A Netflix Original – Chef’s Table

We were simply awestruck by the very first episode of the new Netflix docu-series “Chef’s Table”. Ever since we teased the show in our Top 10 food films on Netflix, it has become the darling of my food media world. It’s not an exaggeration to say that at least 10% of my Facebook friends are sharing their love and talking about this brilliant new show. It captures exactly what I’ve always wanted in an exposé on the leaders in the world of food, focusing on six chefs and their unique stories of struggle, ascension, and cumulative breakthrough success.

J_7Gl3eRNIgpIQkj46xn6ulAwhNvtyXdceGCA8NSY08

The structure is honest, thought-provoking, in-depth, and filled with heaps and heaps of seductive, slow motion sizzle reel filmed in crystal clear HD. The first episode takes us to a place we should all be so lucky to visit, the wide swath of northern Italy which makes up a Devastator type food Transformer known as Emilia-Romagna. Based on my heritage, tendencies, appreciation for Parmigiano Reggiano, aged balsamico, hand made pasta, and meat products from cloven animals; this is where I, and many others probably wish they could live out their remaining years.

From the beginning of his story it’s clear that Chef Massimo Bottura loves Modena for all that it stands for. The introduction grabs you with a touching story that helped jump-start the growth of his community following a natural disaster. I don’t want to give anything away. That’s why I’m ending the show talk here.

BhIKA6WJlHMJq8Ch9ffC0R7kHyOU_ahcVgsBxl6ZekQ

We don’t really have a desire to critique or review this series. But, that doesn’t mean there isn’t some great stuff to talk about. As a team, we rank this show right alongside the other great documentary style productions such as El Bulli: Cooking in Progress, all of Bourdain’s TV work, and of course Jiro Dreams of Sushi.

Until recently, I hadn’t been thinking about recipe writing for Eat a Duck. I spent more than two years happily coming up with complete menus for the taste section of the Lakelander magazine. Some of which covered more than a dozen individual recipes per article. To think each one through, most often with zero room for error,  was a logistical nightmare consuming incredible amounts of time and effort. It was both exhilarating and exhausting. I’ve since stepped away from being full-time editor to give more attention to other important things in my life, which hopefully means putting more of my energy into creating on this front.

HWcWDt82rykz15dgrHED0LEIYffLS4YlK2jZFybvdTQ

The goal here is to pay homage to the six fantastic stories from this first series of Chef’s Table. While walking through town, I thought to myself “how can we tie this show into what we do.” What we came up with, was to formulate a recipe inspired by the theme of each show, a reflection of what lingered in our minds from each episode. It could be inspired by a personal story the chef tells, the region in which they’re from, or just our attempt at blatantly ripping off their most famous dish. We hope you enjoy our six dishes, which will include recipes for whatever it is we come up with. Going in order, the first will indeed chronicle Chef Massimo and his restaurant Osteria Francescana.

Eat a Duck Weekly Recap #6

It’s shaping up to be quite the epic contest of Noodle Wars 2015 between James and myself. While I have gotten more strict with my eating habits, there’s no chance I will ever deny myself the joy of eating great Vietnamese food. I may have temporarily dislocated pork shoulder from my daily intake, but that isn’t stopping me from enjoying the extensive menu over at Pho Cali in Sarasota. I opted for a bowl of lemongrass beef bun, with spicy chile and onions. It almost made me forget my fatty pork patties. Jimmy more than made up for my pork omissions. We both have a deep yearning to find that next great menu item that’s possibly hiding on the back page. In this case, it was Ha Noi noodles with pickled green papaya, grilled pork and pork meatballs. What a refreshing feeling it is for each of us to have a place in our respective towns with such high flavor and quality. It’s been a long time coming.

Speaking of a long time coming, a wood fired pizza insurgence is under way. Have you joined the republic? We are feverishly composing our thoughts on Polpo Pizza Co. to express our love for what they are producing. I know there are a lot of pizza people out there. You owe it to yourself to plan a nice beach day in the Sarasota area, with special attention paid to procuring a pizza pie produced particularly by Polpo at the precise period and place Polpo pre-determines to park.

Moving on, we found that going back to our well of old favorites resulted in great rewards. I haven’t been back to Beewon Korean restaurant in almost five years until last week. I found an old picture of my son noshing at the table back then. Poor guy didn’t even have a hair on his head. But he sure was happy taking on their bulgogi beef. While the sure things (Mahans & Oxford Exchange) triumphed, the new stumbled. Deciding after many contemplative passing glances at their storefront on Colonial Dr. in Orlando, I gave Mamak Asian Street Food a shot. While their rendition of Char Kway Teow (a wide rice noodle dish similar to chow fun) impressed, the beef curry meatballs left me wincing with confusion. The curry sauce itself tasted fine, yet the meatballs seemed like they were purchased at IKEA. Truthfully, I guess I should say that I quite enjoy their meatballs. But I expect them to stay at IKEA, in a pool of brown gravy, garnished with Lingonberry compote and not curiously found in an Asian hawker style restaurant. I cant say for a fact they bought them elsewhere or made them by hand, shaped to extremely perfect proportions. They were just very, very familiar to me.  I say maybe give Mamak a shot, but not before going to every single other jaw dropping place in a two block radius. With big guns like Ming’s Bistro, Anh Hong, Little Saigon, and Chuan Lu Garden, Mamak has a lot of competition. It’s by far the prettiest space on the block. So if they can get the entire menu hitting on all fronts, look out!

Finally, we finish at home. We try to eat what’s in season and tastes best, wherever we live. In Florida, we’re seeing a burst of peaches on the scene. They’re mainly smaller and thinner skinned than their relatives that hail from Georgia in my opinion, which results in a more concentrated flavor. We found some gems at Sweetwater Farms yet again. Large heads of broccoli, Japanese eggplant, and a slab of grass-fed sirloin from Providence Cattle proved to make a wonderful version of a New York style Chinese take out favorite; Beef and Broccoli. Another Stone Crab season has come to an end. I got my last chance to enjoy my favorite claw based foods. For one day last week, Whole Foods had them on special at their beer bar for 2$ a claw, so I took advantage of the situation. When you see that kind of deal, never pass it up! We’ll see you next week!

EAD Weekly #6

Eat a Duck Weekly Recap #5

This week we kept things fresh starting with our friends at Clementine Café serving up some seriously delicious tacos to rival the best Mexican street fare. Pho Tan, Lakeland’s own Vietnamese hangout makes an appearance showing that even little towns in the heart of Central Florida have international tastes. Logan has a nice write up coming out later this week, so stay tuned. The Poor Porker wowed us with their insane ‘crack cookie’, while Miss Rose at the Sweetwater Organic Farm in Tampa offered her own interesting sweet treat, sesame seed mung bean balls. Old standby Yummy House delivered its biweekly dim sum feast with style, impressing each time with piping hot dumplings made to order. Fresh off the boat from the UK is Yo Sushi. The UTC mall in Sarasota has been bestowed with the well-known conveyor belt sushi restaurant, the first of four US locations slated to open in the next few months. From the insane line, it looks like mainstream America may finally be ready to embrace ‘kaiten’ sushi. Look out for a full post after we’ve had a chance to run them through their paces.

Eat a Duck Weekly #5

Eat a Duck Weekly Recap #4

Eat a Duck took a break from editing and arranging our weekly recap to concentrate on spending some quality time with family. That doesn’t mean we stopped eating great food! Actually, we probably eat way better when we gather in familial packs, as Jimmy’s dinner at Indigenous in Sarasota will show. He dined there with his pop last week, who, in all honesty is the patriarchal figurehead of the Eat a Duck empire. He sort of introduced both Jimmy and me to fine dining togetherness with our trip to Joël Robuchon all those years back. What a treat it was to have James Beard award nominee Steve Phelps come visit the table to say hello.

In a post that needs, and will have, a spotlight all its own, Jimmy and I both ate at Polpo Pizza Co. on the same day, but at different times. I’ve touted it as the best pizza I’ve had in Florida since I had my first bite. That statement held true after taking the spicy Moroccan with me on my way to Ft. Myers. Wood fired at around 900°, (as all pizzas should be) then topped with smoked eggplant, lemon goat feta crème, spiced chickpea purée, rosemary oil, scamorza cheese and pistachio gremolata. I know it’s a lot of stuff to process, but it all worked beautifully.

Of course there was a grand assortment of dim sum had by all. Cumulatively, we ate at 3 different spots; Yummy House, China Yuan and Ming Court. Not to mention yet another trip to regular hang outs Poppo’s Tacos, Fat Maggies and Pho Cali

I seemed to be imbibing quite heavily on tasty pastry dependence, making my way from Lakeland across the state to Southwest Florida. Hitting up Born + Bread Bake house, Concord Coffee, The Poor Porker, Locale Market, Sarasota Tea Co, Perq Coffee Bar, and Sweetberries frozen custard along the route.

We can not forget to self promote. During the last 2 weeks, our alter egos The Root Frites had two great services in downtown Lakeland, with three amazing flavor combinations; The Cuban Missile Frysis, The Californian, and The Turkish Delight.

The last night of our weekly recap eligibility ended with a family dinner, as my uncle Greg came down for his semi-annual visit. I had the privilege to cook for him as well as my immediate family. We enjoyed a succulent brined, slow roasted chicken, sautéed garlicky collard greens, mashed potatoes, and an all too complex version of Greek salad. Hope you had a great couple of weeks in food just as we did!

EAD Weekly recap 4

EAD Weekly Recap No. 3

As one of Eat a Duck’s main contributors celebrated an anniversary this week, there was cause for much rejoicing. The vacation got started at Tia’s, to sample what was voted 2015’s Best Cuban Sandwich in the Universe. I don’t think it stacked up to the best of the best in our #Apuercolypse competition, but it was a valiant effort with great roast pork and extra buttery, pressed La Segunda bread. Everything else inside didn’t seem to receive as much attention as far as detailed flavor profiles or “homemadeness” is concerned.

For the most part, we visited some great old favorites in Orlando in Siro’s and Little Saigon, as well as some Tampa joints with Chocolate Pi, Fodder & Shine, Pinky’s, Squeeze and Jet City Espresso. Then we ended our trip where I’m typing, with family, eating great food at home. This week spanned a pretty large radius. Time to get out there and go eat!

EAD Weekly spread #3

Cuban Sandwich Festival 2015: Uncensored – Ybor City, FL

It’s been a few weeks since we attended the 2015 Cuban Sandwich festival. We milled over this piece a little too long to be timely, but our opinions are up to date, so it’s still a good read for any of you trying to find good Cubanos in Tampa. Especially true if you’ve already viewed the list of winners. Here goes:

The Cuban sandwich is a masterpiece, likely born out of necessity. Various cultures blended what little they had to create one cohesive, bread based package, although exactly when this occurred has never been proven. We feel things because we want to believe in them, we love a good food story and we try to let history justify our feelings toward the stories we hold dear.

I have every reason to believe that the Cuban sandwich as it is known today was curated right here in Ybor City. You can believe it’s from Miami, Cuba or even Geneva, Switzerland for that matter, but until you bring me some notarized or patented paperwork, there’s nothing to discuss.

I will not accept a Cuban sandwich as being traditional unless it contains salami. For those who want to argue this point, you’ll always come up lame, just like Miami’s sad salami-less imposter. I’ve asked many Miami residents, and contest participants to give one solid reason why the lack of a delicious cured meat would ever detract from it, but they never, ever respond with a good reason. Maybe because they know better, or maybe it’s just unwarranted geopolitical pride. Being too prideful in a weaker product is what brought down Ming Dynasty isn’t it?

One argument of note is from Sergio’s in Miami, who says on the subject of salami on a Cuban, that some people like pickles on their cupcakes. That’s weak. It’s as weak as Steve Rodgers pre-gamma ray. Salami is a complimentary flavor that only enhances the end result of the sandwich.

I think the results of this year’s Cuban sandwich proved, if nothing else, that the greater Miami population doesn’t really know what they’re doing with the sandwich they, for whatever reason, like to tout as their own. You did invent something, something awful. From the exclusion of one of earth’s most precious prizes, that being salami, to your hardtack version of Cuban bread, just about everything I’ve sampled on the Miami Cuban sandwich front has been sub-par. I do however have a deep admiration for Versailles in little Havana. They do a chorizo and manchego sandwich that would make even the mighty Jose Marti put off his activism for at least a day or two.

7705410_orig

My Cuban sandwich love is strong, which is why I just went off on a 500 word tangent, even after recently completing a lengthy three part Cuban sandwich competition of our own, where I thoroughly pontificated on the subject.

Let’s get to the festival itself. This year’s version, if you are talking on an all around enjoyment level, was a huge success. So many festival attendees got to experience rich, Cuban culture through music, dance and of course food. I give the founders of this event a sincere bow of respect. Not only did tens of thousands attend, but the proceeds went to fund a great cause.

As far as the competition, I held a judging position in the Non-Traditional category, in which competitors were asked to get creative, while still keeping things recognizable as a Cuban. They were encouraged take on the challenge by flipping the usual Cubano on its head.

I’d like to share my comments as well as the ranking for each entry. I was only able to match a handful of sandwiches to their respective entrants, so the others will remain a mystery, possibly due to shame, but most likely from lack of any social media presence.

The ranking was 1 to 10.  I still don’t know all 8 competitors, so here goes.

1

1. It’s just a Cuban sandwich. I think this got put in the wrong category. Looks like someone tripped and spilled chopped cilantro all over the top. Struggling to find what makes this non-traditional. Kind of really sweet now. Struggguuuuhhhhlinnnnng. (Maybe La Septima, 1st Place) 2 Stars

2

2. At least they tried to do something different after what #1 was. I see coleslaw. There is Mango. Smells like garlic bread. Very tropical. Outstanding, flavorful roast pork. Soggy. (Wheelhouse Deli 2nd Place) 3 Stars

3

3. It’s just a Cuban sandwich with a cherry tomato and an American flag stuck on top. Tomato of any kind, no matter where you put it, makes it non-traditional. This is non-good (Maybe La Septima, 1st Place) 1 Star

4

4. I don’t know what to call this thing. A Cubanpanada? I didn’t appreciate the hot sauce shower I got when I raised the lid from the box it was housed in. However, being assaulted by Crystal sauce is pretty non-traditional if you ask me. An empanada with Cuban sandwich filling is a great idea. The dough wasn’t very stellar, the mayo/mustard/mojo dip was. Inside, a little dry but great effort. 6 Stars

5

5. With all that green inside, I was expecting a chimmichurri or pesto bomb. Instead, it was like the time my dad made a ham & Swiss melt with a heaping scoop of hot dog relish. Extra 2 stars for nostalgia. Tried it twice to make sure I was tasting it right. Still tested positive for hot dog relish taste overload. 4 stars

6

6. Should be noted that all the meat is poultry. The switcheroo on animal proteins made this an “OK” non-traditional, I suppose. I think the spice coming from the pulled chicken really stands out. Everything else just reminds me of a bologna sandwich. I like bologna. Good sandwich. 4 Stars

7

7. If you’re going to be the 2nd dog in a two dog Cuban sandwich coleslaw king of the ring dog show, you have to bring it. They brought a better slaw with less sweetness, properly drained and more vinegar based acidity. In addition, they switched Swiss with something aged and nutty (Parm or Manchego?) to attack the enemy. Enough to come out victorious in Slaw Wars: Episode 2 – Attack of the Coles. (Dochos Concessions) 6 Stars

8

8. I couldn’t tell what, what was going on???! Sweet, sweet, sweet pickle or something else really sweet. What could be the roast pork part, was a really nice shade of mahogany and was pretty fatty so maybe they went with a braised beef brisket or short ribs instead. Who knows? I know. Too sweet. (The Dude and His Food) 4 Stars

After seeing the top three finishers in each category, I understood why many were upset with the results, as they ended up with very few of our proven favorites. The winners were a real hodge podge. “Head scratching” is what one on-looking fan was quoted as saying after seeing the final result in the four major categories of the weekend. I have a decent hypothesis about how this came about. Any given place can win if they make the best sandwich on that specific day. And to them go the spoils. They garner attention because they can say, “Hey we have one of the top three Cuban sandwiches around, and we can prove it with our award.” Then when you go get the sandwich at the restaurant, deli or truck, in reality it’s nowhere near the quality it was the day of the contest. That’s a bamboozle and I think we got a touch of that this year. It’s just a theory though. My only proof is that I’ve eaten at almost all of these places and a lot of them just aren’t very good. The only truly accurate ranking is that the Miami Cuban fell so far off the face of use earth in competition that people were holding candle lit vigils due to the disappearance.

To tell you the truth, I was pretty bummed out to not be included as part of the Best Cuban Sandwich in the World category. Even so, I took my assignment seriously, something I can’t say for my fellow judges who I have a sneaking suspicion weren’t even aware of the category, as a very, very traditional sandwich was the eventual winner. I got pretty annoyed once I found out what they did to put their twist on the original. Mayonnaise, allegedly infused with guava was the only thing that was different. I absolutely didn’t taste guava and guava is in my DNA.

Still, it was an honor to be a judge. Team Eat a Duck is hopeful that we can come back and judge with the big boys in the most important category. Shoot, we just hope to get asked back next year after the competition complaints  we made, which again, have nothing to do with the fantastic organizers.

Here’s what needs to happen. I love the categories of competition. I just ask that all participants who enter the non-traditional category to please try to have a semblance of creative expression. Dip your Cuban in a sweet and spicy batter then deep fry it. Make the vessel a glazed donut then griddle the outside so that it’s nice and caramelized. Turn it into an oozy quesadilla or make a savory pop tart, croissant or scone even. Why not use a different set of ingredients all together, that still pay homage to the classic. Sort of like Buddy Brew did with their version during the #apuercolypse. In the immortal words of Busta Rhymes, “Gimme sum mo, If you want it lemme hear you say, gimme sum mo.”

Cuban creativity

Challenge yourself and the judges. Don’t let us get confused, thinking we’re judging a different competition, because that’s another issue all together.

If you want to read about who we firmly believe has the best all around Cuban sandwich in Tampa, check out all 3 #Apuercolypse articles here (1, 2, 3). Oh, and if you think your favorite place stacks up to our list, let us know why and we will give it a shot!

Burlington Food Crawl 2014

As a food writer, I tend to get tunnel vision when it comes to big cities. It’s especially noticeable when planning a food crawl. In a town like San Francisco, or New York, or Chicago, you’re spoiled for choice. Cities like these, where you could literally eat at an awesome restaurant every day and never repeat for years, don’t pose much of a challenge to the curator of a food tour. That’s why I love the small towns, especially the up and coming ones with blossoming food scenes.

Sometimes this is the result of big city chefs looking for an alternative to the old path of grinding through the hottest restaurants in town for years before getting their own gig. In a small town, they have the chance to strike out on their own early, when their minds are still fresh and foolish. Other times it can be chalked up to a young demographic. College towns like Burlington are full of a new generation of young adult, who are excited to support the new, the creative and even the strange. This has had a marked effect on the town’s food choices, and has brought some genuinely impressive restaurants to the shores of Lake Champlain.

Burlington Food Crawl 2014

So that’s why I decided, after sniffing around Burlington for over a decade now, that it was time to plan a proper food crawl. There have always been great places to eat in Burlington like Leunig’s, A Single Pebble, Bove’s and more. But those are familiar faces, you know what you’re in for before you step inside and I wanted to be surprised, to sample the new hotness, the young guns, the freshman.

We start our journey with a dark horse discovered by chance during a walk down Church Street. I’ve strolled down this beautiful walking street hundreds of times, so I notice when a new face appears. In this case it was cozy underground Italian spot, formerly known as Three Tomatoes Trattoria. I can’t recall many lasting memories from the latter, but the former made a strong impression with just two dishes.

Pascolo spread

I chose Pascolo partly out of curiosity, and partly because I like to patronize new restaurants at least once to support the business. It also didn’t hurt that they proudly tout their house made pasta. One thing that always makes me nervous though, is when the menu gives the diner the choice of sauce with a certain noodle. Other aspects of the menu put that worry at ease though, like the list of locally sourced charcuterie and produce from nearby farms. I went with a pair of house made pasta dishes, the tagliatelle bolognese and pappardelle funghi. I could tell at first bite that the noodles were home-made as advertised. Both sauces were well composed with a depth of flavor I haven’t found elsewhere in Burlington. For me, Pascolo is a welcome addition to Church Street.

Our second stop, Hen of the Wood, has been on my list for a few years now and has been a stalwart of food lovers in Waterbury, VT for even longer. Unfortunately, Waterbury is about a 30 min drive from Burlington. Happily for me, they’ve opened a second location right in downtown under the Hotel Vermont. Hen of the Wood, like many restaurants in and around Burlington, pride themselves on sourcing as much of their ingredients as possible from local farmers and growers. I noticed they look to the same growers as The Kitchen Table Bistrowhich can only bode well.

HotW has one of those menus where you have to make some hard decisions, especially on a food crawl. Appropriately, we chose the Hen of the Wood mushroom toast topped with house bacon and a poached farm egg. I can hardly think of a more perfect winter time dish. Here’s a pro tip, when you see beef tartare on a menu, order it. At HotW it comes with lemon, capers, farm egg yolk and some sunchoke chips for texture. Even a salad of baby gem lettuce gets its due attention with shaved goat cheese, walnut, Hakurei turnip and mint.

Hen of the Wood spread

If you walk out Hen of the Wood, turn left, walk about 20 yards and enter the Hotel Vermont lobby, you’ll find Juniper. In my experience, hotel lobbies aren’t typically known for their fantastic restaurants. Usually you’ll find a dimly lit bar with tired businessmen downing your typical pub fare. Juniper is a wholly different thing. Braised rabbit with duck fat turnips, tamari and quince glazed wild salmon with kimchi and black risotto, cider glazed pulled pork shoulder with bacon, apple and duck egg, are only a small sampling of the creative dishes Juniper is capable of.

In an attempt to keep things light on our second to last stop, a roasted beet soup and autumn salad were requested. The former came with a sweet and tangy goat’s milk ricotta, violet gastrique and local Castleton crackers. I couldn’t detect much flavor from the violet gastrique, but the goat cheese was a perfect match for the earthy sweetness from the beets. As for the salad, I can honestly say it was an eye opener in a category that usually fails to stand out. Cranberries in two forms woke up the mixed greens. The deep, sweet, concentrated flavor from dried cranberries worked together with a cranberry vinaigrette that brought a sour component.

Juniper spread 1

Now Eat a Duck food crawl regulations stipulate a limit of three dishes or less at each stop. As co-founder and head of this particular food crawl, I made an executive decision to ignore this rule after I tasted Juniper’s amazing celeriac gnocchi. I try not to throw the word amazing around too much, but these little dumplings deserve the praise. Nearly everything in this dish comes from the underground. That’s not an attempt to be hip, three of the main ingredients literally grow underground, celeriac, Jerusalem artichokes and black truffle. The binding agent in this case comes courtesy of luxurious raclette from Spring Brook Farms in Reading. The key to any impressive dish is balance. A dish with raclette at its base could easily stray into the sickeningly rich spectrum. The chef deftly offsets this with the sliced Jerusalem artichokes that bring an acidic, almost pickled flavor that keeps each bite fresh. It was so addictive we ordered a second dish for dessert.

Juniper spread 2

Juniper was such a hit we returned the next day for lunch. While my wife wasn’t looking, I quickly ordered a North Hollow Farm hot dog with tomato bacon jam, and the cider glazed pulled pork shoulder with bacon, frisée, apple and duck egg. I made quick work of the dog which was the perfect snack on a cold day. The tangy jam had enough sweetness to highlight the dog and a pronounced tang that hit you right in the jaw. The pork sandwich on the other hand was a beast that I sorely underestimated. It was slightly overloaded with ingredients and I wished the flavor of the pork was more front and center, maybe mixed with a maple based BBQ sauce or something. While delicious, it’s hard to follow that gnocchi!

Last stop on our tour of Burlington is a little joint that I’ve seen countless times on my way to town, Bluebird Tavern. They’ve since moved from their original location to make way for Bluebird BBQ (which is on the list for next time), and have settled right in the heart of downtown, just on the other side of the block from Pascolo. At this point my female crawlers were losing steam and running low on stomach space. It was up to me to finish on a high note. I started off with a trio of Cuban spoons, basically the deconstructed ingredients of a Cuban sandwich, minus the bread, on a spoon. There was only a small cube of each component, but the flavor was unmistakable. Next was a small pile of bay scallops in a parsnip purée with grapes and ham. The grapes sounded strange but they found their place in the dish, lending subtle sweetness to the creamy parsnip. They also had a similar texture to the scallops as they had been quickly tossed in the pan to firm them up a bit. To finish, fried sweetbreads, another item I always have to try when the opportunity presents itself.

Bluebird Tavern spread

After years of eating my way through Burlington, it was satisfying to finally put together a string of restaurants worthy of a crawl. I can confidently recommend Burlington to any traveling food lover, as the scene there is truly maturing with dishes and culinary ideas that showcase the town’s unique personality. Here’s hoping the trend continues and so we can hold round 2 of the Burlington food crawl. In the meantime, get out there and try these places, support the new guard and show them that we we’re hungry for more!

Pascolo Ristorante on Urbanspoon
Hen of the Wood (Burlington) on Urbanspoon
Juniper on Urbanspoon
Bluebird Tavern on Urbanspoon

The Dinner Party Project – Orlando, FL

Have you ever looked back at how a set of coincidental circumstances lead you to a certain moment? Considering that moment, did you think about how statistically unlikely it was to reach it? You’d think for me to find myself eating with seven other folks in a warehouse, in an undisclosed location somewhere in the urban throngs of Orlando, would take some planning. Nope, it was an utter fluke. A fold of the cloth in the other direction would have led me down another path without any knowledge of such an event.

The Dinner Party Project spread

This particular wormhole opened up while folding up fancy napkins with a lady in the middle of nowhere, on a farm, in a field where chickens are free to roam. We were both hired guns brought on to aid with service for one of Outstanding in the Fields Winter tour of Florida. (It deserves a post all to itself, but if you haven’t heard of OITF and you like fresh food from the sweat of a farmers loins, please check out their operation.) We worked in silence, intricately folding napkins, until she put on some tunes. I don’t think either of us could stand the lack of conversation, so she asked what I did for a living. No one wants to talk careers with a postal employee, so I deftly shifted the focus to her. This girl ran down an impressive list of pursuits and causes. Of course the only one that mattered to a person with such food focused pursuits such as myself, I zeroed in on the last one in her list. She casually explained of her involvement in a small, just born Orlando based dinner party club. I believe something like, “no way, that’s awesome,” so eloquently left my mouth. After chatting for a very short time, I was called away to do some grunt work.

The night ended and I never got the name of her project. I was however able to recall her last name, though how last names ever came up in the conversation I’m not sure. The only time I heard that particular family name was from acquaintances in my town. Wouldn’t you know they are related? She just so happened to be my friends’ sister-in-law. A few weeks went by and I started looking at some of the farm table photos online from that night and saw user _thedinnerpartyproject_ had posted a photo.

All was not lost. Things started haphazardly coming together.

I began following and became enthralled at what was going on with her venture. Two dinners a week with eight seats chosen by random lottery system, all of them appeared to be completely sold out since the project began. I wanted to be a part of this, I had to, but when would I ever realistically get the chance?

The Dinner Party Project spread 1

Last week while on a business trip requiring an overnight stay in Orlando, I noticed that they had a spot available the same night I was to be in town. I quickly responded and managed to be the guy who would fill the empty seat. I’d like to extend a hearty thank you to the person who decided to cancel the day of the dinner. I assume you regularly plan poorly. Thankfully, your bad planning really benefited me that day.

I’m not ashamed to admit that the only reason I wanted to join in on this supper club in the first place was for the food created by incredibly talented Orlando based chefs. Food for us is everything. We won’t write about anything if the taste just isn’t there, no matter what your cause is. Good food can cover over a multitude of sins. I would be glad to sit in silence with a group of disgusting eccentrics, if in exchange, I received a great meal. Conversation, networking, and general socializing is way down my list of priorities. Still, I feared I had committed myself to a night of eating with weirdos, as I anxiously drove from SushiPop in Oviedo, after pre-gaming on fatty bluefin tuna bellies and house smoked salmon nigiri. This turned out to be a small, albeit precautionary meal.

There was nothing to fear.

On this night of course, I ate well. The guest chef was a former crew member of some of my favorite spots in town. Michael Garcia, formerly of Ravenous Pig, Cask & Larder and The Smiling Bison treated the eight of us to a Cuban inspired feast, with a hard nod to modern technique. The plates of food that came out were beautiful, though they tasted even better than they looked. Especially the work of art that was our first course. An heirloom tomato salad with charred onion and a streak of avocado marble brought me back to the first time I studied Van Gogh’s Water Lilies collection in person. I really took to the braised flank steak, made into ropa vieja that towered over a plateau of culantro rice. The complexity of reduced tomato sauce with a stellar balance of acidity and sweetness, it would have made my Nana proud. Though, she wouldn’t have gone to this event because she doesn’t drive at night. The last course, and arguably the best received by all, was coffee infused pots de crème, with a salty caramel apex and a custardy cinnamon sugared churro. I dug into that custard with my churro like Mikey, Mouth, Chunk and Data looking for One Eyed Willies treasure.

the-dinner-party-project-spread-2

If you were to take the food away, and asked me to come to a mixer in a warehouse, with a group of people I might not ever see again, the answer would be a polite, “no thank you.”

So, obviously it helped that the food was great. In all honesty, I think the experience of conversing with these new friends, making new connections, finding common ground with people who don’t necessarily have similar interests was more memorable than any meal I had had that week, and for the record, I ate well last week.

I think an event like this, if not exactly this, should be implemented in every city. Surely your town can drum up 16 random people a week to get things going. I feel as if society has been slowly losing their ability to converse and function on a casual level. We’ve all slowed down in our ability to get together for no good reason, adult and child alike. As my host graciously suggested, we ditched our phones for the evening, and it was a relief to many of the guests, myself included. Other than snapping a couple of shots that were preapproved, mine stayed right were it belongs, right under my butt. I don’t know, maybe I’m starting to sound like “drunk uncle,” but I remember when get a together meant something. Nowadays, it’s just could you e-mail me dinner, can you fax me a hug? Ipad, Ipod, Iphone Idontknowanymore!

It was a highly delightful and enlightening evening with a group of complete strangers, sharing stories and ideas that quite possibly wouldn’t have been told so freely, if at all, if it were just a group of old friends going through the motions of catching up. No one had to keep up appearances. Instead it was a chance to meet seven new friends in one shot. For someone who has been married for nearly 14 years, you sometimes take for granted getting to know new people intimately. This meal, in a way, gave me a chance to exercise my storytelling ability on subjects that didn’t involve food, an exercise I sort of miss. If you have the chance to get outside of your comfort zone and put yourself out there to be part of their random guest selection process, I can guarantee that you’ll gain a great deal of fulfilling memories afterward.

The Dinner Party Project serves the Orlando area every Tuesday and Wednesday, with a suggested $40-$70 donation per guest. It’s highly suggested that you attend the dinner alone, although they don’t discourage couples. They usually last around 3 hours, which includes passed appetizers, cocktail, wine, and a 3 or 4 course sit down meal with coffee service afterwards. You can go to www.thedinnerpartyproject.coin order to sign up and be registered for their lottery system.

Born + Bread Bakehouse – Lakeland, FL

As cooks, we steal. No one in the field can claim to be 100% original all the time. Maybe Escoffier? I’ll ask around. Someone had to teach us basic technique, perhaps peppered with a few tricks here and there to make us what we are but not what we can become. A good cook doesn’t stop at simple thievery, no, he borrows, gains inspiration and makes it his own. In the immortal words of Frank Black, try this trick, and spin it…yeah.

Here is the difference between us and them. We don’t usually open a cookbook or periodical of note and recreate a recipe verbatim. If you’re in that habit, the results are generally poor. We all have different palates and taste buds. We also live in different unique climates. Then again, when we find a recipe or interesting combination of ingredients, we steal it anyway. When you steal, you should do so for only these three reasons.

1. To learn a technique
2. To spin a plate you love while using your own style
3. To make something better than the “original”

Born & Bread logo

The moment you sink your teeth in the mignon of Jennifer Smurr’s interpretation of the baked good known nationally as a  morning bun, you’ll instantly realize that this form of appropriation is perfectly acceptable. This city is at long last progressing. I’ve campaigned for competent bakers in town ever since my first real adult trip to New York City, when I finally experienced a real baguette, not to mention pastry and now we have them. To taste a thousand flaky layers all in one bite is the result of science, math and art all being tied together like a perfect braided apple strudel. It takes a special set of hands to delicately craft baked goods in a way that can change the landscape of an entire community. To sustain people and make them smile in the same bite. I have a feeling the hands attached to Jenn have the passion to achieve these things.

Born & Bread 1

A classic American beauty with hair adorned in golden braids like something you’d read about in Greek mythology, the life of a model would be an easy career choice for her to make. One that actually played out to fruition. There was one problem. The passion, the spark, and the desire to create something she wanted to create just wasn’t there. By no means is modeling an easy career. As an outsider, due to my grotesque physical prowess, I can assure you that field is as cut throat as it gets. As a friend and ex-postal supervisor of her delivery area, I have had the opportunity to sample some of her early experiments. From the sweet potato biscuits with bacon jam, to the all the pastries and breads, she has totally immersed herself into the art of baking, taking cues from her travels all over the world. Nothing depicts her individuality better than the triumphant spin on the classic morning bun made famous by San Francisco’s Tartine Bakery. An item she fell in love with during recent a trip to the west coast. She made it her own and made it better than the original in my opinion. There are artisans who have created empires based on one thing. If that were the case in this instance the morning bun would be her rise to power.

 There is a flawless bite nestled into each one to help focus your oral aperture. In what is in theory, a croissant shaped to mimic a cinnamon roll perfection is found. The lead up to that one perfect bite literally unwinds like a king cobra striking its prey, and like a king cobra, this French pastry has an enormous range as it is flaky, buttery, crisp, chewy, bright, spicy and sticky sweet all in the same bite. And like a king cobra they can be deadly. Really if you think about it a certain way, these are more weapon than breakfast item. This perfect representation of a classic morning treat reminds me of one the best of the very best NOFX songs, “And Now For Something Completely Similar” from the album – Pump up the Valuum. Compare the progression of the bun with that of a song. Better yet, get a bun and play the song in unison while eating. Whatever you do, do not play the song backwards or you run the risk of pulling yourself into a Faul McCartney-esque vortex.  As it starts off with the singular driving force of a guitar track. As the song unravels (physically start eating your bun by pulling apart the pieces from the outside in) you are greeted with the harmonious beat of a double kick pedal on the drums in time with the lead (the cinnamon sugar swirl with a hint of orange zest). As you reach the crescendo, right before the lyrics come in, a pulsating slap of the bass bombards your speakers (taking a bite from the center in all its ooey goodness). Finally, Fat Mike’s angelic voice comes in (savoring the combined efforts of all flavors involved) and everything begins to move so fast you can barely stand it!

Born & Bread 2

Fast forward through a stint in an intense 3 month-long training program in Miami at ZTB Bakery, and then another few more months working on her business plan. She has zero need to carry the persona “Jenn the apprentice” any longer. She’s got her technique down to rival any patisserie in the country, with flavors that are going to leave few heads unturned. After a few more months of business planning has passed, she is ready to knock you down and make you curse all the days in which you unknowingly went without her goods. “Born + Bread,” her first foray into public legitimacy as a professional baker has finally risen. If you can breathe you should go find it.

And find it you shall, in two incarnations. She will be setting up a spot at the Lakeland downtown curb market on Saturdays to give people a taste of what’s in store. Secondly, look for her work showcased prominently at another exciting endeavor coming this spring to the Dixieland village. Concord Coffee is soon to be Lakeland’s truest version of a craft coffee shop, with Born + Bread on full display.

Locale Market – St. Petersburg, FL

On my right, sits an older woman, a wiser woman, quietly scarfing down duck confit and potato gratin out of a takeout container. It’s obvious that she’s eavesdropping on the conversation my dear friend Jeff Houck (Marketing and PR Director of Locale Market) and I are having regarding the evolving beast that is Locale Market. As I surveyed the frenzy of activity, I realized what this was, an enormous “choose your adventure” book, played out over flat tops and fryers. With such an enormous and dynamic enterprise as this, it’s easy to see how every person that comes through the door experiences a unique eating adventure.

Locale Market spread

A couple of young fledgling’s across the way, both eating burgers, are moaning as if this were more than just a mid-day nutrient injection to them. That’s because it is. It’s partly entertainment. While Thing 1 gives out a slow “ohhhh myyyyyy gaaaaaahd” like a younger, less annoying Janice Litman-Goralnik née Hosenstein, Thing 2 exclaims ever so braggadociously, “This is…like…oh em gee…the foodie version of Disney World”.

In the future I’m really going to attempt to be less argumentative, as I really am getting sick and tired of people being outwardly negative just for the sake of it. Still, it’s in my genes, and because of that, I must wholeheartedly disagree with Thing 2’s statement, though I can’t fault her for making it. Locale Market is an amazing place, and she was just so excited she couldn’t find a more eloquent way to express herself. My new unofficial home base is better than Disney World, or D23, it’s even better than getting three fast passes for Toy Story Mania in the same trip, which is now physically impossible thanks to Fastpass+ armbands. Disney World has the ability to leave you wanting more or at least wanting a better experience. If you want a fantastical telling of how a Disney getaway can cause you to think it’s going to be one thing and then it turns out to be something completely inverted, watch the low-budget movie that was made entirely in the park incognito, “Escape From Tomorrow.*” (*Watch the first 30 minutes, maybe 45, after that it gets weird and falls apart like a loaf of gluten-free millet bread.) At Locale, no sane person could ever be disappointed. Let me reiterate. This is better than Disney World.

Locale meats

You need to prepare yourself for the first trip to Locale Market. It can be completely overwhelming if you’re not familiar with the concept of mega food halls. Each time I’ve gone, my company gets lost in it all. My advice is to focus on the first thing you see that looks good and order it, then immediately plan your next trip so you can try the next thing down the line. The next stop for me is the fish station.

If you had enough people, you could each tackle one area per person. Then after each team member has found something good, pick a rendezvous point and share the haul with everyone. There are at least a dozen unique food stations to visit and order things to either eat right away or take home. You can also do real grocery shopping as well, although I still don’t think the normal consumer has quite figured out that part of the storefront just yet.

Locale spread 2

If you’re looking to have a full meal without the need to shop for it, you can take a little hike upstairs to the wine bar. It’s a place where cheeseboards rule the day and the steaks come served on slabs of wood with bones intact. All the items have been curated from the minds of Michael Mina and Don Pintabona, so you are guaranteed to have fantastic food in a very casual relaxed environment. Speaking of the partners of Locale, they seem to be very hands on with this passion project. I’ve seen Mr. Mina a few times, not including the night of the Grand Opening ceremony, which is a pretty impressive thing since honestly; he has an empire to run. They are completely involved in the operation, so much so that Mr. Pintabona has been spotted in his chef whites every single time I’ve visited. Don’t just think it’s because he knew we were coming. We always arrive as unannounced guests. He even comically ran into one of my friends on our way to the liquid nitrogen enriched ice cream and shake shoppe.

Locale spread 3

Not only that, you can take a seat at the full service restaurant called FarmTable which opened earlier this year and features a ticketing system unique to the bay area. Similar concepts have had great success at places like the renowned Alinea in Chicago, Trois Mec in L.A and é by Jose Andres in Vegas. Expect to see as much hoopla as the rush to get floor seats for Queen’s 1981 “THE GAME” tour.

Locale at home

As the fever of the first few months has died down a little, I would like to give some advice to those who have yet to go or who have gone and maybe had a shaky experience. Internet trolls tend to only highlight the negative aspects without appreciating how much awesome is all around them. This concept on such a large-scale is entirely new to Florida. It’s the first of its kind from the Mina Group, so even an experienced group of food and business people have to deal with a slight learning curve. Sure, there are a couple of things that could be handled a little better, like clearly indicating where the lines begin for each station. It might be because nobody figured this kind of place would stick so incredibly fast. For goodness sake, the lines for the burger station rival those of Snow White’s Seven Dwarves Mine train. The biggest difference is after Snow White is done with you, you’ve got no St. Petersburger to make out with, and speaking of a burger bound for stardom, it’s made out of a house-ground dry aged beef from the Locale butcher. With a salad tossed in In-n-Out sauce, topped with smoked Gouda, bacon, caramelized onions and mushrooms to boot. This comes in between a brioche bun straight out of Locale’s bakery. It also comes with a molten cheese sauce which I will always omit because of my disdain for American cheese. Yet, if you want it all, I don’t blame you.

Locale meats 2

Another thing many people can’t take is crowds. These kind of people probably also don’t like Disney World or waiting in general. They want it all, they want it all, they want it all and they want it now and if they have to be around the general population, they’ll avoid it like the plague. Don’t go between 11:45 a.m.-2:00 p.m. because you’ll be swarmed and I really do want you to enjoy yourself. Lunch rush gets crazy. Please bear with everyone’s uncharacteristic way pushing and shoving while stumbling around like fashion zombies, looking for grilled persimmons on warm ricotta toast, as if grilled persimmons on ricotta toast were Daryl and Merle Dixon’s brains.

Locale Italian

Last thing, this isn’t Eataly, Gotham West Market, The San Francisco Ferry Building or any other example of the gourmet food court. It’s also nothing like Mazzaro’s; a larger Italian focused market on the other side of the city. If Locale, is Disney World, Mazzaro’s is Dollywood. So please, let’s stop with those silly comparisons people. I’ve said already but it bears repeating, this is the first of its kind in the state. The name is Locale for a reason. I couldn’t think of many things they sell that are not either made in-house or sourced locally. That goes for the meat, cheese, produce and the seafood. Even the water that bears Locale’s name is from Florida. The only things I can think that doesn’t fall in line are the packaged items that simply can’t be done in these climates, or because there is a far superior product elsewhere, such as pints of Cool Haus ice cream from L.A. or bottled cold-brew coffee from Stumptown in Portland, OR. Arguably the best bottled coffee in the country and the only place I’ve found it nearby is Locale.

Locale sweets

If treating your body like a temple sounds fun, you can be that person and still enjoy yourself here as most things are either organic, sustainable or wholesome and, if possible, all three. If treating your body like are amusement park is more your style, Locale market is your Magic Kingdom.