Archive | November, 2013

Mike’s Kitchen | Cranston, RI | Nov ’13 | “local institution”

25 Nov

Address: 170 Randall St, Cranston, RI 02920

Telephone: (401) 946-5320

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“You must try Mike’s.” I’ve heard many a time from Providence locals. “Especially the polenta”. But I don’t have the luxury of a car in Providence, and the buses don’t run conveniently to that part of town. So I’m thankful that today my friend will be doing the short 15 minute drive to Mike’s.

Mike’s isn’t like most eateries. It opens from 5-8pm. It’s been around for 30 years, and many of the original servers are still around. It looks like a mess hall. And it’s located in a squat Veteran of Foreign Wars (VFW) building. But the polenta’s the main draw. The NYTimes stopped over in 1997:

Johanne Killeen and George Germon, the owners of the acclaimed restaurant Al Forno in Providence, often dine at Mike’s Kitchen and have included his polenta recipe, which they call the best the world, in their cookbook, ”Cucina Simpatica” (HarperCollins, 1991).

Mr. Lepizzera’s cooking is such a draw that on Fridays, the busiest night, a line stretches outside the building as people wait for a table. The restaurant, which occupies most of the post, seats 125.

If not for the Formica-topped tables with plastic baskets of scali bread and margarine, the large, rectangular room would seem like any other V.F.W. hall. The wood-paneled walls are hung with flags, medals and sepia photos of young men in uniform.

But the diners are not just veterans. They are mayors and lawyers (paper napkins tucked securely under their chins and over their ties), young couples and retirees. Not to mention Mr. Lepizzera himself, who sits down every afternoon for a family-style lunch with his staff at a round table in the middle of the dining room. The waitresses, most of whom have worked at Mike’s since the restaurant opened 14 years ago, take turns hopping up to attend to customers.

Here’s the recipe for the famous polenta (from epicurious):

ingredients

1/4 cup virgin olive oil1/2 lb unsalted butter2 Tbs chopped garlic2 cups chicken stock1 1/2 quarts half & half1 1/2 -2 tsp kosher salt12 turns of pepper grinder1 tsp crushed red pepper flakes2 cups cornmealpinch sugar1 1/2-2 cups freshly grated Pecorino Romano

preparation

1. Heat oil and butter in a large, heavy stockpot. Add the garlic and saute over low heat until it is golden.

2. Add the stock, half & half, 2 1/2 cups of water, salt, and black and red peppers, and stir to combine. Raise the heat and bring to a boil.

3. Very slowly, add the cornmeal, stirring constantly. Lower the heat to maintain a gentle boil. After all the cornmeal has been added, continue to stir until it is thick and creamy, about 20 minutes.

4. Off the heat, stir in the sugar and Romano. Serve right away with the short ribs recipe. Also great accompaniment to grilled sausage.

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We arrive in the chilly November night.

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A motley crowd of locals, and long-serving servers.

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No frills table layout. Plasticky brown table covering.

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Peppers and oil.

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Fried Calamari (4.5/5)

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The famous Mike’s Polenta (4.5/5)

Red sauce is the order of the day, covering a polenta cake. I was expecting a more liquid polenta, but this was quite delicious.

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Chicken Parm (3.5/5)

More red sauce.

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Spumoni (4/5)

I love spumoni. It is a tricolor icecream with candied fruit bits (in this case, cherry). This brought me back to Chicago (Avec serves a great version of the spumoni), and reminded me a bit of the rainbow milk swirl ice creams I had in my childhood.

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At Mike’s, I was reminded of 80s Chinese restaurants in Singapore, like the Teochew place Por Kee Eating House (my first review on this blog, sadly standards have dropped slightly when I returned this year). Both have servers who have been there for multiple decades, a motley crew of diners (young couples, local politicians, locals), old fashioned decor, large plates designed for sharing. Both seem to be neighbourhood institutions. For no-frills self-styled-“peasant” Italian food in Providence, look no further than Mike’s.

Rating: 13/20

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The Catbird Seat @ birch | Providence | Oct ’13 | “Tastes of Fall”

14 Nov

Address: 200 Washington St, Providence, RI 02903
Telephone: (401) 272-3105

The Michelin Guide is my go-to whenever I’m in an unfamiliar city, but North America is a very big place and their inspectors only cover a small area, geographically speaking. So one of the other North American guides I consult is Opinionated About Dining (OAD)’s top 100 restaurants, voted upon by food reviewers. (2013 edition here). On the 2013 edition are two restaurants run by chefs responsible for the October Visiting Chef dinner – Ben Sukle of The Dorrance (now at his own restaurant birch) and Erik Anderson of Nashville’s The Catbird Seat. My opinions on birch’s food are documented here: [1] [2].

The Catbird Seat is an open-kitchen style restaurant [NYTimes report here], which can be traced in fine-dining to Robuchon’s chain of Ateliers worldwide, which was itself inspired by Japanese sushi counters. These open-concept kitchens getting increasingly popular in New York: I had a recent meal in atera; Blanca, and Chef’s Table are also popular tables.

I was very excited for this dinner, and I was not disappointed by what was to follow.

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Beef Tartar [wrapped in turnip slices, 2 o’clock]
Hot Chicken [Dill pickle sauce, 5 o’clock]
Sea Urchin Sandwich [10 o’clock]
Chicken Liver Bonbons [centre]

My favorite of the amuses was the hot chicken. A Nashville specialty, it was served with mayo and dill pickle sauce.

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Uni Sandwich

2013-10-20 17.25.462013-10-20 17.25.53Clams and Tripe [Erik Anderson] (4/5)

The clams were “open braised” with steam, if I’m not wrong, which sounds like braising without contact with water. The radish gave a parsley note to the dish, and the soup was a pungent red savory brew with tripe. A hearty concoction.

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2013-10-20 17.37.35Sunchokes Roasted in Chicken Drippings [Ben Sukle] (4/5)

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Pigeon [Erik Anderson] (5/5)

Salsify, Pear, Pecan, Birch and Sorghum Sauce

This dish was an absolute showstopper. Pigeon from nashville was first dried for 7 days, roasted and then paired with crispy salsify, pear and butter sorbet, a sour hibiscus leaf and brown butter sauce. The pigeon was strongly flavoured, but to pair it with the sour hibiscus leaf was inspired, and all elements of the dish (caramel dabs and crispy salsify) came together harmoniously. The centre-piece of the evening, evoking memories of fall.

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Another angle.

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Ribeye of 3-Month Aged Ancient White Park Beef [Erik Anderson] (4/5)

Onions and Preserved Matsutakes

The various onions were expertly cooked (I especially liked the small white one in the bottom-right). White Park beef is a very old heritage breed from the UK, and our beef was of Virginia, grass-fed – the aging of 3 months would have served to concentrate its flavours. The exterior tasted like candied beef jerky. While I enjoyed the cheesy, funky taste of the interior, the beef seemed to be dry and a little stringy from the aging process. Perhaps a 2-month aging process might serve it better, or some other way preventing moisture loss.

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Hooligan [Erik Anderson] (5/5)

Roasted Shallot, Oats, Huckleberry, and Mustard See Salt

Voila un cheese course! A roasted hull of shallot would serve to impact sharp onion flavours to a pungent stinky raw cowsmilk cheese from Cato Corner Farm in Connecticut. An oat crisp served as the serving “lid”, but what made it delightful was finding a reserve of huckleberry jam at the very bottom of the shallot. As a serving conceit, I loved the idea of using a halved roast shallot as a bowl.

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Maple and Pine Custard [Erik Anderson] (4.25/5)

Fresh Thyme and Benton’s Bacon

A custard with maple syrup, bacon, and thyme. Satisfying intermezzo.

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Gregg’s Apples [Ben Sukle] (4.5/5)

Maraschino Cranberries, Malt, Caramel and Bourbon

Gregg’s Apples refers to a farm in Middletown RI, as a RI food writer next to me remarked. This dessert has gone on to birch’s regular menu. Dominant notes of caramel and apple. Delicious.

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Pairing of Santiago Oloroso Sherry, Spain

I also had the alcohol pairing throughout the night. This sherry was my favorite, a satisfyingly savory drink, those savory notes reminiscent of Old Pulteney whisky.

 

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Quince Jellies
White Chocolate with Crispy Quinoa

Quince dissolving in your mouth, Hershey’s cookies and cream chocolate made upscale. A right hook of saltiness.

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An enjoyable evening, the standout dish of the night would have to be the Pigeon. It served with its foot just sticking outside the dish, recognisably pigeon and not anonymously delicious meat. The dish invited diners to pick the leg up by its claw and gnaw on it after the civilised motions of forking and knifing had yielded all the easy meat. It was also incredibly harmonious, with brown butter and the sour fleeting taste of hibiscus.

This meal has only made me more eager to head down South one more time, and see what Southern chefs are doing with their food. Bring on the spring!

Memory: Pigeon, Hooligan

Eleven Madison Park | New York | Nov ’13 | “I <3 NY"

10 Nov
  • Address: 11 Madison Ave, New York, NY 10010
  • Telephone: (212) 889-0905
  • Price (after tax + tip, excl. drinks): $295
  • Courses: (12 main/16 total) 1 amuse / 9 savory / 3 dessert / 2 mignardises / 1 take-home
  • Price/Main Course: $25
  • Rating: 18.5/20
  • Value: 5/5
  • Dining Time: 230 minutes
  • Time/Course (total): 14.5 minutes
  • Chef: Daniel Humm
  • Style: French / Theatrical
  • Michelin Stars: 3
  • Notable: Reliance on sous-vide cooking

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I must have walked past the art-deco building with high ceilings in Madison Park at least five times previously without realising that it housed the restaurant I had been so eager to try. With its high ceilings, I had assumed that it housed a bank. In days of yore, Eleven Madison Park was an Italian restaurant, under its old ownership of Danny Meyer, New York restaurant empire-builder. But since Chef Daniel Humm and Will Guidara bought this place over in 2011, Eleven Madison Park is a restaurant that has become known for risk-taking.

I’ll give you the punchline: Eleven Madison Park is the most fun restaurant I have ever been to, hands down. There are so many toys being used in service – meat grinder, tartare tray, eggcream cart, Manhattan cart, playing cards, tied-up white boxes, glass cloches, picnic baskets, portable barbecues. Fine dining is never just about the food (thought experiment: would you enjoy your dinner as much if it were given to you in take-out boxes?), it is about the whole package – service, ambience, fellow-diners (both across the table and adjacent tables), and the innovative ways in which food is presented. In most restaurants, innovative presentation stops at plating. Not Eleven Madison Park; here presentation goes the whole hog.

This incarnation of Eleven Madison Park is about one year old – the $195 NY tasting menu was introduced mid last year, replacing the $125 four-course prix fixe where diners would choose their courses based on a 4×4 grid of ingredients. We were treated to a four-hour extravaganza of New York lovin’, and I would have not wanted to be anywhere else on the planet.

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EMP’s plate with recessed hole: a conceit to make the dishes pop.

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1st: Mystery Box

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1st: CHEDDAR: Savory Black and White Cookie with Apple

A tribute to a New York black-and-white cookie, usually made with vanilla fondant and chocolate fondant. Here the biscuit is made savory, and tasted like a Nabisco Ritz cheese cracker with the texture of butter biscuit. A small dollop of applesauce within for contrast kept it interesting.

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2013-11-09 13.55.332nd: OYSTER: Grapes, Bulgar Wheat, and Sorrel (4.5/5)

A remaining core of 10% of the Oyster, which was plump and mild, not briny – maintained the marine taste of oyster. The outer 90% had the texture of oyster but taste-dominated by a Concord grape granita. Interesting.

“… and lucky sorrel” – parting words of our server. At first I thought lucky sorrel was some rare aberration, like four-leaved clovers – but it turns out it’s a thing.

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3rd: SHRIMP: Marinated with Sea Urchin, Foie Gras, and Chervil. (4.5/5)

A bottarga, dried and shaved, made of sea urchin, coats sweet Maine shrimp. Foie gras paste with chervil foam. Good.

(Obsiblue prawns at Jaan spoilt me. When I think of sweet shrimp now, I think of those little buggers swimming of the great barrier reef. Of course, Eleven Madison Park, with its focus on the New England and Yankee hinterland, would probably not import those prawns from halfway across the world.)

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4th Part One: STURGEON: Sabayon with Chive Oil (4.5/5)

A foamy Sabayon, over a base of chunks of smoked sturgeon in verdant green chive oil.

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4th Part Two: STURGEON: Smoked with Everything Bagel Crumble, Pickles and Caviar (4/5)

This dish is the bastard child of Caviar-Sturgeon & the Smoked Lox and Cream Cheese on a Everything Bagel that is classically New York. Served theatrically with a glass cloche (plated smoke that isn’t part of the cooking process), the smoked sturgeon was fair. Continuity was emphasised with half-a-quail egg (the other being in the sabayon one dish ago?) and the sturgeon. Our server explained that this was a celebration of New York’s bagel traditions – an evocative montage without being supremely delicious. Caviar was served a tin with cream cheese – their tastes didn’t combine in any significant way. A play on sense memories.

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Bread, Butter, and Butter fortified with Venison Trimmings

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5th Option One: FOIE GRAS: Terrine with Plum and Bitter Almond (5/5)

A stunning dish. 3 sweet crisp layers of tuile sandwich savory blocks of foie gras, cut to perfect and uncloying thickness. Soursweet dark complexity from an umeboshi (pickled plum) puree and syruped plum bits with plum jelly. Tremendous. The umeboshi puree was a perfect complement to foie-tuile sandwich.  The best foie dish I have ever tasted, as far as I remember.

2013-11-09 14.45.242013-11-09 14.45.165th Option Two: FOIE GRAS: Seared with Oats, Sage, and Apple

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6th: CARROT: Tartare with Rye Bread and Condiments (5/5)

Carrot from Upstate New York is put through an old-school meat grinder, a tribute to the steak tartare in New York steakhouses [1]. The carrot was moist and provided a good base for the seasonings – the combination with quails egg, salt, carrot vinaigrette, bluefish shavings (etc.) great. Reminiscent of some of the best steak tartare I’ve had in Prague.

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Foreshadowing: Butternut Squash pasted with butter and herbs within. A sourdough ring is pasted on the squash to keep the aromatics in.

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7th: LOBSTER: Poached with Brussel Sprouts and Guanciale (4.25/5)

Guanciale is an unsmoked Italian bacon prepared with pig’s jowl or cheeks. Draped on a lobster, with brussel sprout puree, roasted leaves of brussel sprout, brussel sprout crumble, and roasted whole brussel sprouts. My companion and I both enjoyed the myriad ways of preparing the humble brussel sprout, but agreed that the lobster was a tad stringy and overcooked.

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Guanciale

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8th: SQUASH: Roasted with Cranberries, Pumpkin Seeds and Sourdough (4.75/5)

Squash is ubiquitous during Fall in New England, and what better way to celebrate Halloween and the coming Thanksgiving later this month than with cranberries and squash? The highlight of the dish were the perfectly roasted pumpkin seeds, coated in a thin crisp glaze. Chanterelle mushroom puree and chicken jus made this dish, the epitome of fall, earthy.

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Earlier, we were given a choice of venison or duck for our main course. We plumped for the venison, and were treated to a natural-sous-vide method of preparing the meat. I think we were told the black thing encasing the venison was bread, but I’m not 100% sure.

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9th Part One: VENISON: Grilled with Pearl Onions and Chanterelles (3.5/5)

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9th Part Two: VENISON: Roasted with Pears and Sunchokes (4.75/5)

Another two part dish. We were directed to grill the kebabs (part one) one minute (timed on my iPhone). The taste wasn’t bad, but it was fairly simple. I enjoyed the venison greatly. The natural sous-vide bag had rendered it perfectly succulent, and it was garnished with the aromatic black trumpet mushroom, which can only be foraged. It was a dish reminiscent of an autumnal hunt in the forest, playing again to the fall theme. Again, I enjoyed the complicated two-part plating of this dish.

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10th: GREENSWARD: Pretzel, Mustard, and Champagne Grapes (4.5/5)

Jasper Hill soft rind cheese from Vermont, washed with Ale specially bottled for EMP, and aged for 3 weeks in Bleecker Caves. Violet Wasabi jam. Very sweet grapes with skins so soft they’re almost vestigial – Baby Thompson grapes, served as if we were going out for a Picnic. An ingenious serving trick, the picnic basket amused both of us.

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11th: MALT: Egg Cream with Vanilla and Seltzer. (4.5/5)

“and Seltzer water, from the Bronx.” Our server emphasised.

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INTERMEZZO: The Manhattan Cart

At this point, we decided to order a Manhattan, made with rye. So we got a second cart service. Whee!

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12th: APPLE: Sorbet with Bay Leaf, Creme Brulee and Hibiscus (4.75/5)

A croissant ring around a honey creme brulee, where the creme brulee was somehow hardened on both sides without blowtorching the croissant ring into oblivion. Excellent technique, with the sourness of the hibiscus sorbet as counterpoint.

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13th: SWEET POTATO: Cheesecake with Honey and Chestnut (4.75/5)

Cheesecake in sorbet form, good. Sweet potato went very well with the cheesecake. As you can see, our 4 hour extravaganza is nearing its end – night is already falling at about 4pm, some of the servers are resetting the tables for the dinner service later tonight.

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14th: PRETZEL: Chocolate Covered with Sea Salt (5/5)

15th: CHOCOLATE: Sweet Black and White Cookie with Cinnamon [in the box]

Our post-meal snacks takes us full-circle to the beginning of the meal. Black and white cookies are served straight up this time, in a sweet form. The pretzels were very good – that makes it two New York restaurants with chocolate pretzel finishes. (the other is atera).

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To ensure you don’t starve, EMP gives you some 3 Michelin Star granola to eat for tomorrow’s breakfast. A nice touch.

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Looking back on the meal, Eleven Madison Park’s menu succeeds admirably in its goal of evoking all things New York. The restaurant’s love for New York and its history is apparent in the food, the plating, the props and the service. I was very lucky to be able to experience this with my dining companion. To be honest, many of the dishes in themselves were polished to an extremely high level, but there were comparatively few wow-dishes purely in food terms (the notable wows were the carrot tartare, and the foie gras terrine). Instead, what makes EMP unique is the sheer ingenuity of this menu’s presentation – cloches, picnic baskets, grinders, carts – which evoked my own love of the City. The presentation is half the substance at EMP. I do wonder how a repeat diner might take this – once was magical, but I’m not sure about twice.

Today’s visit: My favorite New York restaurant experience, ever.

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Rating: 18.5/20

Memory: Foie gras terrine sandwiched with sweet tuile & umeboshi puree, Carrot tartare.

Other significant write-ups

  1. NYTimes announcement of Eleven Madison Park’s 2012 menu change.
  2. Pete Wells’s critical look at the incipient months of the New York menu.
  3. Beautiful photography from Tina Wong on a 2011 visit.
  4. Review by the Ulterior Epicure in 2009. Choice quote:

“I like the service at Eleven Madison Park.  Whereas eating at per se is like attending Her Majesty’s Privy Council meeting, Daniel like attending mass (in Latin), and masa like attending an open heart surgery, I’m not sure I can object to four-star service with a smile and a wink.”

Fiorella’s | New Orleans | Mar ’13 | “fried chicken”

3 Nov
Address: 1136 Decatur St, New Orleans, LA 70116
Phone: (504) 553-2155

We were on our spring break trip through Texas and Louisiana, to find some of the best everyman food in the South, and decided to end it off in the Big Easy. My non-food memories of New Orleans nights: spring break beads, neon lights, being able to carry alcohol openly in the French Quarter, live music every 50 metres, pina colada dispensed from industrial slushie machines. New Orleans in March is what I can only describe as the Spring Break pilgrimage capital of America.

The French Quarter was hardly disturbed (thankfully) during Hurricane Katrina, but it is still possible to see the damage 8 years on – exploded train yards, damaged houses. The city remains one of the most vibrant in America, attracting tourists, spring breakers, street performers, musicians.

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New Orleans by night2013-03-30 14.00.30New Orleans by day
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Fried Chicken (5/5)
Rice and Beans by the side

But to the food. New Orleans has a reputation for fried chicken (witness the global franchising of the not-very-good Popeye’s chicken chain): and Fiorella’s is noted within New Orleans for serving very good fried chicken. For what it was worth, this had an a crispy savory outer layer, an armour of salty crust, and juicy dark red meat within.

The secret to such great fried chicken seems to be a set of hydrolysis reactions, that render broken-in oil better than freshly-used oil. 

Food cooked in fresh oil browns less quickly and evenly. But why should that be, given that fresh oil gets just as hot as oil that has been broken in?

The answer comes down to the simple fact that oil and water don’t mix – at least not at first. Steam bubbles streaming from deep-frying food push away the surrounding oil, so the food actually isn’t in constant contact with it. In fact, food frying in fresh oil spends as little as one-tenth of the cooking time in contact with hot oil. […]

After repeated use, frying oil goes through another set of chemical reactions, called hydrolysis, that split and rearrange some of the fat molecules. Among the new reaction products are surfactants – also known as emulsifiers – that allow oil and water to mix.

Food cooked in oil that’s been “broken in” this way will spend upwards of half of the total frying time in contact with the oil. With heat being delivered more rapidly, the food cooks faster to higher temperatures, an even golden-brown color, and a more robust flavor.

Unfortunately, oil cannot be kept in its peak condition forever. Eventually the oil and water mix too well, and the oil spends too much time in contact with the food, causing scorching. – Modernist Cuisine volume 2, Nathan Myhrvold.

Since almost every table at Fiorella’s ordered the fried chicken, I think they had some fairly good oil management techniques.

Other possible sources of fried-chicken deliciousness:

  1. Often in Southern recipes, chicken is soaked in salted milk before deep-frying. The moisture from the milk could form a skin that resists the absorption of oil. The “skin” effect is enhanced by salt.
  2. It is important to strain out broken-off food particles from the oil before they burn, creating toxic compounds.
  3. Colonel Sanders of KFC also used a breakthrough pressure-based deep-fryer to tenderise the meat of older birds (today chickens are slaughtered 10 weeks sooner than they used to). So this is a good technique for heirloom chickens, but probably not those at Fiorella.

Barbecue Trip | Texas | Mar ’13 | “carnivorous crusade”

3 Nov

What is the most traditional American cuisine? Is it the fast-food movement that grew out of the Prohibition Era, when it shut down the classic New York restaurants and ceded real estate to greasy spoons and diners? Growing up in Singapore, the American food I was exposed to was the McDonald’s in the Eastern town centre of Bedok North. That’s a strong candidate, certainly America’s most visible export. France, land of the baguette, is actually the second-most profitable country for McDonald’s worldwide! But tradition goes deeper than the 20th century.

Three factors in judging the quintessential American cuisine are important:

  1. Substantial history – long family-traditions
  2. Widespread across America – from coast to coast
  3. Democratic – every man, woman, and child could have an opinion and variation.

Barbecue captures those characteristics well:

  1. History – In North Carolina in the 1660s, pigs started to be roasted. Vinegar was used as a bactericide, and peppers a source of Vitamin C to prevent scurvy. Slow cooking at low temperatures made it less likely the bbq rack would go up in flames. In Texas, bbq was used as a means to feed large groups of people. A Sam Houston political rally from 1860 was called the Great American Barbecue. – An Economist Gets Lunch.
  2. Widespread across America – The diverse “centres of excellence” include Memphis, Texas, North Carolina, and Kansas. In recent years, smoke permits have allowed a rash of BBQ restaurants to arise in NYC.
  3. Democratic – you bet everyone has their own recipe for rub, and smoking times.

In An Economist Gets Lunch, Tyler Cowen argues that big cities have traditionally been inimical to barbecue because of the fire hazard of a slow-burning open pit. With better technology, I think such risks can be mitigated. Burnt Ends in Singapore (of the Spanish bbq tradition), for instance, has in a small space put a oven that reaches 850 degrees centigrade.

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American barbecue, according to Wikipedia, can be split into four major categories:

While the wide variety of barbecue styles makes it difficult to break barbecue styles down into regions, there are four major styles commonly referenced (though many sources list more). The four major styles are Memphis and Carolina, which rely on pork and represent the oldest styles, and Kansas City and Texas, which utilize beef as well as pork, and represent the later evolution of the original Deep South barbecue.[8] Pork is the most common meat used, followed by beef and veal, often with chicken or turkey in addition. Lamb and mutton are found in some areas, such as Owensboro, Kentucky (International Bar-B-Q Festival), and some regions will add other meats. – Wikipedia

Brisket is a popular cut in Texas, and represents breast/lower chest meat. Only long-hours over the pits can break down the collagen tissues in brisket enough for it to be delicious. The brisket is split into two parts, the flat end and the point end. The flat end represents everything that you dislike about chicken breast meat – tough, stringy, relatively flavourless. The point end endures long hours over fire, charring its exterior, giving it the sobriquet – Burnt Ends. 

This normally tough cut of meat, due to the collagen fibers that make up the significant connective tissue in the cut, is tenderized when the collagen gelatinizes, resulting in more tender brisket. The fat cap often left attached to the brisket helps to keep the meat from drying during the prolonged cooking necessary to break down the connective tissue in the meat. Water is necessary for the conversion of collagen to gelatin. – Wikipedia on the science of BBQ.

In March, my friend C and I, went to Texas to sample the famed BBQ pits of Texas. These being the most famous standards by which American barbecue is judged, would also serve as to calibrate our standards for barbecue.

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The Salt Lick, Driftwood, TX

Address: 18300 FM 1826, Driftwood, TX
Telephone: (512) 858-4959

The Salt Lick is located on the outskirts of state capital Austin, near the newly constructed Formula 1 Grand Prix circuit. This is the grand-daddy of Texan BBQ restaurants, certainly the most famous – The Salt Lick has a subsidiary outlet in Austin’s airport. We ordered Family Style – “All you can eat beef brisket, sausage, pork ribs, potato salad, cole slaw and beans. Bread, pickles and onions on request.”

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The Oven
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Sides of Cole Slaw, Potato Salad, and Beans

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Flat End Brisket (2.75/5) and Pork Ribs

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Burnt Ends (4.5/5) and Pork Ribs

Burnt ends were flavourful and succulent. My fingers ended up as well-seasoned as the barbecue, and I found myself unable to make notes on my iPad about the meat candy we tried, and … I also forgot to after the dinner. According to my highly unreliable 8-month-after-the-fact impressions, I think these were among the best burnt ends we tried on the trip.

Not pictured are beef ribs, but they were also very good.

The place attracts a lot of tourists, even though it though it is a 30 minute drive from Austin TX proper. Food is served in a large enclosed mess hall, and many order a last side of brisket and ribs to pack away for the next week.

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Other Writeups:

  1. A barbecue aficionado’s thoughts on the Salt Lick.

From there, we moved on the Lockhart, the Barbecue Capital of America.

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Kreuz Market, Lockhart, TX

Address: 619 North Colorado Street, Lockhart, TX 78644

Telephone: 512-398-2361

Kreuz Market is located in Lockhart,  a delightfully quaint town. It contains three major barbecue shops (Kreuz, Smitty’s, Black), all regarded by some people some of the time as the best BBQ places in America. Strapped somewhat for time before we headed to San Antonio, we decided to hit up Kreuz and Smitty’s. Kreuz was started by a German family, quite common in West Texas, which is home to a rapidly declining dialect called Texas-Deutsch.

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Jalapeno Cheese Sausage (5/5)

Original Sausage (4.75/5)

Pork Spare Rib (4.25/5)

Barbecue Brisket (4.25/5)

Banana Pudding (3.25/5)

The best thing here was the Jalapeno cheese sausage, oozing with an addictive spicy, cheesy flavour. It was the first thing to go from our plates. The brisket was stringier than at The Salt Lick. No forks are given at Kreuz – one toughs it out with two knives. The brisket was very flavorful, but tough.

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Smitty’s Market, Lockhart, TX

Address: 208 S Commerce St, Lockhart, TX 78644

Telephone: (512) 398-9344

Smitty’s Market operates out of the old premises of Kreuz Market, which were vacated in 1999.

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Mess hall dining at Smitty’s

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Pork RIbs: 5/5

Beef Ribs: 5/5

Brisket: 4.25/5

We noticed that the barbecue was always served with white bread and saltine crackers in Lockhart. The charred part of the beef ribs had an admirably crackly crust that tasted of salt and pepper. Even though we were quite full from having had Kreuz about an hour earlier, we finished the beef ribs and pork ribs with enough to spare. The brisket was a bit tough and stringy.

Also of some childhood nostalgia was coleslaw, which was identical with that served at KFC. KFC-type Coleslaw is one of my many weaknesses, and I had seconds.

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Driving through Texas also made me aware of how reliant Americans are on their cars for going anywhere interesting. Commuter rail transportation in Texas is almost non-existent, and we had to hightail more than 15 hours of driving to get from Austin->Driftwood->Lockhart->San Antonio->Houston->New Orleans. This is why I am so excited for the Google self-driving car. Think of all the time that will be liberated for drivers! (more to fritter away, says the cynic, but the human benefit is almost incalculable.

Each of the three major barbecue joints offered something different. If I were to go to Texas for barbecue again, these would be on my order list:

  1. The Salt Lick – burnt ends, and beef ribs
  2. Kreuz – jalapeno sausage, brisket
  3. Smitty’s – beef ribs, and pork ribs

Similar Posts:

  1. My review of Burnt Ends, spanish barbecue in Singapore.