Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Grilled Swordfish/Roasted Fennel/Orzo with Feta and Cherry Tomatoes

One of the unique characteristics of the Canteen is that it features an outdoor kitchen with a large gas grill, a significant step up from the portable tailgating model that I employed to minimal effect back North once or twice a summer. Among other things, I was really excited about being able to cook fresh fish - this being Florida, I had visions in my head of regularly buying some sort of sea bounty straight off the dock from a jolly, bearded fisherman and heading right home to slap that sucker (the bounty, not the fisherman) onto a hot grate and direct it into my belly a few moments later. Since I haven't yet identified my local fishmonger, however, the nearby Publix has to stand in for the Gorton's guy. Fortunately, this wasn't an issue as I ingredient shopped for my first grilled fish recipe courtesy of Tyler Florence, a grilled swordfish with lemon aioli and roasted fennel. What was a problem was the price of the swordfish, an astounding $32/pound, meaning that I would have been able to buy a pretty fair meal out (prepared by professionals, no less) for what I'd need to spend to get the 1.5 lb of fish that my recipe needed. Recognizing my dilemma, the nice man behind the seafood counter made an alternative recommendation; that is, use red grouper instead (a relative steal at $18/pound), which he assured me was a wonderful grilling fish.

Back home, I followed Chef Florence's instructions on how to oil up the hot grill grates (use a folded paper towel doused in extra-virgin olive oil) so as to minimize the amount of stickage that the delicate fish flesh experiences during cooking. The fish itself also needed to be generously rubbed with oil before going on the grill. Although some of the filets did adhere in places, all in all, I was pretty pleased with the end result. Turns out the Publix man was right - the red grouper was terrific, with a rich yet subtle flavor enhanced ever more by the lemon aioli. The oven-roasted fennel made a fine vegetable side (I skipped the part about finishing the roasted fennel pieces on the grill for the sake of simplicity), as did the orzo salad with feta cheese and cherry tomatoes, a recipe I'd tried a few years ago and was able to easily duplicate (I didn't toast the pine nuts, by the way - the dish was fine without that step). Even Hackknife Jr. and Hackknifette were gaga over the orzo salad, which incorporated a number of items that they're known to actually eat from time to time (pasta, cheese, and tomatoes). For now, I can safely say that grouper will be my go-to grilling fish unless one of my fellow Tampatriots has a different favorite for me to try.

Tyler Florence's Grilled Swordfish (or Grouper) with Lemon Aioli and Roasted Fennel

2 fennel bulbs, trimmed and quartered
Extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt/freshly-ground black pepper
Zest and juice of 1/2 lemon
1 c. mayonnaise
4 swordfish or grouper filets, totaling 1.5-2 lb.
Handful of fresh basil leaves

Preheat over to 400F. Toss fennel in a bowl with a drizzle of oil and salt/pepper. Dump fennel on a baking sheet and roast until tender, 25-30 minutes.

Meanwhile, put a large grill pan over two burners and heat to medium-high (or preheat an outdoor grill until very hot). If using an outdoor grill, take a few paper towels, fold them over several times to make a thick square, blot a small amount of oil on the square, then carefully and quickly wipe the grill grates to make a nonstick grilling surface.

Stir lemon zest and juice into mayonnaise. Add a drizzle of oil and salt/pepper to taste.

When the grill is ready, rub fish filets with oil and sprinkle with salt/pepper. Lay fish on the grill and cook for about 4 minutes per side until just barely translucent in the center. Add roasted fennel to grill and cook a few minutes on each side to add grill marks. Put the fish on a platter, scatter fennel on top, and garnish with basil leaves. Serve with lemon aioli.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Children's Home of Tampa Food Truck Fundraiser

Not only are food trucks popular in Tampa, whole gatherings of them seem to pop up all over the metro area. Cigar City Brewing has a food truck summit in its main parking lot every Friday night. The cell phone lot at Tampa International Airport has a different food truck every week serving hungry drivers awaiting their arriving passengers. Just in the past month, we've had two food truck fundraisers in the neighborhood, one benefiting nearby Westchase Elementary, the other for Children's Home of Tampa, Inc., an organization running various family support programs. It was this second fundraiser that the missus and I decided to attend on a Saturday afternoon while trying out our first local babysitter.

Never having been to a food truck summit before, I was a bit bewildered by the number of choices at hand. Do we start light or heavy? Drinks or no drinks? Everything sounded good, but clearly some lines had to be drawn. I invoked my fallback rule from Baconfest, that is, no burgers, pizza, or hot dogs, a rule that was immediately broken when I sampled a bite of Mrs. Hackknife's deep-fried bacon-wrapped dog from a truck called Hott Mess. Feeling inspired, I selected my first full dish from Alaska Mike's Yukon Fry Bread, featuring what is described as American Indian fusion food (?), but really just seemed to be stuff served on fry bread.

It turns out that Alaska Mike really IS from Alaska, having grown up in North Pole, near Fairbanks. His fry bread taco was pretty tasty, replacing your standard tortilla (or Fritos, if you're more partial to Frito Pie) with a piece of light and airy fry bread as the substrate for the ground beef and other toppings (see photo below).

Up next was a great sampling of shrimp and grits from Destination Grill, a St. Pete-based truck serving Southern goodies from an Airstream.

I was happy, yet disappointed to share this dish with Mrs. Hackknife since I easily could have polished off a tub of the cheezy, creamy grits. I should note that one of the truck's proprietors was giving out Costco-style small bites of pulled pork and mac & cheese that weren't too shabby, either. We subsequently wandered over to the Three Suns Bistro organic food truck nearby. Their offering of pulled pork with a maple bacon coffee marmalade looked too good to resist (see below).

Unfortunately, I discovered too late how large this sandwich really was - by the time I reached the bottom of the container, I was starting to slow down. At least this made it easier for me to skip the bland baked tortilla chips that came with it. What I really needed was a palate cleanser, which appeared in the form of a gourmet pineapple cilantro popsicle courtesy of Whatever Pops (see photo below).

It's a little difficult to see the menu board, but Whatever Pops features inventive popsicle flavor combinations (such as Earl Grey lavender lemonade, which Mrs. Hackknife enjoyed) in the same vein that Black Dog does for gelato in Chicago. The pineapple cilantro was mostly sweet, with a refreshing and not unpleasant herbal note from the cilantro (of course, if you're not a fan of cilantro, this would probably represent your worst nightmare).

Although we couldn't eat another bite by this time, we had pledged earlier to stop by the Disco Donuts truck to get some fried-to-order mini cake donuts to bring home to the progeny. The chef tells me that he can turn out several thousand of these with his mobile fryer on a busy day (see photo above). A few bucks will get you a sack of cinnamon-sugar dusted mini-donuts to keep your lap warm and happy on the ride home (if it's too warm, you can do what I did and take the edge off with a cool bottle of snappy D&G Jamaican Ginger Beer).

Friday, April 19, 2013

Pappardelle in Bagna Cauda with Cauliflower

Following our standout experience at Chef Stephanie Izard's Girl and the Goat back in February, I couldn't wait to try out some of the recipes included in the chef's cookbook (titled "Girl in the Kitchen") that we received as part of our going-away present. After paging through the contents, I settled on a pasta dish that included anchovies and cauliflower for the first new recipe to be attempted in the Canteen. The recipe calls for white anchovies, which can be a little hard to find - with only the neighborhood Publix at my disposal, I had to go with a couple of standard anchovy tins instead (me and the missus are not particularly picky when it comes to our anchovies). Another difficult ingredient was the pappardelle, a wide noodle that's sold as dried pasta nests instead of loosely in a box. Back in Chicago, pappardelle was usually on the shelf in most grocery stores; down in northwest Tampa, however, about the closest thing I could locate without a major hunt was fettuccine (I've since identified a local Italian grocery that will satisfy all of my future esoteric noodle needs), which was an adequate substitute. Undaunted, I returned home to assemble my pasta dish.

When you get down to brass tacks, the finished creation isn't a whole lot more complicated than boiled noodles with browned cauliflower and a butter-garlic-anchovy sauce (the sauce is referred to in the recipe as bagna cauda, a term meaning "warm bath" in Italian that I've also seen applied to salt cod dip). The chef throws in some feta for tang, lemon zest for acid, and toasted almonds for crunch - voila, you've got yourself a pretty good weeknight meal and subsequent lunch leftovers. Here is the recipe reproduced from the "Girl and the Goat" Cookbook:

1/2 c. minced white (or 2 tins) anchovies
1/3 c. olive oil
1/3 c. butter
3 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
5 garlic cloves, sliced
1 tsp. red pepper flakes
1 lb. dried pappardelle or fettuccine
1 large head cauliflower, cut into 1/4-inch slices
freshly-ground black pepper
2 Tbsp. julienned preserved lemon or 1 lemon, zested
2 Tbsp. mint, chiffonaded
2 Tbsp. basil, chiffonaded
3/4 c. toasted sliced almonds
2 oz. crumbled feta cheese

1. To make bagna cauda - combine anchovies, oil, butter, lemon juice, garlic, and red pepper flakes in a medium saucepan. Bring to a low boil over medium heat. Reduce heat and let mixture simmer until the anchovies fall apart, about 30 minutes.

2. Boil pasta according to package directions (al dente)

3. Spoon 3 Tbsp. of bagna cauda into a large saute pan over medium-high heat. Add cauliflower and saute until lightly browned and softened, 5 to 7 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

4. Drain pasta and add it to pan with cauliflower along with the remaining sauce, lemon zest, mint, and basil. Stir thoroughly to coat noodles.

5. Divide pasta among bowls and garnish with almonds/feta.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

PhilFest 2013

Our new house in Florida backs up to a retention pond and a wooded conservation lot with lots of tall trees (it's quite serene, actually). Most of the housing developments nearby are surrounded on their edges by sub-tropical forest; in fact, it's not hard to imagine the expansive woodlands that would have dominated the immediate area as recently as 15 years ago. Back then, one of the first arrivals in the neighborhood was the Philippine Cultural Foundation (apparently, there's a large Filipino diaspora here in Tampa), whose members purchased a 5-acre parcel of land in 1995 for the establishment of a permanent conference/events/arts center and festival grounds. The center today is fairly impressive to view from the road (I spent a few weeks wondering exactly what it was every time I drove by) and receives the majority of its visitors every year during its annual fundraiser, the PhilFest, which happened to take place one weekend recently. As with all ethnic festivals, my primary motivation for showing up (other than giving the progeny some different fun things to do) is to, of course, sample cuisine that might be hard to otherwise encounter. From that perspective, PhilFest 2013 did not disappoint; indeed, I'd say it was one of the better showcases of ethnic food that we've ever stumbled across.

Chicago may have a festival for every immigrant group under the sun, but you can almost always be assured of finding corn dogs, stale popcorn, and a Beatles cover band at every last one of them. At PhilFest, we were hard-pressed to locate any of the so-called standard carnival fare for Hackknife Jr. and Hackknifette, who had to settle for a container of tropical fruit, some white sticky rice, and bbq pork skewers. While this may have been distressing to them, it was spectacular for their parents, who reveled in the amazing array of Filipino dining choices at our disposal.

A dessert seemed like a good starting point. These are called carioka, or sweet fried rice balls. They're sort of a cross between a doughnut and an elephant ear, lightly crisp on the outside (sweetened with a coconut syrup) with a fluffy interior. Even the kids could get on board with these goodies.

We next opted for a couple of savory dishes. In the foreground is a popular Filipino soup called pancit molo, which seemed not unlike a bowl of Japanese ramen (its origins are actually closer to wonton soup from China). Although most of the references I found mention that it's supposed to be made with dumplings instead of noodles, this version consisted of spaghetti noodles simmered with scallions, slices of pork, and a number of other spices, all floating in a rich pork broth. The other bowl contains pork dinuguan, also called chocolate meat on several of the menus we saw. At first bite, I would have sworn that the fatty pork pieces were covered in a type of tasty mole sauce (Spain ruled the Philippines for over 300 years, so much of its associated cuisine seems to have Latino roots); later, I discovered the sauce contains no chocolate and is actually made from pig's blood and liver, the chocolate reference a red herring to throw off otherwise-wary gringo diners. Whatever you call it, in this case, the offal was awfully good.

Mrs. Hackknife surprised me with this next arrival, a whole, deep fried fish called galunggong (which appears to be similar to mackerel). After frying, it's wrapped in foil and eaten in its entirety, bones and all, a very distinct street food. I snapped our fish in two, letting her take the tail end, while I consumed the front half. There wasn't a ton of meat on my piece, however, what was there was tender and mild, and the skin/bones provided a great crunch. There might have also been some eyeball/head matter in the mix, but I can't say for sure.

Of course, there had to be a pig on a spit. Although this fellow certainly looked delicious, we didn't partake this time around.

Tampa's only Filipino food truck (Pao) was at the fest selling attendees a modern twist on the traditional dishes. After a long conversation with one of the proprietors on the difficulties of operating a food truck in Chicago, I chose their version of sisig, a popular drinking food in the Philippines consisting of various chopped leftover pork parts fried with chiles, onions, and spices (almost like a pork hash) and served on a bed of rice. Pao's sisig uses fried pork belly in lieu of mystery meat and serves it with a side of pickled papaya, a tremendously-good combination.

By this time, we had decided to circle back to dessert. Many of the booths were offering the very traditional and very popular Filipino treat halo halo. This frozen concoction appears to have much in common with the Mexican dessert raspado (they both feature shaved ice and sweetened evaporated milk); however, halo halo is much more elaborate, containing (among other things) plantains, sweet beans, coconut, jackfruit, ice cream, and several other unidentifiable (yet tasty) ingredients. The dish is supposed to be assembled in a certain order, but I got the impression from talking to a few of the natives that almost everyone makes it differently and varies the contents according to taste, yielding a million wonderful combinations.

Our digestive capacities finally maxed out, we had to bring a few goodies home for later consumption. One stand was selling these small, multi-colored steamed rice cakes called puto. They reminded me a little of Japanese mochi, but spongier and not as dense. The different colors did signify different flavors, although the variation between them was very subtle. I think we decided that we liked the plain white ones best.

At the fest, I noticed some kids holding cones that sported scoops of unnaturally-purple (almost fluorescent) ice cream. After further investigation, I discovered that this was a beloved brand of Filipino ice cream (Magnolia), with the flavor being ube, or purple yam. Fortunately, I was able to track down a tub of Magnolia ube at a local Filipino market a few days later. If some entrepreneur were to remove the purple color and relabel the package as "buttered popcorn" ice cream, I'm pretty sure no one would detect the ruse. I can't wait to try some of Magnolia's other tropical-leaning flavors like avocado, halo halo, and coconut (that is, once we polish off our tub of ube).

I can say I'm officially on pins and needles awaiting the release of dates for PhilFest 2014. My stomach salutes you...

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Yummy House

On Day 1 of her new job, Mrs. Hackknife specifically mentioned during her introductory speech to the team that she and her husband were excited to check out Tampa-St. Pete's local dining scene and that we were looking for suggestions. Since then, the staff has graciously provided her with a flood of recommendations, so many that the to-do list has already reached unwieldy proportions. Given our reduction in social obligations since the move (we left most of the relatives behind in Chicago), however, we've suddenly found ourselves with more availability to actually try some of these places; that is, assuming we can line up sitters (one of my ongoing projects) or bring the kiddos with us. Anyway, we managed to sneak out of the house a second time during the recent visit by my in-laws to dine at one of the first suggestions that the missus received: Yummy House (2202 W. Waters), an often-visited Chinese eatery located in the Armenia Gardens Estates neighborhood of northwest Tampa. The proprietors are originally from a coastal city in Guangdong Province (a region of China known for its Cantonese cuisine) and they operate a second Yummy House on Hillsborough Avenue, although we were urged to visit the original location on Waters.

We were told that the restaurant can get crowded on peak days and I didn't have any luck calling the phone number for a reservation (guess everyone was too busy in the kitchen to answer), so we picked a Monday night to minimize the likelihood that we'd have to wait. This was a prudent decision as there was plenty of space for us in the dining room when we arrived.

Like many Chinese eateries in America, the menu was rather, um, voluminous, a veritable phone book of choices (see photo above). Luckily, we'd received a dish recommendation along with our dining recommendation - it was absolutely imperative that we order the salt and pepper tofu appetizer (which we did).

The tofu arrived at the table in fried golden blocks (yet soft and creamy on the inside) and featured a zingy garnish of chopped cilantro, scallions, ginger, chili peppers, and peanuts, a tremendous amalgam of flavors and textures (see photo above). The garnish (sort of like a Chinese chimichurri minus the oil) was so tasty I used a little to spark up a couple of the other plates that we ordered afterwards. Whomever made this suggestion is an individual whose gastronomic opinions I now trust completely. If Tony Hu (Chicago's reigning champion of regional Chinese cuisine) doesn't already have something like this on one of his menus, he needs to pronto. Oh, we also ordered some eggrolls, but these were not particularly noteworthy.

Two more dishes arrived. What you see above is a dish featured in the "BBQ" section of the menu (although I'm not exactly sure how BBQ is used in this context), a roasted chicken chopped up into small pieces and served with scallions and scallion oil. This was also very good, if not a little challenging to eat with the bones still around (I need to find me one of those cleavers so I can do stuff like this back at the Canteen). The spice level of this creation was subtle, relying mostly on the fresh, berbal notes of the scallions to hold everything together. We also selected a dish from the "Clay Pot/Sizzling" part of the menu, a braised grouper pot that consisted of fried grouper pieces, tofu cubes that were browned rather than fried (not quite as yummy as the other ones), and various vegetables cooked in a gravy-like sauce. Both the grouper and the chicken made fine additions to the meal and even finer leftovers for lunch later that week.

Now that the bar has been set for Chinese cuisine in Tampa, I'm curious to see how similar places in town compare. Until then, I'll be dreaming about that salt and pepper tofu...

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Intro/The Refinery

Today I am pleased to present the first installment of Hackknife South, the alter ego for my original blog that will showcase the culinary high points of our new adopted home, Tampa. Although much of our first 6 weeks down here has been spent getting settled and open for business in the Canteen, we have also been hard at work seeking local sources of gastronomic inspiration (that is, when not relaxing in the spa). At first, I was a bit uneasy that the prevailing dining culture might pale in comparison to that back home in Chicago; however, I can assure you that we have already discovered that Hillsborough County and its surrounding environs are by no means a foodie wasteland. Just in the short time that I've possessed a Florida driver's license, I have personally consumed stellar Chinese dishes, giddily romped through a Filipino food fest, been awed by the breadth of the local food truck scene (which is light years ahead of Chicago's, I might add), and actually cooked fresh fish on a gas grill without completely obliterating it. We've also eaten a terrific meal at one of the city's standout farm-to-table restaurants, an experience that I am chronicling in this post.

Before we'd even set foot in Tampa, Mrs. Hackknife had done a little research of her own to find me an Xmas present, namely a gift card to one of the area's finer eateries. Whenever a chef is nominated for a James Beard award, that's usually a strong indicator of someone who knows their way around a kitchen; two local chefs were singled out for this recognition in 2012 - Chad Johnson of SideBern's and Greg Baker of The Refinery. Using the JB nomination as her guide, Mrs. H. opted to get me a gift certificate to SideBern's, which we thoroughly enjoyed back in November last year. At the same time, we made a mental note to get over to the Refinery ASAP and, with the in-laws in town for the Easter holiday (read: babysitters), we chose this destination for our first date night since the move.

The Refinery is located in an area of town referred to as Seminole Heights (5137 N. Florida Ave., to be exact). I'm no anthropologist, but the neighborhood shows all the hallmarks of gentrification - hipster bars, ethnic bakeries, older ranch homes being bought and fixed up by young professionals, etc. When I arrived at the restaurant, I was immediately stymied by the parking logistics: the paved spaces in the lot were taken, leaving only some vacant grass area of questionable use on the side of the property (which, my server later assured me, is both intended and perfectly suitable for parking). This whole leaving your vehicle on the lawn thing seems to be peculiar to Florida as I've noticed it a number of times now (in Chicago, we would have just laid concrete over the grass since we apparently hate nature in all of its forms). Rather than fight my instinct not to trample greenery with tires, I simply pulled onto the side street and parked there (on half grass, half cement - no curbs or sidewalks to be found).

The pig on the Refinery's sign is a hint as to what you'll see on the menu - frequently changing plates (every Thursday, in fact) often involving pork, but just as likely to include other goodies as well. The vibe is more casual than classy as you feel like you're eating in someone's farmhouse (the proprietors are proud of their mismatched tableware and cooking smoke wafting through the dining room). While the ventilation system might need a slight upgrade, the creations departing the kitchen do not. Staying with small plates instead of entrees, the missus and I started with a bowl of little neck clams (served with watercress, swiss chard, and house-made lardo) in a broth of miso, togarashi (a citrusy-spicy Japanese spice blend), nori, orange, and honey that was so delicious I would have happily bathed in it. Also impressive was the chef's take on ramen (he calls it "carboramen"), soba noodles with succulent pork belly and tangy bok choy kimchee, resting in a parmesan-chive broth (see photo below). Both of these dishes paired very well with our local hard cider made by Cigar City (apparently, there's nothing these Cigar City people can't do - I'm calling them next week to fertilize the lawn and clean our windows).

Our second round of small plates were not quite as stellar as the first. Our favorite of the next pair were the herbed beef kidney fritters (topped with shallots, swiss chard, something glorious called bone marrow parsley butter, and a citrus-Banyuls vinaigrette), my first ever conscious and gratuitous consumption of kidneys if I'm not mistaken (they tasted something like liver, except a bit more astringent - not sure if I'd go out of my way to order them again). I really enjoyed the beef heart redeye gravy (a Southern staple made with coffee grounds) that topped some griddle potato pancakes with Granny Smith apple matchsticks, watercress, and a tangerine-smoked paprika vinaigrette, but the cakes themselves were a little mushy and undercooked in places. Desserts ranged from the simply good (chocolate-coffee cheesecake with a peanut-graham crust and a charred orange-miso caramel) to the out-of-this-world (orange-rosemary creme brulee with candied grapefruit and vanilla sugar, my early candidate for sweet of the year). Although there was a misstep or two, the overall dining experience at the Refinery was certainly sufficient to bring us back for a return visit (as was the price - less than $75 for the whole shebang, including drinks, a significant savings over a comparable farm-to-table meal in Chicago that would've easily totalled more than $100). I'll even consider parking on the lawn next time...

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Red Hot Ranch/Little Goat

Although I've missed my April 1 target due to moving, unpacking, hosting various visitors, and recovering from assorted illnesses in the household, we have at last reached the 251st and final (for now) blog posting of Hackknife Version 1.0. When I started writing here over 3 years ago, I wasn't quite sure how long I'd continue or what direction it would wander, but I'm pleased that it's lasted this long and I'm looking forward to forging ahead in spite of a change in home venue. Reminiscing aside, here's the post:

With one week left before the move and one last happy hour being thrown for Mrs. Hackknife downtown, I took advantage of a little extra time in the city to cross off two more eateries from my to-do list. I'd often seen references to Red Hot Ranch (2072 N. Western, no website) as one of Chicago's best examples of the depression, or minimalist, hot dog in the city. Wait a minute, you say, I've heard of a Chicago dog, but what is this depression dog? Well, unlike the traditional Chicago-style dog (which is loaded with many toppings), a lesser-known local hot dog variety exists that allegedly has its roots in the Great Depression, when food was scarce. The so-called "depression" dog features only mustard, chopped onions, relish, and sport peppers, omitting the more-flamboyant toppings that you frequently encounter at other stands in town. Some of the more famous local hot dog joints (such as Gene & Jude's in River Forest) unabashedly serve their dogs only in this fashion, so I was curious to see what the fuss was about.

I arrived at RHR around 3 in the afternoon - as you can imagine, there wasn't much going on there at the time. The stand itself is small (a few stools to sit with a little counter; otherwise, take-out only) and so is the menu, featuring hot dogs, fried shrimp, fries, and not much else.

I went with the standard hot dog and an order of fries, retiring to my minivan with the quarry. As you can see in the photo above, RHR doesn't skimp on the fries (the hot dog is there, I promise, you just have to look a little). I found the hot dog to be pretty run-of-the-mill, but the fries (which appear to be fresh, hand-cut) were fantastic, hot and crispy and worth the trip alone. Now that I've had one depression dog, I'm anxious to try another (maybe Gene & Jude's?) on one of our return trips to Chi-town later this year.

Feeling full, but not defeated, I planned one more stop before reaching the happy hour. I'd recently been seeing a lot of buzz about the burger being served at Au Cheval, a new, upscale diner that popped up last year near the corner of Halsted and Randolph. Many folks (including no less an authority than Chef Sean Brock) have been describing the Au Cheval burger as one of the best in the country, so I took it upon myself to do the necessary research to either prove or refute this statement. I pulled up to the meter spot on Randolph at approximately 3:50pm, walked to the front door of the restaurant, and was promptly faced with the following sign:

"Kitchen closed between 3 and 5 pm daily"

Hmmmph. What kind of place calls itself a "diner" and closes in the middle of the afternoon, leaving those of us needing to satisfy a badass burger craving in a lurch? Luckily, having been to Girl and the Goat last week, I remembered that America's Culinary Sweetheart had just opened a second, more casual restaurant called Little Goat (820 W. Randolph) basically across the street from GNG and a few doors down from Au Cheval. Would I find a comparable, pedestal-worthy burger there? One way to find out.

Little Goat is more of a combination of two places, the first being the diner (which has a retro, yet hipster, vibe - think vintage booths and funky fixtures/wallpaper that could have been lifted from the "I Dream of Jeannie" set), with the second a bar/bakery/coffeshop all rolled up into a small, separate area. The diner menu had a boatload of delectable-sounding breakfast offerings (such as bull's eye french toast with crispy chicken, sweet onion brioche, and bbq maple syrup), but I was here for one reason and one reason only. Fortunately, there's a whole menu section devoted to burgers, and I excitedly made my selection, a massive Slagel Farm beef patty served Korean-style; that is, with kimchee, bacon, and spicy mayo, on something called a squish squash roll (perhaps that's the sound it makes when you bite into it - the burger was also supposed to have a fried egg on top, but I poignantly declined that item).

This is the monster that arrived at my seat and, yes, it was as amazing as it looks, accompanied by a knife and fork to better attack its ample girth. Even though I had previously primed my stomach with dog and fries a short while ago, I somehow managed to eat the whole thing, earning a couple of compliments from my server and a quick trip to the men's room shortly thereafter. If you ever get the opportunity to try kimchee on a burger, I highly recommend it, as the tang and crunch of the pickled veggies perfectly offset the rich, fatty beef. I should note that I stopped in the bakery on the way out to get a couple of sweets to bring home to the Commissary, namely some peanut butter cookies that were also pretty decadent. Chef Stef, whatever your magic formula might be, you need to keep using it - the Goat Empire has a fan in me...

(Stay tuned for the inaugural installment of Hackknife South in a few days - I've already got a good backlog of material featuring some notable food discoveries in the greater Tampa area. Here's hoping you'll stay with me on the new ride...)

Monday, April 1, 2013

Girl and the Goat

When the time came for Mrs. Hackknife's co-workers to plan her going-away dinner, the list of potential venues was both long and impressive (her reputation as a foodie is not a secret around the office). She was given an opportunity to make her own suggestions, and we decided to include (half-jokingly) Girl and the Goat (809 W. Randolph), Chef Stephanie Izard's temple of casual gastronomic wonder that has been frustrating would-be patrons since it burst comet-like onto the local dining scene in 2010. Almost 3 years later, with wait times for reservations still extending 2 months and beyond, surely there was no chance a work party would be able to secure a table with less than 10 day's notice, right? As it turns out, we discovered quite by accident that the easiest way to get into G&G (on a weekend, no less) is to book a group of 25 people in the restaurant's private basement bunker. Miraculously, this is exactly where we found ourselves on a chilly Friday evening in February, snug and giddy and not quite believing our good fortune at having jumped the queue, so to speak.

The basement party room also does duty as the restaurant's top-shelf liquor closet (see photo above). I have to believe that, on several occasions, this environment has encouraged tipsy and/or opportunistic diners to clandestinely sample, say, some grappa or artisanal bourbon from the house's supply, with the hosts later discovering a surprise charge or two on the tab for the night's proceedings. I can't speak for all the members of our party, but I know that the majority of us were there for the food, a marathon collection of 13 small plates served family style, plus some killer breads/compound butters/dipping oils and 4 delicious desserts whose specific details have been lost to the mists of time (the sweets appeared at the end of the meal, well after excessive consumption caused me to lose all semblance of lucidity).

What you see above is a picture of my favorite dish of the night, dreamy empanadas stuffed full of goat meat, served with radish-endive slaw and romesco (a Spanish sauce containing, among other ingredients, nuts and red peppers) for dipping. Not that there weren't others nearly as good, such as addictive pan-fried shishito peppers with parmesan, sesame, and miso (our served told us that 1 out of 20 shishitos is exceedingly spicy; however, I don't think any of us found the demon pepper) or a pan-roasted Arctic char with sunchoke, ruby red grapefruit, olives, and crispy lentils. Besides goat, America's Culinary Sweetheart also works wonders with simple vegetables - her creations of kohlrabi (in a salad with fennel, LaClare Farms Evalon cheese, roasted shiitakes, toasted almonds, and a ginger dressing), cauliflower (roasted with pickled peppers, pine nuts, and mint), and green beans (sauteed with cashews and a fish sauce vinaigrette) put to shame anything I've ever attempted at home (I suspect even my picky progeny eaters might have a go at these veggies).

Wait - there's more. Surprisingly light chickpea fritters appeared, served with stewed winter greens and a prairie fruit chevre. Tender grilled baby octopus, featuring guanciale (cured pork jowl, that elusive salumi), wax beans, pistachios, and a lemon vinaigrette stood shoulder-to-shoulder with a mindblowing beef short rib, dirty fried rice, onion salad, and pickled mushroom. By the time the crisp braised pork shank with butternut squash-shiitake kimchi, buttermilk dressing, and naan arrived at the table, I was practically begging for mercy.

G&G's service was exemplary. Our waiter was on top of pretty much every conceivable need we had, even providing the requisite encouragement when one member of our party took it upon himself to attempt opening a wine bottle using nothing more than a dress shoe and a brick wall (he was successful, I might add, a turn of events that has since passed into legend - who says that YouTube isn't useful?). The house even provided us with personalized menus of the evening's plates and (!) cookbooks signed by the chef for me and the missus. Many, many thanks to the G&G staff and Mrs. Hackknife's co-workers for creating a tremendous, truly memorable dining experience...