September 22, 2010

The Flame Still Burns Bright at Naha (for the most part!)

In New York, what's hot remains that way for approximately as long as Britney Spears stays married. Chicago's relationship with its hot spots, though, is decidedly more long term. Sure, the must-try new restaurants of the early 2000s—MK, Blackbird, and Naha—may not inspire the sort of excitement they did when their doors first opened, but they still enjoy a loyal following.

I wouldn't laud such loyalty if it weren't well-deserved. There's nothing worse than clinging to a relationship long after the magic has died. Yet Naha remains both filling and fulfilling after all these years. That's at least partly because it's managed to stay fresh inside the kitchen and out.

On the latter score, Naha's clean-lined, vaguely Zen-like, formal-without-really-feeling-like-it space is still modern, but warmly so. More importantly, chef (and Chicago native) Carrie Nahabedian's seasonal, mostly Mediterranean-inspired cuisine largely struck the right notes, though at times I thought there could be fewer of them.

Take the scallop appetizer, for instance. I could barely detect the promised vanilla bean flavor, maybe because it couldn't compete with the accompanying endive, hearts of palm, musk and watermelons. That said, the scallops were thick, lightly sweet, and perfectly cooked. And had the vanilla flavor been more pronounced, it might have become cloying, an outcome that would've been much worse.

Where the complexity worked especially well was in my main course dish. The squab, a Naha specialty, showcased Nahabedian's affinity for Middle Eastern flavors. Served along with raisins, dates, and a noodle cake--a sort of noodle patty crisped on the outside--the squab came cooked a rosy medium rare along with a melt-in-my-mouth piece of foie gras (I'm hesitant to say that it was so good it shouldn't be legal, but I don't want to give any Chicago pols any ideas. Banning it once was enough.) My favorite element of the entire dish was the rose, licorice, gooseberry, and anise sauce coating the plate. I'm not sure anyone could distinguish between its many different components--what is gooseberry anyway?--but that just may be the point: The sum of the flavors are much greater than the parts.

My boyfriend tried the Arctic char. I won't say too much about it since I got just a bite, but I can't blame him for keeping the lion's share to himself. Ordinarily I'm not a big fan of char, which usually makes me think I'm eating salmon's bastard child. Yet at Naha, it was flaky, moist, and had a flavor profile of its own.

Dessert, however, was a big disappointment. I anticipated the pain perdu, or French toast, would arrive moist and eggy but it was little more than a browned piece of brioche. And sadly, the strawberry topping was little better than one might get at the IHOP. At $14, that may have been the most expensive piece of toast I've ever had. (Our experience may be an anomaly, though. Flaky Pastry has fared much better, and she's a far higher authority on dessert than me).

Naha surely isn't for penny pinchers. The average entrée hovers near $40, and dessert is $14 no matter what you order. (Prices for the appetizers are similarly steep. A simple sounding beet salad clocked in at $17.) I may have found those price tags are easier to stomach thanks to Naha's well-crafted cocktails. Those cost me too, but even in the best of relationships, you sometimes need a stiff drink.

September 6, 2010

When Push Comes to Chevre...

Goat cheese is a quintessential summer ingredient. It's soft, spreadable, crumbly, tangy, and creamy all at once. A great biography on goat cheese can be found here, but generally, it's known to be lower in fat and higher in vitamin A and potassium than cow's milk. Also, people who have a lactose intolerance for cow's milk find goat milk products easier to digest.

Our household is unfortunately undergoing a bit of a tolerance regime change in our older age, but we're also nuts for cheesecake and pizza around here. So this summer, we tried our hand at pizza with goat cheese (superb!) and this weekend--a goat cheese cheesecake! It still had plenty of other cow's milk products in it (mascarpone and cream cheese), but because those ingredients were cut down to make way for the flavor boom that is goat cheese, our bellies and our palates were quite satisfied. I served it buffet-style with three sauces: seedless raspberry port wine sauce (8 ounces of seedless raspberry jam simmered in about a cup of sweet port wine), my hot fudge sauce, and a beautiful, silky butterscotch sauce. (I'll include that another day, otherwise this blog entry will be too long to bother with!)

The key is to make sure all your cheeses are room temperature, otherwise you'll suffer with lumps. I did not add sugar to the crust either. I felt with the amount going into the filling plus the sauces, it was not necessary. If you like a sweeter crust, start with 1/4 cup granulated sugar and try it once that way. If you think it needs more, go up to a half cup next time. Also, the original recipe called for a vanilla bean split and scraped, but I save my vanilla beans for things that need steeping in cream or milk, like ice cream and chocolate truffles. I prefer using vanilla bean paste when it's part of the presentation that we actually see the vanilla flecks. It's cheaper than whole vanilla beans and more concentrated than extract, so it provides the overall effect I'm looking for without too much expense. Last but not least, I used a water bath with this one, which I generally don't because most of my cheesecakes have some sort of topping that masks the cracked top that occurs when baking cheesecakes. Doing a water bath is not hard and is well worth it for a party-worthy presentation!

As we hang onto these last days of summer, I'd highly recommend putting your springform to work on a new kid in town. Your tastebuds will thank you!

Goat Cheese Cheesecake (adapted from The Last Course, by Claudia Fleming)

2 cups graham cracker crumbs
1/4 to 1/2 cup granulated sugar (optional)
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted

12 ounces cream cheese, room temperature (1 1/2 bricks)
8 ounces fresh goat cheese (1 large log or two small ones), room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla bean paste
1 1/2 cups (12 ounces) mascarpone cheese, room temperature
4 large eggs, room temperature

Preheat oven to 350℉. In a large bowl, combine graham cracker crumbs and sugar (if using), and mix well. Add melted butter and stir until combined. Press evenly into bottom and sides of 9-inch springform pan. You will use all your mixture. Bake for 8 minutes until set. Remove from oven to allow to cool and reduce oven temperature to 325℉.

In a separate large bowl, combine cream cheese, goat chese, sugar, and vanilla paste and beat with an electric mixer until smooth and creamy, about 3 minutes. Add the mascarpone and beat until smooth (another 1-2 minutes). Add the eggs individually, scraping down sides and bottom of bowl after each addition. Scrape bottom and sides of bowl one last time and mix well for 30 seconds.

Tightly wrap outside of prepared pan with aluminum foil, making sure there are no gaps. Pour mixture into pan and place in center of a larger baking pan with at least 2-inch sides. Pour enough hot water into the larger pan (not your cheesecake!) to reach two-thirds up the side of the springform pan. Cover the entire baking pan with foil and pierce in several places to allow for steam release. Bake 1 hour, then lift off a corner or two of the foil for additional steam release, and bake 50 minutes longer, or until cheesecake looks set around the edges but is ever-so-slightly jiggly in the center.

Transfer cheesecake to a wire rack to cool completely, then chill in refrigerator at least 3 hours before serving. Cheesecake can be made up to two days ahead and will keep, refrigerated, for about a week. Serves 12-16 pretty darn generously! Serve with sauces or seasonal fruit.