Friday, January 23, 2015

Ava




After two years of living in Tampa, I'd have to say that my feelings towards the local Major League Baseball team (the Rays) are only lukewarm at best, a sentiment that seems to be common among Bay area residents (as far as nearby pro sports franchises, they rate a distant third behind the Lightning and the Bucs).  This could be due to, like hockey in Minnesota and basketball in Indiana, the market for baseball already being saturated here, hosting many minor league teams and Spring Training headquarters; it could also have something to do with fact that their home is a lifeless domed stadium in an unremarkable section of St. Petersburg, separated from the lively bars, art galleries, and restaurants of downtown by several blocks of drab neighborhoods.  In any case, whatever good vibes surround the Rays were mostly a result of their charismatic, wonky, and well-respected manager, Joe Maddon, whose efforts transformed a small market, largely moribund expansion franchise into a multi-year playoff contender before he opted to take over the Cubs (yay!) late last year.  Also a pillar of the community, M. Madden supports a number of local charities and has business ties here, including partnership in now two area restaurants.  I closely followed the development of his newest dining venture, Ava (pronounced "Ah-va" and named after his granddaughter, if I'm not mistaken) all autumn and was even more anxious to dine there after reading the gushing 4-star review (the paper's first) that food critic Laura Reilly of the Tampa Bay Times gave the place.  Not surprisingly, reservations have been difficult to come by; however, Mrs. Hackknife and I were able to secure a table early in the evening on New Year's Eve before all of the party people went out (not like us middle-aged parents who'd rather be in bed by 10p) and headed down to south Tampa (718 S. Howard Street) with a healthy dose of anticipation.

Homey and rustic are two terms that come to mind when you enter Ava's front door, not unlike the vibe of the Italian cuisine that's the specialty of the house.  There was a large pizza oven behind one bar (not turned on at the time) and many servers in jeans and flannel plaid shirts (almost if to say "Look!  We're hip and casual!) running about the half-filled restaurant.  Because of the holiday, we had been informed that only a limited, prix-fixe menu would be available that night, not the usual family-style plates around which the whole venture had been designed; this change was blatantly obvious throughout most of the service, when one of us was presented a dish 3 to 4 minutes before the other person received theirs (usually a serious no-no) - this happened not once, not twice, but three times during the 4-course meal (a batting average of only .250 if you're playing along at home - I'm thinking the coach would've benched his kitchen if he'd been there).  In spite of the pacing issues, the food was frequently all-star: my appetizer of charred veal meatballs in a slurry of kale, tomato, and spicy sofrito (see photo above) was spectacular, as was the red pepper soup I chose as my second course.  Mrs. H. heartily indulged in a crock of steamed mussels, studded with chunks of nduja (an Italian sausage) and fennel seed, served with grilled slabs of crostini and also enjoyed her entree of wood-grilled prime sirloin.  My chef's special entree of lobster bucatini sounded rich and featured perfect al dente noodles, but was a little on the bland side, needing a thorough piling of grated parmesan to kick up the dish.  The desserts were safe and reliable (tiramisu), if not ample, ending the meal on a slight high note, yet still leaving us a little disappointed.  Our initial experience at Ava was most definitely not 4-star, yet I can see the potential exists for great success here given another few months of staff seasoning.  Let's hope the coach can do for his new restaurant (and the Cubs) what he did for his old team...

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Jiffy Burger - Manchester, TN

Although our holiday trip to Chicago was slightly truncated due to illness, we had a fun time visiting with friends and family (plus, our fears of nasty winter weather never materialized). Still, the brood was anxious to return to Florida and its warm sunshine, so back we went, running into traffic delays through both Kentucky and Tennessee. By the time we'd almost reached our overnight stop in Chattanooga, everyone in the minivan was starving - luckily, our friend Yelp directed us a short distance off I-24 to an old-fashioned burger diner in Manchester, TN (now mostly known for being the host town of the annual Bonnaroo Music Festival). Jiffy Burger has been serving up greasy spoon fare to local residents since 1960 and doesn't appear to have changed much in the interim. From the outside, it resembles the kind of drive-in our parents would have cruised up to in their teenage years, while the interior (which is a little on the cramped side) is chock full of old advertising signs, black and white pictures of bygone high school basketball teams, and weathered tile, sort of like Cracker Barrel's eccentric aunt.




The ambiance alone should indicate that this would be the home of a world-class burger, and you'd be correct in thinking that. I chose the bacon cheeseburger with a side of Frito pie (something I haven't frequently encountered outside of a dorm cafeteria) and was presented not 1, not 2, but 4 strips of bacon (cooked to order, no less, not pre-made - I saw it on the flattop with my own two eyes) underneath a terrific, sizzling beef patty, all cradled by a grilled bun and a couple of bread and butter pickles.  Even the Frito pie was outstanding (there are some corn chips nestled below that cheese and beans) and didn't generate nearly the late-night heartburn I expected it would.



Mrs. Hackknife ordered the pork tenderloin special and was presented with a giant slab of unbreaded pork (apparently, that's how they do tenderloin around here) that was actually quite juicy and tasty.  Even the kiddos weren't totally dissatisfied with their chicken fingers and fries.  All of this great food and atmosphere cost us less than $40 (cash only, by the way), cheaper than if we'd gone to one of the chain restaurants right off the expressway.  I'm now contemplating ways to justify attendance at Bonnaroo this year just so I can return for another Jiffy cheeseburger...

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

L2O - Chicago, IL

Over the last 10 years or so, Mrs. Hackknife and I have been privileged enough to dine at many of Chicago's finest restaurants, including some that are no longer with us, like Charlie Trotter's, Courtright's, Spring, Great Lake Pizza, and Hot Doug's (the world's best encased meats purveyor). Since its opening in 2008, however, one top establishment had eluded us; that is, L2O, the haute-dining seafood jewel of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises (LEYE), regarded as one of the top places in America to experience artful, impeccably-prepared dishes of the ocean's bounty (or the lake, for that matter - L2O stands for "Lake to Ocean"). For a top restaurant, L2O has had something of a tumultuous history. Superstar French chef Laurent Gras provided the early blueprint and inspiration for its success (he used to create blog postings with step-by-step instructions and fascinating pictures of behind-the-scenes prep work in the kitchen - I miss those), eventually propelling the venture to an enviable 3 stars in the inaugural Michelin Guidebook for Chicago. This height of achievement would normally be cause for celebration; unfortunately, Chef Gras abruptly announced his departure from LEYE the day after, citing "creative differences" with founder Rich Melman (it was later revealed that the notoriously prickly and meticulous chef had clashed with staff/ownership over accommodating various customer requests and future menu direction). The restaurant dropped down to 1 Michelin Star under new chef Francis Brennan (who subsequently moved on a few months later to Do-Rite Donuts, LEYE's entry into the gourmet breakfast pastry business), gained one of those back when current chef Matthew Kirkley stepped in, and remained at a high, if not a bit more relaxed (no more "dining on the Death Star" as he put it), gastronomic level until LEYE decided to close the restaurant at the end of 2014 as current diners' palates are trending away from fussy tasting menus.  It was this announcement in late October that spurred me in a panic to jump on Open Table and reserve us a spot there while in town for Christmas before the remaining tables got snapped up.

The restaurant is located in the historic Belden-Stratford Building at 2300 N. Lincoln Park West (across the street from the north end of the Lincoln Park Zoo), a highfalutin part of an-already upscale neighborhood. When you enter the lobby, you're immediately struck by the thought that you're inside a top-notch hotel (which it had been for most of its life, converting over to luxury apartments in 2011). We had no problem finding LEYE's other eatery here, Mon Ami Gabi (just follow the happy hour crowd), but L2O's front door is discreetly off to the side, with no signage to tip visitors off to the culinary fireworks within. The hushed dining room features a lot of beige and glass and curtains of stuff, vaguely modern, vaguely Asian, and a tad outdated ("makes me think of the 1990s", said Mrs. H.). With the whole operation winding down to its last two weeks, the a la carte menu had been eliminated, leaving the 12-course tasting menu as the only dining choice (and we were fine with that).

First up was an amuse bouche, a fancy crab and rice cracker dusted with Old Bay seasoning. Tasty and gone within 3 seconds.


Our servers brought out homemade rolls and a sculpture of ribboned butter that was beautiful to behold, but not so much fun to spread.


The initial course listed on our menu was called a "pomme soufflee" or potato puff, filled with salt cod and topped with a blend of ground coffee and bergamot orange oil.


Next up was a single, elegant Kusshi oyster encased in a gel of green apple and Noilly Prat Vermouth. Sadly, none of the remaining decoration was edible.


The oyster was followed by three fresh ocean trout rolls (topped with ginger squares, maybe?) garnished with little orbs of citrus confit and chartreuse liqueur, with footprints of thyme prancing across the plate.


An amazing dish of ahi tuna covered in avocado slices and topped with black caviar came after, with some gel globes of indeterminate origin in the foreground (I apologize for my lack of detail on some of these courses - my flavor memory fails me).


This was one of my favorite dishes of the night, a Spanish-style croquette (made me think of something Jose Andres would do) consisting of periwinkle, Iberico ham, and pumpernickel, crowned with watercress.


Another home run followed, a sublime bowl of galinette (a Mediterranean fish used in Provencal cuisine) topped with black licorice (made to resemble caviar), garnished with crithmum (or sea fennel), and resting in an emulsion of heavenly crab butter.


More perfection ensued, this time in a version of matelote, a seafood stew from the French region of Lorraine that's sometimes referred to as "fisherman's coq au vin". This stew is usually made with freshwater fish; however, L2O's rendition places St. Pierre (or John Dory) filet in a broth of red wine with roasted red onions and shaved royal trumpet mushrooms (full disclosure - I have no idea what the pink items in the photo are).


Our last savory course was good, but not on a par with the three that preceded it, in my opinion. Here, crescent moon-shaped pieces of Maine lobster were covered in beurre d'algues, a seaweed-infused, umami-loaded butter produced by a Paris-based buttermaker (is that a word? buttermonger?) named Jean-Yves Bordier. Next to the lobster were a pair of butternut squash cylinders topped with what appeared to be edible "clamshell" shards and nuggets of actual clam. The concept on this one eluded me and the dish felt a bit disjointed.


Apparently, the pastry chef was working overtime these last few weeks as we received four desserts, plus mignardises at the end of the meal. First up was a curious creation of apricot granita, black lime, frothy marshmallow, and genepi (a liqueur similar to chartreuse - they sure like their French liqueurs here) in a jar, which I took to be something of a palate cleanser.


Here's that chartreuse again, this time loaded into a cream puff that rested on a bed of rock sugar.


The next dessert was a step up in complexity and appearance, a vibrant disc of lime parfait topped with cara cara orange sorbet and flanked by dollops of tarragon meringue and avocado mousse in various geometric forms.


Our final (and my favorite) dessert reminded me of the most elegant and deconstructed Kit Kat that I'm ever likely to encounter - two long bars of chocolate propped up a dollop of olive oil ice cream, which was sandwiched between brioche wafers, with the whole plate sporting a few drops of lemon creme.


As much as I'd love to describe in detail the many mignardises that we were served (in nesting-type boxes, no less), including wonderful macarons and cookies of dizzying intricacies, I can only provide a photo and my word that they were delicious, even two days later (no mean feat for macarons, which tend to get stale quickly - I wonder what alchemy made that possible?)


Although the meal was expensive, the missus and I both agreed it was worth the experience and we were glad to have dined here before the final call. I hope that we encounter some of these standout dishes again (they'd probably exist in a slightly revised format) in a future time/place/culinary universe...

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Mercadito Counter - Chicago, IL

After some unexpected travel delays due to illness (Hackknifette finally caught the flu bug that's been circulating amongst our nation's populace lately), the family and I arrived in Chicago about 24 hours later than planned for our annual holiday trip up north. My in-laws were happy to host the progeny for the missus and I one day so that we could spend the afternoon and evening in the winter wonderland that is downtown Chicago in December; this usually means numb fingers and frozen toes, however, a warm front saw to it that temperatures remained tolerable (in the upper 30s) in spite of a fine mist that occasionally morphed into a steady, bracing rain shower. While Mrs. H. had lunch with old colleagues, my first stop was the old Assumption Church at 323 W. Illinois, founded in 1881 to serve the city's growing Italian immigrant population such as my great-grandparents, who were married there way back on May 4, 1910. At the time of their wedding, the surrounding neighborhood was largely residential. Today, it's the beating heart of River North, with the stately church dwarfed by condo high-rises, office buildings, and chain hotels that now dominate; in fact, Gene and Georgetti's Steakhouse, which has been across the street since 1941, often uses Assumption's paved lot for valet parking, a fact made blatantly aware to me by one of the valets (was his accent Serbian maybe?) when I tried to leave my car there in the middle of a hectic lunch service. Anyway, I only wanted to duck in to see the church's beautifully-restored interior and spend a few minutes pondering my general existence (I had just recently discovered my family's historical connection to this edifice).




This isn't an architectural blog, but I had to post one of my photos of the altar for posterity. I tried hard to imagine a couple of tiny Italian people (young, too - my great-grandfather was only 23 at the time, my great-grandmother 20) standing up there in front of a priest, exchanging vows (most likely in Italian) and feeling excitement for the future in their adopted country.

Of course, no posting is complete without food commentary, and I certainly have some of that. After leaving the church and parking close to Eataly a short distance away (they validate for cheaper garage parking if you make a minimum $20 purchase, which I was planning to do later), I had decided to trek about seven blocks north and east to 738 N. Clark Street, home to a fairly-new "Mexican deli" (as they bill themselves) called Mercadito Counter. MC is part of the growing Mercadito Hospitality restaurant group, an entity that began in 2004 with a single casual restaurant (Mercadito, serving primarily ceviche and tacos) in New York City and eventually made its way to Chicago, expanding into seafood, sports bars, farm-to-table dining, cocktail lounges, catering, and now Mexican-American street food fusion. Chicago Magazine recently lauded MC's pan-fried chicken as one of the city's tastiest values (only $12.50 for a half-bird with rice, beans, and tortillas), but I was jonesing for tacos and Mexican-style hot dogs, two things I don't get much of in Tampa (probably because I haven't been seeking them out enough).

The place was nearly empty at 1:30 on a Monday afternoon before Xmas, a little surprising given how popular this venture was supposed to be (or so I'd been led to believe). They have a contest whereby anyone who can eat 35 tacos in an hour subsequently gets them free for life (don't know if it's been pulled off yet) - sadly, I only wanted two of them and chose the fried shrimp and the al pastor, along with a fundido dog and a signature milkshake (the Little Nutty Mexican, vanilla with Nutella, cajeta - that's goat milk caramel, and Nestle Abuelita chocolate powder) for good measure.




Both of the tacos were fantastic, especially the shrimp, which featured 3 big, pork-rind battered (!) shrimp along with cured onion and cilantro, quite possibly the best shrimp taco I'd ever eaten. The al pastor (featuring ancho and guajillo chile-marinated pork with more cured onion, grilled pineapple, corn, and cilantro) was no slouch either, although I've had some street versions of this in Los Angeles that are mighty hard to top.




The fundido dog included a fried hot dog (couldn't decide if it was beef or pork) topped with melted cheese, crumbled chorizo, dijon mustard, and chile de arbol ketchup, a combo that looks heavy in the picture, but actually wasn't too much so (however, I'd be inclined to try a different variety of dog next time). The real star here was the house-made barbecue chips that came on the side, sweet and spicy and addictive in all the right ways - if MC ever decided to bag these for sale, they'd have a smash hit on their hands. Oh, and about that milkshake - I'd happily trudge through a typical Chicago blizzard for one of these rich, life-affirming babies again. My cold, wet walk back towards Eataly was definitely enhanced by cajeta and Abuelita chocolate powder gently coating my insides (to be eventually overtaken by the chorizo, but that's an unfortunate hazard of this hobby, my friends)...

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Nikki's Place/Gordon's Be Back Fish House (Orlando)

When I wasn't baking cookies or sleeping late during my bachelor weekend, I was roadtripping in Orlando to visit some small eateries that wouldn't normally be on my itinerary with the kids in tow on our way to the theme parks. After carefully negotiating the heavy Saturday morning fog on I-4, I pulled up in front of Nikki's Place a little before 10 o'clock with breakfast still on the brain.



Nikki's is located on a quiet side street (724 W. Carter St.) in the neighborhood just west of downtown Orlando, an environment that's a little scruffier than the highly sanitized boulevards of Disney World (most tourists finding themselves here would likely be lost).  The New Jerusalem Church of God is right next door, providing Nikki's with plenty of well-dressed patrons after services on Sundays - fortunately for me, the tables in the cozy dining room were empty (there are only 7 or 8 of them) on a Saturday, save for a couple of customers leisurely enjoying coffee and a newspaper.



Roadfood.com founders Michael and Jane Stern were just here in October of 2014, so I had their recent writeup to guide me through the menu, which was loaded with soul food favorites like oxtail, chitterlings, turkey necks, and various pig parts.  Rumor has it that Chef Nick Aikens (who's been cooking professionally for Central Floridians since the 1950s) makes the best shrimp and grits this side of the Suwanee (the couple at a nearby table told me as much), but the temptation of the house chicken and waffles proved to be too strong, so I had to order me some (it came with two eggs cooked to order).  As hoped, this plate of food was fantastic, and I managed to eat the entire, um, ample portion before heading towards my next destination (I'd also heard that the individual-sized sweet potato pies at Nikki's, made from a recipe older than Chef Nick, were not to miss, so I grabbed one to go on my way out the door).

During daylong eating junkets past, my modus operandi was almost always to walk/take public transportation between stops so as to work off some of the excess calories; that doesn't really work in sprawling Orlando, where you have to drive to get where you're going.  As a alternative, I headed over to a place where I could do some walking before my next meal, the tony suburb of Winter Park (located north and a little east of downtown), home to some great restaurants (like Prato and Cask and Larder), Rollins College (an upscale liberal arts school), and many high-end residences of wealthy locals.  I spent a good hour and a half ambling among the mansions and getting disoriented on the curving, leafy lanes in an attempt to clear out some stomach space for lunch.  Eventually feeling a little re-energized, I returned to my vehicle and drove a mere 10 minutes back towards the expressway into the much more modest town of Eatonville.




There's a marker at the side of the road in Eatonville (see photo above) indicating that it was the first town in America to be incorporated by families of freed slaves (this was back in 1887). The population has remained largely African-American and is served by another great local soul food joint called Gordon's Be Back Fish House, whose address (558 E. Kennedy Blvd.) is officially listed as being in Maitland, but appears rather to be just over the border into Eatonville.




Gordon's is owned and operated by Abraham Gordon, Jr., another long-time local cook, except with the titles "teacher" and "former Eatonville mayor" also listed on his resume. These days, Abraham takes orders from his perch behind the counter while others do the cooking. As you might guess, fish is the main draw here - through the studious efforts of the Sterns again, I was aware that fried mullet was one of the house specialties, and even though it wasn't on the menu this day, Abraham managed to scrounge some up for me (they also have bass, flounder, tilapia, catfish, trout, and whiting).




I thought I ordered just the mini-combo plate, but I'm pretty sure I ended up with the large combo instead, featuring a whole tender fried mullet (disassembled into 3 sections) with 6 meaty fried jumbo shrimp, a pair of delectable hush puppies, and a whole heap of fried okra that I requested in lieu of fries. At $9.95, this was the best deal I'd seen in a while, with enough food for both this meal and the next. I had to work around a few bones in part of the mullet, however, the inconvenience was quite worth the experience. As a side note, I'd noticed a smoker in the parking lot and assumed it was full of fish - when inquiring about that as I checked out, Abraham told me he was cooking ribs in there instead (another off-menu item) and said "I should know how to smoke ribs pretty well by now", clearly setting me up for a return visit.




Oh, Gordon's also does desserts, or at least works with a local baker to stock dessert. Michael Stern noted the Key Lime cake in his write-up and I had to bring home a slice to accompany my sweet potato pie from Nikki's (see photo above). While the sweet potato pie was indeed rib-sticking, I have to give the edge to the Key Lime cake, which was incredibly moist and rich, with just the right amount of tartness to balance the sweet and a sinful slick of white icing. All told, I'd have to say my first exposure to Orlando soul food was fantastic and I'd encourage those of you planning to visit the amusement parks in Central Florida this year to seek out these off-the-beaten path gems...

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

AK Cookies

 
My wife and kids left town for the weekend a few weeks ago, leaving me free to pursue whatever wild fantasies my mind could conger up (like sleep in until 8 and go to Costco to buy Christmas presents).  I ended up driving to Orlando one day to procure some righteous soul food (more on that in a future posting) and also had ample time to read through the entire new issue of Lucky Peach (Winter 2014), which focuses solely on holiday recipes and food-related holiday stories.  Feeling inspired, I undertook a cooking frenzy on Sunday afternoon, whipping together lobster rolls, beet salad, custom cheeseburgers, and decadent cookies, all courtesy of the recipes found in said issue.  I had every intention of writing about each one of these dishes; unfortunately, a bout of stomach flu two days later completely took the wind out of my sails (I discovered there's no worse thought when you're grappling with abdominal cramps than updating your food blog).  I've since managed to recover enough to at least document the cookie recipe here (redirected from Alexandra's Kitchen, a far superior food blog to this suboptimal operation) which I feel is probably the gem of the bunch.  Lucky Peach editor Peter Meehan named this cookie Alaska, or "AK", after the Anchorage residence of his friend's mother, where the recipe originated.  Sort of a Toll House-on-steroids cookie, the standard chocolate chips (high quality is recommended, however, I used just your garden-variety chips) are augmented by shredded coconut, oats (quick-cooking or old fashioned - either works), nuts (if desired), and dark brown sugar, yielding a dense, chewy cookie.  The instructions say to use a stand mixer, but my ancient hand mixer did the trick just fine, and I needed closer to 15 minutes in the oven to finish them off (versus the 11-12 cited in the recipe).  Regardless, I knew I had a winner when both Hackknife Jr. and Hackknifette enjoyed the finished product (as did the missus and the mother-in-law).

Monday, December 8, 2014

Burger 21 Turducken Burger


About 3 weeks ago, the progeny and I attended their elementary school's "Spirit Night" at our favorite local burger joint, Burger 21.  Restaurants in our community that agree to host Spirit Night (which occurs around once a month and is, of course, highly publicized by the school) donate a portion of the evening's profits to the school, so these affairs are generally bedlam, with parents and kids hanging from the rafters and beleaguered servers/cooks straining to meet the outsized demand.  Anyway, the three of us were in the middle of this semi-organized chaos trying to eat our dinners when I realized that I'd missed out on Burger 21's Burger of the Month - in this case, it happened to be a luscious-looking Southern-style creation with fried pickles or something.  When one of the managers happened by our table to check on us, I quizzed him as follows:

Me: "So, when do you guys stop selling the current Burger of the Month?"
Him: "Today, unfortunately.  But, don't worry - starting tomorrow, we offer our new Burger of the Month, a turducken burger."
Me: (jaw drops) "No!"

Why, yes, in honor of the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, Burger 21 developed a turducken burger, inspired by the duck-inside a chicken-inside a turkey popularized by New Orleans chef Paul Prudhomme (but with roots extending back into 19th Century-France).  Burger 21's meat patty consists of ground duck nestled into a layer of ground chicken, which is then further surrounded by ground turkey, grilled on a flattop, and topped with melted Brie and a cherry/red apple/cranberry chutney.  I vowed right then and there to return in December for one of these bad boys, which I did just yesterday.

You can see the turducken burger above in all its glory.  My impression?  Well, it was good, but sadly fell somewhere short of life-changing.  I felt they were pretty skimpy on the duck meat (my favorite poultry, I couldn't really tell it was in there at all) and was a tad put off by the added flavorings that I suspect were intended to evoke stuffing (sage?).  There was enough chutney on the burger that they didn't really need to include extra on the side (although that was appreciated when it came time to consume the remainders of the bun).  I admire the kitchen staff's chutzpah; however, I look forward to subsequent Burgers of the Month that include the more-traditional ground beef...