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The 13 Bites That Defined 2013

What a year for eating. My first bites of the year were in a New Years Day early morning daze at Blue Star Doughnuts in Portland, Oregon (Valrhona Chocolate Crunch was the best amidst stiff competition. These were hands down the best doughnuts of a pretty doughnut-free year). If that’s how a year starts, then the eating surely will continue at a high caliber. Just with less cholesterol.

Belcanto's Skate "Jackson Pollack" and Its Inspiration

Belcanto’s Skate “Jackson Pollack” And Its Inspiration

We’ll break down the trends and analytical stuff in another category this week. This is about those thirteen bites that I still think about and remember almost every detail of. Sure, I could list thirteen bites alone from Pujol or Alma. That wouldn’t be very exiting, would it? Each one of these was an absolute masterpiece that reminded me why dining out can be so special.


Greetings from…Chicago! Part II

Continuing back to the Windy City, we continue with a beverage to commence our concluding Part II from Chicago.

The Chicago River

The Chicago River

Cocktail of Chicago: The Office: Rum, Ginger, Bonito, Wasabi, Sesame, and Mint
Don’t make me choose between The Aviary and The Violet Hour, Chicago’s pre-eminent craft cocktail bars that are deservedly on every “ten best cocktail bars in the country” list. So, I chose a cocktail not really from either.
Looking at my list of cocktails from this trip, I can’t believe I managed to run a half marathon in Minneapolis during my brief stay in the Twin Cities book-ended by two half weeks in Chicago. What a champion! Or such is the life of a runner-food writer?IMG_1377
Chicago is a great cocktail town. The Aviary gets the headlines around the country for being the cocktail circus extravaganza of Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas (Alinea, Next). Charles Joly now runs the show nightly at The Aviary, named in May by the James Beard Awards as the country’s most outstanding bar program.

The "Tropic Thunder"'s porthole at The Aviary

The “Tropic Thunder”‘s porthole at The Aviary

Is it really? Well, it’s probably the most fascinating. And the drinks are both eye-opening and almost always excellent. But you’ll go to The Aviary as your neighborhood bar like you’d visit your local neighborhood bistro Alinea. It’s an experience. What an experience it is. (more…)

Greetings From…Chicago! Part I

Let’s all agree to begin: Chicago is no second city when it comes to eating and drinking. It’s first tier all the way. With all due respect, we’re talking Michael Jordan here, not Scottie Pippin. Is Chicago better than a San Francisco or a New York or a Tokyo dining scene? Yes? Maybe. No? Maybe. That’s not important.

The iconic skyline from U.S. Cellular Field, home of the Chicago White Sox on the city's south side

The iconic skyline from U.S. Cellular Field, home of the Chicago White Sox on the city’s south side

What is important is to acknowledge the sheer breadth of this city’s options. Heck, you could just spend a three day trip eating nowhere but Hot Doug’s, never repeat a dish, never get bored, and never do much other than stand in line, eat, sleep, and return. (more…)

Restaurants: Blackbird, Chicago

Aged meat and dishes merging surf and turf are two of the most challenging concepts for a kitchen to pull off without a hitch. Something almost always seems to go off the deep end for both.

That precious half year aged chateaubriand might taste more of provocative black garlic than sensuous, relentless meat. Raise your hand if you’ve ever had a lobster and filet mignon dish where the filet is grilled as long as the lobster is steamed, and you end up wishing you just ordered twice as much lobster? Or that pork belly and scallop concoction where the poor subtle scallop is dominated by overwhelming smoky bacon notes because that’s what pork belly does to everything?

IMG_1958For those who are weary about aged meat, surf and turf, and the state of 21st century fine dining in general, now is an ideal time to head over to Chicago’s red hot West Loop neighborhood for a visit with what must be considered one of the definitive restaurants of this generation, Blackbird.

Did I mention that Blackbird opened in December of 1997 and is just as engaging now as it was on that (probably very cold being Chicago) night back in the Clinton years. Back when Michael Jordan was in the midst of his final Bulls championship season and back when the Cubs had recently won a World Series. O.k., that last remark obviously isn’t so true, but come on, you can’t write a Chicago article without mentioning the Billy Goat curse. Hey, Sammy Sosa’s record home run year with Mark McGwire still hadn’t happened yet.

There is no Billy Goat or usual restaurant curse for Blackbird, extraordinarily defying the odds for restaurants to survive beyond a decade without becoming stale and irrelevant. Nor is there any goat on the menu currently at Blackbird, like at a certain nearby, just as popular, but much younger neighbor on West Randolph.

However, there is aged duck breast currently being served. It is majestic. There is also a handsome dry-aged striploin with the common pairing of chanterelle mushrooms, and the not- so common, seaweed pesto. (more…)

What’s in a Name? That Which We Call a Restaurant?

Shakespeare and restaurants? Wherefore art thou going for dinner Romeo?

Usually when we consider Shakespeare and dining, we think of going to the corner pub for a pint of bitter hard cider, or Falstaffian feasts, as in, “To finish a dish at Montreal’s Au Pied de Cochon, you must have a Falstaffian appetite.”

I’m no expert on Othello’s diet or Hamlet’s favorite foods, though that would be a fascinating research project to embark on.

However, yesterday’s unveiling of Chicago Magazine‘s annual list of the city’s best new restaurants caused me to think of a particularly famous Shakespearean quote.

Since I haven’t tried any of these restaurants in Chicago, I can’t use any Shakespearean references to exude my slings and arrows of disappointment, or my jocund jubilance over the list.

Beach House Restaurant in Poipu, Kauai. A very simple name.

Beach House Restaurant in Poipu, Kauai. A very simple name.

What I noticed was the creative and often downright strange names of the restaurants on the list. As Juliet once queried Romeo, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any name would smell as sweet.” There are no Capulets vs Montagues- sized rivalries or controversies with this list. In this case, the roses are restaurants. (more…)

The New Café: Where Biking and Jogging Meets Coffee

Not long ago, a coffeehouse was, well, just a coffeehouse. Think “Central Perk” from “Friends.” Think about the coffeehouses that dot university towns, with stressed out students sprawled out on couches and fliers covering every inch of the walls.

A coffeehouse was a meeting place and a place for reading. As time went by with the wi-fi generation wanting coffee to go with their Facetime chats or work on their laptops, the coffeehouse became a de-facto anti-social computer lab, the complete opposite of the social epicenter that coffeehouses once were.

Would you like some bike and sugar with your coffee?

Would you like some bike and sugar with your coffee?

What to call a nondescript Starbucks or Peet’s? They are what they are, the same in Topeka or Temecula. They are somewhere in between a coffeehouse and laptop center, where at least half the customers don’t even consume the coffee on the premises.

With the rise of the “Third Wave” coffee movement (a global movement of local, small batch coffee roasters who seek out higher quality beans and often have their own cafés) over the past decade, the actual coffee has been surging in quality. In turn, the idea of a coffeehouse has had both a renaissance and a complete re-imagining. These are the cafés where your barista is both expert and artist, where your precious Ethiopian single origin pour-over arrives ten minutes and five dollars later, and where your espresso’s blend has been sorted with the meticulous care a fine Bordeaux winemaker will do with his grapes.

To accompany the loftier coffee, coffeehouses, including Sightglass and Four Barrel in San Francisco, now are combating the anti-social laptop crowd by not having wi-fi available. Here, it’s about socializing, reading, and of course, the coffee.

Palo Alto, CA's Zombie Runner

Palo Alto, CA’s Zombie Runner

Yet in the past few years, the concept of the coffeehouse has been taking an even more peculiar turn. Forget about the old coffeehouses of couches and tables. Welcome to the generation of where bike shops and running stores co-exist with coffee shops. In many cases, these hybrid shops even roast their own beans. One thing is for certain at these “cycle cafés” and “jogging cafés,” you will be wide awake for that next bike ride or run. (more…)

Plat du Jour: Tuesday, April 10, 2012

We’re back from Kauai, always a challenge to realize that every day this week won’t be filled with mai tais, pineapples, beaches, and golf. It’s now time to reflect on the lessons learned from Kauai’s emerging food community and restaurant scene. This week we’ll have a review of what I consider the four main restaurants of Kauai, starting with Merriman’s Poipu today, along with Friday a round up of the markets and food shops visited on the Garden Island, the best tastes of the week, and yesterday’s neighborhood article on Kukui’ula. Tomorrow we will also start our hopefully many articles to come from guest voices sharing their food communities, recipes, and insight on the food and drink world, beginning with the wonderful city of St. Louis, Mo.! (Meet Me in St. Louis…)

While away last week, the calendar turned to April, and for avid baseball fans such as yours truly, that meant opening day finally arrived to end the dark winter season of sports. My beloved Red Sox finally won their first game of the year last night after numerous bullpen collapses over the weekend.

In honor of baseball starting, here are some of my picks for the best foods to eat at ballparks across the country. Since 2003, my Dad and I have visited two or three new stadiums per season, adding up to a total now of 25 present stadiums where we have watched baseball (and eaten). Only Minneapolis, Miami, Tampa Bay, Houston, and Arlington, TX remain on the list (though the two Texas stadiums will not be on that list much longer…). Yes, ballpark food is overpriced and often very unhealthy, greasy, and underwhelming. And it’s a pain to eat in a cramped seat on a hot day or a cold night. But really, it’s baseball. Anything will taste good when you’re at the ballpark (as long as the Red Sox play better than last September!).

Speaking of the Red Sox:

Fenway Park, Boston: I’m a sucker for Fenway Franks. To me they actually do have more flavor, are plumper, and juicy but not too much so compared to other regular hot dogs. Legal Seafoods clam chowder is a great choice in April or the RemDawg (for announcer Jerry Remy) on Yawkey Way. Be sure to have a pint of the Green Monsta IPA by Wachusett Brewing Co. and cheer for A Gon, Papi, and Lesta’. Fenway happens to have exceptional food choices for a ballpark area from the Sausage Guy or Ken Oringer’s La Verdad Taqueria on Landsdowne to Island Creek Oysters, and really any place in the Back Bay is walking distance.

Citi Field, New York Mets: Home of Danny Meyer. That means Shake Shack and Shake Shack lines. No lines though for the excellent bbq sandwiches at Blue Smoke, the only place to get the also terrific Blue Smoke ESB Ale by Brooklyn Brewery. My broadcasting mentor Ted Robinson, a former Mets voice and New York native, led me a few years ago to the Mama’s of Corona stand for the excellent Italian sandwiches there at Shea. The stand is now at Citi Field. Some of the big league’s best food is at Citi Field, and hey at this moment, the Mets are undefeated!…

Yankee Stadium, New York: If you’re in the luxury boxes, I hear the food is spectacular from Morimoto, April Bloomfield, and other chefs. In the regular seating, go for the wok fried Asian noodles in the Great Hall, a Nathan’s hot dog, or the not cheap Lobel’s prime rib sandwich.

Citizen’s Bank Park, Philadelphia: Possibly the best for food and beer outside of San Francisco. Tony Luke’s roast pork with broccoli raab? The Schmitter? All excellent choices. Terrific beer from local stalwarts like Victory and Flying Fish.

Oriole Park at Camden Yards, Baltimore: One of the greatest crab cakes of my life. Baltimore must really know crab cakes if their ballpark even makes one this full of crab. Boog’s BBQ in rightfield is easily the most popular choice.

Nationals Park, Washington D.C.: See Citi Field above for Meyer, Danny choices. The outfield has a great Jamaican jerk chicken barbeque stand, freshly grilled, the envy of everyone around me. Dogfish Head, Flying Dog, and other local craft brews are available, but require a search to the leftfield scoreboard restaurant’s bar. Like at Ben’s Chili Bowl, the half smoke from Ben’s concession stand are only decent, the chili still thin and weak.

Turner Field, Atlanta: A horrid beer selection and the food isn’t much better. Atlanta’s local Sweetwater Brewery is sometimes available at one or two places. Some games the Chick Fil A is open, not that it is an upgrade over hot dogs. In the centerfield plaza, interesting hot dogs can be found such as the vidalia onion relish and cole slaw covered Georgia dogs, or others slabbed with heart attack toppings.

Great American Ballpark, Cincinnati: Every time, the bbq pulled pork sandwich from Montgomery Inn. Nothing else compares. Go to Graeter’s for ice cream after the game.

Progressive Field, Cleveland: Bratwurst with brown mustard. Save room and dine nearby at Lola or Greenhouse Tavern after the game.

PNC Park, Pittsburgh: Beautiful ballpark, poor team. Of course the famed Primanti Bros. sandwiches are the thing to get here, filled with meat, french fries, and cole slaw, all in one. Or think barbeque  at Manny Sanguillen’s barbeque pit, the chief pitmaster rival in baseball to Boog Powell in Baltimore.

Rogers Centre, Toronto: Don’t remember any special food. I do remember having a LaBatt Blue for the novelty of it in Ontario.

Comerica Park, Detroit: Terrible food options made me starve myself and eat a stale salad at a nothing Greektown eatery afterwards. The chili cheese coney dogs are signature Detroit though and not too bad for a snack.

Wrigley Field, Chicago Cubs: No memory, but probably just had sausages and/or hot dogs. Just drink Old Style, America’s favorite craft brew.

U.S. Cellular Field, Chicago White Sox: Home to Chicago’s worst pizza. I love the outfield showers and organ music though.

Miller Park, Milwaukee: Why of course, bratwursts from Klement’s! Miller is acceptable to drink here too.

Busch Stadium, St. Louis: Excellent fresh grilled Italian sausages with peppers and onions. Toasted ravioli? Not that good in restaurants or the stadium. Budweiser on draft. Better idea: bring sandwiches from the Italian delis on The Hill like Amighetti’s and Adriana’s.

Kauffman Stadium, Kansas City: BBQ beef sandwich from Gates BBQ, almost as good as what you’ll find even at Arthur Bryant’s. One of the best ballpark dishes in the country.

Coors Field, Denver: Haven’t found any great food here, the Rocky Mountain oysters taste of nothing but fried batter. The beer selection is excellent with choices from Oskar Blues and Boulder Beer, and even a few beers brewed at the stadium available at the Sandlot Brewery in rightfield.

Safeco Field, Seattle: The Ichi-roll or any sushi. The Ivar’s salmon sandwich is very acceptable too. The stadium to go to for salads too.

O.Co Coliseum, Oakland: I’ve been stuck going to this atrocious stadium since I was one month old. Beer selection is pretty decent, with the likes of Lagunitas IPA up in the West Side Club, open to the public. The bbq sandwiches by Kinder’s are fine, but I always have the Louisiana hot link at the Saag’s Sausages stand.

At&T Park, San Francisco: The premier place to eat and drink in the big leagues. The centerfield plaza’s Krazy Krab sandwich could be a lunch item from Michael Mina. There is a new Anchor Brewery beer garden out there this season, go for the Liberty Ale on draft. There are of course Boudin clam chowder sourdough bowls, excellent sausages at Say Hey! Sausages, and dessert must be Ghiradelli’s ice cream sundaes. A little beer advice: It’s less expensive and the selection up to nearly two dozen craft brews on draft downstairs at the Public House by Willie Mays Plaza. Yes, you have further to walk with the beer, but it’s worth it.

Dodger Stadium, Los Angeles: I said this time and time again as a food critic in L.A. Dodger Dogs aren’t good. Sorry folks. Sandwiches from Canter’s are however worthwhile. Last time I was here I just had a pretzel and grapes the choices were so bad. Perhaps Magic Johnson will change this? My greatest food memory at Dodger Stadium was bringing one of my broadcast mentors in the press box, a Giants announcer, a bowl of udon from Sanuki No Sato, since his flight came in late and missed our lunch.

Angel Stadium, Anaheim: Nothing to write home about. The excellent Beachpit BBQ stand is gone now. At least Fat Fire is on draft…at over $11.

Petco Park, San Diego: Excellent fish tacos are all I remember, but everyone seems to eat before or after in the Gaslamp Quarter.

Chase Field, Phoenix: The options are no better at the D’backs home park than at Spring Training parks. The best beer is from Gordon Biersch. Maybe Chris Bianco can serve some pizza, Chris Curtiss some sandwiches, and Nobuo Fukuda some sushi in the future?

Alright, play ball!

Speaking of ballpark food, when I go to Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, Texas, I’ll have to try this or at least see it. Everything is bigger in Texas I guess.

Chicago Magazine just released its new restaurants issue. Again, I am no expert on the Chicago restaurant scene, but I do appreciate reading about it. Chicago is no second city in food.

And finally this Tuesday, on the plane back from Kauai I read about this super fruit, the kerela (in the final paragraph). Perhaps like they do in Kerala, India, we should have some kerelas before eating that Champion Dog at Rangers Ballpark.

Happy Tuesday, tomorrow we’ll have a review of Josselin’s Kauai, insight on St. Louis, plus Wednesday’s Wine and Beers of the Week!