Friday, September 23, 2016

Sandwiches of Westchester County - The Tammy Special

Today I'm debuting a new segment on this blog called the Sandwiches of Westchester County, inspired by the cover story in the May 2016 issue of Westchester Magazine featuring, well, notable sandwiches in Westchester County. In that article, 23 different local sandwiches are highlighted and, while I don't expect to try all of them, I'd at least like to make a reasonable attempt to do so over the coming months.

My first excuse to start this quest came in the form of several returns that Mrs. H. needed to be made at department stores in White Plains, a small city not unlike Aurora or Joliet near Chicago; that is, a stand-alone, once-thriving entity of its own that was eventually swamped by a much-larger, encroaching metropolitan area (NYC in this instance). Since I planned to be there around lunchtime, I made a quick scan of the list in the article and found two entries for White Plains, selecting the "Tammy Special" at the Royal Scarlet Deli as my quarry.

All cities need a good family-run, classic corner grocery store and the Royal Scarlet is that classic store for White Plains.  Opened by Irish immigrant Michael Doherty in 1938, the deli is named after a now long-departed line of canned and dried food products called Royal Scarlet, sold and distributed by the defunct R.C. Williams Company of New York City (the historic company warehouse building still exists today at 259-273 10th Ave. in Manhattan).

The descendants of Michael Doherty remain in charge of the operation today, which consists of a small market, a deli counter offering a dizzying array of sandwiches on the menu board (had I not already known what I was coming for, I would have been completely overwhelmed), and a few drink coolers.  There is no seating and parking (as is the case with most places in and around the NYC area, I'm discovering) is limited to whatever open meters you can find on the street.  With no park in sight, I retreated back to my family truckster with paper bag in hand and unwrapped my sandwich on the console.

I opted for the smaller of the two sandwich sizes on offer, which is on a Kaiser roll instead of on the larger "wedge", a term that appears to be unique to the collar counties immediately north of New York City (Westchester, Putnam, and Fairfield in Connecticut) and essentially just means sub sandwich as far as I can tell (I'm on the lookout for more of these wedges around town).  Even so, my Tammy was plenty large enough, offering two nicely breaded and fried chicken cutlets topped with slices of fresh mozzarella, roasted red peppers, and a slathering of honey mustard sauce, yielding a great combination of rich, chewy, sweet, and tangy ingredients (basically everything one could hope for in a sandwich).  I wouldn't designated it as the best lunch ever, but I enjoyed it enough to contemplate a return trip the next time I happen to be in White Plains...

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

La Grenouille

There are approximately 20,000 restaurants in New York City (including 6 with three Michelin Stars) and, during our first month as residents of New York State, the only one of them I visited was the New York Life cafeteria. The fact that this is a grievous oversight needs not be pointed out, and I worked diligently to fix it as my wedding anniversary approached in early September. Of course, I wanted our first real NYC dining excursion as locals to be special, but the sheer volume of options was a little intimidating until I decided to completely kick it old-school and chose La Grenouille (3 E. 52nd Street).

Back in the 1960s when continental French cuisine (the kind rhapsodized by the likes of Julia Child) was the epitome of fine dining in America, La Grenouille ("The Frog" en francais) was one of a small group of French gastronomy temples to hold sway in Manhattan, the others being Lutece, Quo Vadis, La Caravelle, Lafayette, and La Cote Basque.  Fast forward to 2016 and La Grenouille is the sole survivor of this group, still churning out souffles and Dover sole five days a week to patrons who have not yet grown weary of the cream and butter-laden cooking style that is no longer in vogue most other places.  If nothing else, the restaurant is living history that I wanted to experience firsthand in the event that it, too, disappears like its brethren before long.

In fact, it's something of a minor miracle that La Grenouille (the subject of enough drama to fill a telenova) has managed to stay around at all.  Originally founded by Charles Masson, Sr. (a disciple of Henri Soule, who's credited with establishing fine French dining on our side of the pond) and his wife Gisele in 1962, Charles Sr. passed away in 1975 and was succeeded by his sons, Charles Jr. and Philippe, who continued to run the restaurant with their mother's guidance until a rift between the brothers forced Charles Sr. out in 2014 (from all accounts, the incident appears to have been acrimonious).  Small accommodations made by the Massons in recent times to remove some of the stuffiness associated with the operation (the "no photo" policy was less enforced, English menu translations were added, a more casual dining room was built upstairs) apparently did nothing to defuse the familial angst and, although Gisele Masson passed in late 2014, the two brothers (who may very well not be on speaking terms) remain coy when questions about the current ownership arrangement are posed.

Of course, one can't sense all of this back-office angst in the dining room, an oasis of civility from the chaos of East 52nd Street outside.  Still, real estate costs a premium in Manhattan and the tables are tightly packed, as I discovered when I had to be loaded into my seat like a Mercury astronaut (fortunately, we didn't mind overhearing the conversations of the couples sitting mere inches away on either side of us, each oddly consisting of a very elderly gentleman accompanied by a decades-younger, attractive blonde wife/girlfriend).  When brainstorming words to describe the decor, "exuberant" is about the only thing that comes to mind, both in a good way (the elaborate flower arrangements, a tradition started by Charles Sr. and carried on over the years, are stunning) and a not-so-good way (gold fabric-covered walls).  The fancy table lamp that you see above eventually went out after I accidentally kicked the cord and a maitre d' had to climb under me to plug it back in (somehow, I can't envision this happening at a modern-day high-end restaurant - Thomas Keller would no doubt be appalled).  Negotiating corded light fixtures seemed of little concern to the other patrons, some of whom looked as if they might be close to enjoying their last meal (let's just say that the clientele skews older here).

Upon further reflection, I should find it really encouraging that the most loyal senior diners at La Grenouille are still with us even after regularly indulging in such unhealthy fare as the amazing marbled foie gras and fig terrine I chose for my appetizer, served with a fruit compote, some microgreens, toast points, and a couple drops of balsamic vinegar.  If you're looking to bolster an argument that haute French cuisine continues to have a place in the canon of American gastronomy, I present to you Exhibit A.

For the entree, Mrs. Hackknife opted for a pan-seared foie gras, whereas I demurred a little and chose the Quenelles de Brochet, a traditional dish from the Lyon region of France consisting of dumplings of cream, flour, eggs, and seafood (in this case, pike) that are poached and served in a rich sauce that typically contains crawfish (called a Nantua sauce), but had a champagne base here.  Each quenelle was topped with a generous dollop of black caviar and came with a side of white rice, a simple, yet elegant dish (although, at this point, I would have welcomed a vegetable of some sort).

La Grenouille's prix fixe menu only contains 3 courses (which doesn't seem like much at first, but it's enough when you're eating heavy French food), so dessert came next.  I was tempted to order the cheese selection or even one of the famous souffles (Mrs. H. got a pistachio souffle and it was eggy and ethereal and wonderful) - I eventually settled on the house's version of a tarte tatin, a roasted apple doused in caramel sauce and resting on a sweet pastry tart, served with a dehydrated apple crisp and a scoop of vanilla ice cream, another simple dish in concept/appearance that was expertly executed.   All told, the missus and I were really charmed by the experience at this venerable bastion of fine dining; no matter what happens with the restaurant moving forward, I regard our visit as the gateway to exploring all of the great grub (highfalutin and lowbrow alike) that NYC has to offer...

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Overton's - Norwalk, CT

So the missus and I got to meet the Sterns last week. Wait - let me back up for a second. I've made many, many references on this blog to the Roadfood website, which has been an indispensable tool for finding reliable and unique cuisine all over this great country, especially when traveling with children (and when you can't possibly handle another stop at Chili's). This definitive guide to "authentic regional eats" began in the early 1970s as the brainchild of Michael and Jane Stern at a time when bona fide field work was required to identify such things; since then, the former couple has moved on to semi-retirement after selling the rights to their concept in 2015 to a media company, but they still travel the country in support of promotional events for the newly-launched website. It was at one of these promotional events where we had the pleasure of talking with the Sterns and hearing stories about their adventures sussing out good grub. The restaurant where the event was held (Gargiulo's) was in Coney Island and wasn't particularly noteworthy in the same way that a Maggiano's isn't particularly noteworthy (indeed, it's not in the Roadfood guide); however, I enjoyed for the first time seeing the oceanside roller coasters and the original Nathan's Hot Dogs stand just down the street, making the hour plus trip from the Chuck Wagon worth the hassle.

Anyway, if you're still with me, there is a point to all this rambling. When visiting Norwalk, CT over the weekend with the kinder to see the New England Maritime Aquarium (amazingly, only 30 minutes from the new homestead if traffic on I-95 isn't heavy), we sought out a restaurant that IS in the guide, a seasonal clam shack by the waterfront since 1948 called Overton's.

When they say "shack" in this case, they really mean it as there's little more than a walk-up window, an outdoor covered dining area for patrons, and a parking lot for patrons (and cash only, please - your credit's no good here). When the weather turns ill around November 1st, the fryers go cold and the whole operation hibernates until the following spring, just the kind of seafood joint I imagined New England would be flush with (and that doesn't really exist in the State of Florida).

As for the menu offerings, they're mostly limited to, well, seafood and a few sandwiches, including a hot dog (deep fried as they typically do in Connecticut, by the way). Mrs. Hackknife bit the bullet and paid $17.99 for what ended up being a very tasty lobster roll consisting of lobster meat and drawn butter (no dressing necessary) in a toasted roll. If you're like me and you generally don't enjoy the chewy consistency of clam strips, spend a few extra dollars and order the clam bellies, which are rich, briny, and creamy in a way that I didn't realize the lowly clam could be.  When paired with onion rings and tartar sauce, you've got a fine golden-fried meal to fuel your native Puritan work ethic in these parts.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana - Fairfield, CT

Greetings from New York! The Hackknife family has been getting settled in our new Westchester County home for the past couple of weeks - the Chuckwagon has been unpacked, WiFi is enabled, and I am anxious to dine/dish about the nearby grub. There's one facet of living in this area that's already surprised me - you sure don't have to go far (Manhattan? What's that?) to find good food. Just within our own modest town of Mamaroneck, hungry folks can chow down on Italian, Indian, French, Japanese, Greek, Turkish, Mexican, Chinese, and something that appears to be Middle Eastern fusion (we'll have to explore that one later).

 If you're willing to headed further afield towards the Hudson River or into nearby Connecticut, you'll be rewarded with even more diversity and regional-specific oddities; in fact, the first idea I had for a Hackknife Northeast posting came back in June when we were looking at properties. On our last day before flying back to Florida, we decided to drag the kids on a little road trip into Connecticut. In case you've never been, this is what much of it looks like:

I can see why the British were reluctant to give this territory up to the rebels - if I didn't know any better, I would have thought I was in York or Exeter or some other part of the bucolic English countryside. Luckily, the eating is much better here, as evidenced by the fact that you can get world-class pizza just a few towns over the border.

Frank Pepe was an Italian immigrant from Naples who established what is now known as the New Haven style of pizza in America; that is, dough fired in a coke or coal bread oven, resulting in a charred and chewy thin crust (this style has since been imitated by many others, including Piece in Chicago). The original location of Frank Pepe's opened in 1925 in New Haven; they have since spread out into 9 total locations around Connecticut and New York.  We stopped into the Fairfield pizzeria to try out his most well-known creations: the white clam pie and the original tomato pie.

Every Frank Pepe pizzeria has a coal-fired oven with a door that's cast from the original in New Haven (legend has it that this contributes to the pizza's high quality).  The one in Fairfield is directly behind the counter, complete with 10-foot long peel to facilitate entry and removal of the pies from the oven.

Although now most well-known for the white clam pie (topped with fresh little neck clams, oregano, grated cheese, olive oil, and tons of garlic), this version didn't come into being until the 1960s.  Whatever toppings you choose, we discovered it's wise to wash it down with a Foxon Park Soda (another longtime Connecticut institution).

The ovens can only accommodate a limited number of pizzas so as not to lower the baking temperature too much; therefore, they require a little extra time to cook (best to get there early on a weekend - we arrived around 11 am and encountered a line out the door when we left).  When ready to serve, the pies arrive at the table on a sheet tray lined with parchment paper and are plopped down on a collapsible stand (that is, if you've already taken up most of the room on your table with another pizza tray like we had).

The progeny poignantly declined to try the clam pie, which was briny and potent with all that garlic and oil.  My past experience with most clams is that they're a bit on the toothsome side and these were no exception; all in all, while we enjoyed the white clam pizza, I'd have to say it's something of an acquired taste for newbies like ourselves.

The original tomato pie (topped with crushed tomatoes, mozzarella cheese, and olive oil, plus some optional bacon on half for good measure) on the other hand was absolute dynamite, lending credence to those out there who claim that Frank Pepe's pizzas are among the best in the country.  I'd have no quibble with that assertion if one of these charred-and-sauced dreamboats were periodically delivered to me; regardless, after visiting a single Northeastern pizzeria, it's easy to see that we're definitely not in Florida (where Papa John's makes the top 10 list) anymore....

Friday, August 19, 2016

Burger Culture Food Truck

I can't decide the proper way to make this announcement, so I'm just going to blurt it out: this is my final post under the "Hackknife South" heading.  Many of you are no doubt already aware that Mrs. H. has accepted a prominent position at company headquarters in Manhattan and we have been in the process of relocating to New York over the past few weeks (and if you weren't aware of this, consider yourself now up to speed). Although we are sad to be leaving Florida, I am practically bursting with enthusiasm over the dining and blogging potential of the greater NYC area (which will occur under this blog's new moniker, "Hackknife Northeast" - original, I know), not to mention Westchester County (our new place of residence) and nearby Connecticut, home of many unique and noteworthy eats (and favorite state of the good folks over at Roadfood). So, in the spirit of moving onward and upward, here is the last dispatch from Tampa.

On the day before we loaded up the family truckster and headed north for good, I let my kids decide what they wanted to do for their going-away activity. Q-Zar Laser Tag on N. Dale Mabry Highway was the consensus choice and, while the two of them were perfectly content eating mediocre snack bar pizza for lunch, I held out for something a little more intriguing. Many times before, I had passed the nearby Harley-Davidson of Tampa complex and had noticed a bright orange food truck parked in the lot at 6920 N. Dale Mabry, wondering how good the burgers might possibly be. Today was the day we would find out.

The people running the operation (native New Yorkers, as it turns out) received bonus points in my book for both displaying a Buccaneers flag with the old-school insignia and for offering Whatever Pops (the missus and I had enjoyed these artisanal treats at a food truck summit a couple of years back) to hot and thirsty customers. The burgers here, however, are the obvious draw and I selected the Street Burger, a slab of tasty ground beef grilled up and served with cheddar cheese, pink sauce (a mixture of ketchup and mayo), cilantro aioli, lettuce, shoestring potatoes, and, the coup de gras, a slice of grilled pineapple.

The addition of the pineapple turned this beauty of a sandwich into about the best polynesian-style burger in the land, quite possibly the top burger in Tampa (discovered better late than never, I suppose). The hand-cut fries that accompanied it were nearly as top-shelf, warm and crispy and loaded up with just the right amount of salt.

I hate leaving town with regrets, but I had a hard time not feeling a sense of lost opportunity here (still, I am comforted by the fact that I have a recent issue of Westchester Magazine on my shelf with a list of the top 25 sandwiches in Westchester County just awaiting my gastronomic exploration). From Ted Peter's to the Refinery to Bern's, I salute you, o Tampa Bay dining scene - here's hoping for continued excellence and further enhancement in the years to come. Perhaps we'll meet again when we become snowbirds...

Monday, August 1, 2016

Coastal Georgia Eats - Skipper's Fish Camp (Darien) and Willie's Wee-Nee Wagon (Brunswick)

In between a Chicago trip and our impending move to New York, the Hackknife Family somehow found the energy to visit the Carolina Shore this summer, heading to Ocean Isle Beach, NC as we have done now for many years. Our week at the shore was packed full of quality pool and beach time with many relatives on my dad's side (read: not much dining out and, sadly, no pilgrimage to Scott's BBQ this go-round), but I'm happy to report we made noteworthy stops for lunch on the long drive up and back from the Canteen, both times in the Georgia Lowcountry just east of I-95.

Stop #1 was a Jane and Michael Stern recommendation on (an indispensable tool for locating good and humble grub no matter where you may be wandering in this great country, I might add). Skipper's Fish Camp is situated within spitting distance of the shrimp boats bobbing along the Darien River and, as you would guess, fresh seafood is the main draw here.

The restaurant isn't quite as hardscrabble as the surrounding town (apparently, business has been good), but the menu offers some unique offerings, including these broiled oysters topped with spinach, Parmesan cheese, and a Key lime sauce, a combination that wouldn't seem to work at first consideration (surprisingly, it does work, yielding a pleasant tang to cut the rich cheese and briny oyster meat).

The sandwich shops in New Orleans have little to fear from Skipper's fried shrimp po' boy (it didn't take long to disintegrate into pieces); however, the more formidable dish in this case was the house sweet potato souffle (that's the little white bowl in the top of the photo), a calorie-dense slurry of butter, brown sugar, eggs, walnuts, and starch.  The Sterns wrote that it's sweet enough to be dessert and I would concur with that viewpoint.

On the return trip, we pulled off the expressway only a few miles from our first lunch stop, this time in the similarly-sedate Brunswick, GA, home of Willie's Wee-Nee Wagon, a fixture in town since 1975.

A favorite of college students (the campus of Coastal Georgia University is across the street) and local residents alike, one would believe that hot dogs are the house specialty upon glancing at the menu (Willie's sells 8 different combinations).  If you let your eyes drift slightly to the right, though, you'll note a sign that states patrons will be awarded $2,000 if they can identify a better pork chop sandwich in Glynn County (allegedly, no one has ever cashed in on this offer).

Far be it for me to pass on a challenge like that, so I ordered up said pork chop sandwich and was promptly blown out of the swamp, feasting on a glorious mess of hoagie roll, tender pork pieces (pounded thin and grilled on the flattop, not really a "chop" per se, but much easier to consume in its existing form), caramelized onions, and bright yellow mustard.  If I were Willie (or his descendants, to be more precise - he passed on in 2009), I'd up that wager and expand my radius of pork chop sandwich dominance to include the whole Eastern Seaboard since I doubt anyone else is serving one this outstanding.