Firenze–Well Worth the Extra Five Pounds!

A few things I learned while in Florence may help you should you ever find yourself there—how to order a quarter liter of the house red wine in competent Italian (“un quarto vino rosso della casa”) and to always avoid eating anywhere all of the other diners are American. The rest has to be experienced. And that I did.

What remains of the ubiquitous quarto litro vino rosso della casa.

Although I brought a “list” of “must” eat places given to me by a friend of a friend whose friend recently lived in Florence for a year, I am certainly glad I stayed with a local possessing a really good palate. That’s because I tried two places off the “list” and both were full of Americans (see rule #2, above) and average food. The following is a list of places that didn’t make “the” list, but should have:

The night I arrived at my B&B in the San Gaggio area altrarno and south of the Porta Romana, I was looking for a nearby place for a bite. My hostess told me about some places a tourist might like, but we eventually got over that. After ruling out the nearest and best trattoria as already too packed for reservations, she recommended a pizzeria that I returned to three more times afterward—Pizzeria Il Pipistrello on Via Senese.

Although extremely local, one waitress spoke English well enough to help me order and at least one waiter did as well. That night, I ate the absolute best thing in the form of flat round dough, cheese, sauce and meat I’ve ever had. It was called Pizza Maialona con Bufulo, it featured three kinds of pork meat—salami, ham, and sausage—and buffalo mozzerella, and it was heaven. This was one of those dishes you start craving again as you leave the restaurant. In an amazing show of restraint, however, I didn’t eat it again until my third visit.

Pizza maialona con bufulo (notice the quarto litro in the background).

On my second trip to Pipistrello, I tried the comparatively austere but equally fabulous salami and ham pizza. And on the fourth and final visit, I mastered the positively mind-blowing “house” pizza, featuring just about everything and an egg baked in the center. Ummm. Filling. I found the prices to be reasonable. I ate and drank very well for a bit less than €15.

The Pipistrello "House" Pizza (featuring a real egg in the middle). Ummm. Filling.

Over the next several days, I also ate twice at a wine bar across from the Palazzo Pitti featuring an extraordinary menu, called Enoteca Pitti Gola e Cantina. Besides several fine Chiantis and Sangioveses, there was for a starter a gorgeous terrine of fois gras topped with sage and served with crostini, on a reduction of vin santo (that was reminiscent of a light cane syrup but with stronger molasses-like flavors as well) and scattered rock salt. The contrast of textures and sweet with salt was unlike anything I’d ever experienced before. And it was good.

Fresh pasta triangles stuffed with spinach and ricotta and topped with shaved black truffles.

For mains, I had triangles of fresh pasta stuffed with ricotta and spinach and topped with shaved black truffles one night, and on a different night, a wonderful steak tartare with orange and mint. Here, the prices were a bit steep for the portions. I found it difficult to get out of there for less than €35.

Steak tartare with orange and mint. Served with a little mound of peas, carrots, diced potatoes, and halved grape tomatoes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the gelato front—two were noteworthy in my estimation. The first is the best: Vivoli near the Museo del Bargello and the Teatro Verdi. You pay in advance, and though it is packed with locals, the servers know enough English to hook you up with what you want. Here the gelato is served only in cups, and it is magnificent. The first time I visited I tried hazelnut and pistachio. The second, hazelnut and chocolate-hazelnut. All flavors were the best versions of their kind I’ve ever tried.

The second gelateria was also better than any other, except Vivoli. It was called Gelateria La Carraia and was near the Arno and the Ponte alla Carraia. Here, I tried the Tiramisu mousse combined with the espresso. It was heaven in a cone. Soft and light and *uh* words fail. With either of these, you can’t go wrong. Vivoli was €2.50 for about 5 oz; La Carraia charged €1.50 for a small cone.

Like Gola e Cantina, another great favorite of mine violated the rule I’d been given about “don’t eat within sight of any famous tourist destination.” While Gola e Cantina is near the Palazzo Pitti, Ringo is near the Ponte Vecchio on the Borgo San Jacopo, and it’s three umbrella-covered tables outside sit pretty much in the street. Yes, there is a sign above the door that reads: “Hamburgers, Cheeseburgers, Hot Dogs.” Ignore all that. The food here is really good anyway.

The first time I shared the bruchetta with pomodora, basil, and ham, and ate the Insalada con Bacon as my main. OMG. Both were incredibly fresh, the second featuring avocado, round slices of very small zucchini, tomato, and Italian ham.

At the very strong urging of my hostess, on my second visit to Ringo, I violated a rule I had no intention of breaking: the “thou shall not eat American food in Europe” rule. But in this case, I’m glad I did. In fact, the hamburger at Ringo is among the best I’ve ever eaten anywhere. It was served on a firm egg-washed bun with tomato, pickles, catsup, onions, and mustard or vinegar or something else really wonderfully tangy. Nothing is served on the side but a fork and knife, which you will need. It is so good, I actually ate it again a few days later. Just to be sure, you understand.

Amazing fork and knife burger. Better than all but one I've had in America.

One thing to be aware of at Ringo, is that each dish is made by one person and is served one at a time. So each time I ate with two other companions, we were served at different times. And it turns out, the shared starter plate was a really good idea. The cost was very reasonable at about €80 for three including at least two glasses of wine per person and several bottles water for the table.

Another place I ate more than once was the local trattoria I couldn’t get into on my first night—Ruggero. For a starter, I tried the ground chicken liver in olive oil spread on crostini (reportedly very traditional, and actually very delicious). For the main, I was served breaded veal in an onion-tomato gravy with large, flat green beans in bacon. Again, very good. By the second visit, all I wanted was a salad, which is understandable given all of the other stuff I’d been eating until then. That day they had one featuring copious amounts of sliced mushrooms. I asked for a side of sliced salami, which request they graciously obliged.

Finally, for the lunch of my last full day, I tried a place that reportedly hosted Sarah Jessica Parker on her visit to Florence—Cambi (or Antica Ristoro di Cambi, if you want the full treatment). There I ate the most famous dish of the city—Bistecca Florentine (por un, per favore). What I received was a 750g delicious, rare T-bone, marinated somehow into a state of fabulousness not attainable at, say, Shula’s. I was advised to go traditional with the sides and so had white beans I sprinkled with salt and fresh ground black pepper and then drizzled with EVOO (fagioli con olio di oliva). Solid.

Bistecca Florentine con fagiolo con olio di oliva. (*that sucking noise Hannibal Lecter made in Silence of the Lambs*)

I must say, this is the only place I ever felt I absolutely had to ask for a take-away box. I wasn’t sure if this was considered rude, but they were very obliging and I enjoyed the remainder of the steak the next morning with breakfast. I can’t imagine how big the Bistecca por due must be!

These were not the only places recommended to me, but by the time I dodged the various Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday closing days of sundry establishments, the eateries listed above were the ones that made the cut. And, believe me, the five pounds I earned are not regretted in the least. Florence was a beautiful place to bulk up and make food memories to last a lifetime.

Rawr!

Farm Burger Supper Series–I’ll be back (if I can get to the phone fast enough)!

Hungry diners await the chefs' offerings at Farm Burger's Summer Farm Supper No. 4.

Let me just tell you upfront: the life of a food blogger does not suck. Which is a good thing because the pay really does. But every once in a while, gustatory curiosity (and my continuing need for high-quality content) leads me to an event I might otherwise never have noticed. And every once in a while, I have an experience that ends up being pay enough. (Well, almost.)

The Summer Farm Supper No. 4 on Thursday, August 11, 2011, at Farm Burger in Decatur, Georgia, was such an event. And luckily for all involved, it is part of an ongoing a series!

At the helm this evening were two chefs, Ryan Smith of Empire State South and Zeb Stevenson of Livingston Restaurant + Bar, ready to show what they could do with ingredients provided by Farm Burger affiliates Moonshine Meats and Full Moon Farms in Athens, Georgia.

Chefs Zeb and Ryan take a well-deserved bow.

The rest of us were just along for the exquisite ride knowing only that for about $36 we would get something like four courses. Nonetheless, the event sold out completely leaving a decent-sized waiting list of the tardy but hungry.

The menu was posted on the Farm Burger blog two days ahead of time, and I was intrigued. The line-up included parts of the cow and pig I’d never experienced before along with some unusual parts of other animals, too.

Dinner was served at several communal tables set throughout the restaurant and at the bar. I was seated with a group of three and another pair to round out our table of six with a great view of the kitchen.

Patient patrons at the bar.

As my fellow diners arrived, we were provisioned with a pre-appetizer snack of puffed beef tendon dusted with a finely grated, hard, white mystery cheese.

Puffed beef tendon by candlelight.
 

It was paired with a refreshing and delicately sweet fig-rosé spritzer concoction.

Summertime Sipper--a kind of fig-rosé spritzer

 

 

 

 

Now just where on the animal this tendon was originally located was never revealed but the secret in no way diminished my enjoyment of this oddly alluring treat. (You will note I followed a strict “don’t ask; don’t tell ” policy through most of this meal. It was probably for the best.)

Check out the size of that beef tendon.

My closest analog with the texture was pork rinds but with a slightly sticky finish you would expect from an ingredient containing so much collagen. There was obviously some delicious fat involved, perhaps tallow, the buttery flavor of which only intensified its beefy goodness. And even though each tendon was about the size of a dinner plate and I was putting them away like I had just returned from a two week stroll across the Gobe desert, I still had plenty of room for the remaining courses—six remaining courses to be exact.

Next on deck was a sampler basket featuring three items, potted chicken liver with a rhubarb mustard, something called “scrapple,” which appeared to be something formed into a cube, enrobed in an herbed crust, and fried then topped with cured egg yolk, and something else called a beef heart “kifto” topped with a bit of crispy beef belly. (You will note, the chefs served not only inspiring food but also gave me an edumacation.)

Red basket sampler. (Potted chicken liver on the right; Scrapple topped with cured egg yolk in the center; Beef heart kifto on the left.)

The potted chicken liver was as you would expect—smoothly pate-like—and the rhubarb mustard was a served atop a subtly-sweet jelly (or maybe it was the jelly. No one at my table seemed able to tell). The scrapple simply reminded me of a really moist baked kibbe—only fried. And the shredded beef heart was an interesting deep red color and velvety texture with an unexpectedly delicate flavor. So far, so good.

Course One.

But the meal was only just beginning as course one was finally served. This course was to be a cold melon soup redolent of watermelon juice and containing a large, succulent shrimp, a sliver of “lardo,” and sweet, raw onion slivers, served as a “shooter.” (I refused to shoot, preferring a more lady-like sip that allowed me to actually taste this excellent dish.)

Those who did try to shoot it failed miserably, however, as it was a bit too much volume and the shrimp was really too large to allow much success. So, effectively, this was soup was served sans spoon. Alright then.

Along with the soup was a trout “rillette” spread upon on a whole wheat crostini. The rillette reminded me of a really awesome fish mousse—and that is good—because apparently it is prepared something like a pate. For those of you keeping score at home, that’s 3 for the chefs to 1 for the foodie. But, hey, I’m on the board.

What remained of Course Two by the time I took the snap. Yu-um. (BTW, the long brown things are fried pigs ears. I know, right?!)

Next up was a quartered and cherry heirloom tomato salad with slivered and fried pigs ears, basil, and goat cheese in a lovely vinaigrette. Yum. As in each course so far, there was a hint of sweetness about this dish, but as in each prior course, only as a delicate note far in the background. In this case, that note was provided by the perfectly garden-ripe tomatoes and the vinegar.

Course Three.

Course three was thinly-sliced pickled beef tongue, shaved fennel, summer veggies (in this case diced tomatoes, thin slices of raw okra cut on the diagonal, red and yellow bell peppers, and slivered sweet onions), and chili vinegar served family-style on a wooden plank. Once again, the chefs transmuted random organ meat into an unexpected delight.

Only a few of my fellow diners had ever eaten tongue, but we all agreed this must be a great example of it. The tongue had been sliced across the grain and was so thin as to eradicate any hint of toughness and leave only clean meat with a texture that nearly melted in your mouth.

Course Three upclose.

Even more surprising to everyone than how much we all enjoyed tongue, however, was how much we enjoyed raw okra. The diagonal slicing and other mystery preparation resulted in a crispy and totally un-gooey freshness none of us okra-eaters expected.

And then suddenly, it was time for course four. The craziest part of this, the final savory course, was its incredibly underwhelming description and family-style iron skillet presentation. I mean what was so hot about sausage, ribs, and warm barley salad? Well, as it turns out: a lot.

The magical Course Four. (Warning: Objects appear less impressive than they actually taste.)

Like the huge burst of incredible fireworks that immediately precede the end of a Fourth of July display, course number four simply blew me away. Without hesitation and unblushingly, notwithstanding all prior praise for pork and pork products previously reviewed in this blog, I can truly say these were the best, ever, to-end-all, to-die-for ribs and kielbasa that shall forever haunt my dreams.

The only consolation is that these unassumingly titled components were so far in a class by themselves that they almost defied the categories from which they sprang, and so, in my mind are set aside—incomparable with any other food sharing those respective names. Hey, if they weren’t, I could never eat pork again. (Yes. They were that good.)

Course Four.

And the barley salad was pretty good too. In fact, in the presence of any other meat, the salad likely would have been star of this particular show. Here, however, it was merely something to pass the time between brief sojourns through the outskirts of pork heaven.

“What was so awesome, then?” you may ask. Well, for starters, the fat of the sausage was practically drinkable. And the meat was sensuously textured, amazingly well-seasoned, and absolutely perfectly prepared. So perfectly, I wondered whether one nanosecond of cooking time in either direction would have ruined its delicately balanced flawlessness. My God! I can hardly believe I’m talking about sausage here.

Strangely, the rib came in second to the sausage in a photo finish. That’s weird to me because I have never before in my life preferred anything to a spare rib. Not that there was anything wrong with this one.

The Chefs bask in the afterglow of their triumph in Decatur.

In fact, there was everything right about it. The exterior was almost imperceptibly crispy with a delicate crust of lightly distributed and (once again) subtly sweet sauce. Until now, it had been my experience that most ribs are defined by the sauce and the meat is either good or not good.

In this instance, however, Chef Terry’s restraint allowed the magnificence of the pork to shine through. His delicate application of the condiment enabled this rib to achieve a perfect balance of flavors that elevated both the sauce and the meat to a level I have never known. Truly divine!

The "Goodbye" Course

After this incredible burst of light and sound, we metaphorically sat around playing with sparklers in the form of the “Goodbye Course” of fried blueberry pies dusted with lime sugar and served with a side of savory whipped yogurt. Again, it was a triumph in any other context.

How HUGE are those blueberries?

 

 

 

Following as it did the almost religious experience of course four, however, I couldn’t help thinking of it more as a palate cleanser. Something akin to a nightcap before I hit the road home to mull over all that I had learned at this meal and to swear silently that I will never miss attending another Farm Burger Supper ever again.

Rawr!

Best Cold Remedy Soup, Yet….

Like many of you this time of year (and hereafter), I was feeling really run down with a sore throat and general yuck. Knowing I would have to see this cold through on my own, I instantly searched the Internet for a soup recipe that could pull me through the next few days while laid up with what seemed like impending doom. I found this: “Mom’s Cold-Season Chicken Soup” at SimplyRecipes.com.

It looked like a recipe I could handle, even at half-power, so, now, it was just a race against time. And, of course, there would have to be a few modifications….

I drove to my local Whole Foods as fast as my feverish brain could manage to hunt down the ingredients for the soup recipe but not for the recommended homemade chicken stock. (I did NOT have that kind of time!) Instead, I substituted Kitchen Basics (Unsalted) Chicken Stock in a Tetrapak. For the fat, I would dip into the lard I rendered about a week earlier.

Organic vegetables were my call both for flavor and potency, and an organic French bread baguette, as well. Then I made a few changes—Cajun seasoning instead of “poultry seasoning” (whatever that is), and for the bread, a very strong garlic butter using, in my case, pastured butter and organic garlic.

I started chopping as soon as my feet hit the kitchen tile. Luckily, for Sicko over here, there was no mincing called for—just a rough dice—so the veggie prep was quick, and there was still time to pull my garlic butter and bread together.

To make the garlic bread, you just cut a baguette into quarters and for each quarter prepare the following: in a chopper or small food processor, grind two cloves (or one big one) of garlic; when minced, add two tablespoons of cold butter cut into eight bits then pulse the butter and garlic until the mixture sticks to the side of the bowl. Split your baguette lengthwise along the side, spread the garlic butter on each half of the bread. Preheat the oven to 350°.

Now that I was through with prep, it was time to start the sauté.

To begin with, I used way more than a tablespoon of fat for the veggies—more like four. While the veggies were cooking down, I added the seasonings as instructed. Here, however, I doubled the crushed red pepper flakes. (Hey, Sunshine, this cold isn’t going to get over itself!)

At the point I added the stock to the veggies, I also popped my quarter baguette into the oven for about 10 minutes or so until it was hot but not brown. You can toast either closed or open-faced. Mercifully, once the bread was done it was time to serve the soup, as well.

Now this recipe makes about three quarts of soup, and I recommend eating about 1 quart and one quarter loaf at a sitting. Afterward, you will reek of garlic, and you may experience a slight tingling of the mucosal membranes—but hey, that just means it’s working.

So if you are the only one who is sick or the soup works immediately, why not freeze the rest of the French bread and pour the soup into quart-sized containers and freeze it too? Then you can heat and eat the soup and all you have to do is make a new batch of garlic butter for the bread. I did this and it’s just as effective as new!

Feel better the delicious way, while keeping vampires at bay, with this souped-up Mom’s Cold-Season Chicken Soup.

Rawr!

For the Love of Pork Fat (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Render My Own Lard)

As previously announced on Facebook and Twitter, I recently rendered lard for the first time. Here’s an inside look at how that whole thing went down.

It all started on recent a Wednesday afternoon when I visited the Decatur Farmers’ Market in Decatur, Georgia. Among other things, I was looking for a replacement for the lard supplier I had found in Birmingham but lost when I moved away. I had been told Tink’s Grass Fed Beef would be there, but as it turns out, Tink raises pastured pork as well. So naturally, I asked about lard.

“No, Tink’s doesn’t render lard,” I was told, but for $5 they could provide me the fat needed to do it myself if I would come to the Saturday market. I readily agreed and showed up on Saturday hoping to score the goods.

Sure enough, the fat had been put on the truck and off my contact went to retrieve it for me. When she returned, I was presented with a large plastic bag of frozen fat weighing at least 10 pounds. I was simultaneously thrilled and intimidated. But for $5, I could afford to screw this up so I soldiered on—with a 10-pound lump of frozen pork fat in my trunk.

When I got home, I placed the lump in my refrigerator and set to work trying to figure out how this mass was to be turned into the white, soft, odorless fabulousness so often imitated by vegetable shortenings but never quite matched and certainly not replaced.

In my search, I found this link to a site called, “A Little Bit of Spain in Iowa,” which provided tantalizingly simple instructions for lard-making using a Crockpot, of all things.  Included were beautiful pictures showing exactly what I was to do. The lard pictured looked like what I wanted in an end result, so I figured I’d try it for myself, after buying just a few supplies.

The goal: finished lard in a lovely glass jar.

Newly purchased cheesecloth and ladle in hand, I followed the author’s instructions as closely as possible with the following results. (N.B. Our gentle reader should now take a moment to familiarize him- or herself with the instructions at the link above. That is so I don’t have to type as much and yet can refer to the article freely whilst pointing out where those self-same instructions may have gone off the rails ever so slightly.)

First, as to the choice of equipment, I was working with a regular, old, Rival Crockpot that was one of the first models to feature a removable crock (circa 1999). Nothing fancy; just low and high.

Exhibit "A": The Crockpot

So I didn’t really get where the “Valerie,” referred to in the first paragraph of the instructions, was coming from advising that unless the Crockpot was “high-end,” low wasn’t low enough and just to “use a stockpot on the stove’s lowest setting.”

In fact, I used both the low setting on the Crockpot and the lowest burner on my late ’80s gas stove, and the gas stove was definitely hotter and harder to control.

This was the lowest I was able to get the flame on the gas stove. Still far hotter than the low setting on the Crockpot.

Pictured here, is the lowest I was able to get the flame on the gas stove. It was still far hotter than the low setting on the Crockpot. The fat in the Crockpot was on for 16-hours, by contrast, and still wouldn’t burn—no matter how hard I tried—which brings me to my next few points.

Nowhere in the instructions does the author address how much fat she is rendering, but still confidently assures us of process completion in (it appears) just a few hours. This is totally misleading!

Time to completion is (I hypothecate) likely dependent on the quantity of fat to be rendered.  In my case, I rendered for 8 hours on Day One; got tired and put the lid on the removable crock, placed it in the refrigerator, took it out the following day, and rendered for another 8 hours before “finishing.”

It seemed to go faster once the volume was reduced (but that is by no means a scientific observation).  At no point did the “cracklings” get crispy as described, however, which brings me to my next observation.

The closest to crispy (not very) I was able to attain in 16 hours.

The author discusses the possibility of a “piggie” odor in the finished lard but attributes the off-flavor to “burning” the cracklings. I believe that attribution is only partly true. In other words, the reason I believe my fat never crisped into cracklings (and therefore did not burn) and the reason I didn’t have any piggie odor to my lard is the same—Tink’s did a great job in giving me very little meat and skin with the fat.

What little protein there was, I trimmed away and rendered separately as an experiment.

All that remained after removing the pure fat.

Sure enough, the lard separately rendered from fat and protein did have a strong piggie scent.

Browned protein and fat cracklings.

The purer fat did not.

The purer fat also did not produce cracklings, which I now believe must contain a good percentage of protein to crisp and brown or to “burn” if allowed to cook further.  Or maybe my cracklings sans protein did not burn because of my next observation.

At no point are we instructed to stir, fold, or otherwise turn the contents of the crock. I did it anyway, for better or worse, because it seemed the fat along edges and bottom was definitely turning brown while the fat in the center remained raw and unchanged. Maybe this is why I didn’t get the “separation” of fat from cracklings or the crisping she described, but after a few hours, I wasn’t seeing that happen anyway so I erred on the side of not causing a fire (I guess).

Lard oil beginning to render from fat. (NOTE: The edges browning while the fat at the center looks uncooked.)

Now, for what went right. As an initial matter, using the Crockpot is a stroke of genius. A virtually odorless process that was totally controllable, the end result of rendering in the Crockpot was just was as article described.

The crock also seemed to make it easier to manipulate the fat than any oven-based method I’d read about, as it sat open and reachable right on the countertop, and yet was still gentler-heating than my stove-top experiment. In fact, it was a happy compromise of the benefits of both traditional methods. And when I got tired of rendering, I put on the glass lid and stuck the crock in the refrigerator so I could restart it the next day.

Also, grinding the fat as the author suggests seems to have facilitated a more even release of oil. Because I found the instructions online (including the suggestion to ask the farmer to grind the fat for better results) only after I’d already received the fat, I hadn’t asked Tink’s for pre-ground fatback. But perhaps that was better anyway. Grinding it myself gave me a chance to trim off the protein beforehand, and grinding wasn’t such a big deal using the little chopping attachment to my Cuisinart stick blender and would have been even less of a big deal in a real food processor.

Step 1: Fat strips ready to be diced.
Step 2: Diced fat ready to be ground.

 

 

 

Step 3: Ground fat. NOTE: I only filled the bowl about half full. Any more prevented an even grind and actually took longer.

After reading the instructions, I naively assumed lard making was simply a matter of heat-for-a-few-hours-strain-pour-chill. Not so!  I was totally unprepared for the huge chunk of time rendering this amount was going to take out of two days.  

Oil being strained through double layered cheese cloth over the colander.

But, at the end of the (second) day, I got a gallon of really high quality lard for my $5 and am happy to have one half gallon of lard in the fridge and another in the freezer. In the final analysis, I will definitely render my own lard again—but hopefully not for another year or so.

"Hot" lard oil on the left; solid, cooled lard on the right.

Rawr!

The Original Pancake House–Did You Know How Good This Place Is (at least the one on LaVista Road in Atlanta)?

The Original Pancake House. If you’re like me, you’ve probably driven by, like, 53 of these and never once stopped. Well, I’m here to tell you, my friend: quit doing that!

One reason I’ve never stopped, other than the low-carb diet since 2003, is my apparently whack belief that one pancake/waffle/denny’s/shoney’s establishment is more or less like another. And usually, that has been the case. But The Original Pancake House on LaVista Road NE in Atlanta (or OPH(L) for short), may be the exception to the rule.

My first visit to OPH(L) was during a mid-morning peak time one recent Saturday; the next was a “shoot-a-canon-through-it” mid-morning weekday. Both times I sat at the bar. Both times I placed the same order: two eggs over easy, sausage, three pancakes with sugar-free syrup, coffee, and water.

(You can infer from this that I enjoyed the first breakfast so well that I just wanted a repeat, and not that the menu was in any way not pages and pages of deliciousness described. It certainly was the former.)

Whereas most “diner” eggs are greasy and/or over-cooked, OPH(L)’s over easy was textbook with a perfectly soft, not overly runny interior. (Frankly, I wish I could make them as well.) Whereas most “diner” sausage is a dried-out, crusty, rubbery puck, OPH(L)’s was tender yet cooked through, perfectly-seasoned, and moist with what seemed like actual pork fat. Mmmmm.

Now I come to the pancakes served with authentic—wait for it—butter. These were probably among the very best examples I have ever tried. They were not oversweet, dry, chewy, loose, wet, lumpy, or any other bad thing. In fact they were cakes of steamy, firm, buttery pure love.

Now granted, being a Louisiana dinosaur, I happen to think the pinnacle of pancake syrup is Steen’s Cane Syrup, a kind of Cajun blackstrap molasses. So I’m admittedly no maple syrup connoisseur. But to my taste, even the sugar-free syrup they served (I forget the brand) was actually indistinguishable from real maple syrup in taste and texture.

What’s more the coffee was fresh, strong, and bottomless, and the service was reasonably attentive and welcoming. Sitting there at the bar was like a trip back to a simpler time when people enjoyed a little gossip with their brunch. Apparently, that hasn’t changed much along with the now-retro 1950’s décor.

All-in-all, I found the Original Pancake House to be a great way to spend both the morning and about $10 a head.

Rawr!

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RATING:

Overall:

Food:

Ambiance:

Top Spice Thai & Malaysian–Nan in Midtown Has a Little Competition from North Druid Hills

Along with pork, another favorite of mine is Thai food—especially if there’s pork in there. Before now, Thai in Atlanta meant just one thing to me: Nan in Midtown. But now I not so sure. You see, there’s another Thai in town. A small chain of just two restaurants called, Top Spice. And you know what? They’ve won all those great reviews fair and square.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Nan rocks! First of all, it’s one of the prettiest restaurants around. But the décor isn’t the only thing working for Nan. The kitchen cooks as good as it looks, featuring text book examples of coconut soup and various curries and top shelf, prime ingredients in their translations of traditional dishes.

All of their dishes are incredibly fresh and the elegant portions, while not overlarge, are satisfying. To finish, just about any of the desserts are to die for—but be sure to try the Three Flavors Homemade Ice Creams.

And for the PGA fan, there is a photo gallery of pro golfers near the entrance that are a who’s who of rich and famous diners. Apparently, the owners have some kind of Vijay Sing connection. So if you want to eat where some of the top PGA players hang out when they are passing through Atlanta, be sure to try Nan.

If there is any issue with Nan, it is the fine dining ding to your wallet prior to departure. And that valet parking is really the only way to enter. So what’s the budget-minded or the self-park-er to do for good Thai? The answer clearly is Top Spice.

Located in the renovated Toco Hills strip shopping center and with a second location at Akers Mill, Top Spice is a legitimate alternative to Nan for most occasions. I visited the Toco Hills location for lunch and dinner.

At Top Spice, even the top shelf drinks are reasonably priced. I enjoyed a generous Grey Goose vodka at my evening meal for around $8.

I started with Fresh Basil Rolls on each occasion and found them very fresh and containing a reasonable balance of protein to rice noodles. And the accompanying plum sauce with chopped peanuts is excellent as a dip or a between course snack—Kidding! (Not really).

Soft Shell Crab--Thai-style

My first entrée was from the Thai menu. I ordered the Soft Shell Crab dish at the recommendation of my waiter, and it was awesome! The crabs were (again) very fresh medium-sized blue points and you get two of them. The crabs were properly cleaned of fat and gills, lightly-crusted, deep-fried, and served in green curry with small but juicy shrimp and tender-crisp asparagus.

Although the crabs were quite filling, I took a bullet for the team and ordered dessert. The very helpful waiter explained that two of the desserts were made in-house—the Kaya Pencake and the Sticky Rice with Mango and both were especially good. I went Sticky Rice and was not disappointed.

Thai Sticky Rice

On the plate was a beautiful presentation of a molded warm rice cake topped with a smattering of toasted blond sesame seeds, a fan of expertly sliced mango, and a small ramekin of warm “coconut syrup” that tasted like my idea of sweetened condensed milk if it were made with coconut cream instead of dairy.

The combination was intoxicating. Each bite of rice dipped in sauce was heaven. And amazingly, the rice and syrup stayed warm until the end. Oh, yes, I did finish it! And I took my time savoring each lovely grain.

For lunch, the budget-minded need fear not at Top Spice, for there are lunch specials which are all of the quality of the dinner menu but at a fraction of the price. This menu includes such dishes as Pad Thai. I enjoyed the Nam Sod from the regular salad menu, however.

The only complaint I have about Top Spice’s interpretation of this classic dish is their handling of the raw cabbage side which they serve quartered and almost unimpenetrably solid, like a cabbage brick. I have enjoyed cabbage served as more of a cup containing the minced pork mixture in the past, which I eat like a salad.

Otherwise, this is probably the best Nam Sod I have ever had. Very balanced and not overly sweet, it is spicy without blowing your head off with chili. If you are into this dish, you definitely should give it a try here.

Oh, and despite its location, Top Spice is beautiful too. Dress is casual to business casual, and the atmosphere is elegantly relaxed. In 2007, Top Spice apparently got a lot great press and was awarded Best of City search and rated by Zagat.

In the final analysis, whether you want high-end or really high-quality but not so fussy, Atlanta has Thai covered. For the big spending golf/Thai fan, there’s beautiful Nan. But if you want great Thai without the sticker shock or if you just enjoy Malaysian, Top Spice is the clear winner.

Rawr!
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Nan—

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Farm Burger–The Best Thing to Happen to the Hamburger in (at Least) 35 Years

In 1976, when I was a wee hatchling, I had an abdominal surgery that required me to live for a week on the contents of I.V. bags and an apparently limitless supply of neon green Jello. Once healed, I was allowed to pick my favorite food to end this weeklong abstinence. (Kind of like the opposite of a prisoner’s last meal.) All-American, patriotic kid that I was, I chose the hospital hamburger and fries.

Now, if you’re probably thinking, “ugh,” I certainly don’t blame you. But let me tell you, that hamburger was the best, most succulent, sweetest, flavorful, fresh ground bit of heaven I have ever experienced on a bun—until now.

Farm Burger on West Ponce de Leon in Decatur, Georgia, has opened my eyes to what flavor a lowly burger is still capable of. The measures they have taken to ensure your burger enjoyment are total extraordinary and involve taking the Chipotle concept of using locally-sourced meats and produce to the next level. In short, they raise their own grass-fed beef, pastured pork and chicken, and fabulous vegetables on farms in nearby Athens.

That’s right. Most, if not all, of their meat is sourced from an affiliated farm, Moonshine Meats, while the veggies grow up on the nearby Full Moon Cooperative.

The first time I visited Farm Burger, I was struck by its cool, unpretentiousness and the overcrowded parking lot. The restaurant shares a building with dry cleaners, so after a certain point in the evening, all the parking is for the burger joint. And that’s what it is—newer, cleaner, and hipper perhaps, but still retaining that comfortable, familiar burger-joint-hangout vibe.

Upon entering, you are supposed to line up on the left next to stacked cases housing a very interesting beer selection and review the paper menu found in baskets along the wall and the chalk board describing the specials. You can order at the front or skip the line and take your seat at the friendly bar.

The basic burger costs $6 and is available with a wide variety of toppings and sides making possible several thousand different burger combinations. The toppings range in cost from “free” to $2 extra if you go really exotic. (I was unclear if the listed price was per topping or would allow you to choose as many as you want from the list. The free stuff is so interesting, I haven’t felt the need to find out yet.) All rings and fries are real and made in-house. Go figure!

There are also lunch and daily combos and special “blackboard burgers” available every day. You could also choose from their snack menu, which looks awfully yummy in an odd sort of way. And for dessert are ice cream floats, including one of my favs, a Young’s Chocolate Stout float. (Beer and ice cream, I know. But it really works.) Farm Burger also offers an alternative veggie burger, but why? why? why would you do it?!

My first burger there was pretty simple—medium with iceberg, red onions, house pickles, and FB sauce—hand cut fries on the side and a Young’s Chocolate Stout. [Intake of breath] *sigh* Fabulous.

I had begun to doubt the world’s ability to bring me a burger like this. I had begun to believe I would never again experience the crispy, slightly smoky exterior with perfectly cooked, moist, flavorful, grassy sweet interior of a proper ground beef patty sandwich ever again.

The vegetables too were crisply fresh, without blemish, and proportionally-sized, and the bun was buttery toasted. Most importantly, perhaps, the dressing atop the burger enhanced and did nothing to diminish my enjoyment of the meat, which is clearly the star of the show. The fresh fries obviously cooked in fresh oil served admirably to create an interval between bites of burger helping me appreciate the next bite even more.

On my next trip, we sat outside on the front patio, enjoying the beautiful evening, and watching the dry cleaner’s customer’s pick-up at the drive-thu. Strangely, the setting did nothing to detract from our enjoyment of the meal.

I started with beer-battered onion rings with smoked paprika mayo, and got the daily combo burger which came with fries. The rings were outstanding. Beer-battered in the tempura-style, they were light, crispy, non-greasy, and perfectly complemented by the mayo. My companions got fried okra which was similarly battered and properly fried but served not as “rings.” Each piece was cut longitudinally, instead, allowing us to experience the okra spear in a totally new way.

The burgers did not disappoint either. Mine came with aged, smoked Gouda, caramelized onion, bacon, lettuce, and spicy mustard. Once again, ummmmm.

In short, it seems this burger can do no wrong. It has the power to cure the sick, help the lame to walk, bring home the bacon, and fry it up on a pan, whether dressed simply or done up in the most modern fashion. Like the perfect wingman, the sides complement without competing. I will be back to Farm Burger so many times, they’ll have to name a booth after me.

Rawr!
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OMG! I think I just invented the BEST oatmeal EVER!

What started out as a way to empty my refrigerator of all things that may not last another day, ended with the discovery of quite possibly the best oatmeal I have ever eaten—ever. And here’s how you can make it too!

N.B. Get the following ingredients in organic versions, if possible. I did and, believe me, it makes all the difference.

1 TBSP butter (the good stuff–I use a lightly salted, organic-fed, pasture-cow kind)
1/4 cup steel cut oats
3/4 cup boiling water
1/2 cup heavy cream
3-4 medium strawberries, sliced
1/4 tsp cinnamon, freshly grated
3 TBSP Greek sheep’s milk feta, crumbled
1 tsp fresh mint, rolled and sliced across the leaves
Honey to taste

Serves 1, but feel free to multiply.

1. Start boiling the water, if you have a quick kettle. If not, get the water to a simmer and then begin the rest of the recipe.

2. Melt butter in a 2 qt saucepan over medium-low heat.

3. Add oats and toast until nutty brown. Totally normal to hear some of them “pop” occasionally.

4. Add boiling water, give the oats a quick stir and ignore for about 12-15 minutes.

5. When the oats start peeking over the water and look like they are thickening, add the cream, give the mix another stir, and keep simmering for another 5 minutes or so, until they thicken again.

6. Remove from heat and pour into a bowl.

7. Stir in strawberries, cinnamon, feta, and mint.

8. Top with honey.

Rawr!

Foodiesaurus’ Uptown Crawl

Yesterday was a day like Foodisaurus hadn’t enjoyed in a long time. Yes, it was hot on this June day in Uptown New Orleans. Yes, it was humid. And yes, the resurfacing of Magazine Street made us long for a nice gravel drive. But the food and locales I discovered on my brief, two meal tour made all of that well worth it.

First, my dining companion and I visited Mid-City and the former J.P. McMahon Funeral Home on Canal Street, now known as Mystère Mansion. Only in New Orleans would people line up out of the door to get married at a slightly post-bellum home, next to a cemetery, across from a mausoleum, which had been most recently used as a mortuary and funeral home.

Rumored to be haunted, the building was stripped to the studs by a corporation which bought the building in 2004 in order to convert it to a day spa. Rebuilding was stopped after the company’s CEO died and the board abandoned the project. Then Katrina struck and the home sat vacant until 2007, when it was purchased and returned to its former glory as a premier events venue and kick-ass haunted house destination during the month of October.

In addition to two bars, a commercial kitchen for use of caterers, a “cake” room, reception room with dance floor and amps for a band or DJ, private theater/meeting room, and VIP guest room, the house also features a séance room (complete with “supernatural” special effects, if desired by client), and an underground “mortuary” which extends under Canal Street and is tricked out with all kinds of theme park quality scary stuff just for Halloween.

Hey, consider it a bonus if your wedding theme is “creepy.” But for other events, you’d never know the house was anything other than a beautifully-restored, traditional New Orleans manor. Fabulous!

Next stop, for lunch was a New Orleans classic—Five Happiness. It’s always nicer to visit a place with friends who have friends at the establishment, so maybe our service was a little more prompt than would ordinarily have been the case, I can’t say. But the food was prepared fresh to order and it showed in the flavor. I had the Twice Cooked Pork.

Mine was served with my choice of a wonderful example of hot and sour soup and shrimp fried brown rice, along with a large, crispy fried wonton (folded but with no discernable meat in the fold). We didn’t order appetizers or desserts, but there was so much on the plate, I was only able to finish the pork from the spicy-sweet (but not overly so) sauce, some of the included green bell peppers and onions, the small but plump shrimp from the rice, and the wonton.

Given that I avoid Chinese food like it’s a religious obligation, I was pleasantly surprised there is still an affordable place left in New Orleans that doesn’t think steamer trays, rapidly-aging “sushi,” and self-serve soft-serve ice cream is necessary for a classic Chinese experience.

After a brief shopping sojourn, we found it was seven o’clock and time for dinner. We decided a salad was in order. Regular readers of this blog may recall my abiding affection for salads at Coffee Rani in Covington, Louisiana. My friend suggested the Uptown location of same (she thought….) on Magazine Street.

As it turns out, though apparently related given the same essential menu, Café Rani clearly was not the same. First of all, there is no espresso machine. “Café” has no coffee. Hmmm. But it has a bar. Okay.

Unfortunately, there was also a weird “wet dog” smell my friend thought was like sewerage. And only two or three tables were occupied at what should have been the front end of the dinner “rush.” Not good. Now, I’ve watched enough Restaurant Impossible to know that sometimes bad smells may mean untold horrors.

Taking no chances, we abandoned ship and embarked on a search for the next place that led us quite serendipitously to possibly the best food I’ve ever eaten. In my life. Ever.

The Delachaise at 3442 St. Charles Avenue is housed in an odd, converted-rail-dining-car-looking building that, who knows, may very well have been one. We stopped because I seem to recall having eaten well in that location sometime in about 1995 or so and because there were diners on the patio facing St. Charles, braving the early evening mosquitoes to eat there. Good sign.

Inside, was a funky bar with a few tables and booths at which were seated casually-attired college students and professions and not a few couples who looked like they might get lucky. The walls were lined with chalk boards bearing handwritten notices of the day’s specials, which were, well, special. Among them the pate du jour. The boards also instructed us to order at the bar.

Along the way, we also found written menu. After some consultation with the Internet to translate the names of some ingredients, chose the Grilled Eggplant “Cannolis,” my second example of twice-cooked pork that day—the Cuban Twice-Cooked Pork—and a lovely Chianti by the glass.

I approached the bar and noticed a row of handwritten chalk boards adorned it as well, listing reasonably priced and very high quality liquor and mixed drinks. Our bartender allowed us to split the check but either payment upfront or a tab was required.

The wine came with a sidecar (bonus!) and the food was a work of art. Nonetheless, we dug right in.

The Eggplant Cannolis was group of three roulade about three inches long filled with ricotta, chevre, and herbs served on a bed of Muhammara with three olive oil drenched and perfectly crisped crostini. Muhammara, it turns out, is a spicy pepper dip originating from Syria. Although the base is apparently ground walnuts, it was reminiscent of smoked hummus, and along with the goat cheese, it elevated this dish to quite another level of awesomeness.

Given the quality and beauty of the first course, we tucked right into the pork entrée and were quickly rewarded.

The cubes of stewed pork were finished in the goose-fat fryer and the result was tender, crispy, slightly redolent of orange mojo, and unbelievably fabulous.

Accompanying the pork were steak fry-like strips of yucca, rendered crispy on the outside and flaky, tender, slightly fiberous and a little sweet by its trip through the goose-fat fryer. The food rested on a bed of top-notch aoili and occupied a good-sized platter. My dining companion and I shared the appetizer and the main but left satisfied.

Unpretentious, affordable, and with totally mind-blowing food—The Delachaise on St. Charles should be a regular stop on any trip through the Big Easy.

Rawr!

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RATING:

Five Happiness on Carrollton—

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Café Rani on Magazine—

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Food: Unknown

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The Delachaise on St. Charles—

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Fun Friday Recommended Reads

Happy Friday! Here’s a round-up of interesting stuff for you to read while suffering through extremes in temperature or moisture-levels:

Could eating poo-burgers save the Earth?,” Jess Zimmerman, June 17, 2011, Grist.org.

Farm pork not going anywhere,” Tom Laskawy, June 15, 2011, Grist.org.

How pasta became the world’s favourite food ,” Caroline McClatchy, June 15, 2011, BBC.co.uk.

The Scariest Chart About Seafood You’ll See This Year,” Daniel Fromson, June 14, 2011, TheAtlantic.com.

Buy a half-gallon of sugar water at KFC, give a dollar to diabetes research,” Jess Zimmerman, June 14, 2011, Grist.org.

Cheap food: Not what’s for dinner anymore?,” Tom Philpott, June 10, 2011, Grist.org.

Organic Farmers v. Monsanto,” June 10, 2011, SlowFoodUSA.org.

Drought gardening: How will horticulturists cope?,” June 8, 2011, BBC.co.uk.

E. coli: Germany says worst of illness is over,” June 8, 2011, BBC.co.uk.

http://www.grist.org/food/2011-06-07-contaminated-compost-toxins-might-lurk-in-that-bag-youre-buying,” Tom Laskawy, June 7, 2011, Grist.org.

Chef Secrets: Extra Pickle Juice, Please,” James Mulcahy, Zagat.com.