Monday, June 22, 2015

Strip-Mall Upstate Indian Joint Far Exceeds Expectations: Karavalli

Today was a long travel day, with an awkward lunchtime in the food desert that is Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson Terminal B. So, the moment we landed, my phone was out, and I was scrolling through Zomato looking for a place to get some dinner.

Karavalli showed a high ranking for what looked like run of the mill strip mall Indian place on the edge of town. The web site did not increase my confidence. I went for it anyway, and I'm glad I did.

The space is pretty, modest and spotlessly clean - sky blue walls and a darker blue ceiling giving it a bit more of a cozy feeling than it could otherwise have, but this is not a space transformed. Chef? Yes. Interior Design Firm? Not so much. Local awards line one wall, and a grid of tightly packed tables - about 20 altogether- take up the center.

The menu is enormous and tends more toward Southern Indian dishes than I am used to seeing - they are known for their dosas, and I will personally attest to the awesomeness of their iddli.

I didn't go in intending to make a post. I didn't even bring my camera. But the way the meal rolled was just so memorable, and so on point, it seemed a waste not to say something about it.

Starting with iddli. I haven't had these for years. So many years that when they came out, I didn't actually remember how to eat them (thank you Google for telling me, and thank you restaurant for being crowded enough to hide the shame of me looking up how to eat my food online). The rice cakes were soft and mild, with just a tiny tang, and they sopped up the flavor from the chutney and the sambar beautifully. Passing along the benefit of my research for others - the key to eating iddli is to break off a piece and dip it in to the sauce of your choosing. Apparently it's pretty gauche to eat it with fork. I ate it with a fork anyway.

Naan and Chicken Mali Kabob followed. Both were spectacular. The kabob is served fajita style (yes, I live in Austin, sorry food world, that's just how I see it), sizzling on a cast iron dish with onions and lemon. Each piece was tender, seared and charred just at the corners. Those corners, with the onion, also a little charred, and the lemon. Oh man. It was chicken done right.

Naan was loftier and richer than any I've had recently, heavy on the butter, which is not a bad thing at all. There were also lentils - delish - and rice - which I have to admit, I just couldn't bring myself to touch. I've got nothing against rice, but there was just too much delicious going on to add something bland.

I walked into a relatively empty Kavallali at about 6. When I left, an hour later, the place was abuzz - more than half the tables full on a Monday evening, the servers efficient and crisp, the place loud but not overpowering. It was a place that would have exceeded even high expectations, made even more magical for it's appearance at the end of a day spent on airplanes.

Click to add a blog post for Karavalli, Regional Cuisine Of India on Zomato

Monday, May 25, 2015

Lunch Counter Reinvented in Raleigh: Poole's

Poole's is a loud joint. It's not easy to find, not great for kids not easy to manage for big groups. It's not fancy - countertops in weathered formica, menus on chalk boards on the wall.

What it is is fabulous.

The menus are in chalk because they are constantly in flux, new items pop up as the produce of the day comes in. The worn formica sits on top of of a classic mid-century lunch-counter double horseshoe, like the Camillia in New Orleans.


Fried Green Tomatos
This is a place imagined by someone who loves food, loves Raleigh, and who has found a way to breathe life into this lost place on the edge of downtown.  Freshness comes through front and center on the menu. Seasonings are minimal and on point - lemon and olive oil on perfectly fresh bibb lettuce; cornmeal on intensely juicy quarters of fried green tomato. Everything is bright and crisp - more green tomato and less fried. In more complex dishes, Poole's shows a deft hand with balance and flavor. The roasted pork belly had a soft bite that was rich without the chewy fat that often comes across when places swap out pork belly for bacon to spruce up a menu.

Pork Belly over Lentil Stew

Ashley Christensen - the woman behind this place and a handful of others in the Research Triangle won the James Beard award for best chef in the Southeast in 2014. Poole's is good enough to be successful in any market anywhere, but it is connected at its roots to the place where it lives.
Poole's Downtown Diner on Urbanspoon

Saturday, April 25, 2015

St. Philip: Doing Everything Well

I’ve been to St. Philip for date nights with my wife, for dinner with the kids, for a happy hour snack on the patio, even for a quick lunch. They do everything well - the place is beautiful, the food consistent and delicious, the service phenomenal. Even waiting for a table on the cleverly designed patio is a treat. The entire space is light, airy and open - modern and trendy but in a  friendly, accessible way. Years ago, this place was a plant nursery, and in St. Philip a little of that feel comes through.

Pizza is what this place is about, and pizzas are awfully good. My favorite from the early days - lox and capers - is sadly no longer on the menu, but the remaining pizzas, if a little more predicatable are still worth the trip. Standouts are the fennel sausage and the meatball pies, both of which are rich and savory, bringing out the best in the simple tomato sauce. Both are improved with the addition of field greens, the one major option for pizzas on the menu.

As good as they are, pizzas are not the best thing they do. Golden Cauliflower, over tangy yogurt with raisins and pumpkin seeds is a revelation and always flawless. The chicken and funnel cake is everything chicken and waffles wishes it could be - unflinching in the combination of sweet and savory. The house-made burrata is as soft and silky as any I've ever had. The carrot and avocado salad is exceptional with carrots roasted to a soft bite that compliments the crunch of the granola, the bright greens, and the simply dressed avocado. Just about everything on this menu sings.

Golden Cauliflower
Chicken and Funnel Cake

Burrata and Lavash
Carrot and Avocado
The only disappointment for me is the weekend brunch - and it's really only disappointing next to the sky-high standard I'd begun to expect for the place. The house-smoked lox in Smoked Salmon sandwich was lovely, but was overpowered by the amount of herbed cream cheese. The brisket in the Smoked Brisket sandwhich a little too fatty, the Pancetta sliced too thick for the little sandwich I had it on. Smores Waffles and Brulee French Toast however are amazeballs, skirting that lovely line between breakfast and dessert. The brunch menu is evolving even as I write this post. I have no doubt that it'll be better the next time I go.

Exit Through the Bakeshop is the running gag throughout the restaurant and it works - the bakeshop is a clever little addition at the far end of the dining room. The confections in the cases in front of the enormous wood burning oven are both creative and beautiful. Opinions on taste are mixed. I am an apologetic sugar addict, and I find the desserts not always as sweet or flavorful as I'd like. Friends without such a sweet tooth swear by them.

In fourth grade, my teacher assigned us all to come up with an adjective to describe ourselves starting with the same letter as our last name. My classmates were Excellent, Fast, Strong, Perfect. And then it was my turn, and I proudly chose Competent Castro. The teacher looked at me with pity in her eyes; she assured me that just to be competent was not much of a aspiration at all. I tried to explain that to be competent was the best thing you could be, it meant that you could do everything, and that you could do everything well. She was not convinced. If St. Philip was in Grand Rapids, MI in the 80s, I'd have just pointed to the place and said - "this is what I mean."

St. Philip does everything well, and some things extraordinarily well. It is not the best pizza in town, or the best patio, or the most gracious service; but it is the only place I know that is so nearly the best in so many different ways. When I said I wished for competence back all those years ago, this is precisely what I meant.

St Philip on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

24 Hours in Brooklyn

I got to spend a day in Brooklyn this week. Just the one day, and though it was for work, I found myself with enough time to wander off and get my hands on some mighty tasty food.

77 Hoyt St, Brooklyn, NY

I started out the Little Sweet Café, which is, in fact, a little, sweet café. Seats 8, maybe 10 if you’re under 5, as were many of the patrons. This is a Neighborhood Place. Allow me to illustrate:

  1. As we walked in, the man (young, beard, fleece) sitting at the table nearest to the counter was pulling out his wallet to pay. He found he had only a few dollars cash and said to the one-man-show running the place, “hey man, I don’t have any cash – I’ll just pay with a credit card” to which one-man-show replied “nah, don’t worry about, you pay me tomorrow.”
  2. Just after we sat down it started to fill up, which is to say, two moms, kids in tow, came in. They knew each other. That was not the impressive thing. The impressive thing was that one-man-show quickly deposited a slice in of almond brioche in front of the kid at the table next to us saying “it was my last piece – I didn’t want you to go without”

Little Sweet does three things – coffee, pastries, and crepes. Each was good. Not earth shattering, toe curling good, but really solidly legit stuff. I had the almond brioche (the second-to-the-last piece, apparently) and it was light and eggy, sweet without being syrupy. My coworker (both of us beardless and in sport coats, looking very clearly like intruders) had a crepe – simple and hearty, full of fresh veggies and nicely wilted spinach. Flavor in everything was understated and simple. 

The Little Sweet Cafe on Urbanspoon

85 Dean St, Brooklyn, NY

My next stop was at Blue Bottle. I know, I know, Blue Bottle belongs on the West Coast, but I knew they had come in pretty full force to Brooklyn and it was only a few blocks from my hotel. The pour over was amazing – just their house blend, but tons of bright flavor – the paper cup was a drag, but even in the paper notes of cinnamon and balsa wood came through beautifully. The latte (I was getting a little wired by this point, but I had to give it a go) was silky and beautiful, but didn’t have the same oomph as the coffee.

Blue Bottle Coffee on Urbanspoon

409 Fulton St, Brooklyn, NY

Lunch was Shake Shack. Since they’re coming to Austin next month I thought I’d give them a whirl. I had modest expectations. It exceeded them. The burger had a nice crumble to it, the bun was a little sweet and exquisitely squishy, the special sauce (I never get special sauce, but I figured I should do it like it was supposed to be done) was actually amazing. I have no idea what it was, but it was sharp and creamy at the same time and did a great job tying it all together. The fries were OK. On the Austin scale, I put it ahead of Mighty Fine and behind Hop Doddy. Worth a visit, not worth a long wait in line.

Shake Shack on Urbanspoon

298 Atlantic Ave, Brooklyn, NY

Dinner was Sotto Casa. I’m kicking myself for not taking a photo while I was there, but the pictures on the site do not exaggerate. So much like Little Sweet, this was neighborhood through and through, full of kids, and unflinchingly European. There are half a dozen salads and maybe 15 different pizzas. Pizzas are all super thin crust, maybe 14 inches, enough for 2, especially if you get a salad. The food was phenomenal, with kind of clarity of flavor you get from ultra-simple recipes. The salad was arugula dressed with salt, olive oil and lemon. The pizza was eggplant, tomato, fresh mozzarella. It was real food, unadorned, beautiful.

Sottocasa on Urbanspoon

Food in New York is omnipresent. I could have done this routine for a month and had a different cup of coffee each day, a different breakfast, a different little hole in the wall Italian place. I love NY.


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