Red Egg – New York City, NY

Restaurants that have built their reputation on serving traditional food at the highest level of quality are always a joy to visit. There’s nothing better than tasting the finest example of any given cultures cuisine, the way its creators intended. It takes courage then, to take that cuisine and start playing around with the tradition and methods proven over centuries. Well recently I visited the folks at Red Egg, and I can say that their courage has paid off.

Red Egg interiorphoto 1: www.restaurantsinyc.com • photo 2: www.redeggnyc.com

Red Egg, on the border of Soho and Chinatown is a shining example in the world of Chinese cuisine, specifically dim sum. Naturally, rumors of delectable dumplings is what drew me to them in the first place (though I heard of Peruvian influences, I didn’t see those sneak into the dim sum menu). Now, don’t misunderstand, Red Egg isn’t reinventing the wheel here, they’re not bastardizing dim sum the way many sushi restaurants do by adding sugary sauces to their maki rolls filled with strawberries, cream cheese and fried shrimp. They’re simply elevating it, coaxing even more delicious flavor from the same quality ingredients, the same dishes that we’ve all come to love. It’s the little things that make all the difference. You’ll see it right on the dim sum menu, this isn’t your daddy’s dim sum house, where women roam the aisles with steam carts full of dumplings that may have been made much earlier in the day. Dim sum, like sushi, is always better when eaten immediately after its made, the longer you wait, the more the flavor deteriorates. That’s why Red Egg wraps and steams/fries each set of dumplings to order, giving you your tiny purses of joy at their peak of freshness.

Honestly, I was a bit skeptical when I read this on their website. For years now, I’ve been a huge fan of the traditional cart service that you find in many dim sum houses in Hong Kong, London, New York and San Francisco. Cooked to order dim sum sounded promising, but it still felt like a break from tradition. I mean, there must be a good reason for steam carts as a delivery method! Maybe the dumplings are par-cooked in the kitchen and then finished in the steamer? I don’t know, all I do know, is that the dim sum being made at Red Egg is extraordinary. I’m saying this after hurriedly ordering take-out and rushing back to my office before it got cold. If their take-out impressed me that much, I have to imagine they’re even better eaten in-house.

I ordered three types, pork and cilantro, pork Siu Mai (I have to try this old favorite everywhere, it’s like a measuring stick), and “Red Eggs shrimp”, which, as I suspected turned out to be a great example of Har Gao. I have had all of these in some form or another at other restaurants over the years. These were excellent examples, surpassing many dim sum eateries in terms of freshness and flavor (perhaps all but Maison Kam Fung). The pork in the Siu Mai was juicy and almost sweet thanks to being paired with pieces of shrimp. There were even traces of chopped watercress for a little crunchy nuttiness. The fat from the pork infused the entire dumpling with a wonderfully buttery texture which lent the wrappers tenderness.

Pork & cilantro and Red Egg's Shrimp

Everything I ordered was delicious, my only regret was that I didn’t have the time to sit down and sample some of their larger plates, the Peking duck sliders caught my eye as well as the shredded duck mei fun (admittedly I am a tad bit obsessed with that bird). Another intriguing item is the Durian Puff. For those of you who don’t know, the Durian is a large, spiky fruit from Southeast Asia which some either love or hate based on its custard-like pulp and unique (to some, off-putting) odor. Nonetheless, I have wanted to try the Durian for some time, and sampling it in dim sum form seems like a fantastic opportunity. Alas that will have to wait until my next visit. As far as dim sum goes, Red Egg is absolutely worth the visit. As for the rest of the menu, I’ll get back to you when I have a chance to chow down on some chow fun.

Red Egg on Urbanspoon

Wimauma – Tampa, FL

It isn’t often that I’m completely clueless about a restaurant that I’ll be visiting. Earlier this week, my good friend invited me to eat at a place in Tampa called Wimauma. When he asked me, I replied, “there’s a restaurant in Wimauma?” For all you non-Floridians, Wimauma is a town you’d never want to visit. It’s a dumpy little place that you’d miss if you blinked, but these tiny cities bring up childhood memories of growing up in Florida.

I’ve noticed a trend in many of the newer restaurants in the area. Many chefs from around the country are embracing the fresh and local approach. Less obvious though, is the “Southern inspired” cuisine popping up all over the place. People from the south, are drawn to places like this. We’re always looking for a good southern restaurant. It’s been at least fifteen years since there’s been one that I could call my own. It’s been a massive gap that I’ve had to mind, being filled solely by my own households cooking and that of my mothers. I think, for the most part, Wimauma has successfully given me a new home for southern food.

I knew nothing of the place other than what my friend told me. I’m not rich, so when I plan on a night out that involves a “new” restaurant, much research is involved. I study the menu and imagine what I would order. I also keep in mind what my wife might like. Much of my decision-making, revolves around ensuring everyone will be able to find something good.

We arrived to a packed house. Which I love to see, especially when the place is brand new. We had a reservation for 8:00, but there wasn’t an open table. I didn’t know who it was at the time, but the co-owner Amy greeted us outside and apologized for the wait. Honestly, we might have waited for 5 minutes tops. We were seated in the corner at a large round table with great light. The dining room is very open with a layout that encourages engaging, loud conversation. There’s a large chalkboard where you’ll find the daily specials, which on this day, consisted of smoked pork belly, oxtail “beef-a-roni”, pea-encrusted salmon, and grilled Amber jack.

Wimauma was billed as a southern food restaurant and it is. However, there’s a noticeable Asian influence in some dishes. There were tinges of French, a few had a Thai flavor and some things took a handful of flavors from all over the globe and smashed a dish together and some were strictly Southern. This excited me because it was uncharted territory. Before we could make up our minds, Amy emerged from the kitchen with small plates in tow. She presented all of us with a plate of fried green tomato chunks with a salad of chopped cilantro, fried crispy shallots and ruby-red grapefruit vinaigrette. My wife was planning on ordering this anyway because; as she said “It’s a perfect combination of all my favorite things!”. This was a remarkable way to begin a meal. The mix of old southern cooking with Asian flavors and the citrus dressing was something to be applauded.

Our waitress returned with drinks, I had some tough decisions to make and quick! I got my order in and felt content with my choices. Tom Petty was absolutely right, waiting really is the hardest part. Amy came out yet again with another amuse bouche, individual crab toasts. Creamy herbaceous crab salad, on a grilled baguette, finished with a touch of tomato for acidity and red onion for texture. Our comments on the amazing flavors we tasted were cut short as food began pouring out of the kitchen at full speed. First, disco fries and oysters. Both were fried to perfection. The frites were coated with oxtail gravy and had about a half-pound of melted aged cheddar covering the plate. I appreciated the play on poutine, it was a clever execution. The oyster however, was criminally insane. The flavor combination the chef came up with shouldn’t work but somehow it did. First, you have extremely fresh oysters dredged in corn meal and then fried. A traditional guacamole cradled the oysters which were finished with a dab of sweet smoked tomato jam. Every part of your tongue gets a workout. Next, the shrimp and grits, fried chicken, fish stew and smoked pork belly.

photos courtesy of: Pietri Photography

I failed to taste the fried chicken as my fellow eating partner hoarded over it with an iron fist. It must have been too good to give away. The mixed seafood stew had a bouillabaisse-like broth, which seemed to be a fish stock/coconut milk hybrid, flavored with lemongrass and Thai basil. The rice was vibrant green and looked beautiful and was light and refreshing. I only sampled the mahi, which was tender, moist, and like a sponge, soaked up the broth.

The grits were creamy with a very nice consistency and a clean flavor that went well with the tangy tomato that made a pool in the center of the bowl. The last amazing touch was this wonderful invention called pork bark. Crispy, salty, and a little like a bacon bit without being fatty. My pork belly followed. Now I’ve had some horrible pork belly in my time. I’ve been given many a gelatinous glob of fat which was mistakenly called pork belly. Most of the time it’s a big disappointment. This particular hunk of swine was what dreams are made of. Not only did it strike the right balance of meat and fat, but the accoutrements were just as good. Slightly sautéed Brussels sprouts with a hit of vinegar was the base. Surrounding the plate was a parsnip purée. The star of the show, long strips of fried parsnip chips, were being swiped off my plate by everyone’s mangy mitts. I didn’t mind sharing by any means.

My charcuterie board arrived as everyone started getting full. Being the pro that I am, I attacked the wall of meat that sat before me with abandon. The cornucopia of cured delights consisted of smoked pork loin, thinly sliced small batch cured ham (and remarkably reminiscent of jamon iberico), sausages two ways, one with duck the other with pork, maple and sage, both were equally impressive. The best meat on the board was the smoked duck breast. If this ever catches on with the public, it will be bigger than bacon. Aside from meat, the best thing was the loquat chutney. As I was assembling my bites, Amy returned and asked if we were enjoying everything and quizzed me on all the cuts. I think I passed before starting in on the loquats. I said “this is the first time I’ve ever eaten a loquat at a restaurant”. She smiled and said how they’re native to Florida so they wanted to incorporate them on the menu.

photos courtesy of: Pietri Photography

They couldn’t be more nostalgic for this Florida boy. Both my parents and grandparents had loquat trees in their yards. Nothing brought me back to my childhood more than this humble cup of preserves. Wimauma is already a very special place, it takes me back to when I was a boy, when things were simpler and grandma cooked the best food ever. At the same time, Wimauma is moving the cuisine of the Deep South forward. There are flavors here that no granny would ever think of, yet without a hitch they marry perfectly.

We finished our meal and were again greeted by our gracious host. We found that her husband happened to be head chef! Both are Florida natives, which is a huge plus for me. I believe that this could be the deciding factor in Wimauma’s success, while other similar restaurants will fail. They know the land; they know what people want to eat and what they used to eat. They surprise you and bring you home at the same time. The chef has been cooking this stuff his whole life, now they have a place of their own and nothing will get in the way.

photo courtesy of: Pietri Photography

There are many stories about how this restaurant came to be and there was a lot of drama surrounding the two owners previous endeavor, but we are in the now. The food is good, the place is welcoming and nothing else matters. I came to Wimauma with no expectations and walked out in love and about 7 pounds happier. That’s the power of food.

Wiamuma – 4205 Macdill Ave S. Tampa, FL 33611

Wimauma on Urbanspoon

Flip Burger Boutique Revisited

There’s a saying, if it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing. We here at Eat a Duck couldn’t agree more. So once again, I present you with Flip Burger Boutique. This place has had a profound effect on the two of us. The ever-changing menu, the creative flavor combinations and the commitment to quality and taste, have brought us back many times. Out of all the other visits however, this one may have been the best. It may have had to do with the fact that this was the dinner that followed our amazing lunch earlier that day at Hottie Hawgs. Or it may have been the new addition to the menu, the D’lux burger…but let’s not get ahead of ourselves, there’s plenty of time for foie in a bit.

Flip Burger Boutique is one of those rare restaurants that the two of us, as well as our wives, can all unanimously agree on when deciding where to find our next meal. Actually there was no discussion this time, we all knew where we were going. I’ve gone into the slick atmosphere of the room in my earlier post on Flip, so I won’t waste any time describing it further. We were seated toward the rear of the restaurant in one of the four comfy booths. Our waiter, Jabel, was soon table-side, greeting us warmly. On a side note, I want to mention that all the servers we had at every restaurant on our recent Atlanta trip were especially kind and professional. Jabel got us started with some drinks straight away, making sure to take care of the little guy promptly. Logan, being the adventurous guy that he is, chose a Cap’n Crunch Milkshake, a new addition to the menu and one that we hadn’t sampled before. It was just as good as all the other shakes, the main ingredient was the star, great peanut butter taste, with that cereal flavor on the finish. It was one of those things where you’re kind of chuckling because your mind is trying to work out how you’re eating cereal and drinking a milkshake simultaneously.

Next, our food order. Three burgers and three sides were ordered for the table. Let’s start with the sides, we chose a second order of house-made fries with smoked mayo and ketchup, truffle mac n’ cheese with cauliflower béchamel, manchego and roasted cauliflower and pan roasted brussel sprouts in a ginger vin. The fries of course were delicious. I felt that the mac n’ cheese was a bit of a let down though. I couldn’t really make out the truffle flavor that you look for and I didn’t feel like the cauliflower made any significant contribution. The manchego just wasn’t gooey enough for me. The brussel sprouts however were delicious. Coming from me, a rabid sprout hater, that says a lot.

On to the burgers! First was a turkey burger with Monterey cheese, fresh avocado, pomegranate ketchup, tomato and alfalfa sprouts. Instead of a bun it was wrapped in a crisp leaf of lettuce. Next was a veggie burger. Let me tell you, when it comes to burgers, I like mine off something that moos or baas, this did neither, and it was absolutely outstanding! It consisted of a house-made black bean patty, avocado puree, bibb lettuce, grilled onions, pico de gallo, cilantro and lime juice. No boring vegetarian meal here, this thing packed a flavor that punched you in the mouth like a luchadore.

The hands down best though, was the D’lux. With a name like that, you know you’re in for something epic. Let me break it down for you, a black diamond beef patty topped with a healthy slab of seared foie gras, wild mushrooms, fried shallots and smothered in truffle aioli. Truffle? Shallot? Foie? Give me a break! It was as good as you think it’d be. Logan knew to order it rare. You’d be crazy not to with beef of this quality. The foie lent the most unctuous mouth feel, it was perfectly cooked so that it was almost liquid in the center, held together by a thin membrane. The crispy fried shallots and earthy truffle aioli rounded out an awesome burger. We both agreed that it surpassed even the famed Burger Bar, which until this point, had held the spot of greatest burger ever for both of us.

Our trip to Atlanta was truly an amazing one, just look at the culinary journey we went on. It only reinforces the point that the best times are had with great food, shared with your loved ones. So get the fam together and go have a food-venture!

Flip Burger Boutique – 1587 Howell Mill Road, Atlanta, GA 30318 – 404.352.FLIP • www.flipburgerboutique.com

FLIP Burger Boutique on Urbanspoon

Antico Revisited

From all the long, late night conversations I’ve had with various scallywags debating the best pizza that’s ever been made, Antico has rapidly approached legendary status. I got the chance to form my own opinion about two years ago. After the first bite I was impressed. I was swept off my feet by how good the pizza actually was. The all-time pizza standings at that moment had Antico a close second, trailing Grimaldi’s in Brooklyn, the Jacques Cousteau of pizza, by a sliver of anchovy. A distant third was Cici’s pizza. Nobody beats that cardboard flavored crust. Then there was a calm in the pizza ranking game. My beliefs were unwavering. It’s been three years since my last slice at Grimaldi’s, still no one could match the way their pies made me feel. However, all the praise that Antico received by friend after friend visiting Atlanta, waxing poetic about their life altering experience can really test ones loyalty.

I couldn’t take it anymore!!!

Let me take a slice, I mean a swing at this and maybe I’ll fall in line. I have just one friend that has had both, and he had visited both within a few months of one another. My question to him, as I made my way to Antico for much needed closure, was a simple one. “Which is your favorite?”, his answer? Antico. I actually didn’t expect that answer. I felt like Tom Hanks on an island alone with my thoughts…and a volleyball.

When you drive up to the entrance of Antico, you’ll probably pass right by it at first, because it doesn’t really look like much, maybe an old lawyers office or something (actually it was a bakery). It looks pretty sparse from the outside. This place will completely fool you. As you make your way to the door, your brain switches from trying to figure out if you’re in the right place, to trying to figure out how people can pack themselves inside the building like so many sardines. Now this is where you have to start changing the way you think about a dining hall. You have to stop worrying about the 75 people in line trying to get their orders in before the place runs out of dough, as well as dozens more milling about waiting for their pizzas. You have to have the mindset that there are some things in life worth waiting for. It’s like waiting to ride Space Mountain. Even though you’re standing behind a smelly European family for 90 minutes in prison-like conditions, the moment you get your butt in that space capsule, it makes everything worthwhile. The moment you get a speck of the charred crust and some of the freshest tomato sauce to hit your deprived tongue, it makes any amount of time spent waiting seem like mere seconds.

The most amazing thing happened on my most recent stop at Antico. A special limited edition pizza was being made called “The Sophia”. Not only was it inspired by Sophia Loren which I love, it had bufala mozzarella , cipollini onions, porcini mushrooms, black truffles, and truffle oil. I literally crapped my pants from excitement, alright not literally. It only took about 10-15 minutes to get our pies. We decided to get them to-go as there wasn’t a chance we would ever be able to get a table. I had the task of taking the pizzas to the car where my party of seven was awaiting my heroic return. The aroma from the front door all the way back to the car was palpable. As we opened the “Sophia” I slowly let out a very softly spoken “whoa”. I quickly grabbed my slice before offering any to the other passengers. Hey, it’s not my fault I was given the task of transporter. As I took my first bite I had to close my eyes and study all the unique flavors that I believe only the masterminds at Antico could create. As I said earlier, first that char grabs hold, then you get the flavor and texture of the roasted porcini. Next the truffle scent enters your nostrils and you become engulfed in the ordeal. It’s very spiritual to me. Physically the pizza makes your body involuntarily spasm into what scientists have referred to as a grin. I think that’s how you spell it. If you allow food to make you happy and move you positively through life, you will no doubt find Antico to be incomparable. As for it being “the best”? You want to know a secret I’ve never told anyone until now? Here, come a little closer, because I don’t want Jimmy to hear. I think Antico has done it.

Antico Pizza Napoletana on Urbanspoon

The West Egg Cafe – Atlanta, GA

Those who know me, know that breakfast isn’t my favorite meal of the day, It’s not even in my top 3. So if a breakfast joint catches my attention, it has to be doing something right. So to keep the march of recent Atlanta eateries moving along, I present you with The West Egg Cafe. Located just a stones throw away from two more Atlanta stalwarts, the recently mentioned Abattoir, and Antico, the west egg is serving up classic southern breakfast, without the frills. Now when you hear the word “classic”, it can bring to mind tired, old food that’s been done over and over. You’ve had all this stuff before, tall stack of pancakes, a breakfast sandwich, maybe some grits and eggs. Yeah, boring, doesn’t sound like the usual excitement you’ve all come to expect from Eat a Duck. However, The West Egg succeeds in this realm, and managed to bring an eye-raising experience to the humble first meal.
This is going to be a tough one, because there’s really nothing showy or flashy that I can point out for you to explain why it’s so good. Let’s just get to the food shall we, because let’s be honest, that’s why you’re all here. Upon entering the space, it feels like you’re in an old renovated service station or something. Lot’s of concrete, steel girders, industrial lighting and such. Very chic, hipsters lurk in the corners, sitting on couches that look like the ones your grandma used to have. Up front, they’ve provided a coffee and pastry bar to sate the hunger of the dozens of waiting patrons. A case of cupcakes and whoopie pies seemed to catch the attention of the smallest in our party. Something else caught Logan’s eye, homemade pop-tarts, uh…yes please. I have to say, I really enjoy it when restaurants make little snacks available to you while you’re waiting for the main event.

West Egg entrance & menu

 We were seated on the patio and began to peruse the menu. You can tell the owners took pride in the design of their establishment, the menu is actually interesting to look at and well designed like everything else. Plus, if you’ve got older people in your party, there will be no need for reading glasses. There are many interesting choices to be had, many of which involve their signature pimiento cheese spread. They seem to be fond of this stuff as it’s included in every other menu item. Since we were planning a big dinner marathon that night, I wanted to stay on the light side. The first thing that caught my eye (since it was in enormous letters) was the build your own biscuit option. Yes, breakfast biscuits are a simple item, you wouldn’t expect to be wowed. I sprang for the turkey sausage, cheddar and egg biscuit, Logan chose bacon and my wife went for the veggie sausage.

This biscuit is what did it for me, each of the components was seasoned just right and cooked to perfection. The biscuit was buttery and fluffy inside, with that little salty bite on the crust. The sausage was tender and juicy, and had the most amazing spice, exactly the way a good country sausage should be. The egg, which seems to always be a filler on most biscuits, was well seasoned and actually added some nice flavor. They had melted a generous slab of cheddar over everything so that it penetrated every nook and cranny.

Logan wanted to sample a little more of the menu, so he picked up the picnic plate. This consisted of the aforementioned pimiento cheese spread with some sesame seed crackers, maple glazed ham, pickled okra and deviled eggs slathered with a maple bacon jam. I don’t like deviled eggs by any means, but these, these were good, I mean…bacon jam, enough said.

They don’t use fancy ingredients and there’s no three star chef in the back using high-end techniques. It’s just quality ingredients, cooked exactly right with no funny business. What more could you ask for? This article doesn’t do it justice, so when you go to Atlanta, just do me a favor and get yourself a biscuit at The West Egg Cafe.

West Egg Cafe on Urbanspoon

Abattoir – Atlanta, GA

First, a little prologue, if you’d like to skip to the review scroll down a bit. In my life, there have been three restaurants good enough to call my favorite. Growing up, my family always took a couple of trips a year to Daytona Beach, FL., either for a weekend or a week-long family reunion. We always went to the same Hotel, Perry’s (which still stands and will hopefully be visited soon), and we always had one dinner in downtown Daytona, at a little dumpy hole in the wall called Luigi’s. I can still remember the menu. It was heavily influenced by 90’s California, lots of salads and grilled items. Sprouts and avocados littered the menu like paint splatters on a Pollock canvas. The best thing was Key lime pie. We used to order whole pies and finish them off right then and there. I especially remember the macadamia nut crust. Around 1998, the entire family set sail for dinner at Luigi’s. Tragically, some time between visits, they closed, and as you know, back in the late 90’s we didn’t have this internet thing that could give you a reason. That was the first time I ever considered a restaurant to be my favorite.

The second, was Victoria and Albert’s at the Grand Floridian in Disney World. If memory serves me right, it was October of 2002. I was trying to impress my wife by giving her a wonderful 1 1/2 year anniversary dinner. One and a half years you say? Yes, it’s alright to celebrate every six months, I give my blessing. The internet was around, but I was at work with nothing but a Nokia, (the phone whose major selling point was the snake game) trying to figure out how to find the best restaurant in town. I can’t say how, but a Zagat guide for every major city miraculously came into my possession, and hands down, Victoria and Albert’s was highest rated. That night, I was introduced to fine dining on my terms. I paid for my own food, I ate whatever I wanted and I tried things I never knew existed. Not to mention being treated like the Duke and Duchess of Kissimmee. It was a special place for me, one that never ceases to amaze as well as drain my wallet. That’s why I’ve been searching for a new favorite. One that equally displays what great food tastes like, but maybe at a price I could regularly afford.

For the third, you have to go back to the spring of 2010 in Atlanta, GA. At that time, a world of up to the minute information was at my fingertips. It was so easy to find opinions (like this one), restaurant reviews, (as you’ll read following these ramblings) and even complete menus on most restaurants websites. This is both a blessing and curse. On one hand, you have infinite information to find, not just a good place to eat, but a place that will deliver an amazing meal. On the other, it’s almost impossible to find an unbiased opinion (except Eat a Duck of course). Also, with all the choices you have available, it makes it difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff.

After vigorous searching, trying different places with various degrees of success, we decided on Abattoir for our last meal in the dirty South. It was touted as the best gastropub in Atlanta, and it specialized in offal, which was a serious green light for me. I remember first laying eyes on the menu and seeing more nose to tail items than I ever had before. It was the first time my wife and I were equally blown away and she declared then and there that it was her favorite restaurant. As did I. About two years had passed since that night at Abattoir. I still talk about that meal to this day. When asked what our favorite place to eat is, like a proud parent, I unflinchingly respond, “Abattoir”.

•Abattoir•

I was reunited with Abattoir last week after that long hiatus and it felt like coming home. When you walk in, it’s like no other room you’ve ever seen. It was conceived by Anne Quatrano and Clifford Harrison. The ceilings are set at a gentle slope, with exposed wood and metal to give that farmhouse feel. It’s a most welcome design for a restaurant and it feels like home. The lighting is dim, aided by a pair of basket enclosed chandeliers, that provide light to the communal table at the center of the dining room. Here, cutlery, glassware and drinks are prepared.

Now, on to the meat of the matter, because at Abattoir, this is where the meal will begin and end. I say that because their most popular dessert has bacon in it. Meat, in all its many manifestations is at the center of Abattoir’s concept of using the entire beast. You will find that the entirety of the menu consists of local produce, and when I say local, I mean the owners have their own farm. Our waitress was proud to fill us in on the process and how much of the produce we ate came from the farm that Anne and Clifford run. Everything else is sourced from local farmers in an attempt to keep everything tight-knit. The menu is 100% seasonal, which has its extreme positives and slight negatives. It’s a wonderful feeling to be able to walk into a restaurant I love, and know that I’ll probably order something new every time. The letdown comes when you find something that reigns oe’r, and on the next visit, it’s gone never to be seen again. That last part happened on our last visit. However this does not take away from food we had, because when it comes to quality of product and execution, it can’t be topped.

We decided to order a bunch of dishes and pass them around family style. First the waitress brought us a welcome gift, a bowl of spicy boiled peanuts and fried chickpeas seasoned with cumin and powdered chiles, a great way to get your attention. Good thing I ordered a PBR to cool me off.

Boiled spicy peanuts & crispy fried chickpeas

We ordered locally raised beef tartare with Asian pear and pine nuts, Korean sticky fries topped with bulgogi, pickled vegetables, and spicy mayo, a farmer salad with root vegetable and creamy ramp vinaigrette, a simple beet salad two ways, roasted and raw, with goat cheese, arugula and Marcona almonds. The dish of the night had to be the spicy veal sweetbreads. If I were to compare myself to a food, maybe Abattoir’s crispy sweetbreads would be the best comparison. Rugged, crispy, cracklin’ goodness outside, and buckle your knees tender and soft inside. They were paired with a perfectly softened red cabbage sauerkraut, beef bacon and a veal stock gastrique. If this is the way people eat in a slaughterhouse…sign me up, I’m ready to slice and dice.

Abbatoir spread

I can’t end without speaking about the desserts. Two desserts were ordered, but if I had room, I would have sampled them all. A Chocolate chess pie, with chunks of peanut brittle and a dollop of crème fraiche. Dense, rich, and savory are the words to describe this pie. The brittle was buttery and fresh while the little touch of crème fraiche was a stroke of genius. The other was Abattoir’s take on Monkey Bread. This is a kids treat, what on earth is it doing on this menu? Well my brain told my mouth to order, so my tongue could crack the case. What I was presented with was a tower of terror for my already full stomach. I mean, I’m still scared at how remarkable it tasted. To be fair it was more like a deconstructed pudding that had just won a gold medal for flavor, but I appreciate the whimsical title. It came with plump golden raisins and rum sabayon. I couldn’t be happier with my choices. As a parting gift we were presented with seven small creme filled shortbread sandwich cookies, no larger than an inch in diameter, as a goodnight bow. You can’t ask for a better send off.

Abbatoir dessert

We are already making plans to revisit the revisited, along with a laundry list of other amazing Atlanta institutions. The one thing we missed was the offal selection, which we discussed with the waitress. She kindly assured us that more offal is coming. They are in the process of making a few staff changes as they learn to do things the Abattoir way. I’d also love to have a bigger stomach, or have four stomachs like a cow, but then I’d be a pig, and we don’t want that now do we?

Abattoir – 1170 Howell Mill Road Northwest, Atlanta, GA – (404) 892-3335 • www.starprovisions.com

Abattoir on Urbanspoon

Hottie Hawgs – Atlanta, GA

I’m a Florida boy, so that means having to be subjected to horrible BBQ my entire existence. I’ve constantly craved a taste of the good stuff. Naturally, human beings want what they can’t have but decades old mainstays in cities like Memphis, St. Louis and Kansas City have provided many a BBQ lovers paradise. Atlanta, however, has never quite joined the Valhalla of ‘que.

Last week I was chatting up a new friend of mine, who happens to be one half of Lakeland cult classic, The Poor Porker. I told her I was heading up to Atlanta for a long weekend and asked if she had any tasty joints I should visit. She gave me Hottie Hawg’s, a BBQ joint on the outskirts of the metro Atlanta area where an old friend of hers works as the executive chef. If you respect your friends, you listen to their suggestions, that’s why you ask them in the first place isn’t it? So after some correspondence, it was decided that I would be meeting, greeting and eating at Hottie Hawgs, and to my surprise, Jimmy would be joining me, Eat a Duck was to be represented in full force.

To help you appreciate my time at the Hawg, I must say that the day so far had been quite tense and I wasn’t in the best of moods. The moment I walked up, however, that all changed. Entering the parking lot, you’re greeted by a completely decked out competition BBQ trailer , a smoker made to look like a train, and a mountain bike to match the exterior of Hottie Hawgs. You can tell these guys are having fun. It is such a welcoming space. The interior is clad in brick and wood with vintage concert posters littering the ceilings. It feels like you’re walking into a cross between a good friends cabin and your favorite neighborhood pub.

Our waitress, Jessica, welcomed us with a smile and let us pick our table. We decided on the indoor porch/tequila bar for best lighting. As we looked over the menu we asked Jessica what she’d recommend. To me this is like a test of the quality of the restaurant. If the server hesitates whatsoever, it either means the food isn’t worth the staff sampling it, or they haven’t done their homework, both of which reflect negatively on the establishment. But she didn’t hesitate, and suggested the mysterious Armadillo Eggs. Now, I hope I’m describing this properly, they’re pickled jalepeño, stuffed with cream cheese and chopped brisket. They’re then battered, fried and drizzled with maple habañero sauce, sort of like poppers with a delicious twist. She also mentioned the intriguingly named “Hawg Balls”, their version of fried mac n’ cheese, served with petal sauce.

Fried mac n' cheese

As Jessica turned in our starters, the head chef Matthew came out to introduce himself. It was such a breath of fresh air for be treated so warmly by the entire crew. He smiled approvingly at our choices and shared a few stories about how some of the dishes came to be on the menu. Like beanies and weenies, which, like most things, came out of necessity when a snowstorm knocked out food deliveries for a week. The food stopped coming, but the locals didn’t. They walked over in snow shoes looking for some grub. Matthew had to think fast, so he whipped up some homemade baked beans and kielbasa they had in the walk-in. It was such a hit that everyone begged for it to be a permanent addition to the menu. He also proudly mentioned that they had won the brisket category at last years KCBS sanctioned Atlanta BBQ competition. Luckily, we had the much heralded brisket already on the way. We shook hands and he excused himself to the kitchen to work his magic.

Jessica arrived moments later with our starters and gave us a nice overview of their homemade sauces. Now I’m not sure how we got on the subject, but we found out that they had a special a while back that involved a garlic ranch dipping sauce. Jimmy, being the garlic fiend that he is, asked if they had any in the back. She said she didn’t think so but she would ask. No more than 10 minutes later she came back with that very sauce, as delicious as we imagined. The sides were intriguing as well. Out of the 10 or so options we chose, coca-cola collard greens and onion hay, since Jimmy is an aficionado on the subject of fried onions. Jessica also said we had a choice between jalapeño cheese cornbread and Texas toast. We could tell by the look in her eye that the cornbread was the way to go, so we went for it. As the food came out it was like an edible conga line of crispy, saucy, spicy and smokey enticements. The excitement was building.

 

I have to say, up until the moment I tasted Hottie Hawgs award-winning entry, I hated brisket. I’ve been watching a certain BBQ competition reality show recently to try to learn the science of brisket. As far as I’m concerned, the Hawg passed every test. The elasticity, the smoke ring, the crust, and moistness levels were as good as I could have expected. The ribs didn’t fall of the bone too easily, but were extremely tender. That’s what you want in a good rib. They were smokey and covered in their own dry rub and tomato based sauce, which made the outside nice and sticky. Now let’s talk cornbread. There had to be a reason Jessica put it on a pedestal. As lame as I might sound it was the best I had ever had at any restaurant, or anywhere else for that matter. It was so moist and gooey that it was one step from being pudding. Dear god it was insane.

As we finished our smorgasbord, Matthew came back to check on us. We talked some more about food and the Atlanta area, about other restaurants he liked, and how the locals have really embraced the place. There’s big support on Friday and Saturday nights, when the live music starts pumping. You can tell that they’re really working to make it the premier place to find Atlanta ‘que, and so far, they’re on the right track. I mean, when we were asked if there was anything we didn’t like, we just looked at each other stupidly, as we couldn’t think of one thing we would’ve changed. That feeling isn’t a coincidence though. We talked about how restaurants have to adapt and not rest on their laurels. The night before, Jimmy went to a BBQ establishment in Charlotte that was featured on The Best Thing I Ever Ate. He was extremely disappointed as it seemed as if they had become complacent about their food since being featured on television. Matthew is anything but lazy with his food. He insists that the menu change often to entice repeat customers with new flavors, while keeping people happy with the famous mainstays. I was very impressed with the way Hottie Hawgs mixed competition BBQ, soul food, and bar food classics, into something that’s a cut above your average BBQ joint.

I thought we were done as I was completely satisfied, but Jessica had something sweet for us. Fried cookie balls. Cookie dough wrapped around gooey dark chocolate and covered in caramel and vanilla bean ice cream. We couldn’t resist. Again, this looks and sounds simple. However, I feel, after eating it, that whoever invented it should be nominated for a Nobel peace prize. That dessert could end wars.

What an amazing lunch. Not often does a place make feel me like an invited guest, even though I’m just an unknown schmuck. Jessica came back one last time to make sure everything was up to snuff. We both agreed it was terrific and thanked her so much for taking care of us. You can tell that the entire staff, owner included, really care about the success of Hottie Hawg and they have a real passion for what they’re doing. Now that we’ve seen firsthand what they’re all about , we care too. That’s why we won’t visit the Atlanta area without making a pit stop at our new favorite BBQ establishment.

Hottie Hawgs – 2061 Main Street NW, Atlanta, GA 30318 • 404.794.5224 • www.hottiehawgsbbq.com

Hottie Hawg's Smokin' BBQ on Urbanspoon

Logan’s “Cassoulet”

Ok, full disclosure, this is a sort of cassoulet. That means it has the components of a traditional cassoulet, but with a much quicker cooking time and using ingredients you can find in any grocery store in the world. Maybe not the world, but at least in the lower 48 states, and Guam. Did you know Guam has the largest density of snakes in the world?

Here’s another point you might want to keep in mind. I didn’t use or adapt any previous recipe to create this, only my my mind. I normally use whatever is available to me in the fridge, pantry, or freezer and combine them into a complete dish. After the fact, while thinking about writing down the recipe for a dear friend of mine, I decided to look up recipes to see how similar mine was to a true French bean stew. It’s not that close but not too far off either. Such as the case with most French food and techniques, we Americans owe a debt of gratitude to Julia Child. I found her thoughts on cassoulet insightful, funny and frightening all at once. She says in her most famous cook book, Mastering the art of French Cooking Vol 1.,

“A cassoulet can be made anywhere, out of beans and whatever the traditional meats are available. The important item is flavor, which comes largely from the liquid the beans and meat are cooked in. You can prepare it in one day, but two or even three days of leisurely on-and-off cooking make it easier”.

Sooo…..Obviously no one is going to spend three days doing anything. That’s off the table, but how about an hour or two? Out of respect for our dear Julia, just make it taste good alright?

This recipe takes no longer than two hours from start to finish. It can be shortened by skipping a few steps if you are strapped for time. Again, the recipe is flexible. You don’t have to use everything I call for. You can also add to it if you like. You can make it super extravagant by adding things like foie gras, duck confit, rabbit, marrow bones or pork cheeks. Or you can keep it traditional, a simple peasant dish. Remember, either way, the end result will be something rich and hearty. A stick to your little belly kind of meal. Something that will warm you on the coldest of nights

Here are the ingredients to serve 4. Multiply as you wish. Keep in mind though that this will extend the cooking time. Also, chop your vegetables all uniformly, About a 1/4 inch dice.

Logan’s Cassoulet

8 sausages cut into 1/2 inch discs (Banger,Bratwurst,Linguica, even Kielbasa works. Whatever you like.)

5 cloves of garlic chopped

1 medium Vidalia or white onion small dice

4 carrots small dice

3 celery stalks small dice

4 small white creamer potatoes

1 cup frozen beans. (Butter,Lima,Hericot vert)

1/2 cup red wine

2 cups chicken stock or broth

1 can of beans. Drained (Navy,Cannellini,Lentils has been a hit in mine lately.)

Small can of tomato paste

2 tsp Herbs de Provence (or just 1 tsp each of Rosemary and Thyme if you cant find.)

1 Bay leaf

Enough Olive oil to brown meat and veg. As well as for drizzling on top.

Salt and Pepper

1 French Baguette

First put a large pot on med-high heat. Add about 2 Tbsp. of olive oil. As soon as you see wisps of smoke, add the sausage. You’re not looking to cook it through, just enough to brown all sides. Shake the pot around to wiggle the sausages so every side is browned. Remove and keep in a separate bowl. Keep the heat up and add more oil if needed. Add potatoes, carrot, celery, onion and garlic. Cook until the veg starts to turn translucent. Maybe 10 minutes. Pour in wine to deglaze pot. Turn heat down to med-low. Add sausage back to pot as well as the stock, herbs, tomato paste and frozen beans. Stir every 5 minutes or so, until stew has reduced to the consistency of thick gravy. Between 45 minutes to an indeterminable point. Just make sure to keep tasting after you are certain the pork has reached its doneness. (about 10 minutes after you lower the heat) Check to see if the potatoes and beans have cooked through.

I don’t add salt or pepper until almost the end of the entire process. The reason being, you never know how salty the sausage or the stock will be until everything has broken down like Claire Danes in Bangkok. Just keep tasting is my best advice.

So after you are happy with the thickness of everything, You have a few options on final presentation, because honestly, cassoulet isn’t winning any beauty contests. It’s a 4 in the looks department. You could, if you are starving, just serve it in bowls and sprinkle olive oil and salt and pepper on top and have your way with some baguettes and you are set. Or if you have time and really want to make it look and taste better, make a crust by toasting the baguette until it’s dry and crispy. Chop it up into small cubes and drench with olive oil. Pour cassoulet into a nice baking dish, then top with the homemade crouton and bake for another 15 minutes on 350°. This is what dreams are made of. I would eat this with a really deep, rich Cabernet Sauvignon blend or maybe a 2005 Bordeaux of your choosing if you can find it. Maybe rent a cabin for a week and cozy up to a heaping helping of my “cassoulet”. Enjoy!

Parm & La Esquina – New York City, NY

There seems to be a trend with high-end prix fixe restaurants to open smaller, less formal off-shoots to open their cuisine to a larger audience. One well known example, L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, has brought the flavors of the great chef into a more relaxed setting, where you could conceivably visit for a nice lunch, instead of the “once every five years” type of meal. Thankfully, other fine restaurants have followed suit, which paves the way to some great food at a price that doesn’t break the bank. Two recent discoveries, Parm and La Esquina, are both offspring of their larger, more formal parent restaurants.

Parm grew out of the well known Torrisi Italian Specialties, which used to try balancing the high end prix fixe market with more accessible cuisine, like meatball sandwiches and the like. When the demand for both led The dynamic duo of Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone to create the throwback Italian deli/sandwich bar that is Parm. When you walk in the door, you’d be forgiven for assuming it’s been around for decades, when in reality it’s only a few months old. The illusion is aided by the menu full of traditional Italian comfort food, Chicken, Eggplant and Meatball Parm, Sausage and Peppers Heros, fresh made ricotta and mozzarella with prosciutto and baked ziti with optional meat gravy. This is the real deal, stick to your ribs Italian bar food that is continuously copied but rarely executed in any sort of appetizing manner. You won’t find soggy eggplant, over-breaded chicken, or jarred tomato sauce.

What led me here though, were the rumblings about the Parm Heros. I discovered a list of the 101 best sandwiches in New York and took it as a personal challenge. So far I’ve tackled a shade over half a dozen and counting, some featured here! Parm did not disappoint. Sitting proudly at #21 on the list, it was everything you could ask a Chicken Parm sandwich to be. Chicken that is both crisp and tender, blanketed with piping hot, velvety tomato sauce, melted mozzarella and fresh picked basil on a toasted sesame seed roll. Perfection from simplicity. This Chicken Parm is like the Ramones, simple power chords played fast and hard to a tried and true beat, it’s the same every time and you wouldn’t want it any other way.

La Esquina is an altogether different animal. Although it’s also an off-shot from the larger brasserie of the same name, it’s closer to a taco truck than an actual restaurant. It inhabits a triangular lot that’s no more than eight feet wide at the most. The kitchen is crammed into the larger side, while a window bar with stools lines the opposite side. Size obviously doesn’t matter because these guys are pumping out some awesome Mexican street food at a furious pace.

 La Esquina spread

My standby has always been the tortas, the Pollo Rostizado to be precise. It consists of a rotisserie chicken, arugula, shaved red onions, tomato, avocado and an unreal smoky, spicy chipotle mayo (not CHI-POL-TAY). The chicken here is so moist, not the dry, unpalatable breast you usually get in these situations. The arugula lends a great nuttiness, with the onions and tomato giving you that pop of crisp freshness. The best part though, is the delicious sludge that’s formed by the chipotle mayo and avocado blending together from the heat trapped inside the bread. It’s creamy and buttery, with a perfect spiciness to give the chicken an added flavor explosion. Just awesome. Another tasty dish I recently discovered was the Platanos Machos Fritos. This is a pile of sweet plantains, covered in cotija and spicy avocado salsa verde. Look me in the eye and tell me that doesn’t sound like the perfect lunch.

Once again, the gift of the SoHo food scene keeps on giving. The strange thing is, I’ve never been a big fan of chicken sandwiches, and both of these are classic chicken sandwiches that are so often ruined with less than optimal ingredients. But, like I always say, everything tastes good when it’s done right. Until next time everyone!

Parm  on Urbanspoon

La Esquina on Urbanspoon