Friday, January 17, 2014

Spain Meets the South at Mockingbird Hill

Fino Cesar Florido
“Do you think that Washington, D.C., is small?” the Frenchman next to me said. I started to answer, but he cut me off. “To me, it seems a very small city.”

It was 91-degrees and steamy outside, but inside Mockingbird Hill it was pleasantly cool. I was drinking pale golden sherry and sampling thinly-sliced ham.

“What does the sherry taste like?” the Frenchman asked. He was drinking a draft beer. “Is it sweet or dry?”

“Pretty dry,” I said. “But there’s some sweetness to it, too.” It was a Fino Cesar Florido, and it seemed unfair to box it in either way. It tastes like sherry, I wanted to say. It had a touch of citrus and pear and a firm undercarriage from fortifying spirits.

“I can tell you one thing,” I said finally. “It goes great with ham.”

Helping the good folks of Washington, D.C. discover the beauty of that combination is the singular mission of Mockingbird Hill, the South’s first ham-and-sherry bar. It’s the handiwork of Derek Brown, who shook his way to cocktail acclaim at the Passenger and the Columbia Room, and of Chantal Tseng, who ran the bar at D.C.’s noted Tabard Inn for close to a decade. They happen to be married to each other.

Ham Sampler
Their new venture is inspired by Madrid’s famed sherry bars, but with a definite local spin. The offer almost five dozen varieties of Spanish sherry, and they pair it not with a parade of imported Iberico or serrano hams but with meats from much closer to home.

That evening’s ham sampler included an American prosciutto from La Quercia and a fine lomo--a Spanish-style cured pork loin--made just a few miles away by D.C.’s Red Apron Butchers. In the platter’s 9 o’clock position lay fold after fold of “surryano” ham from S. Wallace Edwards & Son of Surry, Virginia. Long-aged and smoked over hickory, it has a deep mahogany color and a flavor that’s smoky, earthy, salty, and rich--every bit the equal of the fine Spanish sherry with which it’s paired.

As if to forever smash sherry’s frumpy image as an old ladies’ tipple, Mockingbird Hill has a brash wood-and-stainless steel decor. The long metal bar top gleams in the orange sunlight angling in from the big front windows. Patrons perch on three-legged wood-capped stools. Mission of Burma and the Clash wham out from the sound system.

More than Ham: Sardines, Too!
As I sipped my sherry and nibbled the last of the ham in the sparse but stylish room, Spain and the South merged into a strange but comfortable whirl, propelled by a punk beat. I vaguely recalled that two centuries ago D.C.’s political elite sealed bargains not over dry martinis or peaty scotch but with glasses of the finest imported port, Madeira, and sherry.

I paid my tab and stepped out into the steamy D.C. night. My former bar-mate was leaning against a sidewalk planter, having a smoke and arguing in French on his cell phone. I waved as I passed, but he didn’t look up. 

I only got panhandled twice before I flagged a cab and slid onto the stiff, cracked vinyl of the backseat. 

No, I thought as the taxi dodged its way west through a sea of tail lights. D.C. doesn’t seem like a small city at all.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

More Benton's Bacon on the Way

When I pulled into the parking lot at Benton’s Country Hams on my annual smoked pork restocking run over the Christmas holidays, I was surprised to find the cream- and green-painted building had more than doubled in size. To the right of the original loading dock stretched an entire new wing in the final stages of construction.

Allan Benton, the king of Tennessee hams and bacon, has been smoking and curing meats since 1973, when he took over the smokehouse from a retiring dairy farmer. For the first 30 years, the operation barely broke even.

Then, John Fleer, at the time the executive chef at the Walland, Tennessee, resort Blackberry Farm, introduced Benton’s superbly-smoky products to the fine dining world. Before long they were being served in restaurants as far flung as David Chang’s Momofuku in New York City and San Francisco’s Brasserie & Bar.

The new wing at Benton's Country Hams

Years ago, Benton made the decision to focus on quality, not quantity, taking a year or more to age his hams. (Large-scale producers turn out theirs in 90 days or less) and using the same cure recipe as his grandparents did. These days, more than half of his output is sold to restaurants across the country, and mail-orders from home cooks has continued to rise, too. As it has, waiting time for shipment has slowed to five weeks or more.

Finally, a little over a year ago, Allan Benton decided it was time to expand. “I didn’t have a choice,” he told me, as we stood in the entryway to his curing room, where hundreds of hams and bellies hung temptingly from old wooden racks. “It's not that I want to make more money. I just don't like giving bad service.”

The tiny retail room on the left side of the building--complete with its lone cash register and a glass deli counter filled with sausage and cheese--will remain unchanged, but in the new wing Benton is adding more cooler space, prep areas, and packing space so he and his team can produce and ship more hams and bacon to eager customers.

Once the new expansion is complete, Benton says, “Our goal is to ship within two or three days of the order.”

And that is very good news for Allan Benton’s far-flung legion of fans.

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