Thursday, May 29, 2008

Cara's last night at Gracie's

Well, like the title says, last Wednesday was Cara's last night in the kitchen at Gracie's. She's been there for nearly a year and was instrumental this past winter in helping Susie ease into her new role as Gracie's pastry chef. It was Cara who pretty much showed her the ropes and made Susie's transition into her new job that much easier. Now she's off on a wonderful adventure, seeking fame and fortune out west.

"In bocca al lupo!!"

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

A look back at Apicius two years later

On a whim I recently surfed over to Apicius online to see if they've instituted any major changes since Susie was there studying baking and pastry in 2006.

Well they have -- and for the better, or so it seems.

First off, there appears to be two separate entities under the umbrella of Apicius: the Apicius International School of Hospitality and the Culinary Institute of Florence located at Apicius. The latter offers courses designed mainly for the tourist and those seeking culinary programs of fairly short duration (a month or less).

The AISH offers programs up to four years in the fields of culinary arts, pastry and baking, wine and hospitality management. As before, the pastry and baking program is offered in two sections: the Beginner in the fall and the Advanced in the spring term. The one burning question is do they in fact offer both sections as scheduled no matter how many students are enrolled?

That was the problem for Susie in 2006 -- not only didn't they offer each section each term, as outlined in the literature, but in fact she would not know one way or the other until the very last moment.

So she said non to Apicius and oui to Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. The rest, as they say, is history.

There's no denying the fact that Apicius employed some pretty incredible instructors, and one would hope they still do. And the kitchen facilities seemed first rate.

But the uncertainty of the program's schedule combined with the school's focus on US college study abroad students rather than serious culinary students, left it an open question as to how "professional" the school's baking and pastry program really was.

Mind you this was a good thing, a very good thing. Had we not found ourselves faced with an uncertain future that late spring of 2006, we never would have ended up in Paris.

And that would have been tragic indeed.

What was your experience at Apicius like?

Monday, May 26, 2008

Don & Gloria Archer 50 years and counting

Yesterday, Sunday, Susie and I had the pleasure of driving to Brooklyn and helping our friends Don & Gloria Archer celebrate their 50+ wedding anniversary. Organized by their kids and attended by many old friends, it was a perfect day for a party and there were plenty of smiles and lots of laughter shared by all. Here are just a few of the many faces we met that day, in either the slideshow version or slideshow with music:

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Food for a moment

Susie has been experimenting with three new sorbets -- they may go on the menu or they may not. While they may not look exciting, believe me their flavor is pretty incredible: lemon-rosemary, blueberry-ginger and strawberry-balsamic-peppercorn.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Graduation week in Providence and Susie's desserts

It's no secret that Providence is a major food town -- but for those of us who seem to be obsessed with food we often forget that this city is also a major university town as well. The textile mills that once defined the greater Providence area are long gone, replaced by academic buildings and residence halls: University of Rhode Island, Rhode Island College, Providence College, and of course Brown University, Rhode Island School of Design and Johnson & Wales University, to name just a few. (photo: Susie's classic French shell-shaped Madeleine cakes.)

And last weekend the commencement season for all these schools began in earnest.

One of the Johnson & Wales students, a most amiable young man named Nick, finished his junior year and his job on the website redesign team -- which is where I met him. Pleasant, easy-going, hard-working and reliable, Nick was clearly well-liked by everyone and was surprised with a cake and lots of smiles wishing him well.

Of course, with all the commencements this last weekend and on into the next, also comes plenty of parties at local restaurants and so Susie has been prepping like crazy trying -- successfully I might add -- to stay ahead the game as it were.

And so on Saturday Susie had a very long day indeed. After she had been at work for nearly 10 hours I drove after 5:00 p.m. to pick her up. As I walked in the door I quickly discovered that a serious party was just about to get underway at Gracie's -- six of the staff at the restaurant are graduating this year and two of them were holding a party in the restaurant that very evening. I had the foresight to bring the camera so I snapped a few quick photos to share with you:

Danielle and her brother:

Katelynn (Mike in the background):


Gracie's server:

Before we left to go home I had a unique opportunity to grab a few photos of Susie's desserts being plated. Normally we don't get a chance to see these since it usually only happens late into the evening. But someone had ordered a dessert tasting early it seems so . . .

Banana pistachio cake with honey-mascarpone cream, finished off with chopped pistachios and chocolate nibs:

Chocolate chambord-sabayon (in the espresso cup) with shortbread sticks:

Lemon curd tart with lemon cream:

On Sunday Dick and Dorothy drove down from Douglas, MA, and the four of us walked over to Nick's for breakfast. The wait was long -- about half an hour -- but hey it was graduation weekend. The service was slow of course, but, as always the food was good.

The big news for us is that two more condo units sold recently; and in fact a young couple already closed and started moving into one of the town home units already. So now we're half full.

Or half empty. It's your call.

Anyway, the weather has been good, aside from a little rain last week.

You really should have been here.



Monday, May 12, 2008

Work and Food in Providence

My, how things have changed. The big news here is, of course, that I spent all of last week at work. That's right, at work, can you believe it?

I'm working as a freelance web editor at Johnson & Wales University, right here in Providence. The school is in the process of totally overhauling it's website -- and with four separate campuses scattered around the U.S., that's no small undertaking. Anyway, it's a challenge for me to be sure but frankly I am enjoying myself immensely. I'm editing, which I like, for the web, which I am equally fond of, and I'm learning so much along the way! And the office is just a 20 minute walk from home! Tres cool, eh?

Susie worked several long days last week -- in addition to planning the next batch of new desserts and experimenting for the future (see the photo of chocolate zabaglione below) she's also working on the little confections for the restaurant's line of sweets to be sold at the local farmer's market this summer. More on that in the next few weeks.

And the weather was really quite atrocious for much of last week as well. One would have thought March had returned with a vengeance.

But the weather didn't keep us from spending a little quality time at Gracie's for the Wednesday wine flights: last week it was white wines for picnicking -- and they were good as usual, but Chef Joe's accompanying treats were incredible: a sunchoke soup with fennel, deviled quail's egg and roasted grapes -- I mean roasted grapes!

Anyway, Wednesday evening got away from us so we just walked out of Gracie's and went next door to Cuban Revolution to grab a sandwich before heading home. It was quite a radical change from the Gracie's atmosphere of smooth jazz and warm vibes to very loud noise, lots of energy and marginally controlled chaos.

In a nutshell the restaurant was a big disappointment. Food was so-so, skimpy "Cuban" sandwich that seemed to lack all of the ingredients, whereas Susan's wrap seemed to have been stuffed with just about everything imaginable. Sweet potato fries were soft and mushy, and, we thought, quite overpriced ($4 for a small dish).

But it was the service that was by far and away the worst part of the dinner. Our server was a young woman who had no idea what she was doing or how to do it -- capping the dinner off at presenting us with two different bills! The check itself was for $27 and change, while the credit card receipt was for more than $44. Hmmm, that was curious I thought. Still, I'm not sure who to blame here: the poor server working her tail off, blissfully unaware of how she is botching so much along the way, or the management that put her there in the first place. Odd. (photo below: Susie's cherry mascarpone tartlets.)

It was quite a different story Friday night. After another long day for Susie and after an aperitif at Gracie's we thought we'd try MuMu's, a Chinese restaurant on Atwell's on Federal Hill. Chef Joe Hafner and several others at Gracie's raved about how good the food is at this place -- and they were right. No doubt about it, this was some of the best Chinese food either one of us have ever tasted. Spring rolls were perfectly crisp with a light wrap and fresh ingredients inside, and the entrees were equally scrumptious: very tasty, lots of flavor and heat as advertised. Priced right as well.

From MuMu's we walked over to Pastiche, almost around the corner, and grabbed a table by the front window. The desserts were nice and the coffee perfect. Service outstanding and prices a bit high -- but hey, life's full of tradeoffs.

We finished the week with yet another outstanding dinner, this time on Jamestown Island, south of Providence smack in the middle of Narragansett Bay. Friends of Dick and Dorothy's, Jeff and Janice, invited the four of us down to dinner at their home on Jamestown Island, across the bay from Newport. After a glass of wine at our place the four of us drove down -- it took all of about 30 minutes probably -- and found ourselves out in the quiet Rhode island countryside, away from the sirens and car alarms.

All we brought were four hearty appetites, and we all left stuffed. Homemade hummus to start capped off by homemade angel food cake -- with an incredible rack of lamb and potato gratin wedged in the middle. And the carrots! Whoa! Naturally I forgot to ask how they fixes these but they were sauteed (?) to perfect with a nice firmness to the bite and a little something that I couldn't quite pin down tucked away in the back of the flavors. The best meal of the week to be sure. (photo below: Susie's daquoise lime bites.)

Sunday was a day of rest -- well not really. It was Mother's Day of course, although frankly I'm a firm believer in the notion that we should be treating our Mothers to a special day every day. But hey, my mother's gone so I suppose that's my perspective a bit.

Anyway we spent Sunday working at home, household chores, baking for Susie as well and me upgrading the Mac to the new Leopard operating system. Very exciting stuff.

Wish you had been here,


Sunday, May 04, 2008

Providence Firemen

Living in a big city like Providence, one gets used to hearing two things nearly every day: car alarms (going off for no reason) and emergency vehicle sirens. And since we live along Westminster street, one of the major east-west streets in west Providence, we frequently see one type or another emergency vehicle go shooting by our apartment.

Well yesterday late afternoon I was killing time at home waiting to go in and pick Susie up and perhaps shoot a few photos of some of her latest desserts for a magazine article. I heard a fire truck zip by, then another and another and another and , well, it seemed like nearly every fire truck and police car was heading west down Westminster street.

I walked outside and could see the police had blocked off our street just a couple of blocks beyond our condo. I grabbed my wiener backup camera, my camcorder and walked in the drizzling rain to see what was going on.

Well there was a huge fire in a building just on the other side of the Route 10 overpass.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Fascinating week in Providence

The last week or so has been interesting, enlightening, tasty and pretty incredible.

First off, a week ago today I completed my 60th year on the planet. (Where I was prior to this I don't know.)

A week ago Thursday night Susan and I attended a wine tasting in Seekonk ("See. Konk. See Konk run. See Konk fall over. . .") at a wine shop there and thought this was a grand way to kick off my quiet but unique birthday celebration. You can click here for more information on that excursion.

On Friday, the actual birth day itself (at 12:01 a.m. in fact), Susie worked much of the day so I did a few chores around the house and then had lunch at a Mexican restaurant near our condo, called El Rancho Grande. I had heard some pretty good things about this place and wanted to check it out.

For my notes on lunch click here.

That evening Susie and I drove 5 minutes over to Atwell's Avenue and had dinner at Lili Marlene's. A dark yet somehow inviting space Lili's is widely known for some of the best burgers in town. That and beer is pretty much their stock in trade. They didn't disappoint us on either score.

Click here for my notes on dinner if you're of a mind.

Saturday was another busy day for Susie but we had the pleasure of seeing an old friend from Paris. Valerie, who had been with Susie in the basic pastry course at Le Cordon Bleu, flew in from visiting friends in Virginia, to spend a couple of days with us. Born and raised in Paris Val fell in love with America when she came to Las Vegas to work on an engineering project. We surprised her by taking her to Gracie's for my "official" birthday dinner. And in true Parisian fashion she was up to the challenge. You should have seen her eyes light up when she saw the wines they brought. . .

Chef Joe had worked up a special tasting menu for us and our friends Stan and Margie in Michigan had ordered the wines as their way of wishing me a happy birthday. And frankly I couldn't have asked for a better present. Absent friends and family were with us in spirit that evening to be sure. Miss Ellen and the whole staff of Gracie's were very kind to me that evening and we spent four hours or so, the three of us just eating, sipping wine and sharing warm conversation and great stories.

For more details about that remarkable evening, just click here!

Sunday Susie had to work for a few hours in the morning -- the previous night had been terribly successful as far as desserts went but it required her to come and prep more for the rest of the weekend. So Val and I drove over to the East Bay Bike Path and walked along the shore of the bay -- we then went downtown and, while we waited for Susie to finish, I showed her some of the city's very cool buildings (and imaginative outdoor murals like the one below).

A little after 1 p.m. we picked Susie up, drove home and after she got cleaned up -- making dessert is a messy business -- the three of us drove up to Dick and Dorothy's house in Douglas, MA for birthday dinner. Uncle Frank and Cathy were there as well -- and we spent the next couple of hours around a table full of delicious food, topped off by a scrumptious dessert prepared by D & D.

You can see a short video of what it was like to sit at my end of the table that Sunday afternoon by just clicking here!

That evening Susie, Val and I watched a funny Amy Heckerling movie, I Could Never be Your Woman. Although frankly I have a hard time saying that with a straight face. . .

The only downside to the weekend was the weather: it turned rainy and clammy early and stayed that way through Monday. But it didn't stop us from driving Val down to Narragansett and showing her the ocean:

"See it's that big flat, watery thing out there beyond the mist, rain and fog. . ."

After a nice lunch we dropped Val off at the airport in Providence and drove home. The weather remained lousy and so when we got home I tracked her flight to see if she left on time and she did. Or rather her plane did. We assume she was on it.

Now of course it's her turn to host us the next time we're in Paris. That can't happen fast enough.

On Wednesday we went back to Gracie's for the weekly wine flight tasting. This it was Sauvignon Blanc wines, one from California, one from France and one from New Zealand, paired with seafood and a lemon pound cake. We concluded this was the best tasting yet: the pairings were about as perfect as we had so far experienced and the wines themselves were very good.

Oh, and today, Friday, I had my appointment at the Municipal Court in Providence. A couple of weeks back I was given a parking ticket for an "expired meter" but in fact the meter had failed -- it's one of the digital meters -- so of course I pled not guilty. After all, it's a $25 fine! I went in this morning, my summons was for 8:00 a.m., and after waiting about 45 minutes or so, along with a roomful of other people, my name was called and after explaining what happened the case was dismissed. It took all of about 30 seconds.

I must say, sitting there in the courtroom reminded me of that wonderfully funny sitcom Night Court, starring Harry Anderson as the youthful, iconoclastic Judge Stone. Our judge this morning was not a young male but she was still attractive nonetheless. Of course I don't think for a moment that she let me off by mistaking me for Brad Pitt. She probably just felt a sense of pity for this old geezer standing in front of her, about five years away from drooling for a living.

Otherwise the week has been quiet and rather ordinary.

Oh, until yesterday, Thursday. I finally got word that I'll soon be working as a freelance web editor for one of the local colleges. They are in the process of revamping their website and I cannot wait to pitch in. They sent me the contract to review and ask when I could start next week. Frustrating as cyberspace may be sometimes, how I do love the Internet. Anyway, more on that next week.)

Until then, stay cool, stay warm, keep calm and, as always,

Wish you were here,