Monday, November 17, 2008

Judging Chili

Every year, starting sometime in early fall, Chili trash talking starts at the Florida Department of Revenue. It gets to the point where you have to account for a good 10 minutes of chili-baiting before a meeting starts, where to inquire about prior year results is as likely as not to lead to a tirade against crooked judges and unjust outcomes.

I've been doing Grubbus a while, reviewing food from a step back and with a little anonymity. This year, I was asked to be a judge in the contest, to judge on the spot, in full view. The experience was awesome.

All four judges were ushered into a conference room and presented with trays with all 13 entrants placed in a unique order for each judge. We were given water, palate-cleansing saltines, and a score sheet. For each chili, we were asked to rate aroma, texture, and taste on a scale of 1 to 5. The final score was aroma + texture + (3 x taste).

The entrants were all good solid Florida Chili, which is to say not Texas chili, and while I was prepared to award an extra few points to any beanless entry, none presented itself. We had African-fusion, Indian-fusion, and a green-chili entrant that seemed loosely based on New Mexico Green Chili stew. Nothing too spicy (again, a lost opportunity for extra points in my book), but plenty of spice; and though all but two followed the same meat/tomato/bean/onion formula, plenty of variety. Some were harder to eat than others, but in the moment, as much joking and playing and costumes were in place leading up to the contest, it was very serious, and very quiet.

In the end, there was a pretty clear top 3. But the one that mattered was third place. After years of pouring heart and soul into chili, after years of showing up in costume, after years of coming just this close to some chili-recognition, Susan took home a medal with her mild and subtlety spiced Nun Better Chili.

Friday, October 24, 2008

The Importance of First Impressions: Boca Raton

Last week, I managed to spend a night in 4 different cities, a whirl wind tour starting Sunday morning with Boca Raton, Boca to Tallahassee Tuesday, Tally to Boston Wednesday, and Boston to Austin on Thursday. Those weeks suck the breath out of you: it's exciting, but its also exhausting and a little disorienting. All of that together highlighted the bliss on arrival in my hotel room at the Boca Raton Resort and Club.

I'm not sure that a skewer of absolutely perfect raspberries is the best use of global resources right now, and I am certain that the water they provided derived no tangible benefit by being packaged in a Christian Lacroix bottle. But the effect of the whole, together with the room, and its stunning view of the South Florida sunset was completely energizing and fortifying.

I had several meals at the resort, and while all we're good (the room service wedge salad was as good as anything I've had delivered to a hotel room), none of them had quite the staying power of the raspberries that first night.

And that's the power of a perfect raspberry. To make 7 flights in 5 days feel more like an adventure than a chore. To make a 2-hour prop-plane flight over the gulf feel a little like Indiana Jones, instead of just a headache. To turn a slog through an airport into something exhilarating.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Las Colinas Pizza Makes Me Sad

I'm in Irving, TX this week for a bit of project management training. It's a nice change of pace, good to be a little closer to home, and it's been a good class, but if there's good food here - food with soul and body, food made with love - I've yet to find it. Maybe there's some little diner out there, with good people who make delicious pies or something. There's a couple of days yet, there's still hope.

A couple of small illustrations from two area pizza joints, both highly recommended. First: I Fratelli. The Cookie.

Faced with a night of catching up on all the work I'd missed during the day's training, I opted for in-room dining. Not wanting to brave the downright scary room service here for a second night, I ordered dinner from a local pizza place right up the road. Everything looked good. And, to their credit, the pizza was pretty decent. Thin crust, a little crisp, hand-shaped, good cheese. All in all, solidly competent. But even competent pizza was not enough to redeem this cookie.

Here's what the website says:

Here's what they brought me:

I mean, good lord. They didn't even bother to take it out of the wrapper.

The second try was tonight. I was angling for tex-mex, but the team prevailed, and 6 of us headed out to Fireside Pies. More Pizza, this time in nearby Grapevine.

I'd heard from a few folks that this was a good local spot, a little upscale but not too fussy. And on entering the place, that seemed true: Fireside looks like a dark-wood-and-leather version of California Pizza Kitchen. It's got a delicious brick-oven smell, a small but not entirely terrible wine list, and cleverly named, memorably presented pizzas. But, like the I Fratelli cookie, the pitch doesn't really match the delivery.

The pizzas were giant and despite every attempt at making them fancy, they were almost impossibly greasy. I got a Hot n' Crumbled - sausage, ricotta, and chopped tomatoes, so maybe I was a little asking for the greasy, but as a group we got several different pizzas and shared slices across the table. Despite whimsical names and fancy ingredients each of the pizzas had exactly the same set of flavors - heavy on the grease, a little tiny kick to the sauce, a non-descript but decent crust, a flat sameness. The meatier the pizza, the harder it was to eat, but even the veggie options were without anything light or inviting.

Neither one of these places was bad, exactly. But neither was what they claimed to be. In that, they mirrored this little corner of this most corporate of suburbs, a thin veneer over a generally joyless landscape.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

I Miss Bread: Revisited

I've been in my Tallahassee corporate apartment for a few months now, enjoying the space and familiarity after years of the Hampton Inn and Courtyard hotel.

More than anything else though, I love my kitchen. It's nothing special - standard issue new apartment appliances, cabinets and counters - but it's solid, well laid out, and it makes me happy.

This week, I finally made it back from work early enough to make a loaf of bread. It wasn't perfect, but the act of engaging the dough, the 10 minutes of kneading (tiring!), the quiet that comes from waiting for dough to rise, and the smell rising from the loaf while it baked were enough to tide me over happily into my long, drawn out week.

Making bread, especially here without the stand mixer or cooling rack or any of the other special gadgets I've got at home, connects me to something really elemental about eating. It's alchemy, the transformation of a few ingredients - this bread was just flour, yeast, water, and salt - into something completely unrelated to any of its parts. So Monday was construction day. While the bread baked I made a simple dinner and was happy to slow down.

Tuesday morning, it was on to bread deconstruction number one: French Toast. It was a simple deal - eggs, milk, vanilla, and a little sugar with the first slices of my bread and a few strawberries and grapefruit sections along the side. (Grapefruit life hack here - cut your citrus this way, and it'll change your life).

A couple of forgettable but decent meals got me through to Wednesday night, and Deconstruction Number Two: Fried Chicken.

What a blast. I took a couple of thick slices of the bread, cut them into chunks and had at them with the blender at a relatively low speed. Bread chunks in; bread crumbs out.

I cut my remaining chicken breast from Tuesday night into 4 thin, flat slices, and melted an obscene amount of butter in my frying pan. I also added some dried oregano, basil, salt and pepper to the bread crumbs, started up the rice, and got my assembly line set up.

Four slices of chicken, first into flour, then into egg, then into a gallon ziplock bag with the spices and breadcrumbs. Gave it a few good shakes, and then into the buttery pan. While the chicken cooked - which didn't take long on account of the thinness - I cut up the one tomato I had left into thin slices and layered them with red onion slivers and a quick little balsamic vinaigrette.

I'm not saying this was earth shatteringly good food. But it was Good, and it had the meaning that things get when you cobble them together with your own clumsy hands. Life is better with kitchen.

new camera should arrive next week - no more fuzzy cell phone shots!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Intelligentsia: Behold the Clover

Spent the early part of this week in Chicago, where I was able to check another must-taste espresso joint off my list: Intelligentsia.

These guys are right up there in the CoffeeGeek pantheon, producing a good share of US Barista Championship top contenders, and blazing the trail for single-origin micro-lot coffees nationally.

I got to check out two of their shops in Chicago - in both places getting hopped up enough on caffeine to walk out a little wobbly. Geeky, I know, to risk getting cut off at a COFFEE bar. Both were excellent, though the Lakeview store had a much better vibe - more sparse, more funky and more fun than the more bustling, business-like Millennium Park location.

Truth is, though, I'm still struggling a little with my take on the place. It was clearly top notch - the barista in Lakeview tossed two macchiatos before she got one she liked enough to serve - but the drinks themselves, and the experience overall didn't quite hold up relative to Victrola or Stumptown.

Two minor quibbles:

Black Cat, Intelligentsia's espresso blend, is roasted significantly darker than other places of this caliber. The roast yielded an espresso that was exceptionally smooth, but with less body less nuanced flavors than I was expecting.

I was also a little disappointed with the texturing of the milk. Keep in mind, this is relative to expectations, not run of the mill; these were exceptionally tasty drinks, beautifully presented. But still - check out the head to head with my current all-time fave Victrola:

The Victrola latte was clean, clear and silky smooth. The Intelly latte was by comparison, choppy and heterogeneous, with larger, less consistent bubbles.

Just before I left, I went back up to the counter and ordered a coffee from one of the only operational Clovers in the country. The Clover is a $20,000 piece of coffee genius. It allows complete control of the process of making a single cup of coffee - temperature, brewing time, grind, dosing. Word was that the Clover was going to change the way the world drank coffee, and I must have read a dozen first person accounts of how the Clover had revealed flavors in coffee that no one had ever dreamed of. Then, Starbucks bought the company, and clamped the window shut on independent stores like Intelligentsia getting more. Expectations high? You betcha. But I found the actual result - I ordered a cup of a micro-lot Honduran - a little disappointing. There was an exceptionally clean finish, and crisp citrus flavor that reminded me a little of lemongrass. But as with the espresso, the body was lighter than I expected, and I had to strain to taste the richer undertones. It was an excellent cup of coffee, but didn't compare to the depth of Paradise Roasters Lake Tarwar or Cuvee Coffee's micro-lot Brazilian in my humble little french press at home.

There's no question that my expectations of this place were sky high; and my quibble were really just that. If I lived around the corner from an Intelligentsia shop, I'd be in there every last chance I got, drinking in the smells and sounds and feel of a place clearly passionate about really good coffee.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Kramerbooks & Afterwords & Apple Pie & Me

Day 2 in DC, I ventured back up to Dupont. Boring, I know. How many neighborhoods are there in this town? How many great restaurants? But I found myself walking, and where I found myself walking to was Kramerbooks and Afterwords.

Starting at the name, it's a clever place. In front, on Connecticut Ave, is a double store front stuffed full of good books. In back is a cafe with a bar and a outdoor patio, stuffed full of locals in cozy conversation over pie.

The bookstore is heavy on the political and travel, and steadfastly literary. It's a relatively small space, and you get the sense that every book here counts, that it was selected for a reason. Even in fiction, its got a lot of award winners, and not much fluff. The effect is that every book on the shelf feels a little like it was recommended by a friend. I happily found the main bit of fluff in current rotation - Boomsday - and enjoyed getting avocado on it at the Cafe.

Afterwords, the cafe, follows sort of the same theory. It's delicious food, carefully selected and meticulously prepared. I ordered a crab cake and avocado salad. The crab cake was substantial and well seasoned, the avocado tender, and the assemblage was beautifully presented. OK, maybe rectangle plates have gotten a little cliched, but I still love them. The smoothness of the avocado mixed well with the rough mix of the crab cake, which blended well with the sweet bite of the balsamic, which offset the slight bitterness of the asparagus. Altogether simple food, well conceived.

And. This place is full of ands. The Logo is an ampersand (in Linotype American Typewriter Alternate for those keeping score at home). And Dessert: one giant slice apple pie with vanilla ice cream. I had great expectations - fond memories of desserts here, and a case of pies and cakes facing the bookstore that makes you feel the sweet surprise of spotting a $100 bill on the sidewalk. Against those expectations, the pie was pretty good, but not great. It was a little too sweet, a little too crumbly, a few too many drizzles of sauce over the ice cream, a little too ambitious. This was particularly surprising given the restraint of the salad. Not that it slowed me down much - and I scooped up the last of the ice cream just wrapping up the second chapter of Boomsday. And I was very happy.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Back to Basics: Teaism in DC

This week, for the first time in a decade, I ended up wandering up Connecticut Avenue just North of Dupont Circle in DC. I used to make this walk every day, from the Dupont Metro stop to my apartment, and I was amazed to see how little had changed. It was the same throngs of bright-eyed young people I remember, the same landmarks along the way, the same used record stores and coffee shops and bus stops. It made me aware of my age, but it was not at all unpleasant.

One of the landmarks I was thrilled to see was Teaism. Teasim opened up when I lived here, and it quickly became a little bit of a sanctuary for me. When I was feeling too riled up, too caffeinated, too sleep deprived, or, occasionally, too hung over, I walked the 4 blocks or so up S Street, ordered a pot of exotic tea and drank it slowly, watching the people on the street below from the second story window. Tea requires patience and presence, and Teasim the place seemed to pay respect to that.

After a Sunday arrival close to 2AM, and a training starting early Monday morning, Monday night called out for Teaism, and there Teaism was. I had a Salmon Bento box. While beautifully presented and tasty, the food here doesn't call attention to itself: it is nourishing, simple and subtle. The tea, on the other hand is extraordinary. I had a small pot of Formosa Oolong that was rich and just a tiny bit smokey. The handmade ceramic cup was warm in my hands and the thin white wisp of steam from the teapot made little curls in the evening sunlight from the old window. I took deep breaths and ate slowly. I felt the myself get peaceful and quiet; felt the jitteriness melt into a simple desire to walk back down the worn wood stairs, to call home, and to take stock in the amazing run of luck I've had since I was last here.

Teaism on Urbanspoon

Friday, April 18, 2008

Victrola: Best. Latte. Ever.

After years of waiting, patiently paging through posts at CoffeeGeek, mail ordering from Whole Latte Love, and daydreaming over the EspressoMap, I finally made it to Seattle. The Espresso Promised land.

And let me tell you, Seattle did not disappoint. The restaurant we went to our first night there serves Espresso Vita from Vivace, and pulled a gorgeous, thick-crema ristretto. The run of the mill sandwich place on the first floor of our office building here has a 3 group Linea with Torrefazione Italia beans. And each floor of our office sports an impressive super automatic drip coffee machine that grinds per cup.

Even with all that coffee goodness in the two block stretch between hotel and office, I still had to venture out. It'd be like going to Hawaii and avoiding the beach. World class espresso is based here, and I decided it was worth the walk.

And after a bitterly cold, mostly up hill, mile-long trek through Seattle's downtown, I found Victrola. These guys are relative newcomers compared to David Schomer's gold-standard Espresso Vivace, but Victrola has a huge following, and is arguably the best cafe and roaster in the country. The place is airy and open - its beautiful, but not at all splashy. Compared to the bustle and snazz of Stumptown in Portland (another world class shop), Victrola is decidedly small scale. There's a single 2 group machine (granted, it's a Synesso), a couple of grinders, and a scattering of nondescript light wood tables set up on the concrete floor.

Positively giddy and flushed, I got myself a double espresso. My own deep capacity for geekiness surprised even me, and a I had to stop myself from verbally oohing and aaahing at the pull. The double was very short - maybe an ounce - and it was a higher concentration of flavors than I can remember tasting in any coffee anywhere. The main taste is sharp and winey, but there are also lots of rich, almost woody flavors. There's even a tinge of sweetness at the first sip.

It was clear by the end of the espresso that this would be phenomenal with milk, and good lord, it was. I went back to buy a small (8 oz) latte. It was a thing of beauty. The sharpness of the espresso help up beautifully against the full sweetness of the milk. There wasn't a hit of bitterness and every flavor in the straight shot was there in the latte as well, only slightly muted and softened. I honestly can not imagine a better cup of coffee anywhere. It was perfect.

It's refreshing to go out in search of the essence of a thing and not come away disappointed.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Chuck's Dang Near Perfect Donuts

The measure of a donut place, in my opinion, is the cruller. This is the central failing of Krispy Kreme, the glory of Tim Hortons, and the sole redeeming characteristic of Dunkin. If you can do a cruller well, if you can balance the ethereally light with the deep fried and decadently sweet, you've got something right. Chuck's Donuts, in Belmont, has nailed the cruller.

This was a good thing, since my trip out to the bay area was not off to a great start. For one thing, it's a Sunday to Friday week on the road, with a red-eye on the return flight. Far too much time away from the Austin clan. The flights out here were long and arduous, my rental car was out of gas from the get go with it's low tire pressure warning blaring, and my hotel reservations were lost. The luck continued into the pre-Chuck's food experiences - I ventured out to find Lorenzo's Sandwich shop in Belmont for dinner (it was closed), checked out menus for a few places (weak) and after some wandering, ended up ordering a local, but sub-par pizza back at the hotel (Toto's is not all it's cracked up to be).

But this part of the country is beautiful, and makes it hard to stay mopey for long. I woke up this morning committed to finding something good. I'd passed Chuck's on my drive yesterday and decided it looked promising.

Immediately on walking in, you know you're in for some serious goodness. The place looks like it's been there 50 years, with worn paneling on the walls and 4 little tables attached the floor and each surrounded by 4 miniature bar stools, also attached. The effect is that the tables and chairs appear to have organically sprouted from the floor, like mushrooms. Off the the side is a window into the kitchen, which seemed low tech and in some disarray, but clean. But the main view walking into Chuck's is this almost obscenely voluptuous display of donuts.

And, just like that, this has been a good day. I've got a lot of work yet to get through tonight, but for the moment, I'm happily typing away in a quirky little San Mateo Coffee Shop called Bean Trees and looking forward to finding something tasty and cheap for dinner in the immediate vicinity. Tomorrow, I'm going for the sprinkles.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Oh My Sagra

Just before noon today, having a lunch meeting cancelled at the last minute, I found myself with an unexpected block of time. If I'd had more notice, I'd have figured out a way to get back home to have lunch with Tracy and the kids, or figured out some way to use the time to cross one more thing off the to do list. But it was lunch time, and I was hungry, and there really wasn't a lot of space to come up with a new plan. I'd seen that Sagra, the little Italian place down the street from my office had a specials board out front, so I decided to give it a try.

Oh my. This is a brilliant place.

Sagra is in the same old house where Mars used to be; a little off the beaten path on San Antonio street between 16th and 17th, on the westernmost edge of downtown. Walk up onto the big front porch and in the glass-paned front door, and you get enveloped in the warmth. There are butter yellow walls with old wood floors, black chairs, and white table cloths. To the right is the open kitchen, anchored by a wood-fired brick oven. Large windows cover the outside walls, and let in light filtered and reflected from the buildings to the east.

My waiter expertly ticked off the litany of specials, which I wish I could remember. Many featured Boggy Creek farms (about the best local organics you can get here); all were innovative. I opted for the pizza special: spinach, olive, roasted garlic, artichokes, and pepperoni.

To compare this to Tallahassee Pizza is to compare a sunny day to the human genome: They are completely different things. The crust was hand formed into a loose circle, with a thin, light texture that veered almost to flaky around the edge. Pepperoni were hand cut and had a cured flavor that reminded me a little of prociutto. There were large clumps of flavorful spinach, silky roasted garlic, and mild black olives. I didn't even realize these olives existed: they had the texture and thickness of kalamatas, but there was none of the bite, perfectly mated to the rest of the pizza. In Italian tradition, there was no sauce outside of a hint of flavorful olive oil. The flavors all came together with a blend of fontina and mozarella in this flash of rich, deep, flavor. It was a little overwhelming, and I found myself completely full halfway through.

Every last bit of this place clicked. The service, the spirit, the food, the smell, the people. It was 30 minutes out of the middle of my day, and it was beautiful.

Sagra on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Closed: Fusion Cafe and a Decent Avocado

I've been getting a lot of really bad avocados recently.

A good avocado is a thing of beauty, geode-like in the contrast between inside and outside; between butter and lizard-skin. The texture of a good avocado, matte and silky, just invites you to slice, to split it into smooth-sided little slivers or cubes or crescents.

And then there is the bad avocado: brown streaks, goopy bits, rough chunky edges and stringy filaments threaded through.

Twice in the last two weeks, I've been served inedible avocado. Once at the Doral Marriott in Miami, and once at the Bonefish Grill up here in Tally. And my question: What gives? I mean, it'd be one thing if they served the thing whole, skin side out, fruit still a mystery, but this is prepped food with the evidence splayed out for the world to see. It got me thinking that maybe the delineation between a kitchen that cares and one that does not is the avocado. If the prep guy, seeing the oozy, icky brown bits, sends it on; if the chef drops it on a salad, or atop a chicken sandwich; if the room service guy picks it up and brings it to your room; and if none of them do anything to stop the horror, something is amiss. Bad avocado = bad kitchen.

I also had one good avocado, at Fusion Cafe in Tallahasee. Trendy and quiet, with a mostly-black, concrete-floor and square-plates metro aesthetic, Fusion does a good job balancing an upscale feel with a cheap, funky menu. They do a nice gumbo - thick and rich, if a little under spiced. Salads are excellent, with good field greens and house-made dressings. They have good crab cakes, they do a flashy spinach lasagna, they have hamburgers. The Cobb Salad I got this week, containing the aforementioned avacado, was excellent - each element distinct and crisp, avocado lush, bacon crispy, balsamic subtle and sweet. The impressive thing about this place, though no individual item rises to the level of epiphany, is that they do everything well. This is a competent restaurant with a creative bent and decent service. I wish they'd managed a little more oomph into the dishes - a little more spice, a little more creativity, a little more precision, but those wishes don't change the fact that this is a place that looks, feels and tastes well above the norm.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Peeps arrive!

Bang bang shrimp at Bonefish. Artichoke Pizza at The Loop. A blueberry muffin top at Atlanta Bread Company. This has been a seriously dull food week here in Tally. But earlier today, while strolling through the local CVS, I spotted them. Five beautiful, marshmallowy, sugar coated, peeps. As much as I wanted to bring them back to my desk to savor for the remainder of the afternoon, they didn't make it past the car ride back to the office.

Every other childhood treat I once loved has failed to hold up to its memory. I used to crave Nestle Crunch, Twinkies, Ding Dongs, McDonalds Apple Pies, Soft Batch Cookies. One by one, I've tried them again in my adult life, and winced in pain at the sheer awfulness. These things are off the list, for good.

But Peeps made it. I love the rough feel of the sugar on my tongue combined with the soft give of the marshmallow. I love that they look almost random - like someone switched on the marshmallow spewing machine and said - "hey, that thing looks like a chick!" I love the unadulterated sweetness. I love their little brown dot eyes. I love the size - just bigger than a bite, but not so big that the pleasure fades before you're through.

This isn't to say there's not limits; there is such a thing as getting over-Peeped. Two years ago, when word of my predilection was leaked to my clients here, I started to get mystery boxes delivered to my cube in Tallahassee. I'd walk in on Monday afternoon to find a small stack of Peeps Christmas trees, Pumpkins, bunnies. And I found that when faced with a mountain of Peeps it's hard not to just see them as a 5 pound bag of sugar.

But I took this year off - save for a couple of quick nibbles at Christmas - and the magic is restored. The first box of Peeps, like a crocus poking its head up from beneath the melting snow, like the green warm breeze, like a birdsong - proof that Spring is here.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Columbus, Mitchell's, and the limits of fancy

I spent a few days in each of the last couple of weeks in Columbus, Ohio. I've always liked Columbus - it's a beautiful, cosmopolitan place, sophisticated, but rooted in the humility and niceness of the Midwest. Food-wise, this place has enormous promise. There were snazzy, well-conceived, high style restaurants throughout downtown and up into Short North. Fabulous signage, subtle lighting, clever names. I only got to try a couple, but I can imagine thoroughly enjoying the process of checking out more of them should a project here be in my future.

At the same time, there were some limits, and it was interesting coming from Columbus back to Tally, where there is lots of heart, but very little style, and where nothing, no matter how hard they try, is fancy.

On my first night in town, we went to Sushi place called Haiku. This is a beautiful restaurant. Being 7 degrees, we didn't spend a lot of time on the patio, but it looked like it'd be an amazing place to be outdoors in the summer. As a table, back indoors, we sort of went all in on the sushi. About 15 different rolls and half a dozen types of sushi (that's our actual rolls there in the picture). First off: Sushi, family style, in beautiful place, with good people and hot sake on a cold day is a thing of beauty. We started in with several appetizers - decent but not spectacular, they displayed little creativity and suggested that the kitchen's culinary skill was focused elsewhere. The lettuce wraps were timidly spiced - sort of PF Changs derivative. What they called calamari was interesting but not great - more or less a spring role stuffed inside fairly large squid with a simple soy sauce-based compliment. The rolls, however were outstanding, and sushi was excellent. What they lacked in elegance of presentation (the tuna was cut awkwardly, and the rolls were not quite symmetrical), they made up for in taste. The yellow fin was as good as anything I've had since I lived in DC.

With a few non-memorable dinners between, my last meal in Columbus was at Mitchell's. Mitchell's is one of the prettiest restaurants I've set foot in. This is a cathedral of food on a scale that puts Vegas to shame. Soaring ceilings, massive light sculptures, deep leather booths. Not the very best food, or the best wine list, but man did they make you feel like it was. We did a pretty typical run through of steak house fare - down to actual shrimp cocktail, which I hadn't eaten for years. The waitress was exceptional - friendly and efficient. She said she'd been waiting tables for the owner for 30 years. Clearly they're doing something right - that's a heck of a low-turnover story for any business, let alone food service. While it'd be nice if the architectural and service skill extended to the kitchen, it didn't. The steak was middling - they did a good job searing it, but the meat itself was bland and tough. It took them 3 tries to get a hot baked potato to the table, and the desserts, with one exception (the upside down apple bread pudding), were uninspired. The only other stand out was the asparagus, which was unusually light and tender - simply steamed and well presented.

Both Mitchell's and Haiku traded on the spare-no-expense luxe style that I saw looking in the windows at a lot of places here. Haiku was by far the better of the two, though both, separated from the pleasant company and flashy surroundings, come up a little short. The really great places in Columbus, the places that draw you in, and make you feel like the person in the kitchen cares passionately about your happiness, those places are still to be discovered. I hope I get the chance.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

I Miss Bread

A friend of mine asked what I thought of the Kindle recently. And I said that it was like reading without the subtext of paper: pages, typeface, cover art, crinkles, and heft. It's an advance, but also a sterilization of the experience.

And that got me thinking about food, and wondering if my 12 meals a week in restaurants in various places is the Kindle of eating.

Which isn't to say I'm complaining exactly. There is something nice about the proximity of the decision of what to eat and the acquisition of food. I can sit at my desk, think, "I'd like Thai tonight," and then poof, there's Thai. No pouring through cookbooks, no trips to the grocery store, no searches in vain for exotic spices, no prep work, no dishes.

What gets lost in the mix is the subtext of the food. The ingredients in their raw form go through amazing transformations to become dinner. Colors blend, flavors mellow, bread rises (how amazing is that!), and things that were poking their leaves out of the ground hours earlier become salad.

So the other side of Grubbus for me is the unsterilization of food for the days I get to spend at home. And the center of that, at the moment, is bread. Bread makes me happy.

And here's why I'm not ready to give up my imperfect, inconvenient food for the sleek Kindle-like take out. That Ciabatta up in the picture next to the cinnamon rolls? It was light and airy, but nearly as light and airy as the Ciabatta from Central Market. The cinnamon roles were pretty, but not as pretty as any commercial bakery worth a visit. The reason I'm not ready to give them up is that food is more than it's isolated characteristics. Food has the taste of the hours of subtext that goes into it.

So, here's to the unsterilized, the hands on, the substantial. Here's to food you need to think about a day in advance, and clean up from late into the night. Here's to the unreproducible results of the help of small children.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Stumbling on the Essence of India

It's a bold name for a restaurant, sort of like Seattle's Best Coffee or The Country's Best Yogurt. These things invite you to scoff, to call the bluff. I knew Seattle's best coffee, and you, sir, are no Seattle's best coffee.

And it's got a couple strikes against it right off the bat. For one, The Essence of India is in Tallahassee. The pizza's good in this town, but it's not typically strong on ethnic cuisine. For another thing, it's tucked in the corner of a strip mall next to a discount hair products store and an indoor archery range, behind the Olive Garden. That's bad karma no matter how you slice it.

Despite the rough prospects, this is an outstanding restaurant. I've got no real basis for determining if this is authentic or not, but the food is delicious. I typically order "medium" spicy and it's fiery and nuanced, with all the layers of complexity and spice interaction I associate with good Indian food. In everything I've had the sauces are thin, subtle and deeply spiced rather than the brightly colored-goop I've come to expect at more typical Indian places. The Korma is outstanding, with bits of almonds, and a milky, rich faintly sweet flavor. I'm also partial to the Madras sauce, which is dark and a little smoky. Tandoori items, especially the chicken Tikka are tender and moist. With Tracy and the kids this week, we ordered a feast, and there was general consensus that the Samosas and Aloo Tikki (kid favorites) were excellent. The plan Nan is good and fresh, but the garlic is more fun.

Often I write these posts after a single experience; in this case this is place I've been to maybe a dozen times. I'll probably tire of it sooner or later - it's on Appalachee Parkway right across from the Courtyard I stay at – but for months now it’s been one of my favorites. I’ve yet to be disappointed with anything I’ve ordered, and look forward to continuing to reach down the menu to try things I haven’t tried anywhere.

Essence of India on Urbanspoon


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