Cooking Chapbook

Notes from my kitchen in the D.C. area & beyond

Category: Restaurant Review

BBQ lasagna

I’ve found myself neglecting this blog, believing that each post must be epic and detailed, loaded with carefully cropped photographs, the recipes triple-checked.

And while my favorite food blog excels at that level of output, I miss out sharing with you the little discoveries in my daily food life.

Like BBQ lasagna.

bbq lasagna

BBQ lasagna at Beer Run

Beer Run, a beer store and restaurant in Charlottesville, stocks an unbelievable array of brews (and wine). It’s not one of those sprawling alcohol warehouses, but more of a carefully curated  collection of beers from around the United States and the world. The beers on tap are always an interesting assortment. The staff is friendly and more than willing to share their encyclopedic knowledge of breweries. We recently found a mini keg of Munich Hofbrau Oktoberfest beer for $22, the sweet, freshly brewed fest beer we love, delivered all the way from Germany.

Beer Run also offers a delicious brunch, lunch, and dinner – fresh, creative fare with an organic and local bent. Think scallion cheddar biscuits, or local Polyface sausage links for breakfast. Or a Madison County burger on a pretzel bun with house-made chipotle ranch.

The menu also features a lasagna of the day.  On the weekend we stopped by, lucky us, that was BBQ lasagna. I did a split-second double-take and then immediately knew what I would order.

The dish comes pipping hot, creamy and dreamy – soft pasta layered with pulled pork, tangy barbecue sauce, and luscious threads of cheese. The marriage of lasagna noodles and barbecue sauce is brilliant. Heavy and rich, the combination is pure comfort food.

The meal reminded me that so many familiar dishes can be viewed as templates more than fixed recipes, vehicles for new or beloved flavors and quirky ingredients. Pizza, with its endless array of toppings. Muffins, with so many potential fillings. Quiche, enchiladas, grilled cheese, rice, beans, noodles – they all cry out for new formulations. They all want their own version du jour.

On Michelin-starred meals

"Duroc" pork belly marinated red cabbage from Fischers Fritz in Berlin

“Duroc” pork belly marinated red cabbage from Fischers Fritz in Berlin

Once a year since we moved to Europe, my sweetheart and I dine at a Michelin-starred restaurant.

Pre-Europe, the Michelin-star system meant nothing to me. It fell into the same bowl as the Zagat system, or the Mobil ratings, or the AAA stars, or Tripadvisor circles.

I still couldn’t tell you much about those other rating methods. But what we’ve learned is that in Europe, the Michelin system seems to pluck out a very fancy sort of place with exquisite, creative, unusual food.

And we do love our food.

Michelin is excellent about covering restaurants in Europe, even in tiny German towns. But in America, Michelin only surveys three areas: New York City, Chicago, and California. Any amazing restaurant elsewhere is left off.

(The business side of me understands this. America is a huge country. But the foodie in me mourns the little undiscovered gems in Virginia, New Jersey, D.C., etc.)

I feel a little sheepish about this little once-a-year luxury. The prices can be a bit insane, and the waiters are either wonderfully precise or anal, depending on how you view it. They often wear white gloves and act with flourishes, like setting down your plates in synchronous fashion. The utensils are silver. The dining room is hushed, just the way we quiet people like it. It feels like church for chefs. Pretentious? Maybe. Maybe yes.

But then I think, well, concerts or sports events or plays can cost $100 a seat before food, beverage, and souvenir.

Instead, we go to a performance of food.

It’s an experience we talk about for months afterwards. And like an unusual art exhibit, a well-crafted, innovative meal leaves me full with ideas.

I think about the flavor combinations: olives and chocolate.  I consider the artful plates: four-leaf clovers laid out so prettily. I contemplate new flavor vehicles: lacy, savory lollipops.

And I marvel at how sweet it is to be married to a fellow foodie, who enjoys the evening of fancy plates as much as a symphony, who looks as giddy across the table as I feel when a bite of the sea explodes in my mouth.

Special meals like these remind me that we create our own world by our experiences, many of which we choose to have. We have to seek out the life we want. And for us, one Michelin star a year adds a lot of sparkle.

Dessert at Onyx, Budapest

Dessert at Onyx, Budapest

The first year, we went to Onyx in Budapest, one of two Michelin-starred restaurants in all of Hungary. Elegant dining room, artful plates, meticulous wait staff.

(Tip: The three-course lunch runs 5,990 Hungarian Forint, which is about $26. It was like catching a first-rate Broadway play for half-price.)

I was captivated.

Cabbage at Fischers Fritz, Berlin

Cabbage at Fischers Fritz, Berlin

The second year, we went to Fischers Fritz in Berlin. The food was beautiful and unusual, but my tastebuds didn’t swoon. I wasn’t so starry-eyed after that lunch.

This year, we went to Olivo in Stuttgart, Germany.

Olive lollipops at Olivo

Olive lollipops at Olivo

It was marvelous.

Four courses over four hours. A myriad surprise courses courtesy of the chef. Bites that made my sweetheart roll his eyes back in delight. Plated creations worthy of Miro. A treasure box of house-made chocolates at the end.

It deserves a post on its own. Coming soon.

Bear’s Garlic Soup

Bärlauch soup

Bärlauch soup

This weekend was glorious, the first truly adequate batch of weekend weather we’ve had in 2013. Germany’s cold slate ceiling opened to reveal the blue of ocean skies, a hundred miles inland. My eyes swam in the sky, a deep, nearly periwinkle blue, and soaked in the sunrays. The spring breeze whispered over everything, and the city of Stuttgart felt content, alive, healthy again.

On Saturday, after a run through the farmer’s market, teeming with tulips and tomatoes and strawberries, we ended up at a bustling cafe called Cafe Grand Planie. I’m not sure how we hadn’t gone there before. The cafe borders the square that hosts Saturday’s flea market, where we poke around for gems among the rugs, toy cars, antique kitchen items, knickknacks. (We did find a shiny 1870s sideboard there on Saturday, chipped a bit but charming.)

Cafe Grand Planie opens with a glass display case of dazzling cakes and tarts, surprises you on the wall with a  reproduction of Otto Dix’s neon “Großstadt” triptych (the real one is nearby at the Kunstmuseum), and stretches way past a bar, a huge sprawling room of cafe tables, booths, chandeliers, and towering vases of flowers. It feels cosmopolitan European, full of lively conversation and clinking mugs and saucers.

Menu at Cafe Grande Planie

Menu at Cafe Grande Planie

Even in warm weather, I can’t resist house-made soup. And today’s special turned out to be Bärlauchsüppchen. My first guess was barley soup, but I was wrong – the real soup was even better: “Bear’s Garlic Soup”!

Bear’s Garlic is apparently wild garlic, a European relative of the North American ramps. I had seen these long, beautiful leaves at the market that morning, like basil crossed with baby palm fronds, but I hadn’t know what they were. I realize now they were Bärlauch, perhaps (as the menu description says) the first of the season!

The soup was delicious, warm and savory and thickly garlic and buttery, with a tender shrimp dangling overhead. With a big hunk of crusty bread to mop it up, my first  Bärlauchsüppchen was a sweet welcome to an overdue German spring.

Inspiration from fancy Fischers Fritz

They say you taste first with your eyes.

“Dôme of cabbage with sole prawn and lobster sauce” from Fischers Fritz in Berlin

This is one of the prettiest dishes I’ve ever been served. But not the tastiest. The cabbage dome hides a collection of super-chewy shrimp and dull white sole. The delicate peach-colored froth is lobster foam, luscious but not exceptionally flavorful. The sea doesn’t lap in your mouth. The cabbage falls apart like soggy paper, difficult to cut into bites.

I didn’t try the violet.

For a fancy lunch, Fischers Fritz in Berlin has two Michelin stars and menu prices that won’t completely slay you. But it got me thinking about presentation, about prettiness, about all the little touches that make a meal extra special.

“Duroc” pork belly marinated red cabbage from Fischers Fritz in Berlin

This land-lover’s entree of pork belly and cabbage is nice and tidy. See that purple muppet of deep maroon cabbage with the fluffy herb hair? My husband couldn’t stop devouring it. Sweet and vinegary, it dissolved in your mouth in a tingle of flavors. The pork belly played the heavy crispness against the nearly liquid pork fat. It reminded us of lechon, which, in the Filipino food lexicon, is a compliment of the highest order.

“Tatar of smoked eel Granny Smith and horseradish” from Fischers Fritz in Berlin

Our appetizers were on another level. I loved my eel bar, a thin strip of minced smokiness frosted with cream cheese-like horseradish icing. The flavors were lovely enough, but the playfulness of the underwater scene, decorated with dill weeds and fans of apple crisps, made me smile. I waited for a mermaid to emerge.

I hadn’t thought of playing with dill in such a way (which didn’t, I should say sadly, contribute much beyond a clever stage prop to the dish, leaving an awkward grassy texture on my tongue). Visually, the herb made me consider a whole new line of options. Trees of rosemary. Fans of basil. Clover fields of oregano.

We didn’t order dessert, but one of the pleasantries of a place like Fischers Fritz is little surprises from the chef. I wish every meal ended with a dollop of sweetness. This pineapple mousse and ice-creaminess dollop danced on my tongue. Delicious.

Could it ever be proper to serve such a sliver of sweetness at a dinner party?

Maybe the surrealist squiggle of sauce would give me permission.

A cappuccino, double espresso and little poppy-seed cakes

Before we headed back out into the damp Berlin chill, we fortified ourselves with warm mugs of caffeine. With them came doll-size loaves, lemon poppy-seed confections that featured a wonderfully mighty crust and a divine cake interior.

These humble knobs of cake weren’t much to gaze at, yet they were one of the most delicious bites of our lunch. Looks only go so far.

Fischers Fritz
Regent Berlin Hotel
Charlottenstraße 49
Berlin, Germany 10117