Monday, September 2, 2013

Hog & Hominy: Memphis, Tennessee

As an adventurous eater, there are few things more exhilarating to me than the mystery of a tasting menu.  Like watching a favorite athlete or artist, it is a heady experience to have a chef orchestrate my meal, matching flavors and courses, creating a culinary masterpiece.  When my long-time high school friend announced her visit from Boston, as a fellow foodie I thought we would start her trip with a late dinner at Hog and Hominy, not far from the airport in Memphis. I had a casual pizza in mind before heading south to Mississippi, but when I learned they offer a chef's tasting option, our fate was sealed.  What was originally plain old excitement, had escalated to elation, over eating at this fine establishment, known for its southern-meets-Italian twist on pizza and pork.

Upon arrival, we were ushered to the chef's table, a bar overlooking the open kitchen, where we were easily persuaded to order the seven course option.  Instead of a set nightly prix fixe, the chefs pick dishes specifically for us, from the menu or specials.

Andy Ticer, one of the chef owners, who with his partner Michael Hudman recently received 2013 Food & Wine's best new chef award, introduced himself when he brought the first dish, a perfectly dressed fried chicken skin Caesar salad.  The fried skins were clearly the stars of the dish, but it should not go without mention that the romaine greens were lightly dressed in beautifully tangy dressing, making this oft overused salad, fresh.

Next, Andy who has an easy way about him, brought over a wood fired spaghetti squash, served Italian style with a red sauce, Calabria oil, buffalo mozzarella and Parmesan cheese. Upon stammering a bit with the description, he finally turned to us with the most passionate grin and may or may not have simply exclaimed, "It is just awesome!".  That was an understatement.

Course three was an asparagus dish with crispy pepperoni fried in lardo fatback, a pimento chese emulsion, and a boatload of trout roe that offered a salty pop.  Southern and laden, yet not smothered, the flavors were distinct and bright.

The most artfully designed dish of the night was another inspired by classic southern cooking; a Johnny cake was topped with a cream cheese, marscapone and caraway seed spread, tobacco onions and catfish gravlax. The catfish was buttery and elegant, all grown up from its typical, and also delicious fried alter ego.

Speaking of fried, the peanut agrodolce sweetbreads, served over a cilantro jalapeño sauce were hearty and chewy and had a great sweet and sour flavor that was freshened by the bright and spicy sauce. This dish may ruin the haughty reputation of sweetbreads, as I know I am going to crave these with beer and football.

Andy, who had been taking great care of us with each course he delivered, conferred with one of the chefs, requesting fresh vegetables for the next dish.  His passion for the food and the rhythm of the courses was evident.  The local baby summer squash sautéed with mint and brown butter and then deglazed with a white wine, were the perfect palette cleanser at this stretch of our meal, as were the collards served with hominy and a vinegar finish.

Little did we know he was gearing us up for one of their famous wood fire grilled pizzas.  By now our repartee with Andy was warm and almost teasing, like we had known him for years.  He asked us our preferences for the pizza and offered suggestions.  His first thought was a Margherita, as he believes the classic pie is defining of a place, however since Kristin had been living in Boston's Italian North End, she was craving something more uniquely southern. Without hesitation Andy decided upon the Red Eye, which was covered with a rich, red sugo sauce made with the scraps from their in-house charcuterie, and then topped with pork belly, egg, fontina, and celery leaf.  Admittedly, we were starting to slow down, but there was no way we were letting this pizza go to waste.  After finishing the last slice, the surprised chefs had a look of new-found respect on their faces.  

At about this time we noticed the tempo and food on the line began to change. Trays of huge meatballs were brought out and smashed on the grill into a burger, topped with onions and smacked again on the flip side.  Andy explained that they have recently opened a late-night deck serving Frito pies and other snacks.  Since we were in the right place at the right time and had proven our eating prowess, he was going to bring us one of their acclaimed burgers. Aaron explained that is was named after John T. Edge, an Oxford friend and famous southern food writer, who sat at the bar one day asking for a great buger, but shooting down all their fancy ideas.  He kept pushing and eventually Aaron Winters, chef de cuisine, slapped a burger on the grilled, mashed the onions into it, served it up dressed, and today it bears his moniker proudly.
Aaron realized it would not be right to let two Yankees leave his bar without introducing us to the infamous Delta koolickle.  I have heard rumor of such vittles, most often served in a jar near the cash register at fillin' stations in the Delta, but until now had not had the ("pleasure" might be a strong word,) experience of pickles soaked in Kool Aid. Definitely novel, I urge everyone to try them once, particularly alongside the old school, perfection of the John T. Edge burger.

At last we reached dessert and although completely satiated, we decided to try the local Blueberry Beauregard pie as our chef's eyes lit up while describing the custardy filling topped with a dollop of homemade orange marmalade. Of course they would not let us get away with just one slice, and so brought with it a slice of their peanut butter pie, which was surprisingly light and worth every bit of fanfare it receives.  

From the first bite every part of this meal was executed beautifully, timed exceptionally, and served with such warmth that we felt a part of a personally directed play. Andy, and his team of chefs had an eye on us the entire time;  like a truly talented artist, he designed a culinary story that felt specific to our desires.  The italian southern marriage equals quintessential hospitality; the cultures share the joie de vivre for the flavors, the instinct to ensure you want for nothing and that you are fed until you cannot handle another bite, and the enveloping sense of pure celebration of combining food and friends.  I cannot think of a more beautiful way to welcome my dear friend back to the South.

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