September 30, 2014
"You're killing me!" Susan Orlean wrote to BBQ Pitmaster John Markus; she was on the other coast, which meant missing another spectacular dinner at his house.
I, on the other hand, was more fortunate. And as the evening approached, things got better. And better still.
"The Maysville guys are coming to cook," John wrote a week ago. "Don't bring anything." And then, in a final email a few days later he added, "They're bring bubbly, whites and reds, so don't bother bringing wine." What he neglected to mention was the Pinhook Bourbon they also had in tow.
It was an amazing meal. It started with these oysters, cooked on hay, topped with brown butter and shallots. I'm not a big fan of hot oysters. Let me amend that: I've never been a fan before. But these – briny Island Creeks – were perfect. Hot shells, but inside them the oysters were still firm, just lightly warmed so that the flavors really popped. Amazing.
This is the chefs, Kyle Knall and Micah Mowrey, cooking chicken beneath a brick on the uberWeber. (The largest Weber grill I've ever seen, it was a gift from Adam Perry Lang.) The chicken, incidently, was remarkable; tender, smoky, and served with salsify. It actually stood up to the brisket, which I would not have considered anywhere within the realm of possiblity.
Many different kinds of wood were employed in the smoking of the meat; John has an entire library of woods, and he can tell you why you want to use each one. We talked. We nibbled cheese and fantastic Maysville-made charcuterie. We sipped chilled tomato soup, still sweet, but with the slightest hint of tartness, a reminder that we're on the brink of fall. The light began to fade.
We sat outside – Indian summer – completely magical. The food was so abundant it's hard to recall every bite. I remember smoked trout. That amazing chicken. Delicata squash, surrounded by leaves, topped with shards of cheese. And this wonderful tangle of flavors:
extraordinary beans, all local,
And this, another vegetable medley: farro, herbs, salsify, carrots, and remarkably sweet beets.
Grilled peaches. And then, of course, the brisket, the deckle rich with fat, the flat smoked to a gorgeous ring:
Even now, two days later, I can recall the way the smoke infused each bite and how the meat seemed to literally melt when it was in my mouth.
Afterward there were many desserts, including a chocolate concoction somewhere between pudding and mousse. And then this, which pushed the entire evening over the top:
It was a perfect evening, at summer's edge. A few months from now, when snow is covering the ground, it is this night that I'll remember.
September 27, 2014
There’s something perversely satisfying about a pile of decaying shelling beans. They don't look like much – all black freckles, and yellowing skins – but when you pull them apart you find shiny beans the color of pearls.
In years past, shelling beans came and went with little fanfare. But this year's different: nearly every farmers market stall is bursting with fresh legumes. Fresh cannellini, fresh black-eyed peas…I've even seen fresh black beans. Somehow it was these sad-looking canary beans that captured my imagination. Native to Peru, where they're called mayacobas, they resemble especially buttery cannellini beans. Eaten raw they're reminiscent of tarbais, the traditional cassoulet bean. Cooked, they make a really wonderful dip.
A few notes: You want the ugly, slightly yellowing beans (they're the ripest), but avoid the slimy ones. When they're too far gone they start to rot. Be sure to use good olive oil; it's a dominant flavor in the dip. Add whatever fresh herbs you favor, but not so many that they mask the gentle flavor of the beans. Myself, I like the slight zip that comes with a small sprinkling of scallion and chives.
Fresh White Bean Dip
1 pound fresh canary shelling beans, shelled
1-2 cloves garlic
Good olive oil
1/4-1/2 teaspoon red wine vinegar
1 lemon wedge
Shell your beans, making sure to discard any individual beans that are beginning to rot. Put them in a heavy pot, cover them with water, bring them to a boil and then turn the heat down to a simmer for 30-45 minutes, or until they're completely tender. Add salt at the end and turn off the flame. (I find that salting beforehand makes for a slightly tougher bean.)
While the beans are cooking, mince the garlic, chives, and scallions. Finely chop the parsley.
Strain the beans, saving the cooking liquid. Toss them into a food processor, add a splash of the cooking liquid and a good glug of olive oil and blend, adjusting the consistency with the cooking liquid. Add another good glug of olive oil, and season with salt and pepper. Add just enough garlic for it to enhance, and not overpower, the beans. Squeeze the lemon wedge over the beans, add a quarter teaspoon of vinegar and taste to see if you want to add more.
Stir in the herbs, adjust the seasoning, and serve with a little bit more olive oil splashed across the top. This is great with crusty bread or focaccia.
Makes 4-6 appetizer servings.
September 26, 2014
A little image from Portland Feast, the fabulous three-day festival where the eating never stops. This was around midnight, and although I couldn't capture it, those pigheads stretched out in a long, strange line. Different chefs did different things – all delicious. Best dish at this particular afterparty? The tripe and pork tacos served up by Brad Farmerie of New York's Saxon and Parole; the scent of those tacos wafted through the air, drawing everyone inexorably over.
Other favorite dishes? At the Sandwich event, Paul Kahan (Publican, Chicago) reimagined the gyro, filling it with eggplant, yogurt and fenugreek to memorable effect. Rick Gencarelli, of Lardo, made incredibly delicious pork and peach sliders – very smoky – with a tiny bit of cheese and a little frisk of arugula. I intended to take a single bite and ended up devouring the entire messily delicious thing. And at the huge High Comfort event I was stunned by Vitaly Paley's sweet and spicy fried chicken, which he served with a watermelon salad.
This was breakfast one morning at Sweedeedee, which struck me as a fine place to begin a Portland day. Laid back – with rules. You can't sit down until your entire party has arrived. You get your own coffee. You bus your own dishes. And you get to weigh in on the music (real vinyl, played with a needle). On this morning? The Kinks. Loved that Andama bread. But what I loved even more was this amazing muffin, bursting wtih blackberries.
You can NOT leave Portland without stopping at Salt and Straw. Kim and Tyler Malek (they're cousins) are reinventing ice cream. Tyler, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, works with local farmers, dairies and chocolate makers to whip up astonishingly delicious concoctions.
My favorite flavors? That pear, blue cheese number was amazing; like an afterdinner dish, frozen for all time. Loved the apricot and hops, with its serious tang. And the freckled chocolate…. it's for grownups, not people addicted to candy bars. Kim says that after tasting their way through the offerings, half their customers end up with Sea Salt and Caramel. My favorite too.
The Portland Farmer's Market is a wonderful place. Pimientos de Padron everywhere. This gorgeous okra.
A blue pumpkin
And this incredible Galeux d'Eysines, which looks more like sculpture than something you can eat. (It apparently keeps well and has sweet, dry flesh that makes excellent pumpkin pie.) If I'd had any room in my suitcase, I would have brought this beauty home.
Instead, I brought this powerful Basque pepper powder- which sits in my kitchen, reminding me of all the reasons to return to Portland.
September 25, 2014
A secret space, hidden behind a door disguised as a bookcase. Could anything be more appealing? Longbaan literally means, "back of the house," and that's exactly where this restaurant is, hidden behind PaaDee, a restaurant specializing in Thai street food. It's a small, spare space – a few tables , a counter, two chefs working intently, barely looking up.
Owner Akkapong Earl Nimson and Rassamee Ruaysuntia seem to be in a kind of wordless trance, working together, silently tasting the balance of flavors, plating each intricate dish. They handed the first plate of their tasting menu across the table – miang som (above) – and it took me right back to Thailand. This is Thai food as I have not experienced it in any other restaurant in America.
We tend to think of the food of Thailand as hot, and chiles certainly have their place in the Thai kitchen. But this reminded me that my first impression of Thailand was herbs, dozens of them, dancing through the dishes, cutting through the flavors. And here it was again, one intense little bite: shrimp, chiles, orange, lime, roasted coconut, but hovering above it all was the forceful flavor of the betel leaf it was wrapped in, along with little jolts of cilantro, of ginger, of shallot.
The next bite is like the yin to the yang of the miang som, tender rice noodles wrapped around a a sweet filling of coconut, shrimp, radish, peanuts chiles. Irresistible, and once again, the dominant note is herbal.
A couple of oysters, laid on rock salt, with a chile jam, shallots, a few herbal little leaves.
After the complexity of the first few bites, the clarity of beef and oxtail broth, the flavors clean and fresh. Ringing through it all is the green taste of the herbs.
Tuna in a complex configuration of figs, chanterelles, zucchini and garlic tossed with a sauce tasting strongly of grilled cherry tomatoes. But it is the mint that pulls this all together, marrying the flavors.
Ora king salmon, with such varied flavors it is impossible to keep track. Pomegranate, finger lime, salmon roe, torch-crisped peanut candy. Again, the herbs – shallots, dill, Chinese celery, lemongrass, basil, dill- rush through the dish sounding their high triumphant notes.
After these complex dishes, there's a short respite, an easygoing bite of sweet, garlicky fried chicken.
And finally a curry: mussels, scallop, hearts of palm, dates. And more herbs: basil, betel leaves and on the side, the clarion freshness of cucumber relish.
There were desserts too – a soybean panna cotta in ginger broth, followed by a little "cupcake" of concentrated coconut. Spooning up the last of that, the woman at the table behind me sighed. "I lived in Thailand for two years," she said, "and I haven't had anything like this since I left there."
September 22, 2014
“Go to Ox.”
I heard that so often while I was in Portland it made me skeptical. It can’t be that great, right?
Wrong. This is the most amiable restaurant I’ve been to in quite a while. It’s not just that the food is straight up delicious, the service sweet and the room casually comfortable. Somehow an aura of happiness permeates the place; I can’t imagine anyone going there and not having a good time.
And the food (like that intense little cup of tomato bisque at the top) really is wonderful.
The dish I remember with the greatest clarity is this spicy braised beef tripe laced with little threads of octopus. The combination sounded odd to me, but once you taste it you think – how come I've never had this before? The octopus becomes little jolts of texture tangled in the luxurious softness of the tripe. And that mint aioli underlines the flavors in the most attractive fashion. I could have stopped right there and gone home happy.
But that would have meant missing the chowder – a signature dish. And for good reason. It’s a tour de force of flavor and texture, two kinds of clams in a briny creamy soup enriched with smoked marrow, which you scoop from the bone until it runs crazily through the soup. What keeps the dish from going over the top are those jalapenos, green heat zinging right through all that richness.
There are other wonders to begin: homemade ricotta, baked in balsamic brown butter and topped with a rich mushroom mixture. Fantastic steak tartare. Grilled salmon belly (it has been a memorable salmon season in this part of the world), with tomatoes…. But this is meant to be a meat-centric restaurant, and they have the big manly grill up front to prove it. The menu is indeed a carnivore’s delight.
The ribeye is wonderful.
and the lamb shoulder chop arrives with a burning spear of rosemary perfuming the air. But in the end it’s the vegetables that really knock you out.
Whole artichoke, roasted in the coals.
Grilled onions with walnuts, bits of beet and blue cheese.
Local beans with charred romesco sauce.
Cauliflower with golden raisins and peanuts.
The wine list is worth noting too: varied, beautifully chosen, nicely priced.
Portland's a food-obsessed town with great markets, fantastic sandwich shops, memorable ice cream (Salt and Straw always has a line for its fascinating concoctions) and some of the best Thai food in America. But should you happen to be there, I can only echo what everybody says – go to Ox.