Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Porcellino's Butcher: Memphis, Tennessee

I grew up on meat.  We were the type of family who lived off of a roast for days.  Hams lasted a good week.  Our meals were composed around a carnivore's centerpiece.  Rice and potatoes were a given and vegetables were of the frozen variety.  My mom is a fabulous cook, her true skill somewhat hampered by the thrifty nature of one raised in an extremely efficient, depression era home. 

I hated vegetables growing up.  The multi-colored medley cooked in a microwave plastic container, with a tab of margarine, made me gag.  I couldn't do it. The iceberg lettuce salads, weren't bad, and I lived for those nights, when as a treat, we added a little blue cheese.  

But, I loved my mother's amazing meats.  She was passionate about a rare cut, seared quickly on the outside and cool on the inside.  When making burgers, we always tested the raw blend to make sure it was seasoned perfectly.  That uncooked, iron flavor is one of my favorite early culinary memories.  Having lived in Turkey for two years, my mom perfected the art of cooking lamb; I loved chewing her crispy seared chops right from the bone almost as much as dining on her seasoned, butterflied, grilled leg of lamb.

I have gone back and forth in my life, celebrating the joy of meat and, for periods of time, abstaining or reducing my intake.  I have come to love vegetables.  My weekly CSA deliver from Yokna Bottoms Farm brings me mystery and exquisite joy.  I often choose my restaurant meals based on the vegetable sides, but at the end of the day, there is nothing more satisfying to me than a juicy rare cut of meat.

For that reason, I have been in deep anticipation over the opening of Porcellino's Craft Butcher in Memphis.  The third restaurant in the Andrew Ticer and Michael Hudman empire, Porcellino's, is a butcher shop cum bistro/bar led by head butcher, Aaron Winters. Small french style marble tables sit atop a tiled floor, surrounded by refrigerators of meats, ice creams, and pastas.  At one end of the restaurant is a cozy bar, while the opposite hosts the butcher case.  In between is a window into the kitchen overlooking a prep table for fresh pasta and pastry making. 

While you may buy any number of high-quality looking cuts from stuffed pork loin to lamb, rib-eyes to hearts and pig ears, we were sadly without a cooler and therefore were there to try out their lunch menu. 

Immediately, I knew we had a problem.  Every sandwich was calling to me.  I did not have a decisive bone in my body.  We managed to narrow it down to the "Goomba", an Italian cold-cut sandwich served on soft white bread.  More refined than the Italian sub I grew up loving in Boston, it easily could have been homemade, right from Mark's family kitchen.  The bread was spread with deeply flavorful olive salad and topped with cool shredded lettuce and just the right amount of sopressata, porchetta, and "gabagool". Unlike the subs of my youth, the bread and meats were not competing, but complementing each other.

The very attentive waiter helped us choose our second sandwich, suggesting a hot lamb and pork sausage on a light hoagie.  The sausage was everything he promised.  Rich and juicy, the meat was blended with parmesan cheese and fresh herbs.  Pickled red onions and a cool cucumber raita spread on the soft roll balanced the deep flavors. 

So as not to forget our other food groups, we selected a side of sauteed summer squash bathed in a basil pesto on a tomato jam sauce with crushed peanuts, that could easily have taken center stage.  Throughout our experience, I saw other plates returning to the kitchen with small crusts remaining, and had this horrified gut reaction - I guess as the granddaughter of a depression era home, I have trouble not cleaning my plate.  I remember sitting for hours as a child over those terrible, waxen vegetables, wishing I could be excused from the table.  Today I could not help but view those crusts as perfect vessels for mopping up the remaining tomato jam.

There is something old world and authentic about Porcellino's.  I could easily be on Federal Hill in Providence, Rhode Island, surrounded by old Italian speaking men, escaping their houses to tell the same stories over and over to their buddies who laugh with gusto every time.  It is rare that you can even find a neighborhood butcher these days.  And yet, here in this little corner of Memphis, off of the busy Poplar Avenue, sits a very modern, hip throwback.  Next time, I will bring the cooler. 

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Mumbai, Mississippi at City Grocery: Oxford, Mississippi

Perhaps it is my New England roots, with deep-seated memories of long winters, that scarred me, or maybe the atypical gray skies that hang over a Mississippi winter, but regardless of the cause, every January I find myself looking around for something to beat the short six weeks of my winter funk.  With the forsythia in bloom this weekend, I know I ought not complain, but nevertheless, I do.  Fortunately, for the last three years, renowned James Beard winning Oxford Chef, John Currence has provided me a glimmer of excitement, just when I needed it most, by hosting weekly pop-up dinners.  The tradition began when his flagship restaurant, City Grocery, was undergoing a kitchen renovation and he recognized the importance of supporting his staff during the downtime. His solution was to host a casual, street-food themed series in his catering space, inviting chefs in from across the south to showcase their cuisine.  Back in the City Grocery kitchen, in 2014, he hosted a more formal pre-fixe menu as a fundraiser for Rodney Scott's BBQ rebuild, again hosting regional chefs like Ashley Christensen.   This year, in support of the University Medical Center Children's Hospital Fund, Currence announced a four-part series featuring the likes of Kelly English, Asha Gomez and Vishwesh Bhatt, Corbin Evans and Currence himself serving up a Chinese menu.

As a long-time fan of Snackbar's corporate chef, Vishwesh Bhatt, who serves a French Brasserie menu with hints of Indian spices, I looked forward to him pairing up with Atlanta chef Asha Gomez for a full on Indian menu.  The Mumbai Mississippi pop-up seemed like a perfectly, spicy antidote to my January blues. We scored a cozy seat at the bar with a great view of the bustling kitchen and began with the masala bread omelet.  Made with onions, green chilies, tomatoes, cilantro and a chili sauce, the omelet was served over white bread that was moist and sticky like a French toast; comfort food at its finest.

Bright and fresh, and a nice balance to the warm and savory omelet, the cabbage kachumber was a coleslaw-like salad consisting of shredded raw cabbage, carrots, hot green chilies, cilantro, mint, peanuts, and lime juice.  Mustard seeds and chaat masala, a spice that typically contains cumin, ginger, coriander and chili, provided wonderful Indian notes.  

The kutchi dabeli, fried potato slider sandwiches, are a brilliant veggie burger option.  Served with a green cilantro chutney and a sweet date chutney, they had just enough of the sweet and spicy flavor going on to break up the pleasant denseness. 

If you are of the meat eating type, the khima pao, a dish of minced lamb and beef, spiced with onions, ginger and garam masala, and piled on top of a soft, buttered and toasted bun, would be my recommendation. 

In typical southern fashion our friendly, fellow bar-mate Lisa Donovan, a pastry chef from Nashville and author of the Buttermilk Road Sunday Supper blog, insisted we try a piece of her fried chicken dish and we were not disappointed.  The crispy and garlicky fried boneless chicken had a sweet mango drizzle with an accompaniment of roasted curry leaves. 

Lastly, Mark and I both ordered the kerala shrimp salad.  The green chili, garlic shrimp were served over seasonal fresh fruit, tossed in a lime-cardamom dressing.  This dish was a wonderfully light way to wrap up our experience.  

Currence didn't announce the 2015 pop-ups until mid-January this year and I found myself with mild agita about how to get through the winter.  I joke, yet these pop-ups have become an Oxford tradition, one that provides a respite from our doldrums between SEC football and baseball.  They are an opportunity to taste and get to know chefs from around the south.  They provide a reason to bundle up against our 45-degree weather on an otherwise boring Monday night.  And most importantly, each year they generously support a good cause. 

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Sylva Rena Grocery & Bait Store: Sylva Rena, Mississippi

Over ten years ago, when visiting Mississippi for our second time, dear friends took us for a drive out into the countryside north of Water Valley.  It was a quintessential southern day; the low rolling hills were lush and the sun was golden.  We pulled up to an old filling station that looked like a movie set.  As we approached the wooden plank on the ground that led to the front door, the sign became clear, "Lawler's Grocery and Bait Shop".  We entered and were surprised to see a half dozen locals, mostly older men, chatting over breakfast, surrounded by bait, tackle and hunting supplies.  Warm greetings from the patrons welcomed us, as we took our seats to order eggs, country ham and biscuits. 

That visit stuck with us, long since relocating to the south.  It was quirky, yet charming places like Lawler’s that drew us to the hill country of Mississippi.  Strangely, on a few occasions we looked for Lawler’s, but could not figure out where it was.  Then a few months back, Mark heard about a place out in the county near Water Valley that served up a mean burger and sure enough, Lawler’s had since become “Sylva Rena Grocery and Bait Store”.  Despite the name change and new owners, the original decor seems to be intact, down to the plank over the mud puddle leading to the front door.

Now that we have found our long lost haunt, we regularly take my Dad’s old Mercedes convertible out for ride along those beautiful country roads.  We park in amongst the trucks, which this time of year, all have attached trailers with hunting ATVs.  Every time we are warmly greeted by the staff and by the other guests.  They always ask if we want menus, as most people don't bother, and even though we know what we are going to get, we look anyhow.  Then moments later, without hesitation we order the burger, sometimes the regular, sometimes the mushroom Swiss -- always with the salad bar. 

The first time I visited as Sylva Rena, I took one look at the sad little contraption tucked at the back of the restaurant, sitting uncomfortably under a deer head and quickly refused what had to be a wilted iceberg lettuce spread.  But I have since learned to embrace the salad bar as part of the experience, and load my bowl up with surprisingly fresh lettuce, and pickled okra and smother it all in ranch dressing.  No awards will be won for this part of the dinner, but I promise you will feel left out if you don't partake. 

The burgers arrive shortly and remind us of why we travel here.  The best way I can describe the burger is that it reminds me of those that my family would have grilled back in the 80s but even better, before the foodie revolution became a thing.  The meat is flavorful, and a little charred and crispy on the outside from the griddle.  The lettuce and tomato are cool and the bun is heavenly.  Small and doughy and sweet, it completes the burger. The potato salad and other sides are all good but without a doubt we drive 60 miles round-trip for the burger.  

There is no alcohol and no brown bagging.  If you ask for a lemon for your water, you get a plastic packet of lemon juice.  Your silverware is served in a plastic bag.  Camo is welcomed, and while you are waiting on your food, you can pick out a new lure.  A real burger, "dressed" as they say in the south, and served on an outrageously perfect bun is the antithesis of the 15 ingredient small plate with a foam gastrique and I think that is part of what makes it so good

We later learned the original Lawler's Grocery was indeed owned by the kin of the Jerry Lawler, the wrestler best known for battling Andy Kaufman.  We met Jerry last year at his art opening in Water Valley and watched that Andy Kaufman footage with him in the back.  Going on seven years in Mississippi, what originally attracted us here, places like Sylva Rena, the warmth of the people, a feeling of home, random and special moments like the one with Jerry, continue to delight us.  Sometimes it is nice to just put your hair back in a pony tail, throw on some old jeans and boots and head south for a long country ride and a down home burger. 

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Rolf & Daughters: Nashville, Tennessee

It was a sultry, summer night in Nashville, just about dusk, the time when the air becomes full of evening electricity.  As we pulled up to Rolf and Daughters, an oasis of coolness in a warehouse section of Germantown, it was evident from the string lights, the graffitied walls and the vibe coming from the outdoor patio that tonight was going to be good, memorable even.  
Arriving a little early for our reservation, we sat at the bar for a cocktail while taking in the scene.  Immediately it was clear that the bartender was a pro; she bantered with her colleagues, mixed craft cocktails and shared her depth of knowledge about food and drink all with easy comfort.  She guided us, based on our likes, to a MontaƱa Verde which included Espolon Blanco tequila, Genepy des Alpes, grapefruit, cilantro, jalapeno and lime.  The drink, not only beautiful, was tangy and sweet with a perfect kick from the pepper.  The Wingman was a blend of Four Roses single barrel bourbon, Dolin Dry, Peychaud’s bitters and Orange Oils; it was similar to a Manhattan with a bright citrus finish.

We were enjoying the action and repartee amongst the staff at the bar so much, that when our table came up, we decided to forgo the seating and remained bar-side for dinner.  The seasonal menu had changed since we looked online a few days prior, and being currently obsessed with drippy, succulent local peaches, we had to try the pig head with Georgia peach, spring onions, and mostarda.  The bartender jokingly, but with warning, described the pig head as anything but lean.  It was rich and chewy, full of umami, warmly coating the tongue and reminiscent of tendon in a Vietnamese pho.  The deepness was balanced beautifully by the mostarda (candied fruit in a mustard syrup), which included fresh, sweet peaches, local cherry tomatoes and bitter dandelion greens.  

A perennial favorite, we could not resist the chicken liver pate.  Creamy and salty, it was smothered with a thin layer of green tomato marmalade and the kicker – it was sprinkled with cacao.  In a million years, I would not have paired cacao and chicken liver and, now that I have experienced it, nothing else seems right.  Smothered on chewy, crunchy homemade bread, the liver was silky perfection.  We fought over licking the ramekin clean.  

Our last small plate was a local carrot salad, which included shaved and roasted carrots, still retaining a perfect crunch, scattered with a duck ham and drizzled with a local buttermilk dressing.  The duck had a cured, salty flavor but remained tender.  Pulling it all together was the buttermilk; imagine the lightest and purest ranch dressing adding a gentle tanginess to the plate.

Like the way a margherita can delineate a pizza place, roasted chicken can define a great restaurant.  Done well, it is no longer a bland protein, but is instead elevated to a deeply satisfying and exquisite meal.  As a main course, the pastured chicken, juicy and tender, was served with a preserved lemon and garlic confit, feeling fresh and summery, while also hinting at the comfort of the coming autumn season. It would seem inappropriate not to ask for a spoon to finish off the sauce.  

Our second main course was by far the most unusual pasta I have ever experienced and perhaps, I might go so far as to call it life changing.  A beautiful, shiny, black squid ink trofie, a twisted pasta that hails from the Liguria region of Italy, was served al dente and tossed with nduja, clams, scallions, and crunchy toasted breadcrumbs.  The njuda, a spreadable sausage, gave the dish a spicy salinity and juxtaposed the sweet clams.    

Beyond satiated, we are always suckers for a good panna cotta, and when we saw this one described as peaches and cream, we could not resist dessert.  Just hinting at sweet, the custard was silky, and as my mom likes to say when trying to justify dessert, "it slid down easily".  

A music gig brought us to Nashville, but our passion for the city lies in the great restaurants like Rolf and Daughters, hidden in funky and diverse little neighborhoods. While we were enjoying this feast and the camaraderie of other patrons at the bar, the room filled up with friends, the lights dimmed, drinks flowed and that mid-summer weekend hum I so often feel in Nashville, hovered over everyone, wrapping all in a sigh of joy and hinting of excitement.  

Rolf and Daughters on Urbanspoon

Monday, January 20, 2014

City Grocery Pop-ups: Oxford, Mississippi

Last year, after the holidays, John Currence renovated his City Grocery
kitchen and during that month-long hiatus, he had the brilliant idea to
host weekly pop-ups in his catering space.  Each week he brought in a
different notable chef from around the south to cook their version of
street food.  It was essentially southern tapas served in a fun, casual,
garage like space, decked out with colorful lights, an open kitchen and a makeshift bar.  Not only was this an exciting new culinary treat for the locals in Oxford, but it also kept his kitchen staff employed.  

Oh how we have missed the pop-ups.  I have longed for that food-truck type culture here in Oxford - simple yet exquisitely cooked fare, with the added excitement of the unexpected.   And therefore, I was thrilled to see Currence bring back the pop-ups this January, only the theme is all grown-up this year.  

Each Monday in January, City Grocery will open for a 4-5 course prix fixe
menu, with an optional wine pairing, prepared by different rock-star
chefs.  The pop-ups this year, are to benefit Rodney Scott, a BBQ
pitmaster from South Carolina, whose BBQ joint, Scott's Bar-B-Que, burned last
year.  Currence is hosting a leg of the philanthropic Fatback
Collective's effort to raise money to rebuild Scott's restaurant and
Scott himself will be the final chef in January.  

We attended the first event last Monday featuring Memphis chefs, Andy
Ticer and Michael Hudman of Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen and our
personal favorite, Hog and Hominy.  They cooked alongside another Memphis
celebrity, Kelly English of Restaurant Iris and his newest venture, a hip
po' boy restaurant aptly called The Second Line.  With Currence, they
delivered four courses of fine Italian southern cuisine.  

Growing up in New England, we are no strangers to Italian food.  Mark is
100% italian from Providence, Rhode Island and the son of an amazing
first generation cook.  My aunt hails from Sicilian roots and we grew up
on her parents homemade pizzas and tortellini soup.  We both absolutely
love Mississippi and have joyously set our roots here, but if you were to
ask us what we miss about home, it is definitely italian food.  

The dinner began with a wop salad and browned butter garlic bread.  The large bowl of iceberg lettuce was topped with a homemade giardinare or classic italian picked vegetable mixture of cauliflower, celery, peppers
and olives.  This is such a utilitarian, simple dish and yet so satisfying.  There were no "micro greens", just the salty pickled crunch of the vegetables.  

Next up, a classic primo course, tagliatelle in a rich bolognese made of
ground chuck, sausage and gizzard.  The freshly made pasta was cooked
perfectly and the large ribbons sopped up the robust sauce, nicely.  

Mark's mom, Esther Yacovone, made the most amazing meatballs of veal, pork
and beef, browned crispy in a cast iron pan.  Even better than the
meatballs were the brown bits left in the pan. Until tasting her version,
I didn't really understand the big fuss over this dish.  She, however,
was not cooking meatballs made with short ribs, veal, pork and guanciale,
which is cured pork made from the cheek. Ticer and Hudman took a basic
italian dish and elevated it to a decidedly a decadent specimen!      

Beautifully plated, a veal shank arrived on a bed of pureed celery root,
drizzled with a veal and a wild mushroom marsala sauce, and topped with a
gremolata.  The veal was tender and falling apart, brightened by the
lemon and parsley toping.  

Lastly, an almond butter cake with a homemade buttermilk ice cream
finished us off perfectly.

The "Memphis Mafia" wildly exceeded my expectations by taking traditional
italian classics and not only elevating the ingredients, but adding a
slight southern flare.  I don't know much, but one this is certain,
during the month of January, you will find me on the edge of my seat,
waiting for Mondays to arrive.