Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Season for Pimm's #1

Johnathan Miles of the New York Times was in town last week and enjoyed a Pimm's Cup downtown . . . but he neglected to say where, an odd omission, since he proceeds to name four Manhattan bars that make their own variants of cocktails with Pimm's. He does admit, however, that Pimm's is "underappreciated hereabouts." (Hereabouts being NYC.)

Miles is right that it's a "drink that thrives in sunshine," which may explain why it's quite easy to turn one up here in the Holy City. It's featured on the cocktail menus at McCrady's, Red Sky, High Cotton and Charleston Place's Thoroughbred Club, to name just a few, and it's rare to find a Charleston bar of any seriousness that doesn't have a bottle of Pimm's #1 on the shelf.

The mercury's been stuck firmly in the mid-90s for days now, and a cool Pimm's Cup sounds like just what the doctor ordered!

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Cracking the Inner Sanctum

I ate dinner recently at a local Italian restaurant that claimed to have authentic Italian food. And, sure enough, as I was eating two very Italian-looking men in aprons came out of the kitchen periodically and chatted up the tables with very authentic sounding Italian accents. But, the menu was pretty much the same old Italian-American classics we've been seeing since the days of the red-checked tablecloths and candles in wicker-clad Chianti bottles: veal marsala, chicken parm, spaghetti and meatballs, lasagna.

I was immediately suspicious. I have become convinced in recent years that there's a whole secret world of dining out there that's denied to the ordinary restaurant patron. This seems particularly likely at restaurants operated by immigrants to the United States but serve up food that has clearly been adapted for American tastes--Mexican restaurants serving taco salads in big crispy tortilla bowls, Chinese restaurants with General Tso's this and that, etc.

I don't have a problem with practical commercial sense, particularly if it lets an aspiring restauranteur actually make a decent living. And--provided it's prepared well--I like a lot of Americanized ethnic food, like lasagna with a ton of cheese and red sauce and enchilada platters strewn with lettuce and sour cream.

But, I still have this sneaking suspicion that I'm missing out on the real stuff--the secret gems of the owner's native cuisine that he or she will cook up just for a select few, the inner circle who knows the secret handshake.

I visited China many years ago, and was struck by how totally novel and wonderful the food was in in Beijing and Hong Kong--and how different it was from any Chinese food I've had in American restaurants, even supposedly "authentic" ones. Several forays into highly-recommended restaurants in San Francisco's Chinatown led to some tasty dinners, but all very different from what I'd had overseas. On my last visit to San Francisco I gave up on the guidebooks and took a tip from a Chinese cabbie who swore this place was "where the local Chinese people eat." It was good, and the tables were definitely filled with plenty of Chinese-Americans, but the food was pretty much the same selection you can get in any number of Golden China Huts in Pensacola, Florida or Lincoln Nebraska.

I recently discovered James D. McCawley's The Eater's Guide to Chinese Characters, which promises to forever free the ambitious eater from the tyranny of the constricted English menu. The next time I'm in San Francisco, I'm going to give it a shot.

Here at home, when I find real Italians dishing up a veal saltimbocca recipe straight out of Newark, I know there's gotta be something I'm missing out on. I'm contemplating an aggressive response, like a crash conversational Italian course, something just intensive enough to learn to say, "Hey, enough of the tourist dishes, already. Give me some of the good stuff." Maybe that Rosetta Stone software that you see advertised in every inflight magazine these days would do the trick.

Hardworking farmboys dream of Italian supermodels. Middle aged food nuts dream of secret preparations of savory meats and exotic herbs. Any day now I'm going to crack the code.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Boone HALL Farms

Okay, just for the record since I think now a dozen out of towners have called me on this . . .

Boone Hall Farms is a historic Charleston plantation that has been converted to a large farming operation, and their ventures include a U-pick strawberry patch and a farm store that sells all sorts of great local produce plus fresh seafood, good cheese, and pretty darn good meats, too.

Boone's Farm is that rot gut swill that used to be fortified wine and now (due to some wrinkle in the tax law) is now a malt beverage but is still just as likely to make you puke when you guzzle a bottle of it while sitting on the hood of a car in some cul-de-sac or perhaps on a remote creek bridge at 2:00 am.

Just look for the "hall", okay?

Sunday, June 14, 2009

A Call for Bacon

I'm on the hunt for bacon. Specifically, for places in Charleston serving bacon in interesting or innovative ways, for a feature I'm writing for the upcoming City Paper Dish issue.

A few weeks ago, I sampled the Chocolate-covered Bacon Sundae at Shine (home of my new favorite summer drink, the caipirinha). Ted's Butcherblock has a great selection of artisan bacon, including a bacon-of-the-month BLT on their cafe menu.

Last week at Fish & Farm in San Francisco I had a surprisingly good Bacon Drop cocktail, which blended apple-bacon vodka, sweet potato and molasses bourbon, smoked hickory bitters, and orange extract in a martini glass with a rim dusted with BBQ rub and half strip of good, smoky bacon as a swizzle. Is anyone in Charleston doing a similar cocktail?

Where else should I be looking for great Charleston bacon?

Saturday, June 06, 2009

One-Trick Ponies

Do you think it's risky enough opening a store that just sells olive oil? How about one devoted to just Moon Pies and Moon Pie paraphernalia? Rumor around town has it that local investors are already scouting out locations for the next single-product emporiums, which (if my sources can be trusted), include "The Salt Box"--a specialty shop dedicated to fine salts from around the world--and "Chiclet City", where the walls are lined with nothing but Chiclet gum in a rainbow of flavors.

You heard it here first.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Grits: the Foundation of Southern Fusion Cuisine

Atlanta's has a good article on grits by Shane Touhy, the chef at Dogwood Restaurant and Charleston restaurant alumnus.

Touhy's description of Dogwood's "grits bar" illustrates grits' foundational role in what I call "Southern fusion"--that is, a variety of foods gathered from different subregions of the American South and rolled together into an upscale restaurant offering.

Dogwood's grits variations include (of course) the requisite shrimp-and-grits, and they bring in ingredients as diverse as Benton's country ham (Eastern Tennessee), Frogmore Stew (Lowcountry South Carolina), tasso (Cajun Country in Louisiana), an pimento cheese (which I think of as a Midlands South Carolina and Georgia specialty, but I'm not sure exactly where it originated.)

It's an appropriate role for grits, for what food could be more representative of how today's chefs have taken once-humble fare and elevated it to the realm of high cuisine?

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

How Big Are Your Biscuits?

A recent post on biscuits by A Yankee in a Southern Kitchen got me thinking about the size of the typical Southern biscuit. Growing up, I seem to remember them always being very small--2" or so in diameter. These days, however, it seems we are experiencing serious biscuit inflation.

I suspect it has something to do with Hardee's and other fast-food restaurants starting to sell biscuits back in, I guess it was the early 1980s. The size of your average biscuit has steadily increased until what used to be enormous "catheads" are now the norm.

Am I just crazy, or is biscuit inflation a real phenomenon? What size are the biscuits you cook at home?

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