Chefs put their work on the line with tour


A band of gypsy-like diners will flood Ellicott City's historic district Wednesday if all goes according to Jared Spahn's plan.

"It all starts at La Palapa on Main Street with a margarita in hand," says Spahn, president of the Ellicott City Business Association. "From there, people will move on to another course at another restaurant."

And they will keep going for a five-course total during the second Taste of Ellicott City, which starts at 5:30 p.m. Proceeds from the $125-a-person tickets will benefit the association -- specifically for the operation of the town's trolley, which will take diners from restaurant to restaurant.

The Sun talked with chefs and owners of the nine participating restaurants to find out what they are serving and to try to pry loose their best cooking tips, tricks and advice. Here's what they said:

La Palapa Grill & Cantina (Appetizer: quesadillas and chicken stuffed jalapenos)

Head chef David Garcia, who lives in Ellicott City, says there is no excuse for letting cilantro -- or really any herb -- turn to mush.

"A lot of people chop their cilantro when it's still wet, and if you do that it gets all sticky," says Garcia, 32. "The trick is to wash it, but let it dry to the point that it's nice and crispy before you chop it."

Judge's Bench Pub (Soup course: Maryland crab)

"Presentation is everything," says chef Lauri Grosscup, who also owns a catering business. "Eye-catching food always pleases the palate. I use a lot of colorful fruits and red and green peppers on the plate and [garnish] with fresh romaine, cilantro and dill."

The Trolley Stop (Soup: seafood jambalaya with lobster and shrimp)

Don't saute in butter, says John Fields, head chef and owner.

"Butter burns, it's a finisher -- it's for flavor, not for sauteing," he says. "When we cook vegetables, we always saute them -- it seals in the nutrients -- with a little bit of vegetable oil. Then we finish them with butter and salt and pepper to taste."

Side Streets Restaurant and Bar (Salad: greens tossed with Gorgonzola, almonds and an orange balsamic vinaigrette)

Steak a little tough? That's because the juices need to be sealed in by lightly searing all sides before you roast it, says Steve Hargest, Side Street's chef and owner.

"I usually recommend a basic salt and pepper [rub] and then sealing it inside a big pan or with an open flame if you're barbecuing."

The Phoenix Emporium (Salad: greens tossed with roasted red peppers, portobello mushrooms and balsamic vinaigrette)

Don't be so rigid, says owner Mark Hemmis, 29. On his first date with his wife, he was making chicken and ran out of flour, so he dredged it with corn starch instead.

"It was the worst; we laugh about it still," he says. "But there's no harm in trying. Cooking's about taking chances, not just doing the same thing. Don't be afraid to change a recipe. ... You could end up with something great" -- or at the very least, a great ice breaker.

Tersiguel's French Country Restaurant (Entree: braised veal cheeks with blue cheese mashed potatoes and sauteed broccoli raab)

"You need to get yourself a good, sharp chef's knife, one that fits your hand well," says executive chef Michel Tersiguel. "You can look for name brands, but how it feels is more important; make sure it's evenly weighted. I can't go anyplace without my chef's knife. It's the only thing I can't live without."

Jordan's Steakhouse (Entree course: 6-ounce prime cut filet mignon with a truffle demi-glace)

"The No. 1 golden rule is to be prepared," says executive chef Dean Batlas, 40. "Have everything in its place -- all your ingredients, all your chopped stuff -- lined up, arranged and organized because timing is everything. You don't want to be running around chasing down ingredients while you're cooking something."

Riverside Roastery And Espresso (Dessert: tentatively set as banana hazelnut cake)

Coffee thinking has changed, says owner Michael Lentz.

"The old-school thought is to put your coffee in the freezer to keep it fresh. But now, the idea is to buy it in smaller quantities, [keep it at room temperature] and use up all you can in a week," says Lentz, who lives in Columbia. If you put it in the freezer, "condensation builds up on the beans and waters them down every time you take them out."

Kirinyaga Specialty (Dessert: raspberry cheesecake brownies and assorted baked goods)

Cafe owner Gregory De Foor has a trick for taking most of the caffeine out of caffeinated tea: Pour hot water over it, let it steep for a minute, and then pour the water out and start again with the same tea and fresh water.

"You've just gotten rid of the majority of the caffeine," he says.

Two trolley routes are available. Patrons can choose the track they want when they order tickets.

Information: 410-480-9805.

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