Thursday, August 21, 2014

Ella's Americana Folk Art Cafe

A recent Saturday night date night for me and the missus meant another restaurant crossed off our local to-visit list. This time, the venue was Ella's Americana Folk Art Cafe, situated in Tampa's gentrifying Seminole Heights neighborhood (5119 N. Nebraska, to be exact) mere steps from one of our favorite eateries, Taco Bus. Resisting the temptation to swap farm-to-table cuisine for tostadas and agua fresca wasn't easy; however, we persisted and perused the extensive cocktail menu while waiting for what we were told would be 90 minutes for a table (Ella's doesn't take reservations for small parties, but does allow call ahead seating, which would have been fine had I actually remembered to call ahead). Luckily, Mrs. Hackknife's steely glare in my direction was erased once we discovered that we could be seated on the patio in a mere 5 minutes (whew - date night saved!), in this case, under the branches of a giant, old tree, the likes of which we don't often encounter in our relatively new subdivision far out in the 'burbs. Although a little hot at first, the air temperature began easing up as the sun dropped towards the horizon and I eagerly sampled my drink (Ella's version of the classic gin-and-tonic, made artisanal by adding blackberries and beet-infused gin in place of the usual Tanqueray) and our appetizer, pork belly skewers with watermelon, cilantro, and red onion.  Our chosen entrees were both hearty and skillfully assembled: my beef and chorizo burger topped with oozing queso, bacon, and green chile (served with a side of Rasta-Far-Fries, wedges tossed in mustard with sea salt, cilantro, and sriracha) immediately landed on my list of Top 5 burgers in town, while Mrs. Hackknife's Henry the Loaf (bacon-wrapped meatloaf topped with onion strings/root beer gravy atop a garlic mashed potato cake) put my Canteen meatloaf recipe to shame.  Reeling from the excess, we decided to forgo dessert until we arrived at our next destination (the Hark Rock Casino); however, given the funky art on the walls and the snappy dishes leaving the kitchen, I'm certain that whatever sweets Ella's cooks can turn out would be alright with me...

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Chalet Suzanne - Lake Wales, FL

Although we've lived here for less than a year and a half, we soon discovered upon our arrival that echoes of Old Florida (and by "old", I mean pre-Disney World; that is, before 1970 or so) can be found without too much effort.  This includes attractions such as Weeki Wachee (site of a classic mermaid show dating back to the 1940s), Columbia Restaurant (the state's oldest, dating back to 1905) in Tampa, numerous roadside orange juice stands (these are normally closed during the hot summer months), and an historic lakeside resort in the middle of the state named Chalet Suzanne in Lake Wales (about 90 miles east of the Canteen).  Founded by the Hinshaw Family in 1931, the resort came into prominence shortly after a visit from Mr. and Mrs. Duncan Hines (yes, the cake mix people), who were so charmed by the property that they included it in one of their leisure travel guides as a place of interest when visiting Florida.  Back then, I suspect there wasn't a whole lot going on between Atlanta and Miami, so Chalet Suzanne became a natural stopping point for celebrities (Johnny Carson, Burt Reynolds, Dolly Parton, Paul Harvey, and Rosemary Clooney, among others) passing through on their way to/from South Florida.  Along the way, the resort's restaurant gained a reputation for cooking high-class, continental fare, eventually earning a place in Florida Trend Magazine's "Golden Spoon" Hall of Fame, designating it as one of the few remaining heritage restaurants in the state.

Anyway, I hadn't heard of Chalet Suzanne until just recently, when the 4th generation of Hinshaw hoteliers officially announced they would be closing the resort until a new owner could be found. As it turns out, their final days of operation happened to include the same weekend that we needed to drop Hackknife Jr. off at sleep-a-way camp a mere 10 miles away.  Excited by the prospect of dining at a Florida heritage restaurant before it potentially vanishes forever, I arranged for the family to stay there one night and made sure we secured a dinner reservation.

Chalet Suzanne is not a traditional hotel as much as a collection of mismatched-yet-charming cottages and buildings that have a vague German/Swiss appearance (a result of the family lineage, I suspect). Each of the 26 guest rooms is given a name in lieu of a number (ours was "Blue Tree North") and is decorated in the style of what I would describe as your grandmother's guest room, all doilies and lace and fancy lamps. Our bathroom featured a riotous display of vivid blue and yellow Spanish tile (original to the building, according to the website) surrounding what was most likely the smallest bathtub in the history of Western Civilization (see photo below).

While some of the decor might have been a little quirky, the personal attention that the owners bestow upon their guests was first-rate, with little touches like a carafe of sherry waiting for us in the room (we made quick work of that later in the evening after the kids were in bed), turn-down service with homemade chocolate truffles, and a complimentary happy hour in the property's historic little Swedish bar.

They weren't kidding when they named the bar - it is, in fact, very small. One can almost imagine Hemingway perched at a corner table, tumbler of aquavit in hand, fixated on the intense murals depicting what appears to be the history of Sweden (editor's note - to the best of my knowledge, Hemingway was never here, may never have drunk aquavit, or ever had any kind of substantial thought regarding Swedish history).

Not long after the happy hour, the family made their way back to the main dining complex (the Swedish bar is here along with the dining room) for our anixously-awaited dinner (it's not every day that an unabashed foodie like me gets to sample historic Florida cuisine). According to the Chalet Suzanne website, the resort's original restaurant burnt down sometime in the mid-1940s and a replacement was cobbled together from a number of existing small structures (among them a stable and a chicken coop) on a hill sloping down towards the property's small lake, yielding a sprawling, single building with 14 different levels. This elevation change is brutally obvious as soon as you enter the front door into a multi-tiered salon that might have been conceived in a Lewis Carroll rabbit hole somewhere. If you had too much to drink during happy hour, making it all the way to the hostess stand without tumbling into antique furniture would definitely be a challenge.

If you survive the walk through salon, the dining room is serene, not as cluttered with curios, and, most importantly, flat. Many of the tabletops featured a Spanish tile pattern similar to that of our bathroom and held table settings that were completely mismatched (I reckon this has been the case here long before it was hip to do so).

Although restaurant patrons can order a la carte off the menu, Mrs. Hackknife and I both opted for the traditional 5-course dinner featuring many of the dishes that earned the resort its Golden Spoon designation (along with recognition from Mobil and Uncle Ben's, themselves relics of an earlier time when fine dining in American mostly meant steakhouse). First up was perhaps the most famous Chalet Suzanne creation, a half of Florida grapefruit with a topping of caramelized cinnamon sugar and crispy sauteed chicken liver (see photo below).

Not being a fan of grapefruit, I can say with some certainty that this is by far the best prep of that fruit item I've ever seen and I happily ate it all. If this creation doesn't scream quintessential Florida cuisine, I'm not sure what does (and I sure hope that Tampa chef Greg Baker includes some version of it at his new Florida-focused restaurant, Fodder and Shine).

The next course was the restaurant's signature soup, one that at first glance looked suspiciously like Cream of Spinach, but was actually romaine, or "Moon", soup as they refer to it since this recipe traveled to the Moon in 1973 with the Apollo 15 astronauts (in fact, many Chalet Suzanne soups produced from the property's own cannery were available at one time in stores nationwide - we purchased a number of them to bring home, although a few of the cans looked as if they might have been undisturbed since the last moon landing).

The romaine soup was rich and tasty (I can see why the astronauts wanted it in space), much more distinctive than the house salad that followed, which included a couple of blobs of tomato and citrus aspic (Julia Child would have been proud).

For our entrees, I had been leaning towards the Duck a l'Orange (another throwback), but had to take the Maine Lobster Newburg instead after the missus chose a slightly different dish, a Lobster Thermidor that was one of the kitchen's specials that evening.

Although very similar (both lobster dishes were served in a crock topped with Gruyere cheese and paired with two giant wedges of puff pastry intended to soak up that sinful sauce), Lobster Newburg is an American creation that predates the French-created Lobster Thermidor by about 25 years. Each prep features a cholesterol-spiking dose of cream, eggs, and butter, along with sherry or cognac for good measure. The sauteed zucchini/squash that accompanied my entree was largely forgettable, but I'll never forget this Lobster Newburg, which was a tad less sweet than Mrs. Hackknife's equally impressive Lobster Thermidor (although I'm puzzled as to why they couldn't use Florida spiny lobster instead of Maine crustaceans in these dishes).

Given the uber-rich entree, I opted for a more restrained dessert, a simple, satisfying slice of chocolate and almond meringue cake (see photo below).

While our meal at Chalet Suzanne was very good given our location far from any major population center and the age of the property, I'd be remiss if I didn't note that the service was surprisingly awful that night. To say that the kitchen moved at the speed of molasses would be an insult to molasses. I believe it was a full hour between the time that we were first seated and our first course (the grapefruit) arrived at our table (during the delay, the waitstaff replaced our breadbasket with not our first course, but another breadbasket, never a good sign). It became readily apparent that the kitchen was the bottleneck before too long because no one in the half-full dining room (at least as far as that I could see) had any food. Our waitress stopped by to apologize a couple of times as she repeatedly filled my water glass, then eventually stopped making eye contact altogether whenever she passed by (also never a good sign). We finally received our first three courses in a flurry, then incurred another long delay (45 minutes?) before seeing our entrees - at one point, the server mentioned that she had told the chefs we'd been reduced to eating our kids' mac and cheese (thank goodness we'd at least received their orders), and, while she was joking, I misunderstood her since I actually HAD been taking a few bites of Hackknifette's food in desperation. Dessert arrived after yet another 20-minute lag and what began as a nice family dinner had turned into 3 hours of frustration (to their credit, my kids were angels this whole time). I have to believe that the kitchen was undermanned on this last weekend of operation due to the resort's impending closure - under normal circumstances (especially given the cost of the meal), I would have walked out of any restaurant lagging that far behind with orders (and I can think of very few times when I ever wanted to do that). In any case, I sincerely hope that the Hinshaws can find a buyer that respects the property's history and is willing to put some cash into the restaurant so that some current awards (Michelin anyone?) might adorn the walls. This food is an classic example of old Florida that needs to be preserved...

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

South Dakota Eats

The Hackknives recently returned from our weeklong summer excursion to western South Dakota. Why on Earth, you ask, would we spend precious vacation time traveling to a region that one of my neighbors described as "flyover country"? Well, in addition to trying to escape the oppressive Florida heat/humidity (we were mostly unsuccessful at that, by the way - the temps up there were just about as hot), it gave us an opportunity to visit some friends that live part-time on a large parcel of mountaintop Black Hills property that includes (among other oddities) an old monastery lodge, a 400-foot cliff overlooking a canyon, a climbing wall, many derelict outbuildings, untold numbers of rattlesnakes, and a cave complex (a now-shuttered tourist attraction dating back to the 1890s) that ranks as one of the most extensive in the United States. The mini-adventures we had at this High Plains wonderland are story fodder for another day; of course, my main interest when leaving home is always gastronomic and I was curious to see what good things we might be able to eat there. My expectations started out very low, especially after seeing this posting from Thrillist a mere 10 days before our departure ranking the states by food/drink, and I quote:

"50. South Dakota - When you google "South Dakota and food", an image of a hungry child crying comes up, and then the computer goes black."

In all fairness, Thrillist admits that North Dakota could just as easily been ranked 50th instead (it was charitably boosted up a spot to 49), but my sincere hope was to discover something edible that would help refute this ranking. Nowadays, you can find good craft beer just about anywhere in the country, so it seems natural to start there.

The following is a very good craft beer, a Shake Chocolate Porter from Boulder Beer Company (ok, I'm cheating a little here - I had this at the Denver Airport while waiting for our connecting flight). I was elated to find out just a few days ago that our local Total Wine store in Clearwater actually carries this brew. Anyway, I'm happy to report that there is also good alcohol in South Dakota, much of it courtesy of Crow Peak Brewing Company, located in Spearfish. I quite enjoyed this Easy Livin' Summer Ale in the baby blue can (anyone canning their craft beer is ok in my book):

We had no trouble finding other varieties of Crow Peak around town, including Canyon Creek Cream Ale, 11th Hour IPA, and another one of my favorites, the Pile O' Dirt Porter, which paired very well with this baked walleye dish (crusted in panko/Parmesan, served with roasted potatoes and sauteed veggies) courtesy of the upscale Sage Creek Grille in beautiful downtown Custer (our base of operations for the first few days).  I was hoping to eat some good freshwater fish on our trip and I definitely found it here.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention our stopover at the charming Prairie Berry Winery located in nearby Hill City, a destination popular with both leather-clad bikers and Birkenstock-wearing hikers, plus everyone in between. Although I took no photos here, suffice it to say that if you've ever been to a Cooper's Hawk Winery/Restaurant, I found it to be very similar in the layout of the tasting room, the wine tastings offered, and the format of their wine club (one thing they have that CH doesn't is high-end deli products for sale). The missus and I sampled a number of PB's wines, many of which are fruit-based (as it's difficult to grow wine grapes in this neck of the woods), and we most liked the 3Rednecks (a Cabernet Sauvignon) and the Buffaloberry Fusion (a blend of Chenin Blanc and, yes, something called buffaloberries, so called because buffalo like to rub against the thorny bushes to help shed their winter coats - I looked for buffalo fur in my glass, but apparently they fished it all out) so much we picked up a couple of bottles for our hosts.

Speaking of buffalo, as you might expect, there were no shortage of opportunities to dine on this healthy alternative to beef. During our week in South Dakota, I managed to try a bison burger (a mouthwatering patty melt at the Sylvan Lake Lodge), bison hot dog (from the Mt. Rushmore food court, not bad), and bison meatloaf (at the Dakota Cowboy Inn in Custer, mediocre at best). When we reached the Badlands (located very close to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation), I don't recall seeing bison on the menu at the park's commissary, but I did snag an order of Indian fry bread with a traditional berry dipping sauce called wojapi:

I'd describe the fry bread as being a cousin of the funnel cake found at carnivals everywhere, only less greasy and a bit more savory. I'm not sure if the following concoction is considered to be indigenous to Native Americans or is more of a White man's creation, but fry bread also makes a popular substrate out here for tacos (aptly named Indian tacos), which can be found at local gatherings like the Spearfish Art Festival:

My sole experience with the Indian taco (see above) on our trip was at a roadhouse called Cheyenne Crossing, allegedly famous for their version of this dish. I can't decide if it was more like a taco salad without the surrounding shell (and the fry bread underneath) or just a gimmicky taco (like, for example, "taco in a bag" where you throw the toppings into a sack of Fritos), but either way, I don't know that I need to have another one anytime soon.

When we had the taste one evening for real Americanized Mexican food (instead of Native Americanized Mexican), we were fortunate to stumble across Marie's Mexican, a food truck sitting on the main drag in downtown Custer turning out tacos, burritos, and tamales.

My dinner (see above) consisted of black beans, rice, pineapple soda, and one each of pork and chicken tamales, among the best I can ever recall having, further evidence that this whole food truck concept is really starting to take off.

One thing I've noticed about most Old West towns is that just about every structure you encounter was the site of a famous stabbing, shooting, robbery, or lynching at some point.  Such was the case at our chosen destination for Sunday morning breakfast in Custer, Baker's Bakery Cafe, located just up the street from Maria's Mexican.

Rachel Ray touted Baker's as the best breakfast joint in South Dakota, and I can tell you that it's a good thing we got there early (around 8:30) because, by the time we left about an hour later, the entryway was standing room only (perhaps the infamous shooting commemorated above was a dispute between hungry patrons over a table).

The breakfast burritos at Baker's (stuffed with scrambled eggs, sausage, hash browns, salsa, and cheese, then smothered in homemade green chile sauce - the Rachel Ray special) are outrageously good (and I consider myself to be a connoisseur of these things) and, um, amply-sized.  I pleaded with Mrs. Hackknife to have her make sure that I didn't finish the whole thing (lest I be laid up in agony the rest of the day) and, true to my word, I left a few bites behind on the plate, painful as it was.  Whatever stomach space that remained was subsequently occupied by part of the gargantuan sticky pecan bun below that the missus and I split.

From a gastronomic standpoint, I'd say that the most interesting thing I found on our sojourn was that South Dakotahns sure seem to know how to put together a good dessert. Our first dinner in Custer was at an historic German hotel and restaurant called Bavarian Inn (being hardy folk, many Germans and Scandinavians emigrated to this formerly-inhospitable part of the country in the late 19th Century to start homesteads) and, while they serve up a pretty decent weinerschnitzel, the house streusel (a secret recipe brought over from the Fatherland) is what the locals stop in for. Available here in apple, berry, or Belgian Chocolate, streusel (a crumbly mixture of butter, sugar, and flour placed atop baked goods) is not to be confused with strudel (the layered pastry found in every grocery store bakery), which is what I first thought I was ordering until it arrived at the table (see photo below). The chocolate version featured a filling of supercharged flourless ganache, topped with whipped cream, a pale yellow ribbon of sweet custard (sour cream based?), and the most dense, yet somehow crystalline and ethereal, streusel that could possibly be produced by human hands. There might have been a bottom crust (I was too blissed out to notice) and it came with vanilla ice cream (totally unnecessary); regardless, after a few bites, this confection received my immediate nomination for the Dessert Hall of Fame. My only regret was that we ran out of time to come back for the other varieties before we had to go home (I'm still daydreaming about the streusel now).

The following night, we popped in for dessert at an eyecatching purple Victorian house that happened to be within walking distance of our rental cabin, Bobkat's Purple Pie Place, home of the Black Hills' most beloved pies. The line of waiting customers was out the door, a good sign when you're in my line of hobby.

I opted for the most unusual version of pie on the menu, a raspberry/rhubarb/jalapeno combo that artfully balanced sweet, tart, and spicy flavors in a crispy brown crust (actually, the jalapenos provided a little more kick than I was expecting). While it's no Hoosier Mama, we were more than happy with our selections.

One last dessert of note is the Thomas Jefferson ice cream available at Mt. Rushmore. Although President Jefferson didn't actually introduce ice cream to the colonies (that had occurred some time earlier), he appears to be the first American to record a recipe for it, probably brought over from France by his French butler, Petit (the official Monticello website has a nice discussion of Jefferson's connection to ice cream in America here).

Some employee in the National Park Service came up with the idea of re-creating the Jefferson ice cream for the mass consumption of Mt. Rushmore visitors. The recipe itself makes no reference to vanilla flavoring, however, the modern version has vanilla bean in the mixture. I can attest to this since I tried it myself - it's ok, but nothing spectacular. I was much more impressed with the "ice cream equals Jefferson" t-shirts that were for sale.

So there you have it. After going through all of my notes and pictures, I think I've made a pretty strong case for South Dakota to be ranked at the very least the 45th best food state in the nation, and that's not even taking into consideration the foodstuffs we missed out on. Black Hills Burger and Bun Co. in Custer allegedly serves some of the best burgers in the country, but we gave up after two aborted attempts to dine there (they keep banker's hours like Hot Doug's and have perpetual long waits as a result). We tried to buy some of the official state dessert, kuchen (the German word for "cake" that we've been mispronouncing as "koo-chen" - it's actually "koo-ken"), in a local grocery store (it was cherry and frozen and it looked really good), but it thawed out in our cheap gas station foam cooler and spoiled before we could consume it. There are even rumors of a restaurant in Hill City serving something called chislic, which are marinated and deep-fried sirloin tips, that appears to be more common in the eastern half of the state (something we'll have to seek out next time). If Thrillist wants to use my research when updating their food ranking list next year, they can send me a small check and I'll be happy to part with it...

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Burger Monger

Gourmet burger emporiums are proliferating like mushrooms on a damp lawn these days. Case in point - within a 10-minute drive of the Canteen, we've got a Five Guys, Burger 21, Red Robin, and two Steak and Shakes, not to mention all of the usual fast food offerings (which, to be fair, are not exactly as good as the others - sorry, Burger King). As of last month, a new arrival has thrown its bun in the ring on our side of town: Burger Monger (BM), a small franchise that began in Philadelphia and, with its new location in Safety Harbor (2454 McMullen Booth Rd. - just down the street from our church), now has four spots around Tampa. Sure, BM touts its hand-cut fries and premium ice cream shakes (as do the others), but has an ace in the hole, so to speak - the beef they use is 100% Japanese Akaushi Kobe Beef, sourced from a cattle herd brought specifically from Kyushu Island, Japan to Texas and sold under the name HeartBrand (if you go to the HeartBrand website, you'll notice that their product is not commonly sold outside of their home state). Reading the purported health benefits of this special beef versus the garden variety grain-fed cattle (it's low in cholesterol and high in monounsaturated fats), you'd think you were eating a kale smoothie instead of fried ground steak. Anyway, one Sunday after church, we decided to pop in for lunch and put a BM burger to the test against our current local favorite, Burger 21.

When I first saw the menu, I was a little daunted by the choices (they offer 9 different cheeses and a whole host of other toppings, yielding about a bazillion possible combinations), but instead of spending more to add bacon, I upgraded my burger to include 8 oz. of beef instead of 6. My other topping choices included the "special monger sauce" (a combo of Jamaican relish and chipotle mayo), lettuce, tomato, grilled onions, and banana peppers. The burgers come on a garlic butter-grilled challah bun, sourced with almost the same care as the meat (an old Italian bakery near Miami, Cusano's, makes the BM rolls). After one bite, I was immediately glad that I got the bigger patty - the Akaushi beef is rich and absolutely delicious, squarely putting BM on my short list of best burger purveyors in Tampa. The fries were good (but not destination-worthy) and the housemade beef franks are nearly as spectacular as the burgers (I sneaked a bite of Hackknifette's hot dogs when she wasn't looking); however, it's hard for me to imagine coming back and not getting pretty much the same order as the first time...

Sunday, July 27, 2014


On July 24, the national foodie website published the following spoof menu satirizing the ubiquitous farm-to-table dining trend that has by now seeped into nearly every corner of the country:

The timing of this post couldn't have been more fortuitous, as Mrs. Hackknife and I had just recently supped at a local Tampa restaurant that was decent, but not great, and furthermore left me with nagging hesitation about how exactly to write up our experience. The place in question, named Boca (901 W. Platt St. in South Tampa), almost perfectly meets the stereotypical definition of hipster trendy, from the water served in Mason Jars, to the on-site "market" (actually just a small display plopped in the middle of the dining room), to the numerous Wilco concert posters - the type of joint where there's even a listing on the menu to buy a beer ($3) for the kitchen staff (presumably either to get them drunk or help them nurse the hangover from last night's patron offerings). Once I read Eater's spoof menu a few weeks later, I knew that I had an instant connection to my subject eatery; however, I didn't quite realize just how appropriate the comparison was until I placed the two bills of fare side-by-side. To my abject horror, they had no less than eight (8) things in common. The first thing we ate was the best dish of the night and it actually wasn't represented on the satire menu - a knockout version of fried green tomatoes with pimiento cheese spread, tomato jam, and house-cured bacon:

Our middle course consisted entirely of spoofed food - Mrs. Hackknife had the evening's fish special, a black grouper (aka the "gnarly looking whole fish with half of a charred lemon") and I tried the free-range chicken breast (aka the "amish chicken in the big city") on a bed of fingerling potatoes and swiss chard, while we shared a crock of brussels sprouts hash (aka the "unconventional riff on brussels sprouts"). The sprouts were great and the fish/chicken entrees certainly looked the part, but both were surprisingly bland and lacking, well, soul, for lack of better term.

We hemmed and hawed on dessert, with the missus opting for a disappointing chocolate skillet cake (served in a tiny cast iron pan, so trendy that no irony was needed) and me only slightly blissing out on some sort of PB&J stack (pictured below):

I give the Boca folks credit for trying, but it's becoming increasingly obvious to us that the top-tier of farm-to-table restaurants in the greater Tampa area goes only 2 or 3 deep (there's the Refinery, Edison, Elevage, and that's about it). Still, this experience will not deter us from further sampling the local goods to identify the best "tarted-up pork belly" (in Eater parlance) out there...

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Pho Quyen

Shrimp and Pork Spring Rolls with Peanut Dipping Sauce

Beef Combination Pho (Sliced beef, flank, brisket, tendon, tripe, and meatball)

Sliced Pork with Fish Sauce and Mild Curry Chicken

Warm Rice Pudding Custard

If I were to be completely honest, I'd have to admit that the sum total of times I've eaten Vietnamese cuisine in my life can be counted on the fingers of one hand - I can recall a place in Edison Park (Chicago) that Mrs. Hackknife and I went to not long after we were married, and not much more than that.  This is why I was excited when I first discovered Pho Quyen (8404 W. Hillsborough) while driving through the Town & Country neighborhood of Tampa one afternoon (the smiling cow and green striped awnings on the building's exterior are eye-catching and made me first think that it was an ice cream parlor).  The interior is much less distinctive (think 1980s Asian buffet), but the food is tremendously good.  We began with the house spring rolls, containing shrimp, pork, rice vermicelli, lettuce, and mint leaves wrapped in translucent rice paper (the peanut dipping sauce is addictive by itself), followed by a giant bowl of traditional Vietnamese noodle soup, or pho, filled with many parts of the cow (not smiling at this point), plus basil, bean sprouts, mild spicy peppers, lime, scallions, and onions.  Of all the beef cuts simmering in the broth, the tripe was probably my least favorite (a little bland and chewy as tripe often goes); however, the rest was like a warm, snuggly blanket for my innards.  Two entrees followed, a platter of terrific stir-fried pork in umami-laden fish sauce (with white rice) and a good, but not quite as outstanding, mild curry chicken.  A slab of tasty warm rice pudding custard topped with crushed peanuts stood in for our dessert (not that we needed any after everything that preceded it).  The leftovers proved to be just as good the next day, leaving me anxious for a return visit to try out more of their voluminous menu...

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Next (Modern Chinese Menu)

Chinese Okra Centerpiece
(stealthily filled with hot and sour soup)

Hot and Sour Soup
(extracted from okra via plunger)

Bamboo Shoot and Lily Bulb

(left to right) Hot Foam Congee with Pork Floss
Scallop Dumpling with Watercress and White Fungus
Pork Dumpling with Chinese Date and Cuttlefish

Monkfish with White Asparagus and Roasted Spine Broth

Crab Salad with Green Chili Paste and Fresh Coconut Ice

(left to right) Tiger Salad with Cold Skin Noodles and Seitan
Skate Chop "Muslim Lamb" Style (with cumin and sesame)
Tingly Squab with Tarragon and Sumac

Another view of tingly squab skewer

Shrimp Paste and Lettuce Bite

Shrimp in a Duck Egg Yolk "Sand"

"Beef and Broccoli"
(Dried beef slices and fried broccoli florets, beef consomme)

Duck in Layers

"Pulling Threads" with Sweetbreads, Taro Root, and Banana

Frozen Rice Soup with Legumes and Whipped Vinegar

Dragon's Beard Candy with Pressed Honeycomb

Giant Fortune Cookie

Our final meal during our latest Chicago trip was also the most anticipated; that is, the Modern Chinese menu at Next (953 W. Fulton Market St.).  As always, Grant Achatz, Chef Dave Beran, and company combined sleight of hand (such as the first course, a hot and sour soup hidden within the centerpiece on the table), bold experimentation (turning a duck egg yolk into a reasonable facsimile of sand), whimsy (see the brontosaurus fortune cookie above), and flawless technique to create another memorable meal, although not without a few hiccups.  The missus and I cruised along through the first 8 courses with nary a single complaint until the "duck in layers" course, which featured slices of smoked duck breast, steamed buns containing duck rillettes, a dandelion/mustard green salad, and cabbage with poached duck egg.  On paper, this all sounded terrific, but I found the steam buns to be light on rillettes and heavy on dough, while the number of seasonings provided with the meat were simply overwhelming (by the time I'd tried all the permutations to identify my favorite, the duck was gone).  The following "sweet and sour" course (fried taro, sweetbreads, and plantains served on a searingly-hot black stone, with a caramel dipping sauce that hardened upon application) was a gimmick that should have worked; however, the sweet caramel couldn't hide the surprising blandness of the material being enshrouded.  These few shortcomings were singularly absolved by the first dessert course, a so-called dragon's beard candy (sort of like supercharged cotton candy) plate drizzled with fresh honey pressed out of the honeycomb using a special tool designed just for this occasion - I have no idea what was in M. Beran's rendition of this sweet delicacy, but I'd happily trek naked through two feet of snow to get another.