Sunday, January 31, 2010

Wegmans Won't Commit, So I'm Announcing When *I'll* Be Going To The Columbia Wegmans

I want my Wegmans.

Wegmans has a completely reasonable policy to delay store announcements until they're sure of the dates.  But I have a completely unreasonable desire to shop in a Wegmans.

Therefore, I announce today that I will be outside the Wegmans in Columbia on Valentine's Day 2011.

I'm not saying Wegmans will be open that day.  In fact, Wegmans list of future openings has listed two 2010 openings for so many months that early 2011 is probably a dream.  But I have been waiting since 2007, when my neighbor who worked for Wegmans said the Columbia store might not open until (gasp!) 2009.

I tried a thoughtful post about why I want Wegmans.  I created a one-button link for all the news about the Columbia Wegmans.  Now, I'm laying down the line.  Their motto is to "help me make great meals easy?"  I'm thinking about a great meat for Valentine's Day 2011, so I'll be at the Columbia Wegmans at 9 am that morning -- either with bags to shop or my cordless drill to help finish construction.  Either way, I'm coming!  (How about them apples?)

(Update: Wegmans folks have talked about opening the Columbia store as early as October 2010, but more realistically in the first quarter of 2011.)

I'm adding a widget. Sorry about the ad.  The widget company puts an ad on the free version.  I'm saving my money to spend at Wegmans. I'll change the countdown clock as we learn more.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Delicious Valentine's Day Ideas

You have two weeks to Valentine's Day, and you can get some delicious items to celebrate the holiday -- and check out some of Howard County's great food sources along the way.  You'll need to choose the best flavor for your love
And, of course, you could always plan dinner at one of Howard County's best restaurants.  Anything else come to mind?

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Java Grande Appears To Have Closed

The Java Grande in Ellicott City appears to have closed, and it may be replaced by a pottery store that serves coffee.   (Update: See below that it will be replaced by a pottery store.)

I haven't driven past the coffee shop on Rte 40 near Rte 29, but I have heard from a commentor and from one of owners of the Pottery Stop in the same shopping center.  Lisa N. had previously said that the Pottery Stop hoped to take over Java Grande's space.  They were planning to sell coffee, snacks and desserts -- along with the "paint-your-own-pottery" that they do now.  Lisa N. says now that they hope to open in the new space in March.

(Update: You can read the Pottery Stop's announcement here.  They'll run a full coffee shop and aimed to open early in March.  Thanks to Jess for the comment below.)

Java Grande has a Facebook page, so you could follow that to see if they announce other news.

Fresh Curry Leaves At Eastern Bazaar

New recipes call for new ingredients, and you should check out the fresh curry leaves and new a lentil dish by stopping at Eastern Bazaar in Laurel.

All the Indian grocery stores have freezers, but Eastern Bazaar stands out because it offers cool along with the icy cold -- fresh produce, including specialties like the fresh curry leaves required by the recipe that I tried out this week.  I had seen them at the H Mart in Catonsville, but my shopping list was specialized enough to send me to an Indian market, specifically to Eastern Bazaar in Laurel where you can get the standard spices, flours and frozen naan along with unusual peppers, squash, and other vegetables.

You can also get curry leaves.  They're in a basket in the refrigerator that faces the freezer in the back.  They're more than $20 a pound, but that's meaningless when my recipe called for only six leaves.  I picked two fresh-looking sprigs and didn't even notice how much they cost in the end.

Any basic vegetables that you can't find at Eastern Bazar are probably available at the Panam Supermarket in the shopping center that backs against Eastern.  If you are looking for Indian groceries inside Howard County, check out Apna Bazar in Laurel, Food Cravings in Columbia or Desi Bazaar in Columbia.  

Eastern Bazar
15101 Baltimore Ave # 100
Laurel, MD 20707
(301) 490-4666

NEAR: The market is just east of U.S. 1 near the intersection with Rte 198.  It actually faces onto Rte 198, although you can only reach it from the north-bound lanes of U.S.1.  From Howard County,  you need to take U.S. 1 south past the Five Guys, then U-turn back onto north-bound U.S. 1 and turn into the last parking lot before the Rte 198 intersection.  Turn left in the shopping center and drive past the Aunt Jenny's Jamaican restaurant to reach Eastern Bazar.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Pancakes and Beer at T-Bonz

Pancakes and beer -- a crazy combination, but one that may work next Sunday when the T-Bonz Grille & Pub in Ellicott City serves interesting beers made with coffee, banana bread, oatmeal and more.

I heard about the "Pints and Pancakes" promotion from the Baltimore Beer Guy blog, who was the first to highlight T-Bonz's craft beer credibility.  (And from whom I stole the photo.)

For a $5 cover, you get a free pancake breakfast from 10 am to 2 pm and the opportunity to buy "breakfast style" beers.  I love the sound of the Flying Dog Coffee Stout.  There will also be music by The Grilled Lincolns.

T-Bonz Grille & Pub
4910 Waterloo Road
Ellicott City, MD 21043

NEAR: This is at the intersection of Rte 104 and Rte 103. It's north of Rte 100 and west of I-95. From Rte 100, you can exit on either Waterloo Road (Rte 104) or Montgomery Road (Rte 103) and head north for 2-3 minutes.

Honey Pig Korean BBQ Getting Its Sign

The Honey Pig Korean BBQ coming to Ellicott City has a permit to install its new sign, according to the Howard County Web site.

I wish the county would just post a flashing number that says: "Honey Pig will open on [date]."  I guess that isn't a core function of the building permit process, but it would be so helpful.

Thoughts From The Other Side Of The Check

My favorite part of HowChow has been chatting with people about food in Howard County.  OK, that's a lie.  My favorite part is the tacos.  But you are right behind tacos, and that has to mean something.

My extremely skeletal post that Portalli's had opened in Ellicott City kicked off a rash of comments in which people discussed their meals.  Great stuff, although it skirted the edge of the personal attacks that I'm trying to avoid.  As part of that, I started emailing with Lee Biars, one of the owners of Portalli's and the the Diamondback Tavern.

I invited Lee to write a post about restaurants.  To the great horror of some food bloggers, I don't have any food industry experience -- except that I have been eating for a decade or so longer than those bloggers.  I was emailing with Lee about how average diners see a restaurant differently than professionals, and Lee banged out some thoughts.  This isn't about Portalli's.  Lee wants us to enjoy our dinners out, and these were ideas that he thought might help:
Staffing servers correctly in a restaurant is like walking a tightrope on a nightly basis. We've all been in restaurants where your server is overwhelmed with too many tables.  That is terrible, but you have to know what happens behind the scenes where staffing servers is a delicate balancing act based primarily on guesswork.  A manager staffs by estimating the clientele days in advance.  Servers rely on tips, so the manager needs enough to take care of the guests but not so many that they fail to make money.  A restaurant that repeatedly overstaffs its servers will lose employees to more lucrative jobs.  But if there are too few servers on the floor, then the guests (and subsequently the restaurant) will suffer.  No restaurant staffs perfectly every night, so don't assume your overwhelmed sever means that's the case every night in that particular restaurant.  The nicer the restaurant, the more accurate they should be in staffing because most diners have made reservations and they should be able to more accurately estimate the traffic that evening.  Which leads to my next point...
 The purpose of making a reservation isn't just to insure you have a table; it's also to let the restaurant staff appropriately.  Since restaurants rely on reservations to get a feel for the number of guests on a given evening, it benefits both the restaurant and the guests for everybody who plans on coming in to have made a reservation.  Let me give you an example: say it's a Monday night at a restaurant you know won't be jam-packed, so your group of four doesn't make a reservation. A restaurant will typically have only one or two servers on a slow Monday, so if three other parties make the same assumption you did, the restaurant will not be staffed properly.  Maybe the restaurant isn't full, but they definitely could've used a second or third server to give you the experience you deserve as a diner.  This is why any restaurant worth its salt will always recommend that diners make a reservation, even on a slow night.
The single product that a restaurant will take the biggest loss on is bread service.  Most nice restaurants spend around $1-$3 on bread and butter/olive oil for every four guests.  If a restaurant serves 800 guests per week, that amounts to $10,000-$30,000 a year spent on something that the business never sees a dime for.  I'm not saying to hold back on the bread intake; it's there to be eaten so you should feel free to go to town.  All I'm saying is that when a restaurant has seemingly put a lot of thought into the quality of their bread service, it's something that shouldn't go unnoticed.
A lot more goes into creating an enjoyable dining experience than most people realize.  Waiting tables is more than just being friendly and bringing your food and drinks in a timely manner.  It’s the little things that can push a good dining experience to a great one, even if (and sometimes, especially if) it goes unnoticed by the diner.  Here are some examples of “the little things” that all add up to a great experience:
 1) Removing small stuff like straws and sugar packets from the table when they aren’t being used
2) Not putting their elbows in your face when serving your food
3) Describing menu items clearly and accurately so you know what to expect
4) Timing your food so you have just the right amount of time in between courses
5) Keeping water, iced tea, soda and coffee filled throughout your entire meal including dessert without you having to ask for it
6) Clearing the crumbs off a chair after a guest has left so when you sit down it is crumb-free
7) Folding your napkin for you while you’re away from the table
8) Checking back with you after each course is served to make sure everything is to your taste
9) Pulling your chair out for you when you go to sit down
I could seriously list about 200 things that go into making your dining experience memorable, but I think you get the point.
Restaurants NEED negative feedback.  The only way to improve a business is to listen to what your customers want.  As a diner you may think you’re being nice by not mentioning that the dining room is too cold or the soup needs salt, but you’re really hindering the restaurant’s ability to improve.  If it’s a restaurant you truly want to survive, you should have no problem talking to your favorite manager/server and let them know where you think they can improve.  A restaurant operator would be foolish to not listen to customer complaints with an open mind and try and tackle the issues that are brought up.
Restaurants need positive feedback as well.  If you really liked your server or thought the chicken was the best you’ve had, simply let a manager know on the way out.  This information can be crucial in deciding who gets promoted, which dishes stay on the menu, and other integral decisions that are made every day in a restaurant.  Plus it makes people feel good that you think they’re doing a good job, and that can never hurt.
 Certainly nothing on this list should be used as an excuse for a restaurant that underperfoms and underwhelms its guests.  My goal is to open the “average diner’s” eyes to things that may not be readily apparent in the hopes that they can use the information to help better all of their future dining experiences.
Lee's comments made me think because I have been violating his rules recently.  I had a Tuesday night Restaurant Week reservation, but we cancelled two hours ahead because my coughing and sneezing got bad.  It had never crossed my mind how reservations influence staffing or that staffing could be just as big a challenge on a slow night.   Then we did go for dinner a few nights later, and we stayed silent when the service was bad.  I don't exactly know how to say, "That waiter should have been more attentive."  It wasn't a disaster.  I don't want an enemy when I return.  I'd love to help improve a place, but how can I do that right?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Signs Of Spring: Outdoor Market by March or April

The monthly downtown Ellicott City market should return in the second Sunday of March or April, according to the Tales of Two Cities blog.

 Wordbones was writing about a road race, but he dropped the news that the folks behind the Second Sunday Market will return for a second year.  At a minimum, they expect to come out April 11 and may as early as March 14.  We hit the October market, and it was great fun to try some food and check out places in downtown.

Sugar Cookies at La Espiga De Oro Bakery

A new Latin American bakery has opened in Laurel, and the sugar cookies are a terrific treat if you're cruising along near U.S. 1 and Rte 198.

La Espiga de Oro bakery opened in the same shopping center as the Eastern Bazaar Indian grocery.  The small shop sells many of the lightly-sweet breads that I have tried at Lily's Mexican Market in Columbia.  There are some cupcakes, some cakes, and a small display of what looked like rolls or sandwich breads.  I may come back one night for those rolls for dinner.

But start with the sugar cookies.  Espiga de Oro's cookies are thick and perfectly crisp -- just the right amount of sugar.  For 50 cents, we bought cookies from the main display area that were the size of a large business check.  But there were others that were strikingly large -- looking more like flattened baguettes.  I was smart enough to photograph them, but I should have actually bought two because I want to be eating one right now.

Seriously, these cookies are worth a drive if you are inspired.  They're so large (and delicious) that I'm already imaging how to create some dramatic dessert with a homemade ice cream.

La Espiga de Oro bakery
15101 Baltimore Avenue
Laurel, MD 20707-4652
(301) 317-0006

NEAR: Espiga de Oro and Eastern Bazaar are just east of U.S. 1 near the intersection with Rte 198.  They actually face Rte 198, although you can only reach their shopping center from the north-bound lanes of U.S.1.  From Howard County,  you need to take U.S. 1 south past the Five Guys, then U-turn back onto north-bound U.S. 1 and turn into the last parking lot before the Rte 198 intersection.  Turn left in the shopping center and drive past the Aunt Susan's Jamaican restaurant to reach the other stores.

La Espiga de Oro on Urbanspoon

Monday, January 25, 2010

Link: Hunan Taste In The Sun

Hunan Taste in Catonsville got a very positive review in the Sun for its authentic Chinese food

I wrote about Hunan Taste last week, but I missed the Sun review two days later.  Richard Gorelick's review really captured the point that the restaurant stands out because it offers authentic Hunan food but excels because it would please anyone from the most conventional the most daring.

I'm going to steal Gorelick's analysis when I talk about Hunan Taste, and I'm going to order the fried tofu -- his recommendation -- next time that we visit.

Thanks to Brandon for pointing out the Sun review.

Link: Portalli's in A Walk Into The Past

Kay offers a tour through the new Portalli's restaurant in Ellicott City on the A Walk Into The Past blog.  She toured the building and talked with several of the owners and the chef.

Sushi Sono: One Of The Best

Hurricane Eye roll at Sushi Sono
Sushi Sono is one of the best restaurants in Howard County, and it took the out of town folks to make that point to me.

Don't get me wrong. I always enjoyed the sushi at the Columbia restaurant, but I started as a Sushi King guy. My 2009 list of best restaurants of Howard County punted a bit and put both the King and the Sono in my "other favorites" paragraph.

Not anymore. Our dinner last weekend was absolutely one of the best meals in Howard County. The fish is delicious, and Sushi Sono delivers a top-flight experience even though it eschews many of the luxuries of restaurants this expensive ($60+ for two without alcohol).

Start with the wait -- because on a busy Saturday you'll have one. Sushi Sono doesn't take reservations, although people who call ahead get some unclear preference when they arrive. "I never let people who call ahead wait too long," the manager told us. It's a unique system, and at least one couple appeared to chaff at the uncertainty. But the manager juggled us with good cheer, and several people just waited out the delay by having a drink at Clyde's.

The standing out front didn't detract because our first sushi hit the table minutes after we ordered. That meant that our overall wait was no longer than at other sushi places where the "make your roll" delay can be longer than the table wait. That also meant that we were lifting creative rolls and tasting the reason to eat at Sushi Sono -- the fish.

Our menu: "bridal veil," "grilled," "hurricane eye," shrimp hand roll, and the mysterious #12. Sushi Sono makes my Top 10 because we could eat an entirely different menu tonight, but I'm not sure that I could return without ordering the "hurricane eye." The #12 was the most dramatic roll of the night -- a thin roll with a tempura shrimp, chopped tuna, and a sauce. Eat it first. The shrimp was hot when it arrived, and the roll had an absolutely unique contrast between hot shrimp and the chilled tuna on top. The "hurricane eye" takes contrast in another direction. The roll comes sliced thin with a dot of spicy sauce in the center and the edge coated in popped brown rice. That crunch on the outside was absolutely unique and as exciting as the first time that we ate it.

Sushi Sono's fish is delicious. So you can orderly pretty freely -- and check out the recommendations in the comments on my prior post, including horse mackerel. You need to ask about specials, as I noted in a 2008 post. The #12 is an off-menu creation, and we only enjoyed it because Mrs. HowChow spotted one going to another table. Ask more than once. We saw a chopped tuna dish go past that looked the the poke that we loved in Hawaii. The waitress mistakenly told us that was the bridal veil. I liked the bridal veil, but it turned out that we had been coveting the tuna tataki -- which will be on my list for the next visit with the "snowball" creation.

(Update: Sushi Sono keeps adding new rolls and specials.  To check them out, scan all the posts about Sushi Sono.)

Again, Sushi Sono doesn't look like most great restaurants. The tables are jammed together. The plates and place settings are plain. But Sushi Sono creates an atmosphere for finer dining than many of the new "upscale" places. The crowds create energy, but not loud noise. The service is almost perfect -- always available for a question or to clear a plate. Our waitress saw me hording the hand roll and warned me to eat it early because hand rolls soften with time.

And then, there is tea. Sushi Sono pours those Japanese mugs of hot green tea. It is delicious. On a cold night, it was a highlight, and the waitresses kept pouring more. Even after they cleared our last dish, they re-filled our mugs -- basically inviting us to sit for a minute even though there were 20 people waiting at the door. Not that we lollygagged. With the fast delivery, we sat at our table less than 50 minutes. But that tea and the delicious fish made this a better date than past nights of disappointing food and dirty plates at other restaurants that promote their service and atmosphere.

That leaves nothing left but my mea culpa. I went back to Sushi Sono because the Washingtonian listed it as #40 in its Best Restaurants edition. That is one of the many folks who I have teased for ignoring Howard County, but it took the hint from downtown for me to re-arrange my Top 10. I wonder what I could learn from the Washington Postdining guide . . . . if they could find us on a map.

If you like sushi, you definitely should also try Sushi King in Columbia. For Asian groceries, check out the H Mart in Catonsville, which sells salmon and other fish for slicing into sushi and all the supplies you would need for a home party. Or click for a working list of the best restaurants in Howard County.

If you're interested in cooking Japanese food, check out my review of Kimiko Barber's cookbooks The Japanese Kitchen and The Chopstick Diet. They're great guides to the Japanese aisle of our local Asian grocery stores.

Sushi Sono
10215 Wincopin Circle
Columbia, MD 21044

NEAR: Sushi Sono is right on the lake in Columbia Town Center. From Little Patuxent Parkway, you turn into a large parking lot that says "restaurant parking." Then you walk down to the lakefront. The view is actually quite nice, and Sushi Sono is catty-corner to Clyde's.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Link: Laurel Meat Market on the Technology & MSG Blog

I'm calling attention to an old post, but the Laurel Meat Market stands out precisely because it hasn't changed.

In August, the Technology & MSG blog posted good photos and a basic write-up of the Laurel Meat Market.  I stumbled on the post looking for something else, and I also think that the Main Street butcher is a great place for sausages, thick-cut bacon and steaks.

I dream of grilling season, so I'd love anyone's advice about speciality items worth buying at the Laurel Meat Market -- or at any of Howard County's butchers.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Katana Sushi -- New Management, New Menu?

Has Katana Sushi in Elkridge changed management?  I received one comment saying there was new management, and an email from kam saying that the menu had changed.

Katana is a standard pickup place for kam, and someone who answered the phone Monday said that the restaurant was closed that day, but would re-open with a menu that included both Chinese and Japanese food?

Does anyone know the details?  Has anyone tried the new menu?  Does anyone know if this affects the Katana in Elkridge?

Microplane Grater at Williams Sonoma or Amazon

I'm trying to keep a simple kitchen, but the Microplane grater has scraped its way into my heart.

After one too many meals where we ate citrus "zest" that came in chunks made by my box grater, Mrs. HowChow splurged on the Microplate grater -- a thin cousin of the wood rasps that I loved in middle school shop class.  It's a revelation.  The grater scrapes off zest in seconds, and the result is microscopic, almost a foam of zest instead of the chunks that I had been passing off before.

My favorite discovery has been ginger run through the Microplane.  My simplest Asian dipping sauce is soy sauce flavored with rice wine vinegar, a dash of sesame oil, and grated ginger.  Ginger from the Microplane almost dissolves, making it perfect for the water dumplings from Andrea Nguyen's Asian Dumplings cookbook.  It takes seconds to grate, and just seconds more to clean.   (Better than the garlic press that Mrs. HowChow would throw away in a flash).

You can buy the Microplane grater at Williams Sonoma in the Columbia Mall or you can buy it on Amazon.  Amazon pays me a commission on referral sales.  Williams Sonoma gives out brownie samples if I walk it at just the right time of day.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Jamaican Beef Patties at Golden Krust

There is an interesting problem when you try to write about a food that you don't really know how to cook.

Jamaican beef patties.  I discovered them at the Golden Krust bakery in Catonsville, and I thought they were pretty good.  It's cheap snack food -- a dry crust wrapped around a meat filling.  I liked the beef more than the chicken version, and since I have never had them before, I was sort of struck by the dry, unusual crust.

So was Kevin of the Kevin & Ann Eat Everything blog -- who clearly knows that the crust shouldn't be that dry.  He excoriated Golden Krust in a review that I found earlier this month when I was thinking about this post:  "gum shredding shards" and a "crust that wasn't even that golden."  These haven't been a common snack, mostly because Golden Krust is in the shopping center with the H Mart where I often find something that I want to eat.  But now, I wonder if I need to go sample beef patties elsewhere before I go back here.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Zagat's Wants Your Opinions

Zagat wants your thoughts about restaurants from Baltimore to Washington. From now through February 21, 2010, you can sign onto Zagat's site and give your opinions and pithy reviews of hundreds of restaurants.

 There are Howard County spots like Iron Bridge Wine Co., Hunan Manor, and Sushi Sono, plus you can write in your votes for spots like Maiwand Kabob and Bon Fresco.

For voting -- and providing Zagat's with personal information like your home address -- they'll send you a copy of the DC/Baltimore Zagat's guide or several other prizes.

Hunan Taste in Catonsville

New food is so much fun, and the Hunan Taste restaurant in Catonsville opens a new part of China to me -- the Hunan cuisine filled with peppers and dishes that I have never seen before.

Let's start by admitting that I am not entirely open to this cuisine.  You can buy the entire animal at Hunan Taste -- lungs, kidneys, stomach and more -- and I'm still working up to the head-on shrimps.  (Plus, Mrs. HowChow and I were dining without any Hunan experts.  How were *we* going to know if this really good lung or really bad lung?)

But Hunan Taste has an enormous menu, and the food had clear, spicy flavor that beats any of the American-born dishes that I have eaten at my local Chinese joints.  They're enthusiastic about authentic Hunan food -- handing out two menus -- one American, one Hunan -- and leaving cards on every table asking you to raise any issues so they can "make arrangements."  Don't worry.  Just check other on-line reviews, which started as far as I can tell with a Chowhound post by DStattler and early comments by Warthog.  On our visit, we relied on a later Chowhound post -- especially the dish-by-dish section that describes a banquet that a bunch of Chowhounders attended.

We ordered preserved sausage with smoked bamboo shoots (#52), tea tree mushroom with pork casserole (#94), and eggplant on iron plate (#95).  A feast for two with more than enough for two lunches the next day.  Again, this is exotic fare even in vegetables.  Smoked bamboo shoots are a revelation.  The meat was more like pork than sausage, and it played second fiddle to the smoky flavor of the shoots, which were perfectly tender like all the vegetables.

The tea tree mushrooms were just as unusual.  The waiter brought a hot pot set over a little flame.  Inside was a pile of thin, chewy mushrooms, offset by some slivers of pork and bubbling in a delicious broth.  The earthy flavor contrasted wonderfully with the spiciness of the other dishes.  The broth was perfect on a cold night.

Despite those both, I think the eggplant was our consensus favorite.  The eggplant comes out on a hot iron plate -- protected by aluminum foil that we laughed at because "aluminum foil on the roasting sheet" was one of the compromises we made when I moved into Mrs. HowChow's kitchen.  The eggplant was perfect -- firm skin so that you could spear each piece, but so tender that the flesh almost melted in your mouth.  Like much of this food, the great mouth feel came from some serious fat.  Oils or maybe fat from the pieces of pork that flavored each dish.  This is one of the "meat as a condiment" dishes that I love, similar to the Afghan appetizers where a little ground beef flavors a plate of pumpkin or raviolis.  I need to check next time for truly vegetarian items, but I bet that you could get whatever you want from a kitchen this talented.

To award the highest praise in Maryland food blogs, this is Grace Garden territory.  Absolutely unique Chinese food.  In contrast, this isn't Grace Garden's spartan design.  Hunan Taste is a stylish restaurant that someone designed with  a talented eye.  The traditional dark wood and Chinese red translated into a modern design so nice that I thought that we would buy some of the art off the walls.  They also win points with the HowChows for some complimentary starts -- a plate of peanuts and a plate of sliced radish. Those touches make even a casual dinner seem luxurious, and we'll certainly be back for me.

Several of HowChow's favorites have also written about Hunan Taste, including Kwok's Blog, Dining Dish, TheMinx on Urbanspoon and This is Gonna Be Good.  If I missed other reviews, please link them in the comments.   Hunan Taste is the kind of place where blog reports are invaluable for people who don't know what to order.  Click here for my 2010 write-up of Chinese restaurants in Howard County.

(Update: I fixed the address.)

Hunan Taste
718 North Rolling Road
Catonsville, MD 21228-4135
(410) 788-8988

NEAR:  This is the shopping center with the H Mart in Catonsville.  It's a Rte 40 and Rolling Road.  If you drive from Ellicott City to Rte 40, watch for the signs for FedEx and Starbucks on the right.  Turn into the parking lot, drive past the H Mart and look for Hunan Taste a few doors down.

Hunan Taste on Urbanspoon

Monday, January 18, 2010

Valentine Cookies at Touche Touchet

It's never too early for love or cookies.

The Touche Touchet bakery in Columbia has charming -- and delicious -- lollipop cookies designed with Valentine's Day in mind.  The shortbread cookies are baked with a stick, then coated with chocolate and a variation of sprinkles, more chocolate or large-crystal sugar.

With a hot chocolate, these are a warming-snack at the bakery on Shaker Drive just off Rte 29.  Bought in pairs or more, they would be a great dessert for a Valentine's Dinner.  Or maybe part of a gift basket.

The $2 cookies are thick shortbread, and the chocolate coating is delicious.  The lollipop sticks are an amusing gimmick, but the quality baking is what really makes Touche Touchet stand out as one of the best bakeries in Howard County.  They have more-complex Valentine's Day specials, including a "jewelry box" cake and a "secret message puzzle" cookie.  Great stuff.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Target in Ellicott City To Add Produce?

The Target off Rte 103 in Ellicott City may be adding a produce section, according to a manager who was overheard by Danita of the From The Land of Pleasant Living blog. Anyone else heard this?

Friday, January 15, 2010

Comments About Liquor, Portalli And Pizza

If you're just listening to me, then you are missing half of the story.  There have been some great comments this week, and you should take a step back if you're looking for liquor, Italian or pizza.

If you're looking for liquor, check out the advice on my post about how to pick a liquor store.  People suggest places where they have gotten great service, and they make some really practical points -- like Caederus who says Jason's on Rte 40 keeps craft beer refrigerated.

If you're looking for Italian food, check out the ongoing discussion about Portalli's in Ellicott City.  Lots of detail, plus a comment from co-owner Lee Biars who talks about the place and their concept of small-plate Italian.

If you're looking for pizza, the new place in town in Facci Ristorante in the former Pasta Blitz on Johns Hopkins Road.   (Pictured to the right.)  There have been comments on my post about Facci, and the Pizzablogger has a great observation about the Neapolitan style of pizza that Facci is trying to serve:
Facci is, to the best of my knowledge, the first pizzeria attempting to offer Neapolitan pizza in that area of Howard County, if not in all of Howard County (and indeed much of the Maryland based DC suburbs).
This style is confusing because many pizzerias mention "Neapolitan" on their menus, but are not selling pizze Napoletana.
Something specific to a Neapolitan pizza is that it is, for lack of a better word, "wet" when compared to many other pizza styles. The very hot wood ovens necessary to make Neapolitan pizza causes the fresh mootz (fior-di-latte)and olive oil to get a tad runny and also to pool towards the center of the pizza, which can result in a "messy" pizza. The softer flour and thin undercrust of this pizza style can also lead to "tip sag" and a good deal of sauce, olive oil and cheese on you if you are not careful! This is one reason many people eat this style of pizza with a knife and fork or fold it "a libretto" when eating it by hand....but that's another story.
One way to alleviate this pooling and "wet" effect is to let the pizza rest for a minute or two before eating it. But even still a Neapolitan pizza will indeed be wetter than other styles of pizza. Understandably some people do not prefer this, but it is an issue related to the style of pizza, not necessarily with the individual purveyor of the pizza itself

Bird Food at the Wild Bird Center

You know where to get food for yourself, but what about delicacies for your fine feathered friends?

The Wild Bird Center off Snowden River Parkway in Columbia is a store that specializes in bird food, bird feeders and some accessories like stuffed animals, lawn art, and cards.  I'm no expert on bird food, but these folks will sell you a mix designed to attract exactly the birds that you want to see on your feeders.

I'm a generalist, but I like buying mixes that won't germinate in my garden.  My bird feeders are among shrubs, and the wrong mix of seeds creates a carpet of weeds in a matter of weeks.  Wild Bird Center is in the same Columbia shopping center as Bon Fresco Sandwich Bakery -- so it's a great excuse to get a snack for yourself and snack for the birds as well.

Wild Bird Center
6955F Oakland Mills Road
Columbia, MD  21045

NEAR:  This is in the shopping center at Oakland Mills and Snowden River Parkway.  You enter from Oakland Mills, then take the first right.  You'll pass Bon Fresco Sandwich Bakery on the right, then you'll see the Wild Bird Center at the end of the shopping center on the left.  It faces away from Snowden.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

"Stanford Grill" To Replace Lone Star in Columbia

A new restaurant aimed to compete with Clyde's and Victoria Gastropub will replace the shuttered Lone Star restaurant in Columbia, according to the Tales of Two Cities blog.

The Stanford Grill aims to open in March, and Wordbones describes the plan as a "business casual bar and restaurant similar to Houston's."  That paints a picture for me.  I love the term "business casual bar and restaurant."

The former Lone Star is visible from Rte 175 just west of Snowden, but it sits on Stanford Boulevard.  You reach it from McGaw Road or Dobbin Road.

Mom's Organic Market Is Expanding

Mom's Organic Market in the Columbia East shopping center is going to expand -- adding 2,000 square feet of organic groceries.

The Jessup store -- formerly called "My Organic Market" -- will get 20% bigger, according to one of the Mom's employees who emailed with me on  Construction should begin in February and take a couple of months.  They have already leased the space between Mom's and Ollie's.

Click here for my take on organic shopping in Howard County.   If you go to Mom's in Columbia East, you should check out the takeout taco's at R&R Deli in the Shell Station at U.S. 1 and Rte 175.  Seriously.  It is catty-corner to the Columbia East shopping center.

Do The Floors Make The Store?

Is there any difference between Howard County liquor stores?  I don't drink that often, but I feel like I drive past a liquor store in every strip mall on every road.  Even half-filled new shopping centers have a liquor store.

Many of the new places seem to be going upscale.  Even old joints are renovating with wood floors and classy designs.  Perfect Pour in Elkridge appears unique because of its sheer size and the beer wall inside.  But I went looking for a special wine last year and realized that any liquor store will order anything if you give them a week or so to get delivery.

Are there Howard County liquor stores that are worth a drive?  Mrs. HowChow wants her house wine House Wine, but I'd be happy to check out a special place.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Buffalo Wild Wings Coming To Dobbin Road?

Buffalo Wild Wings is negotiating to take over the former Rocky Run restaurant on Dobbin Road in Columbia, according to the Tales of Two Cities blog.

Wordbones knows the local commercial scene, although he makes the self-depricating comment that his source is the same person who predicted that Potbelly would replace the Atlanta Bread Company.

Link: El Azteca Gets Love From The WPost

El Azteca in Clarksville gets praise from the WPost's takeout column in today's Food section.  They talk up the chicken mole and more.

Thanks to emkenton for the tip.  The WPost removed its newspaper box from the Laurel MARC station, so I haven't read the paper in months.

Stay Warm: Hot Soup, Hot Chocolate, Hot Pot

It's too cold this winter, so you need to warm yourself with food.  A cozy kitchen is a wonderful place to escape -- for example with the water dumplings from Andrea Nguyen's Asian Dumplings cookbook.  But Howard County has a bunch of nice places to warm you up as well with hot soup, hot chocolate and more.  My two inspirations:

  • If you want a daytime snack, check out the hot chocolate at Touche Touchet Bakery in Columbia.  It's a mix, but a creamy thick mix.  The hot chocolate and maybe a cupcake make for a perfect escape from winter.
  • If you want a meal, check out the soup at An Loi Pho in Columbia.  Pho is actually a breakfast food in Vietnam, although we tend to eat it as a winter speciality.  Actually, Mrs. HowChow likes the lemongrass chicken noodle dish.  I tend to order a large pho with brisket and maybe another meat.  The real attraction is the enormous bowl of broth filled with noodles and doctored with bean sprouts, Thai basil, hot sauce and lime.   It's an inexpensive meal, and I leave warm, stuffed but not overly full.  You can even get a second round of heat from the sweet "French" coffee.
  • If you want a new adventure, check out the tea tree mushroom casserole at Hunan Taste.  This is a new restaurant in the H Mart shopping center in Catonsville.  Delicious Chinese food cooked in an authentic Hunan style.  The dish comes out as thin, chewy mushrooms, flavored with pork, and served in a hot broth.  I'll write more about Hunan Taste, but it will warm you up in many ways.
What else do you eat when you want something warm?  The bread at Maiwand Kabob?  Is there somewhere cozy that you like to curl up to get out of the cold?

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Gorman Farm CSA Accepting 2010 Applications

If you want to eat local vegetables all summer, you should submit your application for the Gorman Farm CSA program for 2010.  You can get the form on the Gorman Web site.

I will try to update my 2009 post about community supported agriculture in Howard County to add information about the Shaw Farm CSA.  I love the CSA idea, but I can't make Gorman's rules -- which will require a pickup between 2 and 6 pm on either Thursday or Friday.  They'll assign your day.  Hope that's convenient for you.  Unfortunately, I never get home before 6 pm.  I guess I'm stuck with pesticides.

Thanks to Kiki for the Gorman tip.  If you are flexible enough for Gorman to assign you a day, check out my post about Vegetable Shopping in Howard County or my posts about the local farmers markets.

Comments About Portalli's, Bon Fresco and Honey Pig

Even though 2009 has left us, you can still learn from last year -- or at least from the many people who left their opinion or suggestions as comments on prior posts.

Within days of Chick'n Pollo opening, Penny, Chan, inagada.davita and other had added their reviews to my opening-night observations.  If you're looking for a broader second opinion, you should definitely check out the 100 reviews by Trip Klaus on Urbanspoon. He eats far and wide, but you'll find reviews of many Howard County places that I haven't tried yet like the Pure Wine Cafe.  He also comments on HowChow -- like his recommendation of Cava's harissa and feta at Roots and his observation that Cuba de Ayer and Bistro Blanc seem different enough to warrant different stars from the WPost reviewer.  (Update:  After I drafted this, I saw that Trip Klaus also has an interesting take on restaurant weeks on the Dining & Large blog.)

I'm going to try to use the new HowChow Twitter feed and Facebook page to highlight substantive comments, although I'll keep doing some roundups on the blog:

Monday, January 11, 2010

Link: Hunan Manor on Kevin & Ann Eat Everything

If you eat in Howard County, you need to read Kevin & Ann's post from last month about Hunan Manor.

Hunan Manor is the heavyweight of local Chinese restaurants, and I have heard an endless wail about how it isn't as good as it used to be.  But Kevin & Ann wrote a hilarious, meandering post about a huge family dinner there -- highlighting the Peking duck and other dishes that they really enjoyed:

It's been a long history between the Rhee family and Columbia's Chinese institution. Every year, there is one less flock of ducks in the world because they reside in our respective bellies. The Rhee family motto is "And you will know us by the trail of dead...ducks". This year was no exception. If it comes to pass that some insane Wall Street warrior creates an ETF for ducks (NYSE: QCK) and brings them to the open market, go long.
This is food blogging at its best.  The Sun can't let its food critic ridicule her aunt or make these jokes.  I'm happy with the voice that has developed here at HowChow, but I laugh way more at the energy in Kevin & Ann Eat Everything.

On a side note, I will post in the next week about Hunan Taste, which blew me away with its Chinese food in Catonsville.

New Five Guys On Dobbin Road Is Hiring

The second Five Guys in Howard County is hiring and appears to be outfitted except for the tables and chairs, according to a comment by Leasol and to an ad on Craiglist.

The delays at Fatburger in Elkridge taught me to never predict when a restaurant will open, but it sounds like the former Party Party Party store on Dobbin Road will be full of burgers and fries soon.  The first Five Guts at the Columbia Mall seems busy when I walk past, but the ambiance (and the comments) haven't pulled me in for a bite yet.

(Update: The typo above was inadvertent.  But I'm leaving it -- after being alerted by the comment below -- because it makes me laugh.)

(Update: Great wry comment below form Smirkman: "Dobbin Center is the food court of East Columbia.")

Facci Ristorante -- First Thoughts On The Soft Open

Facci Restaurant opens tonight with wood-fired pizza and Italian off Johns Hopkins Road, but Mrs. HowChow scored us seats on Saturday during the "soft open."

Facci's arrival should be big news.  The owners renovated a Pasta Blitz branch to add a bar, a wood-fired pizza oven, and an Italian menu aiming for a middle ground with prices low enough for casual nights but quality high enough for special food.

We got inside Saturday because Mrs. HowChow stopped that afternoon to stare in the windows, and the manager stepped outside to introduce herself.  She invited us to the "soft opening" where the chefs were learning recipes and the waiters were learning the ropes.

We gorged ourselves.  Started with the "Italian boat" antipasta platter.  Meats, cheese, toasted bread, grilled zucchini and roasted peppers.  It's an auspicious start because each piece was delicious, and each offered a distinct flavor -- charred zucchini, sweet peppers, salty cheeses.  The zucchini was tender with a vinegar bite.  The bread was perfectly brushed with oil, then toasted.  The stone and wood create a cozy spot, but, five minutes into dinner, we were talking about summer nights on Facci's patio with that antipasta and a drink.

Then, we moved on to white pizza and pesto-covered ravioli.  Again, stand-out flavors.  The pizza came with terrific cheese, broccoli rabe, and a unique sausage.  The ravioli were stuffed with smoked mozzarella and coated with a creamy pesto.  The pesto tasted like July.  Basil that put me again to thoughts of warm nights on the Facci patio.  Mrs. HowChow picked the ravioli because they were made in-house.  The kitchen makes the ravioli, the gnocchi and some of the other pastas.

They also, of course, make the pizza.  Facci imports tomatoes, flour and more from Italy, and they char the pies in a wood-fired oven.  They imported the oven as well.  The pizzas aren't huge.  They're $9-14 for six slices, and they come with an array of cheeses, meats and vegetables.  I loved the pizza.  I also photographed the crust for the Pizzablogger, who saw promise:

It's hard to tell. The pic certainly shows the pizza was most likely cooked at an adequate/good temperature (700-800°F floor likely) from the char...which appears to be pushing being burnt in the upper left of the pic. More importantly is the overall golden tone of the slice in your pic. This is (hopefully) indicative of a good amount of sugars being naturally released from fermentation and being present at the time of firing the pizza.....those sugars being what caramelize and color the crust that color, which would most likely mean some degree of developed flavors in the crust from fermentation by-products.
That overall golden tone could also be indicative of sugars being added to the dough while mixing, be it cane sugar, honey, diastatic malt or some other additive....which could lead to an overly sweet tasting crust.
In short, the pic shows some promise and I am looking forward to going there very soon!
Facci is aiming at an exciting niche.  Less expensive than Greystone Grill or Azul 17, but more unique  than straight casual places like Bon Fresco and An Loi.  Appetizers and salads run $5-11.  The pastas run $9-14, and the meat dishes top out at $13-18.  It's a place you could justify any day, but delivers enough for date night.  (Seriously, Mrs. HowChow loved the ladies room.  Modern sink and cool open faucet.  It's a date-night bathroom.  Just ask for a date-night table in the dining room because the bar televisions loom over the other half of the room.)

We went to Facci with no expectations, and it was a terrific experience.   Stuffed with that much food, we have turned down dozens of fine desserts.  I was headed that way until Mrs. HowChow heard that Facci makes it's own canoli.  Crisp shell and a filling that tasted of vanilla and cream.  A strawberry sauce that tasted like fruit.  A spectacular end, and we were already planning on a return with RDAdoc and family.

I look forward to other people's views on Facci Ristorante.  It's unique  in my eyes, and I hope they can keep the quality up every day.  The Pizzablogger recently posted about the inconsistent pies at Coal Fire Pizza, and I'm really aware that serving good food can be hard business.

Facci Ristorante (as of January 2010)
7530 Montpelier Road
Laurel, MD 20723-6014
(301) 604-5555

NEAR: This is on Johns Hopkins Road just west of Rte 29. It is a shopping center that includes 
La Palapa Too and Kloby's Smokehouse. This is just south of Columbia and just north of Fulton.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Link: Ceviche at Mango's Grill on Mixed Stew Blog

The Mixed Stew blog takes you off-menu to recommend fish and seafood ceviche at Mango's Grill restaurant in Laurel -- a mom-and-pop joint that I have put on my to-do list.

Mango's Grill is on U.S. 1 near Rte 198.  There are a mess of restaurants around there, and I never know which ones are worth a visit.  The Mixed Stew blog gives a big vote for this Mexican/Salvadoran place.   There are a few reviews on Yelp, but I'll go just to taste the ceviche that the Mixed Stew highlights:
The dish is a blend of white fish, shrimp and baby squid (tentacles and all) drenched in a delightful, light marinade of citrus, cilantro and onions. It is served with wedges of lime or lemon to squeeze over the dish and wake up the flavors on the table. With a side order of flour tortillas, the ceviche can be eaten as an entree, even though it is on the appetizer portion of the menu.
Thanks to C.B. for sending me the link to The Mixed Stew.  I'm not sure if the authors George and Nelly are local or live in the middle of Pacific.  There are more reviews of Guam than Laurel!

Saturday, January 9, 2010

HowChow on Twitter and Facebook

You can now follow HowChow on Facebook and Twitter.

It seems like a way to attract readers and keep people up-to-date on HowChow posts, although it risks violating my pledge not to overdo time on the blog.  Please become a fan or a follower on either.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Chick'n Pollo -- First Thoughts On Opening Night

I hope that Chick'n Pollo in Columbia is always successful, but I hope it is never as busy as it was Thursday night.

The Peruvian chicken restaurant in the Hickory Ridge Village Center opened to a packed house last night.  Tasked with bringing home dinner, I thought I was being clever to stop there.  But I ended up spending 45 minutes in line and waiting for my meal.  The aroma kept me in line.  Chick'n Pollo smelled delicious, and that seemed to keep the crowd patient and happy.

The chicken was delicious.  There are real fanatics for this Peruvian roasted bird, and I don't claim enough expertise to join the Chowhound debates -- like this one about El Pollo Kiki Riki in Wheaton.  But the Chick'n Pollo bird was bigger and tasted better than the supermarket rotisserie chickens, which I have recently taken up as convenience food.

My meal was moist and had a seasoned flavor that steps up from the supermarket.  There are just a few pieces of skin, crispy and delicious even though you know it's bad for you.  I also love the side sauces -- a green spicy one and a yellow creamy one that still offers real flavor.  A half-chicken is perfect for our dinner because we're a Sprat family -- one loves white meat, one is quite happy with a wing and drumstick.  A full chicken would fill some brown bag lunches.

But I also hope that the food will improve a bit as Chick'n Pollo settles into a normal groove.  The side dishes -- although fried perfectly to crisp, but oily -- are expensive.  ($3.50 for beans and rice?)  The yuca was really dry when we got it home, and the plantains weren't right.  Too starchy.   Not sweet enough.  That might be a style issue, but my favorite plantains are always soft and sweet.  These might not have been ripe enough yet.  (The HowChow tip:  Call ahead and have someone turn your home oven to 400 while you're at Chick'n Pollo.  Yucca fries cool as you carry them home.  A few minutes in a hot oven make them fresh and crisp again.  Our leftovers were actually better for lunch today because they were hot )

This looks like a great addition.  I'd go just for the chicken, but they have some burritos that I have to try -- burritos . . . in a Peruvian place . . . that claim to use Thai green or red curry sauce.  I love America.

If you want to compare the local Peruvian chickens, you can test Chick'n Pollo against Pollo Fuego in Jessup. Or check out the great fried chicken at Chick N' Friends in the Long Reach Village Center in Columbia.

Chick'n Pollo
6470 Freetown Road
Columbia, MD 21044-4016
(410) 531-8689

NEAR:  This is in the back side of the Hickory Ridge Village Center.  It is off Cedar Lane north of Rte 32.  You can park around back, or you can park near the Giant and walk through the center.  Very convenient.
de Chick'n Pollo on Urbanspoon

Pottery Stop May Take Over Java Grande

The owners of the Pottery Stop store are negotiating to take over the space now occupied by the Java Grande coffee shop on Rte 40 in Ellicott City, according to a comment to a prior post.

That prior post linked to a Craigslist advertisement that appeared to describe Java Grande and said there was a two-year-old coffee house for sale.  The owner of the Pottery Stop -- a paint-your-own pottery store in the same shopping center -- posted a comment to set the record straight:

The Pottery Stop is in negotiations to move into Java Grande's space after they vacate at the end of January. If we make the move, we will become a paint-your-own pottery studio that also sells coffee, snacks and desserts. What fun! We'll gain much needed elbow room and a truly private party area as well.
For those of you who frequent Java, we hope you'll enjoy The Pottery Stop and Coffee Shop (yes, that'll be the new name...) just as much. Maybe we'll even convince you to paint your own coffee mug.

That's actually a cool touch.  I imagine those (probably mythical) bars where regulars had their own beer steins on the wall.  The Pottery Stop could have a wall where you store your own hand-painted mug.

In all seriousness, I don't enjoy writing about any business that has to close.  Nobody will celebrate if Java Grande closes.  (We watched You've Got Mail over the holidays, and it's awful when Meg Ryan had to close the book store.)  But people should know what's happening, so I try to write what's true.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Howard County Restaurant Weeks

Howard County Restaurant Weeks' winter edition runs January 18-31, 2010, and this is your chance to treat yourself or explore a new place.

It's not as simple as the original restaurant weeks with their single fixed-price menus.  More than 25 Howard County kitchens have signed up.  They're all trying to use local produce and to produce international food, but the menus range from $10.01 to $40.01.

The county Web site has a list of the participating restaurants, and they plan on linking to menus as soon as the restaurants submit them.  A centralized list would make it so much easier to get excited!  I'll post more as I hear.

Please comment below if you hear about any specific deals.  I'm thinking about a return to Aida Bistro or Azul 17 or maybe new joints like Pure Wine Cafe or Tersiguel's.  We'll have to see what deals they're offering.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Sushi Sono Charts At #40 in Washingtonian

Sushi Sono has hit it big by being named the #40 restaurant in Washington by Washingtonian magazine.

Washingtonian names the Top 100 restaurants in its January edition, and emkenton emailed me to say that Columbia's Sushi Sono was #40 -- "Some of the most creative, exuberant sushi-making in the area emerges from the busy kitchen at this lakefront restaurant."  That has to drive traffic there.

 I don't see a link to the full Top 100, which makes sense because the list is a reason to buy the magazine.  We don't get Washingtonian because, frankly, they never seemed that interested in Howard County.  But we'll get my parents' copy at the next visit.

Sushi Sono makes my post about the best restaurants in Howard County, although not the Top 10 list for 2009.  You know these lists are all arbitrary!

Honey Pig Korean BBQ Coming to Ellicott City

Honey Pig Gooldaegee Korean BBQ is bringing its Korean barbeque from Annandale to Ellicott City, according to an anonymous comment from yesterday and some Howard County building permits.

Does anyone know the time table to open?  The work isn't complete on electrical and plumbing permits issued in December 2009.  Honey Pig drew its first permit in August 2009, but they were still passing plumbing inspections yesterday.  (They got a 1,000 gallon grease trap.  Is that something that I want to know?)

Anyone have thoughts about how Honey Pig will compare to the Ellicott City establishment like Shin Chon Garden or Bethany Seafood House?  The Annandale location is a 24-hour joint that was very hot for a while after it opened.  The Washington Post review highlights the food and says that its cheaper than other BBQ restaurants and dominated by a young crowd.  There are comments on Chowhound and Don Rockwell.  You should also check out Arthur K who writes good reviews on Yelp, where there are dozens of opinions.  Lot of talk about Honey Pig looking like Seoul.

Thanks so much for the tips.  Check out my post about the other new restaurants in Howard County.  If you want Korean food before Honey Pig opens, definitely check out Shin Chon Garden or all of my posts about Korean food in Howard County.

Honey Pig Gooldaegee Korean BBQ
10045 Baltimore National Pike (Rte 40)
Ellicott City, MD 21041

NEAR:  Honey Pig is going into the shopping center behind the Double T diner.  From east-bound Rte 40, you turn right at the red sign for Quest Fitness and drive up hill.  This is west of Rte 29 near the Soft Stuff ice cream stand and the Enchanted Forest shopping center.

Andrea Nguyen: Asian Dumplings

The real magic occurs in cookbooks where the author has something to say, not just something to sell.

Andrea Nguyen's Asian Dumplings: Mastering Gyoza, Spring Rolls, Samosas, and More offers an education about a continent's snacks and meals.  Avoid the celebrity cookbooks and learn instead to make everything from Indian samosas to Filipino desserts, from dumplings filled with soup to steamed buns stuffed with pork.  Nguyen teaches technique, and she opens a series of mouth-watering doors -- foods that I have never cooked and that really taste like the Asian restaurants that I love.

Asian Dumplings is a book of projects. This isn't Jack Bishop's ideas for weeknight vegetables. Nguyen has instructions for dough, diagrams for dumpling folding, and dozens of recipes that run for two pages of text. The steamed buns recipe is actually a reference to three other recipes -- a basic yeast dough, a barbecued pork, and a pork filling that you make from the barbeque.  In the wrong hands, this could have been a quaint book about Chinese grandmothers or a fussy volume clogged with detail.  But Nguyen applies a professional writer's eye to explain how to make dumplings and why you would want to try.  Perfect for any modern cook with a little time to prepare ahead. My first project was Shanghai soup dumplings, and they're worth every minute -- plus $20 for the book. I served swirled dumplings in ceramic Chinese spoons. They burst when you bite them, and soup pours into your spoon. It's just fun to spoon out Nguyen's little packets and watch people smile.