Thursday, March 27, 2014

Elevage/Chocolate Pi (at the Epicurean Hotel)

When we last ate at Bern's Steak House a few months ago, the missus and I couldn't help but notice the massive construction project going on across Howard Street from the restaurant. This was the highly-anticipated (at least by me) Epicurean Hotel, a food-themed venture conceived by the folks at Bern's combining boutique digs (137 rooms' worth, presumably to give patrons overserved on fine Red Bordeaux a nearby place to crash), a culinary classroom (the Epicurean "Theatre"), a spa, a new home for their wine/spirits business, a hip bakery (more on that in a bit), a rooftop bar, and, of course, a new eatery. Elevage (1207 S. Howard St.), which opened in December along with the rest of the hotel complex, is helmed by Sideburn's head chef Chad Johnson and is described as offering elevated comfort food from all corners of the globe, a place somewhere between the old-school steakhouse experience across the road and the innovative modern dining coming from M. Johnson's other kitchen. Although a few of the early reviews for the restaurant were less than stellar, the menu and concepts were intriguing enough for me to choose Elevage as the place to celebrate my (redacted)nd birthday last weekend.

Both the food and the service were taking some hits in the local foodie press, but none of this was immediately evident when we arrived for our 6:30 reservation (the hotel looks great, by the way). As I settled in with a pint of my new favorite beer, Lagunitas Censored Copper Ale, Mrs. Hackknife and I selected two appetizers to start, an antique flour sifter full of assorted housemade breads (baguette, rye, and something akin to toasted white bread) with strawberry butter and a rich jar of potted rabbit rillette (see photo below).

The rillette was a slurry of shredded rabbit meat cooked with foie gras mousse and garnished with cornichons/crostini, quite delicious, although the greens added to the pot made spreading a hindrance (I think they'd be better served just putting the greens on the side). Next up was our salads - I don't normally order Caesar, but the bottarga vinaigrette dressing sucked me in and this version was terrific, a collection of simple ingredients (lettuce, radish, dressing, croutons, and shaved parmesan) that absolutely sang together:

Mrs. Hackknife was also pleased with her traditional wedge salad, lettuce topped with Bay Blue cheese, bacon, cherry tomatoes, warm mustard/chive dressing, and a hard-boiled egg for good measure:

The entrees were a little on the pricey side, but spectacular nonetheless. I had eaten a burger for lunch that day and swore that I wouldn't get another for dinner; however, the Elevage "burger" is more of an experience not to be missed. Called "Duck, Duck, Goose" on the menu, the meat patty (served on a toasted brioche) is shredded duck meat formed around a core of foie gras and goose confit. I recall having a similar burger in Vegas at the now-departed Daniel Boulud Bistro in the Wynn, but this one was clearly superior, and I made sure to direct all of the dripping fowl juices onto the fries (waste not, want not), which were good and made better by the black currant ketchup.

Mrs. Hackknife ordered the lamb shoulder lasagna, shredded lamb mixed with chestnuts, spinach, tallegio cheese, Greek oregano, and housemade noodles. She was kind enough to share a bite with me and also let me have the leftovers for lunch a couple of days later.

At this point, we reached our one sour note of the meal. I ordered us a side of Tuscan kale to go with the entrees - I make a similar version of this at home with spinach instead of kale and it had a delicious flavor; unfortunately, the kale was undercooked to the point of nearly being inedible. We had to send it back and our server took it off the bill.

Instead of each ordering a separate dessert, we agreed to share a signature banana caramel tart and then wander over to Chocolate Pi for some sweets to-go. Pasty chef Kim Yelvington (who runs the show at Bern's Harry Waugh Dessert Room) manages both the dessert program at Elevage and oversees activities at Chocolate Pi. Evidently, she knows her craft well as the tart (paired with caramel sauce and Graham cracker powder) was great:

Chocolate Pi offers a number of French-themed treats (like macarons) and some that are not so French (like ice cream and homemade sodas). After much deliberation, we settled on a few macarons to bring home, specifically rose petal, salted caramel, blueberry-lemon, and pink velvet (cream cheese plus chocolate ganache). Not the best macarons ever, but definitely among the tops you'll find in this nook of the tropics.

At some point, I'll need to look into the cooking classes that the Epicurean has scheduled; until then, it's comforting to know that we now have more eating, drinking, and sleeping options if we ever find ourselves rudderless in South Tampa...

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Cask & Larder (Revisited) - Winter Park

During the year that we've had to survey the culinary landscape of Central Florida, Mrs. Hackknife and I have discovered a number of restaurants that warrant multiple visits; one of them, Cask & Larder in Winter Park, received such a visit from us this past Sunday as we met up for brunch with my sister and her friend (in town for Spring Break). Since our first experience with C&L last August entailed a thorough sampling of their lunch offerings, my plan this time was to focus more on breakfast items, which we did at first by sharing a "bakeshop on a board", consisting of decadent crumb cake, two giant macarons (pecan stuffed with a bourbon buttercream), a monkey bread that puts anything Cinnabon ever did to complete shame, and homemade glazed caramel donut holes. While the remainder of the table continued with the breakfast theme (most of them opted for the brioche french toast, served in a large baking dish with roasted apples, granola, bacon, bourbon maple syrup, and brown butter glaze - and yes, it was as good as it sounds), I couldn't help but to order C&L's special version of pasta carbonara (see photo above). In this case, cavatelli made from stinging nettle (a plant with skin irritating properties that happens to be highly nutritious - cooking the leaves neutralizes the irritants) stood in for the usual fettucine and was quite tasty in spite of its earthworm-like appearance. Other additions to the dish included lamb bacon (which is breakfast, right?), watercress, peas, baby carrots that looked alarmingly like twigs, shaved parmesan, trout roe (for a briny touch), and a light cream sauce. When washed down with a breakfast beverage (a Long Overdue Porter, made on the premises in the attached brewery), this made for a fine brunch. Even the progeny were happy as the kitchen made for them custom plates of scrambled eggs with what was likely the best bacon they'll ever encounter. All told, it appears to me that C&L has conquered both breakfast and lunch, and I can't imagine that dinner would be safe, either...

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

edison food+drink lab

For those of you who are not local to Tampa, every year from January through March a whole collection of events take place that are associated with Gasparilla, our mini-Mardi Gras with a distinct pirate theme. No raucous celebration is complete without parades, and Gasparilla has three of them, from the tame (toddlers only) to the raging (think adults in period costumes fueled by toxic amounts of alcohol). There's a music-fest, a fun run, a film festival, a brunch, a mock invasion in which the mayor gets kidnapped (don't ask), an art fair, and probably several others that are less publicized. Since we're in the process of remodeling our living room here at the Canteen, it's the art fair that caught Mrs. Hackknife's attention and drew us downtown one Saturday afternoon seeking some sort of wall hanging for the space above the piano. Sadly, I didn't notice a single pirate-related item for sale (where were the velvet paintings of Blackbeard?); however, the available offerings were otherwise decent and we settled on a large-format photo of a sandy Pensacola beach at sunset (or is it sunrise?). After dropping the family off back home, we needed to return downtown to pick up our purchase and decided to stay there for dinner, popping into edison food+drink lab, located a short distance from the art fair off of Kennedy Avenue (912 W. Kennedy, to be exact).

edison (the lowercase "e" is intentional, by the way) has been on my dining radar since we made the move south - founder and executive chef Jeannie Pierola spent many years honing her craft at Tampa institutions Bern's and SideBern's before striking out on her own, opening her current venture in 2012. The restaurant's name comes from the nearest cross street, but Chef Pierola embraced the spirit of the famous namesake inventor to build her entire concept, creating a culinary experience heavy on innovation (for example, the menus are all designed with a chemistry lab motif and you can order drinks in a flask, among other cute touches). Her reputation for creating modern dishes with exacting techniques has not gone unnoticed in town (there are only a handful of chefs doing this sort of thing here), so the missus and I were excited to finally try it out.

The space is spare and energetic to the point of being a little rowdy, with not a lot of room for mingling. We were seated near the kitchen (which also appeared to be improbably small) and Chef Pierola was there at the pass, putting finishing touches on plates as they made their way through. In addition to inventive cuisine, edison is also known for its unusual cocktail program, which isn't something I normally value, but my curiosity was piqued enough to order a Desert Lily, containing everyone's favorite New Mexico bubbly (Gruet Brut), plus Astral Tequila Blanco, lemon juice, and rosemary syrup (the drink was refreshing, although I could have done without the actual rosemary sprig in the glass that managed to find its way into my mouth when I wasn't paying attention). Mrs. Hackknife equally enjoyed her Vieux Carre, a current interpretation of a classic cocktail featuring Mitchter's Single Barrel Rye, Benedictine Liqueur, Germain-Robin Brandy, Dolin Rouge Vermouth, and Peychaud's Bitters.

Tastebuds sufficiently primed, we now took on the task of wading through the menu, which is segregated into small plates (spark, cold start, and hot start) and entrees (soluble/solid and large format). We quickly realized that edison is one of those places where we could easily just order one of everything, so to make life simpler, we limited ourselves to mainly small plates for this first visit, starting out with a spectacular trio of goat cheese truffles stuffed with a filling of Medjool dates and foie gras, dusted with fennel pollen, and paired with toasted baguette rounds for spreading (spark, indeed!):

Good, but not quite as spectacular was Spark #2, another trio of items, this time thin slices of Benton's aged ham nestled into sweet potato biscuits and garnished with pickled mustard seed and goat's milk cajeta (a sweet caramel sauce). While tasty, the biscuits became very crumbly upon handling, although the combination of the ham with caramel sauce is a new classic that (mark my words) will somehow find its way into my home kitchen:

Two of the hot start dishes followed. First up was a crispy pork belly terrine containing an unknown stuffing (maybe ground-up head cheese?) with fennel pollen polenta, radicchio fennel agrodolce, bread and butter apples, and fennel oil. From the richness of the terrine to the perfect polenta (daresay the best I've ever had?) to the palate-cleansing radicchio, I absolutely loved everything about this plate. Mrs. Hackknife had a slight preference for our other hot start, cracked conch and bacon fritters (which I found to be a little heavy) paired with pickled mustard seed and burnt honey dijonnaise (both dishes can be seen in the photo below):

We opted to go for a light course before diving into dessert, choosing a lump crab and butter lettuce salad with avocado, heart of palm, cucumbers, pickled strawberries, and goat milk ranch dressing. The salad was bright and refreshing, just was the doctor (or, in this case, nutritionist) ordered:

Our server brought over a separate menu for desserts, which included a number of tempting homemade ice creams (think pb&j or sweet potato/toasted marshmallow) as well as several original creations. We first picked the sugar-crusted butter cake garnished with brown butter ice cream, pistachios, orange segments, toffee sauce, and pellets of meringue (all of it amazing):

We just couldn't leave without trying the house's most famous dessert, homemade crullers with cardamom glaze, carrot ice cream, and powdered white raisin puree. The crullers made me think of the breading that surrounds the sweet and sour chicken from the local Chinese take-out joint (in the best possible way, not an oil bomb):

Clearly, edison tops a number of the local food press's "Best of" dining lists for good reason. After our experience, I have no problem declaring that it's on our personal short list of best restaurants in Tampa and I sincerely hope we'll be able to return before Gasparilla comes rolling around again next year...

Monday, March 10, 2014

Icebox Lemon Cream Pie

Back when the Midwest's summer was just getting cranked up last year (and Florida's was already in full swing), Chicago Magazine ran a picnic article with recipes for two scrumptious-sounding desserts: salted caramel brownies from pastry chef extraordinaire Gale Gand and an icebox lemon cream pie from the good folks over at Bang Bang Pie Shop in Logan Square. I have to admit that I'd be hard-pressed to find a better brownie than my mother-in-law's (and I'm not being coerced to say that, either), but the pie definitely caught my attention primarily due to the source - I'd never had the pleasure of trying a Bang Bang pie before we left town, however, the word on the street is that they're a serious rival to my favorite Chicago pie people, Hoosier Mama. So, with anticipation in my belly, I set out to re-create the icebox pie for some dinner guests that Mrs. Hackknife had invited over one Thursday evening not too long ago.

This was my first ever homemade Graham cracker crust - I'd heard it was pretty simple (just a combination of cracker crumbs, sugar, and butter) and it was. Keebler even sells boxes of pre-crushed Graham crackers for the home cook without a mallet or rolling pin to do their own dirty work. Once the crust is baked and cooled, the filling isn't much more difficult, although I ran into a little trouble when separating out the egg yolks from the whites. The recipe calls for 5 egg yolks, which is exactly what I had in the fridge until I lost one in the garbage can during the separation process. After a brief panicked moment during which I actually considered digging the soiled yolk out of the trash, sanity gripped me and I decided to simply adjust down the ingredients to account for one less egg and hope for the best. As it turns out, I needn't have worried - the filling level in the pie shell was a bit paltry, but the taste was just fine (as you can see in the photo above, there wasn't much left after a few days), so good, in fact, that I'm not putting this pie in my regular rotation for cookout/picnic-themed desserts. My hope is that the locals here in Florida will embrace it since the flavor is pretty darn close to our beloved Key lime pie...

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Florida State Fair/Florida Strawberry Festival

Late winter and early spring is festival season in west-central Florida, and two of the state's largest ones (the State Fair and the Strawberry Festival) happen to occur within days of each other less than an hour's drive from the Canteen. The missus and I are suckers for fests - once you dig past the ubiquitous carnival hyper-fare (deep fried Oreos, anyone?), they can be a good source of lowbrow-yet-inventive street food creations that will often highlight the region's culinary specialties. It was with this goal in mind that we rounded up the kids one recent Sunday afternoon and made our way over to the Florida State Fairgrounds, just off of I-4 about 10 minutes east of downtown Tampa.

The item at the fair that had garnered the most attention in the local foodie press thus far was the ramen burger being cooked up by a single Carousel Foods stand in the park, where two grilled discs of ramen noodles (presumably to give them some sort of structure beyond their usual limp form) stood in for the hamburger bun. The ramen burger was on the top of my hit list, but wasn't immediately visible when we encountered our first stretch of midway, so we settled for some corn dogs instead.

Mrs. Hackknife initially scoffed at me ("With all the stuff here, you're going to fill up on corn dogs?"); however, it turns out that these corn dogs (buttermilk-dipped according to the sign and described as such by the proprietors) were among the best I can recall having, with a light, fluffy breading encasing the juicy sausage (see photo below).

Stomach sufficiently primed, we took the progeny on a few rides before stopping for a treat break at another well-publicized stand, this one selling a number of different funnel cakes. After nearly settling on the maple-bacon version, I made a snap decision to get the bacon chocolate instead:

As decadent as this looks in the photo, it was a little underwhelming. Still, I'm convinced in the proper hands and with higher-quality ingredients (for example, I saw them use an off-brand chocolate syrup for topping - just think of what this could be with Nueske's bacon and Valhrona dark chocolate!), someone would have a best-seller.

More rides followed along with some wandering through the livestock exhibits (you don't see THOSE at Disney World - who knew rabbits could get that enormous?). We finally stumbled upon the ramen burger stand tucked back in the far reaches of the fairgrounds; unfortunately, the line was excessively long, so we pressed onward, making a brief stop at the Amish Baking Company booth to get some lemonades and freshly-made glazed donuts for the kids. Although I'd pretty much reached my daily limit on fried goods, I snuck one bite for research purposes and found the donut to be amazingly good, very similar to those we'd fawned over at Britt's Donuts in Carolina Beach last summer. The ramen burger was still within my reach, but the progeny had started getting ornery by this time and I feared that a 20-minute wait for daddy to get his wacky sandwich would push my wife over the edge; thus, I had to bid it adieu and hope that Carousel Foods would have the same offerings at the upcoming Strawberry Festival, which we planned to attend the following week.

Mrs. Hackknife and I arrived at the Strawberry Fest (without dependents this time) eager to see the evening's musical headliner Styx (fellow natives of Chicago suburbia) and to have a little more freedom in choosing food items. Being an ardent supporter of the dairy industry, the missus immediately stopped for a portion of deep fried butter (an actual half-stick of butter that is battered and fried) on a stick. Now, you readers are aware that there are many things I will consume that the average person tends to shun, but I definitely have my limits, and this abomination against God is one of them; in fact, I had such a physical aversion to it that I couldn't even watch her nibble (which, to her credit, she did only a few times before tossing the remainder to the rats and pigeons). I needed a good while of walking the festival site looking for less-offensive creations before I could conceive of having dinner.

The number of typical fair junk food stands here was astounding; sadly, not much really stood out. Eventually, I stumbled across the Hungry Gator Meat Market trailer from nearby Plant City and tried one of their housemade alligator sausages:

Ample-sized, lightly sauced, and surprisingly mild with just a hint of spice (paprika?), this gator meat was definitely better than the trashy gator nuggets I had at a roadhouse somewhere near Orlando about 15 years ago (the only other encounter with edible gator I can recall). With no ramen burger in sight (guess I'll have to wait for next year...sigh), Mrs. H. and I decided to then seek out examples of the produce-of-honor - sure, you can get strawberry pie, and strawberry pizza, and (of course) deep fried strawberries here, but we opted for old-school strawberry shortcake, which many organizations were selling at the fest to raise funds.

This particular sampling of strawberry shortcake came courtesy of St. Clement Catholic Church in Plant City, which has an entire stall, covered pavilion, and a phalanx of volunteers supporting its high-volume (and, from the looks of things, highly coveted) shortcake operation. Once you enter, you're given a choice of traditional round cake cup or biscuit for your substrate, then get a ladle of strawberries in juice, a dollop-to-order of whipped cream, and a single berry on top to complete the creation. Unfortunately, I didn't find this dessert to live up to the fanfare - it seemed like the type of thing anyone could throw together for a few bucks at the local Ponderosa (I should note that the wife enjoyed hers just fine and told me to "lighten up").

Much better in my opinion was the strawberry shortcake milkshake I noticed from one of the stands nearby. The proprietors appeared to pump a decent amount of vanilla milkshake and strawberries into the cup bottom, followed by a spin with the Hamilton Beach mixer, then topping the resulting slurry with an entire yellow cake cup and a royal crown of whipped cream. I found the key to maximum enjoyment was breaking up the cake into the mix so that its little chunks could be slurped up the straw along with the milkshake. If my jaw ever needs to be wired shut, I henceforth decree that this shall be my sole source of nourishment during my convalescence.

After these two festivals, I believe we're ready to break for a while, at least until the nearby Filipino Fest comes back around the first of April.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Norman's Book Release Dinner

A few weeks ago, Mrs. Hackknife and I traveled back to the Ritz Carlton Orlando (site of our 10th anniversary weekend last August) to attend a special book release dinner for Norman Van Aken at his namesake restaurant. This event was intended to promote Chef Van Aken's new memoir, No Experience Necessary, and happened to coincide with Valentine's Day (not an accident, I'm sure), so we decided that the dinner would be our gift to each other (as always, the way to our hearts is generally found via our stomachs). Each attendee received a signed copy of the memoir as well as a copy of his latest cookbook, My Key West Kitchen (which we had already received in August, giving us a handy 2nd copy for regifting), but the highlight of the evening was the 5-course meal that Chef Van Aken and his executive chef at Norman's, Andres Mendoza, prepared for the guests.

First up was the cocktail hour - we ran into surprisingly bad traffic on I-4 between Tampa/Orlando and ended up arriving 15 minutes late. This wouldn't have been a problem had the kitchen not run out of the foie gras appetizers that were being passed around the room (I think Mrs. Hackknife got the very last one before they disappeared for good). I had to pull myself together with a glass of Champagne and the other hors d'oeuvres being offered, artichoke fritters (good except for the presence of some very tough artichoke pieces) and mini-steak tartares (delicious). After this, we were seated at our table and began chowing down on the main meal.

What you see above was described on the menu as beer-steamed Key West shrimp with a mojo rojo (red sour orange) sauce, garnished with a hearts of palm, Florida citrus (which appeared to be a plain ol' orange segment), and avocado salad. Our wine pairing with this course was a slightly sweet 2010 Robert Weil Riesling "Tradition" Kabinett, from the Rheingau region of Germany. The shrimp in the dish were big and briny, playing perfectly off the crisp and herbal salad.

Next up was a lobster course. Chef Van Aken explained to the crowd that he was forced to utilize lobsters from Maine as the recent cold snaps our fair state had been receiving (laughable for the folks up north suffering through a real winter, but apparently sufficiently traumatic for our local crustaceans) made it especially difficult to obtain Florida lobsters at the moment. Anyway, the lobster in question was plated with croutons, capers, and a brown butter sauce, a combination that sounds divine, but wasn't quite as rich and flavorful as I was expecting. The real star of this plate in my opinion was the wine that came with it, a 2011 Sauvignon Blanc from Chateau Carbonnieux in the Pessac-Leognan appellation of Bordeaux that had a wonderful combination of tropical fruit and grassy notes. I've already been poking my nose around the nearby liquor stores trying to find a few bottles for consumption around the Canteen.

As if by magic, one of my favorite proteins subsequently appeared at the table, a wonderful grill-roasted duck breast (served medium rare) from Lake Meadow Farms in Orlando, served with a raisin-pineapple sauce and paired with sweet potato mash and Brussels sprouts. Our wine with this dish was a punchy 2011 Domaine Tournon "Shays Flat Vineyard" Shiraz from the Pyrenees region of Victoria in Australia, a little too heavy on the alcohol for my liking.

One more meat course followed, a filet mignon tournedos in a Madeira wine reduction topped with a sunny-side up quail egg (which I happily passed over to my wife) and some wild mushrooms (which I was going to pass, then opted to eat instead). The filet was paired with a 2010 Turnbull Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa.

Our dessert was a terrific deconstructed Key lime pie consisting of so many elements that I was dizzy at trying to take it all in (Ice cream! Graham cracker crumble! Meringue! Chewy gelled orbs of unknown origin!), although all of the pieces came together beautifully. This was probably my favorite dish of the evening and I also quite enjoyed the sparkling 2013 La Spinetta "Biancospino" Moscato d'Asti that accompanied dessert. We had the option of sticking around for postprandial activities (such as after-dinner drinks/cigars); however, with the long drive back to Tampa yet on the schedule, no good was going to come of lingering, so off we went with more happy memories of Norman's on the brain...