Thursday, July 30, 2009

RECOMMENDATION: Michel Cluizel Chocolate Collection

If you're interested in starting a journey in the wild world of chocolate, this is hands down the best place to start. It's a variety pack of various single-origin chocolates from one of the world's very best chocolatiers, Michel Cluizel.

The only way to really begin appreciating the finer aspects of chocolate flavor, well, you need something to compare each flavor to. The five varieties in this package run the gamut, from the explosively fruity Mangaro, to the darker, less complex Tamarina. You get eight squares of two varieties, and four of the remaining three. Yeah, the photo is a total lie. The chocolates are laid out in columns.

The box gives you a short description of each variety, from whence it came, and general flavors. They also provide a small booklet explaining the chocolate manufacturing process and how passionate Cluizel is about the whole thing.

It's an easy one-stop-shop for a beginning in fine chocolates. I recommend it fully. The only thing I find a bit ridiculous is the insistence of using "Noble Ingredients." If you haven't heard of that, it's because Cluizel made it up. Basically, it means he doesn't use soy lecithin as an emulsifier in his chocolate mix. He says that finely tuned palates can taste the lecithin. I can't. While my palate may simply not be up to snuff, I also sense more than a little pompous BS in his declaration. Regardless, I'm glad he's dedicated enough to do something no one else cares about.

Moreover, this praise only applies to his dark chocolate varieties. His milk chocolate is a surprising miss. The texture is waxy and the flavor is so mild as to be almost nonexistent. After you're done with this, you can expand to other single-origin chocolates and manufacturers. If you so desire, I highly recommend Marie Belle, Jacques Torres, and the wide variety available from Guittard. Bernard Callebaut also produces excellent chocolate, including a fantastic milk.

Local chocolates are surprisingly varied, but none of them manufacture their own chocolate. For example, Garrison Confections uses Guittard to hand make his own artisan treats. Still, these places are nearby and don't require $4,730,699.00 in shipping costs to keep the chocolate from melting. Massachusetts has Nirvana, Connecticut has Knipschildt, and New York has... everything ever.

Michel Cluizel Variety Pack (

About Last Night.

That giant cupcake's story does not end. When I said I ate it, I didn't really eat it. I was, I guess you could say, in the process of eating it, but I never finished that process.

It was just so bloody huge. Cupcakes are small because they're simple. The mouth just gets tired of a massive slab of uninterrupted cake. Cake and icing does not a dessert make. I ate some, put it down on my bar. Ate some more an hour later. Went to sleep. Woke up, ate some more. After two days, the entire cupcake was still not gone. I eventually threw out the last bit.

So yeah. There's a reason giant cupcakes are not very common. They just don't work very well.

Monday, July 27, 2009

The Problem With Cupcakes.

Alton Brown once said in his episode about cupcakes, that they are not "simply a delivery device for frosting." I was so glad to hear that. I really dislike buying cupcakes from bakeries, even the good ones, since they seem to insist on an equal volume of cupcake to frosting. It's insane. Seriously people, tone down the sweet tooth.

Just look at this bastard from Greggs. It's a good cupcake. But lordie, look at all that icing. It's one of their monster cupcakes, and its sheer size isn't very well communicated in this picture, but their big cupcakes are more than twice as big as your average cupcake. Three times is probably a good estimate. It is well over a cup of icing. After I took this photo, I scraped off more than half of the super-sweet swill before eating the cake... which was good. I'm very happy I ate it.

Now I'll probably get ants in my garbage.

Here's the Good Eats episode.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

New to Twitter.

I have created a Twitter account to Tweet food-related schtuff. Seems like a fun experiment. My other two blogs, Cartoon Vixens and A Candle in the Dark, have their own Twitter account.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

QUICKVIEW: Restaurant Oak- ++ / $$

I remember the first time I drove down Hope street, when not specifically lost, but still trying to find I95. I spotted Restaurant Oak, or Nero's Oak, or Nero's Restaurant Oak, depending on which sign you choose to read. It was certainly a metropolitan restaurant. Trendy lighting, sidewalk tables, a "happenin'" atmosphere. How the hell did I not know about this place? That was years ago. Oak has persisted, as has my curiosity, which finally got the better of me a few nights ago.

Torn between Chez Pascal and trying someplace new, I decided that [nothing x ventured] / (nothing x gained) = a null set... or something. I worked it out on a napkin and it made sense. The ambiance was very nice. Oak's color scheme is almost entirely a burgundy red combined with brown and a smattering of yellow. The fall color scheme works well, but seemed a bit odd during the summer. Large wooden oak leaf shapes pepper the design and add serious character. The tables were well-dressed, even though they had butcher's paper on top. The lighting was romantic yet not too dark.

The dinner bread was good. It was more like a cheesy garlic bread, or perhaps cold pizza, with a whipped garlic butter on the side. The bruschetta appetizer was odd. Four good-sized pieces of toasted baguette, piled high with... beans. Alright. Not a traditional choice, but I'll give anything a chance. And it was good. Nothing special, but good. It also had a weird effect on me. The pasty, enveloping, super-savory flavor of the beans overpowered the entire experience. It just tasted like beans with bread, with the slightest hint of the pancetta hidden within. Again, it was actually decent, but my palate tired of the flavor very quickly. It tasted like simple comfort food. Very simple comfort food. My partner nailed it when she said it "tasted like chicken pot pie."

A similar situation with the entrees. The trio of crabcakes was a one-shot flavor. It had aioli, which added some kick to it, but it was still just a crabcake. By about halfway through the second cake, my mouth began to grow tired. There was nothing to stand out. No zing of a fruit, or sweetness of balsamic, or crispness of a vegetable. The minor addition of lemon juice squeezed from a very small wedge helped a little, but the side dish of (very good) sweet potato fries did nothing for the cause. The entire plate gelled into a blurry melange of flavor with little character. Crab cakes are generally an appetizer for a reason, there's just not enough there to make an entire entree.

The pork medallions, again, told a similar tale to our tongues. You'd think that pork, with mushrooms, glaze, and pan fried apples would have some zing, but no. Nothing. Again, comfort food. It was good, I can't get on it for that, but it was just so dull. Not bland. I don't think bland is the right word, just dull. There was nothing that became the centerpiece of the flavor. It was a totally acceptable pile of well-cooked food. The pork was tender and better cooked than from many restaurants. The apples were fresh. The plate was presented decently well. It was just so unremarkable it's almost remarkable.

The desserts were a bit of a letdown, but I'm getting used to that. So few places have really great desserts. You'll find the usual suspects of carrot cake, tiramisu, and lemon meringue pie, but that's pretty much it.

It's a problematic decision for me, since everything was good. Nothing was bad. But on the same token, nothing stood out. Nothing impressed me. If I had nowhere else to go, Oak would be a damn fine place to eat. But since I have choices, I have little motivation to go back. If you do decide to eat here, you'll be satisfied, just as I was, but perhaps a bit bored.

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959 Hope St
Providence, RI 02903

Saturday & Sunday 9:00am to 2:00pm
Wednesday through Friday 11:30am to 2:00pm
Sunday through Thursday 5:00pm to 9:30pm
Friday & Saturday 5:00pm to Whenever

Thursday, July 2, 2009

REVIEW: Village Hearth Bakery- **** / $

The Village Hearth has been baking away for years, and as they've grown, they've upped the ambiance, the size, the menu, and, importantly, the hours. I lived for over a year on the island and never found time to make it there during their very restricted schedule. Now with summer upon us, their hours have seriously opened up; they're closed only Monday and Tuesday. It's unfortunate that they close at 4:00pm on weekdays, since my work doesn't end until then, because I would like to make this charming bakery a more frequent destination.

They have a single bake of the day, starting at about 3:00am. Of course this means that when they run out, they run out. You will get no more until the next day. So unless you want an either non-existent selection or simply a poor one, you better show up early. One of the employees advised me that the pastries are usually extinct by 10:00am, but I've been there on weekdays and even a Sunday when there was a still decent selection. One Sunday, I was able to get a mixed fruit rustic tart and two slices of quiche, but that was pretty much the extent of the selection. Basically, if you want a croissant or sticky bun, be prepared to wake up early.

The Village Hearth has come a long way from its plain, spartan beginnings. They now have a fabulous garden area, with flowers and bushes, a spacious deck and dining area, and large windows, doors, and skylights letting in buckets of natural light. Someone here is a big fan of Seven Stars, because the layout, ambiance, and architectural touches are all very similar. Honestly, though, they nail it here better than Seven Stars. The chairs have a distinctly nautical look to them with wooden slates and brushed metal. The smooth copper tabletops look and feel fantastic. And when the doors are open wide, you can smell the ocean pretty strongly.

The outside dining area is especially nice, and very much needed, since the interior is a bit small. Jamestown can get bustling, but it never gets genuinely busy. Traffic sounds are of the quaint, pleasant variety, and the chatter of passing island-dwellers permeates the building. The roadway is situated north-south, so the windows gets excellent sun from morning to close. Combined with the sounds and smells of such a small island, Village Hearth gels into the nicest al fresco cafe in Rhode Island.

The Hearth hits a home run with its bread. It's easily as good as its most direct comparison, Seven Stars, and a bit cheaper to boot. Their selection is diverse and inventive, with many of their breads bordering on meals unto themselves. I'm generally unimpressed with bread covered in stuff, though. I prefer my bread to be bread and like it when the toppings and ingredients can be used as a sandwich. If the bread already is covered in roasted tomato, cheese, and a thousands herbs, it seriously limits the potential of the bread. Still, I can't directly hold this against a bakery. They're being inventive and I must applaud that. Moreover, I am a bit biased and the variety of breads available means that criticism can't hold up against tea breads or dessert breads like stollen, which are basically meant to be eaten alone. Notably, the bakers here are more inventive than those of Seven Stars. Considering their limited size, they produce an inventive assortment of breads that changes each day. This is what having a great bakery nearby is all about, an adventure cast in dough.

The breads run the gamut from crispy boules to chewy batards. Crispy on the outside, chewy on the inside. Flakey and dense. The bakers certainly know how to make bread. A personal favorite was the sunflower seed multi-grain loaf. And on my most recent trip, they had a delectable fougasse. Now that is not a bread you're going to find at the supermarket. It's nice that we have a world-class bakery so far from an urban area.

The pastries, much like the breads, rarely hit a sour note. Again, their selection appears limited by their size and they sell out early. This is the one area where Seven Stars takes the trophy with a longer availability of more items. Still, when what they have is available, it's very much worth a purchase. Two fruit tarts were packed with explosively flavorful fresh fruit, but they tasted more like small pies than tarts, especially the second type, which actually looked like a small pie. Delicious, nonetheless. Simply mis-named, perhaps.

The pecan sticky bun was a knockout success. It was one of the least sweet sticky buns I've ever had, which for me is a big plus. Some pastries have evolved to become so cloying that they are no longer appetizing. A good breakfast pastry should have a fine balance of sweet and savory, ever so delicately falling over the fence into the land of sweet. This what makes a croissant with just a bit of jam on it taste so sinful. Obviously, you'd expect a sticky bun to be sweeter than that, and it is, but it's not dripping with syrupy-sweet goo. This is one of the best pecan sticky buns I've ever had.

One of my only real complaints was the muffin. It was surprisingly bland and a bit small. It was neither very bran-y nor cakey. It was a sort of middle ground that, while good, wasn't something I'd really desire like I would so many of their other creations.

The sandwiches were good. The turkey sandwich I ordered came on their sunflower seed multigrain, which just made the meal. Unlike Seven Stars, who use a bread so dense and chewy that eating it is a freaking endeavor, this bread is much easier on the mouth muscles. And as I mentioned above, this bread is my current favorite, so I like it as much as I expect I'd like any sandwich on it. Otherwise, the sandwich was a sandwich, with good quality deli meat on it for a fair price, it's hard to complain. The quiche was a similar story. Very well prepared, with a variety of veggies like mushrooms and green onions, I liked it even cold. If you're willing to wait a while, you can have them heat up your slice in their oven. It takes a good ten minutes to get it up to temp, but I think it's worth it. I don't come to a bakery to get quiche, but the fact that they have it, and that it's good, continues to elevate the Village Hearth to a legitimate option for a full-on breakfast.

Continuing on with breakfast, we need a drink! And what drink goes best with everything breakfast related? Anyone? What, you don't actually know? Or is no one out there? Out there, in the cold, vastness of cyberspace. Sigh. COFFEE! If you don't like coffee, they have a good selection of teas, and San Pellegrino's Aranciata and Limonata sodas, which are crisp and refreshing... unlike San P's god-awful and confusing website (I just had to mention that). But I, unlike you, you pinko commie, do like coffee, and I especially like espresso. I was encouraged by the visible placement of a La Marzocco Linea espresso machine right next to the register.

I was not let down. My first latte had some pretty poorly steamed milk, and the shot was under-extracted, but that was the exception. Without fail since then, the milk has been well-steamed and the espresso has been dark, but mellow and not over-done. After asking, my suspicions were confirmed as New Harvest Coffee. They provided the machine (I got it wrong. The bakery didn't buy the machine from New Harvest, they simple got a recommendation from them), the coffee, and the training and they did an excellent job. No matter who makes the drink, the espresso is well-pulled and the milk is dense, silky, and sweet. I am so frequently let down by the texture of milk in espresso drinks, but not here. This alone would be enough to recommend them. Add to that the fact that they are the only true cafe on all of Jamestown, the best cafe in any direction for about twenty minutes, AND a bakery, well gaw-lee sarge, this place is the bee's knees.

(The photo references the second latte I received, which was well-pulled, but the milk still had some big bubbles in it. Again, this was the exception so just imagine the drink with better milk.)

I've been racking my brain to try and figure out how to rate this place. What it has is certainly as good as Seven Stars, which despite its name I gave four stars, but its selection is very limited. And the small kitchen, combined with a single daily bake, means pretty much everything is gone well before noon. I'd be less reticent if they had the selection to equal SS, or goods were available later into the day, but even considering that, I think I will err on the side of praise. They certainly deserve it. Perhaps if the drinks hadn't been so damned good, or everything I managed to actually get hadn't been basically perfect; but they were, and for that, The Village Hearth is the equal of Seven Stars, and truly worthy of your time and dime.

They serve wood-fired pizzas on Sunday nights from 4:30pm to 7:30pm. I've tried to make it twice, and both times I've failed because of crushingly long waits. I'm going to try again with a telephone order and simply pick it up. I will update this space after succeeding.

The Village Hearth: ****
Price: Pastries range from $2 to $7. Breads are similar.

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2 Watson Ave
Jamestown, RI 02835-1418

Wednesday & Thursday 7:00am to 2:00pm
Friday & Saturday 7:00am to 4:00pm
Sunday 7:30am to 2:00pm with pizza served 4:30pm to 7:30pm
Friday & Saturday 7:00am to 4:00pm
Sunday 7:30am to 2:30pm with pizza served 4:30pm to 7:30pm