Archive for November, 2010

Butcher: Smart Casual in New Orleans

Posted 30 Nov 2010 — by S.E.
Category Food Alert Trends, Full Service, Uncategorized

Sometimes I stumble upon a great restaurant without intending to do so. This was the case recently when I wound up on a bar stool in Butcher, Chef Donald Link’s sibling restaurant to Cochon in the warehouse district of New Orleans. Butcher was not my destination, I had originally set out to find the National World War II museum on Magazine Street. After a couple of wrong turns I ended up in the vicinity of the museum but three blocks further west than intended.  Looping back around the block I wound up in a maze of one-way streets woven through warehouses, condos, and restaurants that make up this side of the city. Within minutes I was back at the corner of Tchoupitoulas Street and Andrew Higgins Drive where I originally started feeling frustrated.  Andrew Higgins was the founder of Higgins Industries in New Orleans during the 1920’s. His Higgins Boats, light military landing craft designed to deliver troops directly from ship to shore, are widely acclaimed as one of the crucial innovations that helped the allies win World War II. That I  am on Andrew Higgins Drive indicated that I was in the right vicinity and that it would make more sense to park the car and walk over to the museum than continue wandering.  Thats when I found Butcher.

Fate would have it that I parked the car diagonally across the street from Chef Donald Link’s famous Cochon restaurant. Approaching on foot curious and hungry for lunch it was disappointingly clear due to inactivity that the main restaurant was closed. However, there was activity further down the block at small shop called Butcher.  Although reasonably well informed when it comes to restaurants, I hadn’t heard of Butcher prior to spotting it up the street. The customers seated at each of the two small tables on the sidewalk and group of people standing just outside the entrance are what caught my eye, the entrance being otherwise pretty ordinary.  

Once inside my perspective completely changed.  Although small in size, the seating area in the café was packed and there was a line five deep at the counter. Butcher was humming and the food being served looked excellent.  Customers at Butcher cue up just inside the entry and place their orders at a counter with two cash registers at the back end of the shop. The lines form up against two massive refrigerated deli cases filled with homemade charcuterie and fresh meats on the left side of the room.  A small hot kitchen is just on the other side of the cases.

I am in line now staring into the first deli case on the left which is packed with a selection of sausages, bacon,  long brown links of house made Andouille sausage, packages of Boudin Sausage (four links per pack), fresh pork loin, skirt steak, and ribeye, even a Jambalaya stuffed fresh chicken.  The line moves and I shift forward several feet where there’s another case with gorgeous house-made Pork Rillettes, Duck Rillettes, Duck Terrine, head cheese, Mortadella, Salami Cotto, and Duck Pastrami. I am in hog (and duck) heaven. The quality and craftsmanship on display in these cases is outstanding bordering on inspirational. A fan of all things Garde Manger, my mouth is beginning to water.

The line moves forward again and now I am next to the small butcher block countertop that serves as the pass for plates coming off the hot line. Studying the kitchen for a moment I am quickly distracted by a plate of braised duck on cornbread with poached eggs and mushroom gravy that comes up off the line. It is absolutely gorgeous and a perfect brunch item. A server passes by grabbing the poached eggs and another couple of dishes, forces his way through the line and runs them to a table. Starving, my attention shifts to the three large menu boards hanging above the cash registers and I start to narrow down my order. There are too many interesting items on the menu for me to choose just one so I order a Cubano sandwich, a duck pastrami slider, and a pancetta mac and cheese. The cashier hands me a number and I turn back toward the seating area to the right of the cue to find a place to sit. Seats vacate just as I start to move away from the cashier and I grab a bar stool up against the wall and to wait for my order.

It’s just around noon time on a Sunday morning and Butcher is packed with a mixed bag of late morning revelers, brunch seekers, and folks that strolled over from local residences. Based on the steady stream of food coming off the hot-line it’s clear that these people know how to eat; smoked country sausage with two eggs, house-made biscuit and Steens syrup,  fried chicken and biscuit with caramelized onion and cheddar cheese, BLT of house made bacon, arugula, tomato, and onion. It feels good to be in this restaurant.

The sun is shining brightly through the south-facing storefront and a handsome couple enters and takes a small table up front next to the window.  Glancing over at the couple as they settle in, I consider how warm, pleasant, and comfortable this place is compared to what it must have been like just after hurricane Katrina. Donald Link opened Cochon in 2006 after six months of delays due to the hurricane. In early 2009 Link added Bucher to his growing list of restaurants and the New York Times promptly dubbed it a “smart-casual” restaurant. I like the idea of a place being smart and casual.

Duck Pastrami Slider $6.00

My food arrives and I dig in. The mac and cheese is rich, creamy and full of savory richness from the pancetta. My Cubano is made with slow roasted pork loin (cochon du lait), smoked ham and cheese and grilled golden brown.  I splash a bit of Link’s sweet potato habanero sauce on one half of the sandwich and the sweet spicy flavor of the sauce adds a nice contrast. My favorite item however, is the Duck pastrami slider. A generous portion of sliced duck breast pastrami is grilled with cheese between two slices of bread until crispy and golden brown. By the time the plate gets to me, the cheese is just barely oozing out of the sandwich. It tastes delicious.

Pancetta Mac & Cheese $6.00

 I can only imagine the vision and perseverance required to withstand the challenges of Katrina and the BP oil spill in New Orleans. And yet the city lives on in places like Butcher due to people like Donald Link. Smart, casual, and sated…

 

Cochon Butcher

930 Tchoupitoulas St.

New Orleans, LA 70130

504-588-7675

Nepenthe Restaurant: Big Sur, California

Posted 24 Nov 2010 — by S.E.
Category Full Service

Our drive down the pacific coast highway from Monterey to Big Sur was hampered by a persistent rain. The road was slick and shrouded by patches of fog floating down from the hills to the ocean’s edge several hundred feet below.  Although hoping for a clear view and some speed on the road, we took it slow and saw little. For months I had been hearing about a restaurant called Nepenthe and the more I heard the more it appeared that the restaurant was one part natural wonder, one part spiritual oasis and one part commune for the Fassett family who own the property.  The rain provided a mysterious emotion to our drive to Nepenthe that was fitting as I soon realized when we arrived at the restaurant.

Nepenthe is located on a pitch hill in Big Sur in the middle of nowhere, the only culinary outpost of its kind for miles to the north or south on scenic highway one. We pulled into the dirt driveway at 11:45 in the morning and the parking lot was deserted and strewn with puddles of rainwater. From the parking lot, you can’t really see the restaurant perched on the hill above but the size of the parking lot and the double wide stairway leading up suggests a facility of substance. We started our climb in a light drizzle through a lush dripping canopy of redwood and oak trees with trunks painted with patches of bright green fuzzy clumps of moss.  Halfway up the stairs to the restaurant on a concrete platform there’s a red enclosed phone booth, sliding door and all, tucked in the corner with a wooden park bench next to it. The evocative British feel of the phone booth paired with the rain, gloomy canopy of trees, fog, moss and prevailing grey cloud cover left me feeling like I was headed to the London docks in winter at sundown.

Ascending the final flight of stairs we arrived at an expanse of red-painted concrete that serves as an outdoor patio and seating area in better weather. The patio was slick with rain and long rubber mats leading to the restaurants entrance were laid out to assure secure footing. Even shrouded in fog the setting is astounding. The sound of waves crashing below whisper up revealing just how cantilevered the setting is on ocean’s edge.  Curious, I sneak away for a moment and peer through the trees to see if I can spot the ocean below. For a brief moment the cloud cover breaks in some places and bits of sunshine illuminate patches of the seashore and the foaming greenish blue ocean. Time stands still.

I wander further from my group down another flight of stairs to Nepenthe’s funky Phoenix gift shop. Surrounded by bohemian splendor, I find myself out on the back deck staring at large terracotta shards of Buddha’s face laying along the slope, a small bust perched on the adjoining stone wall. The rain is falling harder and a strong ocean breeze is rushing up the slope forcing the rain to fall horizontally into my face, the wind chimes on the patio all ringing in unison. My clothes are starting to soak through so I head up to the restaurant.

Back inside they have a large fire going. It is warm, dry, and comfortable. Legend has it that Lolly and Bill Fassett along with their five children bought the location back in 1947 from Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles.  The Fassett’s worked with architect Rowan Maiden, an apprentice to Frank Lloyd Wright, to design their vision taking full advantage of local red wood trees to frame out the two story post and beam interior. When you arrive at the center of the dining room, massive rough hewn redwood beams are assembled like Lincoln logs above allowing a long row of floor to ceiling windows along the entire south side of the room facing the ocean.  We work our way past the main dining room to a cozy smaller room to the left with a large banquette and small fireplace.

We place our orders and I have the signature Ambrosia Burger, a six ounce burger that is grilled and served on a toasted soft steak roll topped with Ambrosia sauce (mayonnaise, tomato sauce, mild chile salsa). I have a side of bean salad and order my burger with lettuce and tomatoes. From where I am sitting I have a view over my right shoulder into the Nepenthe kitchen just on the other side of the knee wall that makes up the back of the booth side of the banquette. The kitchen is open to the vast dining room, is spotless and running quiet. We are one of two tables seated and our food comes out in short order. My burger is perfectly cooked and tastes fantastic. Nepenthe has Carmel Meats and Specialty Foods in Marina, CA custom grind its beef daily and you can tell when you taste it. The bean salad is tangy and well seasoned too. To finish things off I have a cappuccino and a slice of homemade banana cream pie.

Everything I taste is delicious if not overly simple. Looking the menu over, there are few items that are complicated and the prices are reasonable when you consider the setting (the Ambrosia Burger is $14.00). By the time I finish eating the restaurant is nearly full with a lunch time rush.

 Reflecting back on my visit, Nepenthe is seventy percent location, setting, emotion, and aesthetic and thirty percent food and service. Menu items are reasonably priced but the view and setting comes at no extra cost and is worth a day’s wages let alone the $14-$37.00 entrée prices. My trip up the slippery winding stairway was worth every step, the meal worth every penny. The gift shop is funky and features something for everyone including the four Asian dolls picured below. Sometimes it’s more than the food that leaves me sated. The setting and the company I dined with at Nepenthe were spectacular and remind me why dining is one of lifes true pleasures.

 

Nepenthe

48510 Highway One, Big Sur, California

(831) 667-2345

Salumi: Il Mondo Vecchio and Others

Posted 10 Nov 2010 — by S.E.
Category Fine Dining, Food Alert Trends

Momentum has been building around a salumi and charcuterie craze since last September when Mario Batali strung over 100 individual salume above his buffet station during Emeril’s Carnivale Du Vin event at the Venetian Hotel in Vegas.  Batali decorated his station with all types of dry cured sausages and brought along three brand new commercial slicing machines so he could quickly and expertly cut the product to order as guests lined up to sample. Members of Batali’s staff handed out fresh cut samples of several varieties of salumi while Mario worked the crowd in his bright orange Croc’s and orange shorts, white bib apron tied around his waist. Armandino Batali, father of Mario and principal salumist at Salumi Artisan Cured Meats in Seattle, was the source of many of the salumi on display and Mario was proud to be slicing and handing out the goods.

Since that time I have traveled around the country and noticed more and more salumi on menus and, in some cases, chefs dry curing and aging salumi themselves. During a recent trip to St. Louis I dined at the Sidney Street Cafe and sampled the fine salumi that chef Kevin Nashan prepares and cures on site. After a wonderful multi-course meal at the café, Chef Nashan invited me down into the basement to see his curing room. He had six varieties of salumi (approximately 20 lbs worth) hanging in a climate controlled custom built vault, dehumidifier cranking away in earnest. Nashan offers a mixed salumi plate as an appetizer with house cured cabbage and fresh pretzel bread. His salumi is excellent and Nashan displays tremendous depth and talent in an old-school way as he works his kitchen making nearly everything from scratch.

Sidney St. Cafe Salumi Appetizer

Last weekend I noticed another phenomenon; construction of the first free-standing charcuterie shop I have seen in years while visiting Santa Cruz, California. Although pressed for time, I pulled into the chalky dirt parking lot of the Swift Street Courtyard to take a quick glance at the tasting rooms for Bonny Doon vineyard and discovered el Salchichero Handcrafted Charcuterie right there in the marketplace. El Salchichero, its name ablaze over the entry on a big red sign with white lettering,  is the inspiration of chef Chris LaVeque. He got his start selling charcuterie at the Santa Cruz Community Farmer’s Market out of a pop-up booth while serving as Sous Chef at Bonny Doons Cellar Door Café. El Salchichero wasn’t open yet when I passed through but the shop was nearing completion and it was perfectly located right next to an artisan bakery and Boony Doon’s tasting room. I can just imagine customers grabbing a nice baguette at the bakery, a fine glass of Syrah from Bonny Doon and a slab of pate from el Salchichero as an afternoon snack. That LaVeque is inspired enough by charcuterie to open up a dedicated shop left me smiling as I took off to the south, late for a meeting. If he had been open I would have never made my meeting! Best wishes Chris.

 Il Mondo Vecchio. My favorite salumi in the U.S., hands down, is that of Mark DeNittis of Il Mondo Vecchio in Denver, Colorado. DeNittis got his start by tinkering with various approaches to dry curing while teaching meat cutting at Johnson & Wales University. Denver has a perfect dry climate for dry curing and Denittis’ kitchen at Johnson & Wales was well suited for testing small batches of salumi and for creative experimentation. Early on in his experimentation DeNittis, a Massachusetts native, discovered a knack for producing high quality, all natural products and it was then that the seed was planted for commercializing his work via Il Mondo Vecchio. In short order, DeNittis secured a facility, a USDA inspector, a source for incredible fresh pork and a couple of partners and Il Mondo Vecchio was born. Since then, the company has grown considerably producing more than a half dozen products that are available online at their retail partner mondofood.com. Five of my favorites

Il Mondo Vecchio Pork Pancetta

Denittis achieves a perfect balance with this cure and the pork retains a beautiful shade of pink with nothing more than pork, salt, and spices. His cure creates a firm yet pearly white fat cap with deep pork flavors with notes of fresh hay and spice. As this Pancetta renders it releases a concentrated pork aroma and wonderful creamy rendered fat.

 

Il Mondo Vecchio Calabrese Soppresate

This Soppresate is made from pork shoulder with additional pork fat, sea salt, paprika, garlic, and spices. It has a balanced nose with notes of paprika and garlic up front. Of all the Il Mondo Vecchio Salumi I enjoy, this one is my favorite due to its spicy, porky, salty, garlicy flavor. The texture is best when sliced medium thin (1/16 of an inch) and served at room temperature.  

 

Il Mondo Vecchio Saucisse Sec

The Saucisse Sec is DeNittis’ workhorse salumi. It is firm, fully cured and rich in flavor. Ingredients include Pork shoulder, pork fat, sea salt and spices. I serve this side by side with the Soppresate as a milder counterpoint to the Soppresate’s spicy flavor.

 

Il Mondo Vecchio Salume Vino e Pepper Nero

 The Vino e Pepper Nero is classic DeNittis. It consists of Pork shoulder, pork fat, red wine, sea salt, spices, and garlic and has deep notes of black pepper. In his early days, DeNittis often created unique salume like this one. The red wine helps create a deep color, firm texture and mild acidity that, paired with the spice and salt, provides a complexity unlike the other salumi I have sampled.

 

Il Mondo Vecchio Del Oro Beef Bresaola

Denittis gave me a sample of this Beef Bresaola. As he handed it to me he hesitated letting it go for a second, as though he wanted to keep it for himself, and it was right then that I knew it would be delicious. He also uses red wine in this item along with sea salt and spices but to a different effect. Although firm to the touch, this Bresaola shaves thin, has a nice firm outerl layer with fine marbeling on the interior and melts in your mouth.

For more than a decade I feared that salumi and charcuterie were a dying art. More than one culinary school revised their curricula, eliminating garde manger and charcuterie from the curriculum. Over the past five years, contrary to popular belief, the art of salumi and charcuterie making has been expanding and I predict that an artisan salumi and charcuterie movement will take hold in the U.S. Il Mondo Vecchio is a great example.