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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...


On Parchment & Chalk Boards: The "Slo-cal South" Food Scene, Part One

What I Learned (So Far) On My Summer Vacation:  if a restaurant has a chalk board on the wall for specials, and disposable paper menus on the tables... you're in the right place for a quality, if not  memorable, meal.  If I may be so bold to coin a hybrid phrase, what I've experienced is the parallel paths of Slow Food and Locavore-ism.  Hence, "Slo-cal" Food...  
I planned a Summer Food-A-Palooza for my extended stay in the Atlanta area.  Exhaustively compiled an extensive list of spots to choose from, ranging from A (Abbatoir) to Z (Zuma Sushi), with all culinary fetishes in between.  As it goes (kids, work, weather, etc.), I have not been able to make a single check mark on my list...yet.  But, when one (restaurant) door closes, another opens.  I've so far been to no fewer than five memorable spots... and we've only reached the Ides of July! 

Touting itself as a "Neighborhood Barn & Grill," Horseradish Grill stands as a rustic, yet sophisticated mainstay of Southern dining in the Atlanta suburbs.  The chef, Daniel Alterman, is the son of the owner, and he grew up in the kitchen of this converted barn.  He has the benefit and luxury of a beautiful and bountiful garden literally in his own back yard, and he uses it to its maximum yield.  HRG has been doing for years what is now popularly recognized as the Slow Food Movement in the South:  Grow your own.  Use fresh, local ingredients whenever possible.  Respect the source and the process.  To this end, the Altermans are rightfully featured on Emeril's Cooking Channel tome to American dining institutions, "The Originals."
 You feel at home in this prime piece of real estate across from Chastain Park, what with the bevy of blooming flowers in the front, and the beautiful veggies and herbs sprouting out back.  The owners have done a good job of creating a space that is equal parts cozy and classy, and in many ways, the food can be described in the same way.  My tablemates and I shared some apps first.  The standout was the North Carolina Barbecue.  A plate of pulled smoked pork atop a cornmeal pancake, with a crisp, creamy cole slaw and a vinegar-tomato sauce.  Awesome balance of BBQ flavors, all coming together in ideal fashion for my tastes.  I also enjoyed the HRG Caesar Salad, with house made cornmeal croutons and shaved Reggiano parmesan.   I obliged the menu's siren call for its "Famous" Skillet Fried Chicken with garlic green beans and Yukon whipped mashed potatoes.  And they serve you the entire chicken, in parts! The knowledgeable waitress let me in on the process:  brining the chicken for 24 hours, then bathing it in buttermilk for another 24.  Jack Bauer would be proud.  Two shared desserts were equally different and decadent:  an insanely rich and dense Chocolate Chocolate Layer Cake (do I studder?!), and a perfectly fresh Organic Peach Cobbler with homemade vanilla ice cream. 
This was a solid, if not spectacular, Southern meal.  There are a lot of newer Atlanta establishments that benefit from star chefs and glitzier locations, but Horseradish Grill still remains as an Original.  Just ask Emeril...     

In the heart of the locavore-loving hamlet of Decatur sits one of its latest darlings, Cakes & Ale.  Named after a famous Shakespeare quote from Twelfth Night, this unassuming spot creates - and re-creates - their menu almost every day, the food made from scratch using the season's best, local and sustainable produce and products.
In stark contrast to the more traditional bent of Horseradish Grill, Cakes & Ale is all tattoos and piercings and black tees.  But lemme tell ya, the New Guard can work a pan!                    

With the wealth of their selections scrawled in chalk upon entering, you know right off the bat what you're about to eat will be freshhhhh.  What I was really surprised about was how diverse the offerings would be.  Before the food mentions, I must give a shout out to one of the most interesting cocktails I've ever tasted.  They clearly take equal pride in their mixology, and it shows.  Their Pineapple Habanero Gimlet was sweet, spicy, and sensationally singular.  Like a shot of Jamaican hot sauce with your gin and soda, except this beauty featured vodka instead of gin, lime juice, and powdered sugar along with the pineapple juice and pepper.  Yeah, it was that good!    
The food, as stated, was creatively cultivated, and technically precise.  Our waitress was as subtle as a hammer in "recommending" we order tapas-style, with small plates to share between everyone at the table.  The highlights included Arnacini (fried rice balls) sprinkled with pollen fennel, and the Buffalo Mozzarella with summer tomatoes, basil, prosciutto and fresh peaches.  There was also homemade Gnocchi with lamb sugo and fresh chanterelles, each component melt-in-your-mouth good, and my seared Scallops were on point, as well.  The dishes were imaginative riffs on classic combinations.
It's the kind of place that encourages sharing, tasting, and a bit of an adventurous palette.  If you're up for all three of those, then Cakes & Ale is a place you'll look forward to making a habit of visiting...

Next:  Part 2:  Athens 

Sunday, July 10, 2011

A New (Old) Frontier in New Mexico

Staying at a downtown hotel in Albuquerque afforded me easy access to the surroundings that make up the University of New Mexico campus.  The strip on Central is typical of a downtown, campus-supported area:  bars, cheap eats, etc.  Turns out a legendary place is smack-dab across the street from the school's main entrance. 

Frontier is the kind of place where generations and mingle easily and comfortably, any and all socio-economic and/or cultural differences set aside in favor of the honest, simple food served under the conspicuous yellow barn roof.

This spot has been so popular, in fact, that it now occupies an entire city block, having expanded over the years to engulf shops and eateries that have come and gone.

Frontier is open all day and night (5am-1am) and is apparently known for their own take on a sweet roll (appropriately named the Frontier Sweet Roll), but I was there for dinner... an authentic New Mexican dinner.  Which is why I ordered the Frontier Burrito. Now, if you've never been through New Mexico, or the Southwest in general, you've never truly experienced the beauty of the Green Chile.  It has an umami-like
quality, which is to say, there's something indescribable and unique that sets it apart from other chiles.  Hot but not fiery, it speaks to my taste buds in a way no other spicy food does.  And it's a common ingredient in EVERYTHING served in New Mexico.  Everything! 

So it was with my Frontier burrito, stuffed with beef, beans, and a green chile stew, along with the aforementioned chiles (you thought I was kidding?).  This is old-fashioned, no-frills food... and I loved how the menu has a section reserved exclusively for "New Mexican Food."  Not "Mexican," "NEW Mexican."  There is a difference.  And I tasted it in all it's simple, savory glory, at Frontier. 

Hangover or not,.. THE place for Breakfast in Vegas

I just so happened to be working at a Vegas TV station that was all of 5 minutes away from what turns out to be an Off-The-Strip breakfast institution since 1988.  The Egg & I is a relatively nondescript joint off the beaten path, but all it takes is a cursory Internet search to realize this is a local fave.  Now I know why...
Super-friendly service with your classic, homespun fare.  There are also some creative combos listed on the menu, and I was drawn to the Bacon, Avocado, and Cheese Omelet.  It was huge, and the heaping helping of home fries (cubed, seasoned, crispy) was nearly its match in sheer volume.  The omelet was still relatively light, a feat considering how much was loaded inside.  The bacon retained its crunch, and was complimented nicely by the smooth creaminess of the avo.  A dollop of sour cream on the side was a nice touch, too.

But the unmitigated star is neither egg nor potato-based in nature.  It is the Egg Works secret family recipe for their homemade banana muffins.  I wouldn't have thought twice about it except for my aforementioned helpful server, who recommended I sub it for toast.  Oh.  My.  Gosh.  It is super-moist and dark, almost ebony, in color.  The only things I could be sure of is that there was chocolate and molasses in the ingredients.  Anything else that makes it so sensational remains a mystery.  And maybe some things are better left unspoken.  This was just one of the magical, memorable food moments that totally took me off guard.  I know I will never taste many banana muffins in my time... and none will take the place of the stunner at the Egg & I...


Saturday, July 2, 2011

A Random Helping of Restaurants

I am summoning my inner-Springsteen cum "Light of Day" interlude for this post... seeing as how I've been there and back to any number of cities in between posts ("I've been 100 miles -- 200 miles -- 300 miles...").

The best place to start is right in my own backyard, with kudos to the Renaissance Vinoy for bringing the Blue Ribbon Brombergs into the fold to help jazz up their menus.  The Bromberg Brothers have been at it since '92 in NYC (and now also have a spot at the Cosmo in Vegas).  Got to attend a special "premier" party for the tastings unveiling, and there were small plates as well as 2 cocktails to enjoy.  The lineup:  BBQ Pork Sliders, Fried Rock Shrimp (with a lemon cayenne sauce), Grilled Chicken Burgers (the people's choice favorite!), Manchego and Mexican Honey Toast, "Northern Fried" Chicken Wings, and White Bean Hummus Toast. 

All very tasty and a definite upgrade in reputation and results.  Had the pleasure of spending a few minutes with Chef Eric Bromberg, who is a real down-to-earth guy, despite the massive success he and brother Bruce have experienced in recent years with their Blue Ribbon franchise.  All I know is, I'm glad their consulting biz joined forces with Renaissance properties,and even happier that the Vinoy was in the pilot program to get this venture off the ground...

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Went a bit farther outta my way than usual on one of my frequent jaunts to the Philly area recently.  Found myself at 333 Belrose Bar & Grill in Radnor for what turned out to be a better-than expected meal.  The outside is so unassuming and tucked away... but the inside is classy and hip and inviting.  The decor, the service, menu... all impressive.  Enjoyed their Java Pork Tenderloin with Maple Smashed Yams, Black Bean Sauce, & a Mango-Jalapeno Salsa.  A lot of flavor profiles going on in this dish... and they all worked so well.  The meat was cooked perfectly and was extremely juicy.  It was the centerpiece of a plate that had color, variety, and creativity.  An out-of-the-way place that was clearly not a secret for the locals (it was bustling), and one that I look forward to returning to again...

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Vegas, Baby, for me, has nothing to do with casinos and clubs... it's all about the food scene, which is stellar, to say the least.  With only one dinner to deal with, it was a no-contest as to where I was headed, despite the plethora of places to eat.  Cue the Cosmopolitan for Chef Scott Conant's   wine bar, juxtaposed to his well-loved Italian mini-empire, Scarpetta... DOCG.  On his personal recommendation, I passed on a table in the main dining area, and bellied up to what is a gorgeous, sleek bar running the length of the right side of the restaurant. 
I started with the DOCG Pizza, which was a symphony of classic white pizza flavors.  Beautifully blistered thin crust, a mouth-watering foundation of fonduta cheese, a duck egg yolk that was broken and spread across the entire surface (and right in front of me!), and then the white truffles...ohhhhh, the white truffles.  An embarrassing abundance of shavings that were equal parts delicate and decadent.  The entire pie disappeared in an instant.  Then, the main course:  Braised Short Ribs with Creamy Polenta & Vegetables.  The meat was exceptionally tender atop the dreamy polenta.  The cabernet-colored sauce was almost an afterthought, what with the natural flavors of the ribs.  A rustic, succulent dish that capably highlights what Scott envisions from his restaurants.  Vintage Italian cookery, paying homage to comfort food at it's most classic, but refined and elegant, too.  Simple and sophisticated.  Scott, you've done it again...

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Still to come... my trip out West continues, with Albuquerque and Sacramento on tap...