Monday, November 22, 2010

Flip Burger Boutique - Atlanta and Birmingham

My two favorite words are currently Flip and Burger. Together, they equal the Flip Burger Boutique with locations in Midtown and Buckhead, Atlanta as well as Birmingham, Alabama. I cannot recall the last time I had such a purely fun dining experience. Flip Burger is a hip, high-end burger restaurant, aptly called a boutique as somehow the term restaurant does not do the ambiance justice. Think old fashion diner meets California modern. Sleek and yet cozy, white leather banquets line the left wall, bar height white lacquered tables fill the middle of the room in perfectly tight rows, and a modern soda fountain/bar wraps the right wall, hung with ornate, white framed, flat screen TVs.

One look at the menu and we realize this is no ordinary burger joint. The menu is split between eight or nine grass fed beef versions and roughly the same number of non-beef "burgers", all of which are creative and represent a very diverse mix of flavors. The sides and starters were equally innovative, for instance, we decided to kick-off our meal with an order of buffalo sweetbreads served with sides of both ranch and blue cheese foam. Not your everyday Applebees fare, these were battered and fried before being dipped in the buffalo sauce making them crispy, exhibiting the perfect amount of chew and tenderness. The foams are a whole story unto themselves. Delicate in flavor and as weightless as an extremely light whipped butter, they balanced the slight kick of the buffalo sauce. Our waitress, upon catching me dipping into the foams directly after the sweetbreads were gone, shared with me that her guilty pleasure was dipping french fries into the foams - oh my (said like George Takai)!
Korean BBQ Burger

Alongside the sweetbreads we shared a large beets and goat's cheese salad, which was loaded with sweet, roasted, red and yellow beets and balanced by spicy arugula.

After deciding I would have to revisit to work my way through every burger on the menu for instance the lobster, the gyro or the ossobuco, the pressure eased and I opted for the Korean BBQ burger, which consisted of American wagyu beef, topped with a braised short rib, kimchee ketchup, pickled vegetables, and sesame krispies. Wagyu, a breed of cattle known for its marbled meat and rich flavor, made this the most flavorful beef burger, I have ever had.  Add to that, the rich taste of the tender short rib, the tang of the kimchee ketchup and pickled vegetables and the flavors simply rang.

Mark opted for the chorizo burger, which was a spicy pork burger, topped with a fried egg, finely grated hash browns, manchego cheese, romesco ketchup and smoked mayo.  The smokey spicy flavors made for a unique burger that because of the messiness factor, disappeared all too quickly.  What I have not yet confided in you, is that we loved our experience at Flip burger in Atlanta so much, we found our car on autopilot to the Birmingham location on the way back to Oxford, the next day.  While it felt completely wrong to order the same thing a day later, particularly with so many options, Mark loved the chorizo burger so much that did just that and had no regrets!
Chorizo Burger

Nutella and Burned Marshmallow Shake
We could not leave the Atlanta venue without partaking in one of their famous milkshakes.  Earlier in the meal I experienced an incredibly fresh mango martini, and therefore I knew we were in for a treat from the bar.  We decided to split a nutella and burned marshmallow shake.  While the foams earlier should have tipped us off, we did not fully realize the molecular gastronomic skill of chef Richard Blais, until our smoking milkshakes arrived, laden with liquid nitrogren.  We later learned that Blais, worked with a the leader in the molecular gastronomic movement, Ferran Adria.  Not only were the shakes creative, but the hazelnut flavor of the nutella certainly fulfilled my chocolate craving.  The burnt marshmallows were a nice addition once dunked in the nutella shake, but alone were a little reminiscent of the childhood campfire marshmallow that lingered a little too long on the stick. 

We were not even out the door of the Atlanta shop, when we began planning our lunch menu for the Birmingham Flip burger the next day.  It is safe to say were were hooked.

Birmingham Flip Burger Boutique
Breathtakingly hip might begin to describe the Birmingham store.  This restaurant had all the white leather coolness of the Atlanta location, yet the ceiling was completely covered in beautiful graffiti drawing the eye up and then down the length of the store at the end of which were floor to ceiling glass windows overlooking the Birmingham hills.

We began our lunch with a cucumber salad that now has me on an impossible mission to replicate it.  Thinly sliced cucumbers were tossed with tomatoes, watercress, feta cheese, onions, a bright vinaigrette and just the right amount of salt. 

As previously mentioned, Mark ordered the chorizo burger again and I opted for the crab burger, which was  light, full of big chucks of crab meat, topped with brussel slaw, sour apple, mustard seed caviar, and a cajun mayonnaise.  This delightful lunch popped in flavor, the sour apples juxtaposed alongside the sweet crab, all without the heft of the beef and pork dishes. 

Crab Burger
While I was dying to try the foie gras milkshake, we compromised and selected the pistachio and white truffle version.  A hint of truffle added depth to the mildly sweet pistachio flavor, making this a less cloying option than our aforementioned nutella shake.

Pistachio and White Truffle Shake
Our skilled waiter, who further enhanced our love fest with flip burger, brought over extra liquid nitrogen to show us how it worked by freezing the top of my glass of water.  Now that is dining entertainment!

Flip burger epitomizes the brilliance of selecting one idea and executing it flawlessly. Ingredients are high quality, the menu is kept to one page with frequent minor changes, based upon seasonality, and the atmosphere is artistically hip.  To those of you who live in Birmingham and Atlanta, remember that I am just a call away from joining you on your next trip to Flip burger!

FLIP Burger Boutique Buckhead on Urbanspoon

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Austin, Texas - Cowboys, Sushi and Tequila

A few weeks back I traveled to Austin, Texas, and while I was elated about this trip, it began with a series of small calamities.  My connecting flight to Austin was delayed over six hours, I was pulled over for speeding and my iphone was run over by a car, but amazingly, in some stroke of divine intervention, every near catastrophe managed to work out just fine.  I was able to rent a car and drive to Austin, I received a warning instead of a ticket, at which point learned that cops in Texas wear cowboy hats, and my phone did not even suffer a scratch.  These all seem to have been good omens for what was ahead, a gastronomic feast with my dear friend, Peggy, in town from Lubbock, Texas. 

Peggy, a recent transplant to Texas from New England, had been to Austin on previous trips and receives full credit for the meal planning. She selected, the East Side Cafe, set in a picturesque bungalow. While the rain and lightning put on a show outside, we made ourselves comfortable in a cozy back room, with 3 other tables. The restaurant is known for using farm fresh ingredients, many of which come from their own backyard garden. After hearing the specials, I knew immediately that I must try the chilled, prickly pear watermelon soup, which proved to be refreshing and completely unusual. It was a puree with some chunks of watermelon, distinctly flavored by the watermelon, with mellow undertones of prickly pear that kept it from being sickly sweet. Peggy had the house salad with a wonderful fresh goat's cheese crouton. The greens were fresh and light, in the way only recently picked greens can be, and, sadly as the hermetically sealed greens one buys in the grocery store, organic or not, will never be.

Like any good friends who share eating as a hobby, we decided to share our meals and ordered one mushroom crepe and one shrimp with crab meat dish. The mushroom crepe was rich and creamy and pure comfort food. Filled with wild mushrooms, domestic mushrooms, walnuts, ricotta, and jack cheese, it was topped with roasted tomato mushroom sauce.  It was savory and rich, and substantial, more akin to a manicotti. Yet, it wasn't heavy as ricotta can be. The jumbo shrimp were stuffed with crab meat, red and yellow bell peppers, and garlic and served over fresh spinach and topped with lemon basil aioli.  The shrimp were good, but not particularly, memorable and paled in comparison to the unsuspecting star of the dinner --- acorn squash with a soy ginger glaze. In a million years, I would not have paired those flavors with acorn squash and yet it was divine. We can't wait to attempt to recreate it for our respective Thanksgiving feasts! We plan to sit back and watch our loved ones marvel at the squash and our brilliance in preparing it.
Crab stuffed shrimp

The next day, I spent recruiting business students for the Ole Miss MBA program, at The University of Texas.  While a huge school of around 50,000 students in an urban city, it is architecturally and verdantly beautiful.  I fell in love with the main fountain, the artistic detail in the buildings, the ancient trees, rivers that cut through campus, and the eclectic diversity of the student body.  I even had a true cowboy stop to ask me for directions - he wore the hat, boots, and jeans that all had seen real ranch work; he seemed a little nervous to be in urban Austin. 

Later that night
Peggy and I met back up for dinner. She made a reservation at Uchi, where Tyson Cole is a James Beard semi finalist chef. Interestingly, I had met him over a year ago, while visiting a friend and Tyson's business partner, John Cassimus in Birmingham, Alabama. Together they have opened a fast casual sushi chain called Maki Fresh. Tyson's story is truly the American dream in that he began his food career doing dishes in an Austin sushi restaurant. After an apprenticeship in Japan at the hands of sushi masters, he now owns multiple restaurants and has even competed on the Iron Chef.

We began our meal with a cold sake tasting, as we both claimed ignorance on nuances such as filtered versus non-filtered. The sake was served in a "masu" a wooden box originally used in Japan to measure rice. Small glasses are placed in the masu filled to the literal brim. We were instructed to tip the contents of the glass into the box and to drink from the corner -- very important to avoid spilling the elixir down your chin.  The non-filtered sake, takara nigori, is relatively inexpensive and proved to be cloudy and mildly sweet. The next one was a filtered sake called suishin ‘drunken heart’ junmai which was described as having a "sweet pear and green tea flavor" and a "rich texture with a dry finish". The third sake, and the one which blew our socks off, was the undiluted, "Muroko". It was rich and multi-textured, yet very drinkable, which in retrospect may have something to do with its 18-20% alcohol content. The sake tasting was truly a marvel. Sake virgins were we. Our previous experience with sake being of the run-of-the mill American sushi house variety. You know, where it is always served warm, often out of a dusty box behind the bar, and  not particularly flavorful; a one trick pony that leaves you with a headache and a vow never to drink the stuff again.  It was as if we had been unknowingly staying in the sake equivalent of the Motel 6 all of our lives, and woke to find ourselves checked into the Ritz. In Paris.

In looking at the menu, we realized we would never be able to choose one dish, so we wisely decided to splurge on the chef's choice 10 course tasting menu. I sadly confess to you now, that due to the pure elegance of the surroundings, replete with a rich red Asian floral wallpaper, and adoring waitstaff, I felt silly taking photos.  Thus, I will humbly attempt to paint a descriptive picture the old fashioned iPhone less way.  The room truly had the oft-used, but in this case accurate, "sexy" vibe with minimalist furniture, dimmed lights and lots of cool people. But, without the intimidating unwelcoming "how did you get a table" vibe you get in a room like that in New York or LA. The wait staff were gorgeous and hip, and very knowledgeable, yet again, unlike NY or LA,  were friendly and seemingly delighted to serve us encouraged no doubt by our exuberance in being together and about to eat an amazing meal. 

The first entree was an amuse-bouche size dish with a cauliflower puree, a little roasted cauliflower floret, a micro-micro green and a Myer lemon zest. This tiny dish packed an inordinate amount of flavor that simply burst in your mouth. Admittedly, I licked the plate. We were clearly off to a great start.

Next we were served a beautiful oblong wooden bowl full of crushed ice topped with fresh Maine Oysters. As many of you know, I have a love affair with oysters shared passionately by Peggy, a New England girl in exile on the high plains of West Texas where an oyster has more to do with a buffalo or a bull's unmentionables, than the ocean. To us these babies were like nectar from the gods popping with briny flavor topped with a little bit of a lemon zest and celery leaf, just enough to add to the oyster, not to detract like many of the over-wrought fruit flavored mignonettes one encounters.  By now, Peggy and I were in a glutinous heaven.

Our next dish was sakana carpaccio thinly-sliced flounder, smoked sea salt, yuzu zest, daikon, and quinoa candy. The fresh mild taste of the flounder was delightfully complimented by the punch of the zest and the pop of the fried nutty quinoa. Who knew quinoa could be so good?

Following the flounder was a selection of sushi, including sea bream, tuna and yellow tail. All were fresh and sweet, but what was notable to me was the sushi rice. I am not a fan of rice or most carbs, as I find them rather boring, but this rice was anything but. It was not simply a delivery system for the fish, rather it stood on its own merits delicately sweet and layered in flavor, just enough to complement the fish, but not overpower it.

After the prior mild dish, we were served the machi cure maplewood-smoked baby yellowtail with yucca chips, asian pear, marcona almonds and garlic brittle. This dish was unlike anything I have ever experienced. Our waitress perfectly described the dish as the ultimate nachos; raw cold smoked yellow-tail was layered on crispy mild yucca chips and sprinkled with sweet asian pear, nutty marcona almonds and slices of crisp garlic brittle. The flavors opposed and yet balanced each other perfectly. I will never look at Mexican nachos the same. We inhaled them and had there not been more courses to come this dish may have lead to the first  "bump in the road" of our close friendship as we likely would have wrestled for the last bite...

Our first hot dish of the evening was a seared diver scallop, with coconut milk, finger lime, hon shimeji, leek and parsnip chip. The scallop was seared perfectly with a creamy almost undercooked center that we love. The sweetness of the scallop was enhanced by the coconut milk and lime and perfectly balanced by the crunch and savoriness of the leek and parsnip.

Winning the most daring dish award, was the Australian king prawn, wrapped with Korean melon, with sweet chili sauce and cilantro. The heads were flash fried and shockingly, we were encouraged to eat them, as well.  As Peggy describes me as the "girl who will eat anything, " I was thus strongly encouraged and gamely went first. Once I got past shoving the eyes and antenna in, I was rewarded by a crunchy and juicy seafood delicacy. The bodies were sweet and salty complimented by the fresh green sweet melon and slight heat from the chili sauce. I believe I may have actually squealed with delight and enthusiastically Peggy dove in before I had finished my first bite. Magical these shrimp were and we so effusive that the next table asked what were we eating.

Next was the dish that caught my eye originally on the menu, seared monkfish liver, served over rice, wrapped in seaweed. The waitress gave us a great tip; to be better enjoy the lush flavor of the liver place it liver side down on your tongue. While I am infatuated with anything liver, until now I have not experienced liver of the fish variety. I am pleased to add this silky dish to my list of favorites.

Contrary to what you would expect in a sushi tasting our next meal was a wagyu beef dish.  Wagyu is a breed of cattle known for its flavorful, densely marbled meat.  Sliced thinly and very tender it was served with a blueberry compote.  This dish on any other night would have been a star,  but tonight it seemed ordinary compared to the brillance and uniqueness of the courses that preceded it.

Finally, and most luxuriously was the foie gras nigri.  So simple, yet unexpected, this perfectly seared generous piece of goose liver was served atop delicious sweet rice.  The contrast of the warm salty, smooth foie gras with the sweet rice was outstanding.  I will dream of this dish. 

We were both feeling satiated but certainly had room for the famous desserts.  Our waitstaff brought us two dishes, as a special treat.  The first was a pink peppercorn sorbet, that sounds outrageous, but is actually mild and refreshing on the palate.  The "peppery" peppercorns seemed to enhance the citrus of the sorbet. Again, who knew? The second dessert was a caramelized white chocolate custard, with basil curd and white chocolate brittle. The caramelized sweetness complemented the creamy pana cotta like basil curd, and the white chocolate brittle was the perfect foil to the creaminess of the other elements.  

All in all this dinner was, by a long shot, the most amazing we have ever experienced.  The flavors are vivid, the textures surprising, the ingredients fresh and unexpected, and all were beautiful, yet minimally plated, without fussiness. While not inexpensive, it was worth every penny. 

At this point we could have gone to bed more than content, but we were in Austin and being this close to the border, it would be a shame not to experience some good tequila before calling it a night.  Known for its extensive tequila menu, we sauntered up to an elegant, yet empty bar at La Condesa and employed the help of the bar tender in picking our poison.  I started with a glass of the Patron Anejo which was aged and rich.  Peggy enjoyed their signature margarita which is consisted of "sauza hornitos plaza tequila with damiana, pineapple juice, agave nectar and lime juice served in a glass rimmed with cactus salt."  Their juices are all prepared fresh daily adding remarkable flavor without overwhelming the excellent and smooth tequila. These drinks made your your typical mix made margaritas look like the ugly stepsister at the ball.

As in typical girl fashion, Peggy and I managed to spend these quick two days laughing and crying as we caught-up on the two years that had passed since we had last seen each other.  We shared stories of being Yankees in the South and how much we enjoy new found cultural experiences, like the religion of football, the art of putting on make-up like southern women, how much we like "yes ma'am and no sir", and how quickly 100 degrees stopped fazing us (to me it is still better than shoveling snow). 

While it is always hard to say goodbye, I feel another trip to Austin is in order in the near future, perhaps this time including the boys and live music, for which Austin is famous.  One thing is for sure, you can put money on a visit to Uchiko, Tyson's newest restaurant, for a gastronomic adventure!

Note:  Peggy Sullivan Eighmy generously contributed her companionship on my trip and co-authored this blog. 

Uchi on Urbanspoon

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Vietnamese Phở

On a recent five-hour drive to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, I spent many of the hours pondering not the big philosophical questions in life, but rather the more immediate, 'what would I have for dinner?".  Visiting a different city, is to me an opportunity to explore the culture through food.  I craved fresh, raw oysters at Chimes, but feared they would not be carrying local oysters due to the BP oil spill.  Knowing there is a large Vietnamese community in this part of the country, I instead set my sights on a bowl of pho.

I was first introduced to Vietnamese food in my early twenties when working at the University of New Hampshire.  There one of my coworkers and close friends, had moved to the states from Vietnam as a small child and happened to be an amazing cook.  She cooked two dishes that top my list of all-time favorites.  The first is a family-style dish, a beef fondue, where each person cooks their own thinly sliced beef in a vinegar, onion and garlic broth.  Then the beef is wrapped in rice paper with herbs, to resemble a fresh spring roll and dipped in a pineapple salsa type sauce.  As with most of my favorite meals, it is messy; inevitably you end up with juice running down your arms, a sure sign of a delicious meal.  The flavors were quintessentially Vietnamese -- the fondue broth was rich and tangy, and the basil, cilantro, and mint herbs were fresh and bright.  I also love that this dinner was an event, not just a meal.  There is no way to eat this fast, as you have to cook your beef to order for each roll and then build your herb salad to bed it.  Ultimately, all sorts of rolling contests, teasing fights over stolen beef from the pot, and lots of laughs ensued.

The second dish that my friend Thuy cooked is a rich beef noodle soup called pho which is pronounced "Fuh-uh", with the hint of a second syllable at the very end.  This dish is a little more mainstream and using my handy Urban Spoon iPhone app, I found a recommended pho house in Baton Rouge called Pho Quynh.  While I love the traditional rare sliced beef version, I decided to try, the "nothing-but-the-kitchen-sink" option with tendon, tripe, brisket, beef and meatballs.  Within minutes I was served a steaming bowl, which wafted the robust aromas of cardamom, cinnamon, star anise, ginger, clove, coriander and fennel seed.  The broth is thought to have some French influence. The bowl was laden with rice noodles, the meats, including the still pink beef, and green onions. Alongside the bowl, came a plate with bean sprouts, lime wedges, basil, mint, cilantro, sliced jalapenos, and a sawtooth type herb called ngo gai.  I loaded up my bowl with the herbs and then added some hot chili paste, fish sauce and hoisin.  My friend Thuy once told me that slurping was encouraged and actually was taken as a sign that the diner enjoyed the meal, so with that in mind, I picked up my spoon in one hand and chop sticks in the other and dug in.  What I love about pho is that it is both vivid and comforting at the same time.  While in the future, I could live without the tripe and the meatballs, the tendon was unctuous and rich, and the rare beef was flavorful.  I could barely finish the "small", as the only thing small about it was the $7.99 price tag.  

My return trip the next day took me through Jackson, Mississippi and having had my first taste of Vietnamese food in over two years, I was on a mission to find more.  Sure enough, Flowood, just outside of Jackson, has a pho house called Saigon Vietnamese.  This time I decided to go traditional and ordered the rare beef version, which was loaded with tender, rare, meat.  The broth was fabulous, and even a little oily, which made it rich and satisfying. I accidentally ordered the large, which I could not finish and it ran me a whopping $7.00.  

I rationalized to myself that eating the same meal two days in a row would give me the opportunity to compare and contrast the dishes for my blog, but ultimately, my attention to detail was overridden by my immense enjoyment of both dishes.  The restaurants I chose were Vietnamese specific, not Asian, which is  something for which I am stickler.  If you are interested in trying pho I'd urge you to seek out a Vietnamese restaurant to get the real thing.  I learned from Thuy that food was a huge part of her family culture.  Pho broth takes days to cook, much like an Italian "gravy", and that type of investment is respected and cherished by the family.  I am sad to say that I have lost touch with Thuy, but each time I have a bowl of pho, I am reminded of the special times we spent around her table, slurping and laughing.   I hope someday to reconnect with Thuy, perhaps over a bowl of pho. 

Pho Quynh on Urbanspoon

Saigon Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Pig Ear Sandwich, Jackson Mississippi

While eating a pig ear sandwich was not high on my bucket list, I have to confess I was intrigued by the stories I heard from my friend, and 208 chef, John Stokes, of a little joint in Jackson, Mississippi that serves up this country style dish.  On a recent trip to Jackson for work, I overheard colleagues taunting a California, self proclaimed, tofu eater about going to the "Big Apple" restaurant for his first pig ear sandwich. I was as elated as he was horrified at this idea and quickly researched my destination.

The Big Apple Restaurant is located on Farish Street a block or two from the heart of downtown Jackson.  Once home to a thriving music scene, Farish Street has since fallen on hard times.  Rumor has it that there are plans to revitalize the area to make it more like Beale Street or Bourbon Street.  I pulled up to find what from the outside appeared to be the perfect local, dive.  Inside the building customers enter long narrow hall, one side of which allows a view of the grill through Plexiglas.  A few men stood around the counter, apparently waiting for their late lunch orders, watching curiously as I placed my order.  I quickly requested a pig ear sandwich, to which the server asked "How many?"  Well despite my slight build, I was not going to be a wimp, so I ordered two.  Two! What was a I thinking as I had no idea if these were even edible.  I ordered mine mild, which was the middle level of heat.  While I stood and waited, watching the large female chef deftly work the grill, a few other patrons filed in and ordered.  Clearly they were regulars as they confidently riffed off orders saying things like "I'll take 2 ears mild, 3 smokes, and a side of fries."  My order arrived and it was then that I realized each sandwich cost a mere $1.05. 

I moved to the back of the restaurant to an old school, Formica table, where I rolled up the sleeves to my business suit and began to unwrap my first sandwich.  What lay inside the wax paper was a messy, moist little sandwich on a bun, about the size of a large slider.  As much as I embrace the whole nose to tail food movement, I admittedly was a little queasy about the ears; the answer was to dig in without looking too closely.  The bun was soft and moist and layered with the thin slices of meat, some sort of a slaw and mustard.  The meat or ear was tender and totally unlike what I pictured.  Had you not told me what it was, I would have thought it was some sort of thinly sliced meat.  I like spicy, hot food and the mild was a good level.  There was a little heat to it, but it did not leave me sweating or overpower the salty taste.  After finishing the first and licking my fingers, I hesitated.  While I appreciated the down home, nothing goes to waste mentality of the sandwich, did I really enjoy it enough to indulge in a second?  The answer was no, but having grown up with depression era parents, I could not throw away a good sandwich, and thus unwrapped and ate my second and likely last ever, pig ear sandwich. 

As is true of any good dive, the experience makes it special.  While slopping down my sandwiches, a number of men came and went, all yelling out a hello and giving a nod of approval at my meal.  As I was leaving one guy who walked around like he owned the place, asked me if I grew up in the country, which apparently would have explained why a white girl, in a business suit, in the middle of the day, was on Farish Street enjoying a pig ear sandwich.  We talked at length about the area, what it was like growing up there, seeing musicians like BB King playing at the neighborhood juke joints, and how he hoped it would some day be restored to its former glory.  I walked up and down the block, talked to a few locals who reminisced about the old days and took in the vibe that made this community feel like an urban cousin of many a Mississippi Delta town. 

While I have checked off the pig ear sandwich, I do have reason to revisit The Big Apple.  I returned home to Oxford bragging about losing my pig ear virginity and in a weird synchronistic fashion, Oxford was showing a local documentary on the Big Apple, from which I learned that the smokes refer to a smoked sausage sandwich.  I cannot wait to go back and this time swagger in confidently, ordering a couple of smokes, and a side of fries. 

Big Apple Inn on Urbanspoon

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Ocean Springs, MS

As I write this, it is the five year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and therefore I believe it is fitting to wax poetic about the little coastal town of Ocean Springs. But before I do, I want to share some of the stops along our five hour journey through Mississippi, to the shore. I am still not used to living in such a big and rural state and find it fascinating that in all my years in New England, I rarely traveled more than 2 hours from home, yet here, I think nothing of picking-up and driving five hours to the coast for the weekend. What I also find interesting is the varied personality of the regions across the state, which is certainly not novel to Mississippi, but intriguing all the same.

Our first stop, was a large
farm stand just south of Jackson on route 49, called Wright's. The produce was beautifully displayed in baskets and in keeping with the southern hospitality, adorable teenagers follow you, taking whatever you select and bagging it for you, while offering tips and advice. On the way down we bought peaches, which turned out to be the most juicy, sweet, drip down your chin and arms, deliciousness. On the return trip, we made sure to stop for more peaches, and lady peas, which are a very small green pea, similar to a black eyed pea or purple hulled pea, but seemingly more tender. Cooked up with chicken stock, shallot, bacon and butter, they were a real treat.

Upon reaching Hattiesburg at dinner time, we followed a recommendation from Miss Lila and detoured into town to patronize the Walnut Circle Grill, described as "New York style Italian and Continental cuisine." Sadly, Hatties
burg seems to be one of those towns where the "strip" is happening, but the historic downtown, undergoing a gentrification, is empty, making our choice all the more meaningful. The ivy covered entrance into the glass roofed bar was beautiful and from there we entered a classic, yet modern dining room.

I ordered a glass of red zinfandel and for the first time in my life, I had to s
end the glass back as it had oxidized. Thankfully our server was most gracious. With our drinks, we were served fresh baked bread with homemade nutty, robust, roasted garlic, smothered in olive oil for spreading. Hailing from the northeast, I didn't realized until now, how much I missed Italian food and this very simple accoutrement, brought that home poignantly.

Our m
eals arrived piping hot, a real bonus and one for which I am a stickler. Mark was served the Sweet potato crusted snapper, pan seared, topped with crab meat and lemon butter. The fish was sweet and incredibly light. I received the Red Fish pan seared and covered in crawfish, tasso, and mushroom Cajun cream sauce with fried eggplant. Both were served with haricot vert. I asked for double instead of a starch. My red fish was rich and spicy with a full bodied tasso cream flavor, that made the choice of ordering fish seem like a carnivore's dream. The haricot vert may have been the best I have ever tasted, crispy and garlicky, perfectly salted and tossed with a few pine nuts for good measure. Equally amazing were the fried, sweet eggplant. Try as I might, I cannot replicate Mark's Mom's Italian eggplant mastery, but these would surely pass the test. On our way out, we took in a few songs in the glass roofed bar by John Wooten and his band. The steel drum, a favorite of mine since I saw it on a Sesame Street episode, made it hard to leave for our final stretch to the coast.

There is something vacation-esque about arriving at night to your destination and upon awaking, almost like looking for Santa, heading out to explore what the town held in store for us. My first trip to the coast occurred right after the oil spill in May and on that trip we stayed in Biloxi and explored Gulfport and other towns to the west on our way to New Orleans, the final destination. Little did we know that just five miles east of Biloxi sat this town, oozing charm; the village of Ocean Springs, known for its beauty, resilience and artistic culture, immediately felt right to us. On this morning we traveled to the scenic, downtown, which was just hip enough, yet small and quaint making me feel immediately at home. The streets were shaded by trees, inviting you to walk the streets lined with boutiques and a plethora of restaurants. Breakfast is a favorite of ours and while it is typically not as diverse as other meals, I still love seeking out a special place.

At Paige's recommendation, we dropped into Phoenicia Gourmet Cuisine, a Greek restaurant right downtown. Already feeling comfortable Zen in this town, we were greeted by our very Italian waiter, named Rocky, who it turns out grew up a mile from Mark in Providence, RI. While he and Mark proceeded to banter back and forth in heavy Rhode
Island Italian accents, we were treated to two different eggs Benedict, one with artichoke bottoms and spinach and one with filet mignon and hollandaise sauce. Both amazing we agreed that the artichoke spinach won the prize. The artichoke and spinach sauce reminded me of that classic dip, so often served in my house in a pumpernickel bread bowl. The eggs were each nestled atop an artichoke bottom instead of the classic tomato. Almost showing up the main entrees, however were the asiago cheese grits. I should preface this by saying that while I appreciate grits, I really have only considered them a vehicle for other flavor like syrup or jam, until now. These grits had a creamy texture and tangy cheese flavor that elevated them to the top of my breakfast list.

After breakfast, with our friends Slade and Amy, we visited the Walter Anderson museum, a must see. In my two years in Mississippi, I had heard about this famous artist from the coast, but was
unfamiliar with his work or story. Upon entering the museum we were reluctantly encouraged to watch a movie about Anderson in a small, somewhat uncomfortable room and I am thrilled I did not balk. Anderson's story is beautifully heart-wrenching and poetic. His water colors, wood sculpture, oils and even crayons, depicted coastal scenes so beautiful, you felt a part of his world for a brief few hours and even after, as we explored his town.

Our trip was wrapped around Mark playing a Thacker Mountain Radio show in the historic downtown Mary C. O’Keefe cultural center. The show was outstanding, featuring such Mississippi talent as, the Yalobushwackers with guest Carl Massengale, Caroline Herring, Homemade Jamz and New Orleans author/writer for Treme, Tom Piazza. Following the show, we joined our friend Candice for a cocktail with none other than Walter Anderson's grandson, Chris Stebly a local artist. This is where the Ocean Springs vibe really began to show for me, as it is not until you begin to really meet the locals do I feel that you understand a town. Chris and Candice were interesting, funny and immediately warm.

We took leave of this great gathering in order to make it to the Thacker Mountain party at the nationally renowned BBQ dive called the Shed. We were told it was a little ways outside of town and that we will know we have arrived when we see a building made of junk. They were not kidding. I had my first and likely only "red carpet" experience at the shed, which says an awful lot about my life. Thacker Mountain artists were directed to a private "room" (seeing as most of the restaurant is outdoors, it was really more of a partitioned area) where we could serve ourselves every kind of BBQ imagina
ble from the baby back ribs to brisket and beans. While not the Memphis dry rub I have been accustomed to, it was all sweet and tender. New to me was the dessert, "Nanner Puddin'". The waiter bragged on it as it was made by his wife and apparently the best around. For those of you unfamiliar, as I, it is a delicious banana pudding, chock full of banana chunks, topped with Nilla wafers, resplendent in a Styrofoam cup. Did I mention this was served with keg beer, all on the house? I don't know about you, but it has been a while since I have had keg beer and surprisingly it goes down just fine with nanner puddin'.

Later that night, although this story does not involve food, it must be told as it really sealed the deal for my love affair with Ocean Springs. We returned from the Shed to town to meet up with friends at a hole-in-the-wall bar, lacking a name, but situated directly next to the Phoenicia. This bar possessed all that a good dive should. It had flashback in-time decor, including a cushioned bar, the kind with a bumper around the edge that is reminiscent of its cousin, the cushioned toilet seat. Mr. Mack, a complete sweetheart, was behind the bar, watching his big screen TV and taking care of the customers. The music was loud and jazzy, the beers were two dollars, we had the pool tables all to ourselves, and most importantly, we had great laughs with new found friends. In a town full of beautiful restaurants, this establishment had the perfect grit to end the night.

We fit in one more breakfast with our friend Candice, who after taking us on a quick tour of a few Carroll B. Ishee crafts-style houses, brought us to Bayview Gourmet Restaurant. A quick review the menu, made it clear that it would be insensitive of me to travel all the way to the c
oast without ordering oysters and thus I did my share to support the local gulf fisherman by shamelessly ordering the fried oyster, eggs benedict, served with tomato, spinach and grits. While the oysters were not as juicy as I normally like them, they made for a decadent meal, but for a second time this weekend the grits stole the show. These were just plain grits, but they were silky and creamy and altogether memorable. I should mention that you know you ordered well when another customer approaches the table to find out what it was that I was eating, so he could order the same thing!

Since arriving back home I have found myself daydreaming about a vacation home in Ocean Springs. Having grown up in a small town a few miles from the coast, I do find myself missing the water on occasion, and therefore the idea of all the attributes I love about Oxford, the great food, the warm p
eople, the artistic culture, combined with a coastline - it all just felt right!

Phoenicia Gourmet Cuisine on Urbanspoon

Shed Barbeque on Urbanspoon

Walnut Circle Grill on Urbanspoon

Saturday, August 7, 2010

New England Visit - Provincetown, Massachusetts

I adore Mississippi and I find it hard to leave, unless it is for my annual summer vacation with my family on Cape Cod in Massachusetts. Returning home is always a treat, to the land where my partner's name is pronounced "Mahk", where one risks hypothermia by venturing deeper than your toes in the water (I am not being facetious, I had hypothermia as a kid), but where coast lines are stunningly crisp and lobster reigns as the quintessential dish alongside other delicacies like steamers and little necks. Each year I return to the same cottage that our family has visited as far back as my Mom's childhood. The memories run deep for all of us, yet each year we manage to make new ones. It is at this cottage that I fondly remember digging quahogs, a large chowder clam about the size of fist, which we later ate on the half-shell on the porch with a little cocktail sauce. The adults washed them down with with beer while I was content to enjoy the salty, chewy clam straight-up. Most would think we were crazy as these are known as large, tough clams, not your typical raw fair, but it is here that I fell in love with shellfish on the half-shell and for that matter, pretty much anything raw. I don't know whether it was the thrill of illegally clamming (shhhhh), the end of day bonding on the porch with the whole family, or my discovered love of shellfish, but this is an amazingly fond and poignant memory that I cherish.

While this blog is actually about my recent trip, now that I am on a roll, I feel that I need to give homage to the clam. I feel comfortable saying that it is my favorite seafood and
one that you usually do not find on menus in Mississippi. Growing up, when asked what I wanted for my birthday dinner, it was either steamers or fried clams. For those who have not enjoyed a good steamer, humor me as I describe this unusual crustacean. Steamers or steamed clams are narrow, thin shelled clams served steamed in a big bowl alongside a cup of broth and a ramekin of drawn butter. To eat, you open the shell, remove the clam, and using your finger nails, remove the ugly black thing that covers the neck before bathing the clam in the broth. I enjoy amassing a few before enjoying the final step of dipping them in drawn butter. Admittedly in writing this, I realize this will sound revolting to most people, but to me, this is pure heaven. In addition to steamers, high on my list are fried clams. Never, never, never would I consider eating a fried clam strip, but instead, the big, juicy bellied clams, typically served in a red and white cardboard box/bowl with a side of tartar sauce. The juicy to chewy ratio is incredibly important here; the more succulent the better. My mom and I are the fried clam aficionados of the family and despite the fact that you never feel well after all that fried, incredibly rich, goodness, we continue to seek out the "best".

Now that I have taken you down my New England clam memory lane, I return to the present. Our vacation spot is in Provincetown, MA, which is at the extreme far end of Cape Cod. Known for its liberal culture and scenic beaches, I was excited to try a few seafood restaurants while in town. My sister Meredith, her husband Morgan and I set out one night to see what the town had to offer. After scrutinizing many typical New England menus, we decided on Lorraine's, a Mexican restaurant with an abundance of seafood on the menu, a long walk down Commerce Street, well into local territory. I liked that it was not your typical tourist seafood fare. Having done no research, I was thrilled to be seated with what I initially thought was an extensive wine list, but I soondiscovered was a tequila-by-the-glass, list. I have often heard of good sipping tequilas, but I have never explored. Our waiter explained that most tequilas on the menu had 3 categories, blanco, reposata and añejo which as listed ranged from from young and bright to smokey and aged, often in whiskey barrels. Meredith and I chose the Sauza Hornitos Añejo and Morgan went with the Campo Azul Añejo. Served neat, the Sauza was indeed smoky with a hint of chocolate and surprisingly smooth. Our server smirkingly delivered us each a small glass, alongside our tequila, and when asked what was in it, he refused to tell us until we had tasted it, simply explaining that it was a palate cleanser. After we obligingly tasted, he divulged the delicious concoction and get this- it was tomato juice infused with orange and shallot! Can we say, unusual bloody mary? I am in love and I am now on a mission to find more places with a sipping tequila list.

The menu ranged from duckling to paella and seeing as I wanted seafood, I opted for the crab enchiladas. I was served an incredibly healthy portion of "flour tortillas filled with fresh crab, cheese, green peppers, tomatoes, capers, green olives, & sauce picante" along side refried beans and rice. My dish was a divine balance of mellow cheese and sweet large lump crab, finished with briny capers. Morgan went with the Red fish, which was served alongside fresh grilled vegetables. Meredith ordered the scallops and mushroom risotto, served with grilled vegetables. Her scallops were cooked perfectly and complemented by the risotto which was rich and deeply flavored with the mushrooms. The grilled carrots were noteworthy, in that they were naturally candied when grilled, yet a little smoky and crisp. While the portions were incredibly generous, they were not making up for flavor with more food.

Following dinner, instead of dessert we opted for cordials. At my waiter's suggestion, I tried the Belle de Brillet, a sweet, pear flavored cognac and found a new use for dessert calories. Morgan tried a more traditional cognac and Meredith enjoyed a glass of port. We all loved the Belle de Brillet so much that we bought a bottle the next day.

The following night my parents and I went to our more traditional haunt in P-town, call Napi's, which is fairly classic seafood restaurant with a bit of a Portuguese bent. I was craving the baked stuffed lobster I had las
t year, but as it was not offered, I opted for the special lobster bouillabaisse; a half lobster, served in a spicy broth with little neck clams, mussels, cod, onions and chorisco. My dad ordered the pound-and-a-half steamed lobster and my mom selected a scallop penne. What I love about lobster, and correct me if I am wrong, I believe it is the only meal traditionally served with a bib. I love seeing my nearly octogenarian, career-military, six-foot-two father, all decked out in a lobster bib! Heaven forbid you order lobster and don't put on the bib - it is part of the ritual - love it and embrace it and don't be ashamed! My dish was light, yet spicy and good to the last slurped-up drop of broth. The little neck clams, which are like the aforementioned steamers, only smaller, and in a much thicker shell, were sweet and rich. The mussels were full of flavor, the cod was infused by the spicy broth and the lobster was tender and sweet. I am usually a purist and I like my lobster in drawn butter or served cold, dressed lightly in mayonnaise in a roll. There are a few exceptions, including a lobster dish Mark cooked once, served with a vanilla sauce, which was absolutely divine. This night was also a departure from my norm; I thoroughly enjoyed the meat, dipped in that spicy bouillabaisse broth.

Our weather was delightful, in the mid 80s with a great sea breeze. We only had one morning of rain and that enabled us to enjoy a guilt-free trip to the Atlantic Spice Company, where I stocked up on smoked salt and Bolivian rose salt along with other unusual items, which worth every hassle, inevitably makes me susceptible to a search at the airport (I swear it is oregano from Madagascar!).

While I would not trade my life in Mississippi for anything, it is incredibly hard to live far from those you love. I am tearing up just thinking of all the laughs and new memories, how fast my nieces will grow before I see them next, and how much I cherish my parents as together we grow old. When I look back on this vacation, years from now, I will likely remember these meals, not only because of the fine food, but mostly because of the stories we created and will tell for years to come.

Lorraine's Cafe on Urbanspoon

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Independence Weekend in the Delta

We set out on our mini vacation to the Mississippi Delta with a few musts on our agenda. We had to eat at the Delta Bistro in Greenwood as it is the home of my 3rd favorite sandwich. We had reservations at the Alluvian, thanks to a gift from my MBA students, and we were returning for a second year to the B.B. King Homecoming concert in the park. This year Marty Stuart, a favorite of ours since his concert with chancellor Khayat at the Ford Center, was opening for B.B., making the allure to return to Indianola even stronger. What I didn't expect after living in Mississippi for two years, having grown accustomed to the friendly southern lifestyle, was to come away from our trip feeling a deep appreciation for Delta hospitality. People are not just nice, they bend over backwards to make sure you are having a good time and feel welcomed.

Our drive to Greenwood was lazy and pretty, a perfect summer afternoon for watching the hills of kudzu turn to flat farmland. The crops were incredibly green, creating a deep contrast with the blue sky. We called ahead and ensured that the Delta Bistro would be open late as we planned to arrive mid-afternoon in Greenwood. We nearly had the restaurant to ourselves and wasted no time in ordering the Fried Green Tomato BLT with a side of Sweet Potato Fries and the special of the day, a Blackened Soft Shelled Crab Po-boy with Hot Sauce Mayo, Lettuce and Tomato also with a side of Sweet Potato Fries. The interior of the restaurant is light and filled with local folk art, in a simple, industrial and classy way. I have heard rumor that the original building was used in the cotton sorting process and the enormous skylights functioned to bring in natural light for the workers to better see. Our food arrived and as the first sign of great hospitality, I was impressed to see that our waitress had the chef split the plates for us as she must have heard me mention we were planning to share.

I was a little worried as I have had the the Fried Green Tomato BLT twice before and feared that I may have built it up in my mind to the number 3 slot on my best-sandwiches-of-all-times list. Fortunately, it did not disappoint and if anything, it reinforced its strong standing. Delta Bistro, known for its use of local, fresh ingredients, showed off that skill in this dish. The tomatoes were piping hot, juicy and tangy on the inside, and cornmeal encrusted on the outside, bedded with fresh baby lettuce, salty, peppered bacon, and oozing with bright and cool mayonnaise. All of this goodness was served between slices of the most flavor-filled, crispy crusted, yet chewy, homemade sourdough bread. While the sweet potato fries were perfectly crispy and soft, their sweetness, which any other day might warrant lengthy praise, was a mere accompaniment to the Queen status of the sandwich.

Admittedly, the Blackened Soft Shelled Crab Po-boy was a hideous sandwich, not designed for the squeamish. It did, however, deliver a fantastic blackened spice flavor, and a nice hit of heat with the spicy mayo juxtaposed to the refreshing lettuce and tomato. My only regret is that the poy-boy bread was not as soft and memorable as the sourdough.

During the entire lunch, our unsweet teas never dipped below the half-way mark without being refilled. This service was impressive despite the fact that my Splenda balance in my tea was constantly thrown off (this is where my southern friends groan as they all would have ordered sweet tea). The kicker in the service however, was when the waitress showed up with our check at the end and brought along 2 more teas, lidded and ready in to-go cups, without us asking for them. Seriously? And did I mention that of course there is no charge for refills?

Full and geared up with that early vacation energy, we took off through the Delta for Indianola, the home of B.B. King. Our blanket and chairs set up in Fletcher Park, we sat back and relaxed to great local blues music from Grady Champion, a killer harmonica player and lead vocalist and the The Columbia College Blues Ensemble out of Chicago. They were followed by Mississippi native and country star, Marty Stuart. Marty and his incredibly talented band played a bit of country, bluegrass and even gospel music, all decked out in extravagant beaded blazers and leather pants. Even Mark, who is not a real country fan, sang praises for their talent. All of this lead up to the main act, of course B.B. King himself. While I won't say this show is one of his best musical performances, it might be one of the more entertaining. B.B. is passionate about keeping the blues alive and dedicates this show each year to the children of Indianola, despite the fact that he usually doesn't even start until after 10pm. He played a few songs, talked to his hometown crowd and introduced the band, including his nephew Walter Riley King, Mark's sister Jane's long-time friend, before announcing the dance-off. The dance-off consists of multiple rounds of dance contests starting with 3-5 year olds, on-stage. Where these kids learn their moves, I do not know, but they are hysterical. All the while B.B. is yelling things like "Mix 'em up. We don't need them all the same color. I want some white ones and some black ones." He wraps up the show by calling Marty Stuart back to the stage and playing
The Thrill is Gone and When the Saints Go Marching In. We called it a night and took off for our plush digs at the Alluvian, while many went onto Ebony, the local juke joint where B.B. would play into the early hours of the morning.

The only thing that could have gotten me out of that amazing bed the next morning was promise of a breakfast in the Terrace Room on the 4th floor of the Alluvian. I have yet to explain to the non-locals, how amazing the Alluvian is, particularly in a little town in the heart of the Delta. Fred Carl of Viking Range decided to build his luxury cooking line in his local town, and in the process has revitalized beautiful buildings, has brought jobs to a town that needed them and has developed a culinary mecca replete with a spa, cooking school and a 5 star hotel to house those making the pilgrimage. Following a well appointed breakfast we hit the downtown farmer's market, where we bought black russian heirloom tomatoes, local, fat blueberries, and cherry tomatoes. I loved that one of the locals was smoking up ribs directly next to a rather new-age, gourmet smoothie booth. I am a sucker for a delta accent and could have stayed all day at one table listening to a guy tell stories about life farming in the delta, his grandmother who is still feisty in her 90s and all of his other kin folk.

Determined to get back to Indianola for more food, I tore myself away and we hit the road, not stopping until we arrived at the Indianola Pecan House. If I lived in this town, they would certainly have a restraining order on me by now, as they have a free pecan tasting bar with over 20 different flavors, both sweet and savory! We opted for the Cajun Roasted, Rosemary Herb, Jalepeno and Sugar-Free Cinnamon.

At Miss Lila's and Paige Duke's suggestion, we decided upon lunch at The Crown. Visitors to town who don't know about Crown would easily miss it, as it appears to be just another southern gift store selling cheese straws and sorority looking t-shirts that tout the virtues of living in the south. However, upon entering the store, you are first greeted by more free food; there are tables set up with dips and crackers and their famous smoked catfish pate. Not truly a pate, but nonetheless fantastic, this dip made with local catfish became a new favorite and a tub of it came home with us. (Mark whipped up a tasty red onion, caper and smoked catfish pate omlette upon our return.)

The restaurant abuts the gift shop and we are warmly whisked to a table near the kitchen and directly next to the pie table, which I will explain shortly. Family owned and run, we were not even to our table before mother and daughter team, Evelyn and Jennifer greeted us like it was their living room. They seemed genuinely excited that it was our first visit. Jennifer recommended that we try the Catfish Allison a new addition to the menu since the 80's and a crowd favorite. After reading the description, we decided we would both get the Allison and sat back to wait. Seconds later, one of the waitresses arrived with a round wooden cutting board filled with homemade cornbread and tomato bread fresh out of the oven. At first, the tomato bread appeared to be focaccia like, but upon biting into it, it was entirely different. Soft and moist with a little chew, it was almost sweet and purely decadent. We were still gushing over the bread when the salads arrived. Unusually, apple and melon topped the romaine greens with a sweet dressing and a salty crumb like topping, that I am unable to identify. Then came the main course. I will preface this by saying that I have tried over and over again to like catfish, particularly as I try to embrace all things local, but it is simply not a favorite of mine until now. Poached and served in a baking crock, it is smothered in a green onion butter sauce and topped with fresh Parmesan cheese. The menu described it perfectly when it touted it as having a "lovely nutty butter flavor." And as Jennifer suggested, there might be nothing better than dredging the final bite of bread in that salty, buttery goodness. You will notice in the photos that there is nothing fancy about these dishes. They are not served nouveau with streaks of paprika on a huge white plate. In fact the crock has probably not changed since the 80's, but when the food is this good, you really don't need the splash.

At this point, for $10.95, I could have left and been ridiculously happy, but there is more. And by more I mean an
entire table of pies from which you are encouraged to help yourself and which comes with your meal. In fact Evelyn herself even suggests you try a few different slivers of chess pie, lemon pie, a coconut and chocolate chip pie and even a trifle, which satisfied Mark as the lowest in sugar. I opted for the praline pecan pie, which reminded me of my mom's homemade chocolate chip pecan pie, one that she has not made me in years, but might if I hint enough. I was struck throughout our dining experience again at the hospitality. Evelyn and Jennifer stopped by a few times to make sure we liked our various courses, but not inquiring like a typical waiter or waitress might, expecting you to say "fine," more like how your mom would ask you after having made your favorite meal. And when they hollered "y'all come back" I truly believe they meant it.

The drive home was slow and scenic, giving us a chance to take in the many varied landscapes in Mississippi from bayous to delta farmland. We only stopped once, when I spied the cutest pig in the world, alongside the road in a muddy stream bed and added that to my list of things you just don't see everyday.