Tasting my way through southern culture - a most delicious journey of food and craft cocktails.

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 Montaña 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.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Hog & Hominy: Memphis, Tennessee

As an adventurous eater, there are few things more exhilarating to me than the mystery of a tasting menu.  Like watching a favorite athlete or artist, it is a heady experience to have a chef orchestrate my meal, matching flavors and courses, creating a culinary masterpiece.  When my long-time high school friend announced her visit from Boston, as a fellow foodie I thought we would start her trip with a late dinner at Hog and Hominy, not far from the airport in Memphis. I had a casual pizza in mind before heading south to Mississippi, but when I learned they offer a chef's tasting option, our fate was sealed.  What was originally plain old excitement, had escalated to elation, over eating at this fine establishment, known for its southern-meets-Italian twist on pizza and pork.

Upon arrival, we were ushered to the chef's table, a bar overlooking the open kitchen, where we were easily persuaded to order the seven course option.  Instead of a set nightly prix fixe, the chefs pick dishes specifically for us, from the menu or specials.

Andy Ticer, one of the chef owners, who with his partner Michael Hudman recently received 2013 Food & Wine's best new chef award, introduced himself when he brought the first dish, a perfectly dressed fried chicken skin Caesar salad.  The fried skins were clearly the stars of the dish, but it should not go without mention that the romaine greens were lightly dressed in beautifully tangy dressing, making this oft overused salad, fresh.

Next, Andy who has an easy way about him, brought over a wood fired spaghetti squash, served Italian style with a red sauce, Calabria oil, buffalo mozzarella and Parmesan cheese. Upon stammering a bit with the description, he finally turned to us with the most passionate grin and may or may not have simply exclaimed, "It is just awesome!".  That was an understatement.

Course three was an asparagus dish with crispy pepperoni fried in lardo fatback, a pimento chese emulsion, and a boatload of trout roe that offered a salty pop.  Southern and laden, yet not smothered, the flavors were distinct and bright.

The most artfully designed dish of the night was another inspired by classic southern cooking; a Johnny cake was topped with a cream cheese, marscapone and caraway seed spread, tobacco onions and catfish gravlax. The catfish was buttery and elegant, all grown up from its typical, and also delicious fried alter ego.

Speaking of fried, the peanut agrodolce sweetbreads, served over a cilantro jalapeño sauce were hearty and chewy and had a great sweet and sour flavor that was freshened by the bright and spicy sauce. This dish may ruin the haughty reputation of sweetbreads, as I know I am going to crave these with beer and football.

Andy, who had been taking great care of us with each course he delivered, conferred with one of the chefs, requesting fresh vegetables for the next dish.  His passion for the food and the rhythm of the courses was evident.  The local baby summer squash sautéed with mint and brown butter and then deglazed with a white wine, were the perfect palette cleanser at this stretch of our meal, as were the collards served with hominy and a vinegar finish.

Little did we know he was gearing us up for one of their famous wood fire grilled pizzas.  By now our repartee with Andy was warm and almost teasing, like we had known him for years.  He asked us our preferences for the pizza and offered suggestions.  His first thought was a Margherita, as he believes the classic pie is defining of a place, however since Kristin had been living in Boston's Italian North End, she was craving something more uniquely southern. Without hesitation Andy decided upon the Red Eye, which was covered with a rich, red sugo sauce made with the scraps from their in-house charcuterie, and then topped with pork belly, egg, fontina, and celery leaf.  Admittedly, we were starting to slow down, but there was no way we were letting this pizza go to waste.  After finishing the last slice, the surprised chefs had a look of new-found respect on their faces.  

At about this time we noticed the tempo and food on the line began to change. Trays of huge meatballs were brought out and smashed on the grill into a burger, topped with onions and smacked again on the flip side.  Andy explained that they have recently opened a late-night deck serving Frito pies and other snacks.  Since we were in the right place at the right time and had proven our eating prowess, he was going to bring us one of their acclaimed burgers. Aaron explained that is was named after John T. Edge, an Oxford friend and famous southern food writer, who sat at the bar one day asking for a great buger, but shooting down all their fancy ideas.  He kept pushing and eventually Aaron Winters, chef de cuisine, slapped a burger on the grilled, mashed the onions into it, served it up dressed, and today it bears his moniker proudly.
Aaron realized it would not be right to let two Yankees leave his bar without introducing us to the infamous Delta koolickle.  I have heard rumor of such vittles, most often served in a jar near the cash register at fillin' stations in the Delta, but until now had not had the ("pleasure" might be a strong word,) experience of pickles soaked in Kool Aid. Definitely novel, I urge everyone to try them once, particularly alongside the old school, perfection of the John T. Edge burger.

At last we reached dessert and although completely satiated, we decided to try the local Blueberry Beauregard pie as our chef's eyes lit up while describing the custardy filling topped with a dollop of homemade orange marmalade. Of course they would not let us get away with just one slice, and so brought with it a slice of their peanut butter pie, which was surprisingly light and worth every bit of fanfare it receives.  

From the first bite every part of this meal was executed beautifully, timed exceptionally, and served with such warmth that we felt a part of a personally directed play. Andy, and his team of chefs had an eye on us the entire time;  like a truly talented artist, he designed a culinary story that felt specific to our desires.  The italian southern marriage equals quintessential hospitality; the cultures share the joie de vivre for the flavors, the instinct to ensure you want for nothing and that you are fed until you cannot handle another bite, and the enveloping sense of pure celebration of combining food and friends.  I cannot think of a more beautiful way to welcome my dear friend back to the South.

Hog & Hominy on Urbanspoon

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Oxbow: Clarksdale, Mississippi

Back in 2005, while living an hour north of Boston, Mark saw an ad in a National Geographic Travel Magazine featuring Clarksdale, Mississippi.  As a blues pianist, Mark was intrigued with the idea of visiting the home of the blues.  Legend has it that Robert Johnson, iconic father of the blues guitar, sold his soul to the devil for mastery of the instrument, on a dark night, at the crossroads of highway 61 and 49 in Clarksdale, Missisippi.  The mystique sounded more exciting than a Carribean beach, and so it was that we found ourselves, joined by another couple, spending five days at the Shack-up Inn, a beer and breakfast "resort", composed of eclectically decorated, rustic, share-cropper shacks.  Note to those of you planning to visit, it will likely be the most soulful, story laden vacation you ever take, however if you are the type inclined towards manicures and blow-outs, this may not be for you. 

After an initial discussion that sounded something like "What have we done?", as this was not your typical tourist mecca, Clarksdale began to grow on us.  We found Cathead, a local folk art gallery owned by Roger Stolle, a transplant who was passionate about local art, and who booked much of the town's music.  By night, we partied at Ground Zero, co-owned by Morgan Freeman and Bill Luckett, featuring a lively blues music scene.  Delta Amusement, charmed us in the way that only an Italian dive in Misissippi, serving the best crawfish I have ever tasted, could.  One night, we even ended up at a juke joint on the outskirts of town, surrounded by nothing but cotton fields for ten miles in any direction.  The club was run by women, who despite not serving a regular menu, insisted on frying up late-night chicken, while the band ran home for more instruments so that Mark and our friends could join the jam onstage. 

Fast-forward eight years and we are now living in Mississippi, thanks to the love affair that began with that synchronistic trip back in 2005. Clarksdale has evolved in the years since.  It still features a downtown, deteriorating around the edges, stuck in the 50s, plenty of vacant storefronts, yet nostalgically beautiful in the most raw of ways.  Tucked in amongst the crumbling facades of empty department stores and old banks, you will find a beating heart.  Bubba O'Keefe converted an old Woolworths department store into The Lofts at the Five and Dime, beneath which resides a modern coffee shop cafe, called the Yazoo Pass.  There are art galleries in town, such as the Hambone Gallery, owned by Stan and Dixie Street.  The Stone Pony Pizza joint and Rust Restaurant are recent modern additions to the culinary milieu.  Despite its struggles, we have come to expect every visit to Clarksdale to reveal something new - a new restaurant, a gallery, a new festival, a new inn or B&B, or a local entrepreneur trying something innovative.

Oxbow is the latest addition to the changing landscape in Clarksdale.  On a recent trip to the town, for the Clarksdale Film Festival, Mark stopped in to meet Oxbow owners, Erica and Hayden Hall.  Oxbow started as a funky little cafe and bistro and quickly received high praise for their signature fish tacos.  Glance at their walls and you'll find articles and references of folks singing their praises.  These include Andrew Zimmern, Travel & Leisure magazine, Delta magazine and many more -- perhaps lending credence to the adage "if you build it, they will come".  The owners have an inspired food vision of what Clarksdale needs, a town traditionally known more for fantastic BBQ at Abe's and addictive tamales at Hick's than for healthy food options.

Most recently, Oxbow has taken a market-driven transformation from their initial idea and has evolved into a gourmet, specialty food purveyor featuring local meats from Stan's Meat Market, Stone Mill artisan breads, Brown Family Dairy products and an extensive beer and prepared food selection.  The atmosphere is hip meets Delta rustic and throughout the store you will find Hayden's eclectic junk-adapted artwork.  The Hall's vision also includes a food truck and soon-to-be-scheduled in-house special events which are certain to spread the word.

If you find yourself in Clarksdale searching for the mythical crossroads, start at the crossroads of 3rd street and Delta avenue, pack a lunch from Oxbow, ask 10 people where the exact spot is, and see how many answers you get.  Probably as many as if you asked where Robert Johnson is buried.

Hayden & Erica Hall

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Big Bad Pop-Ups, Oxford, Mississippi

I experienced the most divine cauliflower of my life, on Thursday evening, at John Currence's Big Bad Pop-Ups concept. Brilliantly, this chef and entrepreneur invited four top chefs to Oxford including Elie Kirshtein, Kelly English, and the team of Andrew Ticer and Micheal Hudman, to host week-long pop up restaurants in his catering space, the Main Event.  Already equipped with a full kitchen, the site hosts a casual culinary theatre, Wednesday through Saturday, allowing locals to taste the food of a variety of chefs, all the while driving revenue and employing staff during a month-long kitchen renovation at his City Grocery restaurant.  

The pop-up concept grew out of a London trend almost ten years ago and has been used by restaurateurs to test concepts, sell investors, and provide a hip, new brand for younger audiences.
This week Elie Kirshtein crafted Israeli street food, featuring small plates such as a Turkish hummus served warm with paper-thin slices of toasted garlic, butter and paprika.  Unlike the typical grocery store cousin, this hummus was light, almost whipped, and creamy.  Our poor server nearly received a hand smack, when he very politely tried to take our plate away, prior to us cleaning the last dredges of garlicky goodness from the bowl with warm pita slices.

The cauliflower, whose tips seemed dredged in tahini, which when roasted created a crispy crust, was then tossed with shaved celery, parsley and toasted pine nuts.  Determined to recreate this bright and slightly citrus infused dish, I have thought of little else since Wednesday.  

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Catbird Seat: Nashville, Tennessee

Tocai Frilano Cocktail
It looks like an Oreo, sitting on a perfect wooden block, waiting for us, as we emerge from the elevator, proceed down the trippy wallpapered hallway leading to the simple, clean, restaurant kitchen of Nashville's Catbird Seat, but expecting the unexpected, the treat is actually an earthy porcini mushroom biscuit filled with a smooth Parmesan cream.  And just like that, our minds are blown, and so goes the night. 

Located upstairs above the Patterson House, a local craft cocktail haven, the Catbird Seat is a culinary theatre in the round, seating 32 guests at a U shaped bar, intimately overlooking the kitchen.  The performers, led by chefs Erik Anderson and Josh Habiger, calmly wield tweezers, among other instruments to achieve artistic and gastronomic masterpieces.  The prix fixe menu is more than culinary genius, it is truly a transcendent experience. 

Nantucket Bay Scallops

Anticipating that this would be a memorable night, we opted for the reserve beverage pairing created by the talented beverage manager, Jane Lopes.  She started us with a cocktail of Tocai Frilano (Savignon Vert), Cocchi Americano, Mezcal with a splash of soda water and lime. 

Following the Oreos was a tongue-in-cheek plate featuring a play on mortadella, a cracker jack and hot chicken.   Elevating deli meat to an entirely new level, the house made mortadella was replete with pistachios, garnished with pickled ramps, and shaved Parmesan. A shitake mushroom cracker jack made with sorghum, was an elegant version of a childhood favorite.  Lastly, a riff on Nashville's famous hot chicken, a crispy slice of chicken skin was dusted with chili powder and finished with a dot of wonder bread puree.

Next up was my favorite of the eleven courses and not just because of my New England roots; raw Nantucket Bay scallops tasting briny and of the sea, were covered with paper-thin, lusciously red, slices of Mt. Rose apple, then topped with a dollop of Island Creek Oyster puree.  Also on the plate in an homage to oyster stuffing, was a cornbread dressing with a cube of delicate earl grey and chamomile jelly.  I grew up mere miles from Duxbury harbor, the home of Island Creek oysters, and possess a deep affinity for their product.  In a million years, I would never imagine fooling with such perfection in a shell, however I have since dreamed of mainlining that puree, directly from the pastry bag, on more than one  occasion.  This fall inspired, light dish was served with a Basa Juan Cider, that had a wonderful sweet and tart balance and a slight sparkle. 
Sunchoke Soup

Over a bowl filled with artichokes, roasted fennel, black olives, black truffle, and fermented black garlic, was poured a sunchoke and caramelized yogurt soup flavored with a little thyme oil.  The black garlic added a crunch and deep flavor that when combined with the truffles and the olives, worked symbiotically with the creamy soup. The rich flavors were complimented by a dry and fruity, 2008 Montinore Pinot Gris served, unexpectedly in a green chartreuse rinsed glass.

Golden Tilefish

Continuing onto the main courses, Golden Tilefish was delicately poached, and wrapped with a ribbon of chipotle, completed by an avocado puree, pickled baby onions and radishes and dusted with a coconut powder.  Admittedly, these ingredients sound incongruent, but together they created a buttery, crispy, spicy sonata, that paired nicely with a 2010 Weingut Robert Weil Riesling. 

It would not be a fall feast without fowl and for me this presented an opportunity to try a new bird. Roasted pigeon leg was served over a squab dashi, smoky oak broth with a hibiscus sugar-cured egg, nasturtium leaves, black trumpet and matsutake mushrooms and shaved tuna. The poultry was succulent and begged to be eaten from the bone.  A dry, French, 2010 Domaine Berthet-Bondet Cotes du Jura Rubis embraced the hearty dish.
Roasted Pigeon

Rare and marbled, a Wagyu beef filet, was served with red beets and sauce and topped with a fresh, house-made cow cheese, horseradish cream, and onions.  Yukon gold crispy potato chips added texture. The accompanying Sam Adams Imperial Series Double Bock served in an Aalburg Aquavit rinsed glass, may have spoiled me for life and helped me to discover a tolerable use for aquavit.
Wagyu Beef Filet

Our main courses behind us, we moved on to the deconstructed cheese course channeling the flavors of beer with roasted barley and oats.  This was paired with a sparkling Gruet Brut, mixed with honey, quince vinegar, and walnut liqueur. 

For dessert, we began with a beautiful pear sorbet, in the shape of the sliced fruit, with a black walnut pudding, a cardamom crisp, and an Amaro Fernet blanco gel that exploded in an herbal liqueur splendor in the mouth.  Perhaps my favorite drink of the night, was the Sawa Sawa sparkling sake served in an elegant, custom glass.  Then came the egg.  A petite shell was filled with a maple custard, hinting of flavors of thyme and hibiscus honey and garnished with a crispy slice of Benton's bacon.  For the ice cream lovers among us, the next dessert course featured a charred oak ice cream, a vanilla cake, cherry crisp, pineapple gel and bourbon encapsulations.   Fondly referred to as bourbon balls, these small, yet powerful, exploding treats remind me of a refined, adult jello shot.   A sweet Trius ice wine served in a bourbon rinsed glass, married aromatically with the dessert. 

Dessert Quartet
Satiated, and a little giggly, we had reached the end of our journey and immediately began reminiscing about the courses, staking claim to our favorites.  From the simple atmosphere, evoking a sense of sitting at a friend's kitchen bar, to the handwritten menus provided post-meal as a memento, and to the ever accessible chefs, who served the food, detailing stories of farmers and inspirations, this evening of food theatre surpassed all of my expectations.  As we thanked our chefs, we were served one last surprise course, on the now-familiar wooden block, homemade coffee-and-cream oreos.

Mayme Gretsch Servin' Up Hot Chicken
Maple Thyme Custard
Cheese Course Assembly

Sawa Sawa Sparkling Sake

Author: Bethany Cooper

The Catbird Seat on Urbanspoon