Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Slow down the clock (Eatery: Cabaggetown Market)

I spent a few nostalgic hours watching "the wonder years" last night. What a great show! Who knew it is still on after all these years. It struck me then that children many generations from now may channel surf one day pass the same syndicated TV show after I am long gone. The thought was strangely comforting on one hand and oddly freaky on the other...
What does this have to do with food... well nothing... but it does sort of echo the feeling that washed over me when I walked into Cabaggetown Market today. No, not the freaky feeling, the nostalgic one. The one that brought my friend J (not the same as boyfriend J), sitting pretty above, to utter "this is like places we have back home"! Back home being Florence, Alabama, a small southern town with a big city name. I instantly thought that I'd like this Florence, Alabama. :)
Lisa, the co-owner of the place, greeted us with a big smile from the kitchen. She, radiant in pink, fit the place as perfectly as the neat things she had stocked the place with. I was drawn to the sandwich board immediately and settled rather quickly on the hot turkey sandwich with melted provolone cheese and a side of fries. For some reason, the hotter the weather got, the more I craved greasier food. J was even faster. Apparently, she always kept an eye out for fried pickles, which were on a part of the menu board I totally didn't see. She ordered those before I could even finish reading the list of sandwiches. She also got a burger, so maybe it's not just me that caught the greasy bug.
While the food was cooking, we browsed the shelves. ohh... butter cookies! Ha, marshmallows! It certainly was an interesting and eclectic mix they had on the shelves. I settled on some seed crackers and sparkling water in an old time glass bottle.

Food took awhile, but not an uncomfortably long while. Time slowed in that place as we leisurely flipped through the old cabaggetown postcards thoughtfully left on the counter.

My sandwich was big. I could only eat half of it. It wasn't the sandwich to end all sandwiches. But it was a competent sammie made more competent by the pile of fresh fries sleeping next to it. I was a happy girl right then and there, sitting in front of a sunny counter with my legs dangling from the stool (sadly, this always happens no matter where I am) and a cheesy sammie in my hands. I am pretty sure J was in agreement with me at that moment. She killed her burger and fried pickles (that were apparently cut the right way) despite knowledge of an impending steak dinner.

I bought a lemon bar for the road, which made my afternoon at around 3 pm, and promised Lisa that I'd be back. I figured that it was safe to make a promise that I'd be sure to keep.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

I ate a noble gas. . . and it was awesome! (Restaurant: Element)

E and I were stood up two Sundays ago. All dolled up and ready to celebrate our anniversary of having become friends (yes, we are that weird and use any excuse to celebrate), we walked up the front steps of Element only to find an empty dinning room locked behind heavy doors. We were bummed, really bummed. I had talked about Element so much, it was as if I had pumped up a huge balloon that was then pricked by a pin. So we cried our eyes out and went home to eat lean cuisine in front of the telly... no, we didn't quite do that. But that's another story altogether. What we did feel was tremendous disappointment. We probably would never have gone back, if chef Blais wasn't so persistent...

The chef came back into our hearts in a big way. As soon as he found out about our missed date, he just about knocked over my inbox to try to set up a re-date. When Richard Blais says "please give us an opportunity to cook for you"! I was not stupid enough to turn him down. I mean, I've done a lot of not so smart things in my life, but turning down what is potentially one of the best meals in town never was, is, or will be one of those things. So we dolled up again (we like to play dress up... inappropriately for Element, but more on that later) and went for date number two.

Boy, were we glad we did. We were BLOWN AWAY! From the first chips and salsa (above) that knocked the initial snickers out of E when they melt in her mouth to taste just like chip and salsa, Chef Blais led us on an adventure that never failed to surprise.

These "popcorn" came in a cute little tangine-like dish. When the lid came off, the kernels gave off cold smoke . . . apparently having taken a bath in liquid nitrogen. A little crunchy from the quick freeze, the corn had a great caramel flavor. Very very addictive. (Note to self: get a doggie bag next time to smuggle into the movie)

This is one of my favorites for the night. When mixed together, every bite was akin to top grade spicy tuna studded with little surprises - the surprises being bursts of balsamic jelly and crunchy pear bits.

Besides being the prettiest thing to come out of the kitchen (I mean seriously, oyster and "pearls"! Can anyone really get much more clever than that?), the citrusy dipping dots left a pleasant tingle in the back of the throat that lingered for quite some time. I need to go back just to shoot these all night!

I get the concept, it's a deconstructed ravioli with zucchini for wrappers. While I liked the flavor of every individual component, I missed the satisfying chew of a real ravioli. Sometimes our past experiences set up expectations that bias our taste buds...

"You must eat these quickly," our lovely server instructed. While I scrambled to take a quick picture, I vaguely remember hearing her say something about chocolate and anchovies... Then both E and I picked one up and engulfed it quickly with our mouths. "Emm..." was the sound that came from my side of the table, while E was seen mouthing a soundless "yuck." Apparently we both forgot that she absolutely despises anchovies (the sorry Greek that she is). For me, the combination of salty chorizo, pungent anchovies, and slightly bittersweet chocolate brought back pleasant memories of Asian fish jerky I loved to gnaw on as a kid. Unless you've also gnawed on some fish jerky and have enjoyed it, it's hard for me to articulate why this combination is appealing. Let's just say that it brought back good memories of field trips and careless days. Not the same for E... she gulped her whole glass of water...

We heard "powdered argon" in the description of the dish. Before I could still my vocal cord, I heard my inner nerd utter "you mean we are going to eat a noble gas"? E shook her head (even though she was doubtlessly thinking the same thing, being the super chemistry geek she once was), and said "you are such a dork"! Right... I guess it's easy for a girl to dress herself out of geekiness, but it take a lot more, more than I've got, to take the girl out of true geekdom... I failed to appear cool, yet again!!! And I don't even really know chemistry... now that's sad.

Conjure in your mind all that is good and noble about SPAM from the taste perspective of a six year old. If you can get that taste profile in your mind, then you've got the perfect reflection of the meat part of this dish. If you can't remember what that taste like, either you are too food-snobbish or you haven't truly tasted SPAM. It is really not a bad taste. It is good. There is a whole state out there (Hawaii) that is crazy about the stuff. As for the pickled ramp, it tasted like a good pickled ramp should, mildly onioney, mildly pickley, lots refreshing. It's the perfect counterpoint to all that meatiness. On a side note, I sense that ramp may be labeled uncool soon since it has apparently become the food fad of the season. This is totally unfair to the poor ramp! The coolness of a vegetable should never be judged based on the fickle adoration of foodies...

I hope chef Blais wasn't getting tired of our bottomless stomachs at this point. We loved our mussels with fingerling potatoes even if it wasn't "different" like the rest of the food. It was mighty yummy and well executed.

The cuteness factor was big here. Peach nigiri with goat cheese and beet caviar. It all worked together very well, in a very non-sushi sort of way. Then again, I am biased because I love beets. Someone should love the lowly beets. They are good stuff.

Yup, we were totally overdressed for the place. We didn't really care. We do it more for each other (in a non-lesbian way) than for the establishment. But if you care to blend in, wear something more casual. This is over the top food in a casual setting.

Mmm... rib with mango sauce. It's mighty tasty with good fatty juices (do you see it glistening?). Even though the plate was quite sparse, the richness of the single rib took over the palate and did not leave me (after how many courses?) wanting more. I was very very satisfied.
But not satisfied enough to turn down dessert! What you see here is the best of my childhood snacking memories distilled into a single bowl. Cool and milky panna cotta went down like the best almond jelly my mom never made. Liquid nitrogen frozen coke fizzled in my mouth like pop rock. Crunchy cracker jack, what can I say about cracker jack, except that it is simply the most additively popable snack I adored. How did Blais know that this is the perfect ending to a most wonderful culinary journey? I guess that's why he is the chef and I am merely the eater.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Chitlin bowels? Surely you jest... (Restaurant: El Rey De Taco)

Translation, let alone correct translation, is probably an afterthought on this part of the Buford highway. Anyone that is actually out here SEEKING out food, as opposed to being desperate or merely lost, should either know what she is getting or at least be brave enough to eat whatever she is served. I am generally confident to do the former and definitely comfortable with the later. This is especially true when I am restless for something different. And this past week, I was very restless.

Maybe it was the heat or maybe it was the work. Whatever it was, it drove J and I out of the city and onto Buford highway. We passed the Vietnamese pho joints we sometimes visit, we ignored the Malaysian restaurant that at times draw us in with its spicy Laksa, we wanted something else. Something we haven't had in any good form in a while. We wanted some tacos.

El Rey de Taco is housed in a very passable and awkwardly peachy building next to some equally nondescript Korean restaurants. We decided to stop here, not because I had a great nose for good Latin grubs(although that would be nice), but because the blissful glutton had mentioned it as a good stopping point and we were, at that moment, ready to make a stop. The decor inside was very nonmemorable. If it was, maybe I would now be able to tell you what it looked like. I do, however, remember the smell of the place - it smelled of fried seafood. A quick survey confirmed that fried seafood was indeed being consumed in the form of a whole fried fish at a table near the door. The fish looked good, but we weren't persuaded to eat it. We were there for tacos and tacos we were going to have.

On the menu were tacos in both regular and mini sizes. You should know by now which one I opted for. The list of taco insides included the usual suspects as well as some interesting stuff that got my heart going just a bit faster. Tongue, yum, beef check, oooh, gelatinous goodness, chitlin bowels??? Huh? That one didn't quite register... I read it again and looked at J, puzzled. "It's tripe, silly, it says tripa. You love tripe!" Oh yes, yes I do. Isn't tripe a few organs up? I am not very good with anatomy in general, but I do sort of have an idea of where the tastier innards are located. But correct labeling is trivial at this point, because I am getting it, whatever it is!

For $3.5 I got three little mini bundles of tongue, tripe, and beef cheek. I went for the tongue first. Not at all chewy, all the little microscopic pockets were filled with tasty juices it was stewed in. Yum to the nth degree. Next up was the tripe. Again soft and kind of velvety. There is a reason why this is one of my very favorite innards of all time. I've saved the beef cheek for last since I knew it would be the richest of the bunch and it certainly lived up to that. The fried cheek bits were a little crispy at the ends and perfectly sticky and gelatinous at the fatty parts. "If I wasn't incapable of taking bigger bites, I think this beef cheek thingy might squirt fatty juices at you..." "Hmmh..." J mumbled back, obviously too engrossed in his own regular-sized pocket of carne asada to care what I hypothetically could have shot in his direction. He was fortunately not too engrossed to forget to clink my negro modelo as we both take a satisfied sip... or gulp in his case.

Life is good again.

Monday, June 11, 2007

zeppole like air puffs (Restaurant: Shaun's)

Before Shaun's version, I've only had zeppole at Italian street fairs and homey pizza joints. They were never very bad. Deep-fried dough balls have a tendency to please when they are hot from the cauldron. At the same time, I've never had incredible zeppole. The kind that would wake me in the middle of the night with a deep craving. That is, until Shaun Doty put his brown paper bagful of treasures in front of me.

The look of Shaun's zeppole is not much different from the street version. But as soon as I picked one up, I could feel the difference. The little dough ball was much lighter in weight than its size would suggest. The golden shell gave a bit in the way that a french macaron does when it encounters a less than delicate hand. One pop in the mouth, my eyes went wide. These are not any zeppole I've ever had, the little air puffs dissolved on my tongue leaving behind no trace of grease. There was hardly any chewing involved. The air puffs simply disintegrated like little sighs, releasing the most pleasant fried flavor. They made me sorry that the little brown paper bag was not a little bigger.

Monday, June 04, 2007

You got that from the food court? (Super H mart)

For many of us, food court was where we hang out in those restless summer days when we were too old to go to camp and not old enough to get a car. We would wonder aimlessly from the Panda Express in one corner of the food court to the Orange Julius in the other, wasting away an endless afternoon with nothing to do.

It has been a very very long time since I've visited a mall. As much as I long for afternoons with nothing to do, I don't miss mall food at all. Now when I have a leisurely Sunday afternoon to spend as I please, I often choose to visit a certain SUPER market and get a snack from its food court. Rest assured that this is not your neighborhood Publix food counter. This, is Super H mart, where some of the tastiest Asian snacks are served up along side aisles after aisles of fresh veggies.

For eight dollars, you can get the Sam Gye Tang - a whole cornish hen stuffed with sticky rice, chestnuts, and Chinese dates, all stewed together in a ginseng soup inside a personal clay pot. If only I had this kind of food to turn to in the food court of my teenage years, maybe I would have enjoyed those afternoons more.