é by José Andrés – Las Vegas, NV

When all is said and done, the goal of a restaurant, whether it’s fast food or fine dining, is to seat you at their table. If we’re talking about the latter, besides the menu, there are a number of tactics available to a discerning restaurateur. Hiring that hot bearded chef from some hip locavore, farm-to-table joint perhaps, or landing the top floor in the latest Zaha Hadid building. Or maybe it’s touting a one night only tasting menu featuring sustainable heritage bacon.

All of these strategies have been executed in principal, or more likely verbatim, but in Las Vegas, the capital of distraction, attracting diners to your restaurant is an even greater task.  So how do you do it, how do you compete when almost every celebrity chef has a Vegas location vying for those dining dollars? Well for one diminutive dining room, it’s simple, you don’t.

This tactic of isolationism would be suicide for most restaurants, but é by José Andrés is not most restaurants. You won’t see any signs for it as you walk through The Cosmopolitan, it’s not listed on the website, and even if you were to walk by Jaleo, it’s parent restaurant, you’d probably miss it.

E spread 1

It all started with a call from my dad and a one word question, “Vegas”? The answer was an instant yes, and with that, the meal planning began. Well, I say planning, but it was really just jumping online the second I got home to see if é had two spots open during our trip. I had heard about José Andrés’ semi-secret restaurant within a restaurant a while back, and it had been on my wish list ever since.

A few days later a dainty envelope bearing a faux wax stamp arrived containing two gold admission tickets. I can hear the snickering, but for me, it showed that the staff at é sought not only to provide a meal, but an experience, starting with your own personal Charlie Bucket moment, and it totally worked.

We arrived at Jaleo with golden tickets in hand, and no clue as to what lay ahead. Soon after, our seven dinner companions slowly trickled in. Naturally small talk exposes occupations first, and we were a diverse bunch; two neuroscientists, a spinal surgeon, a PGA rules official, a “businessman” with two young “lady friends”, together with me, an architect in training and my aircraft trading father, formed a group like a strange food loving cast of Gilligan’s Island. Little did we know how important that group would prove to be to the experience. Each of us took our seat at the bronze, horseshoe-shaped bar, surrounded by full height walls of library card files meant to represent Chef Andrés’ mind, filled with flavor ideas. After a quick introduction to the friendly, and thankfully not too formal, staff, our meal of over 20 dishes began.

E spread 2

Smooth foie gras and crunchy corn nuts, wrapped in what looked like pressed dryer sheets, but turned out to be cotton candy, was a refreshingly playful way to start a meal of this caliber. José is a decidedly serious chef, as his many restaurants can attest, but you can tell he’s having fun at é. Take his “beet-kini” grilled cheese with its two slices of “bread” formed from pressed beet meringue, achieving a color that’d make Willy Wonka proud, sandwiching a thick cream of La Peral blue cheese. Yet the flavors are always the main attraction, concentrated sweetness from the beets against the grassy blue cheese.

At an Andrés restaurant, you’ll never be without seafood for long, so the coca de recapte featuring a pristine Murcia sardine and deconstructed escalivada (a traditional Catalan dish usually made with grilled red pepper and eggplant) piped in neat rows was a welcome sight. Three quick bites followed, mini brioche stuffed with goat cheese and Iberico ham, a smoked Kushi oyster, and one of Eat a Duck’s personal favorite delicacies, a seared chicken oyster set atop crispy skin.

E spread 3

How about some shark? Why, yes please! A little Cadiz style fried nugget of adobo marinated thresher shark was as impressive as it was simple. Think of a piece of perfectly fried pork belly, and then remove any trace of lean meat, that was the texture. The fish itself didn’t have a distinct flavor, but the combination of spices from the adobo and the sharp sherry vinegar on the crisp shell was intoxicating.

Apparently you can pickle mussels, and guess what, they’re delicious! The creamy little shellfish with their added sourness were paired with little pea-sized olive spheres and a squeeze of citrus that woke up the tongue. Which brings me to Cava sangria spheres! After downing these high-end jello shots, everyone at the table had a smile on their face.

Let me just state that by now, I had become fast friends with the two lovely ladies to my left, one of whom was already starting to get full, and I being ever the gentleman, graciously offered to assist her in dispatching whatever morsels remained from each course.

The next course was a true brought me back to earth as the preparation was explained. I take it there’s no fear on the staff’s part of divulging secrets here, because I was no clearer on how this dish was created after the explanation as I was before it. From what I gathered, (and José would probably cringe, or laugh if he read this) you take fava beans, purée them, mix them with some molecular something or other, and then reformed them into their former fava shape. The result is an impossible smooth “bean” creme floating in a comforting jamon consommé. Two schmears in the roasted and black garlic varieties packed an incredibly concentrated flavor, playing off the subtle ham tinged broth.

E spread 4

A return to the sea with two prawns from Palamós, barely cooked on the grill to keep their creamy texture. If you’ve ever had ama ebi nigiri, it was a similar mouth feel. The flesh was exceedingly sweet with just a hint of smoke. Sucking shrimp heads seems to have become the cool thing to do after years of Bourdain and the like preaching the gospel of guts. Seriously though, when the opportunity arises to wrap your lips around a crustacean of this quality, you’d better suck every last succulent drop out of that shell.

The grilled Txocoli style cod jowls that followed brought the dreaded “wall” within sight. It didn’t help that I had a double portion after sharing with my generous neighbor! The garlicky pil pil sauce mingling with swirls of squid ink was almost too luxurious. In keeping with the cream theme, we were then presented with a steaming package of champagne cork sized mushrooms in a creamy bagna cauda.

I won’t lie, I was reaching my limit, but the sight of an enormous grilled Australian Wagyu ribeye was enough to generate a second wind. The color was unreal. Their grill must’ve been screaming hot because it had an amazing crust, but the deep crimson flesh beneath was still wobbly to the touch. Piquillo chips and white asparagus joined the perfect slice of beef, pairing with the grassy notes. A nice layer of fat lent its flavor to an already delicious cut.

E spread 5

With that exclamation point, the dessert parade began…with an egg, or what looked like an egg, but was in fact thickened cream whites with an orange yolk. A little chocolate drum shell containing a minty chocolate mousse atop cocoa nibs was a familiar flavor, like an intense Andes mint, or Andrés mint if you will.  José’s own take on a Ferrero Rocher was presented as a golden nugget in a ring box. The distinct hazelnut chocolate flavor combo was spot on, and even more pronounced than its namesake.

I’ve had very few dinners where I leave with more friends than I arrived with. I can confidently say that the group you draw at é can make or break the dinner. Without fail, the food will always be incredible, but the people make the experience special, and that goes for the staff as well. Our group was fantastic, the room felt alive, there was laughter and hugs and a common giddiness over this awesome moment we were all able to share. Even the chefs seemed to be having a great time. So if you visit é, befriend your neighbors, chat with the sommelier, joke with the chefs, chat with the assistants, because at the end of the day, it’s the people who make the meal.

Click to add a blog post for é by José Andrés on Zomato

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

Orlando Food Crawl 2014: Part I

The triumphant return of an original  member of the Four Coursemen gave us an excuse to plan an all-out attack on the flourishing Orlando food scene. I don’t want to give him a Big Head Todd, but in all honestly, he was a true forerunner of social eating and food blogging in the Tampa area. He was the first person to really reach out and try to help us get our name out to a larger audience, without trying to buy our stomachs, and for that I give him 5 stars. So what can you do for a man who eats everything? Feed him.

I like to think we toured Orlando thoroughly the first time, especially since we were dining at the height of the city’s food revival. At that time, places such as East End Market, Cask & Larder and Pharmacy were in their infancy, still working out the kinks, but that didn’t stop them from serving up tasty food. For the most part, the main goal of our last trip was eating at places that none of the Tampa crew had tried.

ead-orlando-food-crawl-2014 2.0

I think of my two Orlando food crawls as Paul McCartney albums. The first one was like “Band on the Run”, a masterful effort from start to finish. Our most recent one was something of a greatest hits collection. I feel comfortable saying that they were “All the Best.”

What would be considered “The Lakeland crew” got a late start. I realize punctuality is important, especially when you’ve got half a dozen full service restaurants to visit. However by 10 AM, our bellies were beginning to grumble, so we swung by The Bread Pedlar for a morning bun to prepare our stomachs. It’s not our fault we happened across a random pincho stand raise up like a phoenix, setting fire to the sun. Or should I say, setting fire to our plans of making it on time to Highball & Harvest to meet the rest of the crew. The pincho pusher told me that it would take 2 minutes, which turned into 20. Finally, with a skewer of BBQ’d Chicken and a couple of Plátano Relleno con Carne hand pies in hand, we finally got out-of-town.

Meanwhile, at Highball & Harvest, Kurt, Todd and Thai wasted no time and began eating and drinking with gusto. The highly regarded “Chicken and the Egg,” a fantastic take on chicken & waffles with a sunny side up egg and house made hot sauce, didn’t survive long enough for us to sample. They also ordered “Pig-n-Potatoes”, which was their version of hash for a highly sophisticated southern gentleman. Instead of corned beef, braised pork cheeks were used.

Highball & Harvest spread 1

We were greeted with hisses for our tardiness which quickly morphed into warm greetings as everyone was just so happy to see each other again. There were a few scraps left of the hash we gobbled up like Oliver Twist scrounging about for another bowl of gruel. There were a couple of fantastic Parker House rolls left with a side of apple butter butter. You really must order them with any meal at H&H. The only way I can properly describe these rolls, would be to flash back to the days when we all used to go to buffets as youngsters and eat our weight in those awesome yeast rolls, which is pretty much the only redeeming quality of said establishments. The H&H rolls were like that, only x10 better.

As everyone got comfortable, another round of drinks were ordered by the boys as us late comers played catch up by ordering some food. Coming out of the kitchen first was a  Southern sampler spread, consisting of smoked fish dip, pickled root vegetables and pimento cheese with various crackers. Also ordered was a canister of fried pickles and onion strips with secret sauce. The smoked fish dip was great as were the pickles. We also got a single baby pork belly slider with BBQ kimchi from the bar menu to sample between six of us. The thing was no bigger than a silver dollar, but it managed to round the table twice as each of us attempted to take smaller and smaller bites so as not to be the glutton.

After we slowed on the sampler, our main plates arrived. I must have gone through burger withdrawal, as it had been nearly 2 weeks since #ApocalypseCow. James and I went with their burger, made with ground short rib topped with pimento cheese, smoky bacon, B&B Pickles and mustard. There was something eerily familiar and comforting to me; as if it were a burger I had from many years past.

Highball & Harvest spread 2

Pogo chose a beautiful bowl of red Canaveral shrimp and grits with a thinned out tomato based BBQ gravy. The rest of the boys shared a plate of chicken fried chicken with silky potato purée, sweet pickled green beans and watermelon rind. What a happy accident it was to try the shrimp and grits. For me it was the best plate of food we had at H&H, though we heard rumors that the chicken and waffles was in fact the best, we may never know. I don’t think any one of us expected to love this place as much as we did. I’m very excited to go back for more. Just make sure to validate your parking before you leave the hotel, because it’s pretty steep otherwise.

After some McLaren ogling, we headed to Winter Park, the center of our food crawl battleground. Of course this exercise was obviously first about eating good food. However, the more subtle theme of the day was reconnecting with friends. We took a slower, more relaxed approach and decided to trim off a couple of places we just simply did not have time for, which also gave us an excuse to hit Prato sooner. If you haven’t heard of Prato by now, you either: 1. Don’t like Italian food, or 2. Don’t know us. We’ve covered what I firmly consider the best Italian restaurant in state at length; with not one but two posts as well as the myriad Instagram photo bombs. At this juncture, we were joined by Theresa and Joel, a couple more Bay area peeps who really know their stuff.

Prato apps

Between the eight of us, we nearly ordered the entire menu. Not only did the waiter gift us some of their signature meatballs, but with eight people ordering, real estate on our table was at a premium. We have a rule that forbids the ordering of more than one dish at each place to avoid overfilling. That that rule quickly went out the window as multiple pasta courses were checked off by James and Kurt. If I had to guess, they had nearly half a dozen between them, and they weren’t the only ones. There was pizza covered with cured meats, fresh mozzarella, herbs and an over easy egg for dunking the crust into. Theresa pulled a rabbit out of her hat with her smokey, Italian style Reuben sandwich. Joel, who we found out is indeed a real person (long story), snuck in some soft stracciatella bathing in a pool of warm olive oil with perfectly placed droplets of aged balsamic. Spread that stuff over some crunchy bread and it will make you go crazy enough that your tongue will try to beat your brains out.

Prato spread

I kind of lost track of all the pasta we ate. Whatever they had, we ordered it. If you’re looking for the best pasta area, made in-house and by hand, Prato is the place for you. Just take a look at this rundown.

  1. Giant raviolo filled with soft ricotta and a yolk with parm and brown buttered bread crumbs
  2. Squid ink campanelle with New Smyrna Beach clams, Canaveral shrimp and roasted cherry tomatoes
  3. Cavatelli with beef cheek ragu, butternut squash, greens with a runny horseradish crema
  4. Beet ravioli stuffed with goat cheese then topped with crushed tomatoes, herbs and toasted pine nuts
  5. Chive bagli amatrciana dusted with buttery bread crumbs

Prato pasta

That tied up the first half of our crawl like a nice farfalle. Stay tuned for Part II, featuring the incomparable Kappo and the young gun, Cask & Larder!

Apocalypse Cow: Hamburgeddon: Judgement Day: Part I

Eating nearly a dozen burgers at eleven different Tampa/St. Pete spots to find a champion may sound like a fun, gut busting task…and it is. The thought of us ingesting such a large amount of 80/20 blend was a concern for our loved ones, but we assure you, this piece has not been written posthumously. All four coursemen of the Apocalypse who participated in Hamburgeddon are alive and well. As you read this we’re all eating breakfast burgers with sausage patties and gravy aioli.

Food competitions are not like regular crawls. All we need is a taste. On the other hand, if you leave one solitary milligram of pan seared foie gras on your plate, you’ll be banished and exiled much like Corey Feldman and Christian Jacobs (aka MC Bat Commander of Aquabats fame) were in the 1990 made for Disney Sunday at the Movies on ABC cult classic, “Exile.”

The Four Coursemen 2014

Before we begin, allow us to give an overview of this competition.

We’re demanding folks, but we’re not out to bash anyone Pete Wells style. We respect any locally owned business trying to put out a superior product. Whether you’re out to be progressive with your fare, or just keeping an American classic relevant through perfect execution. However we get a little annoyed when you don’t live up to the high standards we know you’re capable of.

We chose each restaurant based on specific criteria. Either readers of Tasting Tampa and/or Eat a Duck gave it a strong recommendation, or they had won similar contests in the past which warranted a spot. The one requirement was that they had to be local, no chains. Keep in mind we are judging based on the burgers we sampled. Of course, as with any competition, for every Kristi Yamaguchi there are 11 Midori Ito’s. Even second and third place can be a bitter Cuban sandwich to swallow. Let’s not even start with all those “Honorable Mention” people out there. Yes, we know, you’re special too!!

This culling process made for stiff competition, as each spot had something special to offer. However they had to deliver an above average product to reach the top spots. For those who didn’t rank higher, it wasn’t from any glaring shortcoming, it was typically because we found your burger to be lacking slightly in certain areas compared to the top group. It’s important for us to mention this because there isn’t a single restaurant in the bunch we wouldn’t go back to. All of us want to improve the food in our community, so we’re not out simply to find the best, but also to lend some constructive criticism when we found missteps. We hope you take our comments with a grain of salt (something some of your burgers would have benefited from, hint, hint).

12. Council Oak Steakhouse

If you’ve been here before you know this place is good. It was strongly suggested by the spirit of Tasting Tampa old to put these guys on the list. However, for some reason, the good people at Council Oak decided not to sell burgers on Friday and Saturday nights. This fun fact isn’t mentioned anywhere on their website. I guess our $72 for a foie gras, shaved truffle and butter poached lobster tail topped burger will stay firmly in our pockets. We really wanted to try this excessively decadent creation, but it wasn’t meant to be. Unfortunately, without a last-minute replacement, that means an automatic last place. Please change your policy to receive a score.

11. Élevage –  Domonic’s Burger

J: With competition this tight, it’s the little things that can knock you out of contention. Conceptually, this burger is fantastic, a jalapeño bbq sauce was a standout component for me, bringing a tang that most places often overlook. Sadly the patty was woefully underseasoned and slightly overcooked which did nothing to highlight the high quality beef.

K: Bring back the Duck, Duck, Goose Burger. This burger came out more medium then medium rare. Needed way more flavor. Still better than most burgers out there.

L: I feel we all went in with really high expectations because of their association with the Bern’s name. When you’re using Bern’s trimmings for your burger, you’re already ahead of the curve. In all fairness they were closing down their lunch service for the day and probably didn’t expect any more orders to come in. I don’t fault that but I don’t give them a pass for our timing either. We asked for medium-rare and it came out pretty much medium with just a touch of pink in the center. For me, the more important issue was that I can no longer get the incredibly edible duck, duck, goose burger that used to be on the menu. That’s the real crime in all of this.

Élevage Domonic's burger

10. Burger Culture

J: This was a case of wrong place, wrong time. We had agreed to let each place tell us what they thought was their favorite burger, but as soon as we heard it was the Waffle Burger, we should have vetoed. It’s not that it’s a bad burger, it just faltered in a couple of areas. The blueberry compote was slightly out of place and the waffles were a bit too soft for the deluge of beef fat. The patty itself was delicious and perfectly cooked, which leads me to believe that one of their more savory choices would have been a real contender.

K: They sold themselves short by giving us the waffle burger. It’s interesting, but not what we wanted. The burger had great flavor, but the concept was off.

L: I felt bad that we happened to visit Burger Culture when they had employees out sick. It left one person to run the window and the grill. When asked what burger they think is the best, the grill master offered the “Waffle Burger.” So that’s what we ordered. I’ve had other things from B.C and they absolutely blew me away burgerwise, such as the “Mustard Burger.” No one else does what they do with the selection of varieties. We simply got a poor representation of what makes them good. The Waffle Burger didn’t work for this contest, but that doesn’t mean we won’t be seeking them out next time they’re in our neighborhood.

Burger Culture Waffle Burger

9. The Refinery

J: There’s an inherent risk involved with switching your burger up from week to week. Sometimes an idea needs some time to get fully developed, and seven days isn’t always enough. That’s exactly what happened at The Refinery. The idea sounds great, a creamy red bean hummus with tart pickled jalapeños, cotija cheese and sour cream and onion chips. Unfortunately the hummus turned out to be their undoing. I think a touch more oil would have kept it from drying out your mouth and hiding the other flavors. They can’t all be winners, but I applaud the courage it takes to come up with a new dish week in and week out.

K: I love the Refinery’s experimentation and weekly changes to the American classic. Unfortunately, this weeks burger left me wanting something different.

L: This is another burger that did not work conceptually. Our trepidations rang true as the red bean hummus dried out the entire thing. The sour cream chips, pickled jalapeño and cotija were all great condiments, but there really was no sauce to speak of, which didn’t help the lack of moisture. The Refinery changes their menu every single week, and with that the burger accoutrements. They were going for an ode to the torta, which is a fantastic idea if executed properly. We just hit them on a bad week, even though they cooked the burger perfectly. This makes me want to go back for a redo.

The Refinery burger

8. El Cap

J: El Cap is one of those places that’s been around so long they can do no wrong. They’re the best at what they do, taking people back to the burgers of their childhood, and I respect that, but for me, in this competition, you’ve got to do better. When I see Iceberg lettuce on a burger, I immediately temper my expectations. Just because something’s been done a certain way for 100 years doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good. There’s nothing wrong with improving on a classic, maybe use some local beef, aged sharp cheddar and a nice fresh leaf of bibb lettuce. Take off your burger colored glasses people, because if you truly want the best burger in the Bay area, keep looking.

K: The most perfect simple burger. All taste, no flash. Wish we had gotten the double.

L: The burger at El Cap is a slice of St Petersburg’s rich food history. They do them darn well. I feel that they scored lower due to the inclusion of American cheese in the burger they chose to serve us. I find it to be an absolute dish destroyer. I’ve ordered many hamburgers from El Cap with the classic condiments of lettuce, tomato, white onion and mayo in between a squishy bun, and have gone home very happy. I just personally don’t like plasticky food by-product under the bun. That’s all.

El Cap world famous burger

7. Pané Rustica

J: Here’s where we start getting to the good stuff. The wood fired cooking, cured tomatoes and onion foccacia immediately made me think of pizza. It was an unexpected flavor but a welcome one. They kept the trend of perfectly cooked burgers going, however it also fell to the evils of blandness. A shame, because this was a real contender, but #7 is no slouch, this is definitely worth a visit.

K: One of the best looking burgers I’ve ever seen. Char-grilled, wood fired, just a little under seasoned today.

L: This is the third burger in the contest that cannot be faulted by the actual preparation, but only because of the choice in condiments. I don’t think I’m speaking out of turn when I say it was the best cooked burger in the competition. Whatever they are doing to sling those burgers in that white-hot wood fired oven, worked like a charm. The condiments just didn’t add anything to the overall product. First of all, I love avocado on my burger. However, the aioli which was spiked with lots of avocado added richness sure, but it was a fairly bland offering. Just a touch more seasoning and this would have cracked the top 5.

Pané Rustica burger of the moment

6. Engine No. 9

J: Ah the first of our foie spiked burgers. Toppings of brie, foie and caramelized onions sounded odd at first. I was worried the brie would get lost, but they chose a nice ripe version that stood up to the other assertive flavors. The one piece that kept this burger out of the top five was the bun. Logan hit the nail on the head below.

K: This one would have been a killer if the bun hadn’t been so dried out.

L: This is where things get tough because we start having to nitpick the little things. Let me say I find no fault in the flavor of this burger. It had some of the best grilled onions I ever had, a nice funky slice of brie and a sliver of seared foie gras just to give your heart a little wake up call. The only issue and I mean only is that the bun was literally untouched save for it being sliced in half. I think it might have been saved with a schmear of butter and a quick trip to the flat top. It’s a lesson in treating every component with tender loving care. Even the bun.

Engine No. 9 The Chubby Duck

Sugarcane Raw Bar Grill – Miami, FL

Here in South Florida, and really Florida in general, modern urban development has become dependent on the “village”. This concept of a pre-planned town center containing a smattering of shops, restaurants and maybe a theater or concert venue. In theory this sounds like a great idea, until you see identical copies sprout up in every town, the concept starts to grow stagnant, with all the personality of a spaghetti western set.

The problem with these villages is that the spontaneity that the great town centers all share from years and years of growth and change is lost. Every so often though, a restaurant rises above its pre-fab surroundings to deliver a truly interesting and delicious experience. The people behind Sushi Samba opened up Sugarcane Raw Bar, installed a menu that plucks the best dishes from Asia, the Caribbean and Mediterranean Europe, and seem to have broken the mold of lackluster eats that most villages offer.

Sugarcane Logo

Chef Timon Balloo (I’m going to take the high road here and avoid any Disney references), of Chinese and Trinidadian descent, showcases his wealth of experience and deep love for food in Sugarcane’s globetrotting menu. This was immediately clear in my cocktail, the Leche de Tigre, with coconut milk, yuzu, Kappa Pisco, simple syrup and cilantro. A mango purée and prosecco concoction joined the yuzu party with an added splash of Domaine de Canton, a French ginger liquor, fortified with eaux de vie and cognac.

Leche de Tigre & Mango bubbles

The menu at Sugarcane has a lot to absorb, with eight sections of tempting dishes to choose from. I homed in on the Crudo area and sprang for the scallop with apple, black truffle, lime and jalapeño as well as the akaushi beef carpaccio, sprinkled with pickled mushrooms and truffle ponzu. The dishes were a perfect compliment to each other, the scallop dish providing a shock of acidity, while the carpaccio brought things down to earth with grassy flavors in the beef and mushrooms.

Akaushi carpaccio and scallop crudo

My wife chose a winner of her own, a roasted kale and peach salad with fourme d’ambert cheese, walnuts and fennel. I’m not usually one to jump for kale dishes, but Chef Balloo has this dish locked with perfect seasoning and a satisfying crunch that had me inhaling the crispy greens like shrimp chips.

Roasted kale & peach salad

We sampled simple goat cheese croquettes with membrillo marmalade. Fried cheese with fruit spread is a no brainer and these little orbs served as a nice segue to the heavier dishes that followed.

Goat cheese croquettes

I’m talking about this masterpiece, the name of which made it an insta-order for me…duck & waffle, uh yes please. The fluffy waffle gets topped with duck leg confit and is then draped with startlingly bright fried duck egg. A mustard maple sauce added a sweet component to offset the richness of the duck and egg combo. Once pierced, the yolk creates a slurry with the syrup that is quickly absorbed into the waffle below, allowing the flavors to be enjoyed in perfect balance.

Duck & waffle

The bone marrow was another unanimous choice for my wife and I. A hearty veal cheek marmalade crowned each of the substantial leg bones. Another winner, this delivered a tongue coating flavor that satisfied our craving for meat.

Bone marrow with veal cheek marmalade

In between dishes, we happily noshed on a bowl of fried pig ears with BBQ spice. An unexpected favorite of my wife, these were packed up and brought home to continue the snacking session later that evening.

Pig ear with BBQ spice

I can always tell when I’ve found a great place, because my wife will suggest dessert, even after a procession of dishes like this. Of the half-dozen sweets on offer, the lemon pot de creme was the most enticing with its blueberry compote and brûléed peak. 

 Lemon pot de creme with blueberries & pie crust

The menu is so chock full of foodie buzzwords it can be difficult to cull down your choices. A few we had to pass on included pan seared foie gras, crispy pork belly, wagyu sliders with quail egg, five spice & honey spare ribs, rabbit paella and beef tongue carpaccio. Sugarcane thoroughly impressed, more with impeccable execution than trendy ingredients. The Samba group landed a great talent in Chef Balloo, who has elevated my opinion of what can be accomplished in the manufactured “village” setting. 

Sugarcane Raw Bar Grill on Urbanspoon

Sette Luna – Easton, PA

The joy of feasting with family is one of the many mantras we preach here at Eat a Duck. This humble food writer recently had the even greater honor of taking his lovely and spry, octogenarian grandmother out on a dinner date. She goes by many names, but I call her Baba.

An unfortunate truth in life is that many of us don’t get to spend as much time with our grandparents as we may like to. Thankfully, I haven’t had that problem as she lovingly opened her home for me and my wife to stay when I landed my first job in Manhattan. In those months, she brought me to one of her favorite little Italian eateries just one town away in Easton, PA, Sette Luna. It quickly became “our place”, and whenever I visit, I can be fairly certain we’ll end up there on any given night.

Sette Luna Exterior

This visit felt special though. My trip had been unexpected, so when I found out I would be heading to Bethlehem, I got my taste buds ready for some rib-sticking Italian cuisine. We arrived without reservations but were seated promptly. Unlike most restaurants I’ve patronized, no prior menu research was required. While many of the items here are tantalizing, like the wild boar agnolotti with wild mushrooms and pancetta, or the “lovingly braised” osso bucco, I was here for one thing, Bud’s bolognese speciale. Judge me all you want for going with the “safe” choice, this dish is straight up comfort food and I never pass up a favorite.

Bud's Bolognese Special

This is out of order but I don’t care. I love this bowl of pasta, it puts a stupid grin on my face the second I spot it heading for my table. Tender fettuccine, coated in a meat sauce so luxurious it’s almost a gravy. Nothing cute, nothing fancy, just the way I like. The menu doesn’t lie when it states, “ain’t nothin’ like the real thing baby!”. Bud, I’ve never met you in person, but I feel we’ve made a connection through these noodles you’ve graciously shared with me on so many occasions.

Now that I’ve blown the climax of this post wide open, I’ll keep it rolling with a couple heavy hitting appetizers. Baba doesn’t mess around when it comes to dinner time. Sure she’ll order a nice light arugula salad…but it’s going to be covered with fresh slices of prosciutto di parma and roasted figs stuffed with goat cheese!

Goat Cheese Stuffed Figs, Arugula & Proscuitto

We matched that with a trio of veal meatballs relaxing in generous amounts of Sette Luna’s tangy tomato sauce and a cozy jackets of melted mozz. A sprinkle of freshly grated parm finished it off and we dug in. The meat was succulent and savory, with just enough spice to keep your tongue on its toes. The sauce and cheese intermingle with the juicy meat to form a single entity in your mouth. I enjoyed the addition of a couple of lemon peels that added a spring of citrus to the high voltage marinara. There are few things in this world better than a meatball done right, and Sette Luna has got them on lock.

Veal Meatballs

To round out the fantastic meal, Baba went all out on one of their specials of the night, the rabbit lasagna. I had nearly been tempted away from my go to dish when I heard this one get announced. Delicate shreds of rabbit with spinach and melted cheese all coated in a cream sauce and a drizzle of balsamic. Sounds heavy no? It was surprisingly light and easy to down in large bites, a dangerous combination. Rabbit always sounds enticing, but many places overcook it ’til it turns to leather. Not here, your tongue is plenty strong to tackle this bunny, and the distinct flavor still shone through in spite of the cream and cheese. Too bad we may never have the pleasure of tasting this one again, the nightly special giveth and taketh away.

Rabbit Lasagna

Happily, I chalked up another wonderful dinner with just me and my Baba. Sette Luna makes it all possible with its homegrown owners supplying the town of Easton and the surrounding area with fantastic Italian cuisine and the perfect venue to make memories with loved ones. Thanks to Josh, Terry and Bud for all the great meals over the years, I can’t wait for my next visit!

Sette Luna on Urbanspoon

Dogfish Head Brewery – Milton, DE

The first word of our latest guest post is the perfect word to describe the boys at Eat a Duck lately. Not to worry, our good friend Lisa from Bird in Sea has us covered with a great write up of the Dogfish Head Brewery. Enjoy!

Procrastination. “They” say it’s one of the most desirable traits in a human being (They do not). I have truly mastered the art of procrastination. With years of practice and dedication I can skillfully move things to the back burner to the point where they get good, crusty, and burned (figuratively speaking). No amount of mixing or seasoning will remedy that. I’ve made peace with this “less than ideal quality”, but tend to feel bad when it affects others. So, I’m stirring up the junk in the bottom of the pot and cracking down on this post I should have written 3 months ago. Thanks for your patience, Logan and Jimmy, at Eat A Duck. In my defense, it did need some time to simmer (char?). I mean, how do you effectively describe the creative genius behind one of the best breweries in the country? And, in a prompt manner, at that? Impossible.

My crush on Dogfish Head Brewery started several years ago. It was one of those pick you up by your ankles, shake your heart out of your mouth, and pulverize it between your hands moments. (Dramatic enough?) The infatuation started, for me, with Raison D^Etre. A deep, mahogany, Belgian style ale brewed with beet sugar and raisins and heaping helpings of love. (be still my beeting heart…) It’s just strange enough to be complex and holds up well with some serious food (steak, burgers, whatever meat you so desire). I’ve been hooked ever since. I will admit, I don’t know the ins and outs of craft brewing and I probably never will (although I’d love to learn how to brew my own….Bird in Sea Brewery has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?… Oh look! Something shiny!….focus, Lisa…) but I love their creativity and pretty much everything they stand for. Also, any brewery where the creators do their conjuring atop a metallic structure they call the “steampunk treehouse” is more than OK by me…

When the Discovery Channel came out with their series “Brewmasters”, which followed Sam Calagione, founder, creative genius, and heart & soul behind Dogfish Head, my husband and I watched every episode! We were disappointed when it was cancelled but the publicity really helped launch this already stellar company into the atmosphere. At this point, my Dogfish crush has grown to exponential proportions. So, when my family and I made our annual trek to the brewery in Milton, Delaware and the brewpub in Rehoboth Beach ,Delaware, I decided it needed to be documented in all of its creatively crafted glory. What I did not count on was how a couple of “high octane” beers might affect my photography. So, I apologize in advance since these photos are not perfect. But, who likes perfect? Not me. (…said the craziest photo perfectionist ever)

On my visit to the brewpub I was joined by 9 members of my family and the following pairing extravaganza ensued. The chefs and beer experts incorporate their brews and spirits (this place is also a distillery) into a good portion of the dishes on the menu, so it’s a dream to pair. The beer battered pickle spears with 60 minute IPA truffle mustard made the perfect starter. We also ordered the rosemary Parmesan fries, served with the same beer infused mustard and bacon mayo. I started my meal out with an old favorite, Theobrama, which is surprisingly light for a “chocolate” ale. It’s brewed with Aztec cocoa powder and a lot of ancient history. It paired perfect with the toasty, nutty flavor of the fries and the brine of the pickles. And, it’s a great starter with 9.0 ABV. Now we’re going places.

What I (also) love about Dogfish is that they use their fans as guinea pigs and test out some brewpub exclusives with the masses. If the brew is well received at the pub they’ll consider bottling it. So, now I make my official plea to please please please (please) bottle the DNA 2012 (Delaware Native Ale) that we tried. It’s a fermented masterpiece that drinks like wine. (news flash, I like wine!) It’s brewed from locally sourced honey, barley, and blueberries from local orchards. They use the “Delaware Native” strain of yeast in this one, so to answer the age-old question, “Is it local?” Yes. It’s local. This brew paired amazingly with the heartier menu items, like the ribs, which my husband devoured and the Indulgence burger, piled with a beer battered onion ring, cheddar, and house made bacon, which my brother demolished. To quote my brother Matt, “Tonight, we eat like Vikings.”

 DNA

I took a lighter approach and paired a Positive Contact ale with one of my all time favorites, fish tacos.Would you expect anything other than dogfish in those tacos? It’s buttermilk battered and served with an apple slaw, chipotle aioli, and hearty helping of cilantro. The char on the tortilla gives them a rustic, smoky flavor that pairs perfectly with the fuji cider, slow roasted faro, cayenne, and fresh cilantro that makes the Positive Contact positively rock star. With 9.0 ABV it also packs a punch… (and now my photos are fuzzy…)

[Insert “POSITIVE CONTACT” and “FISH TACOS” ]

My mom downed a Palo Santo Maron, which I failed to photograph. This one is in my top 5 favorite Dogfish Head brews. It’s brewed in a handmade wooden vessel, which I did photograph on our subsequent trip to the brewery.

The wood was sought out and shipped in from South America. Palo Santo means “holy tree” …which is probably what you’ll exclaim after consuming this ale with a 12% ABV. My mom is not a goat cheese fan (therefore I’m not sure we’re actually related…)but I would have paired this with my favorite dish at the brewpub, the mushroom mac and cheese. In fact, on our next trip to the brewpub, I did. Made with 60 minute IPA, porcini and wild mushrooms, truffle oil, local goat cheese, and sharp cheddar, it just elicits all of the yummy noises one can muster up in a single sitting. I dream about this mac and cheese. I think this is love.

Mac n' Cheese

If you’re not filled to the gills (pun intended) with handcrafted ale and hand created dishes at this point, then might I suggest finishing the meal with a chicory stout paired with bacon chocolate cheesecake. (How many amazing things can I pack into one sentence? A lot.) We came back later in the week for this treat. This cheesecake is dense and tangy and downright decadent. Crumbled bacon inside and scattered on top adds the perfectly crisp, salty finish. Since this dessert is made with chicory stout, we naturally paired them together and it was a match made in heaven (via Delaware)

Bacon Chocolate Cheesecake

In order to truly appreciate the genius behind Dogfish Head, we had to check out the brewery for the second year in a row, and my how it has grown! It is definitely worth a visit to both the brewpub and the brewery. Their concept is simple, and summed up by their slogan. “Off-centered ales for off-centered people”. Their creativity is unmatched, in my opinion. And, I love how they work towards being sustainable and local as much as possible. The water they use at the brewery gets recycled and they deliver some of it to the local farmers for irrigation. They also recycle the grains used in their brewing process to a local farm in Delaware. The grains are given to the cattle there to eat and frolic around with and they actually buy this beef back to use for burgers (and other delectable deliciousness) in their brewpub. There were a lot of other hippie, tree hugging, Willy Wonka type things that they were doing but, perhaps the free beer given throughout the tour has clouded my memory slightly. (bad blogger…) Our tour guide, Matt, with the fedora and a million dollar smile, could tell you all about it. All I know is that this is a stand-up company with enough creativity to keep things interesting and keep me (and most of the masses at this point) coming back for more. Don’t procrastinate! Pay them a visit if you’re in Delaware!

Did I mention the free beer? Free beer.

Free beer.

Dogfish Head Brewings & Eats on Urbanspoon

The Kitchen Table Bistro – Richmond, VT

Vermont is a wonderful place. Few places showcase the seasons as dramatically as the Green Mountain State. Likewise, few restaurants capture the flavor of those seasons better than The Kitchen Table Bistro in Richmond, VT. This chef-owned eatery takes the trendy ideals of sustainable, local dining and humbly applies them as an overarching philosophy. 

The dining rooms are set within an old farmhouse, which aside from the bar, hasn’t been touched apart from a fresh coat of paint and some new fixtures. Naturally this farmhouse sits within a stones throw of many local farms with whom they partner with to source their seasonal ingredients. I’ve had the opportunity to visit The Kitchen Table (KTB) many times, and I’ve never had the same thing twice. Mind you, this isn’t one of those “change the menu every day” type of places. No, the folks at KTB are patient, with an understanding that you should enjoy the seasons and the many fruits, veggies and meats that come with them, until the time comes to move on.

My most recent visit took place just last month, so the fresh summer items were present in full force. The four of us took our place in one of the side rooms, eager to check out the new menu. It was chock full of fresh root veggies like radishes, beets and celery root, along with squash, garlic, sweet peas and corn. The proteins were even more enticing, fresh chicken liver pate, mussels, cod and rib-eye. These types of places always give me a headache when I have to decide between 15 different items when I want to try them all! Stubbornly, we all channeled some of the KTB patience and chose our meal. The appetizers were as follows:

Switchback Fried Half Pint Squash Blossoms, Purslane with Espelette Aioli

Green Garlic Soup, Goat Cheese and Toasted Almonds

Half Pint Heirloom Tomatoes, Tasty Jade Cukes and Charred Corn with Maplebrook Burratta

Boyden Farm Steak Tartare, Crispy Potatoes, Assorted Pickles and Tiny Half Pint Greens

The squash blossoms were, of course, delicious. Fried flowers have never tasted so good, apart from the ones my parents grow in their garden that is. Squash blossoms were born to be fried and dunked in aioli, crisp and sweet, with a slight grassy tinge, they go so well with the creamy homemade sauce.

This summer I discovered a couple new facets of my favorite bulb, garlic that is. First of all, scapes are amazing. I’m a little annoyed that a garlic lover such as myself hasn’t learned about them until now. I’ll have a post on them soon. Secondly, green garlic, which is really just immature garlic, is incredibly delicious. Stronger than a scallion, but milder than full-grown garlic, it makes for a perfect soup. Just enough kick to pair with the creamy goat cheese and crisp almond slices. I’m not a soup guy usually, but this hit the spot, especially on a warm summer evening.

Burrata. What more needs to be said. Local burrata. Oh yeah, it doesn’t get much better unless you’re making it yourself and eating it immediately. Combine it with some fresh veg picked out of the garden that day and you’re in business. I could almost understand how a vegetarian thinks, until I slid a chunk of that cheese into my mouth. C’mon guys meet me half way here, the things we love go together so well! The KTB should negotiate a eats treaty so we can all enjoy the best that food has to offer…anyway.

The entreés. There are usually one or two mainstays that anchor the menu. The most well-known is the Misty Knoll Chicken Breast. While it is amazing, someone gets it every single time, so we all agreed to widen our horizons. And the choices were…

Braised LaPlatte Farm Short Ribs, Creamy Herb Spaetzle, Grilled  Escarole and Mushrooms

Seared Scallops, Sweet Pea-Celery Root Pureé, Peas and Corn

Roasted New England Cod, Mashed Potatoes, Beet Greens, Fresh Pearl Onions and Braised Bacon

You can’t go wrong with short ribs and the boys in the back didn’t disappoint. The reduced sauce was nicely caramelized on the seared meat which practically fell apart to the touch. The spaetzle added a creamy touch that was a nice change from the familiar polenta or potato components that usually accompany dishes like this.

Both seafood dishes were spot on. The scallops, plump and sweet, were complimented by the farm fresh veg that had a sweetness of their own. What I really enjoyed was how lightly the veg was cooked so that they kept their bright and crisp consistency. The cod however, was tender and flaky just as it should be. It was a strikingly beautiful dish as well, the bright white, pillowy cod was presented atop the smooth potatoes like a gift. This really let the bacon and beet greens standout.

Of course, no respectable meal can end without a small smackeral of something sweet. Apparently I’ve earned the reputation of chocolate fiend, so since everyone else had no objections, we went with the dark chocolate fudge cake with warm chocolate and butterscotch sauces and caramel-butterscotch swirl ice cream. I don’t think a fancy explanation is necessary here, I’ll just let you enjoy the pic.

It was another delicious and memorable family meal courtesy of The Kitchen Table. For me, food is more than just sustenance, it’s about making memories. Whether you’re trying something new, hitting up an old familiar spot, or cooking up something fresh and tasty at home, it’s all about the people you’re with.

So if you live on the east coast and you’re hankering for a true fine dining/locavore feast, forget making the pilgrimage to the French Laundry, we’ve got a real competitor on this side of the Mississippi. Many restaurants claim to be farm-to-table, but few can back it up. At The Kitchen Table,  it’s just the way things are.

Kitchen Table Bistro on Urbanspoon

Moonshine Patio Bar & Grill – Austin, TX

Today we’ve got another guest contribution. My little sister Sara just returned from an all-female food fraught fiesta out West, and she returned with tales of Moonshine, Texas style! We hope you all enjoy, and thanks to Sara for the review, our first one from the Lonestar State!

My girls and I recently went on a trip out West to Denver and Austin. The underlying excitement of the trip definitely stemmed from trying local cuisine, making sure to steer clear of any chains. When we landed in Austin, we met up with our friend who lived down the street from our hotel and immediately hopped on Yelp to find a decent place for a late lunch.  The first place that struck us, because of its incredible ratings, was Moonshine Patio Bar and Grill.

photo: www.moonshinegrill.com

We were escorted out to the covered patio and were informed by our incredibly polite and helpful server, James, that we had arrived just in time for happy hour. Half off drinks and appetizers! That definitely helped expedite the choosing process. For appetizers, we chose the Moonshine “Corn Dog” Shrimp with honey mustard and a blueberry swirl, the Southern Fried Chicken and Waffles with maple butter, warm syrup and chipotle gravy, Roasted Garlic Bulbs with goat cheese, roasted red peppers and toast points and the Baked Brie with cranberry-apple chutney and toast points. While we waited for our appetizers we each ordered a signature patio cocktail.  Since, for me, this was the first time being of age in Texas, I had to try my first Mint Julep.  It was smooth with that delicious bourbon bite, a real Texas Mojito.

 Mint julep & James

Shanna ordered the Ruby Slipper Martini, which consisted of vodka, grapefruit juice, grenadine and champagne. Lindsay ordered the Hard Lemonade with vodka, mint, fresh lemonade and a splash of Paula’s Texas Lemon. Even Diana, who detests even a hint of hard liquor, ended up ordering a Hard Lemonade herself.  It’s a dangerous but delicious drink that’s gone before you know it. James brought out two small buckets of popcorn dusted with some mysterious spice (I assumed it was Old Bay), which was a terribly addicting snack to place in the middle of five women.

 

Our appetizers were each incredible in their own way. The baked brie was melting and delicious and each component, the apple slice, caramelized onion and the melty breaded brie on a toast point, completed the dish. The Southern Fried Chicken was Diana’s choice and she stated that she would eat it by herself if no one wanted to share.  Of course when it made it to our table, none of us could resist digging in. The waffles were light and fluffy and went surprisingly well with the fried chicken tenders. I served myself a cut of waffle spread with the maple butter, then a cut of the chicken, drizzled on some gravy and the warm syrup on top of everything to make the perfect bite of Southern comfort food.  The roasted garlic was a no-brainer. It was drizzled with a thick balsamic vinegar.  This was another appetizer that required some assembly. First, a mashed clove of garlic on the toast point, followed by a shmear of smooth goat cheese, topped by a few bits of the roasted red pepper. The “Corn Dog” Shrimp was the first appetizer we heard about via Yelp so we had to order it.  Battered shrimp on a stick always sounds good to me.  The shrimp was cooked perfectly, just juicy enough, and the blueberry swirl in the honey mustard gave a nice zing to the dish. 

Roasted garlic & corn dog shrimp

In an attempt to be semi-healthy on the trip, I ordered The Bohemian wrap, which is Portobello mushrooms, grilled zucchini, red bell peppers, red onion, arugula, goat cheese and eggplant spread wrapped up in an herb tortilla.  It was the best vegetarian sandwich dish I have ever had. It’s rare when I can find a vegetarian dish that completely satisfies, but this sandwich blew me out of the water. As my side, I ordered the red beans and rice to complete my Southern theme for the afternoon.

The Bohemian & Big Red's bits

Diana ordered Big Red’s BLT, apple-smoked bacon, summer tomato and arugula on grilled farm bread.  Diana noted that the farm bread was incredibly buttery and the peppered tomatoes were perfectly juicy, as a bonus, both were locally sourced. I highly recommend this Moonshine to anyone visiting Austin.  After our meal was over, we contemplated going to Moonshine every day for lunch for the duration of the trip. A relaxed atmosphere, impeccable staff, and incredible food, what more can you ask for?

Moonshine Patio Bar & Grill on Urbanspoon

Despaña – New York City

My ongoing quest to devour all 101 of New York’s best sandwiches has so far brought me to Alidoro, Banh Mi Saigon, Murray’s Cheese Shop, Parm and Red Hook Lobster Pound. Now at #55, it’s Despaña. This place is a Spanish food importer, bringing a variety of cheeses, cured meats, chocolate, soda and more. Founded in 1971 as a chorizo factory, they have since expanded to serve bocadillos (read: sandwiches), tapas, flautas, salads and pintxos or small sampling bites. They even have a wine shop next door.

photo: www.despañanyc.com

I was there for a bocadillo. The list suggested one called the Picante, which consisted of Despana’s own Chorizo Picante, Mahon cow’s milk cheese, Piparras (spicy guindilla peppers from the Basque region), fresh tomato and aioli. Delicious as that may sound, the siren of Serrano Ham was calling my name and I was drawn to the aptly named, Despaña. This gem involved generous amounts of Serrano ham, creamy goat cheese from Murcia and an awesome tomato-garlic spread. Very simple, so as to let the ham do the talking. All of Despaña’s bocadillos are served on artisan Ciabatta which is airy, crusty and can be compacted to the size of any mouth, oh and it’s delicious.

Despaña did not disappoint. The ham was perfect, moist, tender with a great saltiness leveled out by the smooth and creamy goat cheese. The tomato-garlic spread joined the party by adding a complimentary sweetness with a kick at the end from the garlic. I washed this beauty down with a Kas, which I figured to be the Spanish version of San Pelligrino’s Aranciata, or even my personal heroin, Orangina. I have to say it wasn’t a bad substitute.

 

photo (right): www.despañanyc.com

I think it’s safe to assume that any place that displays whole pig legs in the window is going to have something special to offer. I didn’t even get to sample all the different pork products or cheese available, but I plan to. So far, the sandwich list hasn’t lead me astray. I’m only six sandos in, but things are looking good. Until next time!

Despaña – 408 Broome St. New York, NY – 212.219.5050 • www.despananyc.com
 
 

Despana on Urbanspoon