"The Accidental Tourist…"

October 25, 2010

Here’s a post I found, hiding out in my Drafts Folder.  It was trying to keep its head down, hoping I wouldn’t notice; but like that one big lobster hiding under the rock in the back of the tank, I spotted it. Still fresh, too…

Hartsfield-Jackson Airport here in Atlanta is, depending on what’s going on at Chicago’s O’Hare,  either the busiest or second busiest airport in the country.  It’s a hub for Delta, of course, but also a jumping off point for hundreds of flights from other airlines to Europe, the Caribbean, Mexico, and South America.   Its massive amount of connecting flights has allowed millions of people to be able to say, “Yeah, I’ve been to Atlanta…” even though they’ve never left the concourse; and with all that was going on here this past Holiday Weekend, it was surely at or near capacity.

Memorial Day Weekend is literally the kickoff of the College Football season, and here in The ATL we had Georgia State winning their inaugural game last Thursday, and Georgia Tech playing at home on Saturday.  LSU was meeting North Carolina in the annual Kickoff Classic at the Georgia Dome, while  The Dawgs were hosting their first drunk-fest of the season for sixty thousand up in Athens.  Add to all of that a NASCAR Race at Atlanta Motor Speedway half an hour south of here; Dragon-Con, the geek-fest Sci-Fi/Fantasy convention (that’s not just for nerds anymore by the way), The Black Gay Pride Festival at Piedmont Park, plus various and sundry other neighborhood festivals, and you wind up with upwards of a couple hundred thousand people rolling through the airport over the weekend.  At least the Braves did the highway traffic the favor of leaving town for a series against the Marlins.  Amongst the throngs wandering the vast terminals at ATL this weekend, trying to make the best of things during a 20-hour layover on his way to a business/vacation excursion in Buenos Aires, was a great friend of ours from New Orleans, now living in exile in Indianapolis.

Glenn was one of those in attendance at “The Last Supper” at our house the Saturday before Katrina.  In true NOLA fashion, we decided to have a dinner party rather than do the sensible thing and prepare for evacuation the next day.  We cooked a grand Asian dinner with homemade potstickers, dumplings, and several other dishes, for a dozen guests.  Earlier that day, when we had ventured over to the West Bank to shop at a great Asian market in Algiers for supplies, was when we first noticed the lines of cars at all the gas stations, people preparing to evacuate.  I had seen the hurricane news on Thursday night after I’d gotten home from work (when I lived in California, I could never conceive of watching the Weather Channel for any reason; but down in the Gulf, people literally live by it during hurricane season).  That Thursday night, Katrina was beginning her march across south Florida and I figured it was hitting land and would lose steam and that would be that.  After our trip across the river on Saturday, we turned on the Weather Channel and saw Katrina filling the entire Gulf of Mexico; so we decided we would go ahead and fiddle while Rome burned, have our party, but pack the car and skee-daddle on Sunday morning, along with everyone else and their brother.  Glenn had left the next day, too, along with all the other party guests. So, long story not-so-short, we hadn’t seen him except during a brief visit he made to Napa over two years ago.  We just had to get together, airport crowds and traffic be damned.

So, after a quick excursion downtown to watch the Dragon-Con parade Saturday morning, it was off to the airport to pick up him and his new girlfriend.   We began making our list:  lunch at JCT on the Westside, then maybe on to King of Pops or Morelli’s for sweets.  Or should we hit Murphy’s in Virginia-Highland for brunch and then a visit to Green’s for some wine browsing?  We settled on JCT and two bottles of wine to go with lunch.  We had to pass on the frozen treats in favor of JCT’s irresistible Rum-Soaked Coconut Cake, followed by some lounging at home.

Except we didn’t have time for lounging, as my wife and daughter had pending appointments to get their hair done at a salon, half an hour north in Buckhead.  So, being a one-car family for now, the plan was for me to ferry the two of them North, then return to pick them up after I had gone back home, picked up Glenn and dropped him back at the airport, another fifteen minutes past our house to the South.

On the way to the salon, we get a phone call from another of the thousands landing at Hartsfield-Jackson over the weekend; our friend Jimmy from California had just arrived in town for a wedding.  We hadn’t seen Jim since we drove off from Napa last June, so we decided to try to work him into the schedule for a cocktail.  We arrive at the salon to find out that the hair appointments were two hours earlier and had been missed.  So, it was back into the car, back South for twenty minutes to pick up Glen; then another 15 minutes back down The 85 to the airport to drop them; and then back up to Buckhead to meet Jim.  Jimmy lived in Atlanta for about 8 years, so touring him around was not an issue.  We met him for drinks and appetizers on the patio at Nava, a Tex-Mex place that we discovered, on this visit, is decidedly a few years past its prime.  We had a great visit with Uncle Jimmy, though, and he went off to follow the rest of his agenda for the weekend, and we headed home.

It was on the final drive South and home that we began to realize our priorities as tour-guides are a little skewed.

My wife’s cousin and his wife have recently re-located to Atlanta for her internship at a local hospital; and when his mother-in-law visited from Mexico he took her, all in a single day, to the Georgia Aquarium, World of Coca-Cola, Stone Mountain, the Zoo and practically every other attraction known to man.  Now it’s not to say that we haven’t been to, and mostly enjoyed, many such places that are on the top of most tourists’ lists.  But Glenn and his new girlfriend are dedicated food and wine nuts like us; so our itinerary for  today had excluded the traditional spots in favor of those of a more culinary nature.  Asking us to show you around town is a little like asking the guy emerging from an AA meeting for directions:  “Go two blocks down, take a left at Joe’s Bar, head south until you pass two Package Stores, and turn right at the Irish Pub on the corner…”   We’ll take a pass on World of Coke in a hot second if it means we get some of that Coconut Cake.


A Place Holder: "Many Parts Are Edible…" (The Redux)

September 16, 2010

We’ve been reviewing our Atlanta “Bucket List” of restaurants we’d like to try, looking at menus on websites, reading reviews, etc.  One that we are considering has not one, but two different preparations of two different kinds of testicles (notice that everything is coming in two’s here…)

Now, I am as open minded as the next guy, maybe more so when it comes to what I will and won’t put in my mouth (yikes, the double entendres are coming hot and heavy here this morning!) but I would think one type should be sufficient for anyone.  These guys must be digging really deep into their butcher’s product list.

It all reminded me of a something I posted over a year ago on the topic of “parts is parts”; so here’s a redux for you, with apologies to Euell Gibbons and his 70’s TV ads hawking Grapenuts (which to me have no parts that are edible).

I’m leaving for Miami tomorrow for what will hopefully be the last in a month-long series of interviews.  I’m hoping that I finally land this gig so next week I won’t  find myself putting a checkmark in a box to answer questions like “Did you look for work?” or “Was there any reason (other than sickness or injury) that you could not have accepted full time work each weekday?”

Until then, if you haven’t already, please “Enjoy!”

“Many Parts Are Edible…”

This morning our cat caught a bird. This was not an unusual occurrence as he is a  formidable hunter and does not discriminate. We have found, at various times, parts of mice, lizards, snakes, gophers and birds on our back patio. The weird part is his surgical precision in removing the entrails from his trophies. The whole bird was left this time, minus the heart. “Sweet Jesus, Everett, they took his heart!” But he is an animal after all, and they do eat each other, given the chance.

Somewhere along the line of history, we humans decided it is not okay to eat each other, that cannibalism should not be a philosophical choice. Where and when this occurred I do not know, but I am sure it was well before the first Hannibal Lechter movie came out. I am also unsure whether this was a gradual process, such as the backlash against smoking (the Surgeon General warns that cannibalism can lead to low birth weight), or if it was one of those epiphanies where mankind slapped its collective self on the forehead and said, “You know, eating your Uncle Tony is not polite”. We stopped eating each other, and decided that sacrificing ourselves to the gods was counter-productive as well. So we turned on our friends in the animal kingdom.

I don’t know how it came to be that offal (and what a perfect, if misspelled, name that is!) like Sweetbreads were considered a delicacy; or how it was discovered that liver was good with bacon, but I am happier for it. However it occurred, we do eat some very strange things in restaurants. We are eating straight fat (lardo, another perfect name!), fat back (just add in “hairy” and this would be perfect, too), beef cheeks (from the face as well as the other end), shanks, ribs, knuckles, feet, tongues, kidneys, brains, and stomachs. And that’s just at the taco truck. I have seen Pork Blood Jelly on menus at Chinese restaurants and of course the ever-popular tripe at Italian and Mexican restaurants.

We have decided that it is not only okay to eat animals, but we have to eat each and every part of them. This idea probably stems from the early Caveman’s philosophy that using every part of the animal was economical. Killing a Mastadon is a bitch of a lot of work and we might not get to do it again for a while, so sit up straight and finish your hooves.

The vegetable kingdom is not without its “how the hell did they figure out you could eat this?” foods either. Jerusalem artichokes (a somewhat less than perfect name) are a puzzler. They grow deep in the ground, have a shape that makes peeling unbelievably difficult, and you have to have a hundred of the little bastards just to make a bowl of soup. Hearts of Palm, that staple of mediocre Country Club lunch menus everywhere, is really just that: the heart of a palm tree. It was probably a guy with a seafood allergy stranded on a desert island that figured that one out. And Tapioca: it’s made from the cassava root which is basically poisonous unless cooked well enough to remove the toxins. How many dead Sous-Chefs did it take to perfect that technique? “Eh? Henri ese dead? Vee vill need to kook it more, no?” Salsify is a root vegetable that is so face-twistingly bitter coming out of the ground that it has to be cooked several times in milk or some other liquid to make it palatable; and the trendy new vegetable item at haute cuisine places is purslane, or red amaranth. It’s a weed, people. After the constant battle I wage with this invasive, prolific gardener’s bane, I can almost understand the satisfaction derived from eating it. If it had guts, I’d go spit them out in the melon patch, like my cat with his bird parts. Take that, bitches, and don’t let me see you around here again!

"Shake It Up Baby Now…"

August 11, 2010

We hit the road last weekend, heading for the beach (or is it The Shore down here?) as this was the last weekend we would have before school, and possibly a new job for me, started up.  If I get this gig I will be heading to Connecticut for several weeks of working/training before the new restaurant opens here in town; and The Girl starts High School this week, so this weekend would truly be the last call, y’all.

We looked at the available options that didn’t involve an airport:  Hilton Head, which is a monochromatic little beach community, much like the domed city in The Truman Show, where all the buildings are built in similar architectural style, and all painted white.  I had seen The Prisoner on PBS years ago, and the pictures of Hilton Head gave me the heebie-jeebies;  so our other options were the Redneck Riviera down on the Florida Panhandle, or Savannah and the beach on Tybee Island.  Too much reading of online hotel reviews put us in “analysis paralysis” and we couldn’t decide where the hell to go.  We (I) settled on Savannah as it is the prototypical “Southern” town, with its historic buildings, Forrest Gump’s bench and all that crap.  I booked a room at a hotel in the Historic District so we could do some walkabouts in all their little squares and parks, yet still be close enough to head to Savannah Beach on The Island and fry.

Last time we went to Savannah we had fallen into one of the “Tourist Trap” restaurants where the service and food were so bad that a manager finally had to wait on us.  They were so weeded that someone had, in a panic, set the Iced Tea re-fill pitcher on the floor in the middle of the dining room.  I kid you not.  So, needless to say, once was more than enough for us with regards to that particular genre of restaurant.   We were certain that a town with hundreds of two hundred-year-old buildings must surely have more to offer in the way of authentic Southern cuisine, so we turned to the wife’s Droid and, after a little more research, decided to seek out The Two Bubba’s BBQ.

The Two Bubbas were (are?) located in a neighborhood well north of the touristy section of town so, on a wing, a prayer and the good graces of the Droid’s Navigator application, we were off.  I guess we should have made use of one of the Droid’s lower functions as an actual telephone and called the Two Bubbas first, because as the irritating voice on the Nav program informed us our “des-tin-AY-shun is on the left” we were pulling into the parking lot of a most decidedly closed Two Bubbas BBQ.  And not just closed for the night kind of closed, but closed in a Charlton Heston “Omega Man” kind of way.  The deck in front was covered with a month’s worth of pine needles, and there wasn’t so much a single Bubba to be found.  All that was missing was the tumbleweeds.  Only two stray cats were there to greet us, neither of which was wearing overalls, so they were obviously not the Bubbas.   As our original quest had been for some great fried chicken, we turned once again to the all knowing Droid, using the Urban Spoon “slot machine” to find a place called Sweet Potatoes, which turned out to be blessedly close by.

Sweet Potatoes is in an unassuming little strip mall near a Food Lion (yes, that’s actually the name of a grocery store down here, one obviously higher up the food chain than the Piggly Wiggly).  A few jokes about your “Mane Place” for groceries, and them being “the Pride” of grocery stores were flung about; and we realized that the quality of the humor in relation to the uproarious laughter it incited was indicative of just how low our blood sugars really were.  We needed to eat, and Sweet Potatoes was quite the find.  A cute, brightly painted dining room, great fried chicken, pot roast, and a huge Catfish Po-Boy for Alex, all of which were priced ridiculously low.   The Fried Chicken entrée was $8.50, including a one-dollar upcharge for all dark meat.  I’m sorry, I must have missed the Time Portal at the entrance that took us back to 1975.   Here is a link to their website if you don’t believe me.  Portions were huge, the food great and we had the sweetest Meadow Soprano look-alike for a waitress.  It seemed unfair that a 25% tip on our check came out to only eight bucks, so we left her a ten.

Before we had embarked on this culinary pilgrimage we had been watching TV in our room, and a commercial had come on for the “Shake Weight”.  For those of you who’ve seen this thing, I don’t need to go any further.  For those of you who haven’t seen it, suffice it to say that the “Shake Weight Workout” is the Gay Man’s equivalent of the pole-dancing regimen in the “Flirty Girls” exercise tapes.  Demonstrated by several smiling, waxed-chest guys in short-shorts, The Shake Weight Workout targets a specific muscle group with a certain repetitive motion that most guys would need to work on only if they wanted to be truly ambidextrous in their practice and administration of self-abuse.  You Tube has several hilarious parodies of The Shake Weight, but they cant’ compare to the unintentional humor of the original.

"Makes your arm more tired than...raquetball."

After our Back To The Future dinner at Sweet Potatoes, and a nice day of baking on the sand at Tybee Island, we returned home to find a large branch from an oak in our front yard had chosen to let go, almost snapping the power line to our house.  Our neighbors had called Georgia Power, and they had come out to deal with the power line threat.  With the chainsaw they’d obviously had with them, they could have cut the branches into manageable pieces in about three minutes.  But, being true to the work ethic shared by most utility companies and Public Servants, they had done only the bare minimum amount of work possible:  taking the branches down, cutting them just enough to move them out of the way, and leaving a six-foot high pile of limbs and brush in our neighbor’s front yard.

Fortunately we have some very cool, if slightly confused, neighbors (they fly the Rainbow Flag, but park their pick-up truck on the lawn.  Gay Rednecks?), and no property damage had been done by the fallen branches, so everything was coolio for the present.  We thanked them for calling the power company out to do what they did, which was the apparently the bare minimum, and called it a night.

Trying my best to be The Good Neighbor, the next day I attempted to cut and hack at the jungle of oak branches using the somewhat pathetic tool choices available to me: an electric saws-all with a four inch blade, an electric hedge trimmer, and a pair of garden snips were all I had to cut through limbs, some as thick as 12 inches.  After a couple of hour’s effort that yielded an embarrassingly small amount of result, I gave in and hit the local Big Box for an electric chainsaw. My new Man-Tool went through the old oak like buttah, and I spent the better part of that day cutting, hacking and bagging up the debris.

The saws-all had been mildly effective; but due to the springy nature of the thinner branches and the reciprocating motion of the saw, I had to operate the thing one-handed.  I used the saw until the blade was literally turning blue from the friction and my arm ached to the point that amputation was becoming a viable alternative.  I now know why they call it a “Reciprocating Saw”, as for every unit of work it does, it reciprocates with a commensurate amount of aches and pains for the forearms and wrists of the users.

If only I had made note of that 800 number for The Shake Weight I would’ve at least been able to change hands.

"Of Travel, I've Had My Share, Man…"

June 14, 2010

“I been to Reno, Chicago, Fargo, Minnesota,

Buffalo, Toronto, Winslow, Sarasota,

Wichita, Tulsa, Ottawa, Oklahoma,

Tampa, Panama, Mattawa, La Paloma…”

Even though I’ve not completed Johnny’s full list, I will be checking  quite a few off this trip.  Our long-anticipated, on again/off again move to Atlanta, GA is finally happening and it’s a trip, in more ways than one.  Yes, Sportsfans, Nativenapkin has finally taken his show on the road.

Making that final drive away from someplace I have not only lived in for the past three years, but also have so many connections with, via family, friends and business, is rather disorienting.  I have driven down The Five dozens of times in my life, but this is only the second time in history that I have driven past the Windmill Farm near Altamont, knowing I will not be breezing back by them in a week or so, when vacation is over.  I won’t be rolling up my window to stifle the manure smell as I near Harris Ranch (Hey! Cows!), nor will I be gassing up in Santa Clarita at the top of the Grapevine before heading back up through the heart of the Central Valley.  No, like Thelma and Louise, we are going to just keep going, but we will hopefully stop just a little bit sooner than they did on our visit to The Grand Canyon later today.

So, here we are in Flagstaff, in State #2 of our Nine State Tour.  The first stop was in L.A.  Not “L.A., proper,” but the vapid and widespread area we Nor-Cals will often mistakenly refer to as L.A.:  The Valley.  Most Angelenos will bristle at having Riverside County, Pasadena, or anywhere else in The Valley referred to as “L.A.”; but to most of us who live North of Monterey, anything south of Santa Barbara is considered L.A.  (It has been only been on a couple of  rare occasions that I have experienced the real L.A. and, as much as it grinds against everything in my makeup as a Bay Area Boy to admit it, I have seen why Angelenos love their City like we do ours.)

This trip bypassed our friend Angela, the Wine Gique’s beautiful little bungalow in Larchmont Village, in favor of the Mother-In-Laws in Sun City in Riverside County.  We must have been emanating Guilt Waves both strong and wide-ranging, as she rang us as we were passing very nearby her exit.  She gave us a good and thorough tongue lashing for not coming by to stage a repeat performance of the now-legendary Coq Au Vin dinner we enjoyed the last time.

No, not this time.  We are zooming by, out to stay two nights in a La Quinta (Spanish for “Next to Denny’s”) in San Bernadino, of all places.  What a depressingly depressed area this is, with no less than three shuttered restaurants within sight of our hotel.  We had a lovely time at the M.I.L.’s, though, eating two very good meals that we prepared ourselves.  We wanted to have as many home cooked meals as possible before embarking on what was sure to be six days of fast food-franchised-formula-concept restaurant meals as we make our way across The Forty.

Here in Flagstaff which, if you listen to Yelp, Urban Spoon, or Trip Advisor, is pretty much a Restaurant Wasteland, we actually found some of the best thin-crusted pizza I have ever eaten.  A small chain called Oregano’s has an outpost here and, even though we had to help the manager clear up some fuzzy logic his POS system had imprinted on our bill, it was fantastic.  Tomorrow will hopefully be some great Southwest or Mexican during our stop in Albuquerque, then a fat-ass Rib Eye at Red Primesteak in Oklahoma City.  Memphis is our last night on the road, and I don’t think I need to tell you what we’ll be eating that night.

I think I’ll rewrite that Johnny Cash tune with new lyrics:

“I’ve eaten everywhere, man;

I’ve eaten the Rib Eye, rare, man.

Of Ribs I’ve had my share, man…”

"Yep. Piggin' Out Again…"

March 1, 2010

We had the good fortune (and great connections) to attend the Second Annual Cochon 555, held at Silverado Resort yesterday.  Big props and many thanks to Jeff Blaum and Beth Pryor of Chase Family Winery for our VIP tix.  We loved every minute of this event.

Cochon 555 is the brainchild of Brady Lowe of Taste Network in Atlanta.  It has morphed from a twice a year, bi-coastal event, alternating between Atlanta and Napa Valley, into a traveling Pork Road Show with stops this year in Napa, New York, Boston, Atlanta, Des Moines, Washington D.C., Portland, Seattle, and San Francisco, ending with The Grand Cochon at the Aspen Food and Wine Festival in June, that will pit all the winners from  the different cities against each other.  Brady presumably will find time in there somewhere to also present a couple more “Primal” events,  another food fest extolling the virtues of wood-fired, whole-animal cookery and sustainably raised livestock.  Primal was held last October at the above-mentioned Chase Family Winery’s Hayne Vineyard in St. Helena (click here for my post about that hedonistic little get-together).

The five Chefs (six, if you want to get technical) were Christopher Kostow of Meadowood (recently awarded 4-star status by His Holiness, MB in the Chronicle for his efforts there), John Stewart and Duskie Estes of Zazu Restaurant and Farm in Santa Rosa, Dennis Lee of Namu on Balboa St. in SF, Devin Knell of The French Laundry, and Peter Pahk, Executive Chef of the hosting Silverado Resort.

The Chefs

The Chefs and Brady, taking a well deserved bow...

After an hour of warm-ups eating some great cheeses, oysters from the appropriately included Hog Island, some great wines from Chase, Larkin, Miner, and others, as well as some “stiffs” from Alembic, the doors were swung open to Silverado’s convention center facility and a-porking we did go.

As expected, the first and longest lines formed immediately at The French Laundry’s tables, so we by-passed them for the time being, and started with Peter Pahk’s renderings from the Yorkshire hog he was allocated.  Chef Pahk wowed us with his Mandoo,  a Siu Mai-style dumpling with a Pork Consomme, and his “Bacon and Eggs”: tonkatsu, a fried mini Pork cutlet, with soft scrambled eggs and ko choo jung, a Korean hot sauce.  An excellent start, and two of my favorite dishes of the day.

Chef Pahk's Dumplings in Pork Broth

Chef Pahk's Dumplings. These were real, real, good...

Chef Peter Pahk and His Crew from Silverado Resort

Carole and I,  along with Mike from Vallejo (A.K.A. Mr. Delicious),  moved on over to the Namu table, glancing over to the corner briefly to see Ryan Farr of 4505 Meats start in on dressing down a full hog from start to bloody finish.  More on that a bit later.  We also looked over in the direction of the Meadowood table, and it was empty still.  H-m-m-m.  More on that a bit later, too.

Dennis Lee of Namu had shredded, braised pork Korean-style tacos that are all the rage at the taco trucks in LA these days.  They were topped with a Kimchee “powder” the Chef had made by pulverizing the shit out of the fermented cabbage in a Robot Coupé; plus an array of items served together on small, crisp cups of Romaine lettuce : some spicy Kimchee, a tiny slice of a gelatinous prosciutto “terrine”, a just-shucked Sweetwater Oyster, a pork sausage, and a little hot sauce.  This was my absolute favorite dish of the day: spicy, salty, crunchy, with the creamy oyster and lettuce cup adding a clean, refreshing factor to the equation.

By this time a bit of a line was forming at Meadowood’s table, but not enough to draw our interest yet.  So on to Zazu.

John and Duskie tried to keep up with the crowd, but being in a corner spot and having fried-to-order Pork Corn Dogs was enough to draw a line that snaked almost all the way across the sizable room, and they were deep in the weeds all day.  As we finally worked our way up to the first corner of their table, we got a sample of some Kettle-style popcorn seasoned with Bacon Salt.  Whoah-ho!!  Then a slice of summer sausage topped with some tiny French green lentils, followed by a very good Pork Slider, and some of their spicy, house-made salumi; but when we finally reached the Holiest of Holies, the Corn Dog station, we were informed they were doing their “Judges Plates” that were soon to be whisked off to be critiqued in another room.  So we dutifully stood aside, sacrificing our chance at the Corn Dogs for the sake of the spirit of competition, and moved on.  We’ll be bah-h-k…

Meadowood was next.   Where Zazu had pots and pans atop several propane burners, a deep fryer, the popcorn machine, and half a dozen people putting out five different items; and Namu had similarly hectic tables full of Mis En Place, Meadowood had only two long, skinny wooden “boats” with some decidedly non-spectacular Pork Belly pieces on them.  Meh.  Their tables were absolutely barren in comparison to the others. I heard that they had some other, different items out a bit later; but, for us, the damage was done.  We were so unintigued by our first go-round, and there was so much good stuff elsewhere, we didn’t waste any of our time returning.  Somewhat in their defense, I talked to Steffan Terje of Perbacco SF, who was one of the twenty judges this year.  He told me that Chef Kostow’s stuff was his favorite at the Judges’ Table, and included a Pork “Tea” brewed inside a tiny bag of cheesecloth, and other similarly detailed items.  But Meadowood’s table was severely under-supplied and under-staffed all day, so we didn’t get a chance to try any of them.  The event’s scoring was 49% judges opinion, 51% on the attendees’ votes.  So, like Bush in 2000, Meadowood might have won the College, but they lost the Popular.

So, that left only TFL’s table to try.  On one end of their rectangular station, they were plating a Pork Terrine with Black Truffles, topped with Pork Geleè (Fresh black truffles at an event like this?  Are you effing kidding me?!!), a quenelle of Tomato Concassè (done ala minùte by the Fastest Quenelle Makers in the West), and half of a perfectly hard-boiled quail egg.  Across the middle section they were serving toasted baguette slices topped with Glibenschmalz (we got a good bit of joke-mileage out of that name), a rillete-type spread; and “Skin and Bones”, pork tenderloin with a crispy Pork Skin wrapping, served with a Bone Marrow Foam; and at the other end of the rectangle, a fried Pork cutlet with a savory gravy.

Devin and his French Laundry team were like that beautiful blonde Cheerleader back in High School that got Straight-A ‘s, volunteered with retarded kids after school, was just so fucking hot looking and so unbelievably nice that it just all had to be fake, right?  You really wanted to hate her, but you just couldn’t.  Not only were their plates beautiful and delicious, but their station was pristine; they were all cheerful, friendly, and so damn cute; and Devin took the time to happily answer any and all questions (probably the same ones, asked over and over and over, a million times).  They did the best job of any of the five competitors with their crowd management: lines moved quickly and efficiently.  And, much to their credit, they didn’t do a “Cut and Run” either, like they have been known to at similar events in the past, where they showed up with about one-third enough food, gave it all out in the first half-hour, then put up a “Sorry You Missed Us” sign and split (“Wow!  It must have been great stuff, it’s all gone already!!”).  They continued serving the same great looking plates, right up until the final bell.

So when all was said and done my favorite, despite TFL’s over-the-top effort, was Chef Lee from Namu.  He got my vote, my wife’s vote, and Mr. Delicious’ vote.  But the People and the Judges had already spoken, and they were speaking French…Laundry, that is; and Chef Devin and his crew took home the day’s top honor.  Honorable mention goes to the Chiccharrones from 4505 Meats.  They were not included in the vote, but shoudl’ve been.  They were like Pork Cotton Candy, light as air, and absolutely fabulous.

4505 Meats' Chiccharones...

m-m-m-m, Pork Rinds...

We, on the other hand, took home some Top Round and some un-cured bacon/belly that we won in a Business Card raffle that gave away all the different cuts broken down by Ryan over the course of the three-hour event.  Winner, winner, Eat a Pig Dinner!!

Many thanks to Chef Pahk for the photos…you can see more on his Facebook Page

Rick Beard, Groezinger's Wine Merchants

Rick Beard from Groezinger's, looks like he's paying his respects to a pig that literally gave its all...

"Slap-Yo-Mama-Good" Fried Chicken

February 16, 2010

I have spent quite a few years eating and drinking, and I pride myself on being willing to try anything, and I do mean anything, that is intended for ingestion by human beings.  I have eaten food from Hawker Stalls in Malaysia that our hosts for that vacation called “botulism on a stick,” and avoided like the plague.  Fried Chicken Livers and Waffles for breakfast at Elizabeth’s in the Warehouse District in New Orleans; Starling (tiny blackbirds) brains prepared by a French Chef I worked for; Sea Cucumbers, which I am still not sure are animal or vegetable, at Daimo in Emeryville for a Chinese New Year dinner (“Let’s give this to the round-eyes; see if they eat it…”); Durian, the World’s Stinkiest Fruit: tastes like smoky pineapple, smells like ripe Fontina; and anything and everything that comes from a Taco Truck (although I have discovered you don’t call tacos made from tongue “Tacos de Lengua”, as that term has an entirely different meaning to Mexicans, and has nothing to do with eating…food that is.)

So even though my Cast Iron Stomach has rusted a bit over the years, I am still quite adventurous when it comes to food; so you have to go a ways to find “the best I’ve ever had” of anything.   But last night was one of those rare food epiphanies where my eyes were opened anew to something I’d had hundreds of times before:  Fried Chicken.

Up until last night, I think the best Fried Chicken I’d had was at Wyatt’s Country Kitchen, located on a pretty scary stretch of Memorial Drive in Decatur, GA.  Wyatt’s is a double-wide mobile home with a screened-in front porch for a dining room, and a big smoker bolted onto the back.  He puts out ribs, collards, and butter beans “like you read about” and, on Sundays only, does Fried Chicken.  Gotta get there early, too, as the after-Church crowd will eat it all up if you don’t, and they are usually sold out by 2pm.

But last night we were celebrating our friend Kim’s birthday, so my wife and I made dinner:  Killer Mac-N-Cheese (recipe for that at another time, as it too was so-o-o-o good it deserves it’s own post) and what will forever be known as “Slap-Yo-Mama-Because-She-Should-Have-Made-It-This-Good-For-You-All-Along” Fried Chicken.  Or, just slightly more succinct, “Kim’s Birthday/Valentine’s Day Fried Chicken.”

Here is the recipe/procedure; not as complicated as many I have encountered, just way, way better.  Were I you, I would not change a thing the first time through, as even the most seemingly insignificant alteration may yield sub-par results.  You might even have to come over here and use our stove and skillet to be sure you get it just right:

  • 12 Chicken Thighs and 12 Legs (us White Folk don’t be eatin’ us no White Meat)
  • 1/4 cup Kosher Salt for The Brine, plus about a teaspoon more for breading
  • 1/4 cup granulated Sugar
  • 1 tablespoon Chile Powder (I used a blend made by “El Guapo” available on that little rack of Mexican spices that almost every supermarket in California has; 98¢ for an ounce)
  • 1 tablespoon dried Oregano
  • 2 pints water
  • All purpose flour for breading the chicken pieces
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • Oil for frying (Carole used a mix of Extra Virgin Olive Oil and Canola that that we bought at Safeway, I think, plus a little peanut oil she found in the cupboard).

Step 1:  The Brine

(This is not one of those brining procedures that starts out with “Five days ahead of time, put the chicken in a brine of…”  No, I brined the chicken pieces for only about five hours.)

Put the 1/4 cup Kosher Salt, the sugar, the Chile powder, and the oregano in a bowl large enough to accommodate all the chicken and the water.  Add the water to the bowl and whisk it until well blended, and the sugar and salt have melted.

Put the chicken in the brine and submerge it.  Put the bowl in the fridge.  You might need to push the chicken down into the brine occasionally, but my bowl was wide enough that I really didn’t need to.

When ready to start frying, remove the chicken from the brine and rinse under cold, running water, and let drain in a colander.  After they have drained a while, place chicken pieces, skin side up for the thighs, on a sheet pan lined with two thicknesses of paper towels.  Use another wad of paper towels to pat the top of the pieces dry.

Step 2:  The Fry

Put a couple of cups of the AP Flour in a Zip-Loc bag with the teaspoon of Kosher salt, and twenty twists or so of the black pepper from your pepper mill.  Put the drained, dry chicken in the bag and coat well, a few pieces at a time.  Place floured chicken on a sheet pan with a rack and let sit while you finish your breading duties.

Once all chicken pieces are floured, put your Big-Ass Cast Iron Skillet on a medium-high flame and let it heat for a minute or so.  Pre-heat the oven to 325°.  Add enough of the oil to cover the bottom of your B.A.C.I.S. to a depth of about a 1/4 inch.

Re-flour the chicken pieces a few at a time as you fry them in batches, using the same flour from the first breading (Don’t re-flour the all the chicken at once; do them a few at a time, and wait until just before it is their turn in the pan).

Now comes the only really tricky part in the whole operation: the actual frying.  My wife is the Fry-Mistress; and her technique, while partly instinctive by virtue of her Mid-Western gene pool, has been finely honed over the years.  Knowing when the oil is too hot, not enough, etc, is a skill that only comes with practice; but generally speaking, slower is better.  I can’t give you an exact temperature because checking the oil’s temperature with a thermometer is just not how she rolls.

Knowing when to turn the bird is also critical, as she turns the pieces but once.  The chicken last night fried at a pace that allowed her to put it in the pan, then come out into the backyard to socialize and have a cocktail, returning to the stove at just the precise moment to make the turn.  So, to time it precisely, make yourself a Cosmo, go chat for about 15-20 minutes, then flip.   Another important part of the frying procedure, apparently, is to yell “DON’T FLIP IT!!!” at your husband, from the backyard, if you happen to look through the kitchen window and see him even approaching the stove.  (“Hey, I’m not touching it!!”)

Fry the chicken until beautifully golden brown.  Put crispy, beautiful pieces of chicken yumminess onto a sheet pan with a rack, to keep warm in the oven while you finish frying the rest.  Some of the pieces from the first couple of batches can be returned to the hot oil in the pan to re-crisp them, if you feel it necessary, before serving.

To those of you adventurous enough to try this Best Fried Chicken of All Time recipe, I will just say, in advance, “You’re welcome…”

"Slap-Yo-Mama" Chicken

You'll want to slap yo mama, but please don't...

"This Is No Hash House…"

February 2, 2010

In previous posts about “The Continuing Saga of nativenapkin” I recalled how I had finally made my move from Prep Cook to the Hot Line.  I had transitioned from an almost invisible member of the crew to a bona fide member of the restaurant social elite.  As a cook on the hot line, I partied with the Big Boys, got laid a lot, and could make waiters cower in fear. Granted these are not the best characteristics for a team player whose only interest should be providing fine food and service to our guests; but as a 20 year-old line cook my investment in guest satisfaction ended when the plates left the window.  I could give a rat’s ass if the guy’s coffee or water was re-filled, or if the dining room was clean and comfortable.  In my mind, the food was all-important; servers were just there as “plate porters,” a necessary evil because someone had to bring the food from kitchen to table.  In my mind, these people would sit on over-turned boxes at picnic tables to eat the perfection that emanated from the Hot Line pick-up window.  It wasn’t until years later that I would begin to see the Big Picture and back down from my mental pedestal.

After my somewhat unceremonious promotion to the Hot Line at Lyon’s of Napa (I know, I know.  You’re saying, “You were a cook at Lyon’s, and thought you were just the shizit?”), I stayed on the schedule as a full timer for several months until an internal Kitchen Mutiny resulted in 6 of us quitting in unison over wage demands, thinking the place would go down in flames without us.  (You can read more on this in my post “Are You…Experienced.” If you are so inclined.)   Some of us, like me, went on to other jobs; some went back to prison for the parole violation of quitting a job without having something else lined up; some just disappeared.

I made my way up the local restaurant food chain, going from fry cook at some “hash houses” to nicer “Dinner Houses”.  I was in the throes of “New Restaurant Fever” and every time a newer, more stylish place would swing its doors open, I would jump ship.  It was partially an insatiable desire to learn new techniques and dishes and elevate myself to an eventual Executive Chef’s position; it was partially the lure of the shiny new stainless steel appliances in a new place; but ultimately it was just for a new gaggle of waitresses and hostesses to bone.  Like I said, I was in my 20’s.

I worked at a couple of dinner houses.  One was a glorified Steak and Potato joint opened by the second generation of a venerable San Francisco restaurant family; one, an Italian place run by a dysfunctional local family whose only real claim to fame was the patriarch’s hand rolled ravioli and malfatti, which were the stuff of legends at Knight’s of Columbus and Catholic Church fundraisers.

After the Judgement of Paris in 1976, Napa Valley wines were beginning to receive their due, so investors thought the time was ripe for a few restaurants that were on a par with the wines being produced.  Some of my contemporaries had gone on to work at The Restaurant at Domaine Chandon when it made its splashy Napa Valley debut in 1978, propelling Napa Valley onto the Bay Area’s fine-dining radar.   This was a real, world-class dining destination in an area where the Mom and Pop Shops had held sway over the dining scene for decades. The Miramonte in St. Helena, owned by the unceremoniously deposed opening Chef at Chandon, Udo Nechutny, made some headlines when it opened about a year later;  as well as La Belle Helene, owned a raving madman of a Chef named Gregory Lyons.  And a funky little place named Chez Panisse had opened in Berkeley.  But the real buzz for the Napa Valley and the Bay Area began in earnest in 1980, when San Francisco restaurateur Claude Rouas lured Chef Masataka Kobayashi away from Le Plasir in New York’s Palace Hotel, and broke ground in Rutherford for The Auberge du Soleil.

As someone born and raised in the Napa Valley, to me the borders of civilization in those days ended at Trancas Street in the City of Napa, and didn’t start up again until you reached St. Helena.  All that was in between were prune and walnut orchards, a few bars and the Veteran’s Home in Yountville, and some vineyards that supplied the several dozen “stinky wineries” we’d been subjected to as kids when out of town relatives came to visit.  So when the Auberge opened and my former Restaurant Guru from Lyon’s, Brian Porterfield, reached out to me to apply, I was confused.  Why would someone put a restaurant, and a fine dining restaurant at that, in Rutherford of all places?  Rutherford was literally just a Post Office, a bar, and the La Luna Market (old timers may remember the sign that said La Luna Market, “The Handy Store,” on the old building that faced Highway 29 back then, before it moved down Rutherford Cross Road about a hundred yards).   If you blinked while driving through, you missed it.  But prohibitions on hillside building in The Valley weren’t yet even a twinkle in the eyes of the Board of Supervisors, and the Jaeger family had carved Rutherford Hill Road out of a rocky eastern hillside to access their aptly named, new Rutherford Hill Winery.  Monsieur Rouas had jumped on the opportunity and grabbed a chunk of the valuable, newly accessible real estate overlooking the Valley.

I was working mostly day shifts at my current posting then, so I  made my way up in the dark one night after work, about a week before the scheduled opening date.  I was heading up to apply for work with Brian, who had gotten the job as the Sous Chef.  I followed the unlit, pristine new single lane of blacktop upward, thinking it looked more like the road into a State Park than a restaurant site; and I followed the sharp curves toward the soft glow of light emanating from the new restaurant’s parking lot.  When I arrived at the entrance, I was transported to a scene that was more like Disneyland than a State Park.  The curved, terra-cotta colored walls of the building were lit by footlights, as were the mature olive trees from the original grove that covered most of the hill, and were now part of the new landscape design.  It was a surreal setting, this brightly glowing island of light in the inky blackness.  I parked and found my way to the delivery entrance off to the side, way too intimidated to just walk in the front door.

As I walked in the back door to the kitchen, I saw a huge Groen steam-jacketed kettle, the size of a Hot Tub, simmering slowly in the prep area, filled to the brim with Veal knuckle bones and Mire-Poix.  (I had no idea at the time what Mire Poix was, or what it meant; or that the controlled slow cooking of this gigantic kettle was beginning to transform the mixture of bones, vegetables and water into Fond du Veau, the source of all goodness and light when it came to sauces.)  There was a smaller, more conventional stockpot simmering on a stovetop.  It was filled with Crayfish bodies, doing the same thing to them.  I walked up and took a whiff of the steam rising from this second pot.  It was unlike anything I’d ever seen or smelled before.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but that moment was my first true “Food Epiphany,” a sudden opening of my eyes and mind to how new and different this experience was going to be for me.

Brian noticed me standing there, trying to take in food and equipment that were as foreign to me as a Martian landscape, and beckoned me over to the Chef’s office.  He was sitting on the floor just inside the door, sipping a cold Coors, and chatting with a tiny little man who was sitting at the desk with an opened book and a yellow legal pad full of scribbling in front of him.  The two of them had just finished up a 12-hour day of unpacking equipment and setting up the walk-ins and hot line.  That tiny little man was Chef Masa; the book was Le Guide Culinaire by Auguste Escoffier; and I was about to enter a whole new culinary world.

The "Holy Bible" of Cooking

Next Up: Pommes du Terre, a Wilkes-Bashford Fashion Show, and Opening Day.