Monday, June 25, 2007

Sal and Mookie’s

JACKSON — In the world of independent pizza joints one has three primary choices outside of the chain-pizza realm: California pizza, Chicago pizza, and New York pizza.

The California pizza movement originated in the early 1980s with Wolfgang Puck who brought the simple art of pizza making into fine-dining restaurants using upscale ingredients and simple, tried and true brick-oven cooking methods.

In Chicago, deep-dish pizza has ruled the roost since the early 1940s— not chain-restaurant style deep-dish pizza, but true, deep-dish pizza, the kind that originated at Chicago’s Pizzeria Uno. It can be up to two-inches thick, big, messy, and almost impossible— even for me— to eat more than a couple of slices.

New York-style pizza is the granddaddy of all American pizzas. It began at Lombardi’s in Little Italy over 100 years ago. New York pizza is not too thin and not too thick. The crust is crisp, but flexible, New Yorkers typically fold their pizza slices in half and eat them as they would a sandwich.

The crisp-crusted California pizza is good for an every-once-in-a-while treat. I might eat a deep-dish pizza slice during my annual trek to Chicago. But for day-in day-out everyday pizza eating, give me New York-style pizza every time, and if I’m eating New York-style pizza outside of New York, I want it to come from Sal and Mookie’s in the resurgent Fondren neighborhood of Jackson, Miss.

I have seen the face of pizza excellence, and its name is Sal and Mookie’s.

The restaurant team of Chef Dan Blumenthal and Jeff Good, owners of Bravo!, and Broad Street Baking Company, have done it again, this time with a pizzeria/ice cream parlor.

Individually, Blumenthal, one of the premiere chefs in the state, and Good, the energetic, ever-engaged, and consummate hospitalitarian, are two of the more self-motivated forces at work in the restaurant trade. Combine their talents and they become one of the most inspired and dynamic restaurateur teams in the South.

The duo’s ubiquitous attention to detail and menu research has been taken to a new level with their new concept— Sal and Mookie’s. Blumenthal and Chef Jon Pixler spent months working on crust and sauce recipes. A weekend pizza binge in New York back in January solidified the research portion of the restaurant’s opening.

The menu is huge and includes sandwiches, salads, and pasta— all of which I am sure are excellent, but when in Rome, eat the pizza.

Sal and Mookie’s boasts 23 original pizzas, all named after specific New York locales and personalities. The practice of naming dishes after famous of people and places can sometimes become too “cutesy.” Typically, I am not a fan of the practice. However, Sal and Mookie’s seems to pull it off. I would enthusiastically recommend the Andy Warhol pizza (ricotta, wild mushroom ragout, Fontina, and Provolone), the Gambino pizza (ricotta, mozzarella, Fontina, Italian sausage, caramelized onions, and sautéed spinach) and the Empire State pizza (Italian plum tomato sauce, mozzarella, basil pesto, caramelized onions, and sun-dried tomatoes) no matter what they were called.

The menu also has a “Design-Your-Own Pizza” section, with several options of sauce (four choices), cheese (11 choices), meats (14 choices), vegetables (26 choices), and seafood (six choices). This is where the customer can tap into his or her culinary creativity to design their own pizza with upscale and atypical ingredients.

The attention to detail and commitment to quality are ever-present at Sal and Mookie’s. While most pizza joints are content to slice a flat of button mushrooms and throw them onto a pizza, Blumenthal has drawn inspiration from his classical culinary training and offered mushroom ragout as a topping option.

In ingredient after ingredient, the menu options go beyond the archetypal pizza-joint selections. The pizza-parlor staples are there, but so are basil pesto/lemon ricotta spread, Grande fior di lattee mozzarella, goat cheese, proscuitto, chorizo, pancetta, smoked salmon and crabmeat.

Sure it would suffice to top a pizza with sliced Bermuda onions, but why not add another flavor dimension to the base ingredient by caramelizing the onions. Sounds simple, yet hardly anyone does it.

Raw spinach on pizza is nothing revolutionary, but sautéing the spinach adds an extra flavor dimension. Time and time again, throughout the Sal and Mookie’s menu, it is choices such as these that make the restaurant stand high above others in the category.

Good pizza starts with good crust, but it also takes a good sauce to compliment the crust. Sal and Mookie’s knows what many of the top pizza joints know, there is no substitute for San Marzano tomatoes. They have lower acidity, the taste is pure and clean, and they have no equal.

It is evident that a lot of thought, time, and recipe development have gone into the pre-opening of Sal and Mookie’s. The service standards upheld at Blumenthal and Good’s previous eateries are once again in full display.

Luckily I live 90 miles outside of Jackson and only visit the city a few times each month. If I lived there, I would most certainly eat at Sal and Mookie’s four to five times a week, and have to spend the remainder of my day in Weight Watcher’s meetings.

Crawfish Pizza

1 Tbl olive oil
1/2 cup green bell peppers, chopped fine
1/2 cup yellow onion, chopped fine
1/2 cup green onion, chopped fine
1 Tbl garlic, minced
2 tsp Creole Seasoning
3/4 pound crawfish tail meat, cooked and in whole pieces
1 1/2 cup Basil Tapenade
1 1/2 cup mozzarella cheese, shredded
1 cup Jalapeño Jack Cheese, shredded
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, freshly grated
6 Homemade Pizza Crusts

In a large skillet, heat olive oil over medium heat. Sauté peppers, onion, and garlic until slightly tender. Add Creole Seasoning and crawfish. Remove from heat and let cool slightly (may be prepared a day in advance).

Spread the basil tapenade evenly on top of each prepared pizza crust. Distribute the crawfish mixture over the tapenade. Combine the cheese together. Top each pizza with the cheese mixture.

Prepare the grill. Cook the pizzas over indirect medium heat, covered, until the topping is hot and the cheeses have melted.

Allow the pizzas to cool slightly before cutting.

6-10 servings

Basil Tapenade

1 cup black olives
1 1/2 ounces anchovies, drained and patted dry
1 tsp Dijon mustard
2 Tbl capers
2 Tbl freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 Tbl brandy
3 Tbl olive oil
1/2 tsp black pepper
1 cup Pesto
1/2 of 10-ounce can Rotel tomatoes, drained

Blend the first olives, anchovies, mustard, capers, lemon juice, and brandy in a food processor until the mixture gets smooth. Slowly add olive oil and garlic and blend. Add pesto and tomatoes, and pulse until ingredients are incorporated into a smooth, spreadable sauce.

Can be stored in refrigerator for up to 1 week.
Yield: 3 cups
I have developed and tested my version of Harbor Docks Smoked Tuna Dip. It is listed in the column below.


Monday, June 18, 2007

The World’s Best Smoked Tuna Dip

WATERCOLOR, Fla.— Twenty years ago, before I opened my first restaurant, I lived in the Florida Panhandle and worked as a waiter. I was single, the money was good, and I had the stress level of a turtle.

In my Florida days I awoke around 10 a.m., traveled across the street to the beach, walked a mile or so along the shore’s edge to June’s Dunes restaurant, ate breakfast, messed around in the sand and water most of the afternoon, showered, went to work, got off work around 10 p.m., showered, enjoyed the nightlife, fell into bed around 2 a.m., woke up at 10 a.m., lather, rinse, repeat…

These days, I wake at 5 a.m., exercise, have breakfast with the kids, work, eat lunch, work, have supper with the kids, spend time with the kids, and fall into the bed. Occasionally, around this time of year, I have been known to fall into bed before the sun has completely set. Even on vacation I wake up early, this is why I currently have the stress level of a gnat.

Even on a bad day I wouldn’t trade my current life for my past life, though it would be nice to toggle the stress level down a few notches.

In those days I worked at Harbor Docks, a restaurant with humble beginnings as a small, oyster bar/beer joint in 1979. By the time I joined the staff, the restaurant had an eight-year track record of success and had grown into one of the busiest restaurants and hottest nightspots in the area.

I ran into Harbor Docks owner, Charles Morgan, at Watercolor today. I hadn’t seen him in two decades. In the years since I left his restaurants we both have opened and closed several concepts, luckily opening more than we have closed. “There aren’t many of us (independent restaurateurs) around anymore,” he said. He is right.

In my hometown, and down here in the Destin area, the restaurant business is becoming increasingly corporate. This is not an anti-chain restaurant rant, I occasionally visit chain restaurants with my children. The problem is that the restaurants located off of the interstate ramp in Mississippi are the same as the ones located immediately off of the interstate in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. They tell you nothing about that community’s character.

It is becoming increasingly difficult for independent restaurants to thrive in today’s corporate culture. Once a charming fishing village filled with locally owned and operated seafood houses— most by ship’s captains or men who claimed to be ships captains— Destin has seen the same influx of chain restaurants as the rest of the country.

Harbor Docks is full of character and local characters. Every time I am in the area, I try to eat at Harbor Docks as many times as my schedule allows. Now opened for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, I return for the food, to see old friends, and to relive those stress-free days, if even for a moment. My wife— who didn’t know me back then— likes to visit Harbor Docks for the smoked tuna dip. She likes my cooking, but she like Harbor Docks smoked tuna dip, more.

The smoked tuna dip at Harbor docks is, by far, the best in the area. Actually, it’s the best I have ever tasted. Over the years I have taken a few stabs at recreating a Harbor Dock’s version, but always come up short. After several failed attempts, and facing a cookbook deadline, I finally worked up a recipe for smoked crab dip, which is excellent, though my wife still prefers Harbor Docks smoked tuna dip.

There are several places in the Panhandle that serve smoked tuna dip. Bud and Alley’s restaurant at Seaside, serves a good version, though theirs relies more on mayonnaise. All of the seafood retailers serve a version of a smoked fish dip, though none come anywhere close to Harbor Docks.

While dining at Harbor Docks, we always eat a serving or two and then purchase several portions to take with us.

There are three reasons why Harbor Docks smoked tuna dip reigns supreme:
1.) Harbor Docks owns their own seafood market. It’s located next door. When the tuna hits the docks, it’s filleted, then smoked, and then immediately made into a dip.
2.) The smoked tuna dip is made fresh, from scratch, every morning.
3.) The recipe, like all good recipes, is simple and uncomplicated with minimal ingredients.

I called Charles to see if he would allow me to publish his recipe for smoked tuna dip. Without hesitation, he rattled off the ingredients. He has no idea how happy he has made my wife. Now I wonder if my former boss could do anything about this gnat-like stress level.

My Version of Harbor Docks Smoked Yellowfin Tuna Dip

1 lb Smoked Yellowfin tuna loin, minced
1 tsp Creole Seasoning
1 tsp Black Pepper
1 cup Hellman's Mayonnaise

Mix together and store refrigerated for up to five days.

Monday, June 11, 2007

The Camellia Grill

On a hot August day in 1989, I took a young, beautiful, and adventurous 22-year old girl to New Orleans for our first, out-of-town date.

We spent time in the French Quarter and then drove down Canal Street to admire the houses and their architecture. We were at the testing phase of the date to see whether tastes and interests were similar and/or compatible.

At the end of St. Charles Avenue at the river bend sat The Camellia Grill, the last of a breed— the classic American diner— an icon of a bygone era in the restaurant business, but one that was still going strong in New Orleans. Uptown locals and tourists sat side by side on one of the 28 stools in the small, sparsely decorated room and watched two cooks, four waiters— in white, pressed, jackets— and a few busboys serve some of the best diner food to be found anywhere.

My date ordered and ate a chili-cheese omelet— Make that a “yes” in the compatible column. I told myself then and there, “I’m gonna marry that girl,” and I did.

It’s not the most romantic beginning in the history of love affairs, but probably appropriate for me nonetheless. My wife and I have returned to The Camellia Grill many times since that hot August day.

The Camellia Grill was another Hurricane Katrina casualty until April 20th of this year. Over the last 18 months we have traveled to New Orleans many times, each time driving by the diner to check the status of the operation. Each time it was closed.

Someone left a pad of Post-it notes and a pen outside the restaurant. The front door, windows, and walls of the exterior were covered with various handwritten come-back-soon notes from those lamenting the loss of the neighborhood dining institution.

Almost 20 years after I took my future wife on that fateful date, I took my daughter to New Orleans to celebrate her 10th birthday. Over the years she has heard The Camellia Grill-chili-cheese omelet story a dozen times. When I asked where she wanted to eat lunch, The Camellia Grill was her first, and only, choice.

I have a feeling that— like the Civil War and World War II— all future events will be evaluated and remembered as “before” or “after” Hurricane Katrina in this part of the country. Given that, not much has changed at The Camellia Grill since the pre-Katrina days. The walls are mostly bare and are still painted an unusual shade of pink. The artwork is still the same except for the addition of a framed collage of recovered Post-it notes in the shape of a camellia. Linen napkins are still in use. The place seems cleaner. They now accept credit cards, and the hours of operation have been paired down, but they still serve the exact menu right down to the chili-cheese omelet.

Like the pre-Katrina days, there was a line of people on the sidewalk waiting to be seated. The wait for a stool lasted about 20 minutes. My daughter ordered a chili-cheese omelet “like momma did,” an order of fries, and a sweet tea. I nixed the sweet tea and told her about The Camellia Grill’s chocolate freeze with ice cream.

Some say that the official drink of New Orleans is the Pat O’Brien’s Hurricane, others the Sazerac. I hereby tender my vote for the chocolate freeze with ice cream at the Camellia Grill. A chocolate freeze is a combination of vanilla ice cream, milk, chocolate syrup, simple syrup, and ice, blended and served ice cold. It’s a chocolate shake on steroids, and it’s delicious, always has been, always will be.

They still grill a mean burger and they still cook pecan pie in a pool of butter right on the flat-top griddle. The service wasn’t quite what it used to be, but it wasn’t bad. One can’t expect to lose service veterans of 20-plus years and expect the same results.

It was a day of firsts: My daughter’s first chili-cheese omelet, her first chocolate freeze with ice cream, and the first day of her 10th year of life.

As we sat in The Camellia Grill celebrating the occasion of my daughter’s first decade on the planet; I couldn’t help but think back to that first date in August. If you would have asked me then to write a script of how I wanted my life to turn out, I would have been ashamed to ask for the embarrassment of riches that is my wife, children, and family life. I had no idea what life had in store for me. I am truly a lucky man. Welcome back, Camellia Grill.

Lemon Pie

6 Tbl Cornstarch
1 1 /2 cups Sugar
Zest and juice from 3 lemons
4 Egg yolks (whites reserved for the meringue)
2 cups Water, boiling
1 Pie crust, pre-baked

Combine the first four ingredients and beat together. Continue to stir and add the boiling water. Place mixture in a non-reactive saucepot and cook over low-medium heat until mixture thickens. Pour into the baked pie shell and set aside.


4 Egg whites
6 Tbl Sugar
1 /2 tsp Cream of tartar

Beat the egg whites with an electric mixer. When they start to increase in volume, add the sugar and cream of tartar. Continue to beat until soft peaks form. Spread over the pie and bake at 350 degrees until golden, about 8-10 minutes. Allow pie to cool completely before serving. Yield: eight

Monday, June 04, 2007


My daughter turned ten-years old last week.

To celebrate her decade on the planet she asked to be taken to New Orleans to eat breakfast, lunch, and shop (not necessarily in that order).

The moment she mentioned breakfast I knew exactly where to take her. Chef John Besh has opened yet another restaurant— Luke. Actually it’s “Luke” with two of those uber dots over the “u” but I don’t know how to make those show up on my computer. So for this column’s sake, it’s just plain Luke.

Besh— the busiest man in the restaurant business— fresh off of his James Beard award winning year as “Best Chef Southeast,” owns and operates restaurant August, one of the South’s most acclaimed restaurants. He also owns and operates the Besh Steak in the Harrah’s Casino in New Orleans, and recently purchased the North Shore stalwart— La Provence— from the late Chef Chris Kerageorgiou. Now Besh has opened Luke at the newly renovated Hilton New Orleans on St. Charles between Canal and Poydras Streets where he is serving breakfast, lunch, dinner, room service, and banquets.

Hilton just finished an $11 million spruce up of the Hotel Monaco. The original building was a Masonic Temple in the mid 1920s and was the second high rise structure in the Central Business District. The space that restaurant Luke occupies, most recently housed one of Chef Susan Spicer’s offspring restaurants— Cobalt.

Besh quietly opened Luke in mid April. It has been on my to-do list for three weeks. I was glad my daughter helped make the choice for me.

Luke is a brasserie and the atmosphere is mostly authentic, though it looks slightly rushed, as if the design team was working quickly to meet a deadline. Daily newspapers are casually draped over brass rails throughout the dining room. The new floor and ceiling add to the authentic “feel” of a well-established restaurant this country’s most European city, but the bar is newly constructed and not nearly as ornate as one would expect in a dining room of the target era to which Luke aspires. Luke’s decorator would have done better purchasing an authentic antique bar at auction (and more comfortable chairs).

Being new, Luke hasn’t earned the worn look of most restaurants of the same caliber in and around the French Quarter. However, what Luke lacks in atmosphere, it more than makes up in food. Based on my visit, and after only one month of business, Luke might be serving the best breakfast in the city.

My entrée consisted of two perfectly poached eggs with shrimp, andouille sausage, and tomato gravy over biscuits. I ordered a rasher of Allan Benton’s bacon to accompany my entrée, and became instantly grateful that I live 90 miles away from a restaurant that serves breakfast of that caliber.

Actually, my gratitude was two-fold in that I felt fortunate to be within driving distance, but also grateful that the distance precludes me from eating breakfast at Luke every day (I might). My waistline and cholesterol level couldn’t take a daily dose of food that good, though I would die trying.

The andouille is made by Jacob’s World Famous Andouille and Sausage on Airline Highway in La Place ( ) and might be the finest example of that sausage variety available. I have eaten Jacob’s andouille on several occasions, but never at breakfast. It tastes great always. It tastes better at breakfast.

My wife ordered an omelet made with Benton’s bacon, spinach, and wild mushrooms and cleaned her plate. My son ordered pancakes with a side of bacon, and halfway through the meal proclaimed, “Daddy, this bacon’s the bomb!” In six-year old speak, that means it’s really good.

The birthday girl ordered the Southern Breakfast with two organic eggs, scrambled, smoked ham, grits, and a biscuit. She cleaned her plate.

When the summer schedules become more manageable, I plan to make a few culinary road trips just to eat breakfast and drive back home. Breakfast at Luke is that good.

Though breakfast is excellent, lunch is Luke’s busiest day part, and one might want to make reservations a few days ahead of time. August was already serving the best dinner in New Orleans. Now Luke is offering the best breakfast. Not an easy feat in one of the nation’s top food cities.

This most recent addition to the Besh restaurant empire is notable to me because breakfast is my favorite meal of the day. Luke will most certainly be around for many years to come.

Next week: The birthday lunch at the newly reopened Camellia Grill.

Grillades and Grits

2 lbs Veal top round cut into two-inch strips
2 tsp Kosher salt
1 Tbl Black pepper, fresh ground
1 /2 cup Bacon grease (or canola oil)
3 /4 cup Flour
3 /4 cup Onion, diced
1 /4 cup Shallot, minced
1 /2 cup Celery, diced
1 tsp Garlic, minced
3 /4 cup Green bell pepper, diced
1 /2 tsp Dried thyme
3 cups Chicken broth, hot
1 cup Tomatoes, peeled, large dice
1 /2 cup Red wine
2 tsp Hot Sauce
1 Bay leaf
1 tsp. Salt

Place one to two tablespoons of the bacon grease in a large heavy skillet and place on high heat. Season meat with one teaspoon of the fresh ground pepper and the kosher salt. Place the meat in hot skillet. Once browned, remove meat from the skillet.

Place the remainder of the bacon grease into skillet. Once melted, lower heat and slowly stir in flour. Cook three to four minutes. Add onion, shallot, celery, peppers, thyme and garlic. Continue to cook roux mixture for four to five minutes. Using a wire whip stir in the hot chicken broth, red wine, bay leaf and tomatoes and bring to a simmer.

Add veal back to the mixture and cook over a very low heat for two to three hours, stirring occasionally. When meat is tender stir in hot sauce, the remaining black pepper and salt.

Prepare garlic cheese grits during the last 30 minutes of cooking. Spoon grits onto a serving dish and top with grillades. Yield: eight servings