Wednesday, October 12, 2016

It's Aperitivi Time, Y'all!

Visiting the Langhe region of Italy is incredibly good for the soul. My second visit there reminded that life, friends, beauty, art, nature and of course, food and wine, are central to happiness. La dolce vita may seem clichĂ© until you visit this area and realize, they are living it! Take for instance the concept of aperitivi. In America, the closest equivalent is what we call “Happy Hour,” a two for one beer special. These are discount deals aimed to draw customers. In Piemonte, Italy it is different; aperitivi is a way of life. It is what you do on your way home from work. From approximately six to eight in the evening, friends meet friends to celebrate and enjoy life. Restaurants and cafes serve cocktails. Popular are light libations such as the Aperol Spritz composed of Aperol, sparkling wine and soda.  Another classic selection is the Negroni, which includes gin, Campari and vermouth. Just as you are settling into your aperitif, you server arrives with a complimentary plate of sumptuous meats, cheeses, sandwiches and of course potato chips. Yes, you heard me correctly, potato chips.


Aperitivi is inexpensive. Our typical aperitivi bills across the Langhe were roughly $10 - $20 euro, total for two people. I am going to break this down a bit. Cocktails during aperitivi come with amazing free food, in Italy! This does sound like nirvana and it is, but there is a refinement expected for such luxuries. Italians typically do not overindulge. Much like their café (coffee), where they order one small shot of espresso, drink and leave, aperitivi is not an all-night affair. Typically, you meet your friends for one drink, whoop it up, and then go home to your life. You rarely see a mobile phone; instead you see friends engaging, laughing and enjoying each other. Even though there is a plate of exquisite food in front of you, you thoroughly enjoy a few nibbles and leave the remainder because you will have dinner shortly.

Designed to be light, cocktails like the Aperol spritz, in all of their orange beauty, are wonderful sippers. Whether you are headed home to your family or off to a dinner out on the town, aperitivi is designed to light the way.

I would like to write more, but it is 5:50 pm….La dolce vita my friends!

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Antica Corona Reale: Piemonte, Italia

Admittedly, there is very little that is overtly southern about this post.  It is more about the "eat", and yet, as I dined my way across Piemonte, Italy, I could not help but draw comparisons to southern cuisine and hospitality.  After all, the Langhe region of Piemonte is home of the Slow Food movement.  Best known for their truffles and many of the world's most renowned wines, such as Barolo, Barbera and Barberesco, life seems to revolve around culinary pleasures.  Stories are told, friendships are made, farm to table is a given, meals last for hours and top notch hospitality are requisite;  all in all, not so different from the American South. 

Possessing a similar terrain as Tuscany, with the rolling, vineyard covered hills, Piemonte is equally beautiful.  Every hillside seems to hold a castle.  Narrow, hairpin winding roads connect the little villages, forcing you to drive slowly to take in the beauty.  Fog collects in the valleys, giving the terrain a mystical quality.  The towns remain authentic and the people are real; Old men still gather in the mornings in the town centers over espresso, old women lug their groceries up steep stone streets, laundry hangs without shame from every balcony, Fiats are the largest cars around, wine is served with lunch, and dinner begins after 8pm.  The little tourism that is here has certainly not turned this region into a caricature of itself.

It is impossible to make a dining miscalculation.  Each little osteria, tucked away on an unassuming side street, was better than the last.  Early on, we gorged on the local specialty, carne crudo, which is essentially a version of steak tartare made with high quality, local Piedmonte beef or veal.  I was reminded of my childhood, when my mom would mix up the ground beef for hamburgers with spices and worcestershire sauce, and then call me into the kitchen to taste the raw meat.  Sharing in that cold, tangy, iron flavor was as exciting as licking the beaters of cake batter.

One of our more memorable meals was a lunch at Antica Corona Reale in Cervere, just outside of Bra, the capital of the Slow Food movement.  We originally had reservations for dinner, but they called a few days in advance to say the electricity for the whole village was going to be shut off that night for maintenance, and so if we would agree to lunch, they would treat us to a bottle of wine.  Cervere is a very unassuming little town, not a hillside beauty, but a passthrough on your way out of Bra.  We found the restaurant, after some hunting, directly on the main drag in unremarkable brick building.  The door was locked upon our arrival, a tradition we were still unaccustomed to, but within moments, it opened to a group of warm and professional staff who invited us into their "home". 

We were led through the building to an internal courtyard that was unexpectedly heavenly.  A grape arbor covered the courtyard, dappling the late summer sun.  Soothing sounds gurgled from a fountain in the middle of the courtyard, and was surrounded by a dozen, linen draped tables, of which four were occupied.  We sank into our chairs and burst into laughter at the joy this special place elicited.  As if on cue, the head server arrived to pour a glass of sparkling wine to welcome us to the restaurant.  And so the slow food began.

Before we even selected the tasting menu, our server presented a plate of small bites, including one perfect cube of chicken, a hazelnut crusted croquette, and a savory, luscious profiterole.  Following that warm welcome, the chef sent over another treat - an exquisite bite of ham gelatin with capers that was as visually stunning as it was delicious.  This was a cool cube of perfection to stimulate our palate for what was to come next.

First up was the Ligurian amberjack carpaccio and tartare with San Remo shrimp served with fennel, juniper and bergamot.  The amberjack fish, both thinly sliced and chopped, was light and mild, tasting refreshingly of the sea.  There were two kinds of shrimp, both served raw, one tasting similar to gulf shrimp, the second tasting incredibly sweet and chewy, more like lobster or a langoustine.  Heads on, the juices flavored the meat deliciously.  Drizzled at the table with olive oil, the crisp raw fennel was a fresh counterpoint to the meaty shrimp.

Next was a colorful gazpacho, served with a soft boiled egg, roasted crispy vegetables and an eggplant puree.  The egg yolk blended wonderfully into the cool tomato gazpacho and leant a richness to the soup.

Our pasta course was a dish of gray rabbit ravioli, with shallots, foie gras and black truffle.  These perfectly formed little dumplings were earthy, rich and satisfying.

Throughout the meal, our servers, the maitre d', the head server, the chef d'cuisine and even the chef's father and former head chef, stopped by to engage us in conversation and confirm our every need was anticipated.  My heart melted for the older chef, whose sparkling blue eyes set off his brilliant white hair.  He didn't speak English and our Italian is rough, but with a warm embrace, he welcomed us and commented on our shared azzuro eyes, a rarity in these parts. 

After the first pasta course, we were surprised by a second, a gift from the chef, who wanted to make sure we had a chance to try the gorgonzola cheese ravioli with Madernassa pears and an almond butter cream sauce.  The visual simplicity of the plate belied the punch of flavors.  This dish stands out among all others on our trip as my favorite.  The blue cheese combined with the sweet sauce were unlike any pasta combination I have had or could have imagined. 

Our hearty main course was local Piemonte veal, breaded and served over an egg yolk sauce.  The veal was served rare, tender and fresh, accented by freshly cracked sea salt and a saute of fresh pumpkin from their kitchen garden. 

No Italian meal would be complete without sweets, and in this case, a whole plate of desserts ranging from torrone (nougat) to panna cotta and hazelnut ice cream.  We ordered espresso to go with our dessert and as is typical in Piemonte, it came with a second plate of sweets, which we begged them to pack for us to go (they suggested we eat that one and they would pack a new one to go). 

It turns out this is the 200th anniversary of Antica Corona Reale, a legacy of fine dining beyond any American's comprehension. Originally a farmhouse, surrounded by acres of land, they have been plating stunning food, long before farm to table was a thing. Brilliant chefs passed down the legacy to their progeny, who carried on the tradition, with a little of their own flare.  The restaurant was awarded their second Michelin star in 2009.  Easily, this was one of the best meals of my life, however mostly for reasons difficult to articulate. There is something about that courtyard that allowed time to stand still.  It was lush, warm and beautiful, with white grapes hanging overhead in bunches.  The service was impeccable, but not in the least bit stuffy.  I adored our servers.  The food was adventurous and yet ancient.  And of course, a steady flow of local sparkling wine throughout the meal, only added to the sensuality of the experience.
Reflecting back on our travels across Piemonte I am struck again by the strong sense of hospitality and warmth.  Cafes provide dishes and dishes of small bites of food, upon which you may graze while you wait for your espresso.  Every evening espresso, following dinner, was accompanied by a complimentary plate of sweets.  Cocktail hour or Aperitivi in Milano came with endless small plates of cheese and meats or buffets of fresh Italian dishes.  Baristas, who warmed up to us, pressed us with small wrapped candies, as a sign of affection.   Time is slow and little things, like a nice espresso with friends, matter.  Colleagues meet after work for drinks, to socialize, and to laugh loudly in exuberance, scarcely a mobile phone in sight.  Friends hold hands and everyone kisses cheeks.  Food expresses love in Piemonte and there is an abundance of love to go around.  La dolce vita!

Antica Corona Reale Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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. 

Porcellino's Craft Butcher Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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. 
Sylva Rena Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato