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

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 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