Thursday, April 28, 2011

Palatable Airport Food, Part III: Vino Volo @ DTW

Back in 2007, I put up a post on Pappadeux, the best thing going at IAH Terminal E. In 2010, it was tasty little ATL gem, Cafe Intermezzo. Over the last few weeks I've found Vino Volo, bringing the Grubbus palatable-food total in our nations air travel system to three.

Vino Volo is a small chain of wine bars in a dozen airports across the country, and a pretty radical departure for airport food. It's probably good to note here that the unexpected joy of this place comes partly from it's surroundings: against standard airport food, this place is a blowout success. Put it downtown Austin, and it's a little more run of the mill.

The Wines are the name of the game here, and they've got a remarkably good selection. It's not many places you can find Silver Oak Cabernet or an '05 Brunello di Montalcino by the glass. The wine menu is split into about a dozen sections of 2-3 wines each: California Cabs, Sparkling Whites, Tour of Spain. Each wine is available by the glass, the bottle, or as part of a flight with its compatriots. I tried an Elusiv Pinot from Monterey this time, and it was beautiful - strawberries and a little peppery on the finish.

soapbox One nit to pick here: each wine comes with a customized coaster featuring tasting notes and placing it along a spectrum from light to brooding. Brooding. Brooding is not a taste. It is a thing that teenagers do when they don't get the car. And unless this wine tastes like what teenagers do, and I sure hope it doesn't - please, please don't say that it does. There are plenty of good words that describe taste. Use those. /soapbox

Enough with the wines - on to the food. The food is a blast. Not genius food, but really tasty. I had the cured meat plate, and while it was no Olympic Provisions, it was really pretty delicious, down to the lovely tart  pickles and coarse ground spicy mustard. The olive plate is a great starter, beautifully arranged and pungent. The cheese plate was tempting (people the next table over were raving), and they've got a couple of really nice looking sandwiches on good bread. The food is also in remarkably constrained proportions, a nice contrast to the pounds of meat that make up the burgers down the way at Fuddruckers.

All this lovely sipping and tasting, in a tasteful, quiet, well lit space comes at a price, however. Tasty, yes, but not a cheap lunch. A glass of wine and a sandwich can set you back $30, easy. More if you drink the really choice stuff.

For me, it's my delayed-flight treat, a little extra kick when the hours drag on - a place as far away from the airport as you can get on DTW's A-Concourse.

More photos up on Grubbus's Facebook Home

Vino Volo on Urbanspoon

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Best Sausage in the World Is the Sausage After a Long Ride

On April 16 and 17th, I joined about 13,000 other people on bikes, and about 5,000 volunteers on a 170 mile ride from Houston to Austin to raise money for Multiple Sclerosis research. It's a two day ride, with a stop over at La Grange. It is on this ride that I discovered perfect sausage. Here's what I learned: sausage is best hot off the grill, with friends and with mustard, with the sun dipping down over the Texas hills, and with 85 miles of rolling land behind you. It's best when handed to you by fantastic volunteers, after a line of people have cheered your last half mile. It's best when you're dog tired, and looking forward to a cot and a sleeping bag as soon as it gets dark.

On day one, we gathered up, pre-dawn in the blistering cold, at a Stadium in Katy, TX. What seemed to me an impossible number of bikers grew as riders from the other start points merged in. A few hours later, around 9:15, the sun finally starting to warm everything up, we stopped for lunch. I've never seen an operation at this scale - a massive tent, with thousands and thousands of identical turkey sandwiches, cans of fruit, bags of chips. It was impressive in scale, and mind-blowing in efficiency, but I will report honestly that no matter how many miles were covered before lunch, I did not find the best Turkey Sandwich.

By 2:30, 85 miles from where we started, we rolled into La Grange - the middle of pack that started arriving before noon, and kept on coming until after 6:00. What had been, I presume, a typical fairgrounds was converted into a decent size little town. Bike stores, showers, massage studios, music venues, and row after row of tents housing riders and volunteers. Behind each tent, varying in ambition and execution, was a kitchen. Ours was a simple pair of gas grills cooking beef and jalepeno Costco sausage. Down the way a bit was the Continental Airlines tent. Their setup was a little more extreme - a 30 foot  scale replica 777 with a 6-burner Vulcan range on the side. Others were more humble, like the little table-top Weber set up down the hill from us in front of one of the dozens of RV's. I'm working on a plan to get The Jalopy to set up outside our tent next year. Will keep you posted on that one.

Next morning, we lined up early - getting our place in line at about 4:30, taking turns watching bikes and running back to the tent for more coffee. At 6:45, as the sun was coming up, we rolled out for Bastrop, and ultimately, back home to Austin. Where more sausage was waiting for us.

I learned a lot on this ride and in the year I spent training for it. I learned that food is actually pretty central to the whole endeavor. At least for me, the trick to riding for this kind of mileage is remembering to eat all the time. Sport Beans, Honey Stingers, Clif Goo - all this junk I would never have touched a year ago, is my new comfort food. Gatorade is now appealing. I packed Starbucks Via.

I also learned about bravery and commitment. I met riders in their 70s and riders in elementary school. I met riders who had loved ones with MS, or who suffered from it themselves. And throughout, I saw a group of people committed to doing this to help find a cure. It was an inspiring thing (if you'd like to contribute to the cause, we're still taking donations).

And I learned about the patience of my family, who put up with my training rides every weekend, who drove me down to Houston the day before the ride, and who cheered for me when I rolled back into Austin.

Posted more pictures over on Grubbus' home on Facebook.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Making Maple Syrup: Sugarbush Revisited

It's Spring in Michigan. And by Spring, I mean the snow is only sporadic, and sometimes it's kind of sunny. That blustery combination of cold nights and not-quite-as-cold days can be a little jarring for an Austinite, but it's perfect for Sugar Maples. Those few weeks when the sap is flowing and the sugar house is all fired up is Sugarbush. My first time through was a long, long time ago, when I was 11 and going to school at Blandford, on the north side of Grand Rapids. Last month, I brought the whole family up to the very same spot. It's still going strong.

Maple syrup gets it start as sap. It's extracted, traditionally, by way of a small hole drilled an inch or so into the tree, into which a small metal tube is tapped, off of which hangs a big bucket, into which the sap drips. When I think of sap, I think of the tarry sticky stuff that comes out of pine trees. This is totally different. It's water, more or less, with just slightest hint of sugary goodness.

Little known fact: sap is totally delicious. Actually, maple syrup anywhere in the process from sap to syrup to maple sugar candy is delicious. When I was doing this for real, as a 6th grader, I used to take surreptitious slurps of the stuff between trees.

The buckets hang there, collecting sap, drip by drip by drip. To watch the sap flow, it seems like it would take weeks to get an appreciable amount, but they drip drip on, and in a few hours the buckets start to visibly fill. Every day or so, the  buckets are collected, consolidated, and hauled back up the sugar house.

I love the sugar house. Even just the name rocks. At Blandford, the sugar house is totally cutting edge, circa 1890. It's not particularly high capacity, but it's totally high drama. The buckets, now emptied into still larger containers, are emptied into a trough in the back of the sugarhouse. They pass through a filter, and into a shallow metal tub, separated into a dozen different channels, atop a seriously roaring fire. As the water is boiled off, over the course of several hours, the sap slowly thickens into syrup. Measurement comes by way of a thermometer-like device that measures sugar solids, but you can see the difference just looking - sap is clear at the start, and golden at the finish.

In all, 40 gallons of sap make a single gallon of syrup. Early harvest, when the sugar is in higher concentration, yields the light colored extra-fancy grade A syrup. As the season wanes - just a few weeks later, there's less sugar in sap, meaning a longer time over the fire. That extra time means extra carmelized sugars, hence the darker color. Me? I'm a grade B guy all the way. Better flavor.

If you keep boiling after syrup you get the absolute primo treat of my childhood - maple sugar candy. The flavors in these things will knock you flat - rich and almost buttery, with a slight woody tinge from the open fire.

I don't know if my kids will take home the same memories I've stored away since my time at Blandford, but I'm glad they got a taste.

Sugarbush is over this year, but the candy's still available at the Blandford General Store.


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