Thursday, June 18, 2009

More Latte Art

Great? No. But I'm getting increasingly good at coaxing art-able milk from my machine.

UPDATE 6/26/2009: Just whipped up another one with much better lines and direction. It comes to a point much more nicely.

UPDATE 7/6/2009: Just adding photos if I make a nice one.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

What Can Brown Do For You?

I just caught the Espress Yourself episode of Good Eats on Food Network. I am aghast. I've never disagreed with Alton Brown before. I've never been so thoroughly shocked by his errors.

Let's go through part 1.

5 min: I completely disagree that ground espresso beans aren't acceptable. I agreed with his assertion in True Brew that it's best to buy whole-bean because blade grinders are totally sufficient for ordinary drip coffee, but espresso requires a grind far beyond your average grinder. As long as you buy only as much as you need for a few days and keep the grinds in an airtight container, feel free to order your beans ground to a correct espresso level.

Also, especially for any grinder that is consumer-level, you cannot possibly grind too fine. Trust me. Your biggest problem will be getting a grinder that can grind fine enough. To my horror, he continues on in the episode without discussing what makes a good grinder or providing any insight whatsoever. Importantly, we never get a terribly good look at his own grinder, which I've determined to be the Gaggia MDF, which costs $300.

I'll give you my own insight into grinding. Basically, there are no grinders for less than $100 that will get you the grind you need. The Jura Capresso Infinity grinder will get the job done, but that's about it. You will not be able to achieve a true espresso grind in that machine. I believe you can modify it to grind fine enough, but I imagine you'd just blow out the motor early. If you want to grind your own beans at home, you will need to plunk down at least $200. The Baratza Virtuoso can also be modified to produce true espresso grind and only costs $200. If you only produce a cup or two per day, this would be a good choice.

7:50 min: Again, don't worry about weighing your espresso. Your biggest concern is making sure sufficient grounds are in the portafilter. Over-fill the basket, take a card and chop the mound a bit, then level off the grinds. Espresso machines are designed specifically for this action; you are meant to do it. There is one thing you should note. If your espresso machine's grouphead is angled or otherwise not flat, you may want to see if there is a fill-line in the portafilter. This means your machine has been designed with some bizarre specs. Be wary of these machines.

On to part 2.

0:30 min: He fails to mention spring-actuated models where a lever is pulled to cock a spring and it is what actually does the work of pushing the water through the puck. They are fantastic, very theatrical, and easy to use.

1:50 min: He finally settles on a machine near the end of his display... after making fun of the Rancilio Silvia. He might as well have made fun of Ferrari. In the world of home espresso, the Silvia is legendary for producing consistent boiler pressure and temperature. Why is it legendary, you may ask? Because it is a single-boiler design. One boiler means that it's pulling double-duty to generate sufficient steam to froth milk and push out a shot of espresso at exactly 200 degrees.

This is an important point since only one boiler is going to require a butt-load of wattage to do all that. He doesn't mention the power of the machine at all. Not even in passing. The machine he settles on is, I think, the Saeco Aroma. The design has changed slightly so I've uploaded a picture of the old model so you can see. The Saeco's boiler is 950 watts. The Silvia is over 1100 watts. I consider the Saeco at the minimum. You want a machine that's around 1000 watts, and never less than 900. There are lots of machines on the market that get this job done. Sufficient boiler power is the very first number you should look at. For example, my Jura Capresso Z5 is 1350 watts.

And to touch back on my previous comment about grinds, both the Saeco and the Rancilio are as low as you can go because they are the cheapest machines that will get through a true espresso grind. So I guess I should qualify my statement that getting a grinder that will grind fine enough is your biggest problem unless you try and skimp on your machine. But if you do that, your biggest problem is that you just bought a large paper weight.

6:00 min: Do not even get me started on his milk steaming procedure. There's so much wrong with it that I don't know where to begin. First, I guess, is the machine. Just check out this review from a user at Coffee Geek to see the problems. The wand has one of those nappy-ass attachments meant to make milk steaming easier, but only serves to muck up the process. It's called a pannarello and would get you laughed out of any serious coffee bar if you let them know you used one. You want evidence of how terrible they are? All you have to do is look at the atrocious foam Alton made while steaming his milk. He says he wants to get the milk up to "at least 160 degrees." At least? One-sixty should be at the absolute upper limits of the milk. He never gives the steam wand a burst to blow out any excess water. He keeps the wand submerged too long. He steams the milk too much. It's alarming. He does almost everything wrong. I'm not kidding when I say that Alton Brown has never done this. I've always found him to be spot on. I'd like to point out that following his steam disaster, the milk foam he dispenses for example looks like it was steamed on an entirely different machine, which I bet it was. A better machine.

Honestly, you want to know how to steam good milk? For one thing, get a better machine. Get one with a traditional or straight-fire wand. Yes, it takes some practice, but if you don't want to bother, go to a cafe. Then follow the advice on this site. For videos, I've embedded a few. I especially like the second from Nashville since they use a bottomless portafilter, which just looks cool. After viewing these, you should have a much better prespective on steaming milk. I'd also like to point out the power of a double-boiler machine, which is usually restricted to pro-level gear, in the Nashville clip. Notice how, as she is in the process of pulling her shot, she starts using her steam wand. It's just not possible to do that on consumer-gear. If you're really dedicated to making the best home espresso, it might be a good investment. The Vivaldi II costs about $2,000, which may seem like a lot until you consider that pro machines are frequently over ten grand, or that I paid $3,000 for my machine, and its internals are inferior.

A note on Ms. Nashville, here: She glosses over the actual steaming procedure a bit. For cappuccino you're going to keep the steam wand at the surface of the milk (stretch the milk) up to about 120-125 degrees, then submerge the nozzle and whirlpool the milk up to about 140-145 degrees to account for a ten degree overrun. I disagree with her completely, as well, about the thermometer. Even after making drinks for a long time, it's always nice to have one around because it may not be as accurate in real time as a trained hand, it's very accurate if you assume it's always about ten degrees below the actual temperature of the milk.

For lattes, stretch the milk up to about 100 degrees, then whirlpool the milk up to the 145 degree target. Remember, you're going to be starting with more milk for a latte than a cappuccino.

8:20 min: Boy was I shocked when he said that a cheap alternative to espresso is a french press. What the hell happened to a moka pot? Now there's some coffee to knock you on your ass. You could also go with Turkish coffee. It's cheap, but I think that might be more work than you're looking for. No, he should have mentioned the french press in his episode on coffee, True Brew.

So in conclusion, I was hyped when I saw that Brown had done an episode on one of my great loves, espresso. I was so disappointed when I saw his advice. It was so off the mark on so many things. Don't let this dissuade you from taking Brown's advice on almost everything else, though, his show rocks. Just, apparently, don't trust him when it comes to coffee.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Review List

I am adding a quick review list that has the star ratings of every place I've ever eaten. Some of the restaurants never received a formal write-up. Formal reviews will be included. The list is alphabetical, not by location.

Al Forno: ****
Rhode Island's most famous restaurant almost meets high expectations. Simple food. Perfectly prepared. Fantastic desserts. Some items are over-priced, including the gimmicky house specialty, the Dirty Steak. Atmosphere is airy and austere.

Arunothai: ***
Good standard asian cuisine in Pawtuxet Village. They hit all the right notes. Free delivery, too.

Aspire: ***
Nothing is bad, but the prices are haute, while much of the food is not. You won't be disappointed, but you won't be impressed, either.

Bagelz: **
Very poor coffee and espresso overshadow a thoroughly collegiate atmosphere and decent food offerings.

Basil's: ****1/2
Rhode Island's best service is the highlight of traditional this French/Continental eatery. Quiet, intimate dining room is a joy. Best Duck A L'Orange for a hundred miles.

Beef Barn: ***
What Burger King would be if it was good. Good shakes, fries, onion rings, all at prices just above free.

Bella Napoli Bakery & Deli: ***
A standard deli, but it gets everything right. Ask for some of their pizza, which is excellent traditional Italian.

Blue State Coffee: ***1/2
One of RI's better cafes. Attractive, modern ambiance, decent selection of food and other drinks, and good coffee lead to disappointment in some uneven espresso drinks.

The Breakfast Nook: ***
A good, standard diner.

Brewed Awakenings: ***
A standard cafe with a wide selection of food. Fruit salads are sometimes poor, and the gelato can get icey. Espresso ranges from decent to terrible. Luckily the drip coffee is good.

Brickway on Wickenden: ***
A great place to get a standard breakfast. I'd go more often if it wasn't packed from open to close.

Caffe Bon Ami: ***1/2
A very good cafe that does nothing amazing, but nails everything they set out to do.

Cafe Fresco: ***
Good Italian/continental food and a pleasantly hip atmosphere satisfy.

Cafe Nuovo: ***1/2
Lots of early hype has faded, and Nuovo is still around. Recipes are sometimes ill-conceived, and the wine list is comically expensive, but the food is never bad, and the RISD-like desserts are an utter treat and total deal at only $9.

Cafe Zog: **1/2
It's your basic cafe with sandwiches and decent coffee. The layout of the kitchen is very poor, and because of that, service can be shockingly slow. I'd rather go to Thayer Street.

Cav: ****1/2
Easily RI's most interesting dining area, CAV's food almost measures up. The lunch menu is good, and brunch is a treat. The dinner menu doesn't change too often, but special's are usually worth a try.

Chipotle: ***1/2
The best fast food that I've ever had. On the pricey side, but well worth it.

The Coast Guard House: ***
A magnificent dining area and view are tempered by incredibly uneven preparation and ingredient quality.

Coffee & Cream: **1/2
Acceptable diner with late-night hours. Food prep can be shoddy.

Coffee Exchange: ****
Rhode Island's best cafe. A wide selection of house-roasted coffee, Gregg's desserts, and locally baked cookies and treats combine with consistently excellent espresso. The crowd is very urban-hipster, which is both annoying and enjoyable.

Le Crêperie: ***
A well-prepared variety of crêpes. Very small, and the prices are high, but the selection is unmatched.

Don Jose Tequila's: *
A massive disappointment. Cold food. Bland. Tough meat. Almost everything was wrong.

Duffy's Tavern: ***
A good local haunt for freshly caught seafood.

East Side Pockets: ***
Very well-prepared falafel and wraps. Good prices to boot.

E&J's Breakfast: *1/2
Spartan dining area, Bisquick pancakes, and dirty plates equals epic fail.

Eleven Forty Nine: ***1/2
Urban food and suburban prices, sort of. Everything is well-prepared. Recipes are nothing special. Ingredients are generally good. The house-made desserts taste are uneven, with some being very well-executed, with others tasting like they were out of a freezer.

Emilio's Bakery: ****
The best coronets on Earth, great cheesecake, and an enormous selection of other tooth-rotting bits of paradise. Dry cakes and sometimes over-baked cookies ruin the party.

Fadó Irish Pub: ***
Decent place for a quick bite. Great grilled cheese, fries, and a wide selection of beers are all good. Boxties are unique, but a bit pricey.

Felicia's Coffee: **
Abysmal espresso and coffee ruin a good selection of foods and coffee beans.

Five Guys Burger and Fries: ***1/2
The best fast food burger that you can buy. Very loud, intense dining area.

Frank & John's from Italy: ****
The best traditional Italian pizza in Rhode Island. A gem.

Fred & Steve's: ****
Large cuts of meat and massive side dishes match the plush interior very well. Service is good. Better than Ruth's Chris and Capital Grille, but falls to the superior Providence Prime.

The Garden Grille: **1/2
Conceived as well as I suppose they could be. The recipes never fully transcend the self-imposed limitations of vegetarian/vegan food. Flavors can be two-dimensional and bland. Still, it's certainly adequate, and if you're a vegetarian, this is likely the best you'll ever get.

Gillian's Ale House: **1/2
Good local haunt with good bar food. The house-made corned beef is excellent.

The Governor Francis Inn: ***
Good local restaurant. Fair prices, well-prepared standard food, and a nice atmosphere make it a good stop if you're driving through or live in the area. The clientele is elderly and the food is a bit bland to match. Still, it's satisfying.

Gracie's: ****
Fantastic place. Romantic dining area. The dynamic menu is loaded with excellent-quality ingredients and serving sizes are generally perfect. Some prices are a bit silly, like $13 for maybe twenty house-made gnocchi. One of Rhode Island's best.

Gregg's: ***1/2
One of RI's best standard restaurants. A massive menu of sandwiches, roasts, salads, bar food, and desserts guarantees you'll find something to eat.

Grille on Main: ***
One of Pinelli Marra's restaurants, Grille on Main has some great food, a hopping bar, and nice dining area.

India: ****
Rhode Island's best Indian food. It's non-traditional, but I like that. Very well-prepared, with great ingredients.

International Zone at URI: ***
Standard sandwich shop. Good falafel. The ice cream can be a bit icey.

The Italian Village: ***
The very definition of local Italian place. Everything meets expectations. Serving sizes can be comically large.

J's Deli: ***1/2
A perfect deli. The selection is large. Ingredients are good. Prices are low. What else do you need?

Java Madness: **1/2
The view is great, the coffee and espresso are not. The sandwich selection is good, and college students get a discount, but the crap smoothies and espresso make this hard to recommend.

Jitters Cafe: ***
Jitters rules the take-out crowd in North Kingstown. Excellent bagel and muffin selection disappears early. Baked goods are acceptable. Espresso is usually decent, as is the drip coffee.

Jim's Deli: ****
Huge, cheap sandwiches are only part of the charm. Misspelled signs, an utterly gigantic selection of seemingly everything, and friendly service make this place the best deli for miles.

Junction Trattoria: ***
First a pizzeria, now a trattoria, it's all good. The sandwiches and pizza satisfy, but the pre-packaged desserts are disappointing.

Lemongrass: **1/2
Touts their many awards. I don't know for what. Sweet & sour stuff is heavy on the batter, rice is bland, meats are tough. Overall, it's more than adequate, but not something to seek out.

Local 121: ***
Beautiful interior slams into good but over-priced food.

Lucce: ***1/2
The dining area is hilariously small, but the food is good and the prices are fair.

Main Street Coffee: ***1/2
I got perfectly formed latte art.

Mediterraneo: **
A huge disappointment. Everything but the pork loin was inadequate. After dinner, house-made limoncello was great, though.

Mozzarella's: ***
Standard neighborhood restaurant sort of deal. Good menu, good prices, good atmosphere. I prefer Gregg's.

Oak (Nero's Restaurant Oak): **1/2
Dishes lack any spice. Nice atmosphere, good service, quality ingredients, but the food is just bland and unbalanced.

The Oak Hill Tavern: ***1/2
The low prices and excellently prepared ribs mean this place is a must-try for BBQ lovers.

Ozzi's Steakburgers: ***
Really tasty burger joint. Wide selection of toppings, good meat, shakes and floats, it's A&W if A&W was better. Service isn't very good or fast, though. Fries are usually really soft. Parking and leaving is a nightmare. If you live in the area, this should be your burger destination.

Pagoda Inn: ***1/2
The best Chinese food in town until Seven Moons showed up. Beef teriyaki is sometimes tough, and sweet & sour chicken/pork is sometimes fried to a hard block of inedible cement. Crab rangoons are my favorite in all of RI.

Pal's Restaurant: ***1/2
Very low prices, great food, the epitome of an excellent local haunt. A wide menu and friendly service are bonuses. Desserts are decent, and the alfredo sauce is a bit watery.

Pane e Vino: ****
My favorite Italian food in RI. They have an amazing Italian wine list.

Pastiche: ****
Beyond-good desserts. Save room at dinner for this place. The coffee is good, as are other drinks, but the espresso is questionable. Sometimes it's decent, others it's downright bad.

Paulie Penta's: ***
A good deli.

Pot au Feu: ***1/2
Good bistro, with too-dim lighting. Upstairs "salon" has excellent service and ambiance. Very good, French food with competitive prices.

The Pump House: ***
A disappointment considering its Red Rooster lineage. It's very bland, but well-made standard continental/American fare.

Rasoi: ***
The food is more traditional than India, but prep and ingredient quality left me wanting. Gristle and tough bits in the chicken surprised me. The naan is fantastic, though.

Rue De L'Espoir: ***1/2
Good brunch, good dinner, good French food.

Sea View Station: **1/2
Standard breakfast joint. Ingredient quality is dodgy at times, but nothing bad.

Scramblers: ***
A good, standard diner.

Seven Moons: ***
A very wide selection of Asian food and good sushi make this likely the best one-stop-Asian-shop in RI.

Seven Stars Bakery: ****
Fantastic bread, baked goods, and espresso make this place a must-visit for Providence residents.

T's: ***1/2
The best breakfast joint around. Good prices, large, clean dining area, and a dynamic specials menu are all excellent.

Taste of India: ***
An, um, Indian restaurant. Everything is quality. Some of the curries are too oily. The meat is of good quality. Service is very good. Their recipes are different, which is good.

Tavern by the Sea: ***
A satisfying place with fresh ingredients, good service, and a wide open al fresco dining area with views of Wickford.

Three Sisters: ***
Good sandwiches, ice cream, and espresso make Three Sisters a good default place to eat.

Trattoria Simpatico: ***
High prices don't jive with some horribly executed meat dishes and uninventive and/or poorly executed desserts. Pasta is fantastic, though, as is the excellent al freso dining area.

Tricia's Tropigrille: ***1/2
Our own little slice of the Caribbean. Good prices, dining area, and selection are nice. Dessert list is a piece of paper in a bottle (cute). Very simple desserts, very cheap, and very good.

Twist: **1/2
Specials are a mixed bag. Drink selection is good. Food is the same as Pinelli Marra's other restaurants for more money.

The Village Hearth Bakery: ****
Possibly southern Rhode Island's best cafe. Bakery is amazing. Dining area is great. Must try.

QUICKVIEW: Aspire- +++ / $$

Aspire replaces the once famous pillar of Providence's dining scene, L'epicureo. I was never fond of L'epicureo, or at least I never was at its newer, hotel location. The interior was tacky, the food preparation was dodgy, and the prices were pretty high.

I had minor expectations for Aspire, seeing as well-branded restaurants attached to hotels are usually pretty good. My expectations were, happily, met. I only had lunch, but my meal was more than enough to bring me back. We didn't get any appetizers, opting to move straight on to entrees. In the lineup was the house hamburger, a marghertia pizza, and serving of chicken, Gorgonzola, and walnut ravioli.

The pizza was good. Well-prepared and crispy, with fresh and flavorful toppings, it was also something of a bargain. It was very large, and only cost $10. It could easily feed two people. My only gripe is the lack of kick to it. The sauce was kind of bland and herbs and spices seemed to be a bit MIA. Still, it was a very tasty pizza for only ten bucks. Bertucci's, a chain, would probably charge nearly twice as much for a similar pizza. The burger suffered similar criticisms. They call it the A Burger, and what's basically a house take on the hamburger should have something special. Something unique. It was just that, though, a burger. A BIG burger, though. 10 ounces of hamburger is quite a lot. Still, I would have liked to see some special cheese, or their house blend of seven herbs and spices mixed into the meat. As it stands, it was good. Nine dollars for a gigantic burger is, again, an excellent price. It was juicy, well-cooked, and presented nicely.

Where they hit a home run was the ravioli. It was an excellent dance of sweet and savory flavors, bathed in a delicious cream sauce. The crunchiness of the walnuts, the sweetness of the cranberries, and the creaminess and smokey bite of the sauce and Gorgonzola balanced perfectly. I was also very happy with the portion. It was a little small, I would have liked maybe one more ravioli for the price, but that's kind of nit-picking.

Aspire: +++
Price: $$ (lunch)

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311 Westminster Street
Providence, RI 02903
401-521-3333 (Reservations accepted)

Monday through Saturday 7:00am to 10:30am
Sunday & holidays 7:00am to 10:00am
Monday through Saturday 11:30am to 3:00pm
Sunday Brunch 10:00am to 2:00pm
Monday through Thursday 5:00pm to 10:00pm
Friday & Saturday 5:00pm to 11:00pm
Sunday 3:00pm to 9:00pm