Monday, December 29, 2008

Robert’s Top Ten 2008

Each year, my final column is a list of the top ten dining experiences I enjoyed over the previous twelve months. 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.

10.) Drago’s, New Orleans— Drago’s invented the charbroiled oyster and they do it better than anyone. The oysters are placed on the grill, doused with pepper and garlic-spiked butter, then topped with a mixture of parmesan and romano cheese, and doused with the butter again. The flames rise up and surround the oysters every time the butter is applied. The shells get charred and the oysters, smoky. Simple. Flavorful. Excellent.

9.) Table Fifty-Two, Chicago. Art Smith opened his signature restaurant in Chicago earlier this year. He serves updated Southern classics in the Windy City. The highlight of the meal came as a chef’s treat, amuse bouche— Art’s Drop Biscuits with Goat Cheese and Parmesan. Of all the meals I have eaten, in all of the cities, and all of the fine dining restaurants over the years, this meal will go down as the first time I have ever requested seconds on an amuse bouche.

8.) The Modern, New York— Danny Meyer is the most talented restaurateur in the country. The Modern is located on the first floor of the Museum of Modern Art and the food’s presentation is as artful as the works hanging in the galleries above. The Chilled Maine Lobster Salad with Soy Sprouts and Button Mushrooms in a Lobster Vinaigrette was a highlight, as was the Chorizo-Crusted Chatham Cod with White Coco Bean Puree and Harissa Oil. Long live Mr. Meyer.

7.) Frontera Grill, Chicago— For those who love Mexican food, Frontera Grill is the American Mecca. Bayless knows more about Mexican food, Mexican ingredients, and Mexican culinary customs than 99% of the chefs in Mexico. He is truly a student of the cuisine. I ate the best guacamole I’ve ever eaten and a ceviche that was out-of-this world.

6.) Balthazar, New York— I usually eat at Balthazar in SoHo for late-night, post-theatre meals. A lot of the city’s chefs hang out there after work. Breakfast at Balthazar is great. The bustle feels more like “New York” than any other place I visit. The Scrambled Eggs in Puff Pastry with Wild Mushrooms and Asparagus are almost worth the three-hour flight, alone.

5.) Blackberry Farm, Walland, TN— Every meal eaten over a four-day visit. Blackberry Farm is the most civilized 4,200 acres on the planet. The Beall family has fostered an environment in which the organization’s sole purpose is to cater to guest’s every whim. Nothing goes unnoticed at Blackberry Farm. My wife and I dropped our kids off at summer camp in Arkansas and headed east to Blackberry Farm— summer camp for adults.

4.) Nobu 57 New York— Nobu Matsuhisa is the ninja master of sushi. The original New York restaurant, Nobu, is a tough ticket, but Nobu 57 is an easily made reservation, and the food is just as good. The Yellowtail Sashimi with Jalapeño is a signature dish and not to be missed. The miso-glazed fish craze started here. The surprise hit of the dinner— though slightly out of place on a Japanese menu— were the crab and ceviche miniature tacos.

3.) Bouchon, Las Vegas— I have eaten at Thomas Keller’s homage to the French bistro several times. This trip I was in town for one reason only— to take my two children to see Cirque du Soleil’s Beatles Love. The dinner was great. The show was great. The company was beyond great.

2.) Restaurant August, New Orleans— I hosted a dinner for 14 of my friends in Chef John Besh’s former office, upstairs at August. The highlight of the meal for me was the fellowship, but the Slow-Roasted Kobe Beef Short Rib with Salsify, Potato Gnocchi, and Black Truffle came in a very close second.

1.) Gwyn’s High Alpine Lodge, Snowmass, CO— My six-year old son and I took a father-son ski trip together. It was the first time the two guys had taken a trip without the two girls. After a few days of lessons he and I spent all day— just the two of us— skiing down the mountain. We stopped for lunch and I had a bowl of vegetable soup. It was the best soup meal I have ever eaten. Actually, the soup itself was average; the company and the setting were wonderful. That day was filled with several of my all-time greatest memories.

Art Smith's Drop Biscuits with Goat Cheese and Parmesan Recipe

2 cups self-rising flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons cold butter
4 tablespoons goat cheese
1 cup buttermilk, plus extra butter, to grease pan and top biscuits
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese

1. Preheat oven to 425°F Place one 10-inch cast-iron pan into the oven while it is preheating. Place flour, salt, baking soda and baking powder into a medium-sized bowl. Cut in the butter and goat cheese. Make a well in the middle of the ingredients and pour in the buttermilk. Stir until the mixture is moistened, adding an extra tablespoon of buttermilk if needed.

2. Remove the hot skillet from the oven and place a tablespoon of butter into it. When the butter has melted, drop 1/4 cupfuls of batter into the pan, (use a muffin scoop to drop the batter if you have one). Brush the tops of the biscuits with melted butter. Bake from 14–16 minutes until browned on the top and bottom. Remove from the oven and sprinkle with the grated cheese. Enjoy warm!

Monday, December 22, 2008


I am not a fan of eggnog.

I quit drinking alcohol over two decades ago, but that has nothing to do with my dislike of eggnog. I could drink the non-alcoholic variety if I wanted to; I just never developed a taste for it.

Earlier today, while watching a football game, my 11-year old daughter came to me and said, "Daddy I don't like eggnog."

"I don't either, sweetie," I said. I thought her statement seemed somewhat random, but I assumed her mother had bought a carton of non-alcoholic eggnog at the store earlier in the day and she drank some.

"Your mother loves eggnog," I said.

"It's pretty bad. How does she drink it?"

"I don't know. She's just always liked it," I said. Then I began to worry that one of our friends might have delivered a Christmas bottle full of spiked eggnog as a Christmas happy for my wife, and my daughter drank some of it while her mother was taking a nap. “What kind of eggnog did you drink, sweetie?"

"The carton said Egg Beaters," she said.


"Egg Beaters. It's awful."

I quickly told her that she had not, in fact, drank eggnog, but a carton of an egg substitute product that I sometimes use on my current diet.

"How do you drink that stuff?" she asked.

"Well, sweetie, I don't drink it, I cook it." She looked relieved.

Believe it or not, she's a very intelligent girl. Though I am not sure why she thought Egg Beaters were eggnog. The words “beaters” and “nog” have nothing in common. The Egg Beaters carton doesn’t have a poinsettia on it. I don’t even know what a “nog” is.

As long as she keeps making good grades in school I’ll let this one slide and write it off to holiday enthusiasm.

Eggnog is made with milk, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, some type of alcohol— bourbon, whiskey, brandy, or rum— and eggs. It’s the egg part that gets me. There is something about drinking raw eggs and milk that doesn't appeal to me. I can eat a soft-boiled egg, but I do so with toast or biscuits, not milk. Like Egg Beaters, the combination of eggs, sugar, and milk should always be cooked. Custard = good. Eggnog = Bad.

For those who want whiskey, it seems much easier to just pour some in a glass over ice and dispense with the milk and egg.

In the first Rocky movie, the title character woke up every morning and drank a few raw eggs before he went out on his morning jog through the streets of Philadelphia. Maybe my daughter has seen the movie. Maybe she was inspired by the drive and determination of Rocky Balboa. Maybe it was the Bill Conti score, who knows? Maybe she’s opting for a 21st Century sixth-grade version of Rocky and drinking a healthier alternative—Egg Beaters— before she jogs through the streets of Hattiesburg.

One thing’s for certain, in the future, I’ll bet she starts paying closer attention to product labels.

Lava Lamps

1 3-ounce package instant gelatin mix (red or blue)
1 cup boiling water
1 cup vodka
1 (750 milliliter) bottle champagne, chilled
In a medium bowl, stir together the gelatin mix and boiling water until completely dissolved, about 2 minutes. Stir in vodka. Pour the liquid into small paper cups or portion cups. Chill until set, at least 2 hours.

Pour champagne into champagne flutes. Break up the gelatin in the paper cups with a fork, and drop pieces into the champagne.

Monday, December 15, 2008

We Wish You A Figgy Christmas

A group of Christmas carolers stopped by my house last night.

I like the whole caroling thing, but I often worry about the family of unsuspecting foreigners who might have just moved into the neighborhood from a faraway land with divergent customs. I wonder what they must think when they open their front door and two dozen happy people, dressed in wool sweaters in 72-degree weather, begin belting out random songs with no preliminary forewarning.

Last night’s carolers ended their five-song set with the obligatory Christmas carol encore of “Free Bird.” Actually it was “We Wish You A Merry Christmas.” And as I sit here trying to write this column, I find it hard to focus on my topic. I can’t get the words “figgy pudding” out of my head.

I looked up the lyrics this morning:

Oh bring us a figgy pudding;
Oh bring us a figgy pudding;
Oh bring us a figgy pudding and a cup of good cheer.

Last night I thought they were singing, “Oh bring us a figgy pudding and bring it right here.” I was a little offended. It’s not every day that a group of strangers show up at your house during Sunday Night Football demanding fruit dessert.

Though, after looking up the lyrics, I am more troubled. I found out what they were really looking for was “a cup of good cheer,” which led me to believe that this group of carolers were most likely Episcopalian. I didn’t have enough booze in my liquor cabinet for 24 thirsty Episcopalians so— in the end— it’s good that I misheard the lyric. Had my mom been there she would have given them a dollar and told them to make sure and spend it on food.

Nevertheless, a melodious demand for fruit pudding and booze while someone’s watching football is overtly rude.

The problem is that I don’t know anything about figgy pudding. I eat for a living. I’m good at it. Eating is going to put my kids through college, but I don’t believe that I have ever eaten anything that was figgy.

The name itself is silly. “Figgy” is not really a word, is it? “Fig-like” seems better, maybe even “fig-style,” but figgy sounds like a cruel nickname given to an introverted fat kid by the fourth-grade bully.

No one has ever given me a figgy pudding, and I’m not sure I would eat it if they did. My friend Gene Saucier makes the best fig preserves I have ever tasted. He brought me some last week. He didn’t sing a song, or ask for a cup of hootch, he just said, “Here’s some fig preserves,” and I said, “Thank you.”

Correction, it is a word. I just looked it up: figgy [fig-ee]— adjective, containing figs: a figgy cake (origin 1540-1550).

Actually, I think “Figgy” comes from the Latin word “Figgusius,” meaning, “I want some damn pudding, and I want it now, bring it at this instant— with some whiskey— or I will continue to sing on your front porch.”

The most awkward moment in the Christmas carol/home-owner routine is always at the end. Last night— once they finished singing— they just looked at me. I looked back at them and thanked them, they said “Merry Christmas,” I returned the sentiment, they looked back at me, and I said “Merry Christmas” again. They kept looking and I didn’t know what to do. I wasn’t sure if they wanted to come in, or if they wanted me to join them at their next stop. I just said, “thank you,” once again and closed the door.

Sitting here, it occurs to me that they might have been serious. Maybe their demand for figgy pudding was genuine and resolute. Maybe they did, in fact, want a 16th Century fig-like dessert.

Note: To those carolers who stopped by my house during the Cowboys-Giants game, please come back. I don’t have any figgy pudding, but I will certainly share a few of my son’s Fig Newtons with all of you (as long as there’s no football game on).

Foie Gras with Toasted Brioche, Fig Relish and reduced Port Wine Glaze

1 lb. Foie Gras cut into 2 ounce slices
1 1/2 tsp kosher salt
1/4 tsp fresh ground black pepper
8 Slice Fresh Brioche, crusts removed and cut in half on a diagonal
1 recipe Fig Relish
1 Recipe Port Wine Glaze

Preheat oven to 450

Arrange the brioche on a baking sheet.

Season the foie gras with the salt and black pepper. Heat a large, non-stick skillet over high heat and arrange the foie gras in the skillet so they do not touch. Cook 45 seconds. Carefully turn each piece over and cook for 1-2 minutes. Turn off the heat.
Place the brioche in the oven to toast.

To serve, place one piece of the brioche toast on each serving plate, top with one piece of the cooked foie gras. Top each piece of foie gras with 2 tsp of the fig relish. Drizzle the plate with the port wine glaze and serve immediately. Yield: 8 servings.

Fig Relish

1 Tbl butter
2 Tbl minced shallots
1 1/2 cups Figs from fig preserves, small dice
2 Tbl brown sugar
2 Tbl sherry vinegar
2 Tbl minced celery
2 Tbl small diced red peppers
1/2 tsp fresh thyme leave, chopped
salt and pepper to taste

Melt the butter over low heat in a small sauce pot. Cook the shallots for 3 minutes. Add in the diced figs and brown sugar. Cook 5-6 minutes, stirring often to prevent sticking and burning. Add in the sherry vinegar, celery and red bell peppers and lower the heat. Cook for 10 minutes, stirring often. Add thyme, salt and black pepper and remove from heat. Best if made a day or two in advance. When ready to use, warm it slowly in a small sauté pan over a low heat. Yield: 1 1/2 cups

Port Wine Glaze

1 cup chicken stock
1 Tbl brown sugar
1 cup port wine
2 tsp balsamic vinegar

Place all ingredients in a small sauce pot. Simmer and reduce until mixture forms a thick syrup. Yield: One quarter cup
Give Me Some Skin Big Ganny

During the first 20 years of my life I never encountered a boneless, skinless chicken breast.

When I was a child, all chicken came under cellophane with bone and skin attached. The drumstick, the breast, the thigh, and even the wing, all had skin and bones. That’s the way God intended chicken to be sold and fried. Read it, it’s in the Bible somewhere. I think in one of those obscure Old Testament chapters like Amos or Obadiah.

True story: The first time I ever saw a boneless skinless chicken offering, I was at a restaurant on a date. The girl I was with asked, "How do they walk around without any bones, and don't they get cold without any skin?" For the record, she wasn't blonde, but she was very, very pretty.

I was having dinner with a group last week when a friend posed the question: "Where do you suppose they are hiding all of that chicken skin?"

It was a good question. There's so much boneless, skinless chicken being sold, they've got to be storing all of that skin somewhere. The skin is the best-tasting part. It truly is— crunchy, crispy, salt-and-pepper laden, tasty chicken skin. It’s the greatest component of fried chicken.

In the poultry section at my local grocery store, I conducted an extremely scientific survey which proved that 47.62% of chicken available for sale is sold without bones and skin. Which means almost half of the world’s chicken skin is just hanging around the butcher department in limbo, lonely, and without a mission.

Restaurants whose primary offering is fried boneless, skinless chicken breast strips are popping up all over the place. They’re the “in” thing with teenagers and twentysomethings. I don’t want to eat a chicken’s fingers and I certainly don’t want to eat his nuggets. I demand skin on my chicken and I want dark meat, too. Where has all of the dark meat gone? I want dark meat. I want it to have skin and bones, and I want it now.

Save me the but-all-of-the-fat-is-in-the-skin argument. Most people who are eating fast food don't give a rooster's beak about fat. How does one explain 15 years of chicken strip-only restaurants and 60 years of Baskin Robbins? The Baskin Robbins Heath Bar Shake has 2,300 calories and 108 grams of fat! Trust me, fat is not an issue in that segment of the restaurant biz.

I want to open a restaurant that serves only fried chicken skin. Of course there will have to be some type of sauce to dip the fried chicken skin into— comeback sauce (the ultimate condiment)— and two side orders. No fries or cole slaw like the traditional chicken strip places. How about tater tots and applesauce? Granted, applesauce isn’t very popular and doesn't fit in with the concept, but I like applesauce, and, after all, it's my fried chicken-skin restaurant, isn’t it.

I once knew a lady whose grandchildren called her "Big Ganny," no "r" just Ganny. She made excellent fried chicken, yet the only part of the chicken her grandchildren would eat was the skin. Smart kids. "Give me some skin Big Ganny," they would say. I think I'll call my fried chicken-skin concept Big Ganny's Chicken Skin Palace.

And after I open Big Ganny’s Chicken Skin Palace, I’m going after Hooters. I will open a chain of restaurants which serve only spicy Buffalo chicken thighs with the skin on. I’ll call the place Buffalo Thighs. Or maybe I’ll purchase land across the street from Hooters and hire a lot of diminutively chested waitresses and call it Peepers. Equal time for all, I say.

Either way, I’ll be serving my bird with the skin on. It’s the best-tasting part. The rest just tastes like chicken.

Chicken Jambalaya

2 pounds andouille sausage, or any mild smoked pork sausage, sliced about 1/4 inch thick
3 pounds chicken thigh meat, cut into 1 1/2 inch pieces
1 TBL Creole seasoning
2 cups yellow onion, medium dice
1 1/2 cups celery, medium dice
1 1/2 cup green bell pepper, medium dice

2 TBL fresh garlic, minced
1 tsp dry thyme
3 bay leaves
1 pound long grain rice
1 – 14 ounce can diced tomatoes
1 TBL Worcestershire sauce
1 TBL hot sauce
1 quart + 1 cup chicken broth, heated
1 Tbl kosher salt

Heat a large heavy duty cast iron skillet or Dutch oven (2-gallon capacity) on high heat.
Place the sausage in the hot skillet and brown it evenly. Stir often to prevent burning. When the sausage is browned, carefully remove the excess fat. Season the chicken with the Creole seasoning and add it to the skillet, cooking it in the remaining sausage fat (you might need to add a little Canola oil). Brown the chicken evenly and cook it for 20 minutes. Add in the onion, celery and bell pepper and lower the heat to medium. Cook for 10 minutes, stirring often. Add in the garlic, thyme and bay leaves and cook for 5 more minutes. Stir in the rice and cook until the rice grains are hot. Add in the canned tomatoes, Worcestershire sauce, hot sauce and chicken broth. Stir the mixture well to prevent the rice from clumping together. Lower the heat until the Jambalaya is just barely simmering and cover. Cook for 30 minutes.

Yield: 12-14 servings
Newk’s Evil Chocolate Cake

I am on a diet.

A diet is a serious problem for someone in the restaurant business. It also poses a predicament with my second day job— being a food writer— which requires, at a minimum, eating a lot of food and then writing about it.

There are several food items I miss. Most of them have to do with bread in one way or another. I love cake. I miss cake. I especially love chocolate cake, and I especially miss chocolate cake.

My favorite chocolate cake is served at Newk’s Express Cafe. It’s better than my grandmother’s, which for me, is a solemn statement. I’ve never said that about anything.

Newk’s chocolate cake is evil. I suggest you never eat it. Don’t do it. You’ll be hooked. It’s addictive.

I don’t know what they call it at Newk’s, probably just “chocolate cake.” I call it “evil.” I really do. When I order it I say, “Give me some of that evil chocolate cake.” And they do. And I eat it. I have had that exchange over and over for the last several years, which is why I am currently eating chicken breasts and broccoli and dreaming of cake.

My son loves it, too. When we have dinner at another restaurant in town, we often stop at Newk’s for dessert and take their evil chocolate cake home. That is, unless we ate dinner at Newk’s, this makes it much easier to just eat the cake there.

Don’t eat Newk’s chocolate cake. Just say no. Be strong. If you fail to heed this warning, don’t email or call me from the Newk’s Chocolate Cake Rehab Center, because I’ll just say, “I told you so.” And when you wind up on a non-cake eating diet because you ate way, way, way, way too much chocolate cake don’t say that I didn’t warn you.

The Newcomb family hires a woman in New Albany, MS to make all of their cakes. She currently makes over 1,200 cakes every month, though that number might have changed by a few hundred since I have gone on this diet.

I have never met this woman, but I often picture her as an angelic, Godiva-like figure in flowing chocolate-brown robes who floats around her production kitchen, a halo glowing around her head, sprinkling magic-tasting cocoa-flavored fairy dust all over her chocolate cakes. If I were a single man, I would marry her tomorrow, sight unseen.

Newk’s also serves strawberry, pineapple, caramel, banana nut, and carrot cake on a rotating basis. They’re all good. But when you eat a slice of the others, you just feel like you’re eating a slice of cake— nice, moist, make-you-happy cake. When you’re eating Newk’s chocolate cake you feel like your sinning. In an instant, you become a sinful, sinning, sinner with a leftover dab of sin-filled chocolate on your nose and an empty glass of milk in your hand. Amen.

Trust me, don’t ever order a slice of Newk’s chocolate cake. Look at it, analyze it, admire it, maybe take a sniff or two. Whatever you do, don’t order it. If you surrender to temptation, or accidentally order it and it ends up on your table by chance, be a nice guy and give it to a friend. They’ll love you forever. Just don’t take that first bite. Don’t do it.

I love cake. I miss cake. I love moist cake and rich chocolaty icing. I love the chocolaty, chocolate-filled, chocoliffic, chocolateness (my words).

I am eating asparagus and gulping down low-carb protein shakes but I’m dreaming of chocolate cake and an ice cold glass of whole milk.

As of today, I’m 20 pounds down and have 20 more to go. I plan to act sensibly when choosing foods and quantities once I give up this diet and start eating regularly.

The first food item I plan to eat—you guessed it— Newk’s chocolate cake. That moist, chocolaty, three-layer slice of evil on a plate that helped put me in this position in the first place. I can’t wait

Robert’s Chocolate Cake

Cake: 1 3/4 cake flour 3/4 cup cocoa (preferable Dutch processed) 2 teaspoons baking soda 1 teaspoon baking powder 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt 2 eggs 2 cups sugar 3/4 cup melted butter 1 cup buttermilk 1 cup brewed coffee, at room temperature 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
To make the Cake: Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly butter 2 (9-inch) cake pans and line with parchment. Butter the parchment and flour pans, shaking out the excess.
Sift together flour, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Reserve.

In a mixer with a whip attachment, beat eggs and sugar until thick and lemon-colored. Beat in the melted butter. Alternately add dry ingredients with buttermilk, scraping the bowl once or twice. Add the coffee and vanilla to form a thin batter. Divide between prepared cake pans.

Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center of a cake comes out clean, about 40 to 45 minutes. Cool in pan for 15 minutes. Invert onto cooling racks, peel off paper and cool completely.

When cool, split each cake in half with a serrated slicing knife. Freeze the layers for 1 hour before assembling the finished cake. Make the filling and icing while the layers are freezing.

Place the first layer on a cake serving dish and spread a thin layer of the filling evenly over the cake. Repeat this process until you have the layers assembled, spread the icing over the top layer and around the sides.

1 1/2 cups semisweet chocolate pieces
8 ounces cream cheese, softened
3/4 cup powdered sugar

Place the chocolate in a double boiler and heat until completely melted. While the chocolate melts, use an electric mixer with a wire whip attachment to beat together the cream cheese and powdered sugar. Beat until it is light and fluffy. Allow the melted chocolate to cool slightly, then drizzle it into the cream cheese mixture and continue beating until the filling is cool. This spreads best if used immediately.

6 ounces unsweetened chocolate
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
4 cups powdered sugar
1 cup sour cream
1 Tbl vanilla extract

Melt the chocolate over a double boiler. Use an electric mixer with a wire whip attachment to cream together the butter and powdered sugar. Add the melted chocolate and vanilla extract and beat until light and fluffy. As with the filling, this spreads best if used immediately.