Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Angelo Brocato ice cream awesomeness

Angelo Brocato is home to the best strawberry ice cream I've ever had.

When you ask a native New Orleanian for food recommendations, expect a long list. This is a city where culture is defined, in a not-incidental way, by food. It's not just the gumbo or po'boys. It's the attention to taste in everything.

Angelo Brocato is a prime example. Open a good solid century before the current gelato fad took hold, this place is a frilly, adoring temple to Italian sweets. Technically, this is the "new" location, which means the location that opened in late 1905, versus the store in the French Quarter, now Croissant D'or, that opened in early 1905.

It's a large place, maybe 20 small tables, and it was pleasantly packed when we arrived around 7 in the evening. Along one wall is a long glass case, filled with Italian pastries on one side, and about 2 dozen ices, ice creams and gelatos on the other. The frozen side is mostly made up of traditional Italian flavors - chestnut, amaretto, moka, spumoni, pistacio - but they've also got the classic American standbys. The pastries looked amazing, but I was there on a recommendation, and the recommendation was for Strawberry ice cream. A small is two scoops - for me, sweet cream on the bottom, stawberry on the top.

It was heavenly.

On the ice cream continuum there's Amy's Ice Cream on one side; so rich it's almost gummy. And there's places like Teo on the other - new school gelato, flavorful but almost grainy. Everywhere else is somewhere between - playing with temperature, ingredients, agitation, and presentation to try to hit the right combination of creamy lightness; the right balance between lush and refreshing. Trying to extract and incorporate the essence of something like strawberries makes it even harder. Certainly personal preference plays a part at finding the optimal point on that scale, but to me, Brocato's hit it - finding the extra depth that's missing from most Gelato and the silky texture that's missing from most ice creams. The strawberry was subtle, worked in as a flavor not as chunks of fruit, and it came through spectacularly.

I ate a lot of good food in our one-day stop in New Orleans. This was up there with the best.

Angelo Brocato's Ice Cream & Confectionery on Urbanspoon

Monday, June 28, 2010

Tila's: Odd Marriage of Quirk and Glitz

Tila's is a beautiful place, and while there is clearly a lot of heart here, the experience was not universally lovely.

Last year, the Austin to Florida family road trip set a new bar for food wretchedness. A combination of my misplaced faith in local flavor and towns we knew nothing about resulted in some truly abysmal meals ("At least it's not Madison's" is a catch phrase my kids now use to make the best of something the find deeply unappetizing)

So this year, on the road, and now iPhone-equipped, we vowed to do it a little differently.

Payoff started at the compact and pretty Tila's in Houston. We arrived early for lunch, and had the place nearly to ourselves. It's a stunning restaurant, somehow managing combine the kitsch of Chuy's with the soft light and elegance of Cafe Josie. Impressive right off the bat.

We ordered on the safe side of things, flautas for the kids, chicken mole for me, shredded chicken deconstucted tacos for Tracy. Universally, while the presentation for each was well done, the food lacked spark. Maybe safe wasn't the way to go here - they had some pretty innovative-sounding dishes and specials that may have been a better bet.

My mole, for instance, was overpowered with something that tasted a lot like chipotle. It wasn't a bad flavor, but it missed the point - mole has a zillion ingredients because you're supposed to *taste* all of them. In this case, the smoky kick of that one pepper just drowned out the supporting cast. And while the flavor on the flautas was excellent, the shredded beef was dry and stringy.

It's worth noting that Tila's far surpassed standard road trip fare, only failing to meet the high expectations set for it by Facebook friends and social media foodies. Maybe not destined for a return trip when we drive back in late July, but I can see giving it another shot one day to see if there's something more hiding there.

Tila's Mexican Restaurante & Bar on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Olympic Provisions: Hipster Meat

In rainy, green, deliciously awesome Portland this week. Here for work with a pretty packed schedule, but managed to meet an old high school friend for lunch at local charcuterie Olympic Provisions.

Olympic is tucked in between warehouses and alleys on the city's South East side, and the place feels at home in its industrial roots. The windows are tall and paned with old glass, the floor and tables are well worn wood, the walls are white porcelain subway tiles; everything looks sort of like a Saveur photo spread. This is a good thing.

The lunch menu is divided into a couple options each of meats, vegetables, sandwiches, and pastries. It's a clever menu, simple but luxe, and its full of clues that this is a place serious about its meat. OK. The large sign that says MEAT in red light bulbs is also a clue. It's also a place serious about its coffee (Stumptown) and its pickles (Heaven).

Item one on the menu is the meat sampler, including a bunch of different cured meats. Our waitress identified them in a breezy single flow of multi-syllabic Italian of which I remember very little. Not knowing the names didn't slow me down much: the meat identified as Chorizo was amazing - a roller coaster of flavor starting sweet and ending a very long time later with a spicy little kick. There was an amazing something with pistachios - a sort of loosely formed sausage. And, on the other end of the spectrum, a smooth pork pate. The meats ranged in complexity, and were all pretty extraordinary. Except the pate. I thought the pate was kind of weak.

As good as the meat was, it was the pickles that stole the show. I don't know what they do exactly to make pickles like this: pickled onions, pickled little bitty cucumbers, pickled rhubarb. This was some of the best, most elegant pickling I've ever tasted, each item spiced to bring out its unique characteristics and flavors - a little sweet on the rhubarb, a mild tang on the onion.

When you're this much of a foodie temple, you set yourself up with some pretty steep expectations - and in general Olympic delivered. Maybe not perfect - a little more attention on the bread would have been good, a little more spice in the mustard welcome - but in all, pretty freakishly amazing.

Olympic Provisions on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Sakura - A Little Bit of Artistry in Strip Mall Sushi

There's a sweet little sushi place over by Lake Ella. It's nothing fancy, and nothing life changing, but in its own quiet old-school way it's the best sushi in town.

Sakura is nestled in the ground floor of a slightly run-down strip mall off Monroe. It's a dark space and not particularly appealing from the street, but they've done a reasonable job inside making it homey and warm. This applies much more to the dining room than the bar. The bar is kind of depressing.

The several times I've been to Sakura, the food has been consistent and tasty. The fish is always fresh - super fresh, actually - which means there is none of that lingering fishy smell that pervades strip mall sushi everywhere. Where Sakura varies is in presentation. I've eaten there and had absolute works of art. I've also eaten there and had artless little slabs of fish. It goes either way. Tasty in both cases, way more fun in the former.

They do a pretty solid job on the non-fish, too. Colleagues swear by the noodles, and I'm a big fan of the beautifully spiced and sinfully greasy pot stickers, which have been just about perfect every time I've been there.

Sakura compares favorably to the more upscale Masa, right up the street, in terms of food if not in atmosphere, and is just about as expensive. Less of a see-and-be-seen place, it's nevertheless a lovely little spot, and a definite regular on the Tally circuit.

Sakura Japanese on Urbanspoon

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Cuvee Coffee: Where the Magic Happens

Best coffee in Texas is roasted by Cuvee Coffee, in Spicewood Springs. This is the coffee that won the regional Barista championships, the coffee that Caffe Medici uses, the coffee that put Austin on the national stage for the really, really good stuff.

Because I am a very lucky guy with a completely awesome wife who wins things on food blogs, I got to spend an afternoon hanging out with owner Mike McKim and his super-cool family out at the roasting facility nestled in the woods in Spicewood, TX.

There were about a dozen other blog-post-winners with me, and we spent the first half hour or so peppering Mike with questions. Cuvee is a small shop, but they've got global reach - Mike spends a good chunk of the year traveling to farms throughout South and Central America (Africa's on hold for the moment). We heard about cupping in Peru, hanging out on plantations in El Salvador, trying out the differences between tiny variations in the coffee tree. I made every attempt to not geek out completely.

That attempt fell apart when we passed from the front office into the roasting facility, and got into the details: all the things that could go wrong with beans, the ins and outs of shipping materials, the unbelievably cool engineering that went into the high-power ribbon burners Mike and his dad developed for their old-school French roasters. Geek heaven, if you want to know the truth. We followed the process from the big burlap bags, through the roasting, cooling, blending and bagging; we dwelt on chemistry and physics and the magic that happens at various points in the cycle.

Billed at a 30 minute tour, we were now a good hour and a half in. Turn out foodies have a lot of questions. From the roasting floor we went into tasting - four coffees, washed Peru, Gutamala, El Salvador, and a natural Brazil. The washed coffees are where the coffee cherry is removed, leaving the just the bean to dry; and natural, where the whole coffee cherry is left intact to dry around the bean and later removed. Tasted next to each other, which I've never done before, the differences were amazing - from the complex citrus zing of the Peru to the long slow mellow rumble of the Brazil. We steamed milk on a tricked-out La Marzocco Linea (swoon), drank single origin Brazillian espresso (gasp), and generally overstayed our welcome. Side note: there's about a month's supply of the Peru Chachunda left, and it's totally life changing.

Sometime later in the afternoon, in a hazy happy caffeine buzz, I left Cuvee and drove home. Thank you Tasty Touring. Thank you Mike. And Thank you Tracy. That. Was. Awesome.


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