on raw fish.  An ultimately, this is how it tasted…artificial and bland. 

The seafood soup was equally bland.  The broth was weakly flavored and artificially thickened using a more than generous amount of cornstarch (in fact it was not unlike runny Jello).  The squid, when you actually found a piece, was rubbery and severely overcooked.  The single scallop in my quart of soup was succulent and fresh, but I was left wanting more. 

Simply because something is foreign and new does not mean we should relax our standards.  I would encourage this establishment to focus more on the quality of its products. 

Eat good food.  Drink good beer.  And above all, stay classy.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Chocolate = Antichrist

Schwarzwalder Kirschtorte  (Black Forest Cake) No. 2
(cake No. 1 found it's way into the garbage disposal)

Chocolate is the Antichrist.

There I said it.  I can never take it back. 

Every foody, food blogger, and gastronomist on the planet has a nemesis.  Julia Child hated cilantro, Bobby Flay can’t stand lentils, and Guy Fieri disdains eggs…mine is chocolate.  I absolutely detest cooking with it.  I abhor melting it.  And I don’t go bananas over the taste.  Don’t get me wrong, I love a gooey chocolate brownie and go nuts for chocolate chip cookie dough, but it’s simply not my preferred poison; which is probably why my personal choice for birthday cake isn’t a cake at all but rather lemon meringue pie!

Chocolate seduces you with its luscious appearance and exotic aroma.  You take a bite, and the next thing you know you’re in a semi-conscious trance.  When you finally come to, everything in your kitchen is coated in a sickly, brown layer of sludge.  Your dishwasher is on its second cycle, after using every dish in the kitchen.  And you feel like you’ve gained 40 pounds.  Yep, sounds to me like the work of the Devil.

So when a colleague asked me to make his wife’s birthday cake this week, I was a little taken aback as to why out of my limited repertoire he would ask for my Schwarzwalder Kirschtorte  (Black Forest Cake).  But I suppose it’s tradition to have a decadent chocolate cake to celebrate one’s day of birth, so I semi-enthusiastically agreed.

After a quick trip to the supermarket and armed with my stained copy of the recipe for Bobby Flay’s German Chocolate Cake made on FoodNetwork’s Throw Down, I set out to make the best damn chocolate cake I could muster. 

Unfortunately, I have to admit that cake would eventually win this throw down.

In the preparation of the batter, my technique was flawless.  It was luscious, dark, and smelled of rich chocolate.  I even put a few dark chocolate chips and some aged rum in the batter to improve the flavor profile.  My pans were perfectly prepped with butter, parchment paper, and cocoa powder (if you’re making a chocolate cake cocoa powder often works better than regular flour).  My oven was pre-heated and ready to go.  After 30 minutes of baking, the cakes were done and had risen beautifully, like dense, dark soufflés.  It looked like everything was going as planned.

After approximately 30 minutes of cooling, I felt the cakes to check the temperature.  They seemed a little warm, but I’ve managed to cut warm cakes before and didn’t think twice. 

That was error number one.

My version of the Kirschtorte uses two 8 inch cakes cut into even sections for total 4 layers separated by three layers of filling.  As it would turn out, my cutting job was rushed and sloppy.  The layers were highly irregular, uneven, and one even developed an obvious crack.  But since I had to work the next day and it was already approaching 8:00 pm, I decided to ignore it and hoped that the filling would hold it together.

Enter error number two.

As I assembled the layers, I suddenly had the bright idea to put the cracked layer second to the bottom, again hoping that the filling would act like glue.

That was my third error.

After struggling with the uncooperative cake for what seemed like several hours. I finally managed to assemble the last layer onto the top.  As I turned my back to prepare the whipped cream frosting for the exterior of the cake, I heard a very unappetizing plop; almost like someone had taken a water balloon, filled it with Jello, then and dropped it behind me.  I froze, unable to look at what had happened. 

As I slowly turned around, my worst fears were confirmed.  The instability of the broken layer combined with the weight of the top layers had caused half of the cake to slide off the counter and land, not surprisingly, in a jumbled mess of chocolate, cherries, and whipped cream. 

So I did the only thing I know how to do in these situations.  I grabbed my chef’s knife from the counter and ferociously began chopping the remaining portion of the errant cake into a pudding-like mash of birthday wishes and festivities. 

That was error number four.

So now in addition to the cake on the floor, there was cake all over the counter and me!  My tiny apartment kitchen probably has about 3 square feet of counter space.  And every single square inch was covered in cake crumbs.  

This photo was taken from the entrance to the kitchen
 I managed to clean it all up, a Two Hearted Ale (Bell’s Brewery IPA) helped tremendously, and of course just when I’m walking out the door to go to back to the store and thinking that it can’t possibly get any worse, it starts to rain…Talk about cinematic irony right? (extra points if you can identify the movie)

Finally, at 1 am (8 hours after starting the project) I washed the last dish and went to bed. 

So needless to say Chocolate is the Antichrist!  From now on, I’m charging a chocolate handling fee.

Eat good food.  Drink good beer.  And above all, stay classy!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

New Food Wednesday: July 13, 2011

Peanuts with caramel sauce? Raisins with toffee? The latest flavor of ice cream from Ben & Jerry's?

It's the common Japanese breakfast food Natto or as we would say in English, Rotten Soybeans!  Made from soybeans that have been treated with the bacteria Bacillus subtilis, this odd food has the bouquet of strongly aged cheese with a slightly nutty and savory taste. 

Drink good beer. Eat good food. And above all, stay classy!

Monday, July 11, 2011

Recipes: Semi-Sober Shepherds Pie

Okay...So with double shifts at the Nook this past weekend (one on Monday and one on Saturday), the 4th of July, and watching my parents’ dogs the week somehow just slipped away from me.  For the one or two followers out there on the interweb, I sincerely apologize for the delay in my commentary. 

So without further ado, here is this week’s recipe.  This is a scaled down version of the Semi-Sober Shepherds Pie we featured Saturday July 9, at the Nook.  Enjoy!

Semi-Sober Shepherds Pie

This is a classic recipe from the British pub scene.  While it’s bubbling away in the oven, you’re sure to see visions of well worn wooden tables, well scrubbed floors, and overstuffed chairs that seem to be molded to the shape of their favorite patrons.  In short, “Welcome to the UK!”

This dish combines ground lamb, ground chuck, and assortment of vegetables with a good helping of beer in a thick stew, which is then covered with a generous mashed potato crust and baked until the flavors of the hearty ensemble have become one. 

I know that this wonderful dish isn’t for everyone.  My father often refers to it as “lava pie” because of the way the sauce bubbles over, and he absolutely refuses to eat it.  For those whose only contention with this dish is the lamb, simply substitute it for ground chuck.  Though try the lamb, at least once, you may be surprised. 


-1/4 lb. pancetta or un-smoked bacon, chopped into uniform pieces
-1 lb. lean (95/5) ground chuck
-1 lb. ground lamb
-1 large white or yellow onion diced into uniform chunks
-3 carrots peeled and sliced into disks
-2 parsnips peeled and sliced into disks
-4 tsp. tomato paste
-4 tbs. all purpose flour
-1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
-2 tsp. finely chopped fresh rosemary
-2 tsp. finely chopped fresh thyme
-24 oz. beer (preferably an Irish stout such as Guinness)
-1/2 fresh green beans (stems removed, cut into bite-sized pieces, and steamed or boiled until al-dente)
-1 cup frozen green peas
-salt and pepper to taste

Mashed Potato Crust
-2 lbs. russet potatoes (peeled and diced into 1 in. cubes)
-cold water to cover the potatoes in a large pot
-1/4 cup kosher salt
-6 tbs. butter
-1 cup milk
-salt and pepper to taste


1.      In a large stock pot, place the potatoes and salt and cover with cool/cold water.  Heat on the stove on high until boiling.  Cook for approximately 20 minutes or until fork tender.
2.      Drain the potatoes in a colander and combine with the butter and milk.  Mash with a hand mixer until creamy.  Reserve mashed potatoes for later.  For extra creamy potatoes run the cooked spuds through a food mill or potato ricer prior to combining with milk and butter.
3.      In a large skillet on medium-high, cook the diced pancetta until crispy.
4.      When the pancetta is crispy add the ground chuck, and cook until browned.  Remove from skillet and drain off liquids/ fats.  Make sure to reserve some of the cooking fat in the skillet.
5.      Brown the lamb in the skillet.  Remove and drain off liquids.
6.      Place the lamb, beef, and pancetta in the bottom of a lightly greased large, deep casserole dish or similar oven proof baking device.
7.      Cook the carrots and parsnips in the same pan on medium heat (adding more oil if necessary) for approximately 3-5 minutes.  Add the onions and cook until everything is tender.
8.      Add the tomato paste to the pan, and mix until evenly distributed.
9.      Add the flour to the pan and continue to stir until slightly browned.
10.  Deglaze the pan with the beer, and cook until reduced by ½.  Add the Worcestershire sauce, rosemary, and thyme.  Stir to mix.
11.  Pour the mixture over the meats.
12.  Add the green beans and peas to the casserole and mix the contents just enough to combine.
13.  Cover the dish with the mashed potatoes (top mashed potatoes with shredded cheddar cheese if desired).
14.  Bake at 400 F for 20-25 minutes until the potatoes have browned.