Saturday, March 29, 2008

Best pizza in the USA? I have to check and get back to you - Restaurant: Pizza Bianco (Phoenix)

"Pizza Bianco has the best pizza in the US." Had anyone else uttered these words, I might have laughed them off. But this wasn't the statement of just anyone, but the words of Serious Eats, the all food all the time community headed by Ed Levine. From overnight delivery of New York bagels to same day pick-up of Thanksgiving pies, Ed had never led me astray. Still, these were fighting words, inviting disagreement or at least confirmation. Having eaten my share of great pizzas back in the big apple (Grimaldi's, Lombardi's, Joe's, John's, etc.) and having sampled a few on my trip to Rome (Pizzeria da Baffetto), I was ready to do the comparison myself.

The Pizza Bianco building was surprisingly small at only the width of a roomy two car garage. It was located in a strange part of town where a few isolated brick houses share the same large park area that surround the huge science center. At 4:00 pm in the afternoon, the tables immediately outside of the pizzeria were already populated by waiting patrons. Within half an hour, the line stretched beyond the front door and around the corner (below). Luckily, we arrived just in time to grab the last two seats under the shade.

The only saving grace for the waiting and wanting, especially for those standing, was the fact that Bar Bianco in the next building opened at 4:00 pm to provide much needed hydration.

Five o'clock on the dot, Pizza Bianco swung its doors opened and seated the head of the eager crowd unhurriedly. Fortunate for us, we got the last two top in the corner near the window, close enough to observe the remaining crowd gazing in longingly.

To prolong our waiting even further, we opted for two salads to start. The caprese was fresh tasting, but not too special. The tomatoes were far from mealy, but somehow still lacked the bright flavors from the heat of summer.
The special salad of the day contained surprising gems uncaptured by my photos. The red jewels hidden beneath the arugula were thoroughly red strawberry slices as large as apple rings. Bursting with juices, these babies were awesome.
Finally, our pizza, plain margerita on one side and with added house made fennel sausages on the other. Properly charred bottom, check. Lack of excess gooeyness in the center, check. Crispiness on the edges, check. Tenderness within and throughout, check. Bright acidity in the sauce, check. Fresh cheese in balanced amount, check. Fault? I really can't come up with any. Enjoyment, 100 percent. Was it the best I've ever had? Best I've had in a very very long while, I'll give it that. But in the back of mind, I hold on to memories of exquisite pies ingested in Rome and a few years back at Lombardi's. Perhaps the special surroundings at both of those places contributed to my enjoyment. Perhaps memory has a way of distorting reality to enhance the experiences. But I really just can't say without a direct comparison. What I can and will do is go back to Lombardi's in May to run a quick taste update. Rome may have to wait a couple more years. In any case though, Pizza Bianco lived up to every bit of my expectation, unexpectedly.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

ATL version of the Otto meal plan - Restaurant: Floataway Cafe

When I was a little worm living happily in the Big Apple, one of my favorite weekend lunches was at Mario's pizzeria Otto (See post here). Shortly before noon, one could often find the place quiet and filled with sunlight, a very different scene from the buzzing wine bar it morphs into after sunset. Much good memories were made around the big corner table in the back sharing hot pizzas among friends. As good as the pizzas were, the best part about going to Otto was always the gelato. I never deviated from the combination of caramel with fleur de sol and olive oil. I miss those good old days!

Lucky for me, I now how a fix when such craving strikes. Last week, while out celebrating E's birthday, Floataway delivered the essence of what I loved about those meals at Otto, a wonderfully charred pizza finished off with salted caramel and olive oil flavored cold treats. The pizza had a well-developed dough that was neither tough nor soggy. The red sauce was bright and the cheese not overwhelming. The constrained effort gave the pizza exactly what it needed without offering more.

Then there were the soft serves. I am totally biased when it comes to these, being the kind of girl who would follow any stranger with a DQ cone. I will, however, say that these were crystal free and dressed lightly with great quality chocolate sauce, salted caramel, and green-tasting olive oil. In other words, great stuff!

Floataway Cafe
1123 Zonolite Rd NE # 15
Atlanta, GA 30306
(404) 892-1414

Monday, March 24, 2008

New carb-loading destination - Bakery: Shilla Bakery

In this down-turned market, it's comforting to see new places pop up, especially when they offer tasty carb-loading options. This past Sunday, some friends and I happened upon this bakery in a new development off of the main Pleasant Hill artery in Duluth. Not ones to pass up a chance for loading up on baked goods, we looted the place despite our full bellies. The selection appeared a bit more interesting than the larger chains like White Windmill and Cafe Mozart. I filled my bag with a big flat rice cake chock full of chestnuts, walnuts, and dried fruits, a matcha cake, a savory donut filled with egg salad, a rice ball (filled with what I will determine tomorrow), and a curry custard bun.

We attacked the donut at the bakery expecting sweetness (it was not labeled). The savoriness surprised us at first. But once I adjusted my expectation, the taste appealed to me. It's hard to hate a fried dough puff filled with mayo moistened egg pieces.

I devoured the matcha cake today between breakfast and lunch, intending at the time only to eat half. Unlike the typical spongy Asian cakes, this little green one was very moist with a distinct matcha flavor. Not weighed down with butter, it was the perfect mid-morning treat.

I came home to J munching on the curry custard bun. Knowing that it takes me ten bites to equal his one, he generously offered me a taste. It was awesome! Creamy with a vibrant curry flavor, the custard complimented the eggy and slightly sweet bun very well. We'll certainly go back for this one again.

There were still many other options to try as you can see below. Some interesting sounding ones include a mulberry cake and a pizza bun.

Shilla Bakery
3473 Old Norcross Rd. #208
Duluth, GA 30096

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Bewitching Sandwiches - Restaurants:Quoc Huong (Atlanta), La Bombonera (San Juan), Carousel Bakery (Toronto)

Looking through my photos from the last few months, I noticed a collection of breakfast sammies very much deserving of their own post. These sandwiches hailed from both near and far, but all shared a common theme - every one of them deviated from the egg McMuffin norm.

Near, there was a fat banh mi from Quoc Huong on Buford highway. It accompanied me to the traffic court on a recent morning and I turned out to be the happiest wrongfully-accused civilian there. How could I not be, munching on a Vietnamese baguette that was cottony soft in the middle but shattered with a delightful noise upon every bite (something wonderful happened when rice flour was mixed into the dough). The whole package was made even better by the stuffing of "an everything" mix of pork, pate, head cheese and a pickled veggie mix. In the meat department, the pate provided the most silky mouth feel and the head cheese the most interesting texture. Had the pickled veggie mix of carrots, daikon, onions, and cilantro not being by the meats' side, the sammy would have suffered from over the top richness after the first few very good bites. The presence of the pickled veggies effectively cut through the richness of their meat companions and kept the flavors well balanced. It was a sammy worth eating even when one is not wanted in court.

To the south, there was a sinful mallorca sandwich at La Bombonera, the old San Juan breakfast institution. Behind the shelves of enticing pastries, we found a bustling dinning room, full of activity at 8 am on a rainy February morning. Locals and tourists alike ordered up the same breakfast staple, the mallorca. A sweet roll texturally somewhere between a yeast doughnut and Parker House roll, the mallorca heading my way was buttered with a heavy hand and pressed with a filling of ham and cheese between a large flat press. Hot off the press, the crunchy creation received a generous sprinkle of powdered sugar. For the duration of consuming this sandwich, I alternated between licking hot cheese dripping down my arms and powdered sugar stuck to my fingers. So very finger-licking good!

Up north, there was a peameal bacon sammy at the famous St. Lawrence market in Toronto. As you can see, peameal bacon is not what we call bacon this side of the border. The awesome lead actor in this sammy was actually salt and sugar cured extra lean ham rolled in corneal. So deceivingly simple, the country roll was appropriately soft and distracted not at all from the pealmeal bacon, which was surprising in its tenderness. I could have gotten some mustard in my sandwich, but it was completely unnecessary as the peameal bacon provided all the seasoning I needed. More salty than sweet, the ham had just enough brine to provide savoriness to the bun, but not too much to send me running for water, which often happens when I eat corned beef sandwiches. This one wins hands down for its super tasty simplicity. Go Canada!

Quoc Huong
5150 Buford Hwy NE
Doraville, GA 30340
(770) 936-0605

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Eating like the Irish for a day - Restaurant: Brick Store

The bar may not be Irish, but one day a year, the Brick Store serves up some terrific Irish fare to help soak up the excess beer. This past Monday, there was a very savory, but not too salty corned beef accompanied by a nutty and dense dark bread.
There was also a rather sorry but perhaps authentic looking lamb stew that tasted much much better than it appeared, especially when mopped up with the dark bread.There was also a roast beef sandwich with a hidden layer of sweet relish, adding welcoming contrast to the sharp Irish cheddar.

But most of all, there was what's arguably the best beer list in all of Atlanta. The main bar downstairs serves up 17 draghts and 75 bottles, while my favorite Belgium bar upstairs keeps 8 draghts and 120 Belgian style bottles in rotation. On days when I don't feel like beer, there is even a very respectable wine list to keep me happy. The only thing that this great pub didn't have and hopefully will never have is green beer.

Brick Store

Decatur Square
125 E. Court Square
Decatur, GA 30030

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Crave worthy little guys - Restaurant: Cypress Street Pint & Plate

I ate at Toast a few days before it closed last year. The almost empty dinning room extruded a cold somberness very much at odds with its cheerful tangerine color. What a difference a few months makes. Walking around the corner to the new incarnation Cypress Street Pint & Plate in the same space, I was pleasantly surprised to find a jolly crowd making merriment over pints of Flying Dog in the courtyard. What's more lovely was finding a roaring fire in a stone covered fire pit among the tables in the back, adding warmth and a wonderful glow to the comfortable outdoor space.

The menu looked simple with not more than a dozen items in each section. Nothing in the food section appeared super creative, just classic examples of pub grub. We ordered a set of three meatball sliders with our drinks, tickled by the option to order them in a "six pack." While waiting for our food, girlfriend J and I enjoyed some prime people watching. Let's just say that we had no clue dog walking in midtown was such a "scene."

The sliders came looking very adorable in their miniaturness. The bun was yielding to the touch, but held the meatball, arugula, and marinara sauce together surprisingly well. The first bite had both J and I in awe. Slightly sweet and very soft, the bread gave way to a very supple, not at all dense meatball. Well-seasoned in and of itself, the meatball played off the slight tangyness of the marinara and picked up the pepperiness of the arugula. But most of all, it was the texture that took the gold. Suffering none of the denseness that tends to plague its kind, this meatball slider shot straight to the top of my pub grub list. My man J arrived just in time to prevent me from devouring his claim. Finishing in two bites, he declared that ordering a "six pack" is a brilliant idea.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

The debut - Kudzu Dinner

Friday night marked the debut of Kudzu dinners, a series of ten "secret" gatherings masterminded by the Taste Network to realize the vision of farm to table. The concept is for the guests to sign up for a dinner without knowing the "secret" location, which may be either inside the city or on a local farm. Each dinner strives to marry the talent of one local chef with the season's best from a number of local farms. The dishes are paired with wines selected by the Taste Network, in some cases to showcase the wines of a particular maker.

Twenty four hours prior to dinner, an email revealed a house in Vi-highland as the "secret" location for this first meal featuring Adam Biderman of Star Provisions. I turned up, along with twenty plus other guests, at the fantastic-smelling venue to find not only Adam, but a team from the wonderful Bacchanalia, including Anne Quatrano herself, in the kitchen. With a glass of Henriot Brut in hand, we observed the chefs at work while munching on D'Avignon radishes with sweet butter and sel gris.

After making some fast friends, we got seated for dinner with a glass of Henriot Rose Champagne. To pair with it, Adam introduced a first course of roasted Woodland Gardens baby beets, beet chips, Sweetgrass Dairy chevre, beet sorbet, and citrus emulsion. My photo (above) falls way short of illustrating the beauty of this dish, especially the beet sorbet, which was of the prettiest shade of deep fuchsia. To my untrained palate, the sorbet seemed far richer than the pedestrian sort. It was very creamy with a smooth and rounded mouth feel. Somehow it also retained the refreshing tart qualities despite the creaminess. It fast became my favorite on the plate. Around me, I heard many compliments for the roasted beats, some from self-proclaimed beet haters.

Poached Georgia white shrimps came up next paired with a rose, a 2006 Prieure De Montezargues Tavel to be exact. Not the least bit rubbery, the shrimps were delightful to chew on, overshadowed only by the great rose, which, to my unsophisticated palate, the best sip of the evening. This wine was far more robust than any rose I've sampled in the past and presented layers of flavor. I loved it!

Anne introduced the main course, Riverview Berkshire porchetta, braised Crystal Organic farm greens, and baby carrots in a lamb broth, apparently a change from the initially planned lamb dish. Anne explained that the change was warranted when the lamb failed to show-up, an important lesson one must learn in cooking fresh from the farm: the menu must remain flexible enough to anticipate the unexpected changes such as ingredient alterations. While Anne said that she would have liked more time to brine the pork prior to dinner (which I learned, from my own experience with the Zuni Cookbook, could make a world of difference), I found that the pork in this dish suffered very little in its shredded form. My heart, however, belonged to the greens accompanying the pork. Perfectly tender without being mushy, the greens exuded their own savoriness beyond what's imparted by the broth. This savoriness is a dimension I find often robbed from the supermarket variety. Whenever I experience it in vegetables, I am transported back the dinner table of my youth where my mom served her vegetables from the morning farmer's market. While my mom's kale hailed from the soil a world away in central China, I found the same deep savoriness perfectly resonated in the southern greens from Anne's farm. What I never had growing up was the wine. The 2004 domaine Bouchard pere et Fils was flirty. It played with the pork, made eyes at the greens, but also stood up to their strong flavors. It was a playful combination that worked.

Younger brother to the 2004, the 2005 Domaine Souchard pere et Fils, in my opinion, surpassed its older sibling in finesse and depth. I have heard that 2005 was a better year in most regions of France, but have never tasted any wine vintaged a year apart side by side to experience the difference. This was a very interesting presentation by Brady of the Taste Network. I certainly loved the 2005 more, perhaps a bit too much to also equally appreciate the cheeses, a valencay, a Camembert, and a Bonrus (from right to left).

The sweet ending came in the form of an old fashioned caramel cake paired with Panorama apple farm's warm apple pie cider. The cake was served simply in giant slices. I could barely finish a corner. The corner I got was a tad dry but not too sweet. I am no expert on cider, but in this case, the cider was made special by the fact the people who made it also sat at the dinner table. Somehow a meal has a way of tasting better when the person who grew, cooked, or labored over what went into it sat next to you and spoke lovingly of it, which is, well, the point of this whole experience.