Restaurant Rant: Fandango Cafe

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How could any professional kitchen screw up a skewer? You know, a kabob. Well, I didn’t think it would be easy – so that’s what I ordered the other night at Fandango Café, a casual Mediterranean place on Osprey Avenue not far from where I live here in Sarasota, FL.

Having had a less than satisfactory experience not long after they opened last year, I thought I’d give them another chance. Why not?

That was a big mistake on my part.

Not inexpensive at $15.95, my chicken skewer, prepared, according to the menu, with “a saffron-lemon marinade and char-grilled” came with a small Greek salad, a side order of my choice (I thought baba-ghanoush would be good) and some warm pita bread.

Things started out, well enough. The Greek salad was predictably small but good. I have to admit, I’m easily won over with feta.

However, the moment of truth arrived when the skewer of pale yellow, chicken chunks (without a hint of char — or marks from the grill, for that matter) was placed on the table in front of me. A puddle of pureed eggplant kept the lack luster kabob company on the plate.

Not what I had hoped for. Even so, I could have overlooked appearances if something actually happened when I finally put a few bites of the stuff in my mouth. No such luck. Nothing that honestly could be called saffron was there. Neither was much else. Maybe some turmeric. The limpid yellow color had to come from somewhere.

And in keeping with the blandness of the ill-fated bird on the skewer, the baba-ghanoush, (spelled baba-ghanoosh on the menu) gave off none of the characteristic smokiness that makes this Mediterranean specialty, so special. No smokiness?! That’s exactly why I ordered it.

Things were shaping up like a dinner at an all night diner in Akron, Ohio. Yes, I’ve been there. Unfortunately, on both counts.

Self absorbed in serious disappointment, I almost forgot about my wife sitting across the table. Trulee had ordered the lamb kabob. Not a surprise, she loves lamb. Was it at least acceptable?

From the look on her face, I knew the lamb offered no redemption. After only one bite it was apparent she couldn’t go on to the next.

“Dry.” “Strange.” “Unpalatable.” That’s what she told the waiter when asked about the food. She then insisted he take a bite, to see for himself. I didn’t think he would. But to our amazement, he did.

And to his credit, the accommodating young fellow came close to the same conclusion. Maybe not quite as vehemently voiced. But enough to give us at least some satisfaction and to brighten our mood a bit.

Here’s hoping things will improve. It wouldn’t take much. Just some concern about how the food really tastes, and a willingness to listen.

I could suggest some excellent cookbooks too. No doubt they’d help.

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The Greek Orthodox Baptism Book

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I’m almost positive it happened over lunch. At a little French cafe on Main St in Sarasota, Florida, as I was enjoying a Salad Nicoise. That’s when the idea to do an art-filled book about the Greek Orthodox baptism ceremony came up — thanks to my good friend, Pat Kaufman.

Just back from NYC where she attended a Greek baptism, Pat was still overwhelmed by the experience. She described the beauty and the mystery. The rituals at the baptismal font. How she was moved by it all. But to her, it was much more aesthetic appreciation, than religious.

I didn’t mention that Pat’s an artist. Of course, that’s how she’d feel.

It seemed clear to me Pat should express her enthusiasm for the ceremony through her art. And I told her so. Maybe do a book. A gift book with lots of colorful illustrations that would explain the ceremony.

That was it. We both loved the idea, and before our lunch was finished, we had decided to do what we could to make the gift book happen. I would research, write and publish, Pat would create the art.

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That was four years ago. Since then, ArtSource Publishing was formed, Child of Light: The Greek Orthodox Baptism Book is in church bookstores, as well as on Amazon, and we’ve gone on to publish other titles.

But back to the baptism ceremony. If you ever get a chance to go to one, by all means, don’t pass it up. And if you ever need a Greek Orthodox baptism gift, hopefully, you’ll remember this post and our gift book.

Here’s a remarkable fact from the book: The baptism ceremony in the Greek Church has remained basically unchanged for over 1500 years.

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Cooking Octopus: It’s Easy

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As much as I love octopus, the idea of actually preparing it at home, seemed to me complicated, time consuming and even mysterious.

Well, not too long ago, I found out — that’s just not the case.

Forget those sun-creased Greek islanders slamming octopus against the rocks before they cook it. You can even disregard the advice of certain cookbook authors, including the irrepressible Mario Batali, when they tell you “octopus must be cooked along with a cork in the pot to guarantee its tenderness.” Taming the beast is much easier than you think.

Some seasoned cooks simply salt and pepper octopus and throw it in a pot after heating a splash or two of olive oil over medium-high heat. They’ll then let it simmer in the liquid it gives off for up to two hours. Others add a bottle of wine and a splash of red wine vinegar to the pot.

Jim Botsacos, chef of the much-respected Greek restaurant, Molyvos in NYC does it a little differently. And I especially like what he does.

So much so, it’s now one of my favorite ways to cook octopus. First you braise. Then, you marinate. Finally, you grill. The results are outstanding. It’s basically ready to eat and delicious after the braise. Spectacular after it has marinated over night. And even better once it’s been grilled.

Grilled Octopus

Here’s what you’ll need to make this Greek island delicacy:

For the braise:
2 gallons water
4 lemons, cut in half and squeezed
2 cups white wine vinegar
1/2 cup kosher salt
6 bay leaves
3 to 4 lb. octopus (just get the 8 tentacles)

For the marinade:
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 oz. white wine vinegar
1 tsp. dry Greek oregano
Juice of 2 lemons

The preparation:

Combine all the braise ingredients in a large pot, except the octopus. Bring to a simmer, cook 10 minutes, then boil. Next holding the tentacles with tongs dip them into the boiling water 3 times, leaving them submerged for 3-5 seconds each time. After the final dip, put the octopus back in the pot and cook uncovered for 45 minutes. It should be fork tender. If it isn’t, cook a bit longer. Transfer to a sheet pan to cool while you mix the marinade in a bowl large enough for the octopus.

Once the octopus is cool to the touch, cut the tentacles apart, toss with the marinade, cover, and refrigerate overnight — or until you’re ready to grill, anytime within the next 3 days. From here on everything is fast and easy. A real plus when you’re cooking for a dinner party.

Now all that’s left to do is bring the octopus to room temperature and grill over medium high heat, about 4 to 5 minutes a side, until the tentacles develop a nice char. Or you could pan sear them the same way.

However you do it, you won’t believe how good they taste when they get to the plate with toss of arugula and a gloss of your best olive oil.

How many will an octopus serve? That depends.

I like whole tentacles, one per plate as part of a multi-course dinner. But sometimes I plate two per person for a more substantial entree. I’ve also cut tentacles into bite size pieces, tossed them with olive oil, lemon juice and red pepper flakes for an appetizer plate along with olives and manchego cheese or used them to top a classic Greek salad.

But whatever I do — I always try to save a few of those amazing tentacles to grill for dinner the next night, I like them so much.

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LUNCH AT THE GUGGENHEIM

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Maybe it was the subtle touch of smoked paprika in the rice I made the other night. Or those pictures of my trip to the Basque country that I revisited on iPhoto. Then again, it might have been the Keith Jarrett CD I played for a relaxing Sunday brunch a few weeks ago.

Whatever the reason — I’ve been thinking quite a lot about an exceptional lunch my wife, Trulee and I experienced at The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. The delicious, minimalist meal was nearly as impressive as Richard Serra’s magnificent work in the gallery right next door or the iconic Frank Ghery designed building itself.

Impeccably seared rouget, minimally sauced, beautifully plated along with a crisp white Albarino made for a light, artful lunch. And then there were the sounds of Keith Jarrett’s Köln Concert gently adding serenity and depth to the culinary experience.

Here we were in one of the world’s most iconic buildings. On our plates, highly-regarded rouget or red mullet. (In antiquity “one of the most famous and valued fish.”) And in our glasses, a bright, zesty, complex rendition of one of Spain’s most distinctive wines.

It was an appropriate prelude to an afternoon at The Guggenheim.

The elegant, spare-looking restaurant responsible for the magic is called Nerua. And its creative, young chef has been getting some well-deserved attention — a Michelin star, among other accolades. Not surprisingly, he worked under legendary chef Ferran Adria at the highly-praised, avant-garde (now closed) restaurant El Bulli.

His name is Josean Martinez Alija. And his impressive culinary artistry is yet another good reason to visit The Guggenheim in Basque country. Of course, you should book well in advance.

The surprise here is that Alija’s Nerua is not just another one of those convenient museum restaurants. It’s a destination unto itself.

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Ponzu Sauce

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I don’t remember the name of the restaurant – but I do remember the exquisite sauce that accompanied the whole grilled fish on my plate there. It had a wonderful combination of salty, tart and savory flavors — fresh tasting, yet with an unusual complexity and depth. It certainly made my meal. It was called “ponzu sauce.“

Later, I would learn what makes this sauce so memorable. It delivers lots of that ultra-satisfying taste we now know as umami. (The word means “pleasant savory taste” in Japanese.) Considered today to be one of the five basic tastes, umami has joined the old standbys sweetness, sourness, bitterness and saltiness to tease our taste buds. Umami simply makes most foods taste better. A lot better.

Ponzu sauce is, as you might have guessed, Japanese. It’s not used to cook with but rather to finish a dish, much like a vinaigrette. You can also use it as a marinade. While it’s available in Asian markets, don’t ever buy any. If you do, you’ll regret it. Make you own.

I made ponzu sauce last night to drizzle over some grilled salmon and steamed snow peas. And, just as it did the first time I tasted it at that long forgotten restaurant in Los Angeles, it made the meal. Ponzu over grilled vegetables like asparagus, scallions, avocados and bok choy is another tasty idea. I do that a lot. And it’s equally delicious with pan seared tuna. Or pork tenderloin. In fact, that’s what I’m going to do with the left over sauce from last night. Spoon it over pork tenderloin with Brussels sprouts, both simply seasoned and pan seared. Sounds awfully good to me. I can’t wait.

Ponzu Sauce

Here’s what you’ll need to make some:

1/3 cup mirin*
1/2 cup lemon juice
1/2 cup soy sauce
1/3 cup rice vinegar*
3 tablespoons dried bonito flakes*

*available at Asian markets

The preparation:

In a small saucepan, boil the mirin for about 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool a bit. In a small bowl stir together all of the ingredients. Cover and refrigerate for 2 to 24 hours. Then strain the sauce, cover and refrigerate until serving time. Left over sauce can be stored, covered, for several months in the refrigerator.

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