Thursday, December 06, 2012

Texas Thanksgiving

Since Susannah’s Dad Shack passed away in the summer of 2010 we started a tradition of spending Thanksgiving in Austin with Susannah’s mom Brenda and her brother Michaux.  Shack and Brenda’s anniversary is around that time of year, and the first year at least we wanted to stay close while emotions were still raw.

Turns out that Austin is a pretty cool place to spend the holidays, and after Michaux put in a pool this year, we extended our visit to almost a week.  Our kids only see their cousin a few times a year, and they get giddy the week before.

We arrived late morning on Monday after an early 4:30 am wake up call in RVA.  But it was worth it as we sucked down our first few margaritas before even arriving home.  One of my favorite tastes of Texas. More on that later. Spent the afternoon lounging poolside with beer in hand, except for  quick trip to “STUFFED  an artisanal sausage shop where we provisioned for dinner.   After such an early day none of us made it much past 10. 

On Tuesday  morning Michaus and I went to the local gas station Rudy’s to buy breakfast tacos for everyone.  Then we spent a few hours working at a local service center in Round Hill; I stocked the shelves of a food pantry while Susannah helped folks shop and the kids sorted clothing.  It was a nice way to do some volunteering together and get a view into a different slice of Texas life.

We drove out west for dinner past Dripping Springs to Driftwood for some of Texas’ most famous BBQ.  An institution for years, The Salt Lick draws crowds from  near and far to their BBQ pit where piles of ribs, sausages and brisket play games with your senses.   

The weather was stellar all week and while the girls shopped, Michaux and I took the kids out into the back country to Pedernales Falls State Park- a scrubby rocky landscape that looks almost lunar at times. Did some hiking and rock hopping for a while on a beautiful day. 

Drove back into town and spent some time in the SOCA neighborhood- kids in a candy store ( yes I did buy them $50 worth of candy)  and dad at Torchy’s Taco Truck for a green chili pork bundle of joy.

Dinner brought us back downtown for a delicious Italian meal at Vespaio- lamb tarttare and saltimbocca satisfied my carnivorous cravings. The girl;s called it an early night while Michaux and I went to Antone’s for Austin’s annual Last Waltz show- 36 years after the original concert, some  of Austin’s best local talent gathered for a fun night of re-enactment, song for song, of the seminal concert. From Bob Dylan and Robbie Robertson to Neil Young, Joni Mitchell. and Neil Diamond, they didn’t miss a beat.

Lamb Tartare


Thanksgiving was a relaxing do nothing day- pool, walk, lunch at the UT Golf Club, more relaxing, a little football. While it was a perfectly fine Thanksgiving meal, part of me missed the comraderie of a kitchen filled with bubbling pots and smells wafting all day long.  Did not miss the dishes though.

Spent our last day in Austin just hanging about the pool reading,   We left for the airport a few hours early to do some last minute shopping ( not Black Friday focused…. More thrift store).  Had a fantastic lunch at Polvos in South Austin. It was the most authentic Mexican I have had in a while with tasty smoky salsa. Spicy pickled vegetables and fajitas studded with pecans, pumpkin seeds, and raisins.

Hand-rolled tortillas


Friday, November 23, 2012

Belmont Food Shop

On the evening before heading out to Austin on our annual Thanksgiving trip, my mother-in-law Brenda took us out to dinner. The boys had worked themselves into a pre-trip frenzy, and we needed a break.

We had planned to check out the new offering from EAT,  The Fat Dragon but alas, and luckily for us, they were closed.   We headed over to the Museum District to check out The Belmont Food Shop.  I've chatted with several "foodie" friends who claimed it was one of the best meals they had eaten in Richmond for the past year.  

From the moment I walked in the door, I fell in love with the atmosphere- soft lights, 20's-30's music, distressed wood. It felt comfortable, with a touch of nostalgia.  We sat at a window table with a view of a quiet Sunday night street.

Brenda ordered her usual "Vodka Tonic", but it was made special with homemade tonic, pinkish, and sharper.  Even the ice cubes take us back, chopped off a block, irregular.

The prix-fixe is one of the best deals in town- Appetizer, entree and dessert for $30.  

Started with a duck confit salad - crispy on the outside, tender and moist on the inside, served over a bed of well dressed greens.

Susannah and her mom  each had a simple green salad, elegant in presentation with fresh greens sourced from Manikantowne.


Rockfish was perfectly cooked and served over an earthy parsnip puree and roasted leeks.

Peanut butter and grape jelly is an iconic childhood meal.  The grape used for the jelly the Concord, a relatively recent variety, not grown in the US until the mid 19th c.  Chef Mike Yavorsky, CIA grad and owner of The Belmont Food Shop, magically transforms the Concord Grape into a subtle multi-layered panna cotta, each strata with a different mix of grape and cream. Lovely.

Yavorksy spent a few minutes chatting with us, excited about his relatively new venture. He buys locally as much as possible, but shares the challenges he faces in preparing affordable meals. He is very purposeful and thoughtful in buying off cuts of meat when he can and his changing menu reflects his process.   

I look forward to going back as the seasons change and see what surprises he has up his sleeve. He is clearly passionate about what he does, and I hope that he succeeds in his new venture. I plan to do what I can to help in that process. 

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Connecticut Homecoming

I had the chance to travel north to Connecticut this week for a 2 day work trip. I flew into White Plains, NY on Sunday afternoon and visited some old friends of the family that I grew up with.  I was tired after a day of travel and admittedly was not excited about eating at the Marriott where I was staying, but was too lazy to seek dinner elsewhere.

I was pleasantly surprised when I looked at the menu to see a statement that they "proudly serve a large array of local artisan products"... " we believe in all natural products..."  and " we try to embrace the idea of localism."   This isn't your parent's Marriott anymore.  It's nice to see national chains embracing the local movement.   I had a nice meal - grilled Caesar salad with fresh anchovies and a filet of sole with roasted cauliflower and marcona almonds.

On my second night, after an 8 hour IT audit, I went back to my old neighborhood, and parked in front of the house I grew up in and loved for 15 years- it was strange to be back on the old block. As I got out of the car one of the owners was coming out of the house and invited me in for a tour. The house had changed a lot, but little details stood out- the tile floor of the foyer that my mom and I put down in the late 70s still looked good, and my bedroom looked familiar, at least its shape.

I also stopped by one of my favorite neighbors' house, John Dinely, a retired AA pilot, a real salt of the earth guy. We shared a few drinks and many stories about the neighborhood.

I said my goodbyes and headed south to Westport. I had heard that Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich had opened a Connecticut outpost next to the Saugutuck River,  Tarry Lodge.

I sat at the bar that looked over the pizza guy, slinging beautiful discs of dough into a 900 degree wood fired oven.  

I started with a rich Egg Yolk Raviolo, topped with a creamy rich sauce studded with chanterelles and truffle.  One rarely hears Ravioli in their singular form, but the size of this starter made one the perfect number.  It was perfectly cooked, so when a fork broke through the tender pasta, the egg yolk escaped and mixed into the sauce.

With 14 pizzas to choose from, with a combination of toppings ranging from clams and rapini to burrata and artichokes. I decided to stick with my mushroom and egg theme and chose a pizza with guanciale and black truffles with an egg on top.  The saltiness of the guanciale was a nice complement to the earthy truffles. 

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Carolinas on My Mind

For the past few years, when the leaves have started to turn, my wife Susannah and I escape for a few days without kids, without much of a schedule,  usually guided only by a series of dinner reservations.  Last year we enjoyed the hospitality of Charleston and the culinary prowess of  Sean Brock at Husk and McCrady's  as well as other standouts like Jestine's  Kitchen and  Ken Vedrinski’s  Trattoria Lucca.

 Eating Local At Husk

This year we chose Asheville as our getaway.  We made a pit stop in Chapel Hill for the night, spending some time at the food mecca Southern Seasons , a foodie paradise with a great selection of fresh and packaged goods.

I was impressed by the selection of hot sauces but disappointed  that Kim Kim was not part of the selection. It's become one of my go-to sauces.

Orecchiette ready for Easter Dinner

After some vintage shopping at Time After Time, where Susannah scored some cowboy boots and a leopard jacket, we had some cocktails before heading to dinner.  Some friends had recommended  Acme Food & Beverage Company  in Carborro, a long standing regional favorite that is still getting accolades after a dozen years, most recently in a 2011 issue of Garden and Gun.   Known for their local sourcing and inventive menus, they did not disappoint.

We lucked out with a visit on "Tightwad Tuesday" where all entrees are an exceptionally affordable $12.95.  I took the opportunity to order some extra treats. I started with  a spicy
Jerk Pork Belly, served over mashed plantains with a hot pepper jelly- local pork broiled crispy with just enough heat, tempered by the sweet plantains. 

I decided to stay in the PIG family with my main course, a grilled local pork chop with sides of bourbon mashed sweet potatoes, Southern collard greens, and wild pear chutney. Perfectly cooked and juicy, the dish was a great combination of savory and sweet.

The dessert was without a doubt one of my top ten...  Acme dark chocolate terrine with a coffee-caramel sauce and fresh whipped cream.

Happy Susannah in sugar coma

After sleeping in, a luxury not often afforded amidst the chaos at home, we set off for the mountains and Asheville. As we headed west, and especially once we gained some altitude, the colors of Fall shared their beauty.   Asheville has a sweet downtown, with beautiful architecture and a collection of locally owned businesses, including many eco-friendly boutiques and galleries.  

Taking Local Seriously

An inventive use of old books

Sculpting with the power of the sun

We had a late lunch at the famous Tupelo Honey Cafe,  one part traditional southern mixed with a pinch of invention and topped by a sprinkling of hippy crunch.  Enjoyed some local Pisgah Pale Ale, a local organic beer, light and a bit citrusy.

  Our server dropped off a decadent Pimento Cheese dip and homemade corn muffins with local honey. 

When in Rome.... Had to try the Appalachian Egg Rolls- pulled pork tossed in smoked jalapeño BBQ sauce rolled with braised greens, pickled onions, and shredded carrots, and served with Dijon and smoked jalapeño BBQ dipping sauces- a nice riff on a familiar dish.

After a lazy afternoon and a pre-concert nap, we headed back out to town for a lovely dinner at  Limones,  a small restaurant tucked on a side street, serving an interesting mix of upscale  Cal/Mex cuisine.

Started the evening with a Margarita Caliente, a blend of Pepe Lopez Tequila, fresh orange and lime juice, a hint of berry and a liberal bit of habanero peppers. Sweet and hot and refreshing.

Decided on a series of small plates for dinner- I often feel that's where a chef truly shines.

Seared scallops with fresh figs and white asparagus

Rabbit Sausage with Truffled Mac & Cheese

Rockfish Ceviche

After dinner we wandered down Biltmore Avenue to the famous Orange Peel Social Aid and Pleasure Club  to see The Punch Brothers , with Chris Thile fresh from his recent Macarthur Award.  They were great, the venue was great, the crowd was great- thinking i might have a crush on Asheville-  sorry RVA.

After a great show I hooked up with my friend Nan for a beer. We met at a Slow Food conference in Louisville last spring and she runs the Asheville chapter.

Nothing like a midweek trip without the kids to make you forget what day it is. Not that it really mattered anyway.   Some friends had tipped us off on the best breakfast spot in Asheville, The Sunny Point Cafe .  Their house specialty is Huevos Rancheros, one of my favorite breakfast treats. In fact, when my kids were younger I took them to Kuba Kuba in Richmond almost every Saturday morning, so often in fact that Manny Mendez fondly became  Uncle Manny.  The Huevos at Sunny Point are fantastic, not better, but different than Kuba Kuba's.  Less cuban, and more mountain, the Sunny Point variety come with savory black bean cakes served with local Snow Creek chorizo sausage, feta cheese, roasted tomatilla salsa and herb tossesd red skin spuds, topped with two eggs, cilantro creme and crispy tortilla strips.

The Sunny Point garden, where they grow much off what they serve.

The weather was nice in Asheville, so we decided to pack a picnic and head up onto the Blue Ridge Parkway and go for a hike around Craggy Meadows.

As we headed up the mountain, the weather got increasingly dodgy, and was a total fog out by the time we got to Craggy Meadows- we took a short hike through the foggy forest and  decided to spend the rest of the day in Asheville.

Had a drink at the Grove Park Inn in front of the enormous fireplace.  It's a well situated resort on the side of a mountain with beautiful views.

We hooked up with a dear old friend "Spence" in West Asheville, and went to a few art openings.

Indian Summer
Henry McKenna 10 Yr Bourbon, lemon juice, Caravella Limoncello
Amish Apricot Jam, and local sage

Had a great dinner at  The Admiral , a buzz worthy spot and aptly self described as having

With the feel of a dive bar, the food they send out of their open kitchen belies the atmosphere.  It reminded me a bit of Richmond's Mamma Zu.

Buttermilk Fried Frog Legs were served with a Hotyaki sauce and Smoky Blue Cheese dip
...crispy, moist and tender

HNG Beef Tenderloin Tartare

Beautifully presented on a cutting board, this local beef was served with a quail egg, Cahills Porter, and Roasted Garlic Aoli.  Fresh beef studded with capers.  wow. 

With home beckoning we spent our last day at The Biltmore-  America's biggest house, built by George Vanderbilt in the 1890's.

The stonework was impressive with gargoyles staring out onto the gorgeous grounds designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the father of American landscape architecture.