Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Picnic Memories

Years ago when I was living in Rome in 1990, I took a trip to the south of France with some friends. We were stranded in Aix en Provence during a train strike with nary a franc. We pooled our money for some provisions for an unforgettable picnic in the shadow of Mt Ste Victoire.

A short story that I wrote about it appears in this week's Smithsonian.com.  Picnic Memories

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Historical Fiction

Here's my latest review in this week's Style Weekly !

At Hanover Tavern, the menu is only as good as its execution.

By John G. Haddad

One of the few surviving colonial-era taverns in the United States, Hanover Tavern has played host to George Washington, Lord Cornwallis and the Marquis de Lafayette. It’s also served as the home to the Barksdale Theatre since the 1950s, and is owned by the Hanover Tavern Foundation, which is committed to restoring the tavern and promoting its historic significance. Not many restaurants in the area can claim such longevity. But on two recent visits, it appears to suffer from the age-old historical problem of truth diverging from the written text — in this case, the menu.

My wife and I drive up scenic Route 301 on a cool summer night to Hanover Courthouse. At the tavern, we’re seated by a disinterested hostess in the cool and atmospheric basement next to the pub, in a room that drips with history. Our server is apologetic but it does little to salvage the mood while we wait 45 minutes for our appetizers. The meal begins auspiciously with fried green tomatoes ($6) that wear a heavy fried crust and come with a side of pimento cheese. I’m excited to try the three cheese spoon bread ($7), served with lavender honey. I grew up eating spoon bread, mostly from the recipe of my grandmother’s friend, Mrs. Mercer, in Staunton. At its best it’s a Southern soufflé, a bit like Yorkshire pudding. This version is more akin to runny grits or cornmeal queso. To make matters worse, the aromatic lavender honey clashes with the coarseness and flavor of the cornmeal and cheese. Our long wait is for naught.

A roasted red and golden beet salad ($8) strays from its menu description. Missing are the golden beets, and we must search to find a few morsels of red beets at the bottom of a pile of greens that conspicuously lacks the promised arugula. The dressing bears no resemblance to tarragon-orange vinaigrette.

Entrees don’t improve our evening. Shrimp and grits ($17) are uninspired. While the local grits from Ashland’s Byrd Mill have a nice flavor, they’re cold and congealed. The bevy of small shrimp on top tastes fishy and remains for the most part uneaten, and the sparse sprinkling of Cajun sausage lacks spiciness and does nothing for the dish. The best thing on the plate is a side of fried Brussels sprouts. Susannah’s gnocchi ($16) lean toward the heavy side, and we search for the sautéed seasonal vegetables that the menu describes, finding only asparagus and grape tomatoes swimming in a heavy red tomato sauce.

Of the three choices on the dessert menu ($6), we go with cheesecake and crème brûlée. The cheesecake is dense and sweet but lacks a distinct vanilla flavor. Beneath a crunchy facade the crème brûlée is tired and dry, again missing the promised vanilla.

On a return visit for lunch, we sit in a very different space. The veranda room is upstairs on the enclosed back porch. I sit and watch clouds flit by against a brilliant blue sky. And we wait again, for almost 30 minutes, for our order to be taken. She-crab soup ($4) and a Caesar salad ($6) are average, and the salad’s missing the advertised Parmesan crisps. The Reuben sandwich ($8), however, is outstanding, with tender and juicy house-made corned beef, sauerkraut and Thousand Island dressing. The club sandwich ($7) suffers from its small size, and the garlic aioli and sourdough bread are missing. Potato salad is dressed up with blue cheese and bacon but the unfortunate crunch comes from undercooked potatoes.

History is made up of a series of small events and details that are recorded and remembered. And this is precisely where the Hanover Tavern missteps. From absent ingredients and substitutions to long waits and indifferent service, this tavern must attend to details to sustain success and carry on its centuries-old tradition of hospitality.

Hanover Tavern & Pub ($-$$)

13181 Hanover Courthouse Road
Hanover 23069
Tuesday-Thursday 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
Friday-Saturday 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Sunday 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Brunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
Lunch or pub menu available between lunch and dinner service
handicapped accessible

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Prime Meats

A recent visit to New York found me in Brooklyn with an old friend, Dave, who has a bustling business, One Girl Cookies, in the Boerum Hill neighborhood.  After spending some time with their new baby ( 1 yo) and Dave's  sweet wife Dawn, we wandered down to Carroll Gardens for dinner at Prime Meats, the latest offering from Frank and Frank that was recently awarded 2 stars from the New York Times.

We put our names on the list and went down to Butttermilk Channel for a drink, another bustling Brooklyn eatery relying on local products.

When our cell phone rang a bit over an hour later, we were ready to eat.  We were seated at a communal table on the bar side, and enjoyed chatting with our neighbors who quickly ingratiated themselves by sliding over an almost full bottle of red wine they they could not finish ( It must have been # 2 or 3 judging by their jocularity).

According to Frank and Frank, " Prime Meats is a farm to table restaurant created in the spirit of the inns and dining rooms found in New York at the turn of the century. Prime Meats is influenced by Germanic alpine cuisine and the menu pays tribute to the American artisan movement; featuring local and fresh ingredients, prepared simply and honestly."

We started our meal with a few appetizers- a traditional German pretzel made with malt flour, yeast lye and salt, served with mustard.  It had a nice crispy outside and soft interior, much fresher than the usual street fare.

We contnued with roasted beef marrow, served with slices radish, gremolata ( a tangy conbo of lemon, capers and parsley),  a head of roasted garlic & toast.

Sürkrüt Garnie was outstanding - their version is sausages & meat slow cooked in house lacto-fermented sauerkraut and includes knackwurst, bratwurst, pork belly, calves tongue & potatoes.Although sauerkraut is a traditionally German and Eastern European dish, the French annexation of Alsace and Lorraine following the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 brought this dish to the attention of French chefs and it has since been widely adopted in France.

Enjoying a German style beer

Sauerbraten is outstanding. They cook a Beef brisket that has been brined for 3 days in red wine, vinegar,apples, onions & spices (clove, cinnamon& juniper) then slow braised until fork tender. It is served
with pretzel  dumplings and braised red cabbage.