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.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Topolobampo - Chicago, IL

Lime-marinated Alaskan king salmon, sea urchin aji amarillo, creamy coconut,
saffron-pickled knob onions, Bayless Garden microgreens, corn masa "jaula" (cage)

Ceviche Trio
Classic ceviche, Yucatecan shrimp and calamari ceviche, tropical fresh tuna coctel

"Timeless Wonder"
Creamy tamal colado, tepary beans, garlic chive oil, house lardo, allium flowers

Goat Barbacoa
Kilgus Farm Boer Goat two ways (classic slow-cooked barbacoa and modern "pancetta"),
creamy garbanzos, red chile-infused braising juices, City Farm young radishes

Baja Black Cod, Mole de Olla
Pan-seared wild Baja black cod, brothy mole de olla (three chiles, fish stock, herbs),
roasted vegetables, xoconostle (sour prickly pear) gelatina, lime puree

Lamb in Mole de Calabaza
Smoky, slow-cooked lamb "porchetta", pumpkin mole (ancho, tomato, spices, pepitas),
roasted sunchokes, fingerling potatoes

Carne Asada/Foie Gras in Mole Negro
Wood-roasted 28-day aged prime ribeye in classic Oaxacan black mole (chilhuacle chiles
and 28 other ingredients), chipil tamal, black beans, smoky green beans

Chocolate Herb Garden
Chocolate ganache layer cake, bittersweet chocolate-mint mousse, Bayless Garden hoja santa
ice cream, chocolate "twigs", micro greens, flowers

Cajeta Crepes, Chocolate, and Plantain
Warm crepes with ripe plantain and bittersweet chocolate, cajeta (goat's milk caramel),
caramelized plantain ice cream, toasted meringue, Spence Farm whole wheat crumble

If there's a better restaurant in America conceiving and executing high-end Mexican dishes with a strong regional focus like Rick Bayless's Topolobampo (445 N. Clark St.), I'm not aware of its existence.  Now celebrating its 25th anniversary, Topo (as the locals refer to it) continues to set the standard for Mexican fine dining, especially now with thematic tasting menus that are refreshed every month; the missus and I narrowly missed Mexico City 1671, instead arriving on a night when the "Art Series" menu was in effect, featuring culinary creations inspired by various pieces of Mexican art adorning Topo's walls (two of which, "Uncaged" and "Timeless Wonder" can be seen above).  With our usual overbooked Chicago itinerary looming, I hesitated when first considering somehow jamming in this dinner reservation, but I'm so glad I did.  The dishes we chose for our 5-course tasting menu were full of surprises, from the best barbacoa (slow-cooked goat) I've ever eaten to the food fantasy fusion of steak, foie gras, and Bayless's 29-ingredient mole negro (this was Mrs. Hackknife's choice - she was kind enough to share, bless her) to the discovery of never-encountered recipes (such as tamal colado), placing this meal squarely atop our best-of list for 2014 (no small feat, mind you).  Tables here are somewhat difficult to come by (the restaurant only seats about 50), but if you get the opportunity to dine at Topo, don't pass on it...

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Avec - Chicago, IL

Chorizo-Stuffed Medjool Dates with Smoked Bacon and Piquillo Pepper-Tomato Sauce

Shawarma Sausage with Crisp Pita, Pickled Onions, Cucumber, and Smoked Yogurt

Fried Soft Shell Crab, Green Garlic Aioli, Tarragon, Scallions, and Green Strawberries

Another stop on our recent Chicago food tour (between lunch and dinner) was Avec Restaurant and Wine Bar (615 W. Randolph), one of the first ventures of the now-titanic restauranteur Paul Kahan.  Just last year, Mrs. Hackknife and I had a fantastic dinner at Avec's fine dining sibling Blackbird across the alley; while Blackbird is the child that got accepted to Harvard Law School, Avec is more like the stoner brother still living in his parents' basement (which, in this case, resembles the insides of a desktop humidor, all beige wood and right angles).  Led Zeppelin's Greatest Hits blared through the sound system as we indulged in the house favorite Medjool Dates stuffed with chorizo, wrapped in bacon, and slathered in a spicy Spanish red pepper sauce (clearly, the dates are a best-seller - piles of them kept spilling out of the kitchen window waiting to be plated), washed down with a glass of mellow Broadbent Vinho Verde Rose from Portugal.  The shawarma sausage salad was like a gyros turned inside-out, with crispy pita shards standing in for the usual limp pocket bread.  Of the daily specials on offer this early summer afternoon (the thermometer was struggling to surpass 73F, yet it was still a welcome respite from the brutal winter just recently passed, or so I'm told), we chose the one featuring a pair of ingredients only available during a narrow window each year, namely soft shell crab and green strawberries, whose crispy and tart qualities were nicely bridged by the tarragon and green garlic aioli.  As tempting as it was to settle in with another glass of Mediterranean vino and continue exploring the menu, we had dinner reservations (and valuable stomach space to clear somehow) in a too-short while down the street...

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Brat Stop - Kenosha, WI

Garlic Bratwurst with German Potato Salad and Red Cabbage

The missus and I stopped in here for lunch on our way back to Chicago from Lake Geneva (the kids stayed back at the water park with Grandma and Grandpa).  I first visited the Brat Stop as a tween (in fact, I recall seeing my first-ever Pac-Man arcade machine there) and it doesn't appear that it's changed much over 30-odd years - the bar/restaurant portion of the complex is still a dive, the service is glacial, but the garlic brat (I added the brown mustard and raw onions myself) is about the best you'll find south of Milwaukee and west of Munich.  I thought the warm German potato salad (served in a white coffee mug) was mediocre and red cabbage possessed a mulekick of vinegar (it's possible that my fillings dissolved); however, I'd have no hesitation returning for fried cheese curds, Sprecher beer, and another brat...

Friday, May 30, 2014

The Poor Porker - Lakeland, FL

One of the presents that our kids received from Santa this past Christmas was an annual pass to Walt Disney World for 2014. Although neither I nor the missus are big fans of the giant mouse and its far-reaching tentacles, we reckoned that we couldn't move to Florida without acquiring the passes at some point, if for no other reason than to get the whole Disney thing out of our system while the children were in their prime Magic Kingdom years. For those of you who haven't done the math on your own, we determined that we'd need to visit the park a minimum of 4 times in the calendar year in order to recoup our investment (and, make no mistake, it WAS an investment), which we've now done twice and had scheduled a third time over Memorial Day when we regained our senses and realized just how patently moronic it would be to show up there on a holiday weekend (perfect if you like waiting in lines all day). With our Saturday schedule suddenly free of fairy dust, we made alternate plans to spend some quality time at the off-brand amusement park Dinosaur World in Plant City (which was probably a thousand times less crowded than that other place) and stop in beforehand at the downtown farmer's market in nearby Lakeland.

There are two things that the small city of Lakeland (located about halfway between Tampa and Orlando) is known for - it's the corporate headquarters of the Publix supermarket chain and the Spring Training home of the Detroit Tigers; however, my interest in going there was purely culinary as the downtown farmer's market hosts what appears to be the Southeast's only artisanal maker of beignets, the Poor Porker (PP). I had first read about PP in one of the local magazines (Southern Living, maybe) in an article referencing their beignets, but quickly discovered that the two-person collective behind PP (Jarred Massie and Robyn Wilson) purports to be about much more than just fried dough; rather, they're preaching an entire hipster lifestyle of art, fashion, farming, and DIY ethos (their motto, in fact, is "for the swanky, rugged, and self-reliant"). When I went to their website, I found little to no mention of food and actually had a difficult time distinguishing it from J. Crew or Pottery Barn both in look and in content. The two founders are just so darn photogenic (as evidenced by numerous, caerfully-arranged photos) and have such a perfect backstory (musicians! circus! modeling! Hawaii! California! tv show! welding!) that the cynic in me found the whole thing to be, well, way too crafted and contrived for my liking, the kind of thing today's young and cool media outlets are falling all over themselves to feature. At the end of the day, I wanted to see if there was any substance behind the abundant style, that is, are the beignets any good?

The four of us arrived in downtown Lakeland close to high noon, at which point the thermometer had already surpassed 90 (not the ideal environment for keeping kids happy). As far as farmer's markets go, this one was a little smaller than I had anticipated, with an interesting mix of craft and food vendors.

It didn't take us long to locate PP's trailer, which appeared just as if it had been transported from the website, all cobbled together in just the right places.

There were 3 varieties of beignet on the menu - the traditional (simply dusted with powdered sugar), one with applewood-smoked bacon and maple syrup on top, and the "Aztec" (topped with a dark chocolate sauce, cayenne pepper, and cinnamon). Unable to decide, we ended up purchasing all 3 types for a total of about $17. I will give the proprietors credit - they were working very hard in a cramped, humid space (one person taking orders, one rolling fresh dough, one manning the fryer, and one finishing/wrapping orders, all of them wearing jean overalls) striving to meet the sizable demand of their customers. They appeared to have by far the longest line of all of the vendors and, had we arrived 15 minutes later, we may have been out of luck as they were starting to exhaust their daily allotment.

We wandered over to a nearby park bench to consume our quarry under the gaze of a stone Civil War soldier glaring down at us from a tall pedestal in the center of the square. The beignets were very hot (just out of the fryer, you know) and a little sloppy (we made good use of the moist towelettes that came with the order).

Well? I would say they were good, but probably not worth a special trip. My favorite was the beignet topped with bacon and syrup, although I suspect that's largely due to the toppings and not the dough, which, frankly, was a little on the bland side. I reckon I liked them as much as what you'd get at Cafe du Monde in New Orleans (my only other memorable beignet experience), a most un-artisanal experience if there ever was one. Maybe the hipster press and presentation set the expectation bar so high that disappointment was inevitable, I don't know. In any case, I wish them continued success and hope that they won't be insulted if I stay closer to home to get my fried pastries next time (Nicola's anyone?)...