Never told you about the Crush! (A holiday story that starts in September)

On Thursday afternoon of that last long September weekend before this school year started, some friends and I drove across the mountains to the heart of wine country for Catch the Crush, the yearly celebration of the Washington grape harvest. (The “crush” starts the process of making wine. The business of stepping barefoot into a barrel of grapes?–That’s one way to do a crush.)

On Friday Denise and Diana went off for a warm-up round of golf, so I was on my own. I first set out for the Bookwalter Winery, but they weren’t open yet (why not?–it was already 10:00 in the morning!). So I walked down the road to Barnard Griffin. The person setting up there explained how the Crush wine-tastings work: to sample the wines they’ve opened for the tasting, you pay a small fee (say five dollars), which usually will apply against any wine you buy from them.  Or, for I think $30, you can buy a Catch the Crush Premier Pass passport, a booklet that has a page for each of the wineries taking part in the promotion (38 this year!). At each stop, you skip the fee and get a stamp in your booklet. (Was it a good deal? Probably, given the number of wineries we visited, but some of them were waiving the fee anyway.)

Also, as I learned at Barnard Griffin, for about five dollars you can buy a commemorative wine glass from most of the wineries. I went for it! (–And it was only my first one! By Sunday I had accumulated a glass from almost every winery I visited. In fact, as I click away on this post, I have a full one sitting right here on my desk–a nice stemless model from Chandler Reach.)

At any rate, Barnard Griffin gave me my first wine surprise of the trip–their 2010 Tulip riesling. I’m usually wary of rieslings (wouldn”t want to stray into sweet territory!) but I liked this off-dry one best out of their whole tasting lineup. I also learned a little about how to concentrate on the taste and see how it unfolds as you savor it. (The person pouring for me clearly loved the wines, and knew how to help a novice like me appreciate them!)

After Barnard Griffin (nice folks!), I walked back over to Bookwalter. This winery really exercises the “book” motif. The wines have names like “protagonist,” “subplot,” and “foreshadow.” They have a “book club,” and they offer a “library” of wines. I tasted a couple of outstanding reds, especially the 2008 Foreshadow merlot and 2009 Antagonist syrah-cabernet-malbec blend. (But seriously–completely out of commemorative wine glasses, on the first day of the biggest tourist event of the year?) This is where I also heard the first throat-clearings of what would be a trip-long running conversation about AVAs. I already had a sketchy idea about AVAs (American Viticultural Areas), also called appellations, but now I was right in the neighborhood. That 2009 Antagonist?–mostly grapes from the Columbia Valley AVA, with some from Elephant Mountain Vineyards, on the southern slope of Rattlesnake Ridge, in the new appellation of Rattlesnake Hills. Take Highway 82 up toward Zillah–you can’t miss it.

Next, I made my way over to my old friend Hogue Cellars, one of the largest Washington wineries. (Their red label is a staple on grocery store shelves.) These folks make some really good wines! A standout that was new to me was the 2010 Terroir bII, a Bordeaux-style blend of 90% semillon and 10% sauvignon blanc, made from grapes grown on the Fries Vineyard in the Wahluke Slope AVA. (The Fries family owns the Duck Pond and Desert Wind labels, but also, I gather, sells grapes to other winemakers.) I also really liked the 2008 Reserve chardonnay, from grapes grown in the Yakima Valley AVA; they produced only 100 barrels of it that year. (I know this because the enthusiastic young pourer told me so. This and much, much more.)  I usually just grab their chard, but I’ll explore a little deeper on the Hogue shelf after this tasting!

Then, after a couple of false starts, I made my way to the Desert Wind Winery. (It’s right there on that hill!–Why can’t I find my turn??)  I sensed that lunch was getting important, so I went straight to the winery’s restaurant, Mojave by Picazo. Good choice! I had the blue crab “cigars”–hand-rolled feather-light blue corn tortillas filled with blue crab, served with a tart fresh tomatillo salsa. (Wait, aren’t blue crabs from the Atlantic coast? What a hike to eastern Washington! But I digress.) The side of gargonzola potato salad was spiked with tiny bacon bits and bright with green onions. Tasty! With it, I had a glass of Desert Wind sauvignon blanc (made from grapes grown in the Wahluke Slope appellation in the larger Columbia Valley AVA). And what a dessert!–molten Mexican chocolate lava cake with a lightly salted caramel drizzle. Had to wait for it to cool a bit!–Not easy.

I caught chef Chris Nokes to ask him about the “cigar” filling, which had been riffling some little edge of a food memory. “Think spinach artichoke dip, but without the spinach, crab instead, rolled up in a corn tortilla. Add a touch of parmesan.”  Got it! After lunch, I took in their tasting and found two more excellent whites–a slightly oaked 2009 chardonnay and a 2009 semillon.

Sound like a lot of wine?–Remember: in a tasting, you tilt your nose down into your glass and breathe over the little splash of wine at the bottom, then you tip your glass up and moisten your mouth with the wine and breathe again. Maybe you swallow a trickle–then you dump out the rest into a big jar on the counter. This is wine-tasting, not wine-swigging. Which is why I wasn’t sprawled on the gravel out in the parking lot.

But I wasn’t done yet! After my late lunch I met up post-golf with Denise and Diana and we hit four more tastings. Now that I had the two of them to talk to, my note-taking tailed off, but at least I noted our stops: Airfield Estates (another winery working a motif; we tasted wines named Runway, and Aviator, and Lightning); Coyote Canyon Winery, where my pick was the 2010 Albariño, a Spanish grape that Coyote Canyon was apparently the first in Washington to plant, at Coyote Canyon Vineyards in the Horse Heaven Hills AVA; Milbrandt Vineyards, with its own fantastic riesling fragrant with fresh grapefruit; and Apex Cellars Winery, where I found maybe my best wine of the day, a beautifully creamy oaked chardonnay. (I tend to choose whites over reds, and this trip was no exception.) Finally, done for the day!

On Saturday, now with reinforcements (friends CJ and John had pulled in on Friday evening), we headed for Red Mountain. The Red Mountain AVA, a triangular wedge just east across the Yakima River from Benton City, is, at 4,000 acres (with only 600 of that in cultivation), the smallest appellation in Washington. Our map showed 14 wineries in the AVA, but we tasted at just two. At the Kiona Vineyards Winery, the tasting stretches out along a couple of intersecting long rooms, each with stations offering several wines. I was taken with a spicy rosé (I believe it was their Mourvédre rosé, though they also have one made from sangiovese grapes; my notes fail me here). I also really surprised myself by loving a late harvest sweet wine! Next we visited Tapteil Vineyards Winery, where the cabernet sauvignon was most interesting to me (also a surprise because of its strong tannin, which I don’t usually go for). The Tapteil tasting room was refreshingly homey and the people were good-humored and helpful.

Then we zoomed back westward to Prosser to take in four more wineries. The three-story stucco villa of Chandler Reach Vineyards whisks you off to Tuscany before you even get in the door, and the wine selections tilt Italian as well, especially their Corella sangiovese blend. But we also tasted a viognier. (Floral; some like it, some don’t. I don’t always, but I did like this one!)

By now, mid-Day Two, I had given up trying to take pictures, and I began to notice a certain truculence in my reactions to the wines I was tasting. I know that we stopped at Hightower Cellars, but my only note, quoted completely, is “cab sauv.” I was already familiar with Kestrel Vintners; I had visited their tasting room a couple of years ago, and had belonged to their wine club for a year after that. They have a great old-vine chardonnay and a very light sauvignon blanc, as well as an array of reds from easy quaffers like Lady in Red to serious high-end merlots and cabernet sauvignons, But by the time we got there, my palate was too exhausted to detect much beyond “red” and “white.” I didn’t write a single note! On the up side, they were serving a cheerful spiced-wine punch that brightened us up considerably.  Finally, at our last stop, Mercer Estates, I tasted a 2009 pinot gris that I could rise to “love”–but I can  only guess why because I didn’t make a single other comment! And so my wine-tasting shambled to an end.

But now, with the end-of-year holidays finally here, I find myself buying a lot of wine for my friends, and as I reach for this bottle or that, I often let my hand be guided by my memories of these tasting rooms and labels, these helpful people, friendly winery dogs, and lovely golden fields braided with rows of grapevines. Desert Wind, Kestrel, Barnard Griffin, Kiona, Mercer, Apex, Milbrandt. And I still have my slender bottle of First Crush, Kiona’s 2006 Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc, a liquid-gold dessert wine produced from nearly frozen grapes. Maybe I’ll open it this New Year’s Eve to sip with my own attempt at  Mexican chocolate lava cake!

On the Sunday of that long weekend, we got up early to make it to the Prosser airport by 6:00 (that’s in the morning) for the Great Prosser Balloon Rally. Look!–They launched a whole blue sky of ornaments! Happy wine tasting, and Happy New Year!

Eating and drinking well in Ann Arbor!

A few weeks back, I finally worked out a way to spend a weekend visiting my friend Steph in Ann Arbor! A lovely small city that is home to a large university, Ann Arbor can offer first-class amenities in pretty much every category of eat, drink, and be merry, so  Steph and I didn’t stint.

Friday evening Steph picked me up at the Detroit airport and took me straight to a wonderful Ann Arbor wine-tasting put on by The Produce Station, with stewards pouring tastes from all the major wine regions of the world. Luckily, the hors d’oeuvres were plentiful and hearty!–We munched as we sipped, and kept both our palates clean and our heads (reasonably) clear. Then we went out to Zingerman’s Deli for hefty Reuben sandwiches dressed up with extra  chopped chicken liver! Think of the most exotic condiment you can, cured meat, or cheese, or oil–Zingerman’s Deli has it, and the incredibly pleasant and knowledgeable staff want to tell you about it. So we were there until closing!

Saturday we straggled down to the kitchen later than we planned and trifled with tea and toast. After taking care of a couple of work projects (part of my excuse for being there!), we polished off the rest of our Reubens and went out to the markets. Ann Arbor has an excellent open-air farmers market, with tons of beautiful produce, flowers, and crafts; we also visited the nearby Kerrytown shops–fish market, cheese shop, Sparrow Meats, everything! And we finished up at nearby Tracklements to get some some beautiful lox. Tracklements is popular!–It looked like a big slice of Ann Arbor was already in line. But proprietor T.R. Durham and his staff seemed to know everybody by name and custom order. Steph was no exception!–She got our lox thin-sliced. (Here she is in her terrific faux-fur coat.)

At this point we had to hustle back to the house because Steph’s early-music group was about to show up for practice. I got to sprawl on the sofa for a couple of hours and pretend to read, reveling in the woof and warp of soprano, mezzo, and contralto, catching brief glimpses of their expertise at work as they stopped, backed up, repeated, discussed. Fascinating!

By the time they finished, we hadn’t eaten for hours, so we went out and had a great fish dinner at The Earle! I didn’t take notes on my dish but I remember that it was a beautiful whitefish, well-prepared and tastily garnished.

How could there be more to eat in Ann Arbor?!? Did I mention that Zingerman’s actually has five different restaurants? So on Sunday morning, before heading me back to the airport, we went off for brunch to Zingerman’s Roadhouse. The place was packed, of course; we decided to eat at the counter. The same friendly staff, the same hearty, delicious food! I had to have the hash with poached eggs, accompanied by warm and earthy bread and jam. And you bet I ate it all.

T. R. Durham of Tracklements has produced a great cookbook, The Smoked Seafood Cookbook: Easy Innovative Recipes from America’s Best Fish Smokery. Smoked fish has not played much of a role in my diet so far, but this book’s wide-ranging recipes have opened my eyes to the possibilities. I’ll cook up something soon and share it with you!

Best-kept secret in town: Lunch at Seattle Culinary Academy

Did you know?– the students in the Seattle Culinary Academy want to serve you lunch! The SCA, part of Seattle Central Community College on Capitol Hill, has three (three!) different restaurants staffed by chefs-in-training who prepare the food and serve it to you in style. On top of that, in the summer they offer a special small-plates menu, which I sampled a couple of weeks ago. It was a big moment for me!–Earlier this summer I had watched these very same students learn to grow the  ingredients I was eating. And therein lies a story.

My connection to the SCA actually goes back several years, when my friend Donna and I took a series of evening cooking classes in the professional kitchen there. (Donna was good; I was . . . learning.) What a series!–stocks, soups, sauces, poaching, steaming, grilling, roasting, braising (who knew about braising?), eggs, poultry, pasta, grains, veggies, seafood, dairy–chef Hope Sandler marched us through weeks of hands-on cooking, with (miraculously) no casualties, other than one or two minor cases of blood-letting and mutual burning.

You’d think after that I’d never need another cooking class in my life! But I keep signing up, and one of the best I’ve ever taken was a two-day class offered by chef Sally McArthur at La Conner Flats, an 11-acre English country display garden and working farm north of Seattle in the Skagit Valley. After a full day of cooking in the farm’s Granary, we ate our dinner alfresco at a long table on the lawn, then played boules in the garden’s beautiful allée.

But Sally gave us more than a cooking (and bowling) class; she also painted us a picture of the lush fertility of the Valley (which is on the same latitude as France’s Loire Valley) and of the careful stewardship that sustains it. Besides getting acquainted with garden owners Bob and Margie Hart, we harvested tomatoes for our meal at the  Hedlin Family Farm nearby, and tasted Pasek Cellars berry wines in the garden’s gazebo. We munched on cheese from Samish Bay Cheese with the co-owner Suzanne Wechsler. And we learned about the many projects of Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland, an activist farming organization that I’m dying to tell you more about (and will–but that’s another story!). Suffice it to say that I immediately joined SPF and have been an avid follower of their activities ever since.

Small world!–At the beginning of summer the SPF newsletter landed in my in-box with a front-page story about the SCA! The connection?–The SCA was about to offer a course on sustainable food systems practices, organized around weekly field trips up to (you guessed it) La Conner Flats. It turns out that Bob (who is also president of the SPF board) worked with SCA chef and instructor Gregg Shiosaki to develop the course, now in its sixth year (nobody tells me anything). And each year, Bob sets aside a plot of farmland where the students can learn the “best practices for sowing, cultivating, and harvesting vegetables and fruit.” Long story short, thanks to Bob and Gregg, this year I got to tag along. (I’m putting together a micro-movie about the experience; stay tuned.)

These students know how to work!–Every week, they plowed, pricked, planted, hilled, and dug like old hands. And each week they loaded up their bus with crates of the farm’s produce for the SCA larder, harvested in part from the same fields that they had worked.

Which brings us back around to my small-plates lunch at the SCA! These same apprentice farmers were now, crisp in kitchen whites or servers’ black-and-white, staffing an entire buffet restaurant, from host station to prep, line, table, and service. Here’s how it works: you stop at the host station by the front door and buy tickets for 75 cents each (I got 12); the plates range in price from one to say five tickets each. You then wander from buffet table to buffet table trying to compose your meal out of the bounty in front of you; finally, you drop some tickets in a bowl and add another plate to your tray.

Chef Gregg was all over the place, dropping a word of advice here and showing a small trick of the trade there. After watching Gregg demo its preparation, I had to have the seared salmon salad with oriental vinaigrette; Claire prepared my serving beautifully, all the while answering a barrage of questions from me about the ingredients (lots!–basil, mint, cilantro, frisee, candied orange peel, grapefruit, orange, lime, pecans . . . I’m forgetting some). (I’m guessing she wanted to crown me with that pan.)

Next I zeroed in on the Skagit Valley farm slaw, presided over by Ryan, who also happily ran through the list of ingredients (cabbage, carrots, shredded snow peas, Fresno pepper . . .) At that point, I had to sit down and eat! The salmon salad and slaw made a nice combo.

For my next round, after mulling over a number of possibilities I went with the borek (a puff pastry with potato filling, with a red pepper coulis and feta dill dressing) and a Thai cucumber cup with olive tapenade and pan au lait. Did I mention that these guys get high points for presentation? Earlier, chatting with Rachel (that’s her in the first picture of the SCA buffet tables), I learned that she had first studied art; she loves food styling and presentation. I don’t think she’s alone!

Now it was time to choose a dessert, which is no mean task; SCA has a killer Specialty Desserts and Breads program, and they were really piling it on. Racks of desserts kept rolling out of the kitchen, and the dessert table looked as long as a football field. A flan? A cake? A pie? Meringue, anybody? But my ticket stash was as nearly empty as I was full, so I settled on a scoop of lemon-basil sorbet. The perfect last bite!

In the dining room, Alice and Richard were serving, and at a slow point I got Alice to tell me a little bit about the program’s curriculum. One of their required courses explores the psychology of human relations; they really think about the roles that food and eating play in our sense of well-being. It struck me that they were doing a good job of translating a small part of that thinking into the concrete actions of unobtrusive, pleasant service.

So, for less than $10, I had an excellent meal prepared and served by a whole crew of diligent, delightful professionals-in-the-making. And afterwards, I strolled a couple of blocks over to the new location for Elliott Bay Books and spent a few minutes browsing through the new releases. A great way to turn a lunch hour into a mini-vacation!

The small-plates program is over for this summer, but the Square One Bistro opens on Wednesday October 5th and the One World dining room opens on Thursday  Oct 6th. The Buzz, open now, offers baked goods and pastries (and coffee, natch). (The days and times vary; before you go, check the website for details.) But this is one secret that nobody should keep–you can get a really great lunch at the SCA!

A mystery at the famous King’s Inn

When I first moved to Seattle to join the UW faculty (a while back now!), at some reception or other a guy in the Chemical Engineering department asked me where I was from. “Kingsville, Texas,” I answered, braced to provide a complicated explanation of where that was (essentially, the end of the earth). “Oh, sure,” he says, “down near the King’s Inn!”

Lots of people know about the King’s Inn, the iconic seafood restaurant on Baffin Bay south of Corpus Christi and–keep driving!–south of my home town Kingsville too. Every graduation, every anniversary, every reunion is marked by a trip to King’s Inn, and most first dates, family visits, kid’s birthdays, and fishing trips as well. I remember reaching up to hold my daddy’s hand as we walked into King’s Inn! So I was really looking forward to ending my visit to Texas with our traditional King’s Inn dinner.

What happened? We got there just on time at around 7:30. (After what has now become the inevitable drive through the near-by RV park. It’s nice. They maintain it well. Can we go get our fish now?) Here’s my brother Robert heading in the door, and here he is with my sister-in-law Marilyn and my other brother Ron with his friend Silvia.

King’s Inn is a big sprawling informal place right on the bay,  always packed on Saturday night. We always order exactly the same thing. We start with a Bombay salad (a fantastic avocado puree livened up with a lot of garlic and a little bit of curry), with a big side of sliced tomatoes ripened to juicy succulence by the South Texas sun. Then we have fried Gulf shrimp, grilled fish, french fries, and breaded onion rings.

The salad came pretty quickly, and we polished it off just as quickly. Then–? Nothing. Our server filled us up with tea, brought more crackers, and apologized more than once. What was the deal? Well, they had gotten backed up in the kitchen. Surprised by a bigger crowd than they expected. I’m sorry, I just don’t buy it–they’ve been feeding huge Saturday night crowds for over six decades.

Finally, around 9:00, we spotted trays of shrimp beginning to sweep across the room toward the more haggard and slumped occupants of the corner tables. And then, way over by the kitchen door, our server appeared with a big grin and thumbs-up, tray laden with our whole order! I hardly paused to take a picture of the plump shrimp and beautifully grilled fish (it was drum, similar to redfish), served family style as always. Given our state, I had to focus on getting my share! But the fish was great as always, made with maybe only a very thin egg wash (if that) and dredging in scant seasoned flour. The fried shrimp (the three that I could wrestle away from my brothers!) were firm, briny, and wonderful. Sweet breaded fried onion rings, thin light french fries. Great food!

We asked a couple of times but couldn’t get further enlightened about what went wrong. My sister-in-law mentioned the sprawl of coolers out on the bay side of the restaurant; maybe evidence of some kind of last-ditch damage-control action? I don’t know. But I’ll go back next year and update you on how it goes. Everybody gets a second chance, right? And after all, once it arrived, the food was good as ever!

If you are in South Texas, you really should give them a visit:  http://www.baffinbaytx.com/kingsinn.htm

Hu-Dat’s for pho in South Texas

Did I really go to the Texas Gulf Coast to eat pho?–2,500 miles away from Seattle, where you can find a pho restaurant in every square block? Yes, and I’m glad I did. Hu-Dat Oriental Restaurant in Rockport serves a great bowl and tells a distinctively American story as well. (How did I find myself in Rockport?–My brother Ron lives there. That’s him and his friend Silvia under the sign.)

I had the No. 16, pho dac biet. The broth was really flavorful, with an undertone of sweetness; my nephew Beau (a Hu-Dat regular) tells me that they simmer it for over a day. My bowl brimmed with rice noodles, green onion, a bit of chicken, and sliced meatballs, with paper-thin slices of raw beef on the side for us to stir into the hot soup. The accompaniments included shredded cabbage (not the sprouts that I’m used to), basil, lime, and jalapeño pepper. A bit different from pho I’ve eaten in Seattle, but an herby, citrusy, spicy, silky, crunchy, slurpy  pleasure!–My serving was huge, and I came close to finishing it.

Hu-Dat’s is a real family restaurant. The owners, the Nguyens, immigrated to the US in 1975 after the fall of Saigon and ended up in Rockport-Fulton, attracted (like many other Vietnamese families) by the chance to continue their traditional livelihood of shrimping. But by 1983, the hostility and racism that the Vietnamese shrimpers were forced to live with (widespread at that time along the whole stretch of the Gulf Coast) finally led them to sell their boat and go into the restaurant business. In 1993, they launched the sandwich shop that soon morphed into Hu-Dat’s.

But times do change. Their son, Dat Nguyen, born in a refugee camp in Arkansas soon after they arrived here, proved to be a stellar young athlete and ended up recruited by Texas A&M as a linebacker. He improbably became a gridiron star, the first Vietnamese to play in the NFL (for the Dallas Cowboys). He has now returned to A&M to coach. There’s a big poster of him in his college hey-day right by the restaurant’s front door.

And here’s our server. In another sign of the changing times, she is also the grandmother of Beau’s sister Kate’s daughter. (Modern families are complicated.) And, since this post has ended up being about families, here’s another piece of mine:  Ron and Silvia with my nephew Beau and his friend Molly. Hu-Dat regulars all!

Hu-Dat’s doesn’t have a website yet, but if you end up hungry in Rockport, ask anybody–they’ll know where to send you!

 

Seguin’s Chiro Java: Get thoroughly adjusted!

Chiro Java in Seguin, Texas takes attitude adjustment to a whole new level!  There’s a chiropractic office square in the middle of the cafe, and Dr. Frisbie (yes, that’s his name) can fix your spine while the cafe fixes your sandwich. (Please tell me who dreams these things up!) Need to check your email?–Fine, Chiro Java’s an internet cafe as well.

My sister Jacque and I stopped in for lunch on my last day in Seguin (that’s her, stirring her sweet tea).  I had the chicken and olive-tapenade sandwich; moist white meat on fresh house-made sourdough bread, lightly dressed with the tapenade. Tasty!

Chiro Java is the kind of place that feels like home. Another customer comes in to place his order and it’s “hi, Sam” and some chit-chat that seems to take up where it left off a few days ago. A friend swings by our table to invite my sister to a get-together later on at her house. A side cabinet displays work from local artists, and a clutch of flyers keeps you up to date on local events.

In fact, there’s a lot to like in Seguin. The Guadalupe River snakes through town, bordered by spacious well-kept parks with picnic tables, barbeque pits, playing fields, and pathways that invite you to come on in and stay a while. The town boasts six community gardens for a population of about 30,000, and anybody can come by and harvest produce from them without charge; the gardeners just ask that you take care to leave the plants healthy for the next visitor. And the locals take pride in their heritage; after lunch, be sure to step around the corner to take in the mural of Seguin history that stretches along the wall of the building. Chiro Java’s self-proclaimed purpose is to “MAKE YOU FEEL GOOD”–and that seems to sum up the spirit of the town as well!

Learn more about Chiro Java here: http://www.chirojava.com/

A find in the Texas Barbeque Belt: Davila’s BBQ in Seguin

The national food rags have discovered Texas barbeque! Bon Apétit and others have recently sung the praises of Franklin’s in Austin, Mueller’s in Taylor, and any number of more obscure barbeque joints. In Austin, the 107º heat persuaded me that I didn’t want to line up outside Franklin’s and wait two hours or more to order (hoping desperately that they wouldn’t give the guy ahead of me the last nub of brisket). So no Austin barbeque for me!

But I did get lucky in Seguin, the town about 40 miles east of San Antonio where my sister Jacque lives. By bbq-joint standards, Davila’s is upscale–instead of butcher paper, you get an actual paper plate on a tray, and you get to sit in air-conditioned ease in a pleasant dining room. But the meat is the real thing, smoked to a char on the outside and melting with flavor and juice on the inside. My sister and I might as well be the Sprat family; Jac can eat no fat and I can eat (almost) no lean. But we were both happy here; she had the sliced turkey and I went with the nicely marbled slices of brisket. (And our friend Alicia looked pretty pleased with her ham.) I added sides of slaw and borracho beans (“drunk” beans, made with Mexican beer), with the usual garnishes of barbeque sauce, onion and pickle slices, and a jalapeño. I decided against the slice of white sandwich bread (heresy–the slice is iconic bbq fixin’s), but I did go for the styrofoam cup of banana pudding. And of course, a big cup of sweet tea.

Seguin is a friendly town; Coraima Acuña, Alicia’s across-the-street neighbor, was working that night, so of course they had to say hello. The other two folks behind the counter were Ariel Perez (on the left) and Josue Fuentes.

And owner Adrian Davila arrived in time for me to grab a picture of him too. (He’s a busy man; there’s a second Davila’s across town, and I hear there’s a food truck as well.)

Davila’s speaks barbeque with a Spanish accent; you can also get fajitas, tacos, and other dishes that draw on the long traditions of Mexican barbacoa. And if you need a burger or a po-boy or a piece of fried chicken, they can help you out with that as well. American food, jostling through an ethnic and regional crowd of flavors and preparations! Not your typical single-minded bbq joint, but a local fixture of a restaurant offering great barbeque that can hold its own in the crowded Texas Barbeque Belt.

Austin’s Eastside Cafe–From farm to table in one step

Road trip! I’ve been in Texas for the last ten days. On Thursday afternoon when I got into Austin, my friend Nancy and I went off to her neighborhood cafe for dinner. What a treat! Eastside Cafe manages to re-create, in the middle of urban Austin, the farm-to-table experience some of us remember from our grandmother’s garden cooking.  A lush acre or so of densely planted garden plots and a shaded chicken coop yield a harvest that travels only a few feet to the cafe kitchen, and then only a few more steps to our plate.

My grandmother was a very practical woman; she marshaled her flowers and vegetables like a garden militia in straight furrows an acre long. But the Eastside gardeners play!–Look how their plots swing along toward the parking lot, a little tipsy, about to lean on each other’s shoulders or brace each other on a hip.

The menu incorporates the garden produce where it can, but also offers a wider range of beautifully prepared dishes. We started with a gazpacho (did I mention that it was over 100°, even at 7:00 in the evening?–a cold soup was a GREAT idea). The corn muffin that came with it was light and crumbly–perfect.

Nancy had the chicken and spinach crepes with a yellow curry cream sauce, served with apple chutney, broccoli with lemon butter, and mixed greens with a lemon tarragon vinaigrette. (I stole some forks-full; delicious!) Because my body thought it was two hours earlier, I wanted a lighter supper, so I had the grilled Ruby Trout with shiitake mushroom ginger cream sauce. (It also came with the broccoli; plus, notice the mint leaves, straight from the garden.) Moist and flavorful–what a pleasure!

Once we looked at the dessert menu, it turned out that we had room after all–chocolate mousse pie, garnished with a flower from the passion vine growing out back. Our server was great! I made a note of her name, but I haven’t found it just yet; I’ll update this when I do. (This just in!–Courtney, known by the cafe gang as CC.) She was very pleasant and helpful (and knowledgeable about food blogs!). We didn’t stop by the gift shop, but if we had, we could have bought preserves and other products from the cafe’s garden.

I’ve been to the Eastside Cafe several times now over the last decade or so, whenever I’ve found myself in Austin. I’ve never been disappointed, but this time I was especially pleased! And the word seems to be out; later that night, talking to an old friend about where to have lunch the next day, his first thought was “what about the Eastside Cafe?” Great idea!

Find out more about Eastside Cafe here: http://www.eastsidecafeaustin.com/index.html

Osteria La Spiga

Osteria La Spiga lives comfortably at the intersection of Old World and New–the menu, with accents of the authentic culinary traditions of Emilia-Romagna, is presented in a setting that speaks a contemporary Northwest dialect of polished wood, exposed brick, and structural steel. The expansive dining room resolves into more intimate settings defined by beams, glass, textures, booths and “cubicles.” In rustic counterpoint, a weathered Italian sideboard anchors the service area, reminding you that the preparation of your meal actually began many years ago in the old kitchens of Emilia-Romagna.

And the food is as appealing as the setting. Last Sunday, a friend and I had a lovely dinner there. Soon after you are seated, a basket of homemade flat bread arrives: a dense chewy bread, Piadina (the menu tells me) is vegan. You can eat it plain (as we did) or dress it with olive oil (you have a choice of two!), balsamic vinegar, or truffle oil (ordered a la carte).

For the antipasto, we had prosciutto-wrapped figs filled with mascarpone and drizzled with saba (a grape must syrup), served with arugula from the chef’s garden. The plate was dotted with a nice reduction of balsamic vinegar, and the figs were sweet-savory, with a pleasing mix of textures. I love arugula; this version was young enough for only a hint of pepper beneath its smoke, and the dressing was light enough to let the flavors through.

(Last time I ate here, we had the Fritto Misto di Pesce for the starter–fried calamari, shrimp, and sardines; the current menu offers the dish with bay scallops instead of sardines, accompanied by a salsa verde dipping sauce. I would have ordered it again, if we hadn’t managed to snare the very last serving of the beautiful figs.)

Primi

We came hungry!–we ordered two primi. I went with the Tagliatelle Verdi al Cinghiale: green tagliatelle with a wild boar and white wine ragu. It wasn’t an easy choice. On my last visit, a friend had the Tagliatelle al Burro di Tartufo (tagliatelle noodles with white Alba Truffle butter), and I sneaked a taste–a lovely, rich sauce. But I’m glad I tried the boar ragu; the ground meat was delicate but added a distinctive earthy note to the wine sauce. You want to pay attention to this pasta! It is hand-made daily on-site. (You can watch; the pasta room, behind the sideboard, has glass walls.)  If you are like me, you usually cook with dried commercial pasta, which has a uniform texture and thickness and bland taste. Say hello to pasta with character!–This pasta has a rustic shape and texture that holds the sauce in a very different and satisfying way.

For the other “first,” my friend had the Gnocchi al Pomodoro: potato dumplings tossed in the house tomato sauce and Parmigiano Reggiano. I had this dish last time and loved it. The gnocchi are very light, and the tomato sauce is absolutely to die for–delicate, aromatic, flavorful.

Secondi

We shared a single order of the porchetta (slow roasted pork shoulder with rosemary, sage and fennel seed served with fennel alla Parmigiana). The plating under-sells this wonderful dish; even a sprig of parsley would have brightened the presentation. But don’t be deceived; you are about to taste a dish that is anything but bland. The first clue was that it was served with a spoon. After having roasted low and slow over-night, the meat fell apart into moist chunks at the first touch. I would have told you that fennel wasn’t among my favorites, but the fennel seed and mild braised fennel worked like a wonder with the flavor of the pork. (I couldn’t get enough! Unfortunately, it is bad manners to stab your table-mate’s hand, so I had to make do with my half.) We rounded out our meal with a serving of Polenta Fritta:  fried polenta wedges with a thin crisp skin over a light creamy interior. Classic!

As it happens, my stepson Ezra works at La Spiga, and in his typical top form, he brought us each a taste of vin santo to end our meal. He explains: “the drink I brought you was a vin santo from Tuscany (as all vin santos are) made from the
left-overs of grapes used to produce chianti.  It’s called ‘ Occhio di Pernice,’ which means ‘eye of the partridge.'”

Here’s Darliene, who was maitre ‘d this evening (vamping for the camera–you go, Darliene!) And here’s my stepson Ezra, the floor manager, who was bartending on Sunday. (I couldn’t get a money shot of him–he wouldn’t stay still!) For some reason (because I was totally focused on my plate?) I didn’t take a picture of our server Miranda. She did a very good job for us–unobtrusive but somehow there when we look around with a question.

I’ve had dinner at La Spiga several times now, with various of my opinionated and outspoken foodie friends (you know who you are). The consensus is: great food and very good service. Does it help that Ezra is my stepson? Probably!–but get acquainted with him and Darliene and the rest of the staff–they’ll take good care of you too. That’s the fun of having a place that draws you back again and again, where they welcome you every time.

La Spiga, owned by Sabrina Tinsley and Pietro Borghesi, is on Capitol Hill in Seattle, on 12th Ave. between Pike and Union.  http://www.laspiga,com.

Joule’s high-wire energy

Last night, a friend and I had dinner at Joule, the restaurant in my Wallingford neighborhood “curated” by Seif Chirchi and Rachel Yang. (You met Rachel back in April–she masterminded one of the menus for the Food Bank Gourmet fundraiser.) Rachel was cooking, so we sat at the counter to watch as she and her two cooks calmly fed dish after  dish into the waiting hands of the bustling servers. The place was packed (those two empty stools at the counter?–we had just vacated them, and two people from the scrum by the door are nanoseconds away from taking them over). The small-plate format makes for lots of action, but the atmosphere somehow stayed relaxed. Our server Nora materialized right when needed to trade full plates for empty ones, answer questions, and generally be pleasant and helpful.

And the food! In the language of physics, a joule is a unit of energy. How do you measure the energy of a restaurant and a menu? Joule excites your palate with unexpected preparations and pairings of ingredients stocked from a global pantry. What at first reading might seem exotic becomes inevitable (and delicious!) on the tongue.

The menu is organized around “Flavors: Abroad,” “Flavors: Native,” and “Flavors: Collected” (a family-style supper of seven dishes). We didn’t travel out to the edgier regions–no grilled beef tongue with Chinese celery pesto and caramelized fish sauce, no seaweed butter or grilled octopus cocktail. Even so, we found plenty to delight us.

The asparagus salad combined shaved raw asparagus with arugula, walnuts, and basil yogurt. The earthiness of the curls of raw asparagus and lightly peppery arugula was balanced by the sweetness of the nuts and the smooth cool yogurt. We followed that with the spicy beef soup with leeks, daikon, and crème fraiche. The beef (chunks, not strands!) was tender and tasty and the broth kicked up a nice tingle. The killer plate for me, though, was the Joule BBQ (short rib steak, sweet chili sausage, and grilled kimchi)–the ribs pink in the center and succulent, the moist sausage balancing sweet chili, char, and spicy sauce in your mouth, and the (low-wattage) kimchi adding a clean touch of sour and crunch.

I couldn’t skip the “Joule box,” tapioca pearls with grapefuit brulee. (If tapioca is on the menu, I order it; there’s just something about the feel of those silky tapioca marbles in my mouth.) This version had Thai notes of lime and coconut milk. We watched the cook blast the grapefruit sections with his blowtorch and wondered what would arrive on our plates; the result was a surprisingly subtle sweet kick to the tartness of the fruit.

Joule works with some pretty high-wire concepts but doesn’t put a foot wrong in offering great food with surprising, delightful flavors, textures, and presentation. This summer they are doing a Sunday series of BBQ, as the menu says, “inspired.” I’ve missed the Backyard, Hawaii, Seatown, Thailand, South, and Korea menus, but I’ve still got a shot at Greece, New England, Vietnam, Caribbean, Mediterranean, and Japan. Stay tuned!

A great crêpe place in Baltimore

This Sunday I found myself with a day to kill in Baltimore before catching my flight back home, so as usual I started off by scouting out a good restaurant or two. And I found a little gem just at the bottom of the hill in the Mount Washington neighborhood where I was staying! Crêpe Du Jour (www.crepedujour.com) is a cozy place with a lightly French ambiance, pleasant  decor, and (judging by my waiter) low-key but knowledgeable staff. And crêpes!–both savory and sweet (as well as a small survey of other bistro fare).

I went with the Crêpe Lorraine, a nice combination of (thin!) asparagus spears, brie, and prosciutto, with flecks of onion to balance the earthy flavors. It arrived at the table scribbled with an aromatic balsamic reduction; each ingredient had enough presence to say hello to you on its own before blending back into the crowd. A very nice dish!

(My plate was decorated with a drawing of the Eiffel Tower. Would it be too completely obsessive to wish that the bottom of the crêpe had been planted at the bottom of the Tower? Instead, the packet appeared to be standing on its head. Or, the Tower appeared to be stabbed into the ground!)

Gertrude’s at the BMA–another notable museum restaurant

What is going on with museum restaurants?–Long the domain of staid upholstery and starched skirts, lately they seem to be showing a lot more ankle! The current case in point, Gertrude’s at the Baltimore Museum of Art, where I had an early supper (or was it a late lunch?) last Sunday.

The BMA is noted for the Cone Collection, a gift from sisters Etta and Claribel Cone, daughters of a prosperous late 19th-century owner of a grocery store. After their brothers built the family business into a huge textile company, “Miss Etta and Dr. Claribel” spent a good chunk of the family fortune on art, guided at first only by their own superb taste and then later by their good friends Leo and Gertrude Stein. Hence the name of this restaurant!

After spending several hours among the many Matisses (Henri was a close friend of the sisters and is well represented), the Picassos, the Modiglianis, and even the Jackson Pollacks, I was ready for a sit-down and a light meal.

Yes, I had the time-honored soup-and-sandwich combo, but it came with a few surprises! The soup was basically a minestrone, but instead of being simmered into gray anonymity,  the vegetables were lightly al dente and fortified with chunks of flavorful crab (this is Baltimore, after all). The sandwich was chicken salad, but made with large moist chunks of chicken breast, toasted slivered almonds, tarragon, and minced red onion on calamata-olive ciabatta bread. And the orzo salad actually stole the show, with a silky lemon dressing and bits of glossy red pepper. Great mix of flavors and textures! (The wine helped.)

The setting also helped! Gertrude’s extends out onto a patio at the edge of the BMA sculpture garden. It was a warm, pleasant day, so I sat outside by the fountain and admired the art as I ate.

After my meal, I wandered around the Johns Hopkins University campus next door until it was time to retrieve my roller-bag and head for the airport. What a nice day!–I’ll be back, Baltimore!