Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Robert’s Top Ten 2006

As is the tradition in this column, each year I compile a list of the top ten dining experiences I enjoyed over the past year. The list is never based on price or atmosphere. I believe that good food can be served in a fine-dining environment or in a run-down diner. The only considerations are good food and good friends, which always lead to a good time.

This year I have listed only meals eaten away from home. As loyal readers know, I would choose eating my wife’s spaghetti with my children at my dining room table— or any meal eaten as a family— over a dinner at any of the world’s finest restaurants.

10. Breakfast at John Besh’s Home, Slidell, LA— While filming the pilot to a television show I am developing, Besh— in a true act of culinary improvisation— prepared a crawfish etouffee using heirloom tomatoes served over stone-ground grits and topped with a fried egg. It was accompanied by Allan Benton’s bacon, Besh-made andouille sausage, biscuits, and fig preserves from. Beautiful.

9. Ina’s, Chicago— Breakfast at two in the afternoon with my friend Art Smith. We arrived as the restaurant was closing (a no-no in the restaurant business). Nevertheless, Ina insisted we stay, sent the chefs back into the kitchen, and served us a dozen of her best breakfast offerings, the most memorable being whole wheat oatmeal pancakes. Afterwards Art, Oprah’s personal chef, threw in a behind-the-scenes tour of Harpo Studios just down the street.

8. Nobu, New York— Sushi perfection.

7. Asiate, Mandarin Oriental Hotel, New York— Lunch with my publisher, editor, and agent at a restaurant of my publisher’s choosing. The highlight being a non-sushi filled Bento Box.

6. Tie: Bouchon, Las Vegas; Aureole, Las Vegas— Vegas is quickly becoming a major food destination.

5. Gary Danko, San Francisco— I am still amazed by a fine-dining restaurant that will allow customers to select their own tasting menu from an offering of eight appetizers, caviar service, nine fish and seafood choices, seven meat and game-bird selections, a cheese course, and nine dessert options with one prepared tableside.

4. Geronimo, Santa Fe— The multi-course lunch began with sautéed morel mushrooms served with an English sweet-pea potato cake finished with first press New Zealand olive oil. A second course of macaroni and cheese, was the highlight of the meal, it consisted of Eliche semolina pasta, aged Asiago, Sage Derby, and Fontal cheeses, a julienne of smoked country ham, white truffle essence, English peas, and fresh herbs. A mesquite-grilled flat-iron steak with New Mexico roasted chilies, pommes frites, and veal sauce was the main course, and a banana tart ended the meal.

3. August, New Orleans— Just my wife and me. Nine courses, all dictated by John Besh. The top three being: 1.) I will forever call this dish “Death by Foie Gras.” On one plate I received four unique and inventive treatments— seared, grilled, smoked, and wrapped in the thinnest of five-layered pastries. 2.) Gnocchi with lump crabmeat and black truffle. 3.) Agnolotti filled with a crawfish reduction and tossed with fresh peas, sweetbreads, morels, and a small dice of smoked bacon. The pasta was tossed in a delicate cream-infused fish fumet.

2. Per Se, New York, NY— Eleven courses featuring jet-fresh foods flown in from all over the world. The most memorable offering being a pan-roasted sirloin of Australian Wagyu beef that was served alongside a Wagyu brisket that had been braised for 48 hours, a roasted potato gratin that was 16 layers thick but less than one-inch tall, a forest mushroom duxelles, crisp haricots verts and sauce bordelaise.

1. The French Laundry, Yountville, CA— A humbling, 32-course culinary bacchanalia at the hands of Thomas Keller. It is the only meal I have ever eaten that needed a halftime break. We started with salmon crème fraiche in a tuille cone, moved to oysters from Greece, poached in butter and served over a savory sabayon of pearl tapioca with Russian Sevruga caviar and it only went up from there. In conclusion, 32 courses, five hours and 15 minutes from start to finish, brilliant food, excellent service, good friends, and the country’s greatest culinary institution made for a most memorable evening.

Snookie’s Chicken Salad

Next to my grandmother’s chicken salad, Snookie Foote’s recipe is the best. Snookie was my surrogate grandmother, so I guess that’s fitting.

2 pounds chicken breasts2 tsp poultry seasoning 1 onion, quartered 2 celery stalks 1 cup chopped celery
1 bay leaf
1 1 /2 quarts water
4 eggs, hard-boiled, chopped 2 teaspoons Creole seasoning
1 tsp Lawry’s Seasoning Salt3 /4 cup mayonnaise
2 Tbl creole mustard
1 can water chestnuts, roughly chopped
1 /2 cup pecans, toasted
1 /2 cup minced celery
1 /4 cup red onion, minced1 Tbl lemon juice, freshly squeezed 1 /4 teaspoon black pepper, freshly ground 2 to 3 tablespoons chicken stock

Place the chicken poultry seasoning, onion, celery, bay leaf and water in a large stock pot and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer until the chicken is cooked through. Remove chicken from pot, reserve broth and cool.

Dice the cooked chicken and place in a large bowl to cool.

Add the remaining ingredients and mix well.
Yield: 1 1 /2 quarts

Monday, December 18, 2006

Ravioli and Sweet Tea in NYC

I bit the bullet. Actually, I bit the Big Apple and took the kids to New York.

Over the last 18 years, my visits to the island of Manhattan have focused on one thing: eating. Each year my schedule is dictated by restaurants, business meetings and theatre, in that order. Every detail of every minute of every visit is planned, plotted, mapped out, and determined by restaurant reservations.

I spend hours devising my restaurant strategy so as to squeeze in every possible dining experience available. I eat for a living. I love food and I love restaurants, they’re my hobby, so when one is in the top restaurant city in the world he must make every meal and every moment count.

This visit my wife and I had three extra passengers on board: my daughter, son, and mother-in law (actually, the boy should be counted as two people). Priorities change, restaurants change, and theatre schedules change. Change is good, right?

I have now seen New York restaurants through the eyes of a nine and five year old (make that two— very active and energetic— five year olds rolled into one).

Theatre, not restaurants, was the main focus of this visit. Our hotel was in Times Square; therefore all of the restaurants surrounding Times Square were fair game.

Twice we ate fairly good Chinese food at a restaurant named Ollie’s on 44th and Broadway where my daughter— a devout sweet tea drinker— had her first experience with hot tea. On the second visit, a late night meal after a show, there was no iced tea available and the waiter poured hot tea over ice and watched intensely as my daughter tried to choke the watery liquid down with the addition of several sugar packets. A spicy orange flavored chicken dish was the highlight of that meal. It was a dish that could hold its own in any joint in Chinatown.

My daughter never gave up on her quest for sweetened tea in Manhattan. At every meal at every restaurant, deli, and café, she asked the server for “sweet tea” only to have the request denied each time.

More than anything else this visit will be known as the trip my son learned about ravioli and gnocchi. In Carmine’s, a bustling, tourist-laden, family-style Italian restaurant (also on 44th), my son ate a platter of ravioli large enough to feed a family of four. He talked about it for the rest of the trip. Whether we were in a deli, bakery, or toy store, he asked whoever would listen, “Do you have ravioli here?”

In Danny Meyer’s Union Square Café, he fell in love with gnocchi. Union Square was the one “nice” restaurant we braved with the kids. I had two business meetings away from the family that mostly satisfied my craving for fine dining: Meyer’s Eleven Madison Park; and Asiate on the 35th floor of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel where I ate from the most creative and stunning bento box I have ever seen.

Every time I visit the city I like to sneak away one morning and walk the streets. I’ll usually have breakfast at a locals-only joint and “take in” the city. I feel like a New Yorker for a brief moment, and then it’s out of my system until the next visit. This trip I took the subway to SoHo where I ate breakfast at Balthazar. I have spent several late-night dinners at that French bistro on Spring Street. Some of the city’s top chefs dine there after their restaurants have closed. However, I had never eaten breakfast there.

I enjoyed a breakfast of brioche French toast, apple wood smoked bacon, freshly baked croissants, and scrambled eggs with mushrooms and asparagus in puff pastry. The latter being the culinary highlight of the trip.

Was it fun? Was this trip worse than others due to the limitations? In the end, I learned a lesson that should have known from the outset. I would much rather eat in New York tourist joints with my children than alone in any of that city’s finest restaurants.

Late at night, driving home from the airport after a grueling day of travel, the car was quiet. Separately, we were all reflecting on the previous six days. As we passed a highway sign that stated the remaining mileage to Hattiesburg, my hometown, an excited voice broke the silence. It was my daughter. “Sweet tea, hallelujah, thank you, Lord!”

Breakfast Casserole with Spinach and Bacon

1 lb Bacon, thick-sliced, diced
2 cups Onion, diced
1 cup Red bell pepper, diced
1 Tbl Garlic, minced
5 ounces Spinach, frozen, thawed and dried well
10 Eggs
1 cup Half and half
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp Dry mustard
1 tsp Salt
1 tsp Creole Seasoning
1 tsp Black pepper
6 slices White bread, crusts removed
6 slices Wheat bread, crusts removed
1 /2 cup Butter, softened
2 cups Swiss cheese, shredded

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

In a large skillet, cook bacon until it begins to brown, drain excess fat. Add onion and continue to cook until onion begins to brown. Add red pepper, spinach and garlic and cook two more minutes. Set aside.

In a mixing bowl, combine, eggs, half and half and seasoning. Spread the softened butter on both sides of each slice of bread. Cut the buttered bread into small cubes. Combine all ingredients and mix well.

Place in a buttered two-quart baking dish. Bake for 40-50 minutes. Remove from oven and let rest 15 minutes before serving. Yield: eight servings
Of Fires, Dogs, and Fruitcakes

Every year we close the restaurant early one Sunday before Christmas and host a large party for all 150 of our employees. Each employee brings a guest and we open the bar, hire a band, and prepare a feast from the kitchen. I host a dinner for all of the managers in the immediate hours before the party. This is where we get a chance to visit with each other outside of the restaurant, share a meal together, and I give them their Christmas bonus checks.

For years I served the managers at my home. When we outgrew my house we began visiting various independent restaurants. When we made that move, we also included the manager’s significant other. Last year we ate at my favorite barbeque place. This year we planned to eat at one of my favorite steakhouses.

We reserved the entire restaurant. The 30 of us were gathered around a large table ready to eat our salads when the room filled with smoke. As we evacuated into the parking lot we saw flames shooting out of the exhaust fan on top of the roof.

The entire management team immediately shifted from festive and jolly into professional crisis prevention mode. Luckily the steakhouse’s grill man was thinking quickly on his feet and grabbed a water hose, scaled an exterior building, and doused the fire on his own.

The restaurant had filled with smoke, the hood system was broken, and the dinner was called off. I passed out bonus checks in the gravel parking lot and we all headed to the company Christmas party with empty stomachs and grateful hearts. Grateful that the steakhouse— after enduring a restaurateur’s worst nightmare— was still standing, grateful that we have a management team that works so well together, and grateful for Christmas bonuses.

In the end I learned it doesn’t matter if I pass out bonus checks in my home, in another restaurant, or in a gravel parking lot. In high school I worked for a company that passed out fruitcakes to their employees for Christmas. I can’t think of a less grateful statement or more clichéd gesture than to hand out a fruitcake to your employees. It’s a big collective holiday up yours.

Never— I repeat never— visit Santa on pet night.

The local mall in my hometown has a great Santa this year (well, actually it’s one of Santa’s helpers) who works hard day and night posing for pictures with children. My wife and I decided to take the children so they could sit in his lap, tell him what they want this year (we needed to listen to that part), and have a photograph made. Unfortunately we went on pet night.

Pet night is the weekly occasion when anyone who so desires can bring one or all of their pets into the mall to have Santa pose with Fluffy, Fido, or Spot. Folks, it’s a little piece of holiday hell on earth. Some in line were normal family people with children and pets, others were typical pet owners, but some were those freaky pet people. You know the type. They speak baby talk to their animals, assign them human characteristics and personality traits, and probably have 300 cats climbing on their furniture at home.

The line for Santa was long. Dogs and cats were everywhere. My son, who at times can be classified as having animal behavior, was restless. There was barking, and howling, and meowing, and all manner of mayhem. One family with two large dogs spent 15 minutes getting the animals to pose correctly. An Airedale left a steaming pile of presents for Santa’s elves, and a Tabby cat got stuck in Santa’s beard and almost clawed the big man’s eyes out. All this in the first few minutes.

On second thought, it was actually an event I might like to attend— for observations sake— without my two impatient kids in tow.

In the end we have learned that a healthy hood system is vital to a restaurant’s success, receiving bonus checks in a gravel parking lot is better than not receiving checks at all, and fruitcakes suck, period.See you next week on pet night; I’ll bring the popcorn.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

A few weeks ago I wrote a column about dining in joints. In the column I asked readers to e-mail their favorite joint. Before I publish the reader’s submissions and comments, I would like to revisit the definition of a joint.

At first glance, a joint might not look like a restaurant one wouldn’t even want to step into, much less dine in. The atmosphere has accidentally evolved over the years. Nothing is contrived. The food is above average and mostly consistent. The wait staff is efficient enough to take care of your needs. A joint is clean in all of the places the count and is usually run by a family, or co-workers who have worked together so long that they consider themselves family. A joint is usually located in what a realtor would consider a B or C location, but it wouldn’t have the charm if it were located anywhere else.

There is nothing corporate about a joint. It is full of character and is usually operated by characters. Most specialize in one particular food item. It is usually that particular food that has put them on the map. It might be one individual dish or it could be a broad category of food such as steak or barbeque. A joint might even specialize in a particular meal period such as breakfast or late-night dining. The one universal characteristic of a joint is that it is casual. A joint wears its casualness as a badge of honor.

There are joints with good food, bad food, and excellent food. They key is to find the ones with excellent food and put them into your dining rotation.

Note: The following list is listed in no particular order and is comprised of reader’s submissions along with selected comments from their submissions. The author has not visited any of these establishments (but looks forward to checking them out in the near future) and can make no claims as to their authenticity or excellence.

Jacques’ Café, Vicksburg— “I have eaten there wearing everything from ripped jeans to a formal dress.” Hopefully this was sent in by a woman.

Ol’ Hickory, Columbus— “Cindy is always my waitress. Everyone is ‘baby’ or ‘honey’ to her.” A true joint waitress.

Doe’s Eat Place, Greenville— “Doe's has the best steak, cut and grilled right in front of you when you order and hot tamales that are out of this world!”

Edd’s Drive Inn, Pascagoula— “Not exactly organic, tasty burgers and dogs, same location for 50 years.” I received multiple submissions on this one.

Tate’s, Clinton, MS— Try the “Shamburger, a smoked hamburger served only when there's some smokin' goin' on.”

Davey's Restaurant, Montrose, MS— “Miss Earline serves everything: steak, ribs, fried chicken and pork chops, spaghetti, peas, green beans, okra, cabbage, collard greens, turnips, rutabagas, rice and gravy, and potato salad...as well as numerous desserts.”

Stonewall’s BBQ, Picayune— “…the most tender and juicy baby-back ribs… but it is only open two days a week.” Again, multiple submissions.

The Mexican Kitchen, Columbus— “Robert, be sure to get a couple of the homemade coconut candies on the way out the door. They take care of the after effects of the hot sauce very nicely.” I’ll try to remember that.

Shady's New World Cuisine, Biloxi— “Where else can you go at midnight and get Thai curry, gumbo, charbroiled steaks, fried pork chops with grits and gravy, Pad Thai noodles, homemade pasta Bolognese, Creole crawfish pasta? On Thursdays its $1 Margaritas for Ladies and free Belly Dance Lessons.” They haven’t seen my belly.

Beatty Street Grocery, Jackson— “Every governor since Ross Barnett has eaten at Beatty Street. Governor William Winter is still an occasional client.”

The Shed, Vancleve— “I have never had a bad rib there.”

Home Town, Inverness— “Frog legs, steaks, seafood, veal cutlets, fun.”

Port au Prince, Monroe, LA— “The best bean soup ever, hushpuppies, and a great ribeye steak.”

Lonnie and Pat's Cafe, Meridian— “They are famous for their cheeseburgers.”

Red Door Barbecue, Meehan, MS— “(owner) Ms. Jean McWashington does not advertise and does not need to.”

Far Away Places in Marion, MS— “The building is actually a double-wide trailer with a porch that runs the length of it. They feature live entertainment (everything from a guy with an acoustic guitar to the Queen City Gypsies belly dancers, of which I'm one). If they're not too busy Tim (the lady who owns the joint) will come out of the kitchen to visit with her guests, discussing everything from shopping to quantum physics.” Belly dancing, I see a future trend developing.

Liuzza’s,New Orleans— “The BBQ Shrimp Po-Boy is to die for.” But I want to live.

Elizabeth’s in the Bywater, New Orleans— “The breakfast po-boy is awesome.”

The Tune Inn, Washington, D.C. — “It is honestly the only place that I can remember routinely eating an omelet with a beer.” Enough said.

Garlic Cheese Spread

Garlic is listed first for a reason. Store in the refrigerator, serve at room temperature.

1 /2 pound sharp cheddar cheese, grated
1 /2 pound cream cheese, softened
1 /4 tsp salt
1 1 /2 tsp finely minced garlic
1 1 /2 tsp hot sauce
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
2 tsp mayonnaise
1 /4 tsp dry mustard
1 1 /2 tsp paprika

In a food processor or mixing bowl with a paddle attachment, blend all ingredients together.

Wrap and refrigerate for 3-4 hours before serving.