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