Monday, December 31, 2012

Grubbus Cooks: Apple Tart

So, by part three of my New Year's Eve posting marathon, you may be wondering - what's up with the year-end spree after just about disappearing this fall? And all this home cooking? Grubbus? Hello?

Grubbus has been a little light lately because, well, I'm writing a book. I'm still getting used to how that sounds. A few months back, I signed a publishing contract with an amazing little publisher out of Charlotte, The History Press, to write a book we're calling Austin Food: The Story of a Local Eating Revolution. Very excited about this. We're chugging along getting that all researched and written, and, as a result, Grubbus hasn't had quite the attention it had before. That's fixing to change in 2013, but for now, that's what's been keeping the posts infrequent.

So infrequent, that, round about this afternoon, I figured out I was a couple of posts short of where Grubbus needed to be, year-end-wise. And so, this. Three of my favorite recipes of 2012. Things that I've made for friends, food that's marked special occasions all year.

This recipe - the last one for tonight - is for a wickedly simple, absolutely beautiful apple tart.

Apple Tart

The Filling:
2 lbs apples (my favorite: half granny smith and half braeburns)
1 tablespoon lemon juice
3 tablespoons butter, melted plus 1 tablespoon butter cut into 1/2 inch chunks
3-4 tablespoons sugar (I like coarse sugar best here)

The Tart Dough
1 cup flour
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 1/2 inch chunks

1/4 cup cold water

The Dough Part 1:
Work the butter into the flour with a pastry cutter or two knives. It just takes a few minutes - and you don't need to worry about consistency - some decent-sized pieces of butter will still be in place. You can also run this about 5 seconds in a food processor. Pour in the water, just a little at a time, and work the dough until it comes together in a ball. Get it good and stuck together, flatten it a little, wrap it in plastic wrap and let it rest in the refrigerator for at least an hour.

The Filling:
Peel and core the apples, and cut into thin slices - about 1/8 inch. If you happen to have a Mandoline - game on - it's perfect for this. Sprinkle the slices with the lemon juice and set aside while you roll out the dough.

The Dough Part 2:
Preheat the oven to 400.

Unwrap the dough and set out on a floured board. If it's really cold you may need to let it sit a bit. Roll it out from the center to the edges, adding flour as needed to keep it from sticking, until it's about 1/8 inch thick. This is a free form tart, and, just like the empanadas, I like to use a plate as a template to cut it into a circle - in this case I use a 10 1/2 inch dinner plate.

Put the rolled out crust on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Lay the apple slices on the tart dough in concentric overlapping rings, starting about an inch from the outside edge and working your way in. You should be able to fit 2 overlapping layers with a little space left in the middle. Overlapping is the key here: I try to cover about a third of the apple slice next in line for each slice within the ring, and layer the next ring about a third over the last one, with the slices facing the opposite direction. This all sounds harder than it is - just approximate the illustration, and you're golden.

To close up the crust, just pinch a little of the dough together every inch or so along the perimeter. This will lift up the dough to make a short wall around the apples. Brush the pinched-together outer edge with the butter. It's a lot of butter. Keep brushing. Drop the extra butter chunks over the apples, and start sprinkling sugar, with extra attention to heavy sprinkling on the crust.

Bake for about 40 minutes - you're looking for golden brown on the crust.

That's it. Wickedly simple. Absolutely beautiful.

Adapted from Alice Waters, The Art of Simple Food.

Grubbus Cooks: Chicken Empanadas

I should be clear about this right up front. These are really good empanadas, better than just about any you could score in town. Just about. Because the empanadas at Buenos Aires Cafe, full of delicious and some kind of black magic, beat the pants off any other entrant in the entire grand empanda universe.

Chicken Empanadas
12 empanadas - about 4 servings.

The Filling
1 split bone-in chicken breast (2 breasts, about 1.5 pounds)
1 tablespoon neutral oil (I like grapeseed)
1 medium-size onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1-2 teaspoons ground ancho chile (or good chili powder - I like Ancho Mama)
4-5 chipotles in adobo (I like San Marcos better than Goya - a 7oz can works well)
4 cups chicken broth
1 tomato, peeled and chopped
1 lime, juiced
1/3 lb. Cotija Cheese, grated (sharp cheddar works OK as well)

The Dough
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1/2 cup masa (or masa harina - in Austin, the easiest to find is Maseca, in the 5lb bag)
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup butter, chopped into 1/2 inch cubes (lard works well here too)
1 egg yolk
3/4 cup water
1/2 cup milk

The Dough, Part 1
Whisk together the flour, masa, baking powder, and salt. Use a pastry cutter or two knives to cut in the butter, or just toss it all in the food processesor with the regular blade for about 5 seconds. Just like pie dough, the texture should be gritty, along the lines of super-coarse corn meal.

Whisk together the egg yolk and the water and add to the dough a little at a time, gently working the dough until it comes together into a ball - this may or may not take all of the water/egg mixture. This is a dry dough, and it'll be a little crumbly until you get it good and chilled.

Cut the dough ball into 12 sections, wrap each in plastic wrap, and throw them all into the fridge for at least 20 minutes. 20 minutes works, but best results for me were when it chilled for about an hour. While the dough is chilling...

The Filling, Part 1
Preheat the oven to 450

Season the chicken generously with salt and pepper. Heat a large pot (at least 6 quarts) over medium high heat. Add the oil and sear the chicken breast for a minute or so on each side. It should stick a little. This is good. We'll use all those bits that stick to the pot later. Remove the chicken to a plate to rest.

Add the onion to the pot and saute for about 5 minutes, until softened, then add the garlic and saute for a minute or so more. Add the broth and deglaze the pan with a wooden spoon.

Now, everything else goes in. Cumin, ancho, chiplotle, tomatoes. Crank up the heat. When it comes to a boil, add the chicken. At this point, you are dealing with some seriously spicy broth, at least by my standards. No worries. The chicken that comes out has only the mildest of kicks. Reduce the heat to low, maintaining a simmer, and cover. Let the chicken simmer for another 25 minutes. While the filling is simmering...

The Dough, Part 2
Take each little dough ball in turn and roll it out to about 9 x 9 inches on a floured board. If it's too hard to work the dough, warm it up just a bit in your hands. If it's too sticky, more flour. I use an 8 1/2 inch salad plate as a template, and cut around the edge to get the dough to an even circle. Hang on to the extra dough until you're through assembly.

The Filling, Part 2
Remove the chicken breasts from the broth, and into a good-sized bowl. Remove and discard the skin. Add about a cup of the broth. Using two forks, shred the chicken down to the bone. Toss the bone. Add the lime juice. If it still seems a bit dry, add more broth.

Final stretch here. Take a dough-circle, add a good-size dollop of the filling, top with the cotija, brush the edges of the dough-circle with water and fold it over. Using your fingers first, fold the edge of the dough over, rolling the bottom layer over the top layer. Use a fork to crimp the edges together securely. If things start to fall apart a little at this stage, just patch it up with the extra dough left over from rolling it out.

Place the empanadas on a parchment-lined baking sheet (I use a little high-heat spray to make sure they come up easy, but that may just be paranoia - I think they'd be fine without it). Brush each empanada with milk, and bake for about 20 minutes, or until they're golden brown.

Serve with the lime wedges and salsa (don't laugh -  but I love the La Frontera Chipotle Salsa with this).

That's it. You can stuff these with anything, though I don't have a reliable source for black magic. You need to hit Buenos Aires Cafe for that.

Grubbus Cooks: Lemon Ricotta Pancakes

I love Saturday mornings. No one pays much attention to the clock, the kids stay in their pajamas all morning, and, sometimes, we get it together to get ingredients for something interesting for breakfast. If the smells coming from the kitchen are good enough, and we get a first round of coffee going early, no one complains much about eating a bit later than usual. Bliss.

This week – Lemon Ricotta Pancakes with Macerated Berries. I’ve tackled this a few times, with a few different variations, but consensus was that this particular combination worked the best.

Lemon Ricotta Pancakes
6-8 servings

· 2 cups ricotta (a 16oz container works well)
· 2 tablespoons plus 2 tablespoons sugar, divided
· 1 lemon zested and juiced
· 2 cups all-purpose flour
· 2 tablespoons baking powder
· 1/2 teaspoon salt
· 4 large eggs, separated
· 2 tablespoons butter (melted and cooled) plus about 2 tablespoons for cooking
· 1 1/2 cups whole milk

For macerated berries (optional)
· 2 cups raspberries
· 1/4 cup sugar
· 2 tablespoons lemon juice (about 1 lemon)

Bowl 1: Dry
Whisk or sift together flour, baking powder, and salt.

Bowl 2: Frothy
Beat the egg whites and 2 tbs of the sugar until soft peaks form.

Bowl 3: Wet
Whisk egg yolks, milk, 2 tbs of the sugar, 1 tbs lemon juice and the zest together. Gradually add the melted butter while continuing to whisk to work it in completely.

Bowl 4: Berries (Optional)
Combine berries, sugar, and lemon juice. Stir every few minutes as you work through the rest of the recipe.

Pour Bowl 3: Wet into Bowl 1: Dry and stir gently until the flour mixture is combined Lumps are not a problem. There’s more stirring coming up.

Add a dollop from Bowl 2: Frothy and all of the ricotta and give it a few more gentle stirs to combine.

Add the remaining contents of Bowl 2: Frothy and fold it in to the batter. The egg whites should just barely disappear into the batter, which should be getting good and silky.

At this point, you may be noticing that there are TWO tablespoons of baking powder and 4 egg whites in this stuff. And, yes, as a result, these are major league fluffy. Fluffy clouds of pancake. The trick is cooking them slow.
Preheat the largest decent skillet or griddle you have over medium-low heat. Add a pat of butter and drop the batter in – about 1/3 c. per pancake. Cooking time will vary, but you’re shooting for a minute and half on the first side, about a minute on the other. Adjust heat to accommodate. Stash finished pancakes in a warm oven as you work through batches.

I like these with Bowl 4: Berries and a little powdered sugar. If you don't do the berries, these are also mighty tasty with maple syrup.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Unexpected Favorite: Elizabeth Street Cafe

I didn't want to love Elizabeth Street Cafe. I thought that it would be too corporate, too precisely choreographed, too highly designed to be really good. I was wrong. Elizabeth Street is a little slicker than most homegrown places, but it is nevertheless staffed with people who love what they do, a menu that is innovative and beautifully executed, and a space that takes your breath away.

First things first, Elizabeth Street is gorgeous. Every time you round a corner, the color and space and light leaps out at you - I'm not sure exactly where it transports you - colonial French Vietnam maybe? - but it definitely transports you somewhere beautiful. On nice days, the outside seats are particularly amazing, with plenty of shade and the ultra chic elegance of the restaurant against the backdrop of South First.

A caveat here: I've been to Elizabeth Street Cafe many times, but it's always been for breakfast. It's when the days are the most mild, when the quiet simplicity of the place is most pronounced. I am sure that the vibe is no less interesting, the food no less delicious if you were to go in the evening, but that'll have to be a follow up for me.

For breakfast, Elizabeth rocks. I've been through the full set of breakfast Bahn Mi - combinations of crispy pork belly and fried eggs with avocado and mint; ginger sausage and scrambled eggs; egg white and chili. The baguette these are each served on is crusty and airy with a perfect bite. The presentation is perfect. Even better is the ginger sausage with poached eggs, sticky rice and touches of thinly sliced radishes and cilantro. The richness of the egg yolk connects to the subtle sweetness of the rice and is brightened by the ginger and radishes.

The coffee is Stumptown, and while the espresso drinks aren't really at the level they could be (the milk is frothed to dish soap bubble consistency), coffee in both American and Vietnamese styles is quite good. Pastries are made next door, and are a mystifying combination of absolute bliss and curious short cuts. This is nowhere more apparent than with the almond croissant. A million buttery layers and a perfect crisp, but sliced through the middle and infused with a sort of almond-extract butter. Not the most elegant approach.

These are small weak spots, and they give just enough humanity to Elizabeth Street to make it's slickness seem organic, just enough to make the entire experience of breakfast there one of the loveliest in town.

Elizabeth Street Cafe on Urbanspoon

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Koffee Kup Keeps it Real

Through a series of fortunate events, my wife Tracy and I recently got a morning free together in San Antonio. Though the Koffee Kup may not be a typical spot for a romantic interlude, it was just about perfect for our little getaway.

The Koffee Kup is far off the beaten path, in West San Antonio, about a 15 minute drive from downtown. It's a quirky little greek-columned storefront sandwiched between nondescript stores, in a mildly dingy stretch of 1970s stripmalls.

That said, after years of upscale and self-conciously ironic comfort food in Austin, it was a little bit of a relief to step foot in an actual functioning greasy spoon. The place is tiny - a small patio out back and maybe 10 tables in front, with a shockingly tiny open kitchen, and the register off to the side. The linoleum floors, the wood-pattern veneer tables, the simple wooden chairs, all standard issue diner basics, a little worn around the edges, but clean and cheery.

The Kup pulls away from the everyday almost immediately. Warm, friendly, smiling waitresses bustle everywhere - like you've been a once-a-day regular for years even though it's the first time you step through the door.

We ended up taking a table out on the patio under brightly colored umbrellas in the slight breeze of the morning. Over sips of drinkable coffee, we settled on splitting a Cowboy Breakfast - eggs, biscuits, gravy, sausage - and waffles. It was an enormous amount of food. The sausage gravy was intensely fresh, peppery and lighter in texture and taste than the slop that passes for cream gravy most places. The biscuits, fresh out of the oven. The sausage had a nice bright flavor and easy crumble. The details across the board were impressive, from the frequent coffee refills to the perfect crisp of the waffle. Everything that the Koffee Kup made, they made very well. Low spots were the bits they didn't make themselves - the bacon wasn't particularly impressive and the syrup, as one would have expected, was the corn syrup goo that passes for maple most everywhere. Side note: seriously considering traveling with a flask of maple syrup to avoid this in the future.

It was a place that was extraordinary in it's ordinariness. There was no attempt to make anything not made a thousand other diners across the country, but every chance they had to make it well, the Koffee Kup delivered. Crowded, but without a wait, the Koffee Kup was full of happiness and pride - a place you can imagine had stood in that spot for generations (even though it just opened in 2009). Gems like this exist hidden in cities all over the country, I'm glad we managed to find this one.

Koffee Kup Pancake House on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Miles Above the Curve - Fork in the Road

Fork in the Road, or FitR, as they call themselves, approaches food in ways no other place in Lansing can touch. Locally grown produce, house-cured bacon, pasture-raised eggs, world-class coffee. These are details you just can't get anywhere else in these parts - at least not until you hit Ann Arbor or Grand Rapids.

The menu is small - mostly made up of comfort-food favorites, done up fancy and built by hand. They have tots, but they are not what you think they are. These are house-made, grated potato infused with sundried tomato, basil, garlic and a hickory smoked cheese - so while the presentation recalls tater tots, the taste is a million times bigger. The fried chicken is exceptionally tender, with interesting spikes of heat, tartness and sweetness from the drizzled sauces and honey. Grits are gorgeously textured and oozing with sharp cheese. The veggie tacos are a stunning balance of tartness from little sections of lime and tomatillo, earthiness from carmelized onion, substance from the fresh house-made flour tortillas, and creaminess from the queso fresco. This is a taco that would work anywhere - that would be a standout in Austin - to find it here is a happy moment indeed. Desserts (especially the pots de creme and the bread pudding) are great, and the coffee is on a different planet from the chains that dominate here. Serious eating opportunities.

Fried Berry Pie, Fried Chicken, Tater Tots, Bread Pudding
The menu also has a few duds - the chili is passable, but too sweet and bland; and the Ballin' Ass Tacos are a one-note drone compared to the orchestra of the veggie version - chorizo is very tough to get right, and in these tacos, it overwhelms everything around it, including the outstanding homemade tortillas.

The place itself is slowly transforming from a neglected storefront to an urban garden oasis, with a fantastic mural splayed across the wall, and tomato plants and herbs growing in every sqaure inch of available dirt. The interior is straight up diner - not modern diner, not fancy diner - just diner, but it's cozy and clean and a perfect backdrop for the surprising sophistication of the food.

Being this far above the local curve has it's pitfalls - it's easy to let things slide a bit when no one is a close second. A year into its life, FitR is not immune to occasionally dialing it in. I've visited when the pork shoulder was too dry, the grits a little underspiced, but I've never been in when it has been anything less than the most food-centric, sustainable, ambitious, creative cuisine for miles and miles in any direction.

Grilled Nectarine (with Pots de Creme), Trout, Tomato and Mural, Grits, More Tomato, Veggie Taco

Fork in the Road on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Henri's Cheese, Wine (and Tables)

I actually thought Henri's existed before it opened. Last fall, my wife and I were taking care of some errands downtown, and we both had the same idea for lunch: a sandwich, but also something completely luscious. Good bread. Really good cheese. Maybe a glass of wine. At the time, I had heard a little bit about Antonelli's and it seemed like just the ticket. So we headed over to Hyde Park, expecting to find a little European bistro with a monumental selection of cheese. What we found was a knee-buckling, awe-inspiring nose-full of pure cheese love to be sure, but there were no tables. No sandwiches. Wine, but no glasses.

Turns out: our perfect little bistro hadn't been born yet. It has now. What we wanted that fall day was Henri's. Pristine and industrial chic, Henri's is built up with weathered wood, exposed stone, concrete and industrial fittings. Simple, multi-paned windows let in a flood of light, but low ceilings and dark woods lend it a cozy feel.

Food options are simple, delicious and limited. It's almost more of a curated collection of food than a restaurant. The wine selection is small, but fabulous. Blue Bottle Coffee is available in individual french press only. Cheeses are beautifully arrayed in a relatively small cooler in front, and they are stunning. The sandwiches are tempting, but I stayed with what looked to me like the core competency - a $10 cheese board - owner's choice. I mention the price for a reason - in an Austin increasingly full of ultra pricey food-centric opportunities I think this may be the best $10 lunch in town.

Everything on my plate - the almonds, the house-made peach mustard, the crusty french baguette - was fantastic; but the standout was the soft goat cheese - Haystack Mountain Snowdrop. Cheese on another scale altogether from almost anything I've had - right on the edge between the fresh bite of a fresh chevre and the sensous goo of a ripe brie. Magic cheese, this was.

It takes a certain amount of bravado to grab the location between Barley Swine and Lick, a certain amount of confidence that you can deliver something extraordinary. Henri's nails it.

Henri's Cheese and Wine on Urbanspoon

Monday, July 16, 2012

Octane at Last. Great Coffee in the ATL.

Waiting three years for a chance to visit, my expectations for Octane were unreasonably high. Last week, after a heated argument with a very confused GPS, I managed to get myself to the newest outpost - in The Jane in the Grant Park neighborhood on the East side of Atlanta. It did not disappoint.

Like so many fantastic coffee places, Octane occupies a reclaimed industrial space with weathered beams, giant factory windows and enormously tall ceilings. All of this history leaves a patina that contrasts beautifully with the shining chrome and porcelain of the coffee gear. The space is shared - about a third belongs to the brilliant A Little Tart bakery, about a third to Octane's coffee operation, and about a third to a well-stocked full bar. Beer. Coffee. Cake. I could be happy here for days.

Coffee is roasted in house, thanks to a recent merger between Octane and Primavera coffee roasters. The outcome is amazing - on par with the coffee coming out of the very best places I've been - with a punchy, citrus-forward espresso, and a good selection of farm-specific pour-over coffees. Frankly, it's getting harder for coffee places to stand out on this basis alone. Everyone has their Strada dialed in. Everywhere has competition-level Baristas pouring gorgeous latte art with local milk. Everyone either scours the world for the perfect coffee bean or has a partnership with someone who does. What I was sipping wasn't the heart stopping moment of that first sip of Handsome Burundi or Cuvee Chachunda, but it was every bit as good as the best of everything else.

So where do you go when you're clearly the best coffee in your town, maybe the best in your State? You go to food. This, for me, was where Octane really shined. The combination with The Little Tart - a bakery focused on finely crafted, traditionally prepared, locally sourced sweets and savories - is nothing short of brilliant. This is where every other coffee place I've been falls short. There's just never a kitchen. Here, in this cavernous warehouse, there is space a plenty, and a subway-tiled commercial kitchen is hanging out behind the coffee churning out buckets of amazing.

I wasn't kidding when I said I could live here happily for a while. The almond cake was simple, fresh and moist, with a delicate crumb; the almond nuanced - an echo more than a flavor. The cakes you find nearly everywhere else - cakes stowed in a cooler, shlepped across town, pre-sliced - simply can not match this. This is what expert cake tastes like when it's born and it is as good a compliment to a rich cup of coffee as you're likely to find.

Octane is beyond a good coffee shop, it's a worth-scheduling-an-extra-long-ATL-layover-coffee-shop. It was worth every minute of the years I spent waiting to find it.

  Octane at the Jane on Urbanspoon

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Erikson's Throwback, All American, Summertime, New England Ice Cream

My sister recently moved from one Boston suburb to another, landing in the sleepy former mill town of Maynard, MA.

Maynard is Norman-Rockwell-charming, all rosy red-brick storefronts populated by pizza places, neighborhood bars, and quaint, scrappy retail. And Erikson's. Erikson's is a mile or so from downtown - a pristine white creamery and ice cream stand smack dab in the middle of a pretty, but modest Victorian-era neighborhood.

This is All-American ice cream through and through, and has been for more than 75 years. Neighborhood families flock here day and night, and even though the gravel parking lot is stuffed with cars, half the people arrive on foot. Despite the crowds and the mind-boggling array of flavors and presentations, there's never much of a wait.7 separate lines and registers cover the building and there's a clock-work of teenage bustle inside. A scattering of picnic tables sit out back under the canopy of immense trees.

The ice cream is made in Erikson's creamery right next door. You want local? How's 15 feet? It's good ice cream - really good in some cases - but it's not the variety that will leave you speechless in ecstasy. Particularly loved the Strawberry, which despite a shock of color not found in nature tasted like it was mixed from farmer's market berries that morning. Vanilla was more sweet cream than vanilla bean, without a lot of zing. But you don't come here because of the killer hot fudge or the mountain of whipped cream on your sundae. You come here because the sun is setting on a long sunny day and there's a breeze rustling the leaves. You come here because the fireflies are out. You come here because it's still light after dinner and nobody's really paying that much attention to bed time. You come here because it's summer, and that's just how it's done.

Erikson's Dairy on Urbanspoon

Monday, July 02, 2012

Sightglass Coffee. Va Va Voom.

Sightglass is breathtakingly, heart-wrenchingly, staggeringly beautiful. 

I don't know if it's the side project of some infinitely wealthy dot com kid, or if they sell a bajillion dollars of coffee every day, but this is a cost-is-no-object shop. The ceiling soars 40 feet above the massive bar, criss-crossed with giant wooden beams. Enormous windows frame the front of the store and combine with expansive skylights to bathe the place in warm light. On the second floor there's what looks like a coffee tasting lab, a little steampunk and completely functional. There's taxidermied owls. There's a good size drum roaster. There are bags and bags of green coffee and roasted coffee, rows of tags on bakers twine, paper-bag brown bags and boxes. And it's not just that all these amazing details come together into a cohesive modern-rustic style - there's also a lot of open space - vast fields of hardwood floors on three levels, right there in the high-rent capital of the universe.

So, that's the first thing you notice when you walk in. Then you catch your breath, and set about ordering yourself some coffee. And mostly it's just about the coffee here. The pastries are delicious, but an afterthought - the teeny tiny pastry case is situated between the iPad/registers, easiest to peruse after you pay.

I ordered a macchiato - it was really good, but not perfect: the milk was not as smoothly textured as it could have been and while the coffee itself was lovely, it was not particularly complex. Ideally, you want a distinct start, middle and finish to the taste in a coffee. Sightglass coffee is good, but there's none of that tartness you get from some coffees on the first sip, none of the woodiness on the finish. Not bad, and certainly not unpleasant, but a little flat. I took home a bag of the Guatemala Cubito, tried several different brewing methods and found the same simplicity relative to what I've been tasting from Counter Culture, Cuvee and Handsome over the last few months. A lovely cup, to be sure, just not dazzling.

So - is Sightglass one of the best on the planet? In some ways, absolutely. I have a hard time imagining a sexier location for coffee. But in other ways, it doesn't reach the etherial, constant perfection you see from the very best places that do this. It's a relatively new entrant, and they are very very good. I don't doubt that they may well evolve into something mind-blowing, but for now, the big draw is the view.

Sightglass Coffee on Urbanspoon

Monday, June 25, 2012

Fresa's - the Food Truck Without Wheels

Austin's food truck boom is the stuff of legend. Trucks sprout like weeds in vacant lots, surrounded at all hours by picnic tables, bicycles and mustachioed men in hats. In an effort to differentiate themselves in a crowded market, these places have taken on more and more ambitious cuisine. Lobster bisque, roasted tomato buffalo mozzarella caprese, and sous-vide pork belly all now come on wheels.

At the same time, Fresa's has been working the reverse angle. Fresa's, the newest outpost of the McGuire Moorman empire, is taking food that was born to be mobile - Mexico City style corn, chicken tortas, tortillas, agua fresca - and putting it inside a very solid building.

Fresa's is housed in the space formerly occupied by Emerald City Coffee Press on North Lamar between 9th and 10th. It's an awkward mid-century building, taller than it should be, with a massive overhang on one side, and a flat expanse of brick facade. Fresa's made it beautiful. A few raw wood accents, plenty of bright colors, beautiful typography, the best neon chicken sign in Austin; this place looks like it was born to be here. In truth, the lovely space is a mixed blessing, because as beautiful as it is, there's no way to spend any time there. A few stools work while you're waiting for your order at the counter, but that's it. No tables inside or out.

We opted for the closest picnic table we could think of, a quick drive away at 9th Street in Clarksville. It was a bit of an ordeal for lunch, but we were rewarded with very tasty goodies when we laid out the spread on the table. Tortas were a brilliant combination of creamy queso fresco, avocado, savory ancho-marinated pulled chicken and super fresh lettuce and tomato. Chips were well-seasoned, a little thicker than I would have liked, but were redeemed by a totally legit, slightly spicy, full on tex-mex queso. Corn was charred and slathered in mayo (sounds odd, I know), lime, salt and chili - a highlight for all of us. The horchata auga fresca was fragrant and lovely. In all, it was a formidable and tasty, if also pricey, lunch - well made, compellingly tasty, a solid step up from similar fare up the street at Zocalo.

I mention Zocalo for a reason there. Fresa's is an excellent place - no question about it - but it is so high-concept and so limited in what it does, that despite the better flavors at Fresa's, my next trip for some moderately healthy mexican-inspired goodness is likely to be Zocalo. I'd like a place to sit, something I can easily feed my kids, a couple more options on the menu. But that's just me - I'm hopeful that there are enough folks in Fresa's urban professional downtown-dwelling target market to make this place a success. I would hate to lose that neon chicken.

Special thanks to FairMorningBlue for help with the photos.

  Fresa's Chicken al Carbon on Urbanspoon

Monday, June 18, 2012

Lick Is King

Sometime over the last few years, someone doused the smoldering Austin food scene with gasoline. One after another, new places opened that set a new standard for long-stagnant categories. BBQ got upended by Franklin. Sweets got a new queen in Sugar Mamas. Uchi  lapped every other Sushi joint in the state. Medici made us forget that anyone else ever poured a latte. And now: Ice Cream. Lick simply eclipses anything else you can get in a cone.

I know this will rankle. I know that there are ice cream loyalties in this town that run deep. Please don't egg my car. I'm just calling it like I see it.

Lick is nestled in a compact storefront right next to Henri's and Barley Swine. This is a legit parking lot. A few benches out front and a couple of stools in a corner inside are the extent of the formal seating, but people make do - backs against posts, sitting on curbs, leaning on their single-speed bikes. Inside, the tiny space is pretty, but sparse, dominated by about 15 feet of ice cream under glass and a monumental, bright red, um, tongue, I think. Flavors are listed on large-size note cards tacked up on the bulletin board.

And that's where things get interesting. Grapefruit Ginger. Hill Country Honey Vanilla Bean. Strawberry Basil. Cilantro Lime. Beets and Mint. Salted Caramel. It's not Iron-Chef-Octopus-Eyeball-Ice-Cream-Weird, but it's also not a menu board you're going to mistake for Baskin Robbins. Dealing with savory elements is a tricky business, and Lick manages it beautifully, nearly all the time. The Grapefruit Ginger is pure summer - juicy, with a little pucker of sour flavor hidden inside folds of cream and sweet. The caramel and chocolate are the most intense of either flavor I've ever tasted in an ice cream. Chocolate ice cream usually comes with a chalky, powdery edge - I avoid it whenever possible. But here, the chocolate tastes like a cold, creamy ganache - elegant and pristine.

It's brilliant, but it's not perfect. There are creamier ice creams, and the scoops set about melting more quickly than others. Occasionally, as the flavors of the generally-local ingredients shift, the flavors in the ice creams shift as well. I've had strawberry basil so good it made my toes curl, and I've had the same ice cream where the basil was too forward, leaving the strawberry as an afterthought. It's the reality of pushing limits though, and the reality of working with powerful, flavorful, real, ingredients. A little inconsistency is OK by me.

Lick is the Franklin, the Sugar Mamas, the Uchi, the Medici of Ice Cream. It changes the dessert landscape in this town. Thanks for showing up, Lick, we've been waiting for you.

Lick - Honest Ice Creams on Urbanspoon

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Simple Pleasures: Blue Dahlia

Blue Dahlia exudes charm, from the battered wooden sign on the sidewalk out front to the enclosed arbor patio at the back. An early entrant into the East 6th renaissance, Blue Dahlia has built a compelling mix of simple, French-inspired dishes, heavily reliant on seasonal local produce. A second location is set to launch in Westlake on June 8, 2012 (just a few days from now) and I think the approach that keeps it so packed on the East Side will work well on the West Side, too.

The small indoor space is dominated by two massive community tables made from giant polished slabs of warm, gnarled wood. Smaller tables are fit close together, and a long counter supports shelves covered in loaves of fresh bread. It's a tight squeeze, but thanks to the focused, attentive, and generally fabulous staff it never feels chaotic; more well-managed bustle.

The menu is varied, with a handful items loosely bucketed into breakfast items, beautiful open faced sandwiches, salads, and a sweet selection of inexpensive dinner entrees.

Everything's good, but the basic rule for me so far: the less ambitious the dish, the more fantastic it is. It's not that these folks don't turn out pretty impressive stuff - it's just that the most inspired flavor comes from the core elements they work with. As an example - the tomato gazpacho, basically a coursely chopped mix of a Johnson's Backyard Garden basket is far more impressive than the cream-based white gazpacho, a more finessed mix of cream and cucumbers that doesn't really come together.

Likewise for the entrees - where Blue Dahlia lets the vegetables speak for themselves, it's a thing of beauty - the ratatouille is tangy and deeply satisfying, but the bed of Israeli cous cous and mixed greens, and the shaved Parmesan on top felt like afterthoughts. In the case of the greens, a pretty distant afterthought - lovely little sprigs of baby romaine wilted into squish against the heat of the vegetables. I would have been happier eating that ratutouille in a simple bowl with a chunk of crusty french bread to mop up the amazing flavor.

The tartines I've tried have been more consistent - goat cheese and tapenande is simple and on point, served on a rustic slate board on slightly spongy, wonderfully dense whole wheat bread with a bright shock of roasted red pepper. The combination of astringent and creamy in that sandwich is brilliant, as it is in the savory chicken salad.

Blue Dahlia is many things. It is beautiful. It is welcoming. It is phenomenally well staffed. Food here is made with love, and made with some of the best ingredients I've seen in a town stuffed with farm-to-market eateries. But for all that I love about Blue Dahlia, it's not a place where food is deeply transformed - there's nothing fussy, nothing genius about it. It's a place to go to enjoy a glass of wine and a slate of artisanal cheese, on a patio that is bearable even in the heat, exactly the breezy neighborhood restaurant you wish would open up down the street from you.

Blue Dahlia Bistro on Urbanspoon

Thursday, May 24, 2012

A Houndstooth Cupping

A month or so ago, out of the blue, I got an email from Jodi Bart asking if I wanted to partner up with Houndstooth to host a coffee cupping for Austin Food Blogger Alliance members. It was difficult to respond with appropriate decorum. Did I want to take Cindy Crawford to my middle school prom? HELL YES I WANT TO PARTNER UP WITH HOUNDSTOOTH FOR A CUPPING EVENT.

So I did. And it was unreasonably, awesomely, fantastically, fun.

Sunday night at 6:00, about 20 of us filtered in and took seats around the shop, scanning the room, trying to connect actual faces to twitter profile pics and profile pics to blogs. On the counter, there were apples; as Sean's brother Paul ground coffee for the cupping, we tasted them. At first, they tasted like... apples. And when we tried to describe the tastes to each other, a lot of us found ourselves coming up blank, going back for second tries. Soon, we started to isolate textures, and sweetness, and citrus flavors, and the bitterness of peel. And then we were ready.

The first step in the cupping is fragrance. This is the part where you stick your nose into a juice glass with a couple of tablespoons of fresh ground coffee at the bottom and inhale. It was a little embarrassing to be in public with one's nose quite so deep in a glass, but it was all so intoxicating that I stopped caring by the time I got to the Burundi. There were blueberry and cherry scents, notes of balsa wood, pepper, chili, almonds. And the fragrance shifted, as the coffee sat, even over a few minutes.

We compared notes, and then shifted from fragrance, when the beans were dry, to the more difficult task of aroma, which is what a coffee smells like when it's wet. It's much harder to get a sense for the aromas here, so there's a whole process of "breaking the crust" when going in for the aroma notes, involving a back and forth and book swish of a spoon after the hot water was poured over the grounds. Sean sort of nailed it on this one when he said mostly it'll just smell hot.

At this point, we were all revved up and ready to get tasting, and Sean gave us a good demo there too. To taste, you slurp. Full on, snooty wine style, slurp. It makes a floppy wet sound sound, kind of like an air zerbert. I no longer felt like the fragrance was the embarrassing part of the event. But the reward for the slurp was the tastes that came flooding in from these coffees. The Mad Cap Gishamwana Rwanda started with flash of sharp almost lemon flavor and the sunk into a silky resonating chocolate. The Gatare Burundi, from Handsome in LA, had a smoother flavor, woody and full bodied, without more subtle changes from start to middle to end. We got almonds from the Finca Nueva Armenia Guatemala, butter from the El Gavilan Ecuador, and a big fat blueberry pie from the Peru all from Counter Culture. Standing around each coffee in little clusters, we'd slurp and compare notes - someone said wood, and someone else said wet wood, and someone else connected that with popsicle stick, and as subjective as this process is, a description resonated, and we could all taste it.

Popular vote was a close run between the Burundi and the Rawanda, but the Rawanda eeked out the victory (sorry Maggie), and Paul set about brewing us all cups of it using a few of the shop's Clevers. We sipped, and sighed, and caught up with each other a bit before packing up our cameras and note pads and heading back out into the warm night and home.

We are novices - most of us anyway - and we have a lot more to learn. We focused on 3 of the dimensions in a real cupping - fragrance, aroma, and flavor. There's acidity to consider next time, and body, aftertaste, and balance. And the entire SCAA flavor wheel to master. So thank you once again Sean and Houndstooth for having us, and Jodi, who I think is now officially my coffee addiction enabler. Can't wait until next time.

Looking for more cupping action? Mike Galante and Farmstress Maggie, a couple of my AFBA compatriots already have posts on the event up as well:


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