Would You Like Envy on the Side?

June 30, 2009


Chef Grant Achatz of Chicago’s Alinea has a great piece in this week’s The Atlantic, focusing on diners’ envy of special dishes sent out by the kitchen.  In this case, the special dish wasn’t even any different than what the jilted diner received, it was just plated at the table rather than in the kitchen.  And she stormed off in tears as a result.

Now we’ll all agree that diners like to look at the dishes being served at other tables, and there will be times when it appears someone is getting special treatment.  And we feel bad, because we all want special treatment.  We want the chef to come out and talk to us.  We want to try something the chef “has been working on.”  We all want to feel special, and when we’re not the recipient of that treatment, it’s normal to be somewhat envious.

Do you expect special treatment?  Do you feel left out if someone at an adjacent table is obviously getting something that everyday customers don’t receive?  How about if the chef comes out and talks to them, but not you?

I know many restaurants try to make all of their diners feel extra special, but as evidenced in Achatz’s story, even a restaurant that excels at the omnibus VIP treatment can make some sensitive customers feel left out.

It’s funny, I love receiving special treatment, but more when I’m not the reason for that treatment.  If I’m with some friends dining at a restaurant where they “know me,” the friends expect I’ll get a special dish sent out or otherwise get the VIP experience.  I never expect anything out of the ordinary, and if I do receive it, I’m almost a bit embarrassed.  And frankly — and no, I’m not fishing for any type of sympathy here — that silly extra pressure actually makes me anxious.

But when I’m dining with someone else who is the reason for the special treatment — such as a chef — I love it!  No pressure, just fun.  And there’s something about that fraternity of chefs, where they take care of each other, that just makes more sense.  And if the don’t get that VIP care, then they just might have to dash away in tears.

Ice Poppin’

June 24, 2009

I’m a huge fan of Locopops, and when I read Andrea Weigl’s recent story on ice pops, I decided it was time to make some myself.  It’s not that the $2 price tag of a Locopops is breaking the home bank, but I recognized that these frozen treats are fun to eat, easy to make, and can be very inexpensive.

And it all started with some forgotten peaches.

I had purchased some peaches for my 13 year old daughter, a peach fanatic if there ever was one.  But she went off to camp, and we had a handful of slightly overripe peaches sitting in a brown paper bag.  I simply peeled them, dropped the chunks into a blender with some sugar and fresh lemon juice, and whizzed away.  I poured the puree into an ice cube tray, wrapped with plastic wrap, and inserted toothpicks.  I figured, “OK, it’s mostly fruit, so this should be pretty decent.”

It was much, much better than decent.  It was perfect.  The flavors of the fruit were enhanced by the sugar and lemon and, I do believe, the freezing process.  This was a funny looking pop, for sure, but it inspired me for something better.  Something more like a real pop.

So off to Crossroads Plaza I headed searching for pop molds.  I found a funny looking rocket mold at Bed Bath & Beyond, but it was about 10 bucks for a mold of 4 pops.  No dice at the crafts stores.  Target was my final hope, and they had some respectable looking star shaped molds for $3.95 (here they are at Amazon for 2 bucks more).  Not what I really wanted, but I had to have something that day.  I had to feed my need.  I was NOT going to wait to get the perfect molds through mail order.  So I bought 3 molds, each of which makes 4 pops.  These molds had plastic sticks/caps, which are a complete waste.  More on that later.

So my next adventure was with some blackberries I picked up at the Durham Farmers Market.  To a pint of berries I added some vanilla yougurt, a bit of cream, about 3 tablespoons of sugar, lemon juice and fresh mint.  After pureeing in the blender, I strained out the seeds and filled my molds, using the plastic stick/cap thing-a-ma-bobs.

That only made 8 pops, so I took some leftover dark chocolate pudding that Phoebe Lawless had brought a couple days earlier, combined it with some whipped cream, and filled four more molds.

The pops froze in a few hours, and after running them under hot water for a few seconds, they came out of their molds nicely.  The blackberry mint cream was divine.  So much fruit.  So much flavor, with just a tinge of mint.  This was an absolutely perfect ice pop, as good as — no, better — than Locopops.  Except for the damn stick.  The design of this stick/cap prevented you from eating the bottom third of the pop, as the cap got in the way.  I had to get a spoon and put the remnants in a bowl.  So the plastic stick/cap was to be eliminated from the process in favor of good old-fashioned popsicle sticks.  I got 1,000 sticks for 4 bucks at Michael’s, so these things are cheap.

My next batch was blueberry lime mint.  Pretty much the same format: Into a blender goes the fruit, some lime juice, sugar, fresh mint, and some water.  Blend.  Strain.  Put in molds.  I then wrapped the molds with plastic wrap, made a slight hole in the top over each mold, and inserted my wood popsicle stick.

Oh, this was so much better.  Easier to eat and handle.  Less chance for a mess.  And the flavor?  Better than Locopops, of course.

Last night was pineapple mint (yes, I have a TON of mint, but when it’s fresh and free, why not?).  I need to try one at lunch, as it looks mighty tasty.

And those chocolate pudding pops?  Shhh.  No one else in the house had a chance even to try them.

The Best Burger?

June 20, 2009


I might have had the best burger in the Triangle tonight.  It was served very rare, with melted Swiss cheese and some amazingly meaty bacon.  The meat in the burger was coursely ground, perfectly seasoned, and extraordinarily beefy-flavored.  The burger had a nice crust on it, and I really don’t know how anyone could surpass it.

And I made it.

I took some skirt steak from Whole Foods, cut it up into chunks, sprinkled it with sea salt, and put it through the meat grinder — using the course plate.  I lightly patted it out into two patties, added some pepper, and put into a red-hot iron skillet.  After a couple of minutes I flipped the burgers, added the cheese, and put on a toasted bun.  Topped with some house-cured bacon from Poole’s Diner (check out the updated website), it was nirvana.  The only thing that could possible improve the experience was the beer, and the Hogwash (hickory-smoked brown porter) from Fullsteam came through in the clutch.

I’m not sure that skirt steak is the best cut of beef for burgers, but it had the right amount of fat content and its flavor was incredible.  I ate a fair amount of it raw, and I could have eaten several ounces more.  It was that good.  Let me know if there’s a better cut of beef for burger and tell me why.

A burger is a dietary splurge, and these days, I might as well just eat the best possible version available.  And I did.

The Customer Wins at Wine Authorities

June 16, 2009

WineAuthoritiesEver since they opened their Durham shop, owners Seth Gross  and Craig Heffley have persistently emailed me, trying to get me into Wine Authorities.  They’d tell me that had a spot available for one of their wine classes at no charge.  They’d let me know about how they could help me to remember which wines I drank (which I’ve NEVER been able to do).  Heck, they recently emailed me to let me know that they sell a bunch of artisinal bacons.  But I never visited their store, despite their efforts to the contrary.

Finally, this past Saturday, I had a need for wine and some spare time and made the 24 minute drive.  The store was packed with about 20 folks sitting around the tasting bar in the rear, listening to Heffley talking about the 4 wines being sampled.  I introduced myself to Gross, who was manning a cash register, and he quickly showed me what the store is all about.  Shortly thereafter,  I quickly kicked myself for not getting over to Wine Authorities sooner.  Yes, I knew that the public loves them and their commitment to smaller estate wineries.  I know that they’d been written up in the big food magazines.  I knew that they focused on value, selling no wines over $50.  And I had heard about how consumer-focused they were, but I had no idea how much so.

I now know better.  A lot better.

Wine Authorities is the wine shop that should be in every town.  They make it incredibly easy on the customer to find a great wine within his or her particular budgetary constraints.  They don’t push any wine.  They listen to the customer and make appropriate recommendations.  They don’t act superior or condescending, even when you butcher the pronunciation of “Languedoc.”  And to me, most importantly, they help me remember what it is that I bought and drank.  At checkout, you get a print-out describing each wine in your purchase.  From your home you can access a listing of those same purchases — strike that, a listing of any wine you’ve ever bought at the place, sortable by price, date of purchase, personal rating, and more.  You can add your own tasting notes.  Mine are very simple, like, “Great, refreshing party wine!”  Or, “Loved the fruit in this one.”  As I’ve written before, I’m no wine guy.  But that Barbera d’Asti I bought was a Cantina Sant’ Evasio, and the rosé is a Chateau Bellevue la Forêt, Fronton Rosé.  I still might not remember the wines, but at least I can recall them electronically.  Man, I love these guys.

But they’re in Durham.  Where the cool kids hang out.  I’m pushing them to open a shop in Raleigh, but until they do, I might have to get used to the drive to the Bull City.


Wine Authorities
2501 University Drive
Durham, NC 27707

Ashley Christensen — Ingredient Maker

June 9, 2009
Photo: Elizabeth Galecke

Photo: Elizabeth Galecke

I love Ashley Christensen of Poole’s Downtown Diner.

No, not in the biblical or romantic sense, but anyone who has ever read this blog knows I’m one of her biggest fans.  Yes, she’s a good friend, and I probably wouldn’t say a bad thing about her even if there was a bad thing to say (and fortunately, there’s not).  But I rave about her cooking for two reasons: First, she can flat out cook.  Second, she makes her own ingredients.

Say what? Read the rest of this entry »

I Still Can’t Eat Just One

June 1, 2009


There have to be 8 gazillion types of potato chips out there, and I like them all. Even the faux chips of Pringles or Munchos. I mean, it’s hard to go wrong with potatoes, fat and salt. Sure, adding some extraneous flavoring is OK (although I might not really want to try seaweed flavored chips). I also really like the kettle-cooked chips, with their extra heft and crunch (and often a darker color).

But I really like the simple, thinly sliced, plain chips.  With lots of salt, of course. Read the rest of this entry »


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