Pigmas. It starts Thanksgiving and continues an entire month. We nibble, nosh and shove food down our throats until Jan. 2 when we launch our New Year's resolutions by going to the gym.
One of the best stops I know to make your resolution to lose weight inevitable is Alon's Bakery and Market (1394 N. Highland Ave., 404-872-6000). Opened in 1992 by Alon Balshan with his father Maurice, the bakery was a tiny space selling three kinds of breads. It has since undergone two expansions and serves prepared foods as well as breads, pastries, artisan cheeses, sandwiches and all else gourmet.
I have two things to say at the outset: "double chocolate chunk cookies" and "almond croissants." The cookies have no equal in the city. They are chewy, intensely chocolatey and almost small enough to pop whole in the mouth like an antidepressant that works instantly. I've been feeding them to people for years.
Alon's also makes the best croissants in the city. The plain ones are perfect but the almond version gilds perfection. Crispy, buttery bread encrusted with almond slivers is filled with velvety marzipan. I'm so glad I don't live near the bakery or I would be eating these every morning.
The artisan breads have also been regulars at my house -- especially the country French loaf, the raisin pecan and the plain baguette. And I've regularly ordered sandwiches here. My favorite has long been the roasted lamb with onion marmalade. But, as I mentioned recently, I had a panini special there that featured bresaola and an intense peppercorn sauce -- one of the best sandwiches I've encountered in a long time.
I've also shopped the cheese counter at Alon's fairly often -- for the stingy reason that I'm often able to find a special. For example, I recently bought genuine bufala mozzarella, a rarity in this town, at half price. The store sells a Grafton cheddar that is quite inexpensive and flawless with an organic Fuji apple.
What I have not eaten much of is Alon's prepared foods and, this being the season to turn your dining room into a buffet, I decided to give some of the food a try. Warning! Remember that you are supposed to cheerfully spend a lot of money this time of year. Otherwise, you may be in for some severe shock at the register. The bakery does have some holiday specials, but personally I think it underestimates the quantity most people eat.
One of the more expensive items is the crab cakes. As crab cakes go, they are flavorful and served with a slightly piquant remoulade. You will want to put them in a skillet with a little oil to heat them up and brown them.
Brisket, buttery but not fatty, was easy to heat in a few moments in the microwave. Actually, this was my favorite of the entree items we sampled. I also liked the veal meatloaf, which needs to be browned in a pan, too. It comes with a very flavorful wild mushroom sauce.
Fat meatballs are served in a tomato sauce. I know I'm on a jag here, but I like my meatballs browned, almost a bit crispy on the outside, and these were not. Since they are served in the sauce, you can't readily brown them either. But their flavor was good.
I found no fault with any of the salads and side dishes. An expensive dish of very large, plump shrimp in a slightly sweet curry sauce was especially compelling, though probably not so good paired with a curried apricot and chicken salad lightly spiked with onion. Israeli couscous with apricots and ginger also had a shot of curry seasoning. Garbanzo beans with feta cheese, olive oil and green and red peppers was a bracing contrast to the other salads. Creamy roasted potatoes and crisp green beans finished out our grazing.
Except for dessert. I ordered three -- all of them gorgeously presented individual servings. My favorite, however, was the least showy -- crème brulee in a tinfoil cup. Tiramisu, wrapped in a chocolate ribbon embossed with gold stars, was my next favorite and a lemon-meringue tart with very thin layers of raspberry was a close third. I admit that the only way I like to eat raspberries is straight-up. I particularly can't stand them combined with chocolate, although, years ago, I did enjoy Stephan Pyle's combining them with jalapeño peppers, which I have long recommended as a sexual lubricant if you must have sex with a Republican.
A final mention: The service at Alon's is always impressive. The bakery is frequently packed and nobody working there ever seems to get ruffled. I've been tempted to make a scene just to see what they would do, but I have a feeling they'd just toss me an almond croissant and smile.
A few weeks back, I began my review of Shaun's with a quote by a man at the table next to us. Perusing the wine list, he exclaimed over the price of the Barolo he was pouring but then appeared to buy a second bottle.
Wouldn't you know that Chris Sanders recognized himself and wrote this:
"I got a truly hearty laugh from your opening quote. It is not often that one reads anonymous quotes from an evening out with friends. I am one of the Barolo companions you mention in your review. Your quotes were accurate, I'm sure.
"However, you misinterpreted the happenings. We were not complaining. The two bottles of Barolo we consumed were purchased by us when we were living and working in Italy. Shaun's was allowing patrons to bring in their own bottles as the bar was not yet fully stocked. A post-dinner drink order also revealed that they had not yet stocked several premium pour liquors.
"... If you've never tasted the pleasures of a fantastic bottle of Barolo or Barbaresco from northern Italy, I highly recommend it. Oh, and the beef at Shaun's is fantastic too."
I really need to improve my eavesdropping skills.
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