September 25, 2014

More (mmmmmmmmmm, good!) on Memphis

Poor Konrad Spitzbart. As Executive Pastry Chef at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, Spitzbart was given a tough task recently when the Association of Food Journalists convened at his hotel. His audience of 125 food writers, editors, cookbook authors and bloggers had just returned from a fabulous, multi-course luncheon of vegetarian soul food at Felicia Suzanne’s restaurant in downtown Memphis. And they were due to attend AFJ’s annual multi-course Awards Banquet just a few hours hence.

Spitzbart was challenged to wow them during the hotel’s mid-afternoon “coffee break,” serving a “little something” between the two heavyweight feasts.

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And he did just that. Wowed us. Thrilled us. Left us licking our lips and fingers, with his heavenly peach crisps served in individual cast iron pans. “I just poach the peaches lightly so they retain their firmness and flavor,” said the Austria born chef in his soft German accent. “The local peaches are so delicious, that’s all they need.”

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But, hey, a little homemade maple ice cream, laced with bacon bits, doesn’t do a peach pie any harm, does it? Apparently not, because I saw nary a soul turn down the creamy wonder being scooped personally by Spitzbart. Then there were the shot glasses filled with Jack Daniel’s Caramel Sauce, all lined up on a table nearby, begging to be slurped. How luscious was that? Well, let’s just say that not everyone got his/her portion because after I poured one shot on my peach pie and tasted it….I grabbed another shot and downed it neat. That luscious!

September 22, 2014

Munching my Way Thru Memphis --- Part II

On the first official day of the Association of Food Journalists conference, all 125-plus food writers and editors trotted off to Court Square for a “Food Truck Rodeo Lunch.” About a half dozen colorful trucks were parked on the pretty square; customers stood in line, then fought over the few tables that offered shade from the blistering sun.

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(Apologies for small photos in this post. Working in the boonies of Colorado with limited internet access and impossibly slow upload times.)  

I opted for Central BBQ, which came highly recommended by Memphis-born friends.  Fighting off the urge for a BBQ Bologna Sandwich (not!), I opted for the classic pulled pork, a heap of tender meat with crisp, charred edges, topped with cool, creamy cole slaw.  CBQ’s sauces – mild and hot -- were sensational. So good, in fact, I didn’t want them to get lost in the unremarkable bun. Instead, I savored each bite of meat on a fork, liberally dunked in the sauces. Homemade potato chips were delicious. "Watermelon Lemonade" from another truck was, well, cold.

                                     
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Central BBQ was fired up in 2002 by two guys, Craig Blondis and Roger Sapp, who met on the BBQ circuit in the mid-80s. They’ve opened two other Memphis locations since then. The men brag that their meats -- ribs, pork, chicken, turkey, beef brisket, sausage and, yes, bologna --- are rubbed with a secret combination of dry spices, marinated for 24 hours, then smoked low and slow in the pit over a combination of hickory and pecan woods. Sauce is added only after cooking, a fact, I learned, that is almost as important in these parts as using real wood instead of fake smoke flavoring.

Mindful that I’d be eating again in just a few short hours ---- “A Smokin’ Taste of Memphis” at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music was on tap for the evening --- I slipped away from the conference in the afternoon to walk the Mississippi Riverwalk. 

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With scenic views of the meandering Mississippi, the concrete path runs south for about a mile and a half, then crosses a pedestrian bridge to double back on the Riverbluff Walkway dotted with beautiful homes and pocket parks. With temperatures in the ‘90s and off-the-charts humidity, the exercise was a treadmill-sauna combo that burned up calories while allowing me to see more of Memphis than the inside of the Peabody Hotel conference rooms.

 

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Next up: The Peabody Hotel's Deep-Dish Peach Pie with Maple-Bacon Ice Cream.

September 10, 2014

Great Gus! Fried Chicken in Memphis

Within 30 minutes of touchdown last night at Memphis International Airport, I was eating deep-fried pickles, drinking Fat Tire beer, and chatting with foodie friends, old and new, at Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken.

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In town for the annual conference of the Association of Food Journalists, our group  wasted no time in checking out one of the city’s most iconic foods.

The fried chicken was sensational. Crisp, golden-brown outside; so moist and flavorful within that it must have been brined first. Served piping hot , straight from the fryer….and hot, too, from the additional of plenty of cayenne (and who knows what else) in the batter.

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On the side last night: terrific cole slaw and cooked-to-death greens, which is not an insult because greens are supposed to be cooked-to-death in this part of the world. The chicken was plunked on a couple slices of Wonder-like bread; part of the ritual, I presume. (Gus’s also offers beans and/or French fries some nights.)

Gus’s, by the way, has been around for about 60 years and now has three Tennessee locations plus a few scattered about in other fried chicken-crazy states. The downtown Memphis eatery is casual and friendly… and hot --- at least it was on a night when it was still 89 degrees at 7:30 pm.

The antithesis of “fast food,” Gus’s chicken can easily take 20 or 30 minutes to make its way to your table. That’s where the deep-fried pickles came in. And the Fat Tire. Beverages are basically iced tea, water and beer from a short list heavy on American “lites.”

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Served with plastic utensils, paper napkins and a smile, the feast cost me just 16 bucks, tax included.  Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken was about the best “Welcome to Memphis” anyone could ask for.

                                         

August 12, 2014

Singing the Praises of Foie Gras...at Rotisserie G

Talk about a marriage made in heaven. The Foie Gras Dacquoise at Rotisserie Georgette in New York City was created when Café Boulud pastry chef Ashley Brauze brought one of her ethereal dacquoise creations home from work to her husband, Chad, head chef at the new and noteworthy Rotisserie Georgette.

“I can do that,” was Chad’s reaction to his wife’s delicious dessert.  “She lectured me on the technique, gave me the ratios for the dacquoise and the gelée, and I took it from there,” said the 35-year-old Chad who met his wife when they both worked at Restaurant Daniel.

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The result is an appetizer that impresses with its good looks, sumptuous texture, and close-your-eyes-and-swoon flavors.

Brauze (Chad, that is) started with the “pastry” layer, making a classic dacquoise with egg whites and crushed pistachios instead of the traditional almond flour. Next, he seasoned the liver lobe with salt, white pepper, sugar and a splash of Sauterne, rolled it into a torchon and confit’d (basically, slowly poached) it in foie gras fat.

After passing it through a fine sieve to smooth the texture, he assembled it in a pastry frame, just as Ashley assembles all her marjolaine and dacquoise confections. For the crowning gelée layer, Brauze used the cooking liquid from poached rhubarb, using just enough gelatin to set it. Candied pistachios, rhubarb chutney and crisp toasts made a great dish even greater.

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As wonderful as the foie gras is, the real star of the show at Rotisserie Georgette is rotisserie chicken, dozens of them glistening and twirling away in the back of the restaurant on two impressive contraptions imported from France. The birds come from an Amish farm in Pennsylvania, chosen, according to Ms. G, for the quality of their skin and very moist flesh. They’re dry-brined with herbs de Provence and roasted over open flame. They are simple, and simply delicious.

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Side dishes – such as warm baby beets with red onion vinaigrette and blue cheese --- are also simple and satisfying. In addition, there are many ways to kick off the feast --- a yummy Salade G (above in photo by the New York Times), rillettes, pate, mussels, smoked salmon --- but to miss the heavenly concoction that prompted this paean would be crazy.

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The 9-month-old Rotisserie G is the life-long dream of Georgette Farkas, a woman about whom restaurant critic John Mariani said:  “In the backbiting NYC restaurant world, I doubt there is anyone who enjoys a higher likeability rating than Georgette Farkas.” (Photo by MeetUp.com.)

I count myself one of Farkas’ fans, having worked with her for more than 15 years when I was Food Editor of the San Diego Union-Tribune and she was communications director for super-chef Daniel Boulud.  The high-energy Farkas, who started cooking professionally when she was a teenager, now brings her well-known attention to detail, diplomacy and sophistication to bear on her first restaurant.

Rotisserie Georgette, with its Old World charm, new-world comfort and refreshingly uncomplicated food, is at 14 East 60th Street, just off Central Park. It’s open every day except Sunday.

August 11, 2014

Vienna's New Park Hyatt Hotel. In a Word: WOW!

No one has ever called me a woman of few words, but I was reduced to one, awed “Wow” when I walked into the restaurant of the then-ten-day-old Park Hyatt Hotel in Vienna, Austria. The handsome stone building, built in 1913 on the graceful square called Am Hof, formerly housed the Lower Austrian Escompte Bank. Hence, the new restaurant’s name: The Bank.

                        Park Hyatt Vienna


Wow Factor #1: The open kitchen. Actually the two open kitchens. One for savory courses; one for sweets. Each a vast sprawl of marble and glass with elegant finishing touches that will knock the socks off even the most jaded foodies. Between the two spaces sits an oversized dining table where a party of up to eight guests can gather for a special menu, served family-style.

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Wow Factor #2. Soaring ceilings, stunning chandeliers and shimmering floor lamps that pay tribute to the famed Secession art museum,  which is just a short walk away. Home to Gustav Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze, the museum is visited by virtually every visitor to this city.

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Wow Factor #3: An enticing menu that includes the classic dishes that people expect of Vienna, as well as some very clever riffs on those traditions

After oogling the surroundings for a good long while, I settled down to a still-life of Ricotta Maultaschen, which is a delicate Austrian version of ravioli.  The oversized pasta package was light and thin; the cheese filling rich and creamy.  And a flurry of snipped wild herbs polished an already shimmering production.

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I also loved The Bank’s velvety white asparagus soup that was creatively topped with hazelnut pesto. And braised lamb, teamed with an aromatic red pepper stew, eggplant and creamed polenta, was superb.

Only the "de-constructed" blue cheese tart left room for improvement; its attractive “components –-- Blauschimmel blue cheese, toasted walnuts and apricot compote --- desperately needing something to hold all the flavors together.

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Dessert, on the other hand, needed no help whatsoever. The Bank’s rendition of Meringue Glacée was sensational with luscious semi-freddo-like chocolate ice cream in one bowl, Viennese whipped cream in another, and crumbly “slices” of meringue in yet another. 

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As a hotel restaurant, The Bank has to provide all the basics along with the cutting-edge cuisine, and it does so with panache. There are some nice vegetarian options, simple pasta dishes, and a couple of steaks with interesting sauces.

As a hotel restaurant, too, it has to have flexible hours. We arrived after a concert, at 10 pm, when most center-city restaurants had closed their doors. Pearl, the hotel’s bar/lounge also stays open late and offers a nice menu and terrific people-watching.

The Vienna Park Hyatt has now been open for about two months.

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August 09, 2014

The Beautification of the Brussels Sprout

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The words “pizza” and “Brussels sprouts” don’t usually hang out together in the same sentence. But that didn’t stop San Diego wunderchef Tracy Borkum from creating a wondrous pie topped with individual leaves of the cruciferous orb, fat strips of glistening pancetta, fontina cheese, red onion and Calabrian chili.

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The pizza was a highlight of a recent dinner at Borkum’s alluring Cucina Enoteca in Del Mar's Flower Hill Promenade.

By chance, we had dined the night before at Borkum’s original Cucina Urbana located in Banker’s Hill.  At that dinner, too, Brussels sprouts made a statement, this time in the de-lish Kale ‘Caesar’ Salad.  Kale can easily fall into the “too much of a good thing” category.  But Cucina Urbana’s salad balanced the chewy green with tender, finely shaved sprouts and tossed it all with a spunky Meyer Lemon vinaigrette and raisins soaked in Cognac and orange zest.  A crackly parmesan frico was the proverbial icing on the cake. (Photo from TripAdvisor.)

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The two restaurants have pretty much the same menu, with a few chef de cuisine whims and daily specials thrown in for good measure. Both feature a selection of mini mason jars filled with scrumptious spreads. I loved the bright, summery Sweet Pea Hummus, made with fresh English peas, shallots, garlic and chickpeas, all blended smooth with tahini and lemon juice, and topped with crispy bits of pancetta and chili-infused oil. 

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August 07, 2014

A Taste of 1969

My husband and I celebrated our 45th wedding anniversary recently with an al fresco bash that involved dancing to “Proud Mary” and “Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch”; mini skirts, bell bottoms and headbands; sunset cocktails with Fanny Bay and Sol Azul oysters; and dinner -- “A Taste of 1969.”

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The iceberg wedge salad of that era got a chic make-over from chef Barry Layne and his Coast Catering team who turned it into a luscious still-life with Maytag blue cheese dressing, baby heirloom tomatoes, caramelized pecans and apple-smoked bacon.

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Layne did wonders with Julia Child’s Beef Wellington, too.  

Forty years ago Julia had all of us enthusiastic novices slaving away on her version which featured a beef filet, time-consuming mushroom duxelle and labor-intensive patè brioche. Layne updated the concept with meltingly tender short ribs, thin layers of jus-soaked potatoes, St. André cheese and semi-dried tomatoes, all wrapped in crackly puff pastry. He normally serves the luscious package with root vegetables (pictured here) but I opted for green beans and a tiny wedge of potato-gruyere gratin instead.

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When I think of dessert in the 60s and 70s I can actually hear Julia squealing about her Mousse au Chocolat. So that was a slam-dunk choice. But since I had my mother’s lemon meringue pie as “birthday cake” every year ‘til I got married, that classic had to be part of the party too. Layne prepared both, updating the presentation in stylish martini glasses with poufy clouds of bronzed meringue on top.

If you’re considering a milestone celebration of your own, don’t forget the other classic dishes of those decades: Onion soup dip, fondue, and chicken a la King reigned in the ‘60s; quiche, carrot cake and, would you believe, Hamburger Helper defined the ‘70s.

Forty years from now people will be chuckling and serving up quaint Red Velvet cupcakes, arugula salad, and coconut mango foam.

June 22, 2014

Mr. Toad's Wild Ride: Slovenian-Style

Yesterday we drove from Austria’s wine country to the Bovec basin, in Slovenia’s Julian Alps. When I Google-mapped the route, I found three options, all of which went around the imposing mountain mass called the Triglav National Forest. But I could see on a map that there was a road, up and over that range, the Vrsic Pass. The road is renowned, a mercilessly steep ascent and descent with a combined 50 hairpin turns that redefine the word hairpin. It was built across the pass for military purposes, to supply the Isonzo front of World War I. Opened in 1915, it is known as the "Russian Road" in honor of the Russian prisoners of war that were forced to build it. 

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I was nervous about driving a road that Google Maps tried to hide from me, but was intrigued enough to give it a shot. Things started smoothly out from Kranjska Gora, the border town with Austria. We climbed, twisted and turned, awed by the surrounding mountain peaks. There were very few cars on the road (we enencountered fewer than ten in the whole hour-long adventure) but many motorcycles driven by lunatics.

About 15 minutes into the adventure, we came to a screeching halt when we rounded one hairpin and found an enormous tour bus stuck on the next turn. With its butt scraping the road and one of its back wheels suspended in air, that bus was going no-where. Scores of people lined the road along with police cars, tow trucks and a few totally perplexed worker bees attempting to right the ship with long wooden 4x6s.

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With a U-turn was out of the question, we figured we’d be stuck there for hours. But after much feverish chitchat by the assembled cops, I was told I could squeeze around the far side of the bus. Really?  There seemed no possible way that that was going to happen, but I gamely inched my rented Hyundai toward the back of the bus and saw on the other side a strip of road that MIGHT have accommodated half of my car.

The cop in front waved me forward. Really? As I crawled forward, rounding the left corner of the beached whale, my husband gasped and said I wasn’t going to make it, that I was less than an inch from the bus. The police woman continued to wave me forward, directing me to steer straight which put my left wheels off the road, onto a steeply declining shoulder. With gravel crunching and breath held, I crept a few more feet and was free. Stunned and relieved, I chugged upwards, passing a few parked downhill cars that the police had deemed too big to make the turn.

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At the top of the pass, we parked on the side of the road to admire the views, and found a steep, gravelly hiking path that took us in 15 minutes to even better views. Returning to the car, we found yet another “roadblock.”  This time, a posse of some 40 or 50 baaing sheep jammed the three-foot trail -- an obstacle we could not by-pass even with the help of 4x6s or Slovenia’s Finest.

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The downward spiral of curves was hair-raising but spectacularly beautiful, and our destination town, Bovec, with what I am calling my Hershey’s Kiss mountain, was a welcome sight.

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June 14, 2014

What Marie Antoinette COULD Have Said

Early on my first morning in the coffeehouse-crazed city of Vienna, Austria, I did the unthinkable. I went to Starbucks. It was strictly a matter of necessity. I hadn’t had time to stock the kitchen in our rented apartment; and the city’s elegant, centuries-old coffee houses hadn't yet opened for the day.

 But, I’m glad I went, because I also discovered the Duffin. 

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I knew nothing about this muffin-donut hybrid --- in the U.S. the cronut seems to get all the press.  But I now know that it was developed in a London tearoom a couple of years ago, and that last fall “Duffingate” exploded when Starbucks UK’s factory supplier (Rich Products) trademarked the name, threatening the livelihood of poor little Beas’ of Bloomsbury.  (Photo above by Bea's of Bloomsbury.) Nothing like a flap over global corporations trampling the under-baker to work up your appetite for a funny-shaped donut.

The Guardian and Grubstreet can tell you all the details. I’m here to tell you that it was pretty darn delicious --- moist and cakey, with a hint of buttermilk tang, a tiny pocket of raspberry jam, and a dusting  of sugar on top.  It’s the only decent pastry I have ever tasted in a Starbucks, on any continent.

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It seems fitting that I had my first encounter with a Duffin here, smack in the shadow of Vienna’s Hofburg, family palace of the Hapsburg dynasty.

You see, this was the birthplace and home of Marie Antoinette, one of Empress Maria Theresa’s 16 kids. From my windows I can see the wing of "palace apartments" and the Burg garden where the kiddies played.

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The Starbucks Duffin is photographed on my terrace roof, with the Hofburg in the background.

If only Marie Antoinette had let the angry people eat Duffins instead of cake, she just might have held on to her head a bit longer.

June 13, 2014

Poutine: Another Taste

If you found my recent post about Poutine mouth-watering (or weird or gross or inspiring), you'll definitely want to check out an entertaining Wall Street Journal piece on the notorious Canadian conccotion of fresh cheese curds, french fries and gravy.

In "Quebec's Baddest Poutine," author Adam Leith Gollner tells about "Poutine Week" in Montreal, an event where chefs, professional and otherwise, attempt to gild this already-over-the-top lily. (WSJ photo by Will Lew.)

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The article is informative --- "For a cheese (curd) to squeak its utmost, it needs to be less than a day old;" and pretty funny, too --- "The problem with aiming to make poutine fancy is that the dish is meant to be trashy. Trying to improve it is like adding a penthouse to a mobile home."

Gollner goes on a roadtrip in "poutine heartland" and shares with us the good, the bad and the inedible. (Chez Ben, below, falls into the "good" category.

"This may all sound a little off-putting (off-pouding?), but I can testify, as a native Quebecer who grew up making poutine as an after-school snack, that a good poutine is often a bad poutine. When you're craving one, you don't want something exquisitely prepared with seasonal heirloom veg. You want a down-and-dirty dish."

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"Unlike other lowly-yet-delicious foods like mac and cheese or pizza, there's not much of a range between the best and the worst poutines. Even at its zenith, poutine is still kind of gross. As pleasurable as it can be to eat one, you never feel better afterward—unless you're hung over."

Read it (in WSJ) and weep. Or make your own. Or book a flight to Quebec.

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