Monday, February 25, 2013

Pharmacy Burger - Nashville

The day after a wedding is always a little hazy, but this time things were a little different. Where most weddings will have an ample supply of food, good times, and booze, this Kentucky affair also featured a bourbon tasting bar. It was a brilliant and dangerous idea whose effects were somewhat mitigated by a complimentary breakfast buffet the next morning. With hash browns calming my bourbon soaked stomach, it was just a matter of packing my bags and making the drive to Nashville. Unfortunately, a lazy start to the day had me arriving in town in the middle of a Sunday afternoon. Since my free bed wouldn’t be available for three or four hours, I decided the best thing to do was find a late lunch and that is what lead me to Pharmacy Burger.

After navigating the pitfalls of parking, I decided to see how well Pharmacy Burger makes a wurst, bockwurst to be exact.
Described as combination of beef, pork, and dark lager, this sausage was served on a small mountain of sauerkraut.
On its own this wurst was smoky, meaty, but with a grainy and simply overcooked texture.
Combined with the sweet sauerkraut and mustard the sausage had its merits but eaten alone the bockwurst showed potential but disappointing execution.

With the bockwurst came a pretty substantial side of fries.
A few crispy ends and a generous dose of salt made for a nice side of French fries.

From house made sausages to organic Tennessee beef, it was time for a cheeseburger.
Looking a bit compacted, the first thing that stood out was the Provence roll made especially for Pharmacy Burger.
Reminiscent of an English muffin, the bun was pleasantly sweet and in excellent proportion to the patty.
Ignoring the icy tomato slice, I was surprised at the combined richness and oiliness of the garlic aioli, cheddar, and the buttered bun. The bacon was surprisingly crisp and even keeled, especially in comparison to the rest of the toppings.
At the heart of this cheeseburger was well cooked, medium rare patty, quite a feat for its size.
While I did miss the seared crust of a pan fried burger, what struck me was there wasn’t much beefy flavor or at least not enough to stand up to the toppings. However when all the components were taken together, it was a suitable cheeseburger.

Skipping the milkshakes and malts for a double dose of savory, I had a hard time figuring why there was such a fuss over the burgers and sausages of Pharmacy Burger. The bockwurst had a well rounded flavor but an overcooked and grainy texture kept things grounded and the cheeseburger while rich was lacking any of the big beef flavor that makes a burger truly worth eating. As is always the case with these one shot deals, I could have well hit Pharmacy Burger on an off Sunday, but with such infrequent visits to Nashville, I’ll take my chances elsewhere.

Pharmacy Burger Address & Information
The Pharmacy Burger Parlor and Beer Garden on Urbanspoon

Monday, February 18, 2013

Cooking the Book - Culinaria China - Freshwater Shrimp

At this point in my life, the joy of Christmas is certainly more in the giving of presents than in the receiving of them, but that’s not to say I’ll turn down a thoughtful gift. One gift I received this year was a massive tome titled Culinaria China. Weighing nearly 10 pounds and damn close to 500 pages long, it’s hard to know where or how to start. Thankfully the book is divided 18 sections with each section devoted to a major province, but it wasn’t until after the madness of the holidays that I was able to really sit down and thumb through this installment of the Ullmann Culinaria series.

With my predilection of “ma la”, it is little wonder that the first province I looked for was Sichuan province. However, I quickly had the rather annoying realization that recipes were in relatively short supply in this book. The Sichuan section contained a scant seven recipes and looking through the recipe index, there were scarcely 200 listed for the entire book. More than a little disenfranchised, I put Culinaria China back on my shelf for abnormally large books and essentially forgot about it for the next month.

Feeling guilty that I didn’t give any of Culinaria China’s recipes a chance, last week I decided to see what it could offer in the way of ideas for shrimp. Settling into the section titled Shanghai Delicacies, I decided that a recipe for Freshwater Shrimp would be fine place to begin.

As you may have guessed, freshwater shrimp are a bit hard to come by in Jackson, Mississippi so I made do with some fresh gulf shrimp in their stead.

-1 piece of leek (3/4 inch long) chopped into thin slices
-1 piece of ginger (3/4 inch long) chopped into thin slices
-1 tbsp coriander seeds, crushed
-20 unpeeled freshwater shrimp, I deveined the shrimp and removed the legs
-2/3 cup vegetable oil
-2 tsp rice wine
-1/2 tsp salt
-1 ½ tbsp sugar
-2 tsp soy sauce
-1 tbsp water
-1 tsp sesame oil

Besides being a recipe that used shrimp, I was intrigued by the idea of coriander seeds in Chinese cuisine.
The recipe didn’t mention deveining the shrimp but I decided it would be prudent.

With my wok over high heat, I added a half cup of oil until it began to smoke and then added the shrimp.
Instructed to fry until tender, I pulled them when they were just turning pink.
Nicely pink if a bit oily shrimp

The remaining ¼ cup of oil was added to the wok and after waiting for the first wisps of smoke, the next step began.
Ginger, coriander, and leek stir fried until tender.
I then added the rest of the ingredients, the rice wine, salt, sugar, soy sauce and water.

At this point, the recipe was a bit vague.
I was instructed to cook this sauce for five minutes but I would have had a wok coated in fragrant caramel long before that time was up.
Hoping to get a good coating of flavor on the shrimp, I added them back to the wok along with the sesame oil and tossed to coat.
As the picture suggests, this shrimp were a bit oily but the sweetness of the caramelized sugar in conjunction with the coriander and ginger was captivating. The shrimp were gone in a flash with little more than a pile of shells and burnt sugar on my wok to show for it. Although it a while for me to give this book a chance, I was quite pleased with the results of the first recipe. At the very least, while this book may not be bursting at the seams with recipes, it does provide some unique insights into the cultures and gastronomic diversity of a few of China’s provinces. That’s good enough reason to keep Culinaria China around for a little bit longer. 

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Eslava's Grill - Jackson

It’s no secret that I love pho. Skimming through the archives of this site reveals that a fair amount of my Atlanta posts have centered on the various pho outlets of Buford Highway, but Jackson has a much more limited selection. As a result, about once a week, I’ll make the lunch time trek from downtown to Saigon on Lakeland Drive for helping of pho dac biet with plenty of sriracha and fish sauce. However there is more to Lakeland than Phong’s pho. In the past, I have written about Table 100, Fusion, and Grant’s Kitchen, but one restaurant that I’ve been missing is Eslava’s Grille. Although I never tried Danny Eslava’s food when he was at AJ’s, over the past few months I’ve had a taste of what Chef Eslava can produce when his name is the one on the door.

As with many things in Jackson, my first meal at Eslava’s began with comeback dressing.
However, Eslava’s comeback is miles away from your standard Greek restaurant comeback.
Each forkful of dressing topped lettuce was heavily seasoned and packed with cumin and the floral spiciness of peppercorns.

With the arrival of the crab cake appetizer, it became apparent that almost every dish at Eslava’s would feature a cream or mayo based sauce.
Mango salsa is a rare beast in the Jackson area but it works well with these crabcakes.
These were a compact pair.
Densely packed, there was a moderate amount of binder but not enough to infringe on the sweetness of the crab meat.
While the creamy sauce worked beautifully with the crab cakes, the mango salsa was a different animal. Sweet at first, it, like every dish component I would encounter, would begin to build an additional layer of spiciness on my tongue with each bite. These crab cakes may not have been the finest lump crabmeat, but combination of the crab, the bright fruity flavors of the mango salsa, and the creamy sauce overcame any real shortcomings.

Much to my family’s chagrin, I have never truly warmed to the idea of cream sauce with pasta. I’ll cook it if asked but it’s rarely my choice at a restaurant. With his crawfish pasta, Chef Eslava makes a fair case for me to reconsider my position.
Actually, allow me to be more succinct. The crawfish and cream sauce are worth the consideration, the pasta is overcooked and completely forgettable.
From the start, they are not shy about piling on the tails. Looking like half a pound of tailmeat if it was an ounce, these crawfish were sweet and just a bit briny while the sauce is more of that unique Eslava flavor. With a creamy texture on the tongue and an initial nuttiness that was remarkably similar to Thai satay sauce, this sauce kept building more of that background spiciness with each bite.

Despite how much I had enjoyed my first visit to Eslava’s Grille, it quickly slipped into the background of Lakeland Drive. It wasn’t until more than six months later that I decided I should head back to see if things were still up to par. This time things began with a few fried oysters.
There is little doubt that Eslava errs on the side of undercooking his oysters.
Coated in a thin, cumin scented cornmeal shell and barely fried, these fat, gulf oysters were quite juicy but their crust was oily on the bottom and fell off at the slightest touch. Oddly, this was of the few dishes at Eslava’s where the sauce was not complimentary as it completely destroyed the cornmeal crust and obscured the brininess of the oysters.

Hoping to find a dish that didn’t involve cream, the blackened tilapia seemed like a fair bet.
What arrived at my table was a large tilapia filet blanketed in a rainbow of tan, browned, and blackened spices.
Initially the fish didn’t have an overpowering blackened flavor, but as is the case with most Eslava dishes, this clean flavor was quickly joined by a wave of peppercorns and the spice of chilies.
For the most part this tilapia was tender and quite juicy but the most sublime bites were the crispy edges where the crunch of the fish was joined by the full flavor of the blackening seasonings.

Typically a side of potatoes isn’t worth mentioning but there was something captivating about the potatoes that accompanied this blackened filet.
Just a bit salty, the contrast of crispy edges and a creamy interior was a nice foil to the forward spices and textures of the fish.

Drastically reducing my reaction time, a third visit to Eslava’s came just a week later and began with a unique interpretation of spinach and artichoke dip.
In most restaurants, artichoke dip is a quivering mass of cream and cheese, but Eslava’s version stands out as the artichokes and spinach actually had a discernable texture.
Supposedly there was crawfish in this dip, but I certainly couldn’t find them.
I’m not quite sure why the bread was only toasted on one side but a more pressing issue was the texture of the dip. Either a grainy texture to the cheese or some uncooperative breadcrumbs, the mouth feel of this dip kept me from enjoying what could have been one of the better spinach and artichoke dips that I’ve found.

At this point, it seemed that every dish had featured seafood but I decided to change that and see how Eslava would handle the potential pitfalls of the pork tenderloin.
Once again, Eslava was not shy with the crawfish.
Much like chicken breast, pork tenderloin has a tendency to dry out easily but these medallions were quite juicy and brimming with that familiar but unique flavor.
This time the crawfish in the sauce were certainly overcooked and bit chewy but they brought an element of sweetness that was complimented by the growing chili heat of the sauce.
The simple, initial flavor of the pork was quickly joined by that elusive flavor.
Already full from the artichoke dip, I spent most of the meal trying to discern the components of the sauce.

Aside from the base flavor of cumin, the sauce was a bit salty, slightly sweet with a faint chili heat in the background. With thoughts of mojo bouncing around in my head, I asked the waitress for guidance and she responded that Danny Eslava says it’s all a secret. Mildly frustrating, I suppose there is a certain charm for a restaurateur to have a secret to his success. However, Eslava doesn’t rely on a secret ingredient for his menu, by and large this is seafood that is well seasoned and well prepared. There were a few stumbles along the way but Eslava’s Grille is a nice alternative to pho and fish sauce.

Eslava’s Grille Address & Information
Eslava's Grille on Urbanspoon

Monday, February 4, 2013

The Catbird Seat - Nashville

I remember my first attempt at dining at The Catbird Seat. It was May of this past year and I was planning my annual drive to Indy with a stop in Nashville. Skimming through the various outlets, I read about the newest and hottest restaurant in Music City. Named The Catbird Seat, it was headed by co-executive chefs Josh Habinger and Erik Anderson and they each carried a resume worth killing for. Habinger had worked with Blumenthal at Fat Duck, Colicchio at Craft, and Achatz at Alinea; Anderson was no slouch either with Keller at the French Laundry & Redzepi at Noma to his name. The two of them reigned over a kitchen that could best be described as dinner theater where the diners sit at a U-shaped bar surrounding the kitchen. Having never served more than 41 people in a night, seats were hard to come by and I was too late and out of luck.

Some months later the summer was over and I had put The Catbird Seat out of my mind until next May but things changed when I received an invitation to a wedding in Lexington, KY. Once my room was booked and travel arrangements tentatively planned, I turned to the ever important dinner plans. Knowing that the road from Jackson to Lexington passed through Nashville, I decided to take a leisurely route and stop in Nashville both going and coming. As with Per Se in New York and Husk in Charleston, I made a reservation as soon as I could; I was not going to miss an opportunity to try one of the most well reviewed restaurants in the south.

Once I was past the rather odd entrance, rode the elevator, and made my way down the mesmerizing corridor, I was shown to a corner seat and was soon greeted a savory oreo.
With a porcini mushroom exterior and parmesan interior, this was my first non-Nabisco, non-sugary Oreo and it was packed with an incredibly savory, meaty flavor. A precocious beginning if there ever was one.

It’s been almost three years now but given the opportunity, I still take to heart my friend Frank’s advice about tasting menus: "Always get the tasting menu, you put yourself in the chef’s hands." For The Catbird Seat, I decided that advice also applied to beverages so I placed my drinks in the able hands of Jane Lopes.
For the first course, Lopes mixed Lillet Rose, Green Chartreuse, Muscadet, and carbonated water with lime. It would be the first of many unique and superb pairings.

The other half of the first pairing was a trio of small dishes.
Working left to right, we had mortadella, shiitake cracker jack, and a take on hot chicken.
A departure from every mortadella I had ever tasted, this morsel had a texture like foie but the undeniable flavor of mortadella.
This shiitake cracker jack was crunchy as expected but both savory and sweet.
More akin to a cracker packed with cayenne and paprika than any hot chicken I’ve encountered; the two bits of creamy wonder bread puree were a nice foil to the pungent spices.

Nantucket Bay scallop tartar topped with slices of Mt. Rose apple was the focus of the second course.
A mix of textures and flavors, the highlight was the combination of the creaminess of the Island Creek oyster puree and the richness of the scallop.
2010 Domaine de la Vielle Julienne Cotes du Rhone Blanc was the pairing.

If there is anything that I inherited from my grandmother it was a love of gin & tonics and when the salad course was described as a fennel g & t, it was music to my ears.
Amidst the foam, this salad was a combination of juniper & quinine, almond, cucumber, and lychee.
Even though it was over in an instant, each bite carried a wonderful crunch and a bright flavor of juniper that was balanced with the lychee sweetness. With the 2009 Trimbach Gewurztraminer rounding the flavors, it was a brilliant salad that very well may have ruined my idea of the perfect gin and tonic.

The second seafood course was departure from the light flavors of the scallop as the grouper was wrapped with chipotle.
Thankfully this meaty yet tender piece of grouper was an ample match for the dense spiciness of the chipotle wrapping.
Avocado, pickled onion, radish, coconut, and pumpkin seeds added an extra dimension of creaminess to the fish and chili combination while a 2010 Robert Weil Riesling provided a touch of sweetness.

Pigeon is a meat that you rarely see on restaurant menus, but one with the foot still attached was a new one to me.
Of course, the novelty of a claw only goes so far, luckily this pigeon in squab dashi proved to be one of the best dishes of the night.
Beneath the surprisingly crispy skin of the pigeon was a beautifully silky meat with a rich, salty flavor.
The other dish components, the dashi, forest mushrooms, and egg yolk offered a creamy and uniquely savory broth while the hibiscus provided a raw vegetal flavor that cut through the fattiness. The 2009 Patrice Rion Hautes Cotes de Nuits was well suited to the fowl and dashi but hardly clashed with the hibiscus.

Course number six featured fewer claws but the flavors certainly did not diminish.
Before I started on the ribeye, I indulged in the Yukon gold chip and it was nothing less than what sour cream and onion chips should be.
As you might expect, this ribeye was marvelously cooked with a  big and bold beefy flavor but it was far from tender. But the crunch of finishing salt and juicy beef made up for the chewiness.
 Texture aside, I wasn’t sold on the combination of beets, horseradish, and dill but Lopes’ mixing of “Celebrator” Bavaria with Aquavit was a fine foil to the beef..

It’s hard to describe the next dish.
Labeled as a Harbison on the menu, this was a combination of barley, hops, yeast, orange, and syrup and it bore a striking resemblance to puffed rice cereal.
Challenging my ideas of mixed drinks, the sublime pair to the Harbison was champagne with quince vinegar, honey, and walnut liqueur.

Nearing the end of the meal, a pear sorbet was next.
Aside from the amusing presentation, this had base of clean, pear flavor.
But the addition of cardamom and vanilla with fernet gel and black walnut gave an extra layer of dark richness. Building on the subtle qualities of the pear, the pairing was a sparkling sake that was as light as the sorbet’s texture.

While the pear may have cleansed my palate from the entrees, the desserts began with the deadly combination of egg maple custard with thyme and bacon.
Inside the egg was a dense, syrup flavored, and just a bit salty custard.
Standing like a mast was a gossamer thin slice of Benton’s bacon.

Simply labeled “Bourbon” on the menu, the dessert was dotted with balls of encapsulated Bullit bourbon.
In addition to fine bourbon were a vanilla cake, pineapple gel, and an oak I.C.
A quenelle of charred oak ice cream and sugar that was oddly reminiscent of a fruit roll up.
The aforementioned vanilla cake and pineapple gel.
They may be little more than a party trick, but there is something satisfying about biting down and tasting the gush of bourbon.

Of course things simply couldn’t end with dessert.
Dinner at The Catbird Seat was bracketed by oreos, savory at the start and coffee and cream sweetness to finish. True to its name, this oreo tasted like a mocha latte but it paled in comparison to its savory counterpart.

While waiting for the restroom in between courses, I noticed a bookshelf above the bathroom door.
The Catbird Seat Bookshelf
From Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s Meat to Modernist Cuisine, it was a food nerd’s ideal cookbook collection. This meager but quite pricy collection also made clear from where Habinger and Anderson took a bit of their inspiration, but there was little doubt that they had applied a personal and slightly southern twist to some of their ideas.

With all that in mind, what’s the final verdict on The Catbird Seat? While it’s certainly on its own level in Nashville, it makes a fair case for standing shoulder to shoulder with some of the Michelin starred forerunners. The modernist approach to cuisine and molecular gastronomy are always entertaining but there  are some delightful flavor combinations and serious skills at work at The Catbird Seat. I also appreciate a restaurant where the chefs are more than happy to discuss the dishes with the patrons. However, for as much as I enjoyed the 12 or so courses, the star of the show was Jane Lopes and her mixes and pairings. Prior to this meal, I’ve never given much thought to wine and liqueurs being mixed much less working together well, but she did it flawlessly. Although The Catbird Seat may never get any Michelin stars due to their location and they were snubbed on their James Beard nomination, The Catbird Seat was worth the effort and I now know why people show off their dinner menus as trophies.

The Catbird Seat Address & Information
The Catbird Seat on Urbanspoon