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


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