Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Andy's Spanish Restaurant

Like many neighborhoods across America, you don't have to look very hard to find an industrial park near our house.  This particular industrial park sits about a five-minute drive from the Canteen, just south of Tampa Bay Downs, and its tenants include (among more mundane operations) a free water skiing show on Saturday evenings courtesy of the Tampa Bay Water Ski Show Team.  Anyway, I was driving down Douglas Road (the park's main drag) one sunny morning (not to see the skiers - I was on my way to pick up Cub Scout t-shirts) and noticed a small, nondescript restaurant tucked away in the corner of a strip mall.  The sign outside the building said "Andy's Spanish Restaurant" (472 E. Douglas Rd., Oldsmar) and appeared to be the type of laid-back, no-frills place that ethnic food enthusiasts like myself are constantly seeking out, so I decided to pop in for lunch one day.

Andy's is a blue-collar worker's nirvana, where patrons can get a large plate of tasty grub for a very reasonable price.  If you're able to navigate the cramped parking lot (arrive before noon to beat the lunch rush), inside you'll find not what I normally consider to be Spanish cuisine (i.e., tapas), but Cuban instead (in fact, I've come to realize that in Florida, "Spanish" and "Cuban" food essentially refer to the same thing), with a menu offering roast pork sandwiches, stewed meats (such as beef and sometimes goat), plantains, yellow rice/black beans, empanadas, and the like.  Dishes are prepared in large hotel pans and delivered cafeteria-style (you grab a tray, receive your order, pay, and sit down in the dining room), with a side of Cuban bread available to anyone who wants it.  On my first visit, Andy's daily special was fried whitefish, which I ordered with a side of yellow rice and black beans, plus a drink, all for less than $10.

The fish wasn't bad (the breading had a slight spiciness to it), but the beans and rice were spectacular, probably the best I've had since we arrived in Tampa, and they were even better when garnished with chopped onion and a slathering of the house-made hot pepper sauce (both of which are in bowls next to the cash register).

I opted for take-out the next time, trying out the media noche (basically a Cuban sandwich made with sweet bread instead of Cuban bread) and more of those fabulous beans/rice (with more of the onions and hot pepper sauce, of course).  The sandwich was nice and crisp on the outside, and full of thick ham/pork, with a little bit of salami in a nod to Tampa's Italian heritage (the Cuban sandwich purists in Miami would find this to be heretical).  I can't say that I liked the media noche quite as much as my favorite food truck Cuban, but it was plenty good enough to warrant future consumption.  All in all, I think Andy's is a local gem and I'm anxious to stop by again, hopefully to get me some stewed goat or oxtail...

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Bern's Fine Wines & Spirits - Prunotto Wine and Truffle Dinner

Fluke Crudo with Grapefruit, Lovage, Pink Peppercorn, and Smoked Marscapone
(served with 2012 Prunotto Roero Arneis)

Venison Tartare with Juniper, Sottocenere, and Black Truffle Mustard
(served with 2009 Prunotto Barbera d'Asti Nizza Superiore "Costamiole")

Duck Raviolo with Hazelnuts and Burgundy Truffle Sauce
(served with 2000 Prunotto Babaresco)

Buffalo Terres Major Loin with Red Wine Polenta, Chanterelles, and Perigord Truffle
(served with 1998 Prunotto Babaresco)

Parisian Gnocchi with Robiolo and Alba White Truffles
(served with 1995 Prunotto Barolo)

Wild Blue Mountain Hare with Gorgonzola Dolce, Autumn Fruits, and Black Truffle Marmalade
(served with 1994 and 1995 Prunotto Barolo "Bussia")

While much of our fine dining focus this year has been out-of-state, it's nice to be occasionally reminded that great gastronomy is also happening here locally.  For example, when Mrs. Hackknife received an email ad from Bern's Fine Wines and Spirits about a special wine and truffle dinner being held at the Epicurian (Bern's new hotel complex), we decided to check it out as our early Christmas present to each other (this, of course, saves me a trip to the mall). I assumed that the dinner would take place in Elevage, the farm-to-table restaurant onsite; however, we were surprised to be directed to the wine shop when we arrived, which had been transformed into a mini-bistro, with tables, chairs, and china nestled among the bottle racks (the shop isn't a big place). The special guest of the evening was Erik Saccomani, a representative from the Prunotto Estate (founded in 1904 and now part of the Antinori wine empire), located in Alba (home of the celebrated white truffle) of Italy's Piedmont region. Signore Saccomani brought with him several Prunotto wines, including Arneis (a white grape similar to Sauvignon Blanc), Barbera (a light red), Barbaresco (made from Nebbiolo grapes), and Barolo (also Nebbiolo-based), the winery's signature product.  All of these rich wines beg to be served with an equally-luscious plate of food, so Elevage's executive chef Chad Johnson (who also helmed the former SideBern's) went to work crafting Mediterranean dishes that played off the strengths of each wine pairing.  Nearly all of the 6 courses were fantastic, starting with two that featured raw proteins (fluke crudo and venison tartare, the latter covered in a thin layer of mild Sottocenere cheese, not unlike the manchego course we'd just had at Next in Chicago), two that were so decadent that eyes rolled back into skulls (duck raviolo and gnocchi covered in a mobster-sized mound of white truffle shavings), a terrific buffalo loin, and a hybrid rabbit-dessert course that was, frankly, a little peculiar.  Of the wines, I most enjoyed the 1998 Prunotto Babaresco, with tannins that had softened up nicely over the 17 years since it had been bottled (I found the barolos to be a little hefty for my liking, more Mrs. Hackknife's speed).  Although the odd dessert course left us wanting a bit at the end of the meal (we swung by Dough Bakery on the way home to obtain a proper sweet), the dinner overall was impressive enough that we'll gladly contemplate returning to Bern's Fine Wines for future events...

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Next (Trio Menu)

Brook Trout Roe, Avocado, Sugar, Lime

Rock Shrimp Fritter, Cranberry, Meyer Lemon
(Served on a Vanilla Bean Skewer)

Coconut Gelee and Shredded Crab
(Plus 12 Bridging Garnishes)

Chestnut Baked Potato Soup, Bitter Chocolate, Quince

Parmesan/Olive Oil/Black Pepper Ice Cream Sandwich

Black Truffle Explosion, Charred Romaine, Minced Black Truffle

Duck Two Ways, Lavender Salt Lozenge, Foie Gras, Plum

"French Bread Pizza" Stamp

Poached Lamb Loin, Floral Infusion, Artichoke, Orange

"Cheese and Cracker"

Freeze-Dried "Salad" with Red Wine Vinaigrette

Raspberry Tapioca/Rose/Lemon Basil Tube

Pushed Foie Gras, Pear, Sauternes, Salt-Roasted Pear Sorbet

Passion Fruit/Mustard Ice Cream

Smoked Persimmon, Endive, Pancetta, Coffee

Lobster Meat, Wild Mushrooms, Lobster Cream Foam, Rosemary Vapor

Burnt Pineapple, Smoked Salmon, Soy, Togarashi
(Served on a hands-free skewer)

Short Rib, Root Beer Emulsion, Vanilla Gelee

Transparency of Manchego with Various Garnishes

Huckleberry Soda, Five Gelled Flavors

Maragda Chocolate at 94F, Flaxseed/Pistachio/Chocolate Crisp, Brewer's Yeast Ice Cream

The apex of our latest trip to Chicago was the year's final menu at Next, an homage to Chef Grant Achatz's time at the now-shuttered Trio in Evanston.  Chef A. arrived at Trio in 2001 fresh off a tour of duty at French Laundry, during which he became fully schooled in classical cooking techniques, and, by the time he left in 2004 to open what became Alinea, his modernist phase was in full swing.  The Achatz tenure at Trio represents a bridge between these two worlds of cooking (which were distinct then, but are not so separate anymore); indeed, many of the dishes we experienced this night were early renditions of what eventually ended up on Alinea's regular menu.  Perhaps the most well-known creation is the black truffle explosion, a single raviolo filled with liquid black truffle essence to be eaten in one closed-mouth bite (lest the juices fly out and stain your lapel) - this decadent signature is now to Achatz what Oysters and Pearls is to Thomas Keller (his mentor at French Laundry).  Other echoes of Alinea can be seen in the coconut and crab dish with 12 garnishes (a precursor to the now-famous lamb loin with 60 garnishes), the plastic straw filled with raspberry/tapioca/rose/lemon basil (this same tube is filled with bubble gum flavors at Alinea), and the lobster cream dish with rosemary vapors generated courtesy of hot water (vapor aromas typically show up a couple of times at the other place), not to mention the many whimsical metallic serving pieces designed by Martin Kastner.  Speaking of whimsy, a couple of the Trio courses are clearly intended to mess with the diner's mind; specifically, the cracker packet that resembles a pizza bite and is filled with a Cheez-Wiz-like substance (a take on "cheese and crackers") and the postage stamp-sized "pizza" that tastes just like the Stouffer's frozen French Bread variety (apparently, Achatz and I were eating the same junk food during our adolescent years in the mid-80s).  Not all of the dishes were hits - Mrs. Hackknife wasn't impressed by the chestnut baked potato soup, which seemed a little haphazard (and the knob of bitter chocolate didn't really enhance the flavors) and I wasn't a fan of either the freeze-dried salad (which I found over-the-top vegetal) or the short rib-cum-root beer float (the sauce was overpowering in a few of the bites).  Others, like the duck two ways with a lavender salt lozenge, foie gras, and plum sauce, were so good I got shivers (the things that these people at Next do with duck is nothing short of mind-blowing), and the cheese/dessert courses (especially the manchego cheese film layered atop garnishes like Kalamata olive and anchovies and the deconstructed stout beer, featuring yeast ice cream, hot chocolate foam, and flaxseed/pistachio crisp) were terrific.  We never had the pleasure of dining at Trio when it was still around (our interest in the culinary arts was in its infancy at the time), but Mrs. H. and I both feel fortunate that we had this second opportunity to experience the formative cuisine of Chef Achatz at Next (and this may very well be our final visit there, as our tickets are up for renewal soon and we expect to spend that money elsewhere in 2015)...

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Gene & Jude's/Bang Bang Pie Shop

One of the side benefits of traveling back to Chicago for dinner at Next (particularly when the progeny get left behind with grandparents) is that we have a little extra free time to visit other local food establishments. In this case, the missus and I arrived early on a Saturday morning, leaving us with the remainder of the day to explore before our 6:30 pm reservation. So after picking up the rental car, we headed straight down River Road until we reached the northwest corner of Grand Avenue, home to Gene and Jude's hot dog stand in River Grove. For those of you unaware, up until about a month ago, G&J was probably the 2nd or 3rd most famous hot dog place in the city; however, with the closure of Hot Doug's on October 3, the owners now have a nearly airtight claim to the title of the city's overall sausage king (they have long been the purveyor of best Depression-style dog in town, that is, a stripped-down version of the typical Chicago dog - more on that in a bit).

G&J's has been at its current location across the street from the Des Plaines River since 1950, apparently unmolested by the floodwaters that inundate the property about every 10 years or so. Legend has it that the founder, Gene Mormino, lost his original stand (which opened in 1946 at Polk & Western) in a poker game and needed a partner (his co-worker, Jude DeSantis) to help open the new restaurant as it stands today (Gene's son is now the owner).

Inside, the decor is about as stark as an operating room, with nothing on the walls except a couple of neon signs and a few newspaper clippings documenting the allure of the G&J hot dog (Rachel Ray Magazine named it tops in the U.S.A., for example). The bill of fare is nearly as sparse, featuring hot dogs, double dogs, Chicago hot tamales, and fries - that's all. Weiner toppings are limited to mustard, onions, relish, and sport peppers, the so-called Depression dog that some claim is the "true" Chicago dog. If you want tomato, pickle, or celery salt, you'll need to look elsewhere (and keep in mind that this is probably the place on Earth that you're most likely to get injured if you ask for ketchup).

After receiving our order, we moved to one of the nearby stand-up counters to eat (there's no seating in the building). Mrs. Hackknife and I both opted for the regular dog without sport peppers and an order of fries (piled high on the bun), plus a tamale for me. I've had a Depression dog once or twice before (Red Hot Ranch on Western immediately comes to mind), but G&J's was clearly the best, and the fries have to be amongst the top in the city. I have to give credit to any dining stand with the chutzpah to do hand-cut fries (we saw an employee run a few potatoes through the wall-mounted cutter every now and then to maintain the number of deep fry baskets awaiting a hot oil bath), which seems to be a dying art (many operations go with frozen fries now). G&J's sells steam-heated Supreme Tamale Company tamales (based in nearby Elk Grove Village) and they're not as repulsive as you might think - I was expecting to find a laundry list of synthetic ingredients on the wrapper and they actually consist of little more than cornmeal, lard, ground beef, garlic, and spices (whether or not they're healthy is another matter altogether). Anyway, both the missus and I concluded that we'd had nearly the ideal lunch at G&J's and agreed it was criminal that, as nearly lifelong Chicagoans, we'd never eaten here up to this point.

Since man cannot live long without dessert, we made a slight detour on our way through the city to a small bakery in Logan Square, namely Bang Bang Pie Shop at 2051 N. California. Bang Bang opened about 3 years ago as a competitor to our favorite local pie maker, Hoosier Mama, and has garnered nearly the same volume of positive foodie press. Unlike Hoosier Mama's storefront on Chicago Ave., the Bang Bang collective has a small (albeit cramped) dining room and offers a larger selection of savory dishes in addition to high-end pies. At 12:30 on a Saturday afternoon, the place was packed to the gills with hipsters sipping coffee and noshing on breakfast sandwiches, forcing us to head to a table in the backyard.

Although the outside air was chilly (about 45F), the sun felt warm as we sampled our pie slices, chocolate pecan for me and honey pie (a combo of honey custard and fruit compote in a Graham cracker crust) for the missus. Bang Bang trumpets the fact that they're one of the few bakeries around using non-vegetarian leaf lard (in this case, goose fat) to add flakiness to their pie crusts - the resulting product is very good, but we both found the pies to be just a notch below what we've consistently encountered from Hoosier Mama (and continue to do so - our Thanksgiving and Xmas orders with them are in the works). Next time we pop in, I'll go straight for a bacon or sausage biscuit and hope for the best.