Thursday, December 5, 2013

Girl and the Goat Magic Green Beans

The 2013 high holidays continue to bear down on us and I find myself devoting little effort on this blog lately (Xmas prep is definitely intruding on my free time, but a general dearth of material is also slightly to blame). If you are a devoted reader (both of you, that is), thanks for your patience as I now try to catch up a bit with a recipe that first came to my attention at Mrs. Hackknife's going-away dinner this past February at Girl and the Goat. Among the many tremendous meat and fish dishes we were served that evening was a mind-bending version of sauteed green beans in a fish sauce vinaigrette with cashews. The restaurant's proprietor, Chef Steph, refers to them as her "magic green beans" and they certainly did a hocus-pocus on my tastebuds with a depth of flavor not normally encountered in the humble legume. As I'm always looking for new ways to prep the usual drab vegetables here in the Canteen, I took it upon myself one day to track down the chef's magic bean recipe, not finding it in her cookbook (apparently, it was closely guarded for a while), but instead on this blog post from her website after an appearance on the Rosie O'Donnell Show.

The instructions themselves are a little short on details (I suspect the recipe is geared for people with more experience in the kitchen than I), but I managed to muddle through and assemble a reasonable, if not inferior, facsimile of the original dish we had that cold night. The bulk of the flavor boost comes from the vinaigrette (a zesty blend of funky fish sauce, lemon juice, soy sauce, Dijon mustard, garlic, and sambal oelek - I used in this in place of sriracha), which is poured over the beans and some shallots in a hot fry pan to steam everything. The recipe doesn't state how long the beans are supposed to cook, so I pressed on until I thought they were tender (I still think I undercooked them a little), added the cashews, and sat down with the progeny for dinner. Since I knew my kids wouldn't go for the vinaigrette (even I thought the fish sauce was a little, um, robust), I didn't even bother with the aioli listed in the instructions and instead spooned some extra sauce over mine to get the full effect. They were good, but I was a little underwhelmed until Mrs. Hackknife got home and tried hers:

Mrs. Hackknife: "!" "What did you do to these beans?"
Me: "Um, it's a Stephanie Izard recipe I tried to duplicate. You don't like it?"
Mrs. Hackkinfe: "No, I think they're awesome!"

Ok, so that was all the validation I needed. It turns out the fish sauce vinaigrette is also pretty darn good on white rice, which I discovered later that week as I tried to finish it up. In any case, I now have another version of green beans to add to the repertoire (along with the Mexican green bean salad, green bean casserole, and the just plain boiled ones)...

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Emeril's Honey-Brined Pork Chops

Anyone with young kids can attest to the difficulties that cold and flu season bring every year to the daily routine (as glamorous as it might sound to watch 3 straight hours of Doc McStuffins episodes with a sick 4-year old, I can assure you, it's not). The twisted logic I had in my head when we moved to Florida was that people living in mild climates surely must suffer less from fall/winter illness than residents of the North; sadly, with Hackknife Jr. regularly coughing this week and Hackknifette dealing with a bout of flu, I've found this hypothesis to be completely untrue thus far (grrr...). Still, while both children (and their viruses) are restlessly snoozing away this evening, I decided to attempt to pound out a quick posting or two before Thanksgiving is upon us. A few weeks ago, I got inspired by the sauteeing/browning exercises in my basics cooking class at Publix (especially the steak au poivre, where we used a cast iron skillet to sear both sides of the meat before finishing in the oven) to try a recipe at home requiring the same skills. Among the swag we received at the Norman's Gala in Orlando was one of Emeril Lagasse's recent cookbooks entitled "Farm to Fork", in which is his version of honey-brined pork chops with an optional nectarine chutney (since we also brought home a jar of Dean Fearing's sun-kissed apricot sauce from the event, I opted out of the chutney). In this recipe, bone-in pork chops are brined for several hours in a mixture of honey (quite a bit in fact, 2 cups), salt, pepper, fresh thyme, and cloves. The brine can be made the night before and provides a pleasant-smelling autumn potpourri aroma in the kitchen while boiling (although my kids begged to differ on the odor). After the brine chills overnight in the fridge, you simply drop in the chops, let them marinate until dinnertime, sear in a cast iron pan (practicing my newly-learned tricks), and roast in the oven until cooked through. The chops in the recipe need 10 to 12 minutes to reach 165F; however, mine were pretty thick and actually required closer to a half-hour. Despite the delay, I ended up with beautifully moist and tender pork (see photo above) that had a slight sweetness from the honey that even the progeny didn't mind. The apricot sauce enhanced the meat a little, but I'd be perfectly happy serving these again completely naked save for a little salt and pepper...

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Capital Tacos

One of our local food critics (Laura Reiley of the Tampa Bay Times) recently posted a note on Twitter about an interesting new taco stand up in Land O' Lakes called Capital Tacos (6765 Land O' Lakes Boulevard). Always on the lookout for new places to try, I added CT to my future hit list and managed to make the drive to check it out a few Fridays ago for lunch. I was vaguely aware that Land O' Lakes was located somewhere in my neck of woods here in northwest Tampa, but didn't realize that it was halfway to Weeki Wachee, a solid half-hour drive north from the Canteen past the charming advertisements for Paradise Lakes Resort ("Clothing optional!") and numerous strip malls (which are not as nudist-friendly) lining U.S. 41 through Pasco County.

CT is a little hard to spot from the highway as it's nestled in the corner of one of these nondescript developments (I passed it up and had to double-back). Anyway, once I arrived, I was pleasantly impressed by the breadth and originality of the food offerings. In addition to about 20 different flavor combos (which can be purchased in taco, bowl, burrito, nacho, or salad forms), hungry diners can also select from a number of breakfast combos (mostly involving variations on scrambled eggs) that are available all day (including migas, a mixture of eggs, chiles, crunchy corn strips, and cheese that I hadn't seen anywhere since my Dallas days). With all of these tempting choices, it's easy to find your head spinning with indecision - luckily, I had a few minutes in line to peruse the menu before reaching the counter.

Given that I wanted to try so many items and I didn't know when I'd be back up here, I clearly over-ordered, picking 3 tacos, plus a bucket of chips/salsa on the side. What you see above is the first of my tacos, called the Austinite, a combo of carne asada, jack and cheddar cheeses, caramelized onions, avocado, sour cream, Chihuahua cheese, and chipotle ranch salsa. I figured that any place professing to have better-than-average tacos should be able to execute a solid carne asada and it wasn't bad, although I found the meat to be a little on the bland side (of course, that could also be the zinc lozenges I'd been taking for a mounting cold deadening my taste buds). The mild salsa I picked to go with the tortilla chips (which were homemade, fresh, and tasty) were loaded with big chunks of tomato and onions, a plus in my book.

I did my best to polish off the other two tacos, a Johnny Reb (smoked sausage, corn kernels, pico de gallo, jack and cheddar cheeses, and poblano ranch salsa) and a Mean Verde (fried avocado, refried pinto beans, queso dip, lettuce, pico de gallo, jack and cheddar cheeses, corn strips, and poblano ranch salsa). Both were good, if not a tad on the sloppy side, and I washed them down with a bottle of Sangria Senorial, a Mexican soda that really does taste like sangria without the after-effects of that pesky alcohol.

CT appears to appeal to both Pasco County civil servants (lots of firemen, teachers, and parks department workers were there for lunch that day) and the local hipster element (I can't recall seeing a cook wearing a fedora in the kitchen before) alike, so the owner's concept seems to be pretty solid. I feel like if they can sharpen up their execution just a bit (maybe eliminate one or two toppings from each flavor choice to cut down on the clutter?), they'd have a taco stand worthy of a regular 30-minute drive to the far reaches of the metro area. In any case, I'm anxious for my next visit so I can sample a few of the breakfast creations (especially the migas)...

Thursday, November 7, 2013

In Memoriam: Charlie Trotter

I was at the park with the progeny on Tuesday afternoon when I noticed that my Twitter feed had been erupting with a torrent of messages expressing dismay over the sudden passing of famed chef Charlie Trotter, found dead in his home earlier that morning. Only 54, the brilliant, but frequently maligned Chef Trotter laid down the template in the late 1980s for what was to become Chicago's modern haute-dining scene, helping to launch the careers of a hundred prominent chefs that passed through his kitchen along the way (just a sampling of his proteges - Rick Tramonto, Gail Gand, Graham Elliot, Curtis Duffy, Bill Kim, Matthias Merges, Mindy Segal, Grant Achatz, Dan McGee, Giuseppe Tentori - the list goes on and on). As the master architect of an activity that I love (experiencing unique cuisine) in the city that I love, I have a lot of admiration for the chef even though I never had the opportunity to meet him. Mrs. Hackknife and I were fortunate to have dined at his namesake restaurant in Lincoln Park twice before it closed in August of last year. Our first visit occurred in 2002 when I was just a fine dining greenhorn and, frankly, a bit uncomfortable eating in a place where the plates served were small/fastidious and an army of attendants would descend upon you like a SWAT team if you gave even the slightest indication that you might want to rise from your chair. Despite the stuffiness, the whole encounter awakened something in me, and I can recall saying to Mrs. Hackknife (then my girlfriend, not yet my wife) at the time about seeing how food preparation and presentation (such as the mango and macadamia nut brittle cake with kiwi juice and passionfruit ice cream you see below, my sole food photo from that evening) could be elevated to an art form in the right hands. Clearly, Chef Trotter had those right hands.

In the 10 years that passed until our second visit to Trotter's, the missus and I came to realize that we greatly enjoyed the culture of gastronomy (in no small part because of that first dining foray), inspiring us to seek out epicurean adventures both near and far, which eventually led to the formation of this blog in 2010 to help chronicle our experiences. I subsequently wrote about our amazing dinner at Trotter's kitchen table in August of 2011, a time that found both us (now married with children and solidly in middle age) and the restaurant (less pretentious and more relaxed, at least within the confines of the kitchen) in different places than before. Fortunately, the excellence in the cuisine had not changed one bit as Chef Trotter's expert staff continued to turn out eye-popping and tongue-tickling dishes (for example, the heirloom tomato terrine with white sesame and daikon below) the likes of which are still rarely found.

At the conclusion of the meal, our server told us we had been the first kitchen table of the restaurant's 25th year of operation (having just celebrated their 24th anniversary the day before). What we didn't know then was that the 25th year was to be the last, as Chef Trotter dropped a bombshell on New Year's Eve announcing that he would be closing down the following August. At the time, he made reference to a vague desire to travel, read, and get a doctorate in philosophy as his reasons for wanting to step away; however, rumors began to swirl about how the very proud and maniacally-driven chef may have felt like the rest of the city's dining scene had finally surpassed him, speculating that he'd rather pack up his toys and go home like a petulant child rather than change his well-entrenched ways. From there, things seemed to spiral out of control. There were a handful of run-ins with local media over how his legacy was being portrayed, even though much anecdotal evidence indicates a pattern of repeated vindictive behavior on his part, especially towards employees wanting to leave his inner circle. Then came the truncated auction of the shuttered restaurant's equipment and inventory, which he ended prematurely since bids on many of the items fell short of what he believed was their perceived worth. Another incident entailed an argument with some high school art students over whether or not they should be made to clean the dining rooms in return for using them as a temporary gallery for their exhibits. I personally encountered the consequences of his increasingly eccentric nature at the Norman's Anniversary Gala this past August in Orlando. He had been scheduled to make an appearance along with several other celebrity chefs and never arrived, citing an illness preventing him from flying as his excuse for the absence. I had chosen the gala weekend to be my wife's 10th anniversary present in large part because of the chance that we might get to talk with the chef a bit, and, as you might imagine, I was more than a little annoyed that he hadn't bothered to show (the tickets to this event were not an insignificant expense).

Given his recent history, when I got word of the chef's passing yesterday, my first reaction was that it had to be a suicide, as if there could be no more reasonable explanation (or, for that matter, apt conclusion) for the untimely demise of a ultra-demanding trailblazer whose life had seemingly followed the path of a Greek tragedy, attaining the highest highs for so long and eventually descending into torment/madness as his status diminished. However, as is often the case, reality isn't that tidy. Reading through the various tributes and news accounts of the chef's death, I discovered that Chef Trotter had actually been physically unwell for most of the year, suffering from seizures and small strokes, which he had kept quiet from the press. Doctors also discovered that he had an unruptured brain aneurysm, advising him not to fly or visit high-altitude locales to reduce the likelihood of its rupture. Given the obvious rigors of running a world-class restaurant for 25 years, it's no wonder that the man likely mortgaged his long-term health for the sake of his unrelenting vision. Perhaps he became aware that his body couldn't handle much more stress and found it necessary to walk away from the business to spend whatever time he had remaining with his wife and son. In any case, we'll never know what might have been in store for the Chicago dining public had Charlie Trotter returned for a second act (and I wholeheartedly believe that he would have popped up again after a few years away from the kitchen); much like the ever-present anticipation of a Beatles reunion was snuffed out by John Lennon's murder, all that his fans are left with now are the fading beams of a star that shined too brightly and was extinguished too soon. Speaking for myself, I know that, although my experiences with his food and his restaurant were brief, they infinitely expanded my world of what gastronomy could be. For that, Chef, I thank you. Godspeed...

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Datz Delicatessen

While Mrs. Hackknife and I were attending our first local Dishcrawl (which seems to have gone on hiatus for now) event back in May, I noted that a number of the attendees (many of whom worked in the Tampa restaurant industry) made reference to a particular dining venue in town that was specifically geared for foodies called Datz Delicatessen. Upon further investigation, I discovered that, although the Datz folks bill themselves as a deli, the actual operation (whose complex is located at 2616 S. MacDill in South Tampa) entails quite a bit more than that. When the owners Roger and Suzanne Perry first conceived the place in 2009, they were using the famed Zingerman's Deli counter in Ann Arbor, MI as their inspiration, wanting to provide gourmet sandwiches to the populace along with other high-quality, artisanal products in a market-like setting. What soon evolved from that first attempt was more of a gastropub offering inventive versions of comfort dishes paired with craft beer/fine wines, plus a bakery, gelato emporium, food shop, catering operation, and endless font of musings about the virtues of bacon (at least that's how it seems if you read their Twitter feed). Seemingly right up our alley yet still somehow a bit under the local culinary radar, I made us a dinner reservation one recent night to get a better read on this epicurean enigma.

Upon arrival, I found the small building that houses Datz's main enterprise to pack quite a punch, probably square foot-for-square foot the most productive food-related endeavor you'll ever see. The first floor contains a modest market, bakery case, coffee counter, beer bar, and restaurant seating, with another bar and larger dining room upstairs. There are also outdoor tables on the veranda, plus a second building next door that houses the main bakery operation and gelateria.

We knew what we wanted for our appetizer before even opening the menu, opting for the so-called bacon flight "When Pigs Fly", a collection of five bacon varieties (Benton's hickory smoked, jowl, back, peppered, and Nueske's applewood smoked) paired with four dipping sauces (maple syrup, balsamic glaze, red pepper jelly, and, our friends from Chicago, melted Vosges chocolate), all in a neat serving tray presumably custom designed for the purpose (see photo above). And, yes, it was as delicious as you imagine.

For my entree, after much deliberation, I decided to go with one of the house originals, the Waffles n' Tweet, consisting of boneless fried chicken tenders, cheddar Belgian waffles, sauteed garlic spinach (for health reasons, you know), and jalapeno-maple syrup. While not my absolute favorite version of chicken and waffles (Roscoe's in LA is still the champ), this one was still a solid contender, with both the chicken and the waffles spiked with jalapeno spice for some added kick. Mrs. Hackknife ordered the seasonal special harvest ravioli (squash ravioli in a sage-brown butter sauce with shaved parmesan), which she was kind enough to share with me (it was fantastic). Of course, a standout menu must also have a standout beer list to match, and I happily enjoyed a hard-to-find pint of Cigar City's Tropical Tripel (on tap, no less) with my meal.

Since this trip to South Tampa would not be complete without dessert, we wandered next door to the bakery (which is called "Dough") to get some sweets for the family before heading home. With walls like a little girl's candy-colored fantasy of a ice cream parlor (think lots of pinks and purples), the display cases were chock full of gourmet chocolates, macarons, cakes, pastries, and interesting gelato flavors, like the banana chocolate chip I was persuaded to get, everything housemade and everything sinful. I don't know what the Datz people will next add to their repertoire, but I pledge to be near the front of the line to try it...

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Maple Bourbon Banana Pudding Cake

When Mrs. Hackknife made plans to have some of her staff from the office over to the Canteen one recent Saturday night, I was eager to try out a new dessert recipe that I'd come across in the October 2013 issue of Food & Wine. The recipe (maple bourbon banana pudding cake) met many of the criteria that I generally look for when picking a crowd-pleasing dessert: 1) it doesn't contain too egregious of an amount of butter (6 Tbsp. in this case), 2) it's relatively easy to make, 3) it has both a decadent description and appearance, 4) it can be served warm, and, for adult-only events, 5) it has a little bit of alcohol. The sole iffy part of the recipe (other than having to manually ripen the banana in a warm oven, turning it jet black) is addressing the need for "superfine" or baker's sugar, which is needed in recipes that require sugar to dissolve more easily (such as angel food cake). Upon investigation, I discovered that the superfine variety is not the same as confectioner's (powdered) sugar, nor can it be replaced by regular granulated sugar (this would make the dessert too grainy). Domino does produce a commercial version of superfine sugar, but it's expensive and, more important, generally difficult to find, so I followed the advice of another food blogger and simply ground down regular sugar in my food processor for a minute or two to further break up the grains (this seemed to do the trick as far as I could tell).

All other aspects of the process went pretty smoothly, and after 40 minutes of cooking, out popped what you see above, a golden, pecan-laden cake topping a slurry of bourbon, maple syrup, and banana underneath. When served either alone or with a dollop of vanilla ice cream, I can report that this dessert is a crowd-pleaser and the leftovers reheat well for the next few days...

Monday, October 7, 2013

Next (Bocuse d'Or Menu)

The highlight of our recent quick trip to Chicago was our attendance at the last Next dinner of the 2013 season, the Bocuse d'Or (BDO) menu. Now that we're no longer residents of the city, the costs and logistics of getting back to dine at Next are, shall we say, significantly greater than before, so the missus and I are going to have to think long and hard about whether we'll be able to continue these highfalutin junkets in 2014. The problem is that Chefs Achatz, Beran, and Co. continue to make it really darn difficult to pass up the amazing culinary experiences at Next and this latest iteration was no exception. For those of you unaware, the BDO is an elite cooking competition conceived by legendary French chef Paul Bocuse that occurs every two years in Lyon, France (his home base of operations) and requires participants to prepare both a fish dish and a meat dish in front of several judges (plus a raucous live audience, giving it the feel of an Olympic event). The finished dishes must not only be executed to perfection, but must also be aesthetically unique and include specific elements from each chef's home country. Since the USA has never placed high in the competition (as you might have guessed, the French frequently take the top prize), Chefs Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud, and Grant Achatz signed on a few years ago to mentor the American teams in the hopes of improving their performance. Chef Achatz's experience with coaching the USA team is what inspired him to create a BDO and Chef Bocuse "homage" menu using Midwestern ingredients as the basis for many of the dishes.

In order to give diners a taste of the BDO atmosphere, flags of the participating nations hung from the ceiling and video screens in the dining room replayed a telecast of the 2013 competition (although the audio didn't match up with the screen immediately next to us, which made it a little hard to follow). The initial table setting was sparse, yet elegant, featuring a small blue casserole dish along with a single rose in a clear glass vase (see photo below).

The casserole dish contained what was to be our first course of the evening, a tasty veal terrine with frisee salad.

A sweet cipollini onion marmalade (and a basket of small baguettes) was provided to help cut some of the richness of the veal. The drink pairing for the course was a Sazerac, a cocktail typically associated with New Orleans containing rye, Peychaud's Bitters, some simple syrup, and a bit of absinthe, which in this case we were instructed to add using the perfume bottle next to the glass. The absinthe added a pleasant licorice note to the otherwise-dry cocktail.

After the heartiness of the terrine, we were presented with a very delicate appetizer of jet-black osetra caviar served atop whipped beurre blanc and pine nuts in a dainty pastry cup. This single bite arrive on a tower of four stacked gold-rimmed plates meant to evoke the affluence and grandiosity of the old French nobility (with all those dishes to wash, it's no wonder that the downtrodden classes started a revolution).

The next hors d'oeuvre was a slightly-modified version of a Chef Bocuse creation, a mousse made of Darden ham (from Smithfield, VA) set inside a Madeira aspic (essentially a savory Jello) with a flower garnish - very French in presentation and very delicious in mouth. Both this and the caviar course were paired with a 2011 Beckmen Le Bec Blanc wine, a blend of mainly Rhone varietals (Marsanne, Roussane, Grenache Blanc, and Viognier).

Another Bocuse special, a rich and airy souffle of prawns, subsequently arrived. I'd happily frequent Long John Silver's if they could somehow manage to add this as a side to their fried fish platter.

The next small plate to follow was both visually stunning and incredibly complex in flavor, a cauliflower custard mixed with verjus rouge (the fresh juice of unripe red grapes), Alsatian rose wine, and foie gras, topped with curled swatches of white chocolate and freeze-dried rose petals courtesy of the flower in the vase at our table (our server dunked it in liquid nitrogen before depositing the remains on our dishes). If there were ever such a thing as edible poetry, this would be it. A glass of 2011 aMaurice Viognier paired well with both the prawn souffle and the rose cauliflower.

One final appetizer was provided before the main courses, this time a sort-of deconstructed spring roll featuring a charred lettuce spear, shaved bonito flakes, bottarga (cured fish roe), and peanuts.

At this point in the meal, the servers paraded out competition platforms to "show off" three of the finished entrees to the diners (this activity is conducted in front of the judges during the BDO, adding a dramatic flourish to the event). The items on each platform were elaborately displayed as you can see (sort of, that is - my apologies for the poor pictures) from the next three photos. First up was a trout and egg course:

Followed by smoked pheasant atop a smouldering bed of hay:

Last, but not least, a ribeye beef presentation inspired by Chicago's history as a center of publishing (hence the typeset letters, paper cutter, etc.):

As nice as it was to view the carefully-arranged platforms, I was happier when the subject vittles were placed in front of me for consumption. The brook trout course (inspired by Chef Beran's traditional family dish of trout and scrambled eggs) was dazzlingly deceptive, consisting of several elements that were not immediately what they seemed to be. The trout was prepared two ways, including the filet in medallion form and the deep-fried skeleton (yes, it was edible). Bright yellow coddled eggs (a challenge for me) provided the sauce for the fish and appeared to emanate from an eggshell and yolk placed on the plate, which were actually eggwhite/kimchi spice pieces (also edible) and spherified olive oil curd, respectively. Celery root and pickled green blueberries added depth to the flavors, with a touch of gold leaf for elegance. To accompany this mysterious dish, the sommeliers chose an equally mysterious wine, a 2009 Scholium Project Midan al-Tahir blended from five different white grapes (Gemella, Verdelho, Gewurztraminer, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc).

The second fish entree was no less intricate, but didn't have quite the same hocus-pocus factor as the first. A small filet of Neah Bay salmon was paired with beets, browned butter, and parsley. Underneath the glass tray holding the salmon was a tuft of thyme that was set alight by the kitchen to bathe the ingredients in herbal aroma (a fairly common Achatz tactic).

What followed next was a wonderful mushroom consomme course adapted from a soup that Chef Bocuse conceived for President Valerie Giscard d'Estaing of France in the 1970s. The consomme is topped with a pastry dome, which I found was easiest to eat after being punched down into the broth (see destruction below). A Wild Hog 2009 Pinot Noir (from the Russian River region of Sonoma) gently accompanied the soup.

The first of the two meat courses was a meltingly-tender diamond of sous-vide pheasant, covered in a sauce blanquette and garnished with a grilled baby leek, caramelized onion, and a small pastry shell filled with what appeared at first glance to be dirt (the whole dish is plated to resemble a spilled flower pot), but was actually ground pheasant.

Even more mind-blowing was the beef course, a medallion of rare ribeye wrapped in a sausage layer (a "boudin vert" made green with spinach), then paired with roasted carrot, a cube of solid bearnaise sauce, and a leg shank whose hollow had been filled with mashed potatoes amplified by bone marrow (!). I'm not sure whether to refer to this creation as a deconstructed steak dinner or the ribeye of the future, but the marrow potatoe puree may very well have unseated Robuchon's infamous death potatoes as the world's most decadent. A 2010 Yorkville Cellars Rennie Vineyard Carmenere was selected to go with the steak and friends.

No French feast is complete without a cheese course and this was no exception. The BDO menu featured a robust Swiss cheese called Tete de Moine (literally "monk's head", so named for the cloistered monks that originally created it) that was cut tableside into long shavings using a special tool that resembled a turntable with a blade. The pungent shavings (which resembled flowing fabric or a sea anenome) was placed in a clear glass dome along with cashews, pear, and milk skin, paired with a 2010 Milbrandt Estates Riesling Ice Wine from the Columbia Valley in Washington State.

Keeping with the oceanic theme, a brilliant blue-glazed dish arrived with the first dessert course, a deconstructed apple pie a la mode with a lattice crust that could have been mistaken for a coral reef, plus some sort of bruleed schmear (marshmallow? white chocolate?) in the shape of an angelfish (at least that's what I saw). Apple slices could have been shark fins, a slab of ice cream bombe looking like a whale's eye - ok, maybe I'm taking the nautical thing too far, but the whole creation was delicious.

If you never realized that butternut squash has potential as a sweet, look no further than the second plated dessert, which featured a orange cube of the stuff daubed with gelled huckleberry pickling juice and accompanied by a crumbled pecan oatmeal cookie/dollop of butter pecan ice cream, plus some purple edible flowers. A non-alcoholic egg cream (contains milk, soda water, and chocolate syrup, yet no egg or cream) helped wash down this loveliest of confections.

Ready to roll out the door into the street at this point, the final course of mignardises arrived, a small collection of lemon macarons, chocolate/raspberry/hazelnut truffles, and bitter chocolate taffy pieces, the perfect end to an amazing meal.

Now that we'd survived the evening's onslaught (although, by the next morning, I wasn't sure I'd survive, suffering the full impact of refreshment fatigue at that point), I was struck at how well the BDO menu dovetailed with the Next crew's very first menu, Paris 1906. Given Chef Bocuse's chronological place in the pantheon of 20th Century French dining (that is, between the excesses of Escoffier/Fernand Point and the restraint of nouvelle cuisine), the dishes prepared by Chef Beran et. al. served as a wonderful bridge connecting Belle Epoch and modern Gallic gastronomy, a perfect reflection of the great cook's legacy...

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Katy's Dumpling House

On our recent return visit to Chicago (the missus and I came to town to have the Next Restaurant's Bocuse d'Or menu - more on that in the next posting), we were happy to be able to meet up with our foodie friends Phil and Karen for lunch. Since they live in our old neighborhood in the south suburbs and we arrived at O'Hare, I wanted to pick a interesting dining venue somewhere in-between, and I remembered that Katy's Dumpling House in Westmont was one joint I'd been wanting to try for quite a while.

Only about 20 minutes from the airport (I think they got stuck with the longer drive), Katy's Westmont location (665 N. Cass Avenue) is in an unremarkable strip mall that also has Indian and Thai food, a veritable cornucopia of Asian cuisine in the western suburbs. The restaurant itself isn't much bigger than your average home's living room (about 6 tables) and has a strong no-frills vibe, the type of place where they might tell you to use the back alley if you had the temerity to inquire about a public restroom. For ordering, diners are directed to the large photos of various Chinese dishes with small English captions posted above the counter (there's also a small markerboard with daily specials off to the side).

I always feel encouraged when I enter a small ethnic restaurant and find that our little cadre is the only non-native group there; that appeared to be the case when we first sat down. My hopes were validated when the server brought out our initial dish (see photo above), a 6-pack of the house's pan-fried pork buns. Nicely browned on the bottom, the buns were soft and spongy on the inside and contained a dollop of nicely-spiced ground pork.

Our server informed us that the only variety of steamed dumpling left that day was the pork and chive mixture, so we also ordered up 10 of those (see photo above). When paired with the chili dipping sauce at each table, the dumplings were almost (but not quite) the equal of their pan-fried cousins.

At first, Phil and I were a little hesitant to order anything shown on the menu as "spicy" (especially given the heavy French feast the missus and I were going to have the next evening), but curiosity got the better of us and we opted to try a bowl of the famous house dan dan noodles (see photo above). We were instantly happy that we did - the big bowl of perfectly chewy noodles arrived at the table with ground pork and mustard greens, all doused in a fantastic red broth that featured just a subtle amount of the tongue-numbing Szechuan spice (although we suspect that the kitchen dialed it way down for us gaijin). As was the case with Sa Ri One a few weeks prior, I was already looking forward to my return visit to Katy's so I could try out some of their other noodle dishes and dumplings...

Sa Ri One

Now that Mrs. Hackknife and I had finally finished exchanging what amounted to lavish dining gift excursions for our 10th wedding anniversary, the actual date of our anniversary had arrived. As you might imagine after two weekends of straight indulgence, we were seeking to do something a little more mundane to celebrate this time. A trusted source at the office recommended what may very well be Tampa's best place to experience Korean cuisine, Sa Ri One (3940 W. Cypress, no website), so this is where we headed on a recent Friday evening while my in-laws were still in town to watch the progeny.

The building where Sa Ri One is located is a little ramshackle and could easily pass for a speakeasy or massage parlor if not for the signs out front advertising Korean cuisine. Trying to convince myself that the restaurant's name must have a profound meaning in the mother tongue and doesn't simply indicate how the diner will feel after eating there ("Sa-Ri-One"...think about it), I headed inside and began poring over the typically-prodigious Asian menu (see photo below):

After flipping through page upon page of choices, the missus and I opted to play it safe (our direct experience with Korean food is pretty limited thus far) and ordered some tried-and-true favorites. First up was the seafood pancake appetizer (hae mul pa joun), which we had been advised to try by Mrs. Hackknife's co-worker:

Arriving at the table much larger (!) that we were expecting, the pancake was filled with tender octopus pieces, scallions, shrimp, and possibly other seafood bits that remained unidentified. Accompanied by a small dish of chili dipping sauce, the pancake's texture fell somewhere between soft/firm and could have easily provided us with a full meal (I should add that the leftovers were quite good).

For our entrees, I picked a platter of delicious bulgogi beef (a widely-ordered dish in Korean restaurants consisting of thin beef slices marinated in a sweet sauce before grilling) that came with steamed rice and six different bowls of pickled sides, including cucumbers, kimchi, sprouts, greens, and a couple of mystery ones:

I probably could have polished off the whole platter of beef myself (which would have been a bad idea) and I also enjoyed most of the pickled sides (hard to pick a favorite). Mrs. Hackknife was more taken with her entree choice, a plate of katsu pork (breaded deep-fried pork slices) that resembled something one is more likely to find in Japanese cuisine:

Finding the pork to be a bit on the dry side, I was happy to stick with my bulgogi beef. Regardless, we were both pleased with the meal as a whole and are anxious for our next visit so we can try some of the less-common dishes...

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Padoka Brazilian Bakery

The monstrosity that you see above is an example of how Brazilians eat their hot dogs, at least back in the motherland. This version of the so-called Brazilian hot dog is actually two weiners that have been either boiled or steamed, then split lengthwise and cradled on a French roll along with ketchup, mayo, grated cheese, a smattering of kernel corn, and potatoes two ways (mashed and shoestring, presumably for a little added crunch). From the description, you wouldn't think that it'd work; yet, somehow, it does (boy, does it ever). Where, do you ask, can one find this masterpiece of gluttony outside of Sao Paulo or Recife? Why, Tampa has its very own Brazilian bakery to support the local diaspora, Padoka Bakery (8206 W. Waters, no website) on the northwest side of town. I first noticed Padoka while driving Hackknifette to/from her old preschool every day and vowed to check it out sometime. I am no longer regularly in the neighborhood, but did managed to pop in once to sample a few of the other house specialties, namely coxinha (a fried pastry filled with shredded chicken and vegetables), empada (similar to a chicken pot pie), and pao de queijo (little fried cheese balls that are popular breakfast items), before returning a second time for the storied hot dog.

By the way, the coconut flan isn't bad either, crowned with a trio of rum-soaked prunes to give the mellow custard a boozy boost. I can't say that I'd recommend the cashew fruit juice (which is an acquired taste, seeming to me like apple juice that's gone a bit rancid), but I'd definitely advise everyone in town to stop into Padoka for what's likely the most unique hot dog in the metro area...

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Puerto Rico Dining - Day 4

Four our last full day on the island, Mrs. Hackknife and I had decided to go native by renting a car from the airport and heading out into the Puerto Rican countryside for some exploring. Our ultimate destination was the resort town of Dorado, located a mere 30 minutes west of San Juan and site of the evening's highly-anticipated dinner at Mi Casa, Chef Jose Andres's restaurant in the new Ritz-Carlton Dorado Beach resort. But first, we had other plans in mind, namely to visit some renowned caves in Camuy and the giant radio telescope facility out by Arecibo, another 45-minute drive west beyond Dorado. Traveling to the western part of the island was easier than I'd imagined, with a 4-lane toll road taking the place of the dirt paths overrun with livestock that I had envisioned at one point (yes, I know, it's a U.S. territory). Once off the main highway, the secondary roads to the caves were no worse than motoring down Florida 60 across the middle of the state, giving us a chance to get a brief sample of life in Puerto Rico outside of the big city. At one point, we passed what appeared to be a roadside cafe called Johnny's - I made a note of the location as a potential stopping place for our lunch and managed to convince Mrs. Hackknife to swing back after the cave tour.

This decision turned out to be a shrewd one, as Johnny's (on Puerto Rico 129, somewhere between Arecibo and the Caves de Camuy, no website) was a veritable gold mine of traditional Puerto Rican dishes, the perfect place to try out a bunch of new foods (basically our "No Reservations" moment of the trip). Even better for us, the kind young man running the counter spoke flawless English and was very patient while we peppered him with questions before making our selections.

Featuring both hot and cold dishes, Johnny's menu included some things I recognized (like mofongo and pollo asado) and lots of things that I didn't. Using the cashier's recommendations as our guide, we picked out some morcilla (pork blood sausage with rice), fried breadfruit, something called pastelon (described to us as like lasagna with plantains in place of the noodles), a scoop of crispy yellow rice (browned on the bottom of the pan not unlike paella) with beans, and slices of avocado.

Everything we ate was fantastic, with the pastelon probably being our favorite. This concoction seems to be unique to Puerto Rico/Dominican Republic and is normally made with ground beef (ours had shredded chicken instead), but, just like lasagna, the locals apparently tailor their pastelon recipes to suit their own tastes. Most recipes I could find online include fried plantains, a protein of your choosing, sofrito, eggs, a seasoned MSG salt called sazon, adobo spice, and tomato sauce, plus sometimes cheese, raisins, milk, and/or olives (heart-healthy it's not). Even the breadfruit (a starchy fruit that, while nutritious, I'd heard to be unpalatable) was pretty darn good (of course, it had been fried). Given the opportunity, we'd gladly return to Johnny's someday to sample more swaths of the menu.

Feeling pretty satisfied, Mrs. Hackknife and I spent an hour or so at the nearby radio telescope facility before heading back towards Dorado for dinner. We weren't staying at the Ritz resort (too rich for our blood, we were slumming it up at the Embassy Suites down the road), so we got a little lost seeking it out in the darkness once night fell (there aren't so many street lights in Puerto Rico illuminating the roadways outside of towns). When we finally arrived, we discovered the resort to be magnificent, almost like a Polynesian village set in the middle of a lagoon (I couldn't see the ocean, but I could hear and smell it out there somewhere), with tidy, modern buildings on stilts connected by elegant walkways above the water.

Mi Casa itself has something of a playful look when compared to the rest of the resort, a Japanese steakhouse-meets-the Spanish Inquisition (note the Catalan steer head mounted on the wall). Jose Andres is also known for injecting a bit of whimsy into his cooking style, showcasing traditional Spanish dishes in non-traditional ways (and, in this case, incorporating some ingredients that are indigenous to Puerto Rico). We opted to try the evening's multi-course "Tapas Experience" menu and we were certainly not disappointed.

The first course simply consisted of sliced Jamon Iberico (quite possibly the world's best ham) served with Catalan tomato bread, proving that you can't really improve on a classic combination. I'd had the same tomato bread at Chef Andres's restaurant The Bazaar in Los Angeles (they had two sous-chefs solely dedicated to making tomato bread there) and it was just as good the second time around.

Next up was a variation of the salmon cornet originally made famous by Chef Thomas Keller at the French Laundry, with a phyllo dough cone filled with green papaya marmalade and Canarejal cheese from Spain, then topped with hazelnut shavings, a great combination of sweet and savory in a single bite.

Course #3 was more of an avant-garde cocktail/palate cleanser, consisting of four little spheres filled with rum, mint, lime, and coconut water resting in a pool of the same liquid inside a green papaya shell. Being a Jose Andres menu, I figured we'd be getting edible spheres at some point (he's an unabashed disciple of Ferran Adria, you know) and this was it.

The spheres were followed by this, um, acrylic gym shoe filled with a very common tapas dish, chicken and bechamel croquettes, that were uncommonly delicious (not sure I quite understand the shoe tie-in, however).

A light and refreshing platter of four local mussels marinated in Sherry dressing and topped with a relish of tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers, and bright yellow foam (saffron?) then arrived at our table. The mussels were briny and delicate, and I wished we had about 20 more of them to nosh on.

More raw seafood followed, this time a beautiful tuna ceviche (tuna mixed with coconut dressing, jicama, cilantro, and serrano peppers) underneath a vibrant green avocado, which sported a crown of crispy quinoa. I've had a lot of ceviches over the years and this was probably both the best-looking and richest version I'd ever encountered.

Course #7 was the chef's take on a deconstructed Caesar salad, albeit different from the one that Graham Elliott made famous. In this dish, romaine lettuce was wrapped in four cylinders of jicama, then two of the cylinders were topped with shaved Parmesan, while the others had the raw egg yolk dressing and anchovies on top, respectively. A lonely pair of croutons perched on the plate next to the jicama rounds. I was happy to let Mrs. Hackknife have the egg yolk cylinder and she was kind enough to let me take the anchovy one. If there ever was a way to encourage people to eat salad in their cars, this dish would clearly be the best means to achieve that.

In homage to the numerous stands in the Puerto Rican town of Guavate selling spit-roasted whole pig (known as "lechon" around these parts), the kitchen next prepared a duo of pork belly slabs topped with pieces of puffed chicharron (pork skin) and chayote squash marinated in mojo (garlic, sour oranges, and olive oil), all served on crunchy fried buns. Yes, these little sandwich flavor bombs were as amazing as they sound.

Believe it or not, after this massive collection of small bites, we still had two MAIN COURSES on our tasting menu, the first of which you see below, a traditional Puerto Rican stew or gumbo (called "asopao") made with local spiny lobster from the holding tank in the middle of the dining room (we could see the servers bringing the pot of cooked lobster out of the kitchen and preparing the final dish at the station next to the tank - I wish they could have done it tableside). The asopao also contained more chayote squash, plus another island relish referred to as "alcaparrado", a mixture of finely chopped olives, garlic, capers, and pimento. As if that weren't enough, a basket of ethereal fried plantain chips accompanied the hearty stew.

The other main course was a plate of braised veal cheeks with shrimp, polenta, and hen-of-the-woods mushrooms (which I politely declined). The missus and I were both surprised to find that the veal cheeks were a little on the bland side, lacking the flavor punch we'd experienced with this ingredient at other places (B&B Ristorante Las Vegas's beef cheek ravioli, for example, or the mindblowingly rich beef cheek penang curry from the Next Thai menu in Chicago). This was the one and only dish of the evening that left us a little disappointed (of course, the fact that we were both stuffed to the gills at this point might have played a minor role in our discouragement).

We'd noticed sometime around the lobster stew course that the kitchen had fallen behind and had more or less ground to a halt, with most patrons in the dining room looking expectant. This lapse in activity (I'm sure that the kitchen must have been all a-frenzy behind closed doors) seemed to go on for a while - not that it really bothered us (actually, we welcomed the respite), but I felt bad for the other diners, especially those not doing the tasting menu and, thus, waiting for their entrees. Eventually, our server came over to offer us a complimentary glass of dessert wine, a wonderful 2005 Privilegio dei Feudi di San Gregorio from the Campania region of Italy, made from the white grapes Fiano and Falanghina.

This wine was a perfect match for our dessert course, a Spanish flan with Catalan cream, oranges, and passionfruit. Those tricky folks at Fogo de Chao know that their papaya creme dessert helps digest all of that roasted meat preceding it in your tummy, and this tropical-inflected custard served much the same purpose, allowing me to reach an upright position and walk out of the restaurant without much agony when the time came.

As far as value goes, I have to say that this $85 tasting menu is about the best deal you're likely to find in the Western Hemisphere (and you get to experience eclectic versions of regional dishes in a stunning setting for no extra charge). I dream of returning someday to the Ritz Dorado for an actual stay next time (donations happily accepted) and greatly look forward to my next meal at Mi Casa (you can bet we'll be driving back out to Johnny's for lunch, though)...