January 31, 2016

Finch’s Bistro & Wine Bar in La Jolla, California

Have you ever taken another trip while already on vacation?  Adrian and I have done that a couple of times and it happened again while we were vacationing in Las Vegas a couple of years ago.  Once, we went on a road trip to the Grand Canyon.  Last time we were in Vegas, we decided to escape to California for a day or two.  And we made it all the way to La Jolla and San Diego.  Best spur of the moment decision ever!  First of all, we escaped from the craziness and excruciatingly torrid temperatures of Las Vegas in July, and got to cool off in the Californian mild weather.  Second, we got to see a new place, experience some thrilling sensations while touring the city in speed boats, and sample the scintillating culture and charming food. 




Although we had plenty of authentic Mexican food in the Old Town of San Diego, the restaurant I’d like to focus on today is Finch’s Bistro & Wine Bar in La Jolla.  I have to be honest – I wasn’t quite convinced that I wanted to post a story about this charming little local spot, but I recently stumbled upon the pictures we took while lunching there and the great time and exceptional food we enjoyed that I thought it’d be a shame not to share some recommendations with you.  Maybe you’ll find yourself in the sunny city of San Diego this winter and Finch’s is definitely worth a stop.  It certainly lived up to the high ratings when we paid a visit. 

Since you’re already familiar with my voracious love for beets, the Beet the Heat Salad was a must for me.  And it was so worth it – a mountain of fresh greens coated in a light, sort of creamy and mustardy vinaigrette.  The sweet red and yellow beets beautifully balanced the acidic pickled red onions and tart, citrusy blood orange slices.  The salad was topped with a perfectly tangy and crunchy pistachio crusted goat cheese.  Overall, the salad was colorful, bright and packed with texture and flavor.       




Adrian opted for the Veggie Frittata, which was a perfect golden brown and was nicely complemented by the Yukon gold potatoes and the medley of colorful vegetables on top: zucchini, portabella mushrooms, acidic roasted red peppers, plump tomatoes and delicate, fresh parsley.  And let’s not forget about the generous dollop of velvety and delicate goat cheese.  Perfection! 




The Roasted Organic Chicken Salad Sandwich was loaded and accompanied by garlicky, skinny herbed fries with sea salt sprinkles and a homemade fancy ketchup on the side.  The sandwich was creamy yet light and tart thanks to the crisp grapes.  There were specks of grain mustard throughout and nutty, crunchy toasted pecans which only enhanced the depth of flavor.  And the lightly toasted crusty ciabatta bread incorporated this bundle of deliciousness.  




The Red Snapper en Papillote was so simply prepared yet packed with flavor.  It was fork-tender, melted in your mouth and it came in a bag.  The fish was airy and mild while the potatoes, tomatoes, artichokes and kalamata olives gave it a nice kick.  Delicious, colorful and stunning!  




The good thing after this fabulous lunch was that you still had room for dessert.  I opted for the Finch’s Parfait, which had layers and layers of crunchiness and tartness, sweetness and fresh berries.  It was light and perfect for brunch, too.  And it came in a wine glass; how fancy is that?




Adrian on the other hand preferred the amazing Mascarpone Stuffed French Toast stuffed with a florally mild mascarpone cheese, drizzled with a sweet and dainty roasted banana syrup and served with fresh berries.  It was utter bliss – crusty on the edges and soft in the middle.  Heaven! 




And did I mention the cold, fizzy, bottomless mimosas and the trio or European reds that were perfect for our lunch?  On top of that, the atmosphere was just as gorgeous as the food – a small patio tucked away on a side street, a beautiful water fountain and a generous local clientele.  




So if you ever find yourself in the vicinity of San Diego, do yourself a favor and stop by Finch’s Bistro & Wine Bar in La Jolla and check out this hidden gem!  
 


 
As you can see, I’m back from our annual trip to Romania.  There’s no better time to be at home with family than Christmas, don’t you agree?  Soon, I’ll share with you recipes and winter traditions from Romania and Transylvania but until I manage to successfully organize my ideas and thoughts in my jet lag-fogged mind, Finch’s Bistro & Wine Bar will keep you company.

Poftă Bună! (Bon Appétit!)

Restaurant Information:
Finch’s Bistro & Wine Bar
7644 Girard Ave.
La Jolla, CA 92037
Phone: 858-456-4056

December 22, 2015

Habitat Restaurant at Fairmont Pittsburgh

It’s high time I raved about Habitat Restaurant at the Fairmont hotel in downtown Pittsburgh.  This remains my favorite restaurant in the flourishing Pittsburgh dining scene and a locale that never fails to impress.  Tucked inside the Fairmont Hotel, Habitat Restaurant is easily stereotyped as an overpriced and average venue due to its prime location and the fact that it belongs to a hotel.  But that cannot be further from the truth.  With a modern décor and an open high-class professional kitchen, Habitat provides a traditional, non-intrusive and overall truly impeccable service while highlighting a vibrant, cutting-edge, seasonal cuisine for breakfast, lunch, brunch and dinner.




Although the food encompasses subtle international flavors, the main focus remains the new American cuisine while also showcasing the quality and freshness of local ingredients.  In fact, the Chef doctors the flavors based on season and availability of locally sourced ingredients; the only thing brought from more than a hundred miles away is the wine.  The food menu is not the only thing that changes periodically; the dessert and drink menus have a similar fate.  That being said, a few favorites are available year-round on the main menu.  




One of them is the Fresh tandoor baked naan bread, which is an indisputable crowd pleaser.  The warm, pillowy bread squares served with a trio of homemade spreads make for a light and tasty appetizer.




Being an avid beet eater, I always opt for the Roasted organic local beets – my ultimate beets salad and a constant on the menu.  The colorful beets are roasted and pickled and they contrast beautifully against the creamy and tangy goat cheese and sweet wild flower honey.  I can’t rave enough about this salad and the bold, well balanced flavors that make this starter something I can easily indulge in all day, every day.




Another dish worth the money is the Burrata and faro appetizer.  There’s nothing better than creamy yet al dente faro topped with oozing, smooth burrata cheese. This is an excellent choice when available and a generous enough portion to split.  




The Scallops and truffles crudo piled on a smear of velvety parsnip puree is another lovely option especially in summertime.  The sweet, meaty scallops are nicely paired with earthy truffles to make a beautiful and refined dish. 




In wintertime, you can’t go wrong with the Risotto and pork belly starter.  The buttery risotto enhances the heartiness of the pork belly, while the acidic apples and crunchy scallions cut through the richness of this decadent dish.        




The Smoked duck breast is another favorite of mine.  This main dish varies on a regular basis showcasing seasonal ingredients and flavors.  This time around the duck breast is really well seasoned and perfectly mid-rare complemented by an assertive maple roasted rutabaga puree and port reduction, roasted Brussels sprouts, and finished with nutty candied walnuts for a bonus crunch. 




Adrian on the other hand prefers the Lamb chops entrée.  Here, the braised lamb is the star of the dish; moist, tender and flavor-packed.  The mint pesto pappardelle are the perfect accompaniment, light yet rich making for a truly winter meal.  Add to that a pungent but not overwhelming sauce and some root vegetables and you have a symphony of flavors packed into a balanced and nuanced main dish.




Another beloved option that I simply can’t ignore is the Crab cake BLT.  The thick patty of deliciously sweet crab and the tasty chili lime aioli are front and center, while the Applewood smoked bacon, crisp lettuce, red onion and tomato are the understated garnishes stacked on a pleasantly toasted bun.  And let’s not forget about the mouthwatering side of sweet potato fries that round up this spectacle of flavors.  Although you’ll find this burger on the lunch menu, more often than not the kitchen will be nice enough to fix this dish for you at dinnertime. 




Furthermore, pairing the burger with soup at lunchtime is a popular choice.  Here, I opted for an amazing seasonal corn soup and the House smoked beef brisket with pickle aioli on a farmhouse roll.  The ultimate combo! 




Regardless of how satiated we feel after dinner, we can’t skip a sweet treat.  The desserts at Habitat are innovative and creative, combining unique, compelling flavors and artful presentations and, similar to the drinks and main menus, they change regularly.  Right now, an excellent option is the Monkeying Around – a warm croissant banana pudding paired with rum raisin ice cream, a chocolate walnut crunch and drizzled with chocolate banana fondue.  Warm, rich and simply phenomenal! 




In the spring and summer, I gravitate towards the Essence of Spring dessert, which is sweet and fruity, custardy and crunchy, and topped with ice cream.  Yum!  I already look forward to ordering that again soon.  




Another great choice is the Blueberry Panna Cotta, which I can’t get enough of and wish it were a constant on the menu.       


      

Overall, Habitat Restaurant always aims for consistency, is the perfect blend of splendid food and exceptional service, and is a restaurant that we return to time and again!  And if you find yourself stranded in Pittsburgh over the holidays or simply decide to forgo the Christmas cooking, make sure to book a place at their Christmas Brunch this Friday, and don’t forget to inquire about their New Year’s Eve menu and availability. Adrian and I reserved a table for New Year’s Eve last year and it turned out to be a brilliant and delicious decision.  We would have done the same thing this year but this December we’ll be in Romania for the holidays, something that we’re so excited about.  So, without further ado, I wish you all a wonderful and happy holiday season and a blessed New Year! 

Restaurant Information:
Habitat Restaurant   
510 Market Street
Pittsburgh, PA 15222
Phone: 412-773-8848

Poftă Bună! (Bon Appétit!)

November 24, 2015

My favorite Thanksgiving recipes

It’s been a very, very long time since I shared with you a proper Thanksgiving menu.  Ok, so maybe I’ve never given you a proper Thanksgiving list of delicious dishes.  That’s because I’m usually not the one in charge of hosting the feast because Adrian and I join our US family Tom and Louise for a great party every year.  In return, I’m responsible for some of the appetizers, side dishes and desserts.  And I have lots to choose from.  



 
Since we moved to Pittsburgh almost six years ago, I’ve only hosted Thanksgiving once.  And it was a small party comprised of three people, Adrian, our good friend Claude and me – three international friends celebrating Thanksgiving (a holiday non-existent in our countries) in Pittsburgh.  But it was so worth it!  




I did not commit to making a whole bird and opted instead for this seriously tasty Herb-Roasted Turkey Breast from Barefoot Contessa.  It was a hit that I replicated over and over again for regular dinners that I wanted to tweak into something special.  So, if you’re not cooking for a small army, this recipe will definitely do the trick and satisfy your guests.  In fact, I went with two boneless and skinless turkey breasts tied up (I had the butcher truss the turkey breasts with kitchen twine) and smeared with a heady paste.  As you’ll see, it’s the same spectacular rub that I use for this other outrageously delicious Herb-Roasted Pork Loin recipe.  Don’t you just love versatility?  And by the way, you should give this pork loin dish a whirl for Christmas.  You won’t be disappointed!

Now, without further ado, here are some of my go-to recipes for the upcoming Thanksgiving feast:

Beverages 




Besides the store-bought wine and beer, this homemade Hot Mulled Wine is a great festive addition to the Thanksgiving menu and all throughout winter.  For something more celebratory, this bubbly Prosecco with Berry Ice Cubes is the way to go, while for a non-alcoholic option, this fizzy Ginger Tea Lemonade is a crowd-pleaser.

Appetizers 




In terms of appetizers, I like to go with something light, to still leave room for the main course, yet fancy.  This elegant Vegetarian Bruschetta is a nice sweet and savory combination, while the Goat Cheese Stuffed Dates with Prosciutto and Sweet and Spicy Roasted Nuts are guaranteed to vanish in the blink of an eye.   

Sides

Since I’m not cooking the big bird (or the stuffing), I love to add to the sides spread.  In the past, my contribution to the Thanksgiving table featured this flavorful Baked Cauliflower with Pork and Béchamel Sauce that always got me rave reviews.  I also love these rich Mashed Potatoes with Cheddar Cheese and Mixed Herbs or these flavor-packed Baked Potatoes with Garlic and Fresh Herbs, which are similar to a potato gratin without the cream and heaviness. 




Although this Cucumber Salad is without a doubt a summer recipe, it’s a refreshing addition to the Thanksgiving meal.  Good thing cucumbers are available year round. 

When it comes to vegetables, I usually opt for this smooth Creamed Corn and my grandma’s Sweet Green Peas.  

And I can never omit my favorite Cranberry-Orange Sauce.  




If you want to give a twist to your traditional dinner rolls, try these airy Popovers; they’re a brilliant alternative.   

Desserts




When it comes to desserts, I feel that the possibilities are endless.  Although pumpkin pie is probably supposed to be front and center, I sometimes like a tasteful change-up and this Pumpkin Tiramisu is an epic choice.  




Additionally, who said that sweet potatoes are only supposed to be a meek side dish?  This amazing Maple Sweet Potato Cake proves how sweet potatoes can be a sublime ingredient in desserts as well. 




Years ago, I saw Giada bake this extra-special Spiced Apple-Walnut Cake for a casual family Thanksgiving dinner.  If you’re an apple lover, this glorious Apple Sharlotka might become a regular on your holiday table.  




And if you feel particularly adventurous and up for a chocolatey challenge, this stunning Chocolate Cake with Walnut Brittle is a showstopper.  




For something more tamed yet equally luxurious, try this silky Chocolate Tart.  Put some twists on your desserts this Thanksgiving; it pays off to be different!

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving everyone and Poftă Bună! (Bon Appétit!)

October 31, 2015

Salted Caramel-Filled Fudge Brownies

Truth be told, I’ve never been a great admirer of brownies.  Maybe that’s why I’ve been selfishly skimming over every brownie recipe to ever grace my path.  But then, these Salted Caramel-Filled Fudge Brownies came along.  The key word here is “salted caramel,” Adrian’s favorite.  Hence, I was mildly intrigued and hugely tempted to give them a whirl and I instantly knew my husband would truly appreciate my change of heart.  What would I have to lose after all – his sweet tooth would be fed and my curiosity satisfied when it came to brownies and especially this atypical salted caramel-sandwich-like-specimen.  




Since tonight is Halloween, I totally understand if making these brownies for this celebration is a challenge.  But they can easily be whipped up for Thanksgiving or Christmas or any other non-celebratory occasion that comes to mind.  In fact, they’re the perfect midweek sweet treat if you’re to ask me! 
 


       

These Salted Caramel-Filled Fudge Brownies are crackly on top, fudgy and soft with the right amount of toasty crunch inside, and gooey and blissfully sticky when your teeth hit the sandwiched caramel in the middle.  They will melt on your tongue and leave a trail of sweet and salty goodness behind.  To be honest, chemistry was never my forte but I find it rather fascinating how this deep amber liquid springs to life in about twenty minutes.  Not to mention the way it acts as the glue that keeps together the two buttery chocolate brownies.  However, I won’t hold it against you if you decide to forgo the salted caramel and just enjoy these fudgy brownies on their own.  




These sweet treats are a take on the popular caramel-filled brownies that you may find at Bad Brownie in London.  Good thing I don’t have to fly all the way across the pond for a bite, although I’d love to give them a try someday soon.  Until then, these brownies are definitely a feast!  Enjoy and Happy Halloween! 





Salted Caramel-Filled Fudge Brownies
Adapted from Food & Wine (June 2015)

Makes: 10-12 brownies

Ingredients:

Caramel:
·         1 ¼ cups sugar
·         3 Tablespoons water
·         ¾ cup heavy cream
·         4 Tablespoons unsalted butter
·         1 ½ teaspoons flaky sea salt

Brownies:
·         2 sticks unsalted butter, plus more for greasing
·         10 oz. bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, finely chopped
·         1 ½ cups sugar
·         ¼ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
·         2 teaspoons vanilla extract
·         ½ teaspoon kosher salt
·         3 large eggs, chilled
·         1 cup all-purpose flour
·         ½ cup roasted pistachios (optional)




Instructions for the caramel:

In a medium saucepan, cook the sugar with the water over moderate heat, swirling the pan frequently, until a dark amber caramel forms, about 18-20 minutes.  Slowly drizzle in the cream, then whisk in the butter and sea salt.  Transfer the caramel to a small bowl and refrigerate until thickened, about 2 hours. 





Instructions for the brownies:

Preheat the oven to 325° F.  Lightly butter a 9-by-13 inch metal baking pan. 




Melt the 2 sticks of butter in a heatproof medium bowl set over (not in) a saucepan of simmering water.  Add the chopped chocolate, the sugar, cocoa powder, vanilla and salt and stir until smooth.  Remove the bowl from the heat and whisk in the eggs one at a time.  Whisk well after each one.  Add the flour and stir until just incorporated.  If you are using the roasted pistachios, this is the time to gently fold them in.  




Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and bake the brownies for 35-40 minutes, until a tester inserted in the center comes out with a few moist crumbs attached.  Check the brownies after 35 minutes.  Transfer the pan to a rack and let cool completely.  




Invert the brownies onto a cutting board and cut in half to form 2 rectangles.  Spread the chilled caramel over 1 rectangle, then top with the other rectangle.  Cut into 10-12 bars and serve immediately. 




Note:  The caramel can be refrigerated for 2 weeks.  The brownies can be refrigerated for 3 days or frozen for 1 month.




Poftă Bună! (Bon Appétit!)

September 30, 2015

Salmon Baked in Foil and four years of blogging

The past four years have gone by in a breeze.  So what better way to celebrate the four year milestone of this little blog than with a breezy recipe?  Thank you to all my friends out there who make this journey fun, exciting and worthwhile, who try my recipes and who read my mostly incoherent ramblings.  I couldn’t have done it without you!  Thank you all so much!! 




Recently, it would seem that I’ve been avoiding complicated recipes like the bubonic plague.  Well, maybe I’m being a tad harsh; I wasn’t so adamant at dodging any elaborate recipes per se, I just happened to be really absorbed in this phase of lazy cooking, the less cooking involved the better.  Or you can say that I’ve been basking in the realm of easy, clean and few-ingredient dishes.  





And this Salmon Baked in Foil recipe is right up that alley.  Not to mention that this is a dish Adrian and I have been feasting on more times than I care to count this summer and we’re still not tired of it.  Every time I was mulling over what to whip up for dinner, a tiny voice was growling in my head: salmon, salmon, salmon.  Besides, it’s the first year that I’m celebrating my blog’s anniversary with a non-plum related recipe.  That says a lot!    





In a nutshell, this Salmon Baked in Foil is an unpretentious and easy dish with a nice gourmet edge to it; it’s simple, superb and mess-free.  The fish is perfectly cooked and the wrapping produces a lip-smacking blend of flavorful juices and aromas.  The only downside to it – it’ll be hard if not downright impossible to order salmon in a restaurant once you’ve tried this recipe.  Pair it with this lovely Creamed Corn or this Fluffy Basmati Rice and you’ve got yourself a sinfully delicious meal!  Enjoy!   




   
Salmon Baked in Foil
Adapted from Everyday Italian by Giada de Laurentiis

Makes: 2 main-course servings

Ingredients:

·         1 medium tomato, chopped, or ½ (14-ounce) can diced tomatoes in juice, drained
·         1 shallot, chopped (if you’re not very picky, half of a small yellow onion will work just fine, too)
·         2 Tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons olive oil
·         1 Tablespoon fresh lemon juice (from about half a lemon)
·         ½ teaspoon dried oregano
·         ½ teaspoon dried thyme
·         ½ teaspoon kosher salt, plus a bit more for salmon
·         ¼ teaspoon black pepper, plus a bit more for salmon
·         2 salmon fillets (about 5 ounces each)
·         Parchment paper or aluminum foil




Instructions:

Preheat the oven to 400° F.  In a small bowl, stir the tomatoes, shallot, 2 Tablespoons of oil, lemon juice, oregano, thyme, ½ teaspoon salt, and ¼ teaspoon pepper.  





Place each salmon fillet, skin side up in the center of each of two large sheets of parchment paper (or aluminum foil).  Spoon 1 teaspoon of oil over the skin of each salmon fillet.  Turn the fillets over and sprinkle with a pinch of salt and pepper.  Spoon the tomato mixture over the salmon fillets.  Fold the sides of the parchment paper over the fish and tomato mixture, covering completely, and seal the packets closed by twisting the ends.  Place the foil packets on a large, heavy baking sheet.  (The salmon packets can be prepared up to this point 6 hours ahead.  Refrigerate until ready to bake.)





Bake until the salmon is just cooked through, about 23-25 minutes.  Using a large metal spatula, transfer the foil packets to plates and serve.  (You may want to unwrap and plate the fish in the kitchen before serving.)   





Poftă Bună! (Bon Appétit!)