Friday, August 29, 2014

NYC Day #1 - Katsu-Hama/Eleven Madison Park

Mrs. Hackknife recently had some work obligations in New York City (not unusual when your employer has the words "New York" in its name) and invited me to spend the weekend with her up there. As most of you probably know, whether you're talking haute or lowbrow, NYC is essentially the epicenter of gastronomy in our fair country, so I jumped at the chance to design a multi-day feasting itinerary for our visit (sure, we did some touristy stuff like visit the Empire State Building and see a play, but that's not what you're here to read about, is it?). Grandma was kind enough to travel from Chicago to Florida so that we could explore the city sans progeny; as a result, I left Tampa solo on a Friday morning Newark-bound (cheaper flight) with an empty belly and a restaurant cheat sheet in my pocket.

I stumbled across a shuttle bus that was able to drop me at the Port Authority bus terminal in midtown Manhattan, mere walking distance to our hotel on 38th Street. From there, Mrs. Hackknife and I met up for lunch with a NYC-based high school friend who writes for a major newspaper. The venue I chose for our first in-town meal was Katsu-Hama (11 E. 47th Street), a casual Japanese joint specializing in the fried pork cutlets known as tonkatsu (Eater included Katsu-Hama among its 38 essential NYC restaurants - if you're interested, you can see a video that former Eater food critic Robert Sietsma made there last year). Mrs. H and I had tonkatsu a couple of times when we visited Japan; however, it's a little hard to find in the States (this version bears only a vague resemblance to the giant fried pork tenderloins of Indiana and Iowa). After about a 20-minute wait for a table, we settled in and all ordered the $12 lunch special, consisting of miso soup, a bowl of pickled veggies, ample mound of shredded cabbage, steamed rice, and the fried cutlet perched atop a little metal grate (presumably to drain off any drippings). Condiments included a carafe of housemade tonkatsu sauce (like gravy, only sweeter), spicy mustard, and what appeared to be sesame seeds, with a wooden mortar for grinding (we never really figured it out for sure, but it seems the ground-up sesame seeds were supposed to go with the tonkatsu sauce). Although not quite the equal of the kind we enjoyed in Tokyo, Katsu-Hama's pork was crunchy, flavorful, and not the least bit greasy, with all other meal components harmoniously blending together around the cutlet.

It wasn't easy, but I managed to avoid all afternoon snacking (I don't count the Dogfish Head Festina Peche I drank at Eataly around 5 o'clock) in anticipation of dinner at Eleven Madison Park (11 Madison Avenue), arguably the best restaurant in the country at the moment and not an easy reservation (fortunately, our good friends Adam and Ellen agreed to join us - I discovered that getting a 4-top at EMP is less challenging than accommodating a party of 2, and there were happy to be used as pawns in securing our table). Falling somewhere between the all-encompassing whimsy experience of Alinea and the austere modern dining of Per Se, Chef Daniel Humm and his crack crew at EMP apply cutting-edge technique to top-notch ingredients, crafting a spectacular tasting menu out of many intricate components.

Massive windows overlooking Madison Square Park let daylight into the art-deco dining room, which is Gatsbyesque in its scale and grandeur.  A leaf motif (signifying the old trees in the park) can be found throughout the premises and extends to the menu, as we were each asked to punch out the paper leaf cutting associated with our preferred selection of 4 flavor options at the beginning of the meal.

Overall, the evening's menu consisted of 14 courses and we opted to invoke the "Go Big or Go Home" rule, choosing the premium wine pairing to accompany the dishes (a decision that, when reviewing the final bill later, nearly made my eyes bleed). We began with a crisp flute of Krug Grande Cuvee Champagne to go with our amuse bouche, a play on the traditional sweet NYC black and white cookie (more on that in the NYC Day #4 posting), in this case made savory with cheddar cheese and apple.

The mother-of-pearl spoon on the side went with the second course, a vivid yellow corn custard presented two ways: encircled by rare tuna loin at the business end of a bone "lollipop" (sadly, the bone wasn't edible) and artfully dolloped with black caviar, creme fraiche, and chives.

One last bite with the champagne followed, a shaved strip of fresh cucumber marinated with lemon juice and placed atop a bed of delicate melon pearls (if I didn't know any better, I'd say this was intended to resemble a single piece of ravioli).

In keeping with the summer theme of light, vegetable-based cuisine, the next course was a study in tomato, specifically a clear (almost consomme) warm tea of lemon thyme and tomato essence, plus a wonderfully bright heirloom tomato salad with strawberries, basil, and olive oil dressing. These were paired with an amazingly crisp Sancerre (2013 Les Monts Damnes) from Claude et Florence Thomas-Labaille in the French Loire Valley.

One of three "picnic"-themed courses then arrived at the table, an upscale take on the ubiquitous pastrami on rye bread sandwich. EMP prepares relatively thick slices of unctuous, fatty pastrami (seared rare) and requests diners to place them atop a small round of rye that's been adorned with red, green, and yellow mustard droplets (similar in appearance to the tomato salad) and garnished with curly pickled pepper/cucumber. This delightful creation was washed down with homemade cherry soda (the first manifestation of my flavor choice at the start of the meal) and a funky artisanal cider (a 2013 Appinette made from Traminette grapes and New York apples) from Aaron Burr Cider in upstate New York.

At this point, we reached the short interlude between courses when our servers brought over some flaky brioches with not one, but two, types of butter: the locally-made, small creamery variety and the same, just amped up with beef fat.  Yes, you heard that correctly, beef fat (no word on if this is where the grease from cooking the pastrami ended up).  If you thought that there was no possible way to improve on the flavor of butter, you'd actually be wrong.

While still basking in the warm glow of beef-and-butter-fatty-goodness, our next wine appeared in the form of a lovely Sauternes (2008 Chateau Rieussec Premier Cru Classe).  I initially panicked since sweet wines usually indicate the conclusion of a meal; however, I needn't have worried - it only prefaced the arrival of a decadent foie gras torchon marinated with peaches, ginger, and bitter almond (cardiologists, please avert your eyes).

Apparently, the chefs are aware that fish is generally healthier for you than beef, dairy, and engorged goose liver, so the second picnic course featured EMP's version of a classic Long Island seafood boil to help cleanse the body of the prior excesses (of course, I believe the Sauternes might also have some antiseptic qualities). Although modest in size, the boil included a few chunks of lobster, head-on shrimp, clams, and assorted vegetables such as potatoes and fennel. Just in case we were suffering from a bit of animal fat withdrawal, a garnish puree of white bean and bacon bits was also provided. The wine for this course was a pink 2013 Domaine de la Tour Du Bon Rose from the Bandol appellation of Provence.

The subsequent dish was unusual and inventive, a disk of braised sunflower (which somehow tasted almost meaty) with sunchokes and sunflower seeds. It might not have been recognizable as the sunflowers that you'd normally see in an August meadow (other than a couple of petals, which were edible), but the prepared incarnation was certainly delicious and paired very well with a 1999 Domaine aux Moines (their Roche aux Moines) wine made entirely from Chenin Blanc grapes grown in Savennieres (Loire Valley).

We had now reached the point in the meal where our servers brought over our final protein course, a preparation of beef that had been dry aged for 140 (!) days. I was vaguely aware that some fine dining establishments these days are offering steaks that had been slowly rotting in a meat locker for a month or even two, but this sounded like some kind of junior high science project gone horribly awry. Still, other than a slightly discolored exterior (no doubt filled with all kinds of interesting microflora), the side of beef shown to us as a visual aid appeared relatively normal, if not somewhat appetizing.

The aged meat was prepared for us two different ways: single bite small marinated cubes on a puffy (rice?) cracker and grilled with eggplant, amaranth grains, and caramelized shallot. It's said that extreme-aged beef takes on tangy, mineraly, blue cheese-like flavors and I picked up all of those as I slowly chewed and swallowed (and, dare say, even enjoyed), trying not to contemplate the potential bacteria timebomb being unleashed in my gut. I'm pretty sure the 2002 Lopez de Heredia Vina Tondonia Reserve red wine from Rioja (Spain) helped keep the nasty guys in check down there.

Our last picnic course arrived at the table in an actual picnic basket, warm homemade pretzel sticks with a raspberry mustard, piquant green tomato, and a soft farmer's cheese (which I found to be a little bland, truth be told), paired with a Picnic Basket Pale Ale brewed exclusively for EMP by Ithaca Brewing Company.

The whey from the cheesemaking process was incorporated into the first dessert we received; that is, a slightly-sweet whey sorbet with crunchy cherry crisps (there's that flavor again), some cherry syrup, and dollops of caramelized milk. The wine selection here was a fantastic and rare dessert wine made from the red Zweigelt grape, a 2012 Weinlaubenhof Kracher Beerenauslese from the Burgenland in Austria.

The next dessert course featured a dose of whimsy in the form of a tiny kettle grill brought to the table in order to roast 4 lobes of fresh apricot.

Generally not my favorite of the stone fruits, the lightly-charred apricot really shined when accompanied by lemon thyme ice cream, honey, and some thin (gingerbread?) cookies. We received yet another sweet wine here, a 2007 Kiralyudvar Cuvee Ilona from the Tokaji region of Hungary, an area very well known for its dessert wines.

At this point, we were relieved to be getting the last bites of the evening (I was quickly approaching my consumption limits on both food and drink), a mini-metal coat rack on which were hanging pretzels dipped in dark chocolate and sea salt, along with a small white box containing a more-traditional sweet black and white cookie (although with caramel) and, oh yes, a clear green apple brandy made especially for EMP (they seem to have a lot of friends) by St. George Spirits in California. I'm glad we only received a small pour of the brandy as it was, um, quite potent (any surviving bad beef bugs were clearly gone now).

If by some chance we sobered up later and found ourselves seeking a midnight snack, the restaurant staff sent us home with two Mason jars filled with tasty housemade granola, the perfect nosh for when you're lounging around a NYC hotel room the next morning, skipping the $16 room service breakfast because you're afraid you'll never be able to afford another meal out again.

As of this writing, some of the granola is still hanging out in the Canteen, gradually being savored from time to time...

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Ella's Americana Folk Art Cafe

A recent Saturday night date night for me and the missus meant another restaurant crossed off our local to-visit list. This time, the venue was Ella's Americana Folk Art Cafe, situated in Tampa's gentrifying Seminole Heights neighborhood (5119 N. Nebraska, to be exact) mere steps from one of our favorite eateries, Taco Bus. Resisting the temptation to swap farm-to-table cuisine for tostadas and agua fresca wasn't easy; however, we persisted and perused the extensive cocktail menu while waiting for what we were told would be 90 minutes for a table (Ella's doesn't take reservations for small parties, but does allow call ahead seating, which would have been fine had I actually remembered to call ahead). Luckily, Mrs. Hackknife's steely glare in my direction was erased once we discovered that we could be seated on the patio in a mere 5 minutes (whew - date night saved!), in this case, under the branches of a giant, old tree, the likes of which we don't often encounter in our relatively new subdivision far out in the 'burbs. Although a little hot at first, the air temperature began easing up as the sun dropped towards the horizon and I eagerly sampled my drink (Ella's version of the classic gin-and-tonic, made artisanal by adding blackberries and beet-infused gin in place of the usual Tanqueray) and our appetizer, pork belly skewers with watermelon, cilantro, and red onion.  Our chosen entrees were both hearty and skillfully assembled: my beef and chorizo burger topped with oozing queso, bacon, and green chile (served with a side of Rasta-Far-Fries, wedges tossed in mustard with sea salt, cilantro, and sriracha) immediately landed on my list of Top 5 burgers in town, while Mrs. Hackknife's Henry the Loaf (bacon-wrapped meatloaf topped with onion strings/root beer gravy atop a garlic mashed potato cake) put my Canteen meatloaf recipe to shame.  Reeling from the excess, we decided to forgo dessert until we arrived at our next destination (the Hark Rock Casino); however, given the funky art on the walls and the snappy dishes leaving the kitchen, I'm certain that whatever sweets Ella's cooks can turn out would be alright with me...

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Chalet Suzanne - Lake Wales, FL

Although we've lived here for less than a year and a half, we soon discovered upon our arrival that echoes of Old Florida (and by "old", I mean pre-Disney World; that is, before 1970 or so) can be found without too much effort.  This includes attractions such as Weeki Wachee (site of a classic mermaid show dating back to the 1940s), Columbia Restaurant (the state's oldest, dating back to 1905) in Tampa, numerous roadside orange juice stands (these are normally closed during the hot summer months), and an historic lakeside resort in the middle of the state named Chalet Suzanne in Lake Wales (about 90 miles east of the Canteen).  Founded by the Hinshaw Family in 1931, the resort came into prominence shortly after a visit from Mr. and Mrs. Duncan Hines (yes, the cake mix people), who were so charmed by the property that they included it in one of their leisure travel guides as a place of interest when visiting Florida.  Back then, I suspect there wasn't a whole lot going on between Atlanta and Miami, so Chalet Suzanne became a natural stopping point for celebrities (Johnny Carson, Burt Reynolds, Dolly Parton, Paul Harvey, and Rosemary Clooney, among others) passing through on their way to/from South Florida.  Along the way, the resort's restaurant gained a reputation for cooking high-class, continental fare, eventually earning a place in Florida Trend Magazine's "Golden Spoon" Hall of Fame, designating it as one of the few remaining heritage restaurants in the state.

Anyway, I hadn't heard of Chalet Suzanne until just recently, when the 4th generation of Hinshaw hoteliers officially announced they would be closing the resort until a new owner could be found. As it turns out, their final days of operation happened to include the same weekend that we needed to drop Hackknife Jr. off at sleep-a-way camp a mere 10 miles away.  Excited by the prospect of dining at a Florida heritage restaurant before it potentially vanishes forever, I arranged for the family to stay there one night and made sure we secured a dinner reservation.

Chalet Suzanne is not a traditional hotel as much as a collection of mismatched-yet-charming cottages and buildings that have a vague German/Swiss appearance (a result of the family lineage, I suspect). Each of the 26 guest rooms is given a name in lieu of a number (ours was "Blue Tree North") and is decorated in the style of what I would describe as your grandmother's guest room, all doilies and lace and fancy lamps. Our bathroom featured a riotous display of vivid blue and yellow Spanish tile (original to the building, according to the website) surrounding what was most likely the smallest bathtub in the history of Western Civilization (see photo below).

While some of the decor might have been a little quirky, the personal attention that the owners bestow upon their guests was first-rate, with little touches like a carafe of sherry waiting for us in the room (we made quick work of that later in the evening after the kids were in bed), turn-down service with homemade chocolate truffles, and a complimentary happy hour in the property's historic little Swedish bar.

They weren't kidding when they named the bar - it is, in fact, very small. One can almost imagine Hemingway perched at a corner table, tumbler of aquavit in hand, fixated on the intense murals depicting what appears to be the history of Sweden (editor's note - to the best of my knowledge, Hemingway was never here, may never have drunk aquavit, or ever had any kind of substantial thought regarding Swedish history).

Not long after the happy hour, the family made their way back to the main dining complex (the Swedish bar is here along with the dining room) for our anixously-awaited dinner (it's not every day that an unabashed foodie like me gets to sample historic Florida cuisine). According to the Chalet Suzanne website, the resort's original restaurant burnt down sometime in the mid-1940s and a replacement was cobbled together from a number of existing small structures (among them a stable and a chicken coop) on a hill sloping down towards the property's small lake, yielding a sprawling, single building with 14 different levels. This elevation change is brutally obvious as soon as you enter the front door into a multi-tiered salon that might have been conceived in a Lewis Carroll rabbit hole somewhere. If you had too much to drink during happy hour, making it all the way to the hostess stand without tumbling into antique furniture would definitely be a challenge.

If you survive the walk through salon, the dining room is serene, not as cluttered with curios, and, most importantly, flat. Many of the tabletops featured a Spanish tile pattern similar to that of our bathroom and held table settings that were completely mismatched (I reckon this has been the case here long before it was hip to do so).

Although restaurant patrons can order a la carte off the menu, Mrs. Hackknife and I both opted for the traditional 5-course dinner featuring many of the dishes that earned the resort its Golden Spoon designation (along with recognition from Mobil and Uncle Ben's, themselves relics of an earlier time when fine dining in American mostly meant steakhouse). First up was perhaps the most famous Chalet Suzanne creation, a half of Florida grapefruit with a topping of caramelized cinnamon sugar and crispy sauteed chicken liver (see photo below).

Not being a fan of grapefruit, I can say with some certainty that this is by far the best prep of that fruit item I've ever seen and I happily ate it all. If this creation doesn't scream quintessential Florida cuisine, I'm not sure what does (and I sure hope that Tampa chef Greg Baker includes some version of it at his new Florida-focused restaurant, Fodder and Shine).

The next course was the restaurant's signature soup, one that at first glance looked suspiciously like Cream of Spinach, but was actually romaine, or "Moon", soup as they refer to it since this recipe traveled to the Moon in 1973 with the Apollo 15 astronauts (in fact, many Chalet Suzanne soups produced from the property's own cannery were available at one time in stores nationwide - we purchased a number of them to bring home, although a few of the cans looked as if they might have been undisturbed since the last moon landing).

The romaine soup was rich and tasty (I can see why the astronauts wanted it in space), much more distinctive than the house salad that followed, which included a couple of blobs of tomato and citrus aspic (Julia Child would have been proud).

For our entrees, I had been leaning towards the Duck a l'Orange (another throwback), but had to take the Maine Lobster Newburg instead after the missus chose a slightly different dish, a Lobster Thermidor that was one of the kitchen's specials that evening.

Although very similar (both lobster dishes were served in a crock topped with Gruyere cheese and paired with two giant wedges of puff pastry intended to soak up that sinful sauce), Lobster Newburg is an American creation that predates the French-created Lobster Thermidor by about 25 years. Each prep features a cholesterol-spiking dose of cream, eggs, and butter, along with sherry or cognac for good measure. The sauteed zucchini/squash that accompanied my entree was largely forgettable, but I'll never forget this Lobster Newburg, which was a tad less sweet than Mrs. Hackknife's equally impressive Lobster Thermidor (although I'm puzzled as to why they couldn't use Florida spiny lobster instead of Maine crustaceans in these dishes).

Given the uber-rich entree, I opted for a more restrained dessert, a simple, satisfying slice of chocolate and almond meringue cake (see photo below).

While our meal at Chalet Suzanne was very good given our location far from any major population center and the age of the property, I'd be remiss if I didn't note that the service was surprisingly awful that night. To say that the kitchen moved at the speed of molasses would be an insult to molasses. I believe it was a full hour between the time that we were first seated and our first course (the grapefruit) arrived at our table (during the delay, the waitstaff replaced our breadbasket with not our first course, but another breadbasket, never a good sign). It became readily apparent that the kitchen was the bottleneck before too long because no one in the half-full dining room (at least as far as that I could see) had any food. Our waitress stopped by to apologize a couple of times as she repeatedly filled my water glass, then eventually stopped making eye contact altogether whenever she passed by (also never a good sign). We finally received our first three courses in a flurry, then incurred another long delay (45 minutes?) before seeing our entrees - at one point, the server mentioned that she had told the chefs we'd been reduced to eating our kids' mac and cheese (thank goodness we'd at least received their orders), and, while she was joking, I misunderstood her since I actually HAD been taking a few bites of Hackknifette's food in desperation. Dessert arrived after yet another 20-minute lag and what began as a nice family dinner had turned into 3 hours of frustration (to their credit, my kids were angels this whole time). I have to believe that the kitchen was undermanned on this last weekend of operation due to the resort's impending closure - under normal circumstances (especially given the cost of the meal), I would have walked out of any restaurant lagging that far behind with orders (and I can think of very few times when I ever wanted to do that). In any case, I sincerely hope that the Hinshaws can find a buyer that respects the property's history and is willing to put some cash into the restaurant so that some current awards (Michelin anyone?) might adorn the walls. This food is an classic example of old Florida that needs to be preserved...

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

South Dakota Eats

The Hackknives recently returned from our weeklong summer excursion to western South Dakota. Why on Earth, you ask, would we spend precious vacation time traveling to a region that one of my neighbors described as "flyover country"? Well, in addition to trying to escape the oppressive Florida heat/humidity (we were mostly unsuccessful at that, by the way - the temps up there were just about as hot), it gave us an opportunity to visit some friends that live part-time on a large parcel of mountaintop Black Hills property that includes (among other oddities) an old monastery lodge, a 400-foot cliff overlooking a canyon, a climbing wall, many derelict outbuildings, untold numbers of rattlesnakes, and a cave complex (a now-shuttered tourist attraction dating back to the 1890s) that ranks as one of the most extensive in the United States. The mini-adventures we had at this High Plains wonderland are story fodder for another day; of course, my main interest when leaving home is always gastronomic and I was curious to see what good things we might be able to eat there. My expectations started out very low, especially after seeing this posting from Thrillist a mere 10 days before our departure ranking the states by food/drink, and I quote:

"50. South Dakota - When you google "South Dakota and food", an image of a hungry child crying comes up, and then the computer goes black."

In all fairness, Thrillist admits that North Dakota could just as easily been ranked 50th instead (it was charitably boosted up a spot to 49), but my sincere hope was to discover something edible that would help refute this ranking. Nowadays, you can find good craft beer just about anywhere in the country, so it seems natural to start there.

The following is a very good craft beer, a Shake Chocolate Porter from Boulder Beer Company (ok, I'm cheating a little here - I had this at the Denver Airport while waiting for our connecting flight). I was elated to find out just a few days ago that our local Total Wine store in Clearwater actually carries this brew. Anyway, I'm happy to report that there is also good alcohol in South Dakota, much of it courtesy of Crow Peak Brewing Company, located in Spearfish. I quite enjoyed this Easy Livin' Summer Ale in the baby blue can (anyone canning their craft beer is ok in my book):

We had no trouble finding other varieties of Crow Peak around town, including Canyon Creek Cream Ale, 11th Hour IPA, and another one of my favorites, the Pile O' Dirt Porter, which paired very well with this baked walleye dish (crusted in panko/Parmesan, served with roasted potatoes and sauteed veggies) courtesy of the upscale Sage Creek Grille in beautiful downtown Custer (our base of operations for the first few days).  I was hoping to eat some good freshwater fish on our trip and I definitely found it here.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention our stopover at the charming Prairie Berry Winery located in nearby Hill City, a destination popular with both leather-clad bikers and Birkenstock-wearing hikers, plus everyone in between. Although I took no photos here, suffice it to say that if you've ever been to a Cooper's Hawk Winery/Restaurant, I found it to be very similar in the layout of the tasting room, the wine tastings offered, and the format of their wine club (one thing they have that CH doesn't is high-end deli products for sale). The missus and I sampled a number of PB's wines, many of which are fruit-based (as it's difficult to grow wine grapes in this neck of the woods), and we most liked the 3Rednecks (a Cabernet Sauvignon) and the Buffaloberry Fusion (a blend of Chenin Blanc and, yes, something called buffaloberries, so called because buffalo like to rub against the thorny bushes to help shed their winter coats - I looked for buffalo fur in my glass, but apparently they fished it all out) so much we picked up a couple of bottles for our hosts.

Speaking of buffalo, as you might expect, there were no shortage of opportunities to dine on this healthy alternative to beef. During our week in South Dakota, I managed to try a bison burger (a mouthwatering patty melt at the Sylvan Lake Lodge), bison hot dog (from the Mt. Rushmore food court, not bad), and bison meatloaf (at the Dakota Cowboy Inn in Custer, mediocre at best). When we reached the Badlands (located very close to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation), I don't recall seeing bison on the menu at the park's commissary, but I did snag an order of Indian fry bread with a traditional berry dipping sauce called wojapi:

I'd describe the fry bread as being a cousin of the funnel cake found at carnivals everywhere, only less greasy and a bit more savory. I'm not sure if the following concoction is considered to be indigenous to Native Americans or is more of a White man's creation, but fry bread also makes a popular substrate out here for tacos (aptly named Indian tacos), which can be found at local gatherings like the Spearfish Art Festival:

My sole experience with the Indian taco (see above) on our trip was at a roadhouse called Cheyenne Crossing, allegedly famous for their version of this dish. I can't decide if it was more like a taco salad without the surrounding shell (and the fry bread underneath) or just a gimmicky taco (like, for example, "taco in a bag" where you throw the toppings into a sack of Fritos), but either way, I don't know that I need to have another one anytime soon.

When we had the taste one evening for real Americanized Mexican food (instead of Native Americanized Mexican), we were fortunate to stumble across Marie's Mexican, a food truck sitting on the main drag in downtown Custer turning out tacos, burritos, and tamales.

My dinner (see above) consisted of black beans, rice, pineapple soda, and one each of pork and chicken tamales, among the best I can ever recall having, further evidence that this whole food truck concept is really starting to take off.

One thing I've noticed about most Old West towns is that just about every structure you encounter was the site of a famous stabbing, shooting, robbery, or lynching at some point.  Such was the case at our chosen destination for Sunday morning breakfast in Custer, Baker's Bakery Cafe, located just up the street from Maria's Mexican.

Rachel Ray touted Baker's as the best breakfast joint in South Dakota, and I can tell you that it's a good thing we got there early (around 8:30) because, by the time we left about an hour later, the entryway was standing room only (perhaps the infamous shooting commemorated above was a dispute between hungry patrons over a table).

The breakfast burritos at Baker's (stuffed with scrambled eggs, sausage, hash browns, salsa, and cheese, then smothered in homemade green chile sauce - the Rachel Ray special) are outrageously good (and I consider myself to be a connoisseur of these things) and, um, amply-sized.  I pleaded with Mrs. Hackknife to have her make sure that I didn't finish the whole thing (lest I be laid up in agony the rest of the day) and, true to my word, I left a few bites behind on the plate, painful as it was.  Whatever stomach space that remained was subsequently occupied by part of the gargantuan sticky pecan bun below that the missus and I split.

From a gastronomic standpoint, I'd say that the most interesting thing I found on our sojourn was that South Dakotahns sure seem to know how to put together a good dessert. Our first dinner in Custer was at an historic German hotel and restaurant called Bavarian Inn (being hardy folk, many Germans and Scandinavians emigrated to this formerly-inhospitable part of the country in the late 19th Century to start homesteads) and, while they serve up a pretty decent weinerschnitzel, the house streusel (a secret recipe brought over from the Fatherland) is what the locals stop in for. Available here in apple, berry, or Belgian Chocolate, streusel (a crumbly mixture of butter, sugar, and flour placed atop baked goods) is not to be confused with strudel (the layered pastry found in every grocery store bakery), which is what I first thought I was ordering until it arrived at the table (see photo below). The chocolate version featured a filling of supercharged flourless ganache, topped with whipped cream, a pale yellow ribbon of sweet custard (sour cream based?), and the most dense, yet somehow crystalline and ethereal, streusel that could possibly be produced by human hands. There might have been a bottom crust (I was too blissed out to notice) and it came with vanilla ice cream (totally unnecessary); regardless, after a few bites, this confection received my immediate nomination for the Dessert Hall of Fame. My only regret was that we ran out of time to come back for the other varieties before we had to go home (I'm still daydreaming about the streusel now).

The following night, we popped in for dessert at an eyecatching purple Victorian house that happened to be within walking distance of our rental cabin, Bobkat's Purple Pie Place, home of the Black Hills' most beloved pies. The line of waiting customers was out the door, a good sign when you're in my line of hobby.

I opted for the most unusual version of pie on the menu, a raspberry/rhubarb/jalapeno combo that artfully balanced sweet, tart, and spicy flavors in a crispy brown crust (actually, the jalapenos provided a little more kick than I was expecting). While it's no Hoosier Mama, we were more than happy with our selections.

One last dessert of note is the Thomas Jefferson ice cream available at Mt. Rushmore. Although President Jefferson didn't actually introduce ice cream to the colonies (that had occurred some time earlier), he appears to be the first American to record a recipe for it, probably brought over from France by his French butler, Petit (the official Monticello website has a nice discussion of Jefferson's connection to ice cream in America here).

Some employee in the National Park Service came up with the idea of re-creating the Jefferson ice cream for the mass consumption of Mt. Rushmore visitors. The recipe itself makes no reference to vanilla flavoring, however, the modern version has vanilla bean in the mixture. I can attest to this since I tried it myself - it's ok, but nothing spectacular. I was much more impressed with the "ice cream equals Jefferson" t-shirts that were for sale.

So there you have it. After going through all of my notes and pictures, I think I've made a pretty strong case for South Dakota to be ranked at the very least the 45th best food state in the nation, and that's not even taking into consideration the foodstuffs we missed out on. Black Hills Burger and Bun Co. in Custer allegedly serves some of the best burgers in the country, but we gave up after two aborted attempts to dine there (they keep banker's hours like Hot Doug's and have perpetual long waits as a result). We tried to buy some of the official state dessert, kuchen (the German word for "cake" that we've been mispronouncing as "koo-chen" - it's actually "koo-ken"), in a local grocery store (it was cherry and frozen and it looked really good), but it thawed out in our cheap gas station foam cooler and spoiled before we could consume it. There are even rumors of a restaurant in Hill City serving something called chislic, which are marinated and deep-fried sirloin tips, that appears to be more common in the eastern half of the state (something we'll have to seek out next time). If Thrillist wants to use my research when updating their food ranking list next year, they can send me a small check and I'll be happy to part with it...