Spice Boy’s Take 5 – Restaurants

I had the opportunity to do a lot of traveling this summer for both work and play, and for me that meant checking out restaurants in different cities. Here are five favorites that stood out, alphabetically by city:

1. ASHEVILLE, NORTH CAROLINA

The Laughing Seed Cafe

http://laughingseed.jackofthewood.com/

40 Wall Street

Asheville, NC 28801

828-252-3445

Describing their concept as “Organic, seasonal, farm-to-table vegetarian cuisine with an international flair,” The Laughing Seed Cafe simply radiates freshness from every dish, and you can tell just by looking at the faces of the diners, from happy families to groups of professionals, that this place is beloved by all. I enjoyed a special of hot and sour soup followed by the shiitake corn cake appetizer (which made a nice meal), and just basked in the comfy, warm atmosphere.

The restaurant’s namesake is the legend of the Laughing Seed from the Indonesian Island of Bouton: “When the seeds of this plant were consumed, the people were intoxicated with laughter and able to communicate with the gods. It is said that this wondrous food satisfied the appetite and created a sense of fullness and well-being which lasted for many days…” Pretty cool huh? I have to say, this place had me under their spell.

While You’re There: Zambra on West Walnut is a creative tapas restaurant sourcing local ingredients and serving them up in interesting ways that will have you wanting to order half the menu. I can’t wait to go back. (Special thanks to Jerry R. from DC and TJ and Mark from Knoxville for the great recommendations for my trip to Asheville!)

Extra Credit: The Asheville City Market is a fun farmer’s market right in the center of town, with the usual fresh produce, as well as cheeses, baked goods, and crafts. I had a great, educational chat with the delightful Andrea, Apprentice Cheesemaker at Spinning Spider Creamery (www.spinningspidercreamery.com/index.htm). Doesn’t she have a beautiful smile? Spinning Spider is an award-winning farmstead goat dairy in nearby Marshall, NC. I sampled several of their outstanding cheeses and even brought some home on ice – it was that good. Standouts for me were the Bailey Mountain Tomme and the Stackhouse.

2. BIRMINGHAM, ALABAMA


Dreamland, Bar-B-Que

www.dreamlandbbq.com

For over 50 years, this Alabama outpost has been serving up some of the best Southern barbecue out there. As legend goes, back in ’58 “Big Daddy,” Dreamland’s originator, had narrowed down his entrepreneurial aspirations to either “Mortuary” or “BBQ joint.” After much prayer, God spoke to him one night in a dream (hence the name) and Dreamland was born. Their website boasts “There Ain’t Nothing Like ‘Em Nowhere!” My dear friend and colleague Theresa S. and I enjoyed some heaping portions after a long day on the road, and we had to agree. And don’t worry about becoming addicted – they ship.

By the way, in true Southern fashion, the owners aren’t exactly subtle about reminding you to mind your manners:

Extra Credit: If you happen to traveling that way, a mere two hours away in Scottsboro, AL, is one of the strangest places in the world, The Unclaimed Baggage Center. As the name suggests, this is where unclaimed airline baggage, and all its sundry contents,  goes to die – or be sold.

3. NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA


Acme Oyster House

www.acmeoyster.com/

For a true taste of Gulf oysters, Acme Oyster House serves ’em up just right – chilled and raw on the half shell, crispy fried, or sizzling and swimming in garlic butter. Brant B. and I had some of each – and then started over with another platter of raw. What can I say, we were weak. Be prepared for a line. For the true oyster lover, you can try to join the 15 Dozen Club – let me know how it goes!

While You’re There: Another can’t-miss is Mother’s on Poydras St. They may be known for the best baked ham in the world, but I highly recommend their jambalaya (I might be bragging a little when I say their recipe tastes a little bit like my own), and you certainly can’t go wrong with a po’boy. I tried some of Brant’s “debris” po’boy, which is little bits of roast beef scraps in gravy – pure heaven between chunks of fresh bread!

4. NEW YORK, NEW YORK


Joe’s Shanghai

www.joeshanghairestaurants.com

Chinatown: 9 Pell St

New York, NY 10013

212-233-8888

This is one of my old favorites from way back. Right around the corner from the “bloody elbow” in NYC’s Chinatown, this simple storefront may look unassuming, but what goes on inside is nothing short of miraculous. Joe’s soup dumplings are filled with flavorful meatballs and brimming on the inside with rich, piping hot broth. I had to bring my good friend Tenaz D. on my last trip to NYC to see and taste for herself.

How to eat a soup dumpling: Place the dumpling on a soup spoon; puncture the dumpling with a chopstick; suck out the broth as noisily as possible; eat the dumpling. Fun AND delicious. How bad could that be?

5. PLYMOUTH, MASSACHUSETTS

The All American Diner

http://allamericandiner.biz/

60 Court St.
Plymouth, MA 02360
508-747-4763

Breakfast sandwiches named after classic cars, waitresses rushing past with huge plates of waffles heaped with real whipped cream, giant, fluffy biscuits smothered in sausage gravy… This is what a diner was meant to be. One glance at the menu and I knew I had come to the right place. I enjoyed the green eggs and ham (an omelette with fresh basil pesto and cheese), and my Mom chose a creative take on the classic eggs benedict: the “Brown-eyed Susan” is served on New England brown bread instead of an English muffin, adding just a hint of mollasess-ey sweetness to the whole affair. Genius. This place brings all the old favorites to the table while keeping things interesting with some creative new spins.

While You’re There: Cupcake Charlie’s may have come in second on Food Network’s “Cupcake Wars” but they’ll always be first place in my heart. They have a beautiful spot on Plymouth Harbor, perfect for grabbing a bench and enjoying a delicious cupcake and a lovely view.

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SpiceBoy’s Take 5

Okay, y’all – here are five quick, exciting things I wanted to share with you, in no particular order of coolness.

1. The Delicious Gelato and Sorbet at Pitango.

http://www.pitangogelato.com/

With appearances at local farmers markets and storefront locations in the metro DC area, Pitango offers some serious gelato. I must say I haven’t tasted anything like this since I was in Sirmione, Italy – no lie! I tried two flavors: Crema (vanilla custard) and Hazelnut (made from imported Italian nuts), and they were both absolutely heavenly. More good news – free samples on those tiny plastic spoons! Other flavors I sampled included the sublime white grapefruit and dark chocolate orange. $4.95 for two scoops (up to two flavors) and $6.50 for three scoops (up to three flavors). It’s also a really nice, friendly atmosphere – and how do they keep all that stainless steel so clean and shiny?

2. Singer-Songwriter Jennifer Haase

Super-talented and super-cute songstress Jennifer Haasse (rhymes with “classy”) is hard at work on her second album, “No More Invitations,” the follow-up to her fantastic debut “The Listening Chair.” Roseanne Cash says: “Jennifer Haase is a unique and gifted songwriter with the voice of an angel. I highly recommend her.” Well! Far be it from me to argue with the likes of Ms. Cash! “No More Invitations” is slated for release in the fall, and Jennifer has arranged a fundraiser to drum up the last few dollars for the release of the album so friends and fans can take part in the process – and she’s offering lots of fun prizes for those who participate. (Yours truly will appearing in the liner notes, y’all!) “New Pink Sweater” is the first single, and it’s perfect for a steamy summer afternoon. Give it a listen – it’s guaranteed to have you taking the top down on the Cabriolet and flirting with all the boys on the corner (or girls, if you’re into that kind of thing):

I highly recommend this folk-pop diva. Visit her on the web www.rhymeswithclassy.com. Also, you can (and should) buy her music on iTunes.

3. The Travelzoo Top 20

So much cheap travel, so little vacation time. No shizzit, Travelzoo has it all in one place, having combed all the bargain travel sites and distilling it into one weekly email. You can subscribe here:

www.travelzoo.com

Tree and I are going to Guatemala in November and we only paid…wait for it…$399 each. That’s four nights, including airfare, folks. With prices so low it sounds like a scam, I can only tell you that the majority of my vacations from the past five years have come from the Travelzoo Top 20, and while they haven’t been the lap of luxury, the deals have been incredible. You’ve got to check it out.

4. Trailer Park Queen Jolene Sugarbaker

On of my very favorite web personalities in the whole wide world is Jolene Sugarbaker, the Trailer Park Queen. When I’m stressed out at work, all I need to do is click on a Jolene Sugarbaker cooking video and I’m instantly transported to the trailer park and all my troubles are behind me. My day is immediately transformed, and I just know that Jolene loves me! Try it sometime. Here, you can watch Jolene make shrimp dip in a plastic ashtray!

Jolene’s blog – http://trailerparktestkitchen.com/ – has lots of great videos, recipes, and a fun store with tons of trailer park fashions. You’re gonna love her!

5. The Summer Menu at 1789 Restaurant

http://www.1789restaurant.com/main/index.shtml

1789 Restaurant in Georgetown (1226 36th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20007, 202.965.1789), chosen as one of Gourmet Magazine’s Top Tables in America, is a real gem. In an historic, Federal period house, their dark wood walls, fine antiques, and fancy table settings make give the impression that 1789 is cost-prohibitive, but the menu is surprisingly reasonable, with small dishes ranging from $9 – 20. And did you know that they have a fabulous summer menu coupon you can print from their website, offering three courses for $35.00? (Offer expires September 15, 2010.) I tried the summer special with my dear friends Matt, Mac, and Christopher (pictured below, right, with little ol’ me). To say the least, we were not disappointed. We tried several of Chef Daniel Giusti’s thoughtful, summery offerings using only the freshest local ingredients, including the selection of country terrines (pictured, below), Wianno oyster gratin, soft-shell crab (pictured, above), crispy pork belly (with a wonderful shaved fennel salad), and day boat scallops (with roasted beets and rich Hudson Valley fois gras). For dessert, the cherry lattice and the icebox cake (pictured, below) were standouts. Be warned, jackets are required. You’ll have fun making a special night of it – we did!

Cupcake Karma

There must have been some divine intervention going on when I decided to have my visiting family members help out in deciding who has the best cupcake in DC. Get this – we drove to three different bakeries (two in Georgetown and one in Dupont Circle, both neighborhoods notorious for NO PARKING) and I found parking right in front of each bakery. Right in the middle of the afternoon!!! Now that’s some serious cupcake karma, y’all! Just TRY to convince me that God wants me to eat healthy…

The visitors (left to right) my nephew James (15), my little sister Tree, my big sister Patty, my niece Kayla (13), and my mom Ginny, all came to visit DC for a long weekend. In addition to trudging around seeing the sights in the 97-degree heat (“Look! There’s the Washington Monument! There’s FBI Headquarters! There’s my out-patient rehab clinic! There’s the Capitol!”), I thought it would be fun to sample some of DC’s designer cupcake offerings. As you may know, the boutique cupcake bakery trend has hit DC with a vengeance and has shown no sign of slowing down anytime soon. We figured we could handle 4 different bakeries over the span of 4 days/3 nights.

Here are the contenders:

Red Velvet Cupcakery

675 E Street NW
Washington, DC 20004

http://www.redvelvetcupcakery.com

Cost: $3.25 per cupcake ~ Value: 3/5

Not a bad price, but not a great one either.

Service: 3/5

Service was no-nonsense, but felt a little rushed. There was a line and the space is rather small and awkward, which probably creates a need for staff to keep things moving, but the staff weren’t exactly warm and fuzzy. A smile would have been nice. You’re selling cupcakes, folks, not burial plots.

Selection: 3/5

Red Velvet Cupcakery has a good basic selection of cupcakes, including their signature cupcake the Southern Belle, a classic red velvet cupcake done just right. Other selections we tried include Peanut Butter Cup, B-Day, Black Velvet, and that day’s special, the Peach Cobbler Cupcake.

Comments: This Penn Quarter outpost is characterized by fluffy, moist cakes and even fluffier, lighter-than-air whipped frostings. The crowd favorite was the Peanut Butter Cup, with a light, whipped peanut-butter icing with a hint of saltiness. The Morning Call cupcake (espresso-chocolate cupcake with espresso-dusted buttercream and a chocolate covered coffee bean on top) was another crowd-pleaser. These were the first cupcakes we tasted, and Ginny’s impression was that they would be “hard to beat!” The Devil’s Food cupcake had just the kind of rich, dense chocolate flavor you look for in that type of cupcake. James kept scraping the paper liner with his teeth! Can’t take that boy anywhere…

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Georgetown Cupcake

3301 M St NW
Washington, DC 20007

http://www.georgetowncupcake.com

Cost: $2.75 per cupcake  ~ Value: 4/5

A solid, reasonably-priced cupcake for the value-conscious snack-hound.

Service: 5/5

We found all of the staff to be knowledgeable, super-friendly and well-trained. They kept the line moving along at a brisk pace, without making you feel rushed. Impeccable service. Special kudos to cupcake-packer extraordinaire Rob Dickers, whose hand is prominently featured in this cupcake-packing action shot.  This guy is delightful, and a real pro!

Selection: 3/5

Georgetown Cupcake has a fantastic, extensive selection, certainly worthy of a 5/5 rating. However, the day we visited the availability was limited, and several of the selections we were looking forward to (including the Salted Caramel and the Peanut Butter Swirl) were simply not on the menu. We found that the menu on the day of our visit was rather mundane. In fact, there were no selections AT ALL with peanut butter, which I consider to be a major flub for any cupcake bakery, any day of the week. Selections we did try included the Red Velvet, Chocolate-Squared, Vanilla-Squared, Toffee Crunch, and Chocolate Mint.

Comments: Already very popular and known for lines up the block and wait times in excess of an hour (we waited outside the store about 15 minutes on a Monday at 4 pm), Georgetown Cupcake is about to get even bigger with it’s own reality show “DC Cupcakes” having premiered on TLC July 16th, 2010 at 10 pm. Specialty ingredients like Vahlrona chocolate and Madagascar bourbon vanilla, as well as designer toppings like fondant flowers truly make these cupcakes extra-special. The cakes were dense and moist and the frostings ranged from a thick, rich slab of ganache on the Chocolate-Squared cupcake to the fluffy vanilla-scented cream cheese frosting on the classic Red Velvet cupcake. James thought the mint flavor in the Chocolate Mint was something special and authentic, and just about everyone agreed that the Red Velvet was the best we tasted. The Toffee Crunch had real toffee flavor, and overall these were undeniably the prettiest cupcakes we saw. While James asserted that the flavors were superior, he doubted that the superiority of the cupcakes outweighed the wait-time differential required to obtain the actual cakes. This would have to be taken into serious consideration…

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Hello Cupcake

1351 Connecticut Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20036

http://www.hellocupcakeonline.com

Cost: $3.00 per cupcake ~ Value: 3/5

Average value, but would the cupcakes be above-average?

Service: 2/5

Unfortunately, on this particular day, the service was rather indifferent and not very friendly.

Selection: 2/5

We were met with a very limited selection when we visited. We were told that more cupcakes would be available later in the day. (Again, no peanut butter!!!) Luckily, we were able to snag the very last Vanilla Gorilla (banana cupcake with vanilla frosting), which had come very highly recommended. We also grabbed the Dreamsicle (orange cupcake with vanilla cream filling and orange buttercream, pictured), You Tart (lemon cupcake with lemon cream cheese icing), and a couple of HC Originals (think basic vanilla and chocolate combinations). In all, the selections were not diverse enough to excite these experienced chow hounds!

Comments: Aside from the exceptionally good Vanilla Gorilla (they got the banana cupcake JUST right), we all agreed that Hello Cupcake’s offerings, while good, were not great. One taster commented that they were almost like – gasp! – supermarket cupcakes. With such heavy competition here in DC, Hello Cupcake did seem to fade into the background a bit for this group of tasters. However, kudos go out to this bakery for offering both a gluten-free and a vegan selection every day.

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Baked and Wired

1052 Thomas Jefferson Street NW
Washington, DC 20007

bakedandwired.com

Cost :$3.85 per cupcake ~ Value: 2/5

A bit spendy, but in all fairness the cupcakes are a bit bigger that the competition.

Service: 5/5

A neighborhood style and a homemade look of all the baked goods gives this place a special kind of vibe that makes you want to stay and hang out for a bit. We interacted with three different staff members and they were all super-charming.

Selection: 5/5

Baked and Wired has an excellent, fun selection of cupcakes and on the day we visited we were overwhelmed with exciting choices. Some of the imaginative selections we tried included the Chocolate Doom, Razmanian Devil (lemon cupcake with raspberry jam center and lemon buttercream icing), Chai Latte, and the Unporked Elvis (banana cupcake with peanut butter icing and chocolate drizzle.)

Comments: Baked and Wired was not originally on my short list for this cupcake sampling, but after the uproar among my friends, I had to add it to the itinerary at the last minute. (This was not such a big deal, since it’s only a few blocks from Georgetown Cupcake, and as we know, the parking gods were on my side with this endeavor.) This place has a loyal and vocal following, and with several of my friends insisting they offered the best cupcake in town, I knew we had to check it out. The cupcakes are the biggest I’ve seen, and we were the most excited about trying these selections compared to the other contenders. In fact, Tree and Kayla and I had driven over to pick up the cupcakes and we were tempted to pull over and eat them in the car. We were going to come home empty-handed and tell the rest of the family: “Mayor Fenty has called for a city-wide moratorium on cupcakes until the City Council agrees on a budget for the fiscal year!” But in the end we agreed that even though Ginny and James might buy this ridiculous story, Patty would never fall for it. Baked and Wired cupcakes definitely had a homemade texture and flavor. However, some of the comments on the icing indicated that it might be “too sweet.” We were disappointed to find that the Unporked Elvis cupcake was really just a mundane banana bread, and the peanut butter icing left a lot to be desired. However, we could tell that this bakery uses high-quality home-style ingredients, and they accomplished a taste just like homemade. In all, Baked and Wired really is delightfully different than the other places.

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So who’s the winner? Believe it or not, we were split right down the middle with Ginny, Tree and Patty voting for Red Velvet as the overall winner, and Kayla, James and I voting for Georgetown Cupcake. Since ties are so lame, I decided to break the tie myself and give a few extra points for the cupcakes we agreed were the prettiest. Therefore…

Overall Winner of Spice Boy’s Best in DC: Georgetown Cupcake ~ Great textures and flavors, high-quality, gourmet ingredients and special fondant toppings and touches gave Georgetown’s flagship cupcake bakery an edge over the rest.

Runner-Up: Red Velvet ~ Penn Quarter’s stately southern-style lady is not to be missed. Moist and light cakes and fluffy frostings made this contender a very close second place!

Honorable Mention: Baked and Wired ~ Even though this bakery wasn’t really in the running with the others in terms of overall cupcakes, their imaginative flavors and neighborhood vibe made them worthy of a special mention and definitely another visit. I can’t wait to try their biscotti, too!

The longer I’m around, the surer I am – family is what it’s all about. Throw in a few baked goods, and things just don’t get any better! In the end, does it really matter who has the best cupcake? Nah! The fun is all in the sampling and spending time with your peeps. Enjoy life!

A Weekend on the Cape

My favorite place in the whole, wide world is Cape Cod. The ocean, the smell of scrub pines, the cranberry bogs – when I’m surrounded by it all, I immediately relax (for proof, see pic below of me asleep in hammock.)

It’s no secret that when I travel, I tend to plan my trips around where and when I can stop by my favorite eating establishments, and find new ones. What can I say? It’s an alternative lifestyle. Having spent summers in East Harwich since I was a kid, each visit the Cape is no exception. To me, Cape Cod also means family, and on my recent weekend visit there I was able to see most of my clan.

I tend to agree with critics when it comes to the great Cape Cod fried clam debate. The consistent winner of all the critics’ choice awards seems to be Cooke’s Seafood (locations in Mashpee, Hyannis, and Orleans), and I have to agree.

I’ve tried MANY a fried clam all over new England – enough to make a cardiologist gasp – and I always come back to Cooke’s. On this trip, my sister Tree, my Mom and I visited the Orleans location (Route 28),where we were unable to eat inside the restaurant or on the patio like normal people, since the dogs were in the car and they couldn’t be left alone for 5 seconds. (Leaving them all alone at the house was out of the question because Tree is insane. Don’t even ask.) Anyway, we had a lovely picnic under a tree on the outskirts of the parking lot, with a nice water view. The WHOLE clams (clam strips are a travesty and will not be discussed here) were plump, sweet, and succulent as usual, with a coating just as crispy, crumbly and delightful as can be. Tree enjoyed a New England delicacy, the coffee shake. She is, after all, our resident authority on fancy drinks (see “Notes from Costa Rica,” which details her love affair with mango smoothies.)

You may be aware that the very bane of my existence is picky eaters, and my dear sister unfortunately happens to be one. Oddly, though she’ll be vexed by something as innocuous as, say, a large chunk of tomato, she happens to love mussels. Yes, mussels, those oil-dark, oval, bearded mollusks that only 7% of the population will even look at, let alone put near their mouth. Though many believe they are evil incarnate, those in the know will tell you that these shelled beauties are sweet and meaty, and lend themselves to any number of simple, delicious preparations. Inexplicably, Tree loves them. And I love her for it; sharing mussels has become one of our sibling bonds.

So on the odd occasion that Tree and I find ourselves alone together, like on one particular night on the Cape, we decided to cook up a batch. This time, we steamed them up in a spicy tomato sauce with wine and fresh basil, fra diavolo style.

Mussells Fra Diavolo

Serves 4

2 Lbs Mussels, cleaned and de-bearded

1 28-oz can crushed tomato

1 Tbsp olive oil

1/2 onion, chopped

4 cloves garlic, minced

1 tsp oregano

1 tsp red chile pepper flakes (more or less to taste)

1 Cup dry white wine

pinch of sugar

fresh basil leaves, torn

salt and pepper

1/2 lb spaghetti or linguini, for serving

1. Using a pot that has a tight-fitting lid (you’ll need the lid later), heat the olive oil over medium heat and sauté the onion until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and red chile pepper flakes and sauté for an additional minute or two.

2. Deglaze the pan with wine and stir in the tomato, oregano, and sugar. Season the sauce with salt and pepper and bring to a simmer. Simmer until the flavors come together and the alcohol cooks off, 10 – 20 minutes. Taste for seasoning and adjust accordingly.

3. Bring the mixture to a boil and add the mussels. Cover tightly and boil for about 8 minutes, shaking the pot occasionally, until the mussels have opened. Throw in the basil, reserving some for garnish, and give the pot a final shake.

4. Serve the mussels over pasta with or without cheese, depending on which side of the seafood-and-cheese controversy you fall upon. I think it’s kind of nutty to say that EVERY seafood flavor clashes with EVERY cheese out there and none of them could possibly pair well. I like to eat the mussels off the top of the dish, then sprinkle parmesan over the pasta. It’s delicious. Call me crazy.

I take a backseat to my brother-in-law Jimmy, the true cook in my family, the grill-master. I must say, everything he touches turns to gold. Therefore, I decided to make a few easy appetizers for our family dinner the next night, while Jimmy took charge of the grill. My niece Kayla assisted me with some really easy no-cook smoked salmon bites. All of the ingredients are available at Trader Joes (we stopped at the one in Hyannis at exit 6). The smoked salmon there is really a good deal! If you can’t find “popped” style potato chips, a sturdy potato chip, like a kettle chip, will work fine.

Smoked Salmon Bites

(Adapted from Bon Appétit Magazine)

4-oz sliced smoked salmon

1 bag Popped Chips (available at Trader Joe’s)

2 Tbsp crème fraîche

1/2 tsp lemon zest

baby arugula leaves

fresh chives, chopped

Mix the crème fraîche with the lemon zest. Cut the salmon into bite-sized pieces. Lay out the chips on a platter. Top each chip with an arugula leaf, a piece of smoked salmon, a tiny dab of crème fraîche, and a sprinkling of chives. These are wicked easy bite-sized appetizers everyone will love.

What better way to finish a meal – or to finish a lovely weekend with family – than with a sweet treat? My family’s favorite sweet shop on the Cape is Herbert’s Stage Stop Candy (411 Main St, Dennis Port, MA). They have fantastic fudge in every flavor imaginable ($7.95 a pound), and lots of old favorites like truffles and turtles. For me, the star of the show is Stage Stop’s cranberry cordials, which make a great gift for folks back home. They are local cranberries enrobed in scrumptious milk or dark chocolate – a true taste of Cape Cod.

I’ll be back soon…

Hard Knox

What we’re exploring: Downtown Knoxville

What we found:

  • A cool, old hotel
  • Surprisingly good Mexican food
  • Affordable, personalized artwork

So I recently went on a last-minute business trip that had me in Knoxville, Tennessee for less than 24 hours, staying right off of Market Square in the quaint Hotel St. Oliver, one of those old boutique hotels full of antiques and history. The lady at the front desk, miniature pinscher named “Bruiser” in a pink sweater at her side, told me that my room had once been selected by A&E to film a recreation of a murder scene. (I swear to God I’m not making this up.)

ME (brightly): “Was there actually a murder in the room?”

LADY (Looking at me funny): “No, of course not!”

BRUISER (cocks head): Woof!

Yeah, let’s face it. They’re not used to my kind in Knoxville.

If you’re adventuresome like me, you’ll find that even in a seemingly prosaic burg like Knoxville there’s all kinds of fun lurking beneath the surface. For instance, did you know that Knoxville has it’s own girls’ Roller Derby term, the Hard Knox Rollergirls? Sadly, they weren’t rolling the night I was there. I wish I could meet them. I mean really, what kind of a life would culminate with a career on the girls’ roller derby team in Knoxville, Tennessee? It just leaves me with so many questions. Like, do they have day jobs? Where do they get their hair done? Do you think they’d show me their tattoos, or would they hit me if I asked?

For me, the culinary high point of my brief trip would have to be the Mexican sports bar Soccer Taco (9 Market Square, http://www.soccertaco.com). An unexpected gem, this place had all the usual Mexican restaurant fare, but the surprise was the “Real Mexican Team” menu, a selection of street food straight out of Mexico City that included hard-to-find huaraches, which they describe as “huge hand-made oval tortilla,” as well as tacos made from beef cheek, tripe, or lengua (cow tongue). Imagine my delight. I went with the slightly more pedestrian chorizo and chipotle steak tacos. My side order of charro beans were deliciously studded with hot dog slices and massive chunks of tender, fatty pork, the whole fiasco coated in a slick layer of orange animal fat. (You may want to proceed directly to the Heart Hospital at Knoxville’s Parkwest Medical Center.) The smoky, orange hot sauce was served in a bowl on the side and it had my eyes watering and my sinuses opening. Yes, I was moaning and completely incoherent by the end of it all. Thankfully, I was dining alone so no one had to see me like that. It was heaven right there in East Tennessee. Who knew?

While hanging out in Market Square, I also checked out the neat home store Abode (15 Market Square, http://www.abodeknoxville.com), where I was turned on to a really cool artist, Rachel Travis, who does diminutive pet portraits on wooden boxes for about 50 bucks – not bad for a piece of personalized original artwork. Cool stuff! (www.boxiepets.com).

My ride to and from the airport afforded great views of the Sunshpere, an impressive structure erected for the 1982 World’s Fair. Remember the Simpsons episode “Bart on the Road” (1996) where Bart and the boys rent and car and go the World’s Fair 10+ years too late only to find that the Sunsphere has been converted to a wig shop, the Wig Sphere? Laugh out loud. I wonder if I have that one on DVD…


Notes from Costa Rica

What we’re exploring: Costa Rica

What we found:

  • Abundant wildlife and gorgeous scenery
  • Great recipe ideas

A couple weeks back, my sister, Tree, and I took my mother to Costa Rica for Mother’s Day. A lot of families take vacations in order to GET AWAY from each other, but my sister, my Mom and I get along really well and we travel well together. Tree and I have been all over Europe together, and Mom and I traveled to Amsterdam a couple years back. (We must get along well – I mean, who the hell goes to Amsterdam with their MOM?). As a trio, we’ve ventured to Ireland and several U.S. destinations.

Few moments in my life have been as special as Mother’s Day of this year, when we took Mom to the Arenal Hanging Bridges, where we enjoyed the splendor of the Costa Rican rainforest from up in the treetops. Not a bad way to celebrate your 68-year-old Mom!

Yes, Mother is quite spry, but after the hanging bridges, the rough ride to Monteverde on the largely-unpaved roads nearly turned  into Complain-fest 2010 (could this have been payback for all my childhood road-trip whinings of “Are we there yet?”)

No need to worry, awaiting us in Costa Rica’s Northern Zone was not only the misty, majestic Cloud Forest reserve, but some really good chow, too.

The Monteverde area is known for producing great coffee, and a great cup is easy to find, much to Mom’s delight – she’s a true coffee lover. We even took a tour of the relatively new family-run San Luis Coffee Growers. A few years back on another trip, Tree and I explored a much larger local outfit, the Don Juan coffee plantation. On that previous trip, Tree and I also fell in love with the restaurant Chimera (Cerro Plano Rd, Monteverde), a Latin-fusion tapas restaurant. Their small dishes are lovely and highlight fresh, local flavors while bringing in some excitement with a variety of sauces, garnishes, and special touches. This time, we made it a point to also try the other restaurant in town owned by the same folks, called Sofia (just off Cerro Plano Rd, Monteverde).

Sofia is a bit fancier, with a beautiful Spanish Colonial-style dining room and a fusion menu that calls upon Latin, Asian and Caribbean influences. I had a wonderful dish of pork loin with figs, which I have since been working to recreate. I’m not convinced that it’s exactly how I’d like it, but here’s my version:

Pork Chops with Sweet-and-Sour Fig Glaze

Serves 4

Ingredients

4 pork loin chops

1 Tablespoon butter

10 dried figs, stemmed and cut in half

1 T minced shallot

1 clove garlic, minced

1/3 C balsamic vinegar

2 Tablespoons apple cider vinegar

2 Tablespoons apple cider, or apple juice

2 Tablespoons brown sugar

1. Soak the figs in very hot water. Season the pork chops liberally with salt and pepper. Melt the butter in a frying pan over medium heat and add pork chops. Sauté the chops until they are almost cooked through, about 4 minutes per side, depending on thickness. Set aside.

2. Add the shallot and garlic to pan and sauté for a minute (adding a tad more butter or olive oil if necessary). Add the remaining ingredients, stirring to combine and to release any browned bits from the pan. Boil until the liquid begins to thicken and reduce slightly. Drain the figs, discarding the soaking liquid, and add them to the pan, along with the pork chops. Simmer until the pork is cooked through, coating the pork with the glaze.

At Sofia, the pork was served with fufu, a side dish of mashed plantains with bacon and onion. In my research, I learned that fufu (with alternate spellings including foufou and foofoo) originated in Africa as a word to describe a variety of dishes that are starchy and mashed, sometimes made from yams, cassava, or even rice or flour. Fufu traveled to the Caribbean along with West African immigrants, and transformed along the way to use available vegetables and flavorings. Hence the Caribbean-style fufu I enjoyed in Costa Rica. Here’s a version I found on the web and played with a little:

Fufu

Serves 6 – 8

Ingredients:

4 sweet plantains (peeled and cut into uniform pieces)

1/4 pound of bacon (cut into small pieces)

1 medium onion (diced)

4 cloves garlic (finely chopped)

1. In a saucepan, cover plantains with cold, salted water and bring to a boil.

2. Cook until plantains are soft (about 10 minutes). Meanwhile, sauté the bacon until slightly cooked and some fat is rendered. Add the onion and continue to sauté until the bacon is cooked and the onion is translucent, about 5 minutes more.

3. Drain the plantains (reserving some of the water) and mash.

4. Fold the bacon, onion, and about 2 Tablespoons bacon fat into the plantains. Discard any additional grease. If the mixture is dry, add some of the reserved cooking water. Season with salt and pepper and serve warm.

The pork and fufu go together marvelously. If you’d like a little heat to offset the sweetness of the dish, you can prepare a simple jalapeno salsa to garnish the fufu. Just mix 1/2 of a jalapeño pepper with 2 chopped scallions and a little fresh cilantro. Mix in the juice of 1/2 a lime and a pinch of salt and allow it to sit for 15 minutes or so for the flavors to blend. The heat and acid will balance nicely with the sweetness of the plantains and the sweet-and-sour glaze.

Our meal at Sofia was likely the gastronomical high point of the Costa Rican journey. However, great food was easily found elsewhere, too. Gorgeous, fresh fruit was in abundance everywhere we went – Tree made a sport of taste-testing mango smoothies in each of the towns and villages we visited. Furthermore, I love the Costa Rican take on breakfast, where black beans and rice, and sauteed sweet plantains are staples on the morning table. Though Costa Rica is not exactly a culinary travel destination, one could certainly do a lot worse. Go for the wildlife and scenery, but be sure to enjoy a few good bites along the way!