Sunday, December 9, 2012

Catbird Seat: Nashville, Tennessee

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

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

Nantucket Bay Scallops

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

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

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

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

Golden Tilefish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sawa Sawa Sparkling Sake

Author: Bethany Cooper

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Saturday, November 24, 2012

City Grocery Staff Meal: Oxford, Mississippi

cut my teeth waiting tables at Friendly's, a New England chain known for its ice cream and diner-style food.  While it was far from fine dining, I learned how to hustle and multi-task, turning dozens of tables each shift.  I enjoyed the camaraderie of the diverse staff, and I came to understand the value of customer relationships.  During breaks we ordered a half-price menu item and wolfed it down in the solitude of a back booth.  The clamwich was my favorite, washed down with a humongous strawberry milk that would make the Mayor of NYC cringe. 

After three or four years, I itched to try my skills at more upscale dining and landed a summer job at restaurant on the South Shore of Massachusetts called the Hummarock River House.  Owned by a Greek husband and wife team, they specialized in Mediterranean inspired seafood.  I quickly came to realize the difficulty in juggling multiple courses, learning cocktail language, and discerning between Chardonnay and Chablis, all at a time when I had barely sipped Boone's Farm around a camp fire. To say I was in over my head was an understatement, but the staff were kind and my fondest memories of that induction into fine dining, happened around 5pm each night.  By that time, we had finished our prep work, had a little downtime before the first early-birds arrived, and as a staff we sat down to eat.  Typically we had soup, ladled out of a big cauldron.  Sometimes the kitchen would serve us a new dish or prepare one of the specials for the night so that we could better describe the flavors.  This time of the day was special, the calm before the storm.  It reminded me that each shift was a new day, and a chance to prove to myself that I could stay out of the weeds that service.  

I eventually grew more comfortable on the floor and was even asked to be cocktail waitress, when strangely, after hours, the fine restaurant turned into a wild bar scene.  I often retell stories of the bar fights and the drunken guy who managed to lose his pants but wanted to order a beer, naked.  I, however, had not thought about the staff dinners until recently, when I learned that Christine Carroll and Jody Eddy, wrote an entire, beautiful, culinary book about staff meals, the world around.  The book, titled “Come In, We’re Closed: an Invitation to Staff Meals at the World’s Best Restaurantsincludes City Grocery, here in Oxford, Mississippi.  Recently, I had the pleasure of joining a staff meal with Jody Eddy and Executive Chef John Currence, celebrating Jody's book tour.

City Grocery, located in the heart of Oxford's scenic square, is known for its southern cuisine classics like shrimp and grits as well as seasonal inventive twists like Mississippi fried quail and waffles with spicy pepper jelly and green onion coulis.  On this early evening, the front of the house was quiet, aside from a few servers checking last minute place settings, and others sitting together folding napkins for the impending rush.  The bartender methodically loaded ice, sliced citrus, and stocked liquor.  The kitchen was another story, bustling with preparations for the evening meal. Cucumbers were sliced, sheet pans of crostinis were toasted, and pots simmered on the stove all in a highly orchestrated frenetic symphony.   

At some point, with little fanfare, the kitchen staff emerged and loaded the bar top with a steaming cast iron pot of chicken and dumplings, cornbread, cucumber and onion salad, and bananas foster bread pudding. The waitstaff brought plates and joined in, family style, serving themselves and sitting together at back tables. Conversation flowed across tables, stories were shared, and it truly felt like a family dinner. 

The chicken and dumplings were unlike any I have experienced. The chicken was loosely shredded and the consistency was that of a rich stew. The moist cornbread acted as the dumplings, sopping the juices, and the fresh cucumber and onion salad with herbes de Provence, added a bright note. I overindulged a bit on the main course, but left a little room to sample the bread pudding, fortunately, as it was crispy on the outer edges and custardy on the inside with chunks of banana, and then drizzled with the brown sugar rum sauce and a dollop of freshly whipped cream.

Looking around at the assembled team, I could not help but think about the importance of culture to business, particularly in the restaurant industry where staff is working together, in a swiftly paced environment, as a team. While I loved the solitude of my clamwich, at Friendly's, and realize there is no down-time in that type of fast-casual environment, I have to wonder what the impact would have been, if we could have taken 20 minutes each day to break bread together.

As the staff finished eating, they swiftly cleared the tables and the bar, and within moments, the tempo again changed to the feeling you get ten minutes before anyone shows up to your party - a little excited energy, a bit of last minute movement to complete lingering tasks and a delicious quiet that is guaranteed to transform momentarily.  Everyone was ready, in the groove, satiated by a great meal and inspired by their team.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Southampton, Bermuda: The Pompano Beach Club

My mom has been on a 20 year mission, with the sole quest to convince me to visit her favorite vacation spot.  She was a military officer's wife, with passports full of exotic destinations, and a penchant for beaches, and therefore I am puzzled as to why I was not persuaded by her passion for this one small, easily accessible island, off the coast of the Carolinas, until now.  My mom has traveled to Bermuda seven times.  Her first trip was in the early 60s when she visited with a girlfriend.  A few years later, she switched her honeymoon to Bermuda from the originally planned Jamaica, at the last minute, due to political unrest and that was the beginning of my parents' joint love affair with the island.  They returned five more times together over the years. My dad adored the snorkeling and the freedom of the mopeds, while my mom enjoyed the beaches and the food.  I grew up with these stories and watched countless slide shows of their trips, but for some reason never had an urge to go, until my dad's illness and eventual death a year ago.  During that incredibly hard year, my mom and I promised ourselves that we would visit the island as a way to see some light at the end of the tunnel of illness.  That dream got us through some tough nights.  One year after my father's death, together, as promised we made the trip, and made memories that will stay with me for my lifetime.

The beauty of Bermuda is all that my mother described, and more, as the colors of the ocean, flowers and houses cannot possibly be summed up in words or even in photography.  The colonial architecture is stunning and evokes a strong sense of time.  The people are hardworking and friendly with a beautiful blend of British and American cultures, yet coupled with a distinct island style.

We arrived at our destination, the Pompano Beach Club, a small 75 room, family owned, resort, on the south side of the island, in the parish of Southampton.  I had worked with one of the the owners years ago, back in New England, his American home base, but I had not stayed in touch and was stunned to see him greet us and remember me when we walked in the door to check-in.  Over the course of our week there, I came to learn that Tom Lamb and his brother Larry, are truly masterful hoteliers in the warmest, convivial sense of the word. 

Situated directly on the water, the views from every angle of the resort, were magnificent.  We had the choice of 2 restaurants on-site or could take advantage of an exchange program with other resorts, but despite the options, each night we opted for the Cedar Room outdoor balcony where we could enjoy the fresh air and the deep colors of the sunset.  From this vantage point we could see the beach and even the wildlife in the crystal clear waters. One evening as the sun was setting in colors of pink and orange across the western sky, we saw a large sea turtle meandering past.   Another day we saw a school of gigantic, rainbow colored parrotfish swim by.  There is no other word more fitting than paradise. 

A critical component to my imagined paradise, is the food, and here it was superb and plentiful.  The nightly, changing, 5-course menu included many options, all of them creative and often celebrating local freshly caught fish.  Our seven days of gourmandizing included delectible first courses, such as the simple and elegant proscuitto wrapped asparagus, topped with onions, a little parmesan and drizzled lightly with a bearnaise sauce.  The asparagus spears were crisp, fresh and complimented by the salinity of the thinly shaved proscuitto.  Other memorable starters were the apple and brie parcel, served over a celery walnut salad with a raspberry dressing and the savory cheesecake over field greens. 

Each soup was better than the last, and as the nights were perfectly balmy, the type of temperature that is neither hot nor cold, I found myself repeatedly choosing the refreshing chilled options such as pear and champagne, creamy cucumber and dill, carrot and mango, and vichyssoise.  I often think of soup as comforting, and almost thrifty, as a way to use up extra ingredients, or nourishing and hearty as in a vietnamese pho, yet these chilled cousins were exactly the opposite.   They were chic and silky on the toungue, causing me to elegantly spoon small amounts in a forward motion, the way my father taught me in manners lessons, as a young child. 

The salads were vivid, ranging from sweet beets chopped and served with creamy goat cheese to a bright caprese, with thick slices of tomato, fresh buffalo mozzarella and marinated onions.  

Over a half dozen new main course options each night, made choosing a dish both exciting and challenging.  Highlights included a tender roasted duck with sugar snap peas and whipped potatoes, delicately smothered in a Madeira jus; Tandoori spiced mahi mahi was fresh and spicy; tempura battered tiger shrimp were huge, sweet and juicy; the filet topped with a red Windsor (a British, red wine marbled, creamy, cheddar) crust, was fork-cutting tender; the seafood medley was chock full of shellfish served in a saffron cream base, with a puff pastry; an oven roasted pork loin was stuffed with brie and apricots served alongside bacon braised endive over a sherry jus; and the herb crusted rack of lamb with asparagus and whipped potatoes was savory and decadent, finished with a red current and thyme jus.

My mother has never met a dessert she didn't like and therefore made a point of sampling the everchanging menu.  Many of her selections were ice cream based, beautiful to the eye, and met her criteria of "sliding down easy" when we were already full to our limits. 

Clearly the food was sumptuous, however adding to that was a friendly staff who remembered our names every day, sought out the best spot on the balcony for our meals, remembered our beverage preferences, and made us feel like we were the only guests in the resort.  That strong family feel permeated all of our experiences.  The first Monday of our trip, Tom and his brother Larry hosted a  reception for the guests where they served hors deouvres and the national cocktail, a Rum Swizzle, which is a sweet concoction of Bermuda rum, pineapple, orange, and lime juices and grendadine.  While the staff helped out, Tom and Larry were ever present with pitchers, ensuring our swizzles did not run low.  At this event we met a business man who frequented Bermuda for his job with one of the big insurance agencies located there.   Early on in his career he stayed at the big, fancy resorts in Hamilton, but in recent years. he chose the Pompano because the owners know his name, they wait for him at the front desk if his plane is late, they drive him to the commuter ferry each morning and pick him up upon his return, and when you travel frequently for business, these little family style nuances are important. It doesn't hurt that he is a big snorkeler and the Pompano is one of the few resorts on the island with a private beach, loaded with stunning fish.

In addition to the great shopping and lazy days at the beach, my mother and I also took advantage of the snorkeling, booking an excursion our last day on the island.  She had previously snorkeled with my father, who was an avid swimmer and she was determined for me to see the underwater sights.  Eight other guests joined us on the  trip organized through the resort with Captain Demian Tucker of Exclusive Charters BDA.  It was a rough, but sunny day and Demian wisely took us to a shallow location to start, where we could hug the coral caves along the shore and see amazing fish, but also still touch bottom.  My mother does not swim and while she is in amazing shape for a septegenarian, who managed to rock a pair of Mickey Mouse arm swimmies, you can imagine my level of trepidation over supporting her, but fortunately this was the perfect venue. We held hands, swimming along the coast, pointing excitedly to the schools of colorful fish, in what turned out to be a wonderful mother/daughter bonding experience.  Next, Demien took us 2 miles offshore, anchored the boat in twenty-one feet of aquamarine water on the edge of a twelve foot reef.  The wind was up, the swells were rolling, and there was not another boat in sight. I am a strong swimmer, or I was back in my childhood, but like many of the folks on the boat, I was a bit hesitant.  Wisely Demian did not let my mother join me, but instead poured her Rum Swizzle and made her comfortable.  I jumped into the swells and after a quick initial second of panic, I realized it looked far rougher than it felt actually swimming in it.  I glided over the edge of the reef, comforted by my own Darth Vader-like breathing, and was immediately transported into another world.  Here brain coral and fan coral came in all colors and provided habitat for a diverse mix of multi-colored fish, most not fearful at all of our presence.   I was transfixed and as I reflect back, I believe that is as close as I have come in recent years to a state of flow, a mental state, attributed to Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, where essentially one is fully immersed in an activity so focused and full of enjoyment that time passes faster than you thought possible.  The combination of the silence of the water, the beauty of the sea world, and the physical activity involved, temporarily shut out any of my angst and filled me with exquisite joy, which after all, is the purpose of a vacation.
There is something shiveringly special about visiting this island of paradise, home to so many of my parents' most pleasurable vacation memories, with my mother at my side.  I can now envision the beaches where they sunned and swam.  I saw the bridge near St. Georges where they infamously raced mopeds.  I walked the streets of Hamilton where they shopped together.  I saw the restaurants where they dressed-up for formal dinners.  The grainy slides of my young, starry-eyed parents, have come to life in a sharply romantic way.  I also understand the magic of the island that kept them returning year after year, and why no other tropical destination ever held a candle to Bermuda.  My mother and I have made another promise to each other, we have created our very own tradition, one captured on Facebook instead of slides, yet also poignant, we will together return in just a few years to celebrate her 75th birthday with rum swizzles and mouth watering five-course meals.  We hope Tom and Larry remember us!