Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Burger Monger

Gourmet burger emporiums are proliferating like mushrooms on a damp lawn these days. Case in point - within a 10-minute drive of the Canteen, we've got a Five Guys, Burger 21, Red Robin, and two Steak and Shakes, not to mention all of the usual fast food offerings (which, to be fair, are not exactly as good as the others - sorry, Burger King). As of last month, a new arrival has thrown its bun in the ring on our side of town: Burger Monger (BM), a small franchise that began in Philadelphia and, with its new location in Safety Harbor (2454 McMullen Booth Rd. - just down the street from our church), now has four spots around Tampa. Sure, BM touts its hand-cut fries and premium ice cream shakes (as do the others), but has an ace in the hole, so to speak - the beef they use is 100% Japanese Akaushi Kobe Beef, sourced from a cattle herd brought specifically from Kyushu Island, Japan to Texas and sold under the name HeartBrand (if you go to the HeartBrand website, you'll notice that their product is not commonly sold outside of their home state). Reading the purported health benefits of this special beef versus the garden variety grain-fed cattle (it's low in cholesterol and high in monounsaturated fats), you'd think you were eating a kale smoothie instead of fried ground steak. Anyway, one Sunday after church, we decided to pop in for lunch and put a BM burger to the test against our current local favorite, Burger 21.

When I first saw the menu, I was a little daunted by the choices (they offer 9 different cheeses and a whole host of other toppings, yielding about a bazillion possible combinations), but instead of spending more to add bacon, I upgraded my burger to include 8 oz. of beef instead of 6. My other topping choices included the "special monger sauce" (a combo of Jamaican relish and chipotle mayo), lettuce, tomato, grilled onions, and banana peppers. The burgers come on a garlic butter-grilled challah bun, sourced with almost the same care as the meat (an old Italian bakery near Miami, Cusano's, makes the BM rolls). After one bite, I was immediately glad that I got the bigger patty - the Akaushi beef is rich and absolutely delicious, squarely putting BM on my short list of best burger purveyors in Tampa. The fries were good (but not destination-worthy) and the housemade beef franks are nearly as spectacular as the burgers (I sneaked a bite of Hackknifette's hot dogs when she wasn't looking); however, it's hard for me to imagine coming back and not getting pretty much the same order as the first time...

Sunday, July 27, 2014


On July 24, the national foodie website Eater.com published the following spoof menu satirizing the ubiquitous farm-to-table dining trend that has by now seeped into nearly every corner of the country:

The timing of this post couldn't have been more fortuitous, as Mrs. Hackknife and I had just recently supped at a local Tampa restaurant that was decent, but not great, and furthermore left me with nagging hesitation about how exactly to write up our experience. The place in question, named Boca (901 W. Platt St. in South Tampa), almost perfectly meets the stereotypical definition of hipster trendy, from the water served in Mason Jars, to the on-site "market" (actually just a small display plopped in the middle of the dining room), to the numerous Wilco concert posters - the type of joint where there's even a listing on the menu to buy a beer ($3) for the kitchen staff (presumably either to get them drunk or help them nurse the hangover from last night's patron offerings). Once I read Eater's spoof menu a few weeks later, I knew that I had an instant connection to my subject eatery; however, I didn't quite realize just how appropriate the comparison was until I placed the two bills of fare side-by-side. To my abject horror, they had no less than eight (8) things in common. The first thing we ate was the best dish of the night and it actually wasn't represented on the satire menu - a knockout version of fried green tomatoes with pimiento cheese spread, tomato jam, and house-cured bacon:

Our middle course consisted entirely of spoofed food - Mrs. Hackknife had the evening's fish special, a black grouper (aka the "gnarly looking whole fish with half of a charred lemon") and I tried the free-range chicken breast (aka the "amish chicken in the big city") on a bed of fingerling potatoes and swiss chard, while we shared a crock of brussels sprouts hash (aka the "unconventional riff on brussels sprouts"). The sprouts were great and the fish/chicken entrees certainly looked the part, but both were surprisingly bland and lacking, well, soul, for lack of better term.

We hemmed and hawed on dessert, with the missus opting for a disappointing chocolate skillet cake (served in a tiny cast iron pan, so trendy that no irony was needed) and me only slightly blissing out on some sort of PB&J stack (pictured below):

I give the Boca folks credit for trying, but it's becoming increasingly obvious to us that the top-tier of farm-to-table restaurants in the greater Tampa area goes only 2 or 3 deep (there's the Refinery, Edison, Elevage, and that's about it). Still, this experience will not deter us from further sampling the local goods to identify the best "tarted-up pork belly" (in Eater parlance) out there...

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Pho Quyen

Shrimp and Pork Spring Rolls with Peanut Dipping Sauce

Beef Combination Pho (Sliced beef, flank, brisket, tendon, tripe, and meatball)

Sliced Pork with Fish Sauce and Mild Curry Chicken

Warm Rice Pudding Custard

If I were to be completely honest, I'd have to admit that the sum total of times I've eaten Vietnamese cuisine in my life can be counted on the fingers of one hand - I can recall a place in Edison Park (Chicago) that Mrs. Hackknife and I went to not long after we were married, and not much more than that.  This is why I was excited when I first discovered Pho Quyen (8404 W. Hillsborough) while driving through the Town & Country neighborhood of Tampa one afternoon (the smiling cow and green striped awnings on the building's exterior are eye-catching and made me first think that it was an ice cream parlor).  The interior is much less distinctive (think 1980s Asian buffet), but the food is tremendously good.  We began with the house spring rolls, containing shrimp, pork, rice vermicelli, lettuce, and mint leaves wrapped in translucent rice paper (the peanut dipping sauce is addictive by itself), followed by a giant bowl of traditional Vietnamese noodle soup, or pho, filled with many parts of the cow (not smiling at this point), plus basil, bean sprouts, mild spicy peppers, lime, scallions, and onions.  Of all the beef cuts simmering in the broth, the tripe was probably my least favorite (a little bland and chewy as tripe often goes); however, the rest was like a warm, snuggly blanket for my innards.  Two entrees followed, a platter of terrific stir-fried pork in umami-laden fish sauce (with white rice) and a good, but not quite as outstanding, mild curry chicken.  A slab of tasty warm rice pudding custard topped with crushed peanuts stood in for our dessert (not that we needed any after everything that preceded it).  The leftovers proved to be just as good the next day, leaving me anxious for a return visit to try out more of their voluminous menu...

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Next (Modern Chinese Menu)

Chinese Okra Centerpiece
(stealthily filled with hot and sour soup)

Hot and Sour Soup
(extracted from okra via plunger)

Bamboo Shoot and Lily Bulb

(left to right) Hot Foam Congee with Pork Floss
Scallop Dumpling with Watercress and White Fungus
Pork Dumpling with Chinese Date and Cuttlefish

Monkfish with White Asparagus and Roasted Spine Broth

Crab Salad with Green Chili Paste and Fresh Coconut Ice

(left to right) Tiger Salad with Cold Skin Noodles and Seitan
Skate Chop "Muslim Lamb" Style (with cumin and sesame)
Tingly Squab with Tarragon and Sumac

Another view of tingly squab skewer

Shrimp Paste and Lettuce Bite

Shrimp in a Duck Egg Yolk "Sand"

"Beef and Broccoli"
(Dried beef slices and fried broccoli florets, beef consomme)

Duck in Layers

"Pulling Threads" with Sweetbreads, Taro Root, and Banana

Frozen Rice Soup with Legumes and Whipped Vinegar

Dragon's Beard Candy with Pressed Honeycomb

Giant Fortune Cookie

Our final meal during our latest Chicago trip was also the most anticipated; that is, the Modern Chinese menu at Next (953 W. Fulton Market St.).  As always, Grant Achatz, Chef Dave Beran, and company combined sleight of hand (such as the first course, a hot and sour soup hidden within the centerpiece on the table), bold experimentation (turning a duck egg yolk into a reasonable facsimile of sand), whimsy (see the brontosaurus fortune cookie above), and flawless technique to create another memorable meal, although not without a few hiccups.  The missus and I cruised along through the first 8 courses with nary a single complaint until the "duck in layers" course, which featured slices of smoked duck breast, steamed buns containing duck rillettes, a dandelion/mustard green salad, and cabbage with poached duck egg.  On paper, this all sounded terrific, but I found the steam buns to be light on rillettes and heavy on dough, while the number of seasonings provided with the meat were simply overwhelming (by the time I'd tried all the permutations to identify my favorite, the duck was gone).  The following "sweet and sour" course (fried taro, sweetbreads, and plantains served on a searingly-hot black stone, with a caramel dipping sauce that hardened upon application) was a gimmick that should have worked; however, the sweet caramel couldn't hide the surprising blandness of the material being enshrouded.  These few shortcomings were singularly absolved by the first dessert course, a so-called dragon's beard candy (sort of like supercharged cotton candy) plate drizzled with fresh honey pressed out of the honeycomb using a special tool designed just for this occasion - I have no idea what was in M. Beran's rendition of this sweet delicacy, but I'd happily trek naked through two feet of snow to get another.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Topolobampo - Chicago, IL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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