Sunday, March 23, 2014

State Bird Provisions - San Francisco, Ca.

State Bird Provisions on UrbanspoonAs we closed what had been quite an eventful year of cases with well over 120 fine establishments investigated in 2013 (with only a small handful of those opined on thus far here on these pages) I can attest that we have seen both the heights and the depths of the hospitality trade and have done so in locales all across these fine United States.

To be frank, many of our visits involved high levels of anticipation and (for the most part - per Newton's First Law) that anticipation has been met in equal force by the delivery of exemplary service, exquisite taste, welcoming comfort, and festive ambiance…not to mention the ubiquitous yet altogether necessary (and desperately appreciated) containment of costs in the end.
Quickly designed orders laid in wait -
before a street side window no less!

Rare has it been, thus far, where Watson and I have been utterly disappointed by any visit for it is my predilection to always try to see the good in most culinary efforts and to acknowledge the difficulty in assembling the many harmonious pieces needed to conduct a stellar epicurean operation. Not easy machinations these!

I say, show me the tremendous effort required and attention to detail to the last and I will  envision the Herculean struggle rendered and call it out forthwith - and will do so in spades!

When confronted periodically, however, with those merely mundane efforts, which may be quite satisfactory for that perfunctory outing (which we both attempt to avoid whenever possible-life is too short I say), as well as those visits ephemerally described as 'poor', reviews are simply squelched here altogether with a terse 'avoid' and we rightly move on - all the while continuing to maintain our generally good food disposition. 

[Tho let it not be said that we would  shirk our responsibilities in any way if an establishment represented a danger to those in the general populace with their offerings - a loquacious cease and desist would certainly be issued hence although I have only done so once!]
Hand Pulled Garlic Burratta - $8

Now rarest of all is that visit which immediately separates itself from all others, where the singular morsel placement into one's mouth transports that gifted recipient to a higher gastronomic plane of existence, where the ability to triangulate, cross-reference, and compare that experience is simply rendered moot as there IS no comparison to anything else ever auditioned… has simply not been done before and therefore no comparison exists! The flavors, the tastes, the simplicity of the dishes, the nuance, all working together - they quickly ameliorate a transcendental gap so large that it astonishes any participant at once to it's size.

Here make no mistake, State Bird Provisions is such a place.

It was way back in December of 2013, with a singular weeks' worth of travel taking me on grueling cases from Toronto, Rochester, Denver, and then finally San Francisco before a final stop in Sonoma, CA (on an undercover assignment at Infineon Racetrack), I knew that I would need to rely on some well placed and trusted associates for help in order to attempt a successful San Francisco sojourn. 

Calling on an old friend, The Esteemed High Princess Abigail, formerly of the Harbor of Palm, and her most resilient and trusted partner The Honorable Lady Ferris, the gambit at first appeared to be a simple one……... secure a reservation at State Bird Provisions two months in advance and allow us to reminisce with one another in glory and in peace. Given the time allotted, surely we would find our place. Oh, how foolish we were at first!

Initial attempts at securing reservations were for naught as the digital reply from the usual suspects of web reservations services was a terse: 
'There are no reservations available at this time'

which was immediately curious for the blatant fact of the matter was that we hadn't yet entered any dates or times at all! This was  tangentially very reminiscent of the late NY Mayor Ed Koch's street signs erected in NYC in yesteryear: 

'Don't even THINK of parking here!'

So imagine my surprise when day-of-visit reservations to State Bird Provisions were successfully secured by Lady Ferris tho only by physically arriving at the front door at 4 PM, 1 hour prior to opening, to secure one of the coveted and apparently clandestinely available 'open' tables on a first come first served basis. (And even at the 4:00 pm hour a line was already 30 minutes in the making.)

Lobster Salsa Salad $14
State Bird Provisions, SBP herewith, can be found at 1529 Fillmore St., and it seems only fitting then that this single most legendary dining experience of our professional purview would be in such close proximity to the legendary 'Fillmore West Music Hall' located not 50 meters away on the corner of Fillmore and Geary streets (a remnant of the great 'Fillmore West' of legend with such fantastical happenings as 'The Allman Brothers, Live at Fillmore West, as well as hundreds of shows produced by the musical legend Bill Graham whose historical musical effects can still be sorted, sifted, and ultimately purchased directly at

The Fillmore District (or the 'Western Addition' - that area 'West' of downtown San Francisco that was 'Added to' in the 1800's) is an area rife with history and ambiance and possesses an aura in local eutony of 'groovy feelings' - and is a spectacularly fine choice for the domicile of such an outstanding eclectic hashery.

SO it was that on a brisk and rainy Friday night I headed directly to  Fillmore and Geary from SFO where Her Highness, having already arrived, met me at the door and squired me to our table and the awaiting Lady Ferris. The throng of other prospective diners forlornly lining the foyer also caught my attention for they waited, standing with mouths agape, for the unheard of 'no-show' or the sudden availability of even a lone counter seat. 

Smoked Trout Creamed Beets, $7
Unlike some of my previous investigative reports, this one will not spend any time on the confines of the enclave itself - the layout and seating, the lighting, the wall decor, no none of that. For whatever benefits these areas bestow, and they were indeed intriguing, they are surely side shows to the grand festival that awaits you and for which you will need to keep your wits about you….the food experience itself!

With a nod towards my previous acknowledgement, remember that when comparing entire establishments and offerings it is sometimes only natural to take the benefactions of one and compare it's taste and execution to a similar minded serving from another, weighing the benefits and attributes of each and notching a mental vote on where one might stack up against another.

In a fine Italian restaurant for example, a fellow investigator I know from Scotland Yard has been known to compare the dessert of a well made tiramisu and render an entire opinion based on that single selection. Another constable uses Hungarian Goulash as a barometer on all Eastern European quarters….. and in each case what is thus attempted is the firm and verifiable establishment of a comparative baseline, a launching pad from which to offer a verdict.

Tastes that all arrived before our first order was delivered!
Yet it is this very attempt that makes SBP exemplary for it is unpretentiously beyond compare. There are no offerings in all my years that can be placed alongside those proffered here for balance and rendering. These dishes are seemingly concocted from the minds of a gastronomic Salvador Dali, one whose final product might conjure up the same fanciful and fantastic imaginings with equally outlandish and surrealistic taste results.

And as MOST of our adventures begin, yet particularly in this case, the call for adult beverages was immediately in order. My ordinarily robust thirst for mead was however quickly confronted with a mere triumvirate of draught beers! Three! With two of these choices being an Allagash Stout and a Port Brewing Wipeout IPA....both choices not ordinarily found in my bailiwick. So with an additional peripheral glance at the following verbiage on the menu: "All wines and beers are carefully chosen for their balance and versatility to accompany the ever-changing menu..." I threw myself into the final selection: The Linden Street, Urban People's Common Lager. Being more accustomed to the inner working minds and travails of the working man made this choice almost serendipitous.

Her Highness Abigail chose the clean and elegant Abbaye St. Hilaire, Le Prieur Rose which would surely allow for the enjoyment of the soon to ensue lengthy dialogue. Lady Ferris, perhaps maintaining her demure disposition opted for a Tascante Sparkling Wine with it's delightful and diminutive  effervescence.

Cucumber Tapioca with Red Trout Caviar-$??
The fairly small and  (initially!) limited menu is at first distracting with its 'Is this all there is?' wonderment. But no matter... it's pedigree allowed us to grant it the necessary space and we presumed to make do with what we have been given.

With our now properly sated thirst we thus turned our full attention to this folded, half page menu printed on a thick page of kraft-type papier which propounded only three small yet seemingly delectable categories and their brief observances (said observances listed here only for no descriptions are provided in print...)

Pancakes - those small starter dishes, either wrapped in or involving a dough of some kind, which can then be eaten by hand or cut and shared; 

Commandables - more substantial 'small' plates, with some served in both small and somewhat larger offerings, which I naively assumed were 'entrees' (the Common Lager beginning to work the magic of the Urban People no doubt) and then

Desserts - which I mistakenly examined only cursorily but upon closer review presented mixtures and textures described in a way that gave the appearance as to be from another solar system entirely!

With a seemingly thorough (and as it turns out naive) grasp of the menu and believing our orders of a Sourdough Pancake and an order of Pork Spare Ribs would allow for some mental breathing room and some much needed catchup time with my esteemed guests, it soon became apparent that this diminutive matrix of dishes falsely lulled us into a relaxed mental state for it was at this very moment that ALL of our faculties were most required!

Soon arriving table-side (completely unannounced mind you!) began a semi-frequent procession of hip, effusive, and attentive waitpersons introducing the much more difficult variable of special 'non-menu' dishes drummed up by the kitchen and brought dim sum style and sold then and there table side.

Pork Spare Ribs with shichimi togarashi
glazed in their own juices with sautéed kale and green onions - $10
It was in this way that a scrumptious looking Lobster Salsa Salad ($14) pronouncedly found it's way onto our table, followed fairly quickly by a bevy of Raw Oysters with Spicy Kohlrabi Kraut and Sesame ($3 ea), as well as an altogether unrecognizable dish of 'Smoked Trout Creamed Beets' ($7) long before our originally ordered Sourdough and Spare Ribs were anywhere near arriving. 

This, yes, THIS is where the challenge truly begins for with no printed guide to aid in our discovery, and a slowly relaxing memory due to both extensive travel and the welcome and steady intake of alcohol, the three of us were soon enraptured in the swirling tastes and aromas delivered.....and most happily so!

And it was with that first bite, that first delectable taste of the Lobster Salsa Salad, that a sudden bolt of lightning coursed thru the synapses of my culinary mind and upon turning to exclaim such an event to my beautiful guests I was confronted by the same mirror- like site in their eyes as if to say 'Am I truly tasting what I am tasting or am I just dreaming?'

These first few morsels, pulling us into another realm, were then deliciously savored over with a slowness that belied the extraordinary measure of frenzy taking place on the palate.

Charred Octopus w/ Tomato-Chickpea Salsa
and Pork Belly and Grape Salad w/ Mint Sprigs
The next dish to 'suddenly' arrive was taken as a lark, a bet on the come if you will based simply on the results of those first initial Lobster Salsa bites', imagining our conjoined mindset as "If the first dish was THIS astounding, what else do they have here and how quickly can we get it to this table"!

So irregardless that 'Cucumber Tapioca with Red Trout Caviar' was not precisely what one might have envisioned as an otherworldly second taste, there it was placed serenely before us awaiting our judgement.

But with one small yet beguiling tidbit it was as if the burning fuse to a gastronomic rocket had been lit. The visible orbs swirled, the mind melted, the taste buds began to dance and while maintaining one's sense the whole dish was quickly pushed across the table to my guests for corroboration of this heady indulgence...... with the resulting glances all but confirming that something indeed special was taking place - and one we would not soon forget!

Then finally(!) arriving table side (in under 10 minutes mind you) were our original two 'testing' choices. The 'burratta', as it was described upon delivery, was astounding in it's presentation as well as in its taste yet it was not listed on the menu as a 'burratta' but as 'Sourdough with sauerkraut, pecorino, and ricotta cheese with a light lemon drizzle and peppercorn'. So again, it is imperative to keep your faculties clear or definitively risk losing your way in this swirl of flavor!

Another surprise awaiting delivery
to the next unsuspecting guests!
And yet still the menagerie continued! Miss Abigail secured a delightfully diminutive Pork Belly and Grape Salad with Mint Sprigs that demonstrably soared in it's deliciousness,  with it's delivery accompanied by a crucible of Charred Octopus with a Tomato-Chickpea Salsa that, while not appealing to the palates of my delightful guests, was exceedingly well received by this investigator and deemed both scrumptious and worthy of a second helping!

The mirth of the evening was in high swing and our original pangs were pleasantly lessened with each subsequent and ultimately vanishing nibble and yet there was something viscerally amiss, something that had Lady Ferris nearly flummoxed into a twitter. 

What was it I wondered?

 After a careful study of the surroundings along with the nearly frantic twitching of The Lady it became apparent to me that the true desire of this nervous Nellie was the anticipation of the lusciously described desserts on the menu, for which she had apparently been pining for since she arrived at 4 PM!

Truth be told it was Princess Abigail, who no doubt had witnessed such a display before, who had tipped me off to the longing glances of her friend towards the sugary concoctions. Quickly looking to remedy this anxiety, we all agreed to 'share' our dessert choices (the Princess and myself already heady over the primary amalgamation of food sensations) leaving the choices to Lady Ferris - and she did not disappoint.

Soon bestowed to the table (and somewhat demurely ignored by myself and the Princess) Lady Ferris was soon in a swan song over a Bittersweet chocolate ganache tart with brown sugar-oat crust with olive oil and creme fraiche ($8), her glucosian pleasure evident by the joy on her face and slackening tension in her frame.

Perhaps it was the variety of tastes, the dizzying choices with even more bewildering deliveries, or perhaps the effervescence of reconnecting again with old friends after so much time. Whatever the cause, it was enough to keep a photo from being taken of the final dessert of spiced quince granita with ginger tapioca, grapes, and mint ($8), which, while regretful to not have captured such a delicacy was made an almost non-event by the visual explosion awaiting us in the parking garage.

This behemoth of a vehicle caused one to question whether the vertiginous aura felt was indeed factual or an image proceeding from an overwhelmed sense of satisfaction...... either way, there was no questioning the delight of both automotive and gastronomic for this was an event for the ages and one that should we look forward to again for the menu, as misleadingly small as it is, is updated thru the seasons and those items I've just described may already be semi-retired for newer more unbelievable tastings!

GO QUICKLY! This game is surely afoot and should be caught!

Friday, December 27, 2013

Mr. Crystal, We all commiserate…… good friend!

Mention the performer 'William Edward 'Billy' Crystal' and one might be first tempted to smile, recalling a favorite cinema line or humorous quip from your memory, and one might even fully believe that having spent the last 40 odd years watching, listening, and laughing (at and with) this Long Islander, that one might believe that they actually 'know' him.

And on a certain level one might be right in that conviction. It's a common delusion among media mavens (all of the viewing public) that the real personality of any performer can be extracted or distilled from the very attributes and characters he or she chooses to portray, or at least some might believe that you can. The 'relationship' thusly formed with any performer, or more the persona of the performer, may emulate a 'friendship' and lead this populace towards a more convivial one than otherwise exists.

Yet presently at The Imperial Theater in New York (and not too much longer mind you!), one learns for themselves both the truth and the fallacy of this 'reality'.

Having had the opportunity to sit before such a 'friend', and hear him tell you (and 1475 of his other closest friends) the backstories of his life, the quirky machinations of his inner mind, the joys as well as the fears, trepidations, and anxieties of growing up and then at 15 years old dealing with the death of his father (having been together for only '700 Sundays'), was as emotional a roller coaster as one can summon.

This, yes, THIS was the fireside chat that will allow you to not only enter the mind and heart of one of the world's most enjoyable performers but, when you leave this wonderful theatrical experience, you will genuinely feel as though you leave as friends (or, at least leave you with a much better understanding and closeness about YOUR friend!)

Intriguingly, there was never a belief in my investigative mind that a Saturday afternoon spent with this fine comedian ("I was never a comic, no, a comic was the guy wearing the cow head running across the football field at the game. No, a comedian would be the guy who got him to do it in the first place! There IS a difference!") would result in unexpected moments of such poignancy and such heartbreak, moments that drew you into the emotional viscera of his life. And then after lingering for just a moment, the deft performer and ever professional that he is, turns on a dime (subway token) and makes a heartbreaking moment disappear before your very eyes and quickly replaces it with the deep belly laughter and elation that he seems quite capable of summoning up at will.

Very few in life can perform such feats……to travel the emotional gamut from Anxiety to Zany-ness and convince us all every step of the way.

It was truly an honor to have the privilege of spending a short afternoon with Mr. Crystal, and I would harken to say that in the very short time left that this performance has to run (it closes early Jan. 2014), one should do everything within their power to allow themselves such a treat…. it will be a joy one will remember for a very long time.

Yet, knowing this to be an impossibility for so many, our 'friends' at HBO (I still remember when it was called Home Box Office) will be recording the Jan. 4th and 5th performances to air sometime in the fall of 2014……..a recording that (in my humble estimation) will seal one William Edward Crystal as one of this world's all time talents …… and forever our good friend.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Becco Beccare Bastianich Bravisima!

Becco on Urbanspoon The provenance of the name 'Hell's Kitchen', that now gentrified area west of 8th St. in Midtown Manhattan north of 34th St. and south of 57th St., has been bandied about almost as often as our dear Mrs. Hudson frets about her proper Scottswoman's breakfast!

Perhaps one of the most plausible explanations appears to be the dense propensity of butcher's, slaughterhouses, and disparate rookeries that had sprouted up in this tight little area in the mid-1800's. When melded together with the steamy and hardscrabble German-Irish denizens and disparate street vendors cooking and openly exchanging their (ahem) 'services' curbside, along with the visceral (and openly visible) nefarious street gang activity (you might visualize Scorcese's 'Gangs of New York'), this West Side sector rightfully garnered the infamy of being 'Hotter than Hell'!

'Hotter than Hell' indeed for it was this very proclamation, infamously voiced by one rookie green patrolman upon witnessing before him a conversation between two of the area's hooligans (using knives), which caused his more veteran partner to then opine 'It may be hotter than hell, but THIS here? THIS is Hell's Kitchen!"

And thus 'Hell's Kitchen' was baked solidly into New York lore, with 'Kitchen' being the definitive word here.

Moreover, more than 100 years later, NYC Mayor John V. Lindsey, in a public dedication in the very heart of Hell's Kitchen - West 46th St. between 8th and 9th Ave., proclaimed: 

"Where else, except maybe Paris, are there so many great restaurants to choose from …. than here on Restaurant Row!"

There and then Restaurant Row in Hell's Kitchen was born, the name bestowed upon the thoroughfare bursting with the esteemed eateries found on this stretch of W. 46th St. in Hell's Kitchen.

Now, in the winter of 2013, it beckoned us for a preliminary investigation of our own.

And so it was that an excursion was made to visit 'Becco' late on a recent Friday evening, which had us arriving late after a Broadway visit with Mr. William Porter's fabulously 'Kinky Boots', an occasion more heralded than had been anticipated. (And, if one needs to know, the Sex is indeed in the heel……even if you break it!) 

Circumstances and timing being what they were it was decided that rather than rush hastily to arrive and dine prior to this Cyndi Lauper/Harvey Fierstein extravaganza, we would visit these environs afterward, calling ahead and making what would surely be an unnecessary reservation for 10:30 PM…..

It was only dining with Watson during a prior excursion at 'Esca' on W. 43rd St. of this year that we were brought into the nexus of 'Becco' in the first place. On that visit my investigative instincts unearthed that the matriarch of 1/3 of Esca's Pasternak-Batali-Bastiniach triumvirate had opened previously opened 'Becco' in 1993 and has been keeping patrons deliciously sated ever since.

Thereupon, leaving 'Esca', a mental note was made to return to the area and perform a further review of this progenitor establishment.  

Accompanying me on this visit, what with my good friend Dr. Watson laid up with a mysterious and unnamed malady, was my good friend Lady Cassandra of County Orange who so graciously rode the iron rails for nearly 2 hours to join me on this festive night in 'The City that Never Sleeps'. Having not seen Lady Cassandra in more than 30 years it was a gesture of great faith and trust on her part to take a leap of faith and agree to meet with me, to which I will be forever indebted; her company made what could have been a more solemnly singular affair remarkably delightful (as well as delicious!)

Yet truth be told, the arrival and subsequent company of Lady Cassandra immediately diverted my investigative attention much more than I had anticipated for her form and beauty was beyond what I had remembered or imagined it would be. Deciding to add a Maker's Mark Manhattan or two to allow me to get my bearings again and remove the harsh traveling edges of this sleuth seemed to only leave me more smitten and beholden! This case would certainly be much more difficult!

A quick stroll on a warm November eve from the Al Hirschfeld Theater (named for the forever revered Artist of Broadway, Al Hisrchfeld) to W. 46th St. took less than 5 minutes and we were seated fairly quickly in the back dining area past the short yet well appointed bar (removing another Manhattan from its confines along the way.) 

Seated at a fairly tight and crowded table, it must be mentioned that the din of this restaurant with it's reverberating ceiling pummeling sound waves all about us essentially eliminated the ability to hear much more than a jumble of words between us, and certainly none of those from our mumbling and  angst-ridden waitperson. For from his first verse methought his morose verbal tendencies were simply rehearsal lines for a nearby depressive-ridden audition.

In episodes like this one where my faculties are being compromised by senses all about me (both alcohol and female related) I amble along a well worn mental path by choosing an establishments' flagship item and let the laurels rest where they may rather than venture into unchartered territory needlessly. If a restaurant's reputation is to be tested let their success be on that which they profess to excel at or hoist them up by their own petards with it's failing!

It was not difficult to find Becco's specialty for it is positioned at top dead center of their concise yet well balanced menu: "Sinfonia di Paste", the unlimited tableside service of three freshly made choice pasta's by Executive Chef William Gallagher. Pushing both Lady Cassandra and myself  in our decision making was the ever-present and busily wandering servers hoisting hot skillet's of these freshly cooked pasta's dishing out seconds (and thirds) to other hungry patrons. With the primer of Antipasto Misto also included in the $22.95 price it was quickly decided that we would let these morels find their own level.

Arriving quickly, the Antipasto Misto (a sampling of marinated and grilled vegetables along with a side of pickled and marinated seafood choices) and surprised us both with it's substance and it's lightness. This item alone would be a splendid pre-show theater treat of sparkle, taste, and perfect balance… an attuned theatergoer the needed satiation without the accompanying post-meal sleepiness!

Also aiding our delight was a wonderful Garlic Hummus with choices of two types of bread for dipping: a delicious breadstick and a sustaining Italian loaf. (Again, my inability to truly capture these items in photos can only be attributed to the dizziness I was suffering from being in the aura of Miss Lady Cassandra.)

After enjoying the Misto, fresh plates were delivered and the three pasta's arrived in order: A delicious Portabello Mushroom Ravioli (methinks this was what was served for I did not actually hear our James Dean SAY this!), a luscious Rigatoni Pomodoro, and then a Linguine with a delightfully fresh clam sauce.

Each pasta was remarkable in it's own right, delivered perfectly al dente with each of these initial portions and thusly savored for it's taste and aroma. 

However, and I must speak openly, when taken in triplicate these three flavors soon overwhelm one's palate and this did not render one's viscera calmly. The clam sauce, with it's brothy and briny bromide (delicious as it is and served with fresh clams -in the shell no less) did not necessarily meld when taken in any volume with the Pasta Pomodoro and a Portobello Ravioli in a cream sauce.

While a little is wonderful, 'a little more' came off as less so. Picking your favorite of the three and then moving for a second (smaller) helping might be the preferred way to go and yoll surely come up trumps!

None of these minute concerns could dissuade us both of the geniality created in the moment. While I nursed another beverage, Lady Cassandra coddled an iced tea - allegedly to root out the toxins from a past weekend of fun and frivolity….as well as in anticipation of an upcoming one. (Lady Cassandra's thirst for fun was admirable in the most overt ways!)

And not until after 1 AM did we arise from the small comedy club sized table and venture out into the New York air, but not before we were effusively 'Thanked' for coming in on our way out….. a surprisingly sincere vocal gesture appreciated as it was received. 

It was then that I noticed additional patrons still waiting to be seated for their own Bastiniach experience! The authenticity of the meal and the relatively light effect on one's purse in comparison to many other locations citywide was not lost on more people than I had imagined.

So with constitution fortified, mental capacities returning, and still in the presence of the Lady's loveliness, a healthy 15 block walk to the hotel was MORE than what the good Doctor might have ordered and we made our way slowly from our bubble back into the realities of the real world.

My kingdom for the bubble's return!

Advice to be heeded, make the post show reservation and enjoy the experience.
Espied at the Hell's Kitchen Flea Market on Saturday after the show

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Luna Del Sea Steak and Seafood - In a pinch, it was a snap!

Luna Del Sea Steak & Seafood Bistro on Urbanspoon
A phone call from an former global financial croupier had me on a plane to Baltimore recently on a case of international intrigue involving the peculiar nature of the specialty foods industry, a worldwide sales network consortium, and a tale of the world's finest Basmati rice, rumored to be imported from India and thus the impetus for the call.

Sir Archduke Shawla, late of Lebanon yet now residing in the New England area, requested my professional opinion on a case that he had been toiling on for several months (and had it nearly solved himself). 

Yet, for confirmation purposes and perhaps a bit of board- sounding, he had requested my imprimatur before moving forward with his own previously devised strategy.
The Street View

What my learned investigative experience has told me over the years (coupled with quite a few instances of rake-stepping) is that the solution to any case can only be found by religiously following wherever the clues take you…and taking heed OF those clues no matter WHERE they take you!

And this case was no different. 
After confirming for the Archduke that indeed the Basmati Rice from India was far superior to any rice I've experienced to date (having sampled rice during sojourns all over the globe) and that the network in question was fully capable of handling it's United States distribution, we retired for the day and set off in search of a watering source of joint celebration.

Maryland Style Crab Soup
With only a very short amount of time before the return flight back to Baker St., we quickly settled on a fine example of all that the city of Baltimore has to offer - and we did so without moving more than one block from the Baltimore Convention Center: Luna Del Sea Steak and Seafood Bistro, posited directly across the street.

Briny and Fresh Local Oysters, sans Horseradish
On this particularly cool day we elected to sit outside on the side patio, where one is impressively ensconced in a near bubble of peace from the bustling traffic on Pratt St., which is intriguing in it's own right as it was rush hour AND the local ballers, The Orioles , were tearing tickets not one street down for their evening game. 

The Archduke and I were immediately greeted by one of the fine waiters there employed whose visible immediate focus was to slake our obvious parch.  A fine young man indeed!

Johnny Walker Black it was for the Archduke; always Johnny Walker Black (save for my sole introduction to the Archduke of the finest of spirits - Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey, for which he fell harder than a grade schooler with his first crush.) 

And as a test of this waitpersons rectitude, and a bellwether of his skills nonpareil moving forward, I asked that he choose a local brew of his own design for myself. 

The Signature Dish of Luna Del Sea
Throwing the unexpected curve will sometimes unbalance the less capable servitor, resulting in either their visible indifference to the request (evidenced by a noncommittal answer) or deliver the verbal rumblings of the less equipped staff. In this instance neither of those events occurred for he   correctly asked first for a disposition towards heavy or light and if there were any allergies present before rewarding me with a fine choice - the Heavenly Seas Breweries Golden Lager which I had not had before and enjoyed thoroughly if for the simple accomplishment of this fine steward (which I also later learned had garnered awards at The Great American Beer Festival in Denver, the Pantheon of U.S. Festivals.)

With a long day of convention hall walking behind us, and fine ferment now coursing through us, we moved to request the specialties of the house, those dishes that would ensure our satisfaction and leave us with nothing but glad tidings to bestow upon all others within our earshot.

Salmon Oscar with Crab Hollandaise and Broccoli
Soon enough the Archduke was spooning a succulent Maryland Style Crab Soup which was festooned with mushrooms and other vegetables along with Maryland Crab in a delicious broth, something not usually espied on such menu's accustomed to Clam Chowder - Red or White, or a Lobster Bisque. So ubiquitous, making this dish all the more exciting. And with a half-dozen oysters for myself, albeit without a serving of horseradish, we were soon working down our lingering hunger.

However, it was the arrival of the entree's we were looking forward to!

No Question Which was Which
And as quick as a hunted Royal Grouse, a Salmon Oscar with a Crab and Corn Hollandaise Sauce was placed before me while the Signature Dish of Luna Del Sea, the Crab Stuffed Lobster Tail, was set before the Archduke. The aroma was palpable and the deliciousness wafted throughout our olfactory senses so as to render us nearly senseless, such was the delight.

And while the portion on the Salmon Oscar was a bit 'light' for the somewhat hefty price-tag, the promise and the delivery was as foretold. Similarly with the Crab Stuffed Lobster which 'appeared' to have been left under a heating element or broiler for it's ubiquitous scorching a hair longer than necessary, it too delivered upon its promise and did not appear to hinder the Archduke's appetite in the least.

The Baltimore Time Sentinel Watching Over Us

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Salt Lick Barbecue - If you build it, they will come....

The Salt Lick Bar-B-Que on Urbanspoon
 My methods of investigation are well known and my predilection towards gastronomic inquiry abound, so much so that I recently felt compelled to again travel to Austin, Tx. and further seek that source of my original Texas BBQ infatuation. (And such infatuation is in itself a bit of a peculiarity for never have I even modestly enjoyed this cuisine, what with it's greasy, wardrobe damaging and subsequent not-so-subtle havoc-wreaking assault on ones' intestinal system. )

Additionally, with my own disposition of taste and substance for the past several years evolving into the avoidance of red protein sources of the primarily four legged variety, a draw towards this BBQ haven was hereabout both a surreal pull of genetic instinct as well as a mind-altering experience unto itself, not unlike my well documented fondness for other such reality disrupting substances ...... all in the spirit of my research of course!

With several trips into and out of the Austin airport over the years, I have previously opined on these pages about the pleasure of ordering up one of the four sublime (and sometimes with lime) BBQ Taco selections at the Salt Lick BBQ Taco Stand prominently displayed in that very Austin thoroughfare (and I was only capable of this protein ingestion by temporarily moving underneath the meat-eating Dome of Silence of course.)

With taco's so messy, delicious, and with sauces sweet and tangy and with meats smoked and cured to the pique of tastiness, I could not resist a further investigation into the very source of this goodness and found myself pulling into the  parking lot of The Salt Lick BBQ in Round Rock, TX. It should now also be granted and fully understood that this domicile is not the original Salt Lick location, which is in Driftwood and well outside of downtown Austin some 35 miles to the southwest. Regardless, my palate was grateful for the addition of this second location placed so close to my present accommodations in North Austin.

On my traverse out to Round Rock nearly 15 miles from my Jollyville hotel, bemusement captured me as I was directed further east on Hwy 79 into what could be considered 'Amie's Pure Prairie League country', flat...dry....brown....and flat again, which summoned the distant yet distinct voice these Salt Lick owners must have heard ethereally floating in their minds: "If you build it, they will come..........."

My desire was to see what it was that had been built and what it was everyone was coming to see.

The drive was interrupted ever so briefly however as I chanced upon a Historical Marker on the south side of the road and stopped to investigate what could be so historical out here on the flat plains of Texas.

Before me stood HM #435, indicating the former presence of the Kenney Fort, erected in 1839 and used as an outpost of protection from the local native Comanche Indians. It seems 'Kenney' built this fort and used it as a protective way station for the U.S. Army and nearby ranchers, befriending the local Comanche's and living in seeming symbiotic harmony with them - until he was subsequently killed by them some 5 years later in 1844.

Why this would have occurred and what promulgated such a violent end towards Mr. Kenney is nearly anyone's guess now some 170 years later, but this regions' sometimes antagonistic approach towards 'illegal settlers' and 'foreigners', perhaps this belief system is a deeply fervant quality borne straight out of the very Earth in these parts. 

History continues to be a bedeviling teacher to us all.

Continuing onward I espied the Salt Lick location on the north side of the road sharing an entryway with the 'Williams County Old Settlers Association'. This being a Tuesday evening I was able to amble up unfettered and without hesitation, thus taking in the near surroundings at my own inquisitive pace.

The parking lot and the outside of this barbecue estuary immediately drew my keen eye as it appeared that it was prepared to house and stand perhaps hundreds of people outdoors.....with an outside bar and completely separate 'loo house'. Benches and tables by the dozen ringed this outer area and an additional stroll past the entrance door towards the rear of the walk gave me insight into the possible strategy employed by the builders of this outpost for there behind the the Salt Lick, rising up out of acres and acres of fresh Texas asphalt, was Dell Diamond, the home of the Round Rock Express Baseball Club and no doubt source of hundreds of hungry mouths salivating for a satisfying Lick of Salt.

Satisfied that The Salt Lick would not be wanting for foot traffic, I opened up the screened porch door, crossed the threshold and....... my disposition toward BBQ changed forever.

Wide and expansive was the entryway, leading to an empty hostess stand some 30 ft. away and leaving what looked to be a wide and expansive lobby area for (Tuesday's non-existent) waiting patrons. 

Architecturally T-squared behind this hostess stand and running from far left to far right (hard to believe there's anything running far left in the State of Texas but this IS Austin!) was the main dining room replete with large 10-12 person picnic tables, double deep and easily numbering 20, yielding further obvious clues to the simple volume of patronage frequenting these parts.....

To the right of the main lobby area near the entrance, and in plain open sight, was a kitchen somewhere out of an 1850's wagon train film with a large, round rock barbecue grill the size of a small swimming pool occupying one's eyesight and, despite the relatively sparse crowd, on this one large, open pit grill were the highly sought after briskets, ribs, loins, sausages, and chickens in demand throughout these parts.

With eyes drawn towards the cooking meats I noticed movement to my left and noted the 'BBQ Maison' standing before me with an almost Ellstin Limehouse-like quality with large meat cleaver, dangling toothpick, and a demeanor that spoke of both gentleness with a wisp of danger combined.

And it was a simple "Y'all wanna come back and take your pictures?' that told me my visual rapture and inquisitiveness had exceeded my usual cautionary approach and that such an error had not escaped this eagle eyed connoisseur, he with the Texas Panhandle sized meat cleaver.

Before moving to left I watched as "Justified's" Ellstin threw wet pecan shells on the Live Oak wood fire to extinguish the flames and yet keep the heat. The fine mist of such a charcoal inbues a sweetness to the meat and eliminates a charred carbon rich taste and the smoky aroma set me to search for a seat to sample up this magic potion.

Moving to the left of the waiting area I took a seat at the the long bar, taking particular note of the real 30' long 'tree branch' foot rest running underneath the length of the bar and the wide-bottomed leather swivel barstools. These were seats made to accommodate the large and the hungry. Now parched and thirsty I quickly took note of the draught beer selection: Blue Moon, Dos Equiis, 4 Sprocket Porter, Austin Amber, and a healthy plethora of other local choices along with the ubiquitous Bud Light. 

Gaining my bearings the barkeep approached with a quick 'What'll ya' have?' and delivered an Austin Amber almost twice as quickly. Then pointing at me he said 'Menu?" and a brief nod afforded me the Salt Lick Round Rock location listing. To the left of the bar there was a small flat screen airing a little bit of Round Ball but with the sound off. Even without any true crowd, the message was clear: 'You're not here to listen to the telly....."

Opening the menu and with a large intake of deliciously ice cold Austin Amber, I dove into the choices before me.

Across the top it read: FAMILY STYLE MENU: $19.95/person....Heaping portions of Beef, Sausage, and Pork Ribs served with Potato Salad, Cole Slaw, and Beans, Bread, Pickles, and Onions.

Next were the PLATES: Brisket Plate, Pork Rib Plate, Sausage Plate, Turkey Plate, Pulled Pork Plate, Chicken Plate, OR The Combo Plate (any two meats).

And then the proof was further submitted that this was a certifiable feed lot house; the 'Specialty Plates' offerings.

The Beef Rib Plate, Double Beef Rib Plate, TRIPLE Beef Rib Plate, The Rancher Plate (Brisket, Pork Ribs, Turkey and Sausage), Grandpa Thuman's Plate (Brisket, Pork Ribs, and Sausage), Senior Plates of ALL offerings, a Kid's Plate, and then..........came the Meat by the Pound Selections. 

My head was swimming and I began to feel dizzy.

And still it continued.....Vegetable Plates, Half Chicken Plates, and as was the norm (I discovered) that all plates came with bread, pickles, and onions available upon request.

"Hey Boss, ready to order?" by barkeep suddenly asked, albeit in an all pleasant and simply attentive manner. His demeanor said that he was busy with 1000 things but that at 4 minutes and 12 seconds after he handed me the menu his mind alerted him that it was time to check in on my well being. He was operating like a fine watch ....and it was order-taking time.

"I'll have the Chicken Plate my good man......" I replied, whetting my whistle with another good quaff of ale. I was convinced that this Chicken Plate bevy would be plenty for my somewhat gaunt physique as it already included beans, potato salad, and cole slaw.

"Bread, Pickles, and onions too, right?" the Barkeep said, looking at me as if it was simply assumed, of course, this was how you ate BBQ at The Salt Lick. 

I nodded affirmatively. We were going all in on this case. And I believe I belched in anticipation.

Reaching over to take another draw from my brew, I dabbed at my mouth to dry it from the cold glass when suddenly "BAM!", a full plate of BBQ Chicken with baked beans, Golden Mashed potato's with slaw on the side was put onto the bar. It wasn't but two minutes since my order was taken and here was my desired choice placed before me lickety-split! And with a startled look I raised my eyes and "BAM", the full half slice of onions and the smelt-fish cut pickles were also laid before me.

Immediately I noted that there was way too much food for me to hope to finish (and way too little BBQ Sauce for my liking but, then again, there would always be too little BBQ sauce.) And so began my venture into all that was fine and delicious at The Salt Lick.

It was so simple yet so elegant. Chicken, beans, potato salad, and cole slaw......I'd seen it hundreds of times before. And yet, this rose to another level. For one, the BBQ Sauce was unlike anythig I had ever tasted before and with deep concentration and exactitude I ventured forth with another 'My Good Man......' and learned that the sauce was THE SECRET to this lair for it was made with nary a tomato! 

No Tomato's! No Citric Acid to turn, or pulpy flesh to burn and make bitter......THAT'S IT! It was stupendous and so SIMPLE!
And with renewed gusto I waded in elbow deep and started a ravishment that would have had me drawn and quartered anywhere else but here it warranted not a glance.
 Much, much later, the time length of which escaped me for I was lethargically oblivious and overwhelmed with passion, I came out of my BBQ stupor, paid my bill slowly, took a last look at my third Amber Ale, and pushed back slowly from the bar and as I did I felt as I had taken on the aura of a true (albeit temporarily adopted) Texan. 

And with a glance at a large bee-hive jar of pickled jalapeno's keeping company with a shelf of fresh Pecan Pie's, I noted the urging of the management to all who might be enjoying their wares to the fullest: "TO satisfy all of BBQ lovers we appreciate your dining time to be limited to 1-1/2 hours."


Move 'em on, Head 'em up, Head 'em up, Move 'em out, Move 'em on, Head 'em out, Rawhide!

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Shula's Bar and Grill -Tampa Airport for Breakfast - Shula's Perfect Record is in jeopardy!

Shula's Bar on Urbanspoon
With travel being what it is today, this world has most definitely gotten smaller for many (unless of course you are painting it, then all bets are off) and so with my chosen vocation involving travel to dozens of cities and numerous states, as well as a number of countries during my investigations, the joy I feel in having the Tampa Airport as my disembarkation point cannot be overstated.

Surely there are larger airports with facilities that are more stupendous in their presentation, and most assuredly there exists smaller ones where the ease provided by light security lines and the comfort given in traversing the byzantine security measures border on the simplex. 

Yet Tampa International Airport, like pugilists Floyd Mayweather or  Sugar Ray Leonard, is pound for pound perhaps the greatest airport in the United States for it's deft and nuanced manner in shuttling travelers along all but stress free - and with nearly direct accessibility anywhere. 

With it's four major terminals built in a hub and spoke configuration, TIA has garnered several major travel awards for the very ease and simplicity it affords it's travelers in movement from car to plane. An arcane statistic to be sure but a most important one when one's daily existence relies on such ease.

And as the first (or last) impression any traveler has to any given city, TIA has also gone to great lengths to offer wayfarers a distinctly regional personality in it's food and beverage offerings: First Flight in the main terminal, a wine bar offering from Mise en Place in Tampa; Cigar City Brewery on the C Terminal also offering the crisp and cold Beer and Ale selections with a local flair from one of Tampa's finest Breweries. 

Now, Shula's Bar and Grill, found nearby in the northern area of the 'C' Terminal, could also be considered by some as regionally oriented (Miami is closer to Tampa than some other city venues one might suppose) so, by adoption, we thus accept it here in Tampa in this case as our own for purposes of 'Regional Airport Fare'......yet, perhaps we should adopt another.

Lee Roy Selmon's Restaurant perchance (another Outback property....also a Tampa based group) for a more regional flair as this location of Shula's is, as they say in Texas: 'Big Hat/No Cattle', at least from a breakfast perspective. 

Arriving at the airport one recent morning over an hour early in a 'pre-school crossing guard' strategy, I wandered into Shula's for what I hoped to be a relaxing and calm breakfast before a 4 hour flight west.

Approaching the hostess stand (and at 7 am there was an actual hostess standing there awaiting my arrival....curious!)

'Table for one, Sir?' she asked.
'Yes, Madam' I replied.
'And how are you set for time?' she continued......

Indeed! How are you set for time?....a simple enough question yet it immediately spoke volumes towards the attentiveness of the personnel working at this particular hovel. Make no mistake during this analysis, the staff at this location were as personable and as professional as any I've seen. However it was what they were given to work with that I had a particular issue with.

Comfortable seats, cushioned booths, fairly large TV Screens throughout the small restaurant area......quick service......and n ancillary eye towards one of my favorite items of review: The Napkins and Silverware.

Black Napkins and Heavy Duty Silverware with heft and gravitas. No Sysco/Delco pre-wrapped boxed goods here, this already spoke of a wonderful soon to be experience!

And was not to be.

On the breakfast menu were three omelette's - 'Ham and Cheese', 'The Denver', or 'Veggie'. Now HMS Host, which operates this location (and the Chili's, and the  Starbucks, and the Quizno's, and, and....and most every food establishment in most airports nationwide!) is in the business of franchising these names, keeping costs low, nudging profits high, and customers happy.....enough. 
(How many times have you heard once comfortably sidled up to a bar recently after a beer order 'Would you like a shot with that for only $3.00?')

Now let's presume you arrive for lunch or perhaps dinner at Shula's Bar and Grill and you were to order a burger (plenty to choose from there!) your toppings choices would include a well rounded selection: Pickles, Lettuce, Sliced Tomato's, Roasted Tomato's, Bacon, Avocado's, Red Peppers, even cucumbers! Yet with this plethora of vegetables why is it that upon ordering a 'Veggie Omelette' (key clue here: veggie!) does one then get sauteed onions, green peppers and mushrooms - and greasy enough that it strongly suggests (as in tastes!) as if it was left over from the burger toppings the evening prior. Burger makings certainly but neither tomato's, nor avocado.......nor color of any kind....This was simply left over greasy burger toppings inside a greasy egg mix. 

Ah yes, The Egg Mix. 

It is ALSO a well known trait in kitchens everywhere that to stretch costs you add water to your eggs and thereby 'stretch' these food costs over as many a diner as possible. The only downside to this theory (and most weary, bedraggled travelers are not only none the wiser but could care less) is that the resulting omelette is a blander, 'smoother' omelette with less 'egg' property and more of a 'mix' appearance. This stretch TOO can be deftly masked by the enterprising Airport gourmand with sauses, salsa's, sides, toppings, etc.......and in this case it SHOULD be masked. Cheese even....all the things that you might expect in a 'Shula's' namesake restaurant. 
Except none were evident.....nary a one.

So, we have a relaxed and unhurried traveler. Plain, greasy eggs, greasy vegetables inside. No cheese. No salsa. And Hash Browns - YES! The Hash Browns are here to save the day for sure! 

Alas, these spuds too were merely remnants of yesterday's news..... soft fries that may have been dropped in hot oil a second time to warm over. A dry, bland, mouth-filling feeling enveloped my mouth. It was called disappointment. 

Coffee? Oh bean of the gods, save me...........alas again, cold. The coffee .... was cold. It surely was hot at ONE point, yes? Why could I not be here at THAT POINT. I am the only one in this enclave, is it too much to ask that..................

Maxims and measured reason enveloped me.

'A man is only so big as the things that make him mad', and there are very few things that I will ever allow to get my ire, saving such episodes for the truly stupendous. This was most certainly not one of them. 

My waitperson, an older gentleman was oh-so-attentive and delivered upon all my requests in rapid fashion. When I then asked for salsa (please allow me to liven up this meal and hide it's ordinariness), it was brought not only in a ramekin but said ramekin was then set onto a serving dish and delivered with the flair reserved as if royalty had happened upon them. [Well, if that were the case then perhaps they could check the Royal Coffee? Coffee touch up? Heated please??] 

James, my waitperson, was on it quickly.

Remembering that an angry person is never wise, I did temper my internal criticism a bit but the nature of the critical eye is once an errant thread is spotted, the discerning investigator looks for any and all other imperfections....however miniscule they may appear... for connections to a larger trend or as a one-off anomaly.

Don Shula....legendary coach of the undefeated Miami Dolphins. An NFL Team. A Sports Team. And now he has made a name for himself with a restaurant empire (Steakhouses, Bars, Grills, etc...) yet with five (5) larger screen TV's in place.....three were blaring FOX News. Blaring I say. It was already distasteful enough a meal, political leanings aside, no one likes to be blared at this early...or ever......

My erudition provides that this will not happen to me again at Shula's Bar and Grill at the Tampa Airport....for breakfast.