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Sunday, May 22, 2016

The Cheese Course

     Sometimes nothing but a sandwich will do when you're peckish. And a bowl of hearty soup. Just that. Not a pizza or a plate of pasta or a bucket of chicken. A quality sandwich with the best ingredients can't be replaced with anything when that craving strikes.
     Since cheese is a major food group all on its own for me, I decided to try this little place that has been on my radar for a while. How could I ignore a name like "The Cheese Course"? It's a small store, one of only a few in Colorado, Texas and Florida, that specializes in the sale of wines and cheeses, but also serves a respectable variety of sandwiches and other light fare.
     A cursory look at their menu reveals an alluring array of ingredients to combine into sophisticated sandwiches. Things like Serrano ham, Aged English Cheddar, Scottish smoked salmon, raspberry cranberry jam, fruit chutney, artisanal cream cheese, for example, make it difficult for me to settle on one sandwich. I want to try them all, but I decide on the "soup and half combo" with the Spanish Serrano, Manchego cheese, and black olive tapenade on the whole wheat baguette. My soup is the Asiago Cheese Bisque, vegetables in a chicken velouté made with sweet cream, and julienne tomato and ham. John ordered the broccoli cheddar soup made with cream and topped with shaved cheddar and croutons.
     I wanted to assess these promising ingredients individually which forced me to remove the thicket of greens included in the sandwich. That done, I found a respectable amount of tapenade, not just a token schmear, and the ham and cheese were exceptional. Both soups were flavorful and silky to a degree that can only be achieved when using cream instead of milk. It makes a huge difference.
     The Cheese Course has a pinch of French bakery, a sprinkle of wine and cheese bar, and a dash of bistro. The perfect recipe for lunch with a flair.

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Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Pisco y Nazca Ceviche Gastrobar

     I have something to celebrate. After four loooong years, my first novel is done. I probably have two more years of editing ahead of me, but right now I'm basking in the satisfaction of finally birthing my literary baby. Michele and Pam, two of the muses that inspired "Friends of the Bride", joined me in celebrating this most important milestone.
     Ceviche is the new trend in food these days. Although small Peruvian restaurants have always had it as a staple in their menus, modish new establishments are highlighting this seafood specialty in their elegant menus. The name of this stylish place comes from the Peruvian saying "entre Pisco y Nazca" which refers to the friendly chatter that happens between drinks when humans are being sociable.
     Every time the word "gastrobar" or "gastropub" is in a name, I get a little excited. It means the chances are high that I'll get a chic environment, tantalizing cocktails, and elegant, well-developed eats.
Generally speaking, this 'bar' did not disappoint.
     Neither of my companions wanted to take a dip in the ceviche pool, so I dove in solo. It was very difficult to choose one from the many different versions offered, but I finally settled on the Passion Fruit, a combination of mahi, shrimp, and passion fruit in the traditional marinade or 'leche de tigre'. It was crowned with the plumpest and crispiest shrimp, a great introduction to the ceviche. It also had a kick I couldn't ignore, but the sweetness of the passion fruit, and the effective execution of the dish made it impossible not to enjoy it in spite of my spice-sensitive palate.
     A proper toast was a must, and even if Michele chose to do so with water, Pam and I picked some colorful libations. Pam was feeling frisky and ordered a Sex on the Beach. My cocktail was the Nena's Chilcano, a mix of Pisco Cuatro Gallos, a Peruvian brandy, lychee purée, fresh lime, elderflower, hibiscus syrup, and Fever-Tree ginger beer. Lychee flavor has the Midas touch for me. It gives any mixture a rich sweetness.
     Our entrees represented a good sampling of the menu. Pam ordered the Churrasquin, savory skirt steak served on a bed of lima bean tacu-tacu. This is an intriguing fried rice and beans patty typically Peruvian. Pam found it the perfect complement to the beef even though she had a hard time picking up the lima bean flavor.
     Michele ordered the Butifarra, a sandwich on a telera roll which was reminiscent of ciabatta bread. The roll was stuffed with slices of roasted Peruvian country ham and camote, or sweet potato, and salsa criolla, a mix of lime juice, yellow bell peppers, and red onions commonly served with grilled meats. The dish was served in a rustic wooden block with a side of fries. I didn't have to ask Michele if she liked her choice. She closed her eyes every time she took a bite.
    Again, it was difficult for me to make an entree decision because there was so much I wanted to try. In the end, I picked the Causita salad, mixed greens and chick peas over a bed of causa, a yellow potato mash, and a yellow bell pepper vinaigrette. The potato mash was savory and light. The rest of the salad was unremarkable.
     The atmosphere, the diverse menu, the elegant dish presentation were elements that garnered my respect. Great drinks and ceviche, just ok entrees, to sum it up. From what I gathered in my quality control bites, the character of the flavors ebbed and flowed. Until dessert. Pam and I shared the Arroz con Leche cheesecake in a dulce de leche sauce, and garnished with a quinoa crisp. This is where the restaurant got my undivided attention. Every bite of this block of sweetness was an experiment in texture. I savored it, allowed it to dance in my mouth, and to play with my palate, all the while in awe of the curious mingling of the silky cheesecake with the gentle grit of the rice pudding.
     I imagine I'll be examining more of these dens of ceviche while the trend is hot, but I feel a lot more knowledgeable about Peruvian cuisine after my maiden experience. Thanks, Pisco y Nazca. I had a lovely time.
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