Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Parallel 36

Parallel 36 acquired its name from the scope of the menu, which focuses on foods that span the 36th latitude. Not so coincidentally, Norfolk shares this globe-spanning parallel with Spain, Italy, Greece, Japan, the Middle East, Turkey and Korea.

That’s a lot of cuisines for one restaurant to cover! My interest piqued, Dave and I headed in.

Located at the base of the Granby Street bridge (next to Bloom’s), the exterior was as unassuming as the interior was striking. Outfitted in a sleek array of warming cocoa and cinnamon, flecked with Oriental-style art, it was at once a comfortable and calming vibe. A long bar was visible from the door, but in no way intruded upon the diners.

Although it was fairly empty, there was a noticeable wait for our server. When she arrived, we asked a couple of questions about the wine before settling upon a 2004 d’Arenberg Love Grass Shiraz ($32). Excited that we had picked one of her favorites, she was back fairly quickly to present the bottle. Unfortunately, the wine was corked. It was somewhat longer before she returned with a second, thankfully untainted, bottle that proved to be worth the wait. Juicy, mellow, and thoroughly unpretentious, it’s everything a shiraz should be.

The menu was divided into Minutes (starters), Seconds (soup/salad) and Degrees (entrees), and we sampled our way through each one. Dave began with the macaroni and cheese ($6). A far cry from Kraft’s, this extremely generous portion featured Tillamook sharp cheddar, accented by the lively inclusion of chives. It was pure, perfect comfort in a bowl.

I was unable to resist the siren call of fried calamari ($7). Served in a large martini-style glass, the lightly breaded squid was indeed hot, spicy and cooked just right. A cucumber yuzu sauce pooled at the bottom of the glass, providing relief from the heat, and a welcome textural contrast. I don’t usually finish all portions of a restaurant meal, but this one was gone daddy gone!

As a nod to the seasonally appropriate weather, we split the dumpling soup ($5). Pillowy, Oriental-style dumplings were nestled under a richly flavored meaty broth. The little pork-filled packages were wonderful, but the amazing broth was the star of the show.

The entrees had a lot to live up to, but thankfully didn’t let us down. Dave’s short ribs ($18) were done Korean style and finished with a chili-soy glaze. Mouthwateringly tender, they were without a doubt the best thing we’d tried all night. The accompanying kimchee pancakes were interesting, but not successful in terms of texture or zing. No matter, most anything would have paled in comparison to the sanctity of those short ribs.

I strayed away from my usual oceanic inclinations and ordered what amounted to a vegetarian style-sampler platter ($14). With a Middle Eastern nod, it featured the chef’s take on dolmades: zucchini made up the majority of the savory filling, and each little parcel came wrapped tightly in grape leaves. Fried falafel cakes were a touch mushy, if welcomingly warm with cumin and a touch of slowly building heat. Cute little black-eyed peas provided a cradle for sautéed okra and tomatoes, while skinny spears of asparagus rounded out the greenery. It was altogether a nicely composed plate.

Dessert was tempting, but it was time to throw in the napkin: we were stuffed to the gills!

Parallel 36 has successfully embraced what could pose too broad a concept in fine form. Each component of the meal was well prepared, aesthetically pleasing, and most importantly, quite delicious.

Parallel 36
4226 Granby Street, Norfolk
Phone: 965-9436 fax: 965-9045
Web site: www.parallel36.com
Specialties: foods from the latitude of 36 degrees (Italian, Japanese, Spanish, Greek, Turkish, Korean)
Price range: starters: $6-$10; soup/salads: $3-$7; entrees: $13-$25
Hours: Sunday-Thursday: 11 a.m.- 12 a.m.; Friday: 11 a.m.-1 a.m.; Saturday: 5-11 p.m.
Alcohol: beer, wine, full bar
Smoking: only after 10 p.m.
Vegetarian: yes
Wheelchair accessible: yes
Payment: cash, credit cards, checks
Noise level: conversational to noisy
Atmosphere: upscale casual, romantic
Additional Information: daily specials, monthly themed dinners
Star rating: food 4, atomosphere 4, service 3 1/2
(out of five stars)

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Crunchy Potato Wedges

Consider the humble potato. Baked, mashed, sauteed or fried: the world's favorite little root vegetable will meet these challenges gladly, and then some. I know I'm not alone when saying that potatoes, cut into planks and deep fat-fried, are a favorite. But, there's the whole deep frying issue, which admittedly, isn't the best for anyone's health.

So how can the home cook replicate that tasty, crunchy exterior and soft, welcoming center without gallons of hot oil? Surprisingly, the answer is found in an old restaurant trick.

Potatoes are boiled just shy of mashing stage, then held until ready for the oven. After being bathed in olive oil and seasonings, they cook to a glorious browned crispiness that screams "French fry!". But biting through that golden crust rewards you with the satisfying softness that is pure earthy comfort.

The recipe is fairly basic, and can be re-interpreted in many ways. Need more fiber? Keep the skins on. In a hurry? Cut them before boiling. Bored with salt, pepper and ketchup? Sprinkle them with Thai seasoning and serve with a spicy chili dipping sauce and a squirt of lime. Head southwest with chipotle and salsa. Feeling more Provencal? Try some herbs-de-Provence and a Dijon mustard sauce. Are you a South Beacher? Try it out with sweet potatoes, or any other root-type vegetable.

Personally, I like these best piping hot, with a fresh grind of sea salt, black pepper and a little squeeze of lemon juice. Pommes frites never had it so good.

Crunchy Potato Wedges

4 pounds medium Yukon Gold potatoes, scrubbed
extra-virgin olive oil
freshly ground pepper

In a large, heavy pot, cover the potatoes with water and bring to a boil. Add a large pinch of salt and cook over moderately high heat until just tender when pierced with a knife, about 20-25 minutes (these should not get as soft as they would be for mashed).
Drain and let cool slightly, then peel the potatoes and cut into wedges.

Transfer the potatoes to 2 large rimmed baking sheets. Drizzle generously with the olive oil, turn to coat and season liberally with salt and pepper.

In a 425 degree oven, roast the potatoes on upper and lower racks of the oven for 40 minutes, switching the pans once, until the potatoes are browned and crisp.
Serve immediately.

adapted from Food & Wine, February 2006

Firkin Frigate

Firkin & Frigate is a Canadian chain that has been spreading into North America over the past few years. Billed as a British-style pub, its unusual moniker stems from a term once used to describe a 9-gallon measurement. Each franchise is “a little bit different,” but they tend to feature similar fare— and “firkin” in the name.

The first Hampton Roads location sprung up in Newport News’ City Center at Oyster Point. If you’ve driven down Thimble Shoals Boulevard in the past few months, it would be difficult to miss the striking red-and-black facade.
My husband, Dave, and I cruised in to a warm reception from the hostess, who deposited us into a cozy booth. The dining area was an expanse of red and black, broken up by large televisions, pool tables and dartboards.

We sorted through the usual pub-fare suspects, settling just in time to order with the server. She made a few welcome recommendations, not at all minding our barrage of questions, and returned with our beverages in record time.

The kitchen was quick in getting our orders out. I began with a warming bowl of French onion soup ($3.99). Breaking through the gooey Swiss cheese barrier, I encountered a rich, meaty broth that was filled with soft onions and toasted cubes of bread. It was the perfect antidote to the chilly night air, if a touch salty.

Dave started with a round of the Firkin wings ($8.99), served “suicide” hot. The platter set down before him caused a moment of pause.

“These look like they came from a Cornish game hen!” he laughed, picking up a wee, red-tinged little limb. He downed it in one easy slurp, then looked surprised. “It’s actually hot!” I tried one too, and found that, aside from being spicy and aggressively salty, there wasn’t much to chew on. The accompanying fries were coated in a mixture that made sodium crystals begin to form upon my tongue.

Dave’s entree was the hot beef dip ($6.99). Tender slices of roast beef were piled high into a sandwich, with gravy at the ready. The sandwich, while unexceptional, was meaty and filling. Unfortunately, the gravy steered us right back into the salt flats, as did the accompanying fries.

My entree took a walk on the lighter side with the tuna Greek salad ($8.99). An enormous plate held a healthy mound of vibrant fresh greens, strewn with tomatoes, olives, feta, and a Firkin Greek dressing. A grill-marked hunk of tuna sat forlornly on top — one bite confirmed that it had been mercilessly overcooked. Nonetheless, the remainder of the salad was a pleasant surprise. The vegetables were very fresh, the Greek dressing was summery and bright, the crumbles of feta provided just the right tang. I would never have thought that the highlight of our pub dining experience would be the salad, but there you have it.

Pub grub has some basic requirements: it must be filling, it must be comforting and it must be appeal to a broad spectrum. Firkin & Frigate seem to have these bases covered nicely, with some family-friendly options to boot. Throw in some adult-sized fun and games, and you have a model that will pull in the masses.

Firkin & Frigate
711 Thimble Shoals Boulevard, Newport News
Phone: 223-5857 fax: 223-7145
Web site: www.virginiapubs.com
Specialties: pub fare
Price range: (dinner) starters: $4-$10; lighter fare: $14-$17; entrees: $18-$28; dessert: $4-$5
Hours: Sunday: noon-midnight; Monday-Wednesday: 11 a.m.- 1 a.m.; Thursday-Saturday: 11 a.m.- 2 a.m.
Alcohol: beer, wine, full bar
Smoking: only at the bar
Vegetarian: yes
Wheelchair accessible: yes
Payment: cash, credit cards
Noise level: conversational to noisy
Atmosphere: casual
Additional Information: daily specials, children's menu, Firkin hour daily 2 p.m.-9 p.m., brunch: Saturdays 11 a.m.-4 p.m., Sundays 12 p.m.-4 p.m.
Star rating: Food 3, atmosphere 3, service 3 1/2
(out of five stars)

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Rivers Inn

The first time I tried to visit the River’s Inn Restaurant in Gloucester County was a puzzling experience. I’d called at 3 p.m. to reconfirm, then headed out at 5 p.m. with my husband, Dave, into the driving rain and across the river.

I couldn’t have been more surprised to pull into an empty parking lot, and a sign that read “closed due to inclement weather.”

We fared better a couple of night’s later. “Table for two?” the hostess asked, leading us to a lovely, mahogany-embossed booth. The dining room was stately in wood and subdued red tones, and at this early hour, surprisingly full. The hostess returned in her role as our waitress, and began by placing copies of the night’s specials in front of us. I love not having to ask the waitress to repeat the specials and prices over and again, so this was a most welcome gesture.

We placed our orders, then relaxed into the voluminous, cushy seats. Nautical paintings brightened up the dining room, while the small bar held a series of black-and-white photographs. Each table offered its own spray of color with small vases of blooming fresh flowers.

Our starter was the sampler platter ($10), featuring fried calamari, escargot, and bacon-wrapped shrimp. The escargot came in two separate, tiny little cups, each brimming with butter, garlic, and two chubby little snails. Two tiny trimmed rounds of toast were judiciously placed atop, inviting two perfectly rich bites. The pale rings of calamari were soft, without any real flavor, sans a dip in the ranch dressing. On the other hand, three bacon-wrapped shrimp had been skewered and cooked just right, with a hint of smoke hovering at the background of each meaty bite.

The entrees came with a salad, a simple affair of field greens, carrots and dried cranberries. The balsamic house dressing was applied in just the right amount, resulting in a most enjoyable basic salad.

Dave knew what he was ordering as soon as he saw the menu: slow-braised short ribs of beef ($20). A massive mound of short ribs came piled high on succulent bacon-mashed potatoes, surrounded by a wealth of meaty juices. The beef was fork-tender and mouthwateringly good. Unsurprisingly, the first bite proved to hold each of those three elements in tantalizing harmony, although it took me several to make sure.

The wine, a 2005 “R. Stuart” Big Fire Pinot Noir ($39), was a bodacious balance of fruits tart and sweet, and made for an excellent partner with the short ribs. It also went surprisingly well with my bouillabaisse ($22).

The plating was spectacular and picture-perfect. Linguine provided the base for a rosy-hued broth, dotted with tomatoes and green onions, filled with all manner of seafood: shrimp, clams, scallops, mussels and salmon. A long slice of baguette beckoned me to dip, and so in I went.

The first spoonful of broth seemed a bit off, confirmed when I began tasting the individual components: all held an overtly fishy taste. Beautiful as it was, I couldn’t find solace from the burgeoning fishiness. From the shrimp to the scallops to the clams, it was just too much, and I finally threw in the towel.

Coconut cream tart ($4.50) was ordered to go, although it didn’t escape from the table before we scooped out a bite. The lush, vibrant custard fairly sang with an exuberant coconut concordance in its pastry shell. Drizzles of chocolate swept across the top, while whipped cream and a stylized chocolate shard rounded out the presentation.

The service was as attentive as the busy dining room would allow, and the experience was fun and lively. However, of all things that a seafood restaurant should get right, it’s the seafood. I went in knowing they’d been closed for two days prior, hoping to get first-of-the-week fresh seafood. However, something seemed fishy.

Aside from this misstep, it was an enjoyable, if somewhat pricey, meal out on the docks. I look forward to a return visit when the adjoining crab deck reopens for seasonal afternoons in gorgeous natural surroundings.

River's Inn Restaurant and Crab Deck

8109 Yacht Haven Road, Gloucester Point

Phone: 804-642-9942 fax: 804-642-9945
Web site: www.riversinnrestaurant.com

Specialties: fresh regional seafood

Price range: (dinner) starters: $4-$10; lighter fare: $14-$17; entrees: $18-$28; dessert: $4-$5

Hours: Tuesday-Saturday: lunch 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.; dinner 5:30 p.m.-9 p.m.; bar opens at 5 p.m.; Sundays: dinner 4 p.m.-8 p.m.; closed Mondays; hours may change seasonally

Alcohol: beer, wine, full bar

Smoking: no

Vegetarian: vegetarian requests are gladly accommodated

Wheelchair accessible: yes

Payment: cash, credit cards, checks

Noise level: conversational-noisy

Atmosphere: romantic, casual, waterside

Additional Information: monthly wine dinners, private parties, outside crab deck (seasonal), Sunday brunch (seasonal), weekly specials

River's Inn Restaurant and Crab Deck

Food : 3 1/2
Atmosphere: 4
Service: 3 1/2
(out of five stars)