Sunday, March 16, 2014

Dolce Neve - Fresh Snow on South First

As a kid growing up in West Michigan, I used to ski occasionally at a spot not far from my house. I thought it was the best downhill skiing anywhere. Then I moved to the Sangre de Cristo mountains in New Mexico - fresh powder covering peaks above the tree-line -  and discovered what actual downhill skiing was. Dolce Neve is like moving to the mountains. You think you've been eating gelato all this time, but it turns out you haven't. This is what gelato is supposed to be.

Walking through the bright pink front door, under the front-porch arbor, you're immediately engaged. The warmth of the people that run this place is so pervasive you almost feel like you've stumbled into the kitchen at an old friend's house. There's a substantial amount of chrome, but there's also weathered wood, mismatched chairs and a wide open kitchen. The effect is charming - homey but precise, with ample style but without pretension. This openness is part of what makes things work here - they really do do it in front of everyone, going back to raw ingredients (often locally sourced) and preparing them every step of the way.

Walk up to the counter, but don't order yet. You can't possibly know what you want. Try a few first. Try the Cassata if they have it - where the orange zings through the creamy countered against the dark chocolate. Or the Whiskey Pecan, which is such a balanced mix of flavors it kind of makes you wonder how people ate pecan ice cream without whiskey before. Or the Dolce Neve (It means fresh snow in Italian), where the slight kick of lemon zest livens up the sweet cream. It's like a playground in there, and it's important to try out all the swings.

The small size is ridiculously inexpensive, and is about as much gelato as I could hold. As is traditional with gelato you can mix whatever you'd like into that cup. I think the standard is two flavors, but I'd imagine Leo would let you go with three if you wanted. He not only graciously accommodated my kid's request for the gelato in a cup with a cone, he explained to her that in Milan, they called that a Pinocchio, because the cone looks just like Pinocchio's cap.

South First keeps getting better - Sugar Mamas got a little bigger and (I didn't think this could happen) a little better. Once Over has settled in even deeper and the patio feels even further from the middle of town than it did. Elizabeth Street Cafe is still making my favorite breakfast in town. And now Dolce Neve. I can't think of a better stretch of food, anywhere.

Dolce Neve on Urbanspoon

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Houndstooth Coffee Class: How to Make Iced Coffee That Doesn't Suck

Houndstooth has stood out in the ever-growing Austin coffee scene for its constant innovation. They were the first to offer different brewing methods by the cup, the first to go with a rotating selection of roasters, the first to set up real coffee education programs, and the first to go major retail with the best selection of home coffee equipment anywhere in town.

Houndstooth is also the place I learned to make good iced coffee. I had written off iced coffee a few decades ago, based on the bitter, weak stuff my dad used to drink out on the porch on summer afternoons. All through my coffee-loving years, all good coffee has been hot, even if all hot coffee has not been good.

Until now.

About 12 of us filed into Houndstooth's swanky new digs in the Frost Bank Building right after they closed for the afternoon. Daniel Read, the manager of coffee education (really, they have a manager of coffee education), walked us through some solid basics. Before we start with the process, though, some basic things you need, and one of thing that you don't maybe need exactly, but will make your life much better if you have it.

Things you need:

  1. Coffee Maker. We used Clevers in the class, at home I use Chemex or Hario pour-overs. French Press also good. All inexpensive.
  2. Good Coffee. My all time and forever favorite is Cuvee, a roaster just outside of Austin.
  3. A kitchen scale. My favorite is from OXO, and it's less than $30.
The one single thing that will make it even better:
  1. A grinder. My favorite is from Baratza - the Encore. Basic, as far as grinders though, and while it's not exactly cheap (about $130), you make it up pretty quick once you stop buying anything starting with the words "iced venti...". Fresh ground coffee is massively better than not-fresh-ground coffee. Massively.
And once you have those things, how to make great coffee (iced or hot) comes down to this: .06.

.06 units of coffee for 1 unit of water. A cup of coffee is about 300 grams of water - multiply by .06, and it comes out to 18 grams of coffee. No more messing around with tablespoons, no more guessing. Just .06.

What does this have to do with iced coffee, you may ask?

Turns out, you make iced coffee just the same way you make hot coffee, only substituting 100 grams of ice cubes for 100 grams of the water. Easy.

Here's how we made it in class, and how I now make it at home:
  1. Heat the water. I use an electric kettle. You want water that's in the high 190s, temperature-wise. Easiest way to get there - boil the water, take it off the heat, wait 30 seconds.
  2. While the water is heating, grind the beans (medium grind for the pour-overs, coarse for the french press), and measure out 18 grams.
  3. If you're using anything with a paper filter, set it all up without the coffee and pour a little water through to rinse the filter, dumping out the water that runs through.
  4. Set your brewing set up on the scale, add the coffee, and zero out the scale again.
  5. Add 200 grams of water.
  6. Take the resulting hot steamy concentrated coffee, and pour over 100 grams of ice.

And that's it! At this point, the coffee may still be a little warm - I usually wait right up until the moment I'm going to drink it, pour it over a cup full of ice, and slurp it down before the ice has much of a chance to melt.

Still in the mood for iced coffee, but not up for the hassle? Two options for you:

  1. Head down to Houndstooth. Go up the counter. Order an iced coffee.
  2. Start with a cold-brewed option (locally brewed Chameleon Coffee is my favorite), pop it open, pour over copious amounts of ice, and go.

And there it is: Iced coffee that doesn't even remotely suck.

  Houndstooth Coffee on Urbanspoon

Monday, September 02, 2013

The Root Cafe - Local Little Rock Love

A few weeks ago, at the tail end of a road trip from Michigan back down to Texas, my oldest daughter Ella and I found ourselves looking for breakfast in Little Rock Arkansas. We'd been through this part of the country before, but never really ventured off the interstate.

The Root is just east of Downtown Little Rock in a sweet sunny little neighborhood full of cute brick storefronts and quirky shops. It's the perfect setting for The Root, which is in itself a sweet, sunny, gem of a cafe.

The Root Cafe is part of the food-centric movement that is rediscovering classic southern diner food. For years, this stuff - once pulled from gardens and cooked up slow - has been replaced with increasingly processed schlock, canned and shipped in from across the planet. Places like The Root have gone back to gardens and handmade and have reminded us all what sausage gravy, biscuits, and fried eggs are supposed to taste like.

Ella and I were the first ones in the door that morning - early enough to get a comfortable, breezy spot at a table on the front porch. The day would heat up later, but in early morning it couldn't have been more perfect. I chose a special for the day, sausage blueberry pancakes, and Ella went with the biscuits and gravy.

A note here on the importance of not underestimating the grammatical skills of menu-board writers. The pancake special was "sausage blueberry pancakes", which I interpreted as "sausage [and] blueberry pancakes." Turns out, if they wanted to say "and" they would have. So these were light, delicious pancakes, real maple syrup, local blueberries, and sausage - not on the side in the patties or links, but crumbled right into the pancake batter. It was not an approach I expected, but it was awesome. The savory spice and salt of the sausage was the perfect counterpoint to the little juice bomb blueberries. I am a proud member of the of real-maple-syrup army - I could drink the stuff - but these pancakes were in such simple lovely balance that it was barely needed. Ella's gravy was the other standout - it was a cream gravy, but it was anything but heavy, with local Falling Sky sausage and little hint of bright sweetness to it. With the simple, buttery biscuits, it was near perfect. We both had fried eggs along side, with the kind of bright yellow yolks that only come with the pasture raised chickens that don't live too far up the street. Locally roasted Mountain Bird Coffee was worthy of a visit all by itself.

I have seen enough places like this - East End Eatery in Gainesville FL; Monument Cafe in Georgetown TX; Veritable Quandary in Portland, OR; Fork in The Road in Lansing, MI - to be convinced that this is not a fluke. That in bright, innovative corners of towns in every corner of this country, food is being rediscovered - food that remembers where it came from and tastes like love. The Root is one more reminder that these places are out there, just waiting to be found.

Root Cafe on Urbanspoon


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