Monday, December 19, 2011

Grateful: Austin to Boston Foodswap and a New Friend

It's late on a Monday night, and I'm sipping coffee from a brand new Dunkin Donuts mug, thinking how happy I am to be part of an expanding network of food communities.

The latest expansion, and the source of the mug, is through the Austin to Boston Gift Swap, lovingly organized by the Austin Food Blogger Alliance and the Boston Food Bloggers. I was lucky enough to be matched up with the exceptionally thoughtful and interesting Kat Lynch, a blogger and soon-to-be-dietician. Kat is super inspiring - she runs; she lives her dreams; she makes nut butters at home. And she sends awesome gifts.

#ATXBOS: What I Received
Kat's box was stuffed with red-wrapped packages, each topped by a different iconic map of Boston and each containing little treasures, all packed together. Four of the cutest chocolate mice you could imagine, made by Burdick Chocolate in Harvard Square, peeked out of a squat mason jar. A signed picture book, adored by my 6-year old, told the story of Zachary's magic baseball and the Red Sox game it came from. Nut butter, full and fresh and wholesome came with a little note welcoming my family to some of the good stuff to come out of the Eating the Week kitchen. And my Dunkin mug, the one I'm drinking from now, showed up begging to be filled with good coffee. I am lucky to know Kat, and lucky to have gotten to know her better through the Boston goodies we've so enjoyed having in our home (and in our bellies)

#ATXBOS: What I Gave
It's a hard business figuring out what encapsulates Austin food. Breakfast tacos just don't travel that well, and Salt Lick rubs are not particularly useful to a vegetarian. Luckily, I am married to a woman of truly astounding creative inspiration, and together Tracy and I pulled (and stitched) together a box for Kat and her family. Round Rock Honey, from the farmers market near our house seemed like a good place to start; a little bottle of concentrated Austin wildflowers. And pecans, which, at least for me, suggest walks through Hyde Park in the summer, the nuts so plentiful that they crunch underfoot. It's not Austin without the Longhorns, and it's not a Christmas box if there's not chocolate, so Lamme's Candies Longhorns went in next, both dark and milk varieties. Then there's the Texas Olive Ranch Olive Oil, not from Austin, but from a little South of here, which I hadn't planned on at all, but which was just so suprising and lush when I encountered it at the Farmers Market that it had to make it in. Finally, in went a custom hand-made waitress-apron from Fair Morning Blue. Doesn't get much more local than that, since FairMorningBlue is Tracy's Etsy shop, with production facilities in our dining room.

I love being part of this community of food, love seeing the passion and openness that people on both sides of the exchange have given. I love the chance this process gave for some real collaboration with Tracy - who in addition to making the apron was the woman behind the camera for all these photos and the fingers behind the packaging. And I love that I got a chance to make a connection with someone living and working and writing out East. I travel every week, but rarely do I get to see into the life of the locals. This experience gave me a little taste of that. For all of these things, I'm grateful. Thank you to the AFBA, to Kat, and to Tracy for  making the Grubbus/Eating The Week swap such a pleasure.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Delicious Comes in a Box: La Boite Cafe (CLOSED)

La Boite was selling dynamite pastries out of a shipping container before shipping container construction was cool. They've recently expanded to two boxes - one on South Lamar a few blocks south of the Highball, and the other on Congress, just across the street from the Capitol.

First off, the container. Not the easiest thing to heat or cool, shipping containers are otherwise near zero footprint - there's millions of them floating around out there, retired from their original gig, now quietly rusting and taking up space. La Boite was at the vangaurd of a movement to upcycle these containers, and founded on the idea that you could sell good food out of a beautiful, if compact space without using up a bucket load of finite resources. The box places them in the middle ground of the trailer food scene - La Boite is not going anywhere in a hurry, but they're also not exactly brick and mortar establishment. Austin, meet pop up food.

The container is cool, but it's just, well, a box. The good stuff is the baked goods therein. For La Boite, that means baked goods from Barrie Cullinan. "Wait", you ask, "THE Barrie Cullinan? The one who was named one of the 10 best bakers in the country by Bon Appetit?" Yes. That Barrie Cullinan. La Boite is one of a very few outposts in town where you can get her goods, and they come in a very small, but very tasty selection. The standouts for me are the almond croissants and the macarons. The croissants are covered with powdered sugar and slivered almonds, and sport a million layers of butteriness inside. They hint of marzipan, and there is the faintist suggestion of a filling, but the essence of these are scented air and butter. The macarons are bolder than others I've had around town, almost iridescent in both color and flavor. When they have fruit flavors, you get a jolt of concentrated, jam-like essence. When it's salted caramel (like they had today), the salt is on equal footing with the sweet, balancing a huge amount of flavor. The salted caramel and chipotle chocolate were my faves of the current crop. The pastries are less fussy and more subtle than the also-amazing but totally-different Baguette et Chocolate, but they are on the same scale of delicious. They also make lovely sandwiches, and a handful of other pastries that rotate in and out, but to me the love is in the croissant. OK: Truth be told, I am a little nervous about a eating a sandwich from a place that has no kitchen, but people tell me they're awesome.

Coffee is good, but relative to nearby knock-your-socks-off options like Medici and Once Over Coffee, not a reason for a visit. The beans are from local roaster Casa Brasil, and they've developed a custom Mexican blend in part based on the limited carbon footprint compared to shipping beans from further away. I like the sentiment, but they'd do better with a nice pour-over rig or a french press set up and some fresh ground Cuvee.

In a town where empty lots were filled with food trucks, and are now starting to empty all over again as the trailers start to falter, I hope La Boite sticks around. It's a place that, despite its mobility, feels rooted in Austin in the simple goodness of the food, the optimism of the environmental mission, and the strong link to the local food community.

Worth noting: There's amazing stuff being done with shipping containers all over now (like this gorgeous house, or the pop-up retail mall in London, or, somewhat less amazing, the proposed Seattle Starbucks).

La Boite Cafe on Urbanspoon

Thursday, December 08, 2011

It Was a Dark Knight: Dinner at the Knight Cap

Nestled between a dive bar and a strip club and across from the minor league ball park, The Knight Cap, in their own words, are purveyors of Liquids and Solids for Beefeaters. It says so. Right on their sign.

Walk in, and you are enveloped in a tiny dark cave of overstuffed vinyl booths and table top candles. The ambiance suggests a dive bar all dressed up for a big night out. Everything is clean, and in good repair, but shows no other indication of being touched since the place opened in 1969. In short: this place is a bucket load of awesome.

There are maybe a dozen tables, and a few stools at the bar. Despite its pint size, we were still greeted warmly by the maitre d', who took our coats, the bus boy, who placed the napkins upon our laps, and our young waitress, who very, very slowly told us about the innovations the bar was capable of. I thought she was fantastic, but my table compatriots were wishing for a little more speed.

Disclaimer: pictures on this post are of suspect quality due to the dark-of-night interior.

We asked for a wine list, and received a scrap book. I'm not making this up. On some pages there were wine labels with prices and notes. On others, cut out pictures of wine bottles entire. And here's where things start to get a little interesting: the scrap book is full of really fantastic wines. Stag's Leap. Cakebread. Jordan. Silver Oak. Mt. Veeder. Page after page after page. All big names, high productions, but these are not wines you expect when you walk in the door.

The food is similarly ambitious. We started with crayfish hush puppies. A little under-spiced, and a little over-dense, but engaging anyway, clearly fresh, with big chunks of crayfish, and a serious crunch. The gelatinous sauce that accompanied them had a little kick to it, but was too goopy to take seriously.

The soups that followed the hush puppies were, to me, highlight of the meal. I had a gumbo, rich and spicy and fabulous. The spice wasn't subtle exactly, a giant wallop of louisana hot, but the texture and the flavors in the gumbo were just dead on. Andouille sausage for the win.

The salads - and I use the term "salad" loosely here - were not as impressive. More accurately, this was a plate of crumbled bacon atop a small lake of dressing, alongside cucumbers. I love my dressing and my bacon as much as the next guy, but this was overkill.

The menu is classic fancy when it comes to entrees - mostly variations on lobsters and steaks. Not cheap, but not all that far off from other places in town that go for this kind of fare. Filet Mignon was a beautiful cut of meat, well prepared and completely unadorned. The texture was a little grainier than some of the silky smooth filets I've had before, but it was tender and cooked a perfect medium rare. By this point, I was too stuffed to finish the potato or the mushrooms that arrived on the side, but they made a nice visual.

I've had better steaks, and far better salads, even, on occasion, better gumbo; but this food, spiced with the historical brilliance of the experience, is among the best I've had in Lansing.

Knight Cap on Urbanspoon

Friday, November 25, 2011

Killer Doughnuts. Perfect Apples. A Little Shlock. Robinette's.

On a brilliant blue-sky day just after Thanksgiving, my extended family and I loaded ourselves into a couple of Subarus and made our way to the institution that is Robinette's Apple Haus, on the far north side of Grand Rapids. Robinette's has been serving fresh cider and doughnuts since 1973, and the family has been growing apples since 1911.

Today, Robinette's has spread into a small empire: a barn-sized gift shop selling all manner of occasionally charming schlock; a winery; store-branded popcorn, salad dressings, candies, and syrups; a bread bakery; a fudge-emporium. Throughout, there are constant signs of a place that has grown by addition without edit, to the point that there are no less than 11 typefaces featured on the signage at the front entrance. It's a kind of down-home country chaos that has an edge of interstate-tourist-shop overload.

But the core of the operation, at least as far as I'm concerned, is still apples, cider and doughnuts.

Apples started the ball rolling here, and they are still to die for. Like just about any other produce, apples are best when recently harvested, never trucked, and grown by people who have been growing them for generations. I bought a 1/2 peck of the best Braeburns I've ever eaten, a whole different class of rich and sweet and tart than the Braeburns that make their way here from New Zealand. They've got a half-dozen varietals, all 8 bucks for a half peck. A steal.

The apples not pretty enough to make their way into the retail or wholesale side of the business make their way into cider the old fashioned way, mashed and then squeezed between wooden pallets by an enormous, bright red press. I remember seeing this press in action on school field trip some elementary school year, and I remember that it was 30 feet tall and very scary. It turns out, returning now, that it's not. But it's still pretty damn intimidating. Cider is served in the store hot or cold, totally unadorned, and with all the sweet richness of the apples they grow. It may be the blend, or the freshness, but this is really extraordinary cider.

And the doughnuts. They make a few types, but there's just the one that's worth the time: the cinnamon-sugar. These are cake doughnuts, with all the delicate crumb and moistness that good cake doughnuts have, but they are so light and airy that they eat almost as if they are yeasted and raised, rolled in sugar and cinnamon. If you manage to get one while they are hot, they will change your life, waking you in the middle of the night with intense unrequited longing. Room temp, they're really good, but the brilliance dims a bit.

So three things that totally steal the show. Three amazing successes, exactly the same as they've been forever: apples, cider, doughnuts. And that's where my sizable love for this place ends: the expansions are something to be endured and ignored if possible: the fudge contains as many chemicals and as much corn syrup as something you might pick up at the grocery store; the chocolate icing on the doughnuts comes from a bucket shipped in from who-knows-where. I don't know about the salad dressings or the popcorn - they may very well be brilliant - but to me they chip away at the simple supremacy of the apple-cider-doughnut trinity.

All that extra stuff doesn't kill Robinettes for me. In point of fact, in barely puts a dent in it. Put the distractions out of mind for a bit, get yourself geared up for some serious country charm, partake in the glorious trinity of sweet-autumn goodness in a place that feels like they could have invented it.

Robinette's Apple Haus on Urbanspoon

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Gilmorazation of Grand Rapids: Red Jet Cafe

The Gilmore Collection has taken root in West Michigan, slowly expanding an empire of upscale restaurants in gorgeous renovated settings, and adding a cosmopolitan sheen to a town that's been steadily reinventing itself for decades. Their restaurants are not the best in town, and I don't think they ever set out to be. But they are near the top of the heap, predictable, generally well managed, and heavily invested in getting the details right.

Red Jet Cafe is in the middle of the Gilmore pack - somewhere between the placid elegance of Rose's and the corporate-edgy Bobarinos. Like many of the other buildings in the collection, Red Jet is renovation project. History here is a little murky, but near as I can tell, this was built as a bank sometime in the early part of the last century, was converted over to the Creston Library in the 60s or 70s, and in 2007 began life as Red Ball Jet Cafe. Legal protests from the remnants of the Red Ball Jets athletic shoe company forced a name change in 2009, when it dropped the Ball and gained the name it currently holds. The building is gorgeous and modern against a backdrop of early 20th century elegance.

Red Jet sports an interesting menu - there's a lot to do with coffee, and breakfast, and wood fired pizzas, and smoothies, and crepes, some of which are on the menu, and some which aren't. And also salads. And booze. To add to the confusion, the sign still says Red Ball, and the web site says Red Jet Coffeehouse. I love all of these things, but even so, there's a lack of identity to this place that is less than ideal - it's as if the menu was designed by a committee filled equally with society types and neighborhood hipsters.

That said, what they do here, they do over the top, and they do it well. The smoothies are excellent - more like milkshakes than anything, but I'm not arguing. My eldest daughter ordered a crepe that would make the French cringe, but was very tasty - filled with scrambled eggs, sausage, maple syrup, and mozzarella. French toast here means a block of custard-coated brioche, covered in berries, drenched in Michigan maple syrup. The pizza I ordered was also well-executed, if a little less showy, with a crust that gave general appearances of being made in house and a subtle, fresh sauce. The one real miss was the arugla/artichoke dip. The dip: awesome. The bagel chips provided for dipping: sad. Would have loved a fresh sliced baguette instead.

Service was spotty, and a bit slow, but the waitstaff was friendly and engaging when they showed up. A little  trouble remembering to bring the check, but given the beautiful spread of the space, and the breeze on a Grand Rapids summer afternoon, waiting was not such a painful experience.

I have seen some anger directed at Gilmore for his particular brand of corporate shellac, but I think the good here far outweighs the bad. These are good restaurants, a preservation of Grand Rapids history, and a strong benchmark against which other local restaurants will be measured.

  Red Jet Cafe on Urbanspoon

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Sandwich Worth a Road Trip: Zingermans

Zingerman's was not the longest I've traveled for dinner. A few years ago, while doing a short stint in Madison, my colleague insisted that the best steak in the world was just down the road, outside of Milwaukee. And while working in Oshawa, Ontario, the hour-long trip over to Toronto was rewarded with some pretty outstanding dinners. Still, it takes a mighty fine establishment to merit 3 hours of driving; and Zingerman's delivered, if not in the Pastrami than in the experience of the place, which is nothing short of brilliant, an overwhelming array of clever, cute and above obsessively food-centric. It's a compound more than a restaurant, and maybe more an empire than a compound.

The center of the Zingerman's empire is deli/cheese shop/bakery attached by a patio to a coffee shop and gelato stand, both intertwined with retail chocolate, cooking supplies, exotic dry goods, and a massive amount of exceedingly whimsical signage. Down the street is the Roadhouse, which will be the object of another road trip soon, and somewhere in the mix is a massive mail-order operation and a kitchen that I can only imagine.

Here's how it goes down. You pull into cute-as-a-button brick-street Kerrytown a few miles off the highway, far enough through nondescript neighborhoods that you begin to doubt your GPS. You look for parking. If lucky, you find it. You walk in through what looks like a regular deli entrance - large black awnings and warm window displays into a warmly lit room that redefines overstuffed. On your left, cheese. Beyond that, meats. The selections are truly mind boggling - 8 varieties of bone-in Spanish Hams. On your right, a wall of breads, fronted by friendly guys with beards. Keep walking, one very small step at a time, toward the giant menu boards that loom above the sandwich station. While you're wondering how this is all supposed to result in you getting a sandwich, a nice person with a clip-board approaches you and works with you to select the right sandwich for your particular needs and desires. You select a Pastrami, specifically the JJ's Special, with grilled onions and swiss cheese. You hope you like it, because the sucker is $16. Once you find your seat, out on the multi-level patio between the Deli and the Gelato, and pull down your drink from the all-Boylen soda fountain, your Pastrami arrives.

And that Pastrami? It sets the bar for all others. The thick slices, which I was skeptical of at first glance, showcase the delicate texture and distinct bite. This is not lean meat, but unlike most attempts at deli meat, all that fatty tasty goodness is evenly and beautifully distributed - nothing stringy, nothing to get stuck in your teeth. The bread is dense enough and has enough of a toast to it to stand up to the mass of the sandwich, waiting to fall apart until the very last bite. I've had pastrami this good only one other time, at Katzinger's in Columbus, Ohio, a much longer drive from Lansing.

After dinner, despite being completely stuffed, I managed to find room for a slice of exceptional apple pie and a decent cup of house-roasted coffee.  Zingerman's has earned it's imperial stripes - they roast coffee because they wanted really good coffee, they make bread because they needed the bread to be perfect, they make cheese because all the cheese they wanted wasn't made by anyone else. I love that kind of empire - it's generous and wide-stretching, raising the bar for anyone making a sandwich and providing the resources to get there.

Zingerman's Delicatessen on Urbanspoon

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Comfort Food in East Lansing: What Up Dawg?

There are a couple of places that are important to scout out in a new city: ice cream, doughnuts, and chicago dogs. These things are my comfort food. It would be nice if my comfort food was apples, bran muffin and wheat grass, but such is life.

Today: East Lansing Chicago Dogs at What Up Dawg, a start-up hole-in-the-wall a couple of blocks from Campus on M.A.C Ave. Though easy to miss walking by, once inside, What Up Dawg is a surprisingly put-together little space. It's sparse and modern, with dark concrete floors and halogen lighting. Not that this is elgant modern, by any stretch - there are giant flat screens, loud college music, and that faint smell of stale beer that permeates just about every one of these kind of places in College Towns. Windows look out over MAC Avenue, always bustling with the life of the town.

The menu is simple - Sausage, Hot Dogs, Fries, Beer. This is good. You want your Chicago Dogs made with the kind of single-minded focus the Sport Pepper and the Celery Salt demands

And that brings me to the innovation of What Up Dawg. I say that carefully. Innovating on Chicago Dogs is risky business. There are ingedients, and these ingredients can be amped up in size or quality, but in my experience, any attempt to modify past that detracts from the true nature of the dog. Until now. What Up Dawg. CHOPS the sport peppers. It rocks. The bite of the pepper is more evenly distributed, and eliminates the rolling sport pepper, one of the main challenges of Chicago Dog consumption.

The non Chicago Dog parts of the menu hold up well. Fries are crispy, fresh cut and a rusty reddish color when they come out. Sausages are local and juicy. The beer selection is decent, and includes my favorite go-to Michigan Brew, Bells.

Comfort Food in East Lansing. One Down. Two to go.

What Up Dawg? on Urbanspoon

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Village Baker - Small Town Baker Does it Big Town Right

The existence of the Village Baker proves three things:

  1. Urban artisan establishments do not have exclusive domain over super-tasty baked things.
  2. Good things sometimes happen to good people
  3. West Michigan is a really, really small place
1. Small Town Baker Kicks Ass

The first thing you encounter at Village Baker is a rack of completely legit baked goods in mind boggling variety. I do not know when they start baking to have this stuff ready to go each morning, or what magic they employ to get this kind of crust on a baguette.

The storefront is narrow and long – a handful of booths line the windows along one long side, and a counter, pastry cases, and a gaggle of young employees dominate the back wall. It’s light and airy, with an understated small town charm. The glass bottles of milk from a local dairy look at right at home.

Over the course of a handful of weekends out at my mom’s place in Spring Lake, we had challah  (for French toast, OMG), cinnamon rolls, baguettes, poppy seed hot dog buns, French pastries, and local blueberry muffins. I think I ate more bread during July than in any previous month of my life, and I loved every minute of it. The baguettes here are crusty with a pillowy white interior and a mild sourdough bite. The hot dog buns are brilliantly squishy, what every grocery store hot dog bun aspires to be. And the pastries, created by a professor at a nearby cooking school who was wishing for a commercial kitchen, are precise and beautiful.

2. Good People

Oran Rankin and Sara Rathbun run Village Baker. They are really really nice people. When they opened the bakery, they literally scraped it together, doing a lot of the work on the place themselves, and bringing in friends (there’s a yoga studio next door, and plans for a farmers market out back) to help.

And, just as you’d like to see with something run with this much heart, this place is off-the-hook successful. I’ve never been in there where there hasn’t been a line full of locals back from church, or people passing through on the way to the beach. As word spreads, I can imagine the crowds will continue to gather, making Village Baker a sort of informal town square.

3. West Michigan Is Very Small

Back in the early 90s, fresh back in Grand Rapids from my first years in College, my dad and I used to spend the occasional lazy afternoon drinking coffee and playing chess at Socrates. It was a homey Eastown coffeeshop, with a big bright front window, some memorably named sandwiches and good coffee before most of us knew what that was. Once or twice we made the trek from there up to Ed’s Breads on Leonard to bring back a loaf of homemade cinnamon bread for French Toast.

Socrates: Sara Rathbun’s place. Ed’s Breads: that’d be Oran’s. They weren’t a couple then, but have since met and married, and showed up a few blocks away from my mom’s house.

Score one for good karma. Love this place.

Images courtesy of the gorgeous and amazing Fair Morning Blue

Village Baker on Urbanspoon

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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Bush to Bucket to Pie. Blueberries in Summer.

The summer road trip is getting to be a tradition in our family. Near the end of June, we pile everyone in the car and head in whatever direction my corporate apartment happens to be. For a glorious couple of months, I get to read bedtime stories to my kiddos on weekdays, avoid airports entirely, and sleep past 4AM on Monday Mornings. For the last few years, my client was in Tallahassee FL, so we encamped there, with weekend jaunts to Disney or St. George Island. This year: Lansing, MI, and our weekend jaunts are both more pedestrian, and, frankly, more fun.

Last weekend, we stayed out in Spring Lake with my mom, right up the street from Blueberry Hill U-Pick farm. Farm may be a bit of an overstatement – Blueberry Hill is maybe an acre of bushes tucked behind a neatly manicured ranch house, on the edge of a residential neighborhood. It’s an idyllic setting, and when we showed up on Saturday morning we had the run of the lush blueberry bushes, which were drooping with enormous blue spheres of sweet juicy goodness.  We snacked profusely, thinking of Sal and his plink-plank-plunk, and stopped when we got to a bucket full – about 2 gallons – costing us all of $10. For those keeping track at home, this is about what it costs to cast a sidelong glance at Disney.

That afternoon, we headed back across the state to Lansing and got busy in my little kitchen.

First thing to note. A bucket is a mountain of blueberries. It doesn’t seem like a lot when you’re surrounded by a near infinite supply hanging off of summer-green bushes, but put it on the counter, and it’s a little shocking. Enough for a pie? Yes, I’d say so.

I don’t have any cookbooks here, but I do have my trusty Bittman To Go app, and on it was something close to this:

The Crust. 
- 2 sticks of butter, cut into about 16 cubes each.
- 2 cups white flour
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 1/2 tsp salt
- A little icewater (about 3 tbs)

That’s it. I dropped the butter in the flour, sugar and salt, and then went at it. No tabletop appliances here, so I tried it with a pair of knives, but the better approach was just to break up the pieces of butter with my fingers. I worked for a few minutes, stuck the whole bowl in the freezer to cool off, and then worked it again. Main goal is to keep the butter pieces small, but distinct, so things stay flaky and delish. Once it seemed well enough integrated, I added a couple of tablespoons of ice water, and worked it into a ball. Wax paper and washi tape was decent substitute for plastic wrap, and I popped the whole kit and caboodle in the fridge for about an hour to cool down again.

While the crust was chilling, into another bowl wen
- 5 cups fresh-picked blueberries
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 teaspoon of lemon zest
- 1 tablespoon of lemon juice
- 2 tablespoons corn starch (should have used 4, more about that below)

And by “worked”, I mean combined everything and tossed, again, with fingers.

We rolled out the top and bottom crusts, saving enough for my daughters to make their own mini pastries to bake alongside the main attraction. With the oven up at 450, we laid the first crust into a nine inch pie pan, piled in our blueberry mix, dotted with butter, crimped on the top crust and cut a few holes (I used Sugar Mama's Triple Berry pattern as an inspiration). It sat for a @morningblue photo op for a few minutes, received a quick butter brush and sprinkle of sugar, and then we popped it into the middle of the oven, dropping the temp back down to 350 as soon as the oven door was shut.

An hour later we were rewarded with a bubbling gooey mess of a blueberry pie. We tried to wait, honest, we did, but we didn’t wait long enough and were content eating a rather soupy mess of sweet luscious blueberry pie and Hudsonville vanilla ice cream.

For the next two days, we hacked away at it, relishing the way the summertime in Michigan tastes.

The side note regarding the corn starch: After the pie cooled it stayed pretty soupy. This was not all bad (with ice cream, it was actually kind of nice), but a pie of a more traditional consistency would have required about twice the thickener.

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Monday, June 27, 2011

The Best Pie in Austin

The Pie Society - Buttermilk
Pie is a scrappy, American staple. It's a recession dessert, simple, flexible and celebratory. It also looks like it's mounting an impressive comeback.

Recently I helped pull together a Pie Tasting for about 50 Austin colleagues. We collected in our biggest conference room (the one that's about to get new carpet. Oops), and lined up a dozen of the best pies going in Austin: The Pie Society, Sweetish Hill, Texas Pie Company, and Sugar Mama's Bakeshop. Coffee came courtesy of our friends at Chameleon Cold Brew, and Amy's provided the Mexican Vanilla. Killer sugar rush, #ATX style.

A couple of general findings before I get into the real results.
  1. Crust is king - Basic pie crust has essentially two ingredients - flour and butter. Flourishes may add an item or two. But how crust is handled, how the butter is integrated, how long it's chilled before baking, how thinly it's rolled - is key to making a great pie. Also good - whatever voodoo Sugar Mama's does to make the crispy butter dream that is the Triple Berry crust.
  2. Fruit wins - This is a fact. We voted. It may just be the string of triple-digit days, but given the choice of pie style, fruit beat cream by a 6 to 1 margin. Not many folks I know are going to turn down a coconut cream if it's the only thing on the table, but given the choice, looks like they'll opt for the oozing berries with a scoop of vanilla ice cream over mounds of whipped cream.
  3. The prettiest ones give a little peek - We did an informal poll on the prettiest pies, and first, second and third place were the pies with lattice top crusts (Sweetish Hill blueberry, Pie Society cherry, Pie Society strawberry-rhubarb). I'm kind of a crumble guy, myself, but looking at everything lined up, it was hard to deny the visual supremacy of the near iconic Pie Socieity Cherry.
The Pie Society - Cherry 

So there's the findings. On to the results.

Third place

Tie: Sweetish Hill Chocolate Rum Pecan and The Pie Society Strawberry rhubarb. These couldn't be more different pies. Each has it's roots in a classic, but where Sweetish Hill veers to the innovative side of things, The Pie Society is keeping it classic. Strawberry Rhubarb was stunning and had a lovely rhubarb tang against the sweet strawberries. Filling consistency is always tricky with pies - and the only point that this one lost ground was on that front, a little runnier than most of us would have liked. Chocolate Pecan was also beautiful, and pulled in the chocolate fanatics in the group. I thought it rocked, but in the end, I was unsold on the drizzle of chocolate. It's like nuts in chocolate chip cookies or raisins in bread pudding. Some people love it. It's just not the way I roll.

Second Place 

The Texas Pie Company Chocolate Fudge. No question that this was a tasty desert, that it rocked the Mexican Vanilla, that it sliced as easy as a, well, brownie. Because, truth be told, that's what it was. A giant brownie in a pie crust. At first, I dismissed it as gimmick, but this was a damn good brownie in a damn good crust. Populist win for second place.

First Place
Best Pie in Austin

Sugar Mama's Triple Berry. There were a lot of really good pies for the taking, but the top spot was pretty lonely for the Triple Berry, which took nearly 70% of the votes for best pie, and 80% of the votes for best crust. No argument from me on this one. I'm a die hard triple berry fan, have been for ages, and this full size pie took all the jammy cobbler-like goodness of the mini one Sugar Mama's has in the case, multiplied it by 50, topped it with ice cream and made an entire room of corporate denizens a little weak in the knees. People who didn't like pie loved this pie. People who had given up sugar, given up gluten loved this pie. This is crazy pie.

I have no idea if Pie is a trend that's going to stick, no idea if Sugar Mama's mini-pies or The Pie Society's Crimps will streak past cakeballs to steal the mighty cupcake thunder, but I hope they do. I love that some of the best bakers in town are turning their prodigious talents to the humble pie. If there's a time to think about our history, Independence Day is a good one. And if there's a food to eat while thinking about it, it's a slice of pie.

Sugar Mama's - Triple Berry w/Amy's Mexican Vanilla
Side note: Our friends (and rock-star talented bakers) at The Pie Society were recently selected to provide pies for "A Christmas Affair" in Austin. Big show. Lots of pie. As a startup, this kind of volume doesn't come easy. They've turned to innovative micro-funding site KickStarter to raise funds for the big effort. Go ahead and check it out. Tell 'em Grubbus sent you.

More pictures are up on the Grubbus Facebook page

Monday, June 06, 2011

Caffe Medici Builds Temple to Coffee in the Heart of Austin

My first cup of coffee was at a dinner party at our house in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I was 10 years old, and I remember not so much the way it tasted, but the way it felt to be in grown up conversations with this deep rich coffee smell all around and a plate of Italian cookies on the table. I remember the warmth of the cup in my hands, the inky cold blackness outside the dining room windows, and the sophistication of the whole experience. Coffee was special-occasion-only until high school and a regular daily ritual after that. By the time I finished college and moved to DC, I’d figured out the importance of fresh ground beans, had the epiphany of espresso, and had started hanging out at Quartermaine, my local coffee shop, rather than staying holed up in my apartment.

It took until 2007, 24 years after that first cup, to discover really good coffee, at Caffe Medici, on West Lynn. Medici opened up a whole new level of coffee in town, and served as Austin’s gateway drug to some pretty extraordinary highs: Once Over, Houndstooth and half a dozen other top-level shops are turning out amazing drinks, Austin baristas are placing at the top of US Barista Guild national competitions, latte art has become commonplace, and Mike McKim has taken Cuvee Coffee Roasters to national relevance.

The only thing left was to build a space sleek and sophisticated enough to hold this sleek, sophisticated Austin coffee experience. And Medici has now done it, on the ground floor of the Austonian. We now not only have good coffee, we have erected a temple to it.

The space is light and airy – two stories of glass with loft seating and warm colors. There is a clean modern aesthetic to it all, but the basic design is all about theater. After entering the front door you walk past a massive square espresso bar housing two complete espresso work stations to the back of the store to order. You place your order and pay up, and then head back up front, where shots are pulled on a pair of gleaming red 3-group La Marzoccos. It made for a good show when Starbucks first tried layout this in the 80s at Pikes Place, and it makes for a good show now.

There are seats outside, on the wide sidewalk next to Congress Avenue, inside along the windows, and upstairs in a gorgeously engineered loft. A benevolent Medici looks down from a mural on the back wall.

The space is fantastic, but the key to what Medici is doing now is in the cup. Medici has been using the same Espresso Medici blend from Cuvee Coffee since the get go. Every Barista there knows exactly how these beans want to be treated, and they have dialed in the temperature and the grind to impossible precision. The resulting espresso is rich and winey, with a chocolaty first taste and a long, lingering almost tart bite at the finish. Alone, it’s fantastic, though ristrettos can pack a puckering wallop.

With milk it’s out of this world. I would happily drink anything they make, but my go-to drink is the Espresso Macchiato, where just a few ounces of perfectly steamed milk tops the espresso. If I’m there for a little longer, I’ll get the small latte and linger on the silky roasted marshmallow flavors that come out when the milk is taken to just the right temperature. They have food, and it’s good enough, but the action is universally and unapologetically the coffee.

I came to coffee for the smell and the taste, but mostly for the experience. This most recent Medici outpost has brought that back home more directly, and more elegantly than any place else I’ve been.

More pictures are up on the Grubbus Facebook page

For a historical trip back in time: My original review of Medici, back in 2007 is here.

Caffe Medici on Urbanspoon


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