Friday, February 29, 2008


We've gotten through January, which means the full run of "let's predict what's going to be hot in the food world in 2008" pieces have now been published, circulated, and forgotten. I prefer to wait a little while to make my own predictions not only because it gives me an extra month of observation but also so I can crib off of smarter, more in-touch commentators.

So, without further ado, here are the official Al Forno prognostications of what's gonna be hot and what's gonna be not in the world of food (particularly the world of Lowcountry food) in 2008:

Anything harkening back to old, original preparations and heirloom ingredients is going to be huge in 2008. You'll see more chef's planting their own gardens, carving up whole pigs, and making pates, rillets, and terrines. But that's an easy call. These things have been hot for months and the trend still has room to grow.

Charcuterie and cooking with the whole animal and seasonal heirloom vegetables is both an extension of and a reaction against the "use the best ingredients" school of thought, which was in turn a reaction against the older "technique is everything" philosophy which used so many creamy sauces and complex preparations that it didn't matter all that much whether the meat it covered was top-notch or just fair-to-middlin.

When cooks started seeking out only the very best cuts of meat to use, you saw a lot of filet and pork tenderloin medallions and tuna medallions. But after a while it got a little dull--sure, you serve the finest imported foie gras and Wagyu beef, all the very best stuff, but isn't that sort cheating? I mean, how much of a compliment to the chef is it to say that he really knows how to "source" the best ingredients? "That isn't cooking, it's shopping," the old sneer goes.

The response has been to take a look backwards to traditional, local, and seasonal ingredients--still seeking to use "the best ingedients", but redefining what that means. The chef's challenge now is not just to find a reliable distributor; instead, it is to take what's fresh and locally available and make great meals out of it. This is a blend of good shopping--that is, seeking out local artisanal and heirloom producers--and good cooking--the traditional techniques of hog butchering and sausage making, for instance.

The high-end chefs in Charleston have been doing this stuff for a while, but in 2008 you're going to see it going much more mainstream. T-Bonz in Mount Pleasant, for instance, was a pretty ordinary steak-and-chicken brew pub kind of place, but it just closed down for renovations and will soon reemerge as "Liberty Taproom & Grill" with a theme of "celebrating the American farmer and the rich bounty they put on our tables." I predict you'll see similar changes in the mid-market chain restaurants, in a dumbed down form. O'Charley's and T.G.I. Friday's will update their menu verbiage to proclaim stuff like "Double-Cut Smithfield Farms American Yorkshire Pork Chop" and start adding a few slices of heirloom tomatoes or Niman Ranch bacon into their chef salads.

Which means the high-end boys will have to take it up a notch. I predict:

Sean Brock at McCrady's will establish a machine shop where he will assemble vaccum cookers, foam extruders, and other singular kitchen devices of his own design that will allow him to create a deconstructed a chef salad with "lettuce leaves" made out of spun turkey, "cheddar cheese" created from carrot essence, and "bacon bits" that are actually freeze dried tomatoes.

Down the street at High Cotton, Anthony Gray, in defiant violation of outdated 19th Century "health" codes, with build an on-premise abattoir where he will slaughter cattle that have been grass-fed in specially-contructed paddocks in Hampton Park.

Mike Lata will go in a different direction, providing patrons at FIG with hand-woven baskets and handwritten guides to all the secret spots on the Peninsula where they can forage for their own nuts, berries, and edible weeds, which he will prepare for them back at the restaurant in awe-inspiring combinations.

But, with time, these trends will be displaced, too, just as the low-fat diet craze was supplanted by the low-carb diet craze. (And, by the way, I am officially projecting that the next new health craze will be the low-protein diet. All the sugar and pork fat you can eat, but stay away from lean beef, chicken breasts, and skim milk!) The pendulum can only swing far enough in one direction before it has to come back the other way. The old classics of haute cuisine have been thoroughly pooped on, and soon cooks will start picking up their old Escoffier and saying, wait a minute . . . what about these old classics of high dining? Hey, maybe a little flour in a sauce isn't such a bad thing . . .

That's right, I'm calling it: the next big thing by the end of 2008, or maybe in 2009 if it's slow to develop, will be the return of grande cuisine. Restaurants will ditch their mismatched chairs and rustic farmhouse decor and buy a truckload of fine old Chippendale furniture and velvet curtains, then triple their waitstaff and put them back in coats with tails. Meals will last six hours with a no fewer than fourteen courses. The hot menu items will be Beef Wellington and Steak Diane and Duck a'la Orange, with a dessert of Baked Alaska followed by brandy and cigars.

The celebrity chef thing will run its course, too. Diners will grow weary of plunking down 200 bucks for a meal at a restaurant where the supposed "chef" has actually set foot in the building just once--to cut the ribbon at the grand openingbefore hopping a private jet to the next outlet. One by one, these name-driven high-end "concepts" will start to close their doors.

Highly-leveraged and cash-poor, formerly high-flying chefs will start shilling even more for prepackaged food products and schlocky restaurants. Bobby Flay will endorse Spam (it's great on the grill!). Mario Batali will hold out as long as he can, but he'll end up on a nationwide tour of shopping malls whipping up "genuine Italian recipes in 15 minutes" using Rice-a-Roni. Most pathetic of all, Tyler Florence will cut a deal with the Applebees chain "to bring the culinary creativity of a celebrity chef" to their menu. (I feel really confident in that last one.)

And there will be a backlash. Young cooks will fire their publicists, mothball the chef's table, and take their names off their restaurant's web sites, preferring instead to practice their art in obscurity behind opaque kitchen doors. This trend is already underway--see, for example, Charleston's Guerilla Cuisine--but it will continue.

Soon, America's leading chefs will not even have restaurants at all. They'll just show up randomly at various people's houses with a few sous chefs and waiters in tow and cook an unbelievable dinner for their surpised hosts, accepting in return whatever honorarium the diners think meal deserves. Like modernist poets and atonal composers, these cooks and waiters will lead a life of relative obscurity and poverty, working dull office jobs during the day and maybe even taking up acting to pay the bills while perfecting their art.

You heard it here first.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Smoke Alarums

In theory, I have no problems with smoke alarms. I think they are a fine idea: a brave sentinel standing watch over you and your family even in the dead of night, ready to call out and warn you at the first hint of danger. Yes, certainly, every home should have one--or more than one, positioned strategically for maximum coverage.

And yet I am actively at war with the smoke detector in my house. This is related to my ongoing battle with inadequate kitchen ventilation, which has persisted even after we moved to a new house back in the summer. There's a fan in the hood over the stove, but it just pushes the air through a filter and right back into the kitchen--doing absolutely nothing, as far as I can tell, to diminish foul odors and billows of smoke coming from the stove or oven, both of which feature prominently in my cooking.

Whether I'm trying to get a good crusty sear on a pork chop or roasting bones for stock in the oven, it's about a fifty-fifty proposition that I'll end up madly fanning my kitchen towel back and forth in front of the downstairs smoke detector as its wails its piercing alert and its two comrades upstairs, including the one right outside the Toddler's bedroom, join in the chorus, linked in by the house wiring so that there's not a chance that anyone in the house (or in the surrounding county, for that matter) can fail to know that that jackass is cooking again.

And, since the Toddler goes to bed at seven, it's a safe bet that I'll also get a good earful from The Wife for trying to wake up the baby (even though--somehow--the kid manages to sleep through the racket every time) and for filling the house with choking fumes and for insisting on cooking elaborate meals every night instead of just ordering a pizza like normal families. And often a little bonus abuse from the Seven Year Old, too, for making his ears hurt.

So, it was during one of my latest rounds of mad towel flapping that I noticed a second little button on the smoke detector, right next to the one you press to test the battery. The thing is all white and the text on the button is in raised white letters, so I had to get up on a chair for a closer look before I could make out the words "Push to Hush."

An override button! What a fine idea! The smoke detector in my old house didn't have that handy little feature. It looked like my days of towel-flapping were over.

In fact, I discovered a little later, the hush button could be used proactively, giving the detector "reduced sensitivity" for seven minutes. I could actually put the little thing to sleep before the klaxons went off--so if in the middle of browning some short ribs I began to think "it's starting to get a little smoky in here" (and by now, believe me, I can sense when the smoke alarms are about to be tripped), I have an option other than turning on the UTTERLY USELESS HOOD FAN or opening all the windows (not a great option in February).

There's just one problem. Once you press the Hush button, the damn thing doesn't hush. Instead, it chirps every forty-five seconds. It's a quick little chirp, but it's still 100+ decibels and piercing and plenty loud enough to get The Wife chugging down the stairs to remind me the baby's sleeping (yes, yes, dear, I know!) and The Seven Year Old moaning about how his ears are bleeding and his brain's about to explode (he's a little prone to drama).

I could always turn off the hush mode once the smoky part of the prep had cleared (say, once I'd poured in some wine to end the browning and deglaze the pan), but guess how the geniuses in Smoke Detector Land came up with doing that--do you press the Hush button again? Nope, too easy. Instead you have to press the Test button, which sets off a full-scale 5 second alarm, including the chorus from the comrades upstairs, which brings another visit from The Wife and another visit from the Seven Year old. (And yet, curiously, the Toddler sleeps through all of this. Hope we never have a real fire.)

I know there are probably countless reams of government regulation and the constant spectre of bankrupting lawsuits that smoke detector people have to deal with on a daily basis that have far more of an influence on their designs than the woes of a poor, ventillation-challenged home cook. They've certainly gone above and beyond to make sure there's no way I could accidently hush my smoke detector and not know it and, during the seven minutes it would take for the hush period to end, perish in a sneaky fire I didn't even know was burning.

On several recent occasions my downstairs detector has ended up unplugged from the wall and tossed out onto the back porch in desperation. I know it doesn't do much good out there, but I'm a desperate man.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Prestigious Palmetto Pig Pick’n

Spring is getting ever closer, and that means a new round of local food festivals. Coming up in two weeks is the 24th Annual Prestigious Palmetto Pig Pick'n out at the Exchange Park in Ladson. Held on Friday and Saturday March 7th & 8th, there will be more than 60 teams competing in the "Lowcountry Division" and, for the first time, a separate Kansas City Barbecue Society division, which should draw in some of the hard-core circuit guys. The event will raise money for the Trident Literacy Association, and if you bring a book to donate you get $2 off.

More details here.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Get the Dish

I've been a little slow on the old blog during February, in part because I've been working on a couple of food pieces for the Charleston City Paper. Two of these, a review of Sushi Haru and an article on charcuterie for the Winter edition of Dish, just hit the stands this week.

If you haven't checked out Dish yet, by the way, you should. Sarah O'Kelley did a particularly great piece on Anthony Gray's whole-hog butchering at High Cotton, and the other articles are really good, too. They highlight the fact that Charleston has an exciting, dynamic restaurant and food scene. You can get to the pieces online at the CP site, but to do them justice you really need the print version with the full-sized photos.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Recent Departures

Yesterday, my wife told me that she was out running errands and noticed that T-Bonz in Mt. Pleasant had closed up shop and was in the process of being converted into something else. Then I saw in the City Paper that 16 Market St. downtown and A Culinary Art Company over in Mt. Pleasant had closed their doors, too. Suddenly it seems like we've got restaurants folding up left and right. Here's my short list of recent closings:

Uni Bar over on Savannah Highway in West Ashley. The place was called Marie Laveaux's for a while--a New Orleans style cafe--then was replaced by Uni Bar, which started out as a noodle bar and switched over to sushi but still couldn't make it.

West Ashley Bait & Tackle--the cool pastel green building with cheap beer, good food, and free music, now boarded up tight.

Turtles Raw Bar--Long Point Road

Mia's Cafe--Savannah Highway--meat and three at lunch, French bistro at night.

J. Bistro--Coleman Blvd. in Mount Pleasant--this is a big one, one of the better restaurants in Mt. P.

Arlaana--Daniel Island--I loved eating lunch there, but it was always so empty . . .

Cereality--the restaurant chain that specializes in selling bowls of cold cereal to college kids, closed its King Street franchise location back in the fall. The Charleston franchise attracted a good breakfast crowd but, oddly enough, "business was slow the rest of the day."

Baker's Cafe--Daniel Island--They moved out to Daniel Island from King Street to keep down the rent, but that apparently wasn't enough. Their Monte Cristo sandwich is now a departed Charleston classic.

The Ship's Store at Daniel Island Marina--I was going to feature the Ship Store's "Hook's Mate" in my Critics Picks selections for the upcoming Best of Charleston issue of the City Paper as "Best Sandwich from a Restaurant You'll Never Be Able to Find." And now you'll REALLY never be able to find it. I dropped by the other day to, um, fact check the sandwich and found the place locked up tight and the fixtures halfway removed. Rats!

There's bound to be more.

Side note: the T-Bonz website announces that they have not permanently closed the Mt. Pleasant location but rather have shut it down for rennovations and will convert it into "Liberty Taproom & Grill" which will "center on celebrating the American farmer and the rich bounty they put on our tables. It is a celebration of America's melting pot of rich ethnic cooking styles and innovative handcrafted small batch breweries." I have no idea what this means, but the site says it will be a "high volume concept." One can only assume they are referring to restaurant traffic, not noise, though neither sounds particularly attractive to a diner.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Shorty's Bar-B-Q

I was in Miami on Friday for business and managed to swing lunch at the original location of Shorty's, one of Florida's classic barbecue joints. The place was founded in 1951 by E. L. "Shorty" Allen, a Georgia native who'd recently moved to South Florida. The original log-cabinesque building burned to the ground in 1972, but it was rebuilt and still serves the same menu of ribs, chicken, and pork. (Unfortunately, I didn't have my camera with me so no snaps, but see the Shorty's website for some good images of the places, including the original building going up in flames.)

You might not think South Florida would have much of a barbecue tradition (and certainly "Florida style" rarely appears the canon of barbecue variations). Not so. Barbecue stands started dotting the state's roadsides during the 1920s, targeted the surging numbers of middle- and lower-class car owners who began turning Florida into a major vacation destination. Barbecue was an ideal food for roadside stands. It did not require expensive equipment, just a pit dug in the ground and filled with glowing wood coals. Wrapped in brown paper or placed between slices of bread, barbecue was easy to serve and easy to take away.

In most parts of the country, roadside barbecue stands were seasonal operations, but in Florida the warm climate allowed for a year-round auto trade. Cecil Roberts, a British travel writer who toured the state in the 1930s, noted, “Everywhere one sees ‘Joe’s Barbecue’ or ‘Tom’s Barbecue’. It may be an elaborate pseudo-Spanish bar, with gay awnings and aluminum stools, a soda fountain, or a mere wooden shanty on the roadside.” Shorty's old-timey "barbecue ranch" theme fit perfectly into the kitchy roadside attractions, as you can see in this old postcard from the 1950s:

The 1972 fire seems to have corrected the worst of the garishness, for while there is still a bit of the old log cabin look about the place, it's more just classic BBQ joint decor. You sit at long communal picnic tables with rolls of paper towels for napkins and rolled-down brown paper bags to throw them in. And you'll need that bag, too. The waitresses are real friendly, the sweet tea comes with a wedge of lime instead of lemon (a nice Miami touch). The baby back rib lunch special comes with crinkle cut fries, a slice of garlic bread, and a great finely chopped mayo-based coleslaw. The ribs don't seem slow smoked--I would guess they are cooked quickly over fairly hot fire. Parboiled, maybe--there wasn't much color to the meat--but nevertheless a good grill burn flavor and a nice, sweet brown sauce to accompany them.

The menu is posted in big black letters on white signboards on the wall--a nice touch. From what I could tell waiting for a table, it looked like the kitchen itself is enclosed only by screens. This seems like it would be some sort of health code issue, but does that really matter? It was great to stop in and sample a little flavor of 1950s Florida.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Ray's BBQ

It's not open yet, but anytime a new barbecue joint comes to your neighborhood it's a noteworthy occassion. Ray Waldrup is opening Ray's BBQ at 440 W. Coleman Blvd. in Mount Pleasant, which is in the former location of the short-lived Red Pepper Squirrel. Ray plans to serve ribs, chicken, pork, along with chili, burgers, and fries. It should be opening within a week.

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