27 March 2010

I Heart Boise: downtown edition

Downtown Boise provides a wealth of shopping (mostly high-end shops like anthropologie and Ann Taylor or specialty boutiques), drinking establishments, theaters, and great restaurants. It’s small and navigable for pedestrians, and as the state capital, you can also enjoy some civic-minded tourism in a really charming setting. The city is so clean and well-maintained, I would have thought it was built last year if it hadn’t been for the glut of Victorian and Art Deco buildings.

While waiting for a companion to finish some shopping at one of those adorable boutiques with $15 bars of soap, I ducked into a dark, dusty place called Pengilly’s Irish Pub at 513 Main Street. This place was the real deal: dark wood panel walls, burgundy rugs and heavy velour drapes, squishy booths pulled up to heavily scarred wooden tables. I could just imagine a bunch of blowhards yucking it up amidst heavy cigar smoke and whiskey shots in the day of yore (so, like, 1990?). I think there was still some residual smoke keeping the place so dim in the middle of a blazingly sunny afternoon. We hit the happy hour, so pints were $2 ($3 for Guinness), mixed drinks $3, and they weren’t stingy with the booze. Drafts highlighted a number of local selections and some micro favorites. There was no food to speak of, but the barkeep could always slide you a basket of peanuts to help sop up the alcohol f you asked nicely.

Boise boasts a fair amount of diversity, at least in its food offerings, and Cazba (211 North 8th Street) is a great place to eat in or out on the sidewalk on spring days. Their salads are perfectly satisfying for dinner (mixed Mediterranean and tabouleh is what we had), but they also have a plentiful menu of Greek and Middle Eastern favorites, a long wine list, and homemade baklava. A word about the wine: the menu lists a typical, by-the-glass price ranging in the upper $5 area, but the waiter may ask you if you want a large or small glass. It might just be overly revealing that I expressed an interest in the large glass, but when I was told that it was the “normal” glass size, it seemed like a reasonable enough thing to order, right? It was not. What I received was a goblet the size of a large baby skull, housing at least 1/3 of a bottle of wine, and it turned out to be $10. Not cool, guys. But the food was.

I have not been able to find a satisfying description of the Basque region in Boise, but it exists. Why people emigrated from this Muslim area of Spain to Boise in the 19th century, I still do not know, but they have maintained an historically preserved neighborhood which, as you can imagine, is a great place to stumble around eating and drinking in the evenings. I visited Bardenay, famed not only for their Mediterranean-inspired menu, but for their home-brewed spirits. They distill their own rum, gin, and vodka on the premises. I had a vodka martini and it was great—very smooth, mild gin reminiscent of Tanqueray 10.

The food was also fantastic. We opted for a tapas-style selection of appetizers for dinner, and nothing disappointed. The Mediterranean sampler had the usual hummus, baba ganoush, and warm pita squares, but the olive and sun dried tomato tapenade and pickled onions on the side were a nice addition. My favorite was the Ahi tuna sampler: seared raw ahi crusted in peppercorns on the edges with wasabi and soy sauce for dipping. This stuff was incredible—the fish was of great quality, and the sear just managed to work its way in a bit forom the edges, so each piece was like a bite of steak on the outside, and fresh sushi on the inside.

Bardenay wins some extra cool points for the 19th century-style industrial look of the place, complete with antique wooden bar, high tinned ceiling, and huge windows and expanses of floor space. But anyone who cares enough about their spirits to make their own doesn’t need any extra cool points with me. If I lived in Boise, I would go there every night.

24 March 2010

I Heart Boise: campus edition

Who knew? I visited Boise last week and had a great time! Charming downtown, great historical architecture, nice balance of an urban feel with mountains nearby and small-town social interactions—I found myself sorry to leave. I was only in town for three days, and I spent one and a half of them teaching and performing, which means I missed out on the shows in town and the hikes out of town. So let’s talk about the food.

I was a guest at Boise State University, situated near downtown but with its own developed community all around. If you happen to find yourself in this area, you can certainly get your fill of convenient ethnic food or slouchy, college-style comfort. Elmer’s (1385 S. Capitol Blvd.), a Western chain, looks just like a Village Inn or Perkins from the outside, and the 24-hour breakfast menu doesn’t hurt the comparison. One unique feature, however, is their special insert menu featuring seafood from northern Idaho and the Pacific Northwest (hard to remember, but these guys are neighbors with Oregon). Cod and crab comprised the majority of this menu, and with fresh cod tacos, eggs Benedict over crab cakes, and lump crab BLT salad, it was certainly enough to erase my memory of heavy, greasy breakfast skillets at the Village. The mild, bottomless coffee cup was nothing special, but surprisingly, the food actually was.

There is also a little complex with the Papa’s moniker near Elmer’s and across the street from the Morrison Center for the Performing Arts: Papa’s pizza and sandwiches, the majority of the building, yields to Papa’s Cup of Joe in the corner. I did not partake of the sandwich shop/ pizza parlor, though they certainly seemed to do a brisk business around noon, but Cup of Joe served a mean cup of strong brew, all within the hipster, faux-messy setting one expects near a university. There was even a record player cranking out some vintage Dinosaur Jr. near the counter. The log cabin décor made it a little harder to be funky, but with angsty music and coffee that can walk by itself, you can find your inner 90s child easily enough if you squint a little.

Finally, for a quick, healthy meal, I really liked Thai Nalyn (2203 University), also within walking distance of Morrison Center. It’s one of those cleaned-up boxes of a building with vague modernist touches (well, more chrome than necessary, anyway) that makes me skeptical of food quality, but it was one of the most satisfying meals I had in Boise. My fellow diners and I had a red curry noodle dish with fried tofu, cashew chicken (nothing like the bland stuff my parents ordered from Chinese take-out in the 80s), and pad prik kau with pork, and all came with a diverse bounty of fresh, just-cooked vegetables. The sauces were all very flavorful and different in taste, and things ran pretty hot: on a scale of 1—5, we ordered a 3, a 4, and a 5. The 3 was a robust medium, and 4 and 5 required a fair amount of water on the side. I say this with appreciation, by the way, but just to warn you, they do like the cayenne. It was weird that you had to purchase white rice separately (a $1 plate served about two) when the entrees ranged from $9.95 to $12.95, but we certainly got our fill and leftovers, too.

21 March 2010

India Grill hits it mark in Laramie

How is it possible that Laramie now boasts two Indian restaurant? In this, a town of 28,000 people, around 20,000 of whom regularly wear cowboy hats and Tony Llamas (I really do say this with affection), what were the odds? As you know from my previous entry, I am not entirely in love with Passage to India , but India Grill, which has taken over the restaurant of Howard Johnson’s on 1561 Snowy Range Road, is really worth visiting.

The menu was a heavy, hard-cover book of choices, which can inspire skepticism. How large does a kitchen have to be to excel in six pages of dishes? With dinner prices ranging from $9.85 to $15.95 per dish, I hoped it was large enough.

My dining companion and I were waited on by an owner or the restaurant, and he was certainly attentive and sociable. He was also very confident and proud of his food, but honestly, he deserved to be. After declining chai (too heavy for my taste), we were entreated to complimentary cups, anyway. Not wanting to be rude, I tried it, though I will admit I was a bit put off to be handed something I had just said I did not want. To my surprise, it was really pleasant: milky and a bit rich, but more spiced than sweet, this chai did not interfere with the rest of my meal. It might be the best compliment to a meal of any chai I have tried.

The obligatory flatbreads and sauces were nothing special. There was a green sauce, which had a nice, bright zing to it but was heavily salted, and a brown sauce which, I am guessing, was sweet, but I could not detect much flavor from it. If something had to be dull, this was the most excusable problem.

My friend and I ordered chicken korma, saag paneer, and a dish called Bombay alu, a red curried sauce with boiled potatoes. We also ordered a side of plain naan, which was pleasantly chewy and blackened, but too thick and doughy for my taste. The korma sauce was a heavily creamed yellow sauce; cashew flavor did not seem the least bit present, but there was a strong curry powder flavor to it. The sauce was fine, and the chicken was extremely tender thigh meat, but it was not like the korma I expected.

The rest of my meal, however, was truly incredible. The saag paneer was wonderful: well-seasoned, flavorful spinach sauce with generous amounts of golden brown cheese cubes. The entire dish was lightly browned on top, like it had been run through the broiler at the end of the cooking time, and it was divine. And the Bombay alu was really terrific. The potatoes were tender and buttery, and the red curry sauce was extremely flavorful. We ordered all of our dishes “medium hot”, and the spice level was definitely present, though not overwhelming. It was just right.

I will admit that I found the fact that this Indian restaurant had taken over Foster’s Corner Country restaurant, without changing the décor, rather charming. How often does a diner get to enjoy the cowboy logo in all of its stained glass splendor while sipping chai and munching naan? And although I was not really looking for a conversation with my mouth full of food, the care and pride the owner showed in his business was heartwarming. Most importantly, this food is good, and though the restaurant is a little off the beaten path in Laramie, it was well worth the trip.

06 March 2010

No, Laramie does not yet have a sushi restaurant

(A less snarky, more corporate-friendly version of this review can also be found here, at one of my day jobs.)

Since opening on January 13, 2010, Mizu Sushi has created a buzz as Laramie’s newest food offering and, let’s face it, the only sushi place from here to Fort Collins. Students and professionals breathed a sigh of relief at the thought of having fresh Japanese right here in town, but sushi is only a treat when it’s good, and this is where things get complicated.

Owned by an interior decorator and his family, the unfinished cement floors, striking wall colors, and ambient lighting win Mizu plenty of cool points. The sleek white table settings are attractive, too, but the leaf-shaped dipping dishes are too narrow to accommodate some of the larger sushi roll pieces, making it impossible to season your bites. The sleek soy sauce bottle is equally pleasing to the eye, but ours leaked every time we poured. Aesthetics, 1; functionality, 0.

The hot tea, called a jasmine, was certainly like no jasmine I’ve ever had; brown and nutty, with a slight vegetal taste, it grew on me. The miso was familiar and comforting. Nigiri sushi was really where Mizu shined: my table ordered tuna, albacore, salmon, and snapper. All seemed fresh, with tender, buttery textures, and distinctive, mild flavors. The seaweed salad was also incredibly fresh and light, with a bright flavor contributed by the brilliantly balanced sesame dressing. The julienned diakon and carrot underneath the seaweed was a nice touch.

Unfortunately, the sushi rolls all suffered from uneven, off flavors and were so loosely rolled that they fell apart while we struggled to fit them into our too-small dipping dishes. The spicy tuna had black pepper as its spice base; like the jasmine tea, this was surprising, but not terrible. But the salmon skin roll, besides being cut into huge pieces, sported some very rubbery, fishy salmon skin. It was not fried or crisped in any way. And the veggie roll, also enormous, was dominated by pickled carrot and pickled diakon, completely obliterating the milder tofu skin, lettuce, celery, cucumber, and seaweed. The effect was a very strong cabbage flavor. The baked mussels tasted like pizza: lots of cheese with a spicy red sauce on top.

If my list of dishes seems out of order, it reflects the service. The service was friendly and prompt upon arrival. I had so many waiters, I didn’t know who to summon when I needed someone. And things were so prompt that the food came out too quickly and out of order. While we were still eating our salad and soup, the spicy tuna roll came, all by its lonesome. Then a while later came the veggie roll, followed five minutes later by our mussels appetizer, and finally the salmon skin roll. That was the end of the attention for quite some time. Upon finishing the meal, we waited 20 minutes for checks. No tea refills, no water. They were done.

I was done, too. I can suggest Mizu Sushi for the simple, unadorned items on their menu—the nigiri and the seaweed salad would have made my night if I had stopped there. But the more complicated dishes are not quite ready for public yet. And with rolls running $8 to $16, you want to wait until they get it right.