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I love Food. Cooking it. Eating it. Experiencing it. As a result, that's what this blog has evolved into: A journal of my gastronomical journeys abroad, as well as my culinary creativity at home. I hope you enjoy what I have to say, and I'd love to hear your comments... Cheers!

Monday, July 18, 2011

Giving Fast Food a Good Name

Just as I'm reading a fascinating re-counting of the Greatest Game Ever Played (Colts v Giants, 1958), I discover a new, instant favorite spot to eat when I'm in the Main Line area outside Philly. 
What's the connection?  Why do I mention a football book in a food blog?  Because said restaurant is Gino's, named for Hall of Fame defensive end Gino Marchetti, who played for the Baltimore Colts in that legendary game 50+ years ago, and was an original partner in the business...

Founded in 1957, Gino's was ahead of it's time in many ways.  A predecessor to the likes of the Five Guys budding empire of bringing a higher standard to making fast food fresh, Gino's Burgers and Chicken was also the first fast food chain to "go big," introducing Gino's Giant, a triple-decker of a burger, in 1966.  McDonald's soon followed suit, and the Big Mac was born.

Expansion from Baltimore was necessitated by its growing popularity, and the Gino's brand extended to much of the Atlantic seaboard corridor, including New Jersey and Philadelphia.  But after 20+ years, Gino's disappeared almost as quickly as it won a place in the hearts of its food-loving fan base.  Marriott bought the franchise in the '80s and Gino's was...gone, absorbed into the company's ill-fated Roy Rogers franchise.  The catchy jingle touting, "Everybody Goes to Gino's" was put in mothballs, seemingly retired forever.

Fast forward to 2010.  I'm in King of Prussia, PA.  Almost directly across from the K of P Mall, a small restaurant is open for business.  The name, the sign, the trademark red color looks...familiar.  Nostalgic.  A throwback.  It's Gino's, and, as their advertising exclaims:  "We're Back!"

My first experience with the food puts a smile of instant recognition on my face.  I'd never been to an original Gino's back in the day, but the recognition is that of genuine, unprocessed, simple, and satisfying fast food.  The burgers are griddled to perfection, juicy, and fresh, with a soft sesame seed bun and any toppings you want... free!  The real revelation is the chicken tenders.  They are incredibly flavorful and made to order.  The focus is on the chicken, not the breading (what a concept!).  And Gino's offers a bevy of specialty sauce-dipping options and seasonings (talk about having it your way!).

Even better news:  Gino's is expanding...again.  There are five locations in Pennsylvania and Maryland scheduled to open within the next year.  An American entrepeneurial success story getting a second chance for a new generation.  Good for Gino's.  Good for me.  Good for anyone who doesn't want to feel a pang of shame or guilt about enjoying "fast food" again.

This is far from generic.  This, is Gino's...

Paper Menus & Chalk Boards, Part III: Serenbe

Tucked away in the bucolic Chattahoochee Hills, but just a par-5 away from the bustle of the nation's busiest airport, Serenbe is an oasis southwest of Atlanta created from one couple's desire to restore an old country farmhouse as a getaway for their young family of five.  It just so happens, that young couple was Steve & Marie Nygren, no ordinary pair of Atlantans.
Steve is the former head of a major restaurant group, and Marie is the progeny of one of the bastions of the Atlanta food scene.  Her mom is Margaret Lupo, famous for the enduring Mary Mac's Tea Room .  They bought that dilapidated farmhouse and the acreage around it in 1991... and through equal parts inspiration and perspiration, the seeds of an idea began to grow.  Their home transformed into a B&B, and, using the trend of New Urbanism, combined with a passion for the arts and culture, the Nygrens teamed with experts in the field with a shared vision focusing on land preservation, and a planned walking community was born...

Happily, with the Nygrens collective culinary background, food is a centerpiece of the Inn at Serenbe, and the connected community as a whole.  Befitting the name of this collection of blog posts, the Farmhouse (once the Nygrens home; now, the restaurant) continually generates new menus (yes, printed on paper!), based on Marie's seasonal findings.  Appropriately, there is a chalk board that welcomes you when you enter the main dining room.  Being there on a Thursday night is especially rewarding, because that is when Marie delivers her weekly inspirations, and the buzz and whir of creativity in the kitchen begins anew, featuring balanced dishes based on the organic bounty offered by the farm and its surroundings.
On this night's prix fixe tableau, I started with a Blueberry Lemonade cocktail (blueberry vodka, blueberry schnapps, muddled blueberries, lemonade) that was super fun and refreshing, the berries so ripe and plump it became a personal challenge (and quite a tease) to release them from their ice cube entrapment into my mouth.  My meal was a 3-course symphony of Southern heart and soul.  Chilled Serenbe Farm Cucumber Soup with Mint came straight from the farm outside my window.  Cool and peppery, with the crunch of bright green cukes, and the mellow finish of fresh mint.  Next, the entree.  Baked Chicken with Farmhouse Red Pepper Jelly & Goat Cheese, Serenbe Farm Roasted Garlic Potatoes, & Hennessey Farm Italian Green Beans.  The chicken was moist inside, glistening outside.  The combo of creamy, smooth cheese, and slightly spicy jelly was a perfect pairing of flavor and texture.  And, as you'd imagine, the two sides were vintage South compliments.  Paired with a bottle of New Zealand Sauv Blanc (Matua Valley), the entire meal flowed effortlessly, fulfilling without being heavy.  My wife and I shared the two dessert selections:  Georgia Peach & Boe's Blueberry Pie with Vanilla Ice Cream & Wildflower Honey, and a Dark Chocolate Brownie with Vanilla Bean Ice Cream.  They were equally sinful, but in the obviously disparate ways.  Still, both were happy endings, the homemade aspects shining through, especially the fruit pie creation, which Marie informed us was brand new, taking a cue from classic Southern fried pies, this one being baked, so its half-moon crust was extra moist and flaky.  Judges ruling:  Success!...

Our other two meals took place "in town," just a 1 mile stroll from the Inn.  Lunch at Blue Eyed Daisy was quaint and tasty.  I had a simple turkey, bacon, & avocado wrap, with fresh sprouts and chipotle mayo.  This bakery and cafe is the heart of Serenbe community, serving breakfast and lunch, pastries and salads, cupcakes and cookies.  I was duly impressed with the sheer volume of varied items you could order from such a small space.  And the fun part of being here is that you run into the same familiar faces, lending to the communal feel.
Lunch on our departing day was at the other main restaurant in the area, The Hil.  The name is a double entandre, named eponymously for Chef/Owner Hilary White and for the fact that it sits perched on "the Hill" on Selborne Lane.  It is such an inviting space, with warmth and muted colors, and ample windows to survey the surrounding beauty outside.  I had the lunch special, a crispy, fried eggplant "sandwich," with the eggplant serving as the bread, framing mozzarella cheese, tomatoes, and balsamic dressing.  Chef White is an accomplished technician, with an impressive background from New York City and Atlanta, but it's her creativity, dedication to adhering to what's local, and Southern sensibilities that informs her food.

In fact, this is what makes all of Serenbe special.  The food, the people, the buidlings.  There's a tangible sense that something bigger than you is going on here, something you are drawn to, something you want to be a part of.
Sign me up for next summer, kids and all this time.  I have a feeling Serenbe will be part of my life for a long time to come...

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Paper Menus & Chalk Boards, Part II: Athens, GA

If Atlanta is a bastion of the New South Food, Athens is its fiercely independent, free-spirited younger cousin.  I am an adopted fan of the area, seeing as how my wife and many of her relatives wear their Bulldog colors so proudly (Goooo Dawgs!).  It is a text book (pardon the pun) college town, which is to say, good music and good food abound. As part of our month (-plus) long Georgia travels, we spent some quality time with family in the area that's just a short drive down 78 from Snellville...

Dinner here was a homecoming of sorts for my wife, Jill, as well as our partners in crime, Sylvan and John, all of whom have beloved ties to downtown Athens.  Lots of nostalgia, picture-taking, and reminiscing at our table, for sure.  This place used to be a famous music haunt in the '60s before it closed its doors, and ultimately re-opened as a bistro.  But all of that feel-good vibe would be quickly extinguished if the meal was a downer.  Not knowing what to expect food-wise, I was very pleasantly surprised, first, with the digs, and second, with the food. 
This was decidedly not a "college joint."  It was college-cool inside, but with a certain, palpable sense of maturity, as well.  The brick-exposed walls featuring local artists' works lend a certain bohemian feel, but the crowd was more young professional than coed.  The cuisine matches that balance, and I'm convinced it's no coincidence, once I experienced what's being plated in the small, exposed kitchen.   
First out was a communal Potato Onion Pancake (thanks for sharing, John Boy!).  Shredded and griddled julienned potatoes with a five onion salad, topped with a garlic aoli and crispy fried leeks.  Not greasy at all.  Really light for a dish that could easily be the opposite.  Amazing.                                             
I started with a Spinach & Gorgonzola Salad, with spicy candied pecans, red grapes, and a creamy gorgonzola dressing.  Really tasty and rich.  Fresh ingredients with a fair amount of sweetness for good measure.
My main dish was a revelation on a number of levels.  The Adobo Salmon was devoid of any of the typical "fishiness" that plagues it in other preparations.  It was much ado about the chipotle and adobo seasonings it was marinated in, which gave it a nice crispy crust once it was given over to the grill.  Even more impressive was the crispy, sauteed mustard greens underneath.  They held up bite after bite, a more than capable compliment to the protein it supported.  Real Southern ingredients, imagined in a way that is uniquely... Last Resort.

I've since come to learn about the local legend of Melissa Clegg, whose sterling reputation in the region influences not only this spot (as co-owner), but a host of others in the region, as well.  She and Jaamy Zanegar are upholding their high standards of quality food and unwavering support of the Athens area, and it flows through Last Resort in every meal they serve.  Of particular note, our dessert was an outstanding slice of Strawberry Cake, chosen in part because my brother-in-law and soon-to-be sister-in-law tapped the same one for their wedding cake!   Over 700k slices of Cecelia Villaveces'cakes have been sold since 1992... now I know why.  She's one of a number of local Athens businesses who partner with Last Resort to make it a memorable stop in the funky food city known as Athens...

The next morning, before touring the UGA campus with the kiddies, we stopped in an enclave known as Normaltown, on the road into Athens.  It is here that Ike & Jane's bakery thrives on the same indie spirit and tremendous quality as its brethren down the road.
The donuts and pastries are fresh and eclectic (kids cereal topping et al), and a sweet tooth's haven, but I was gunning for the savory side of things.  I ordered a biscuit sandwich, with eggs, cheddar, slab bacon, and jalapenos (!).  Suffice to say, my stuffy nose was miraculously cleared in an instant after my first bite.  I may as well have inhaled those peppers!  The biscuit was delicate, buttery, and flaky, and the bacon was thick cut and peppery.  So much flavor on one little "bi'cuit!"
Since it was a late breakfast for us, I felt obliged to order... something else.  That something was a no-brainer when I saw the hand-written sign on the back wall behind the register:  King of Pops SOLD HERE!
These guys are building a paletas empire in the Food Triangle of Atlanta, Asheville, and Charleston, with pop-up spots @ all points in between.  I chose the Banana Pudding pop, with a hug chunk of fresh frozen banana smack dab in the middle of... well, frozen pudding!  It was a creamcicle of the highest, freshest order, and especially satisfying on a sweltering July day.  

What a refreshing, and delicious, way to start a day...