Thursday, November 6, 2014

It's Been Six Weeks...

Husk Restaurant
This blog isn't dead and I haven't been busy.

FAR from busy.

Which is too bad in ways, because I've forgotten many of the details of some very good meals and solid pairings that should have been detailed.

But let's try in stream-of-consciousness form.

Ten days in Portugal in September left us wanting, even bordering on annoyed. There just wasn't enough 'vacation' in it, not enough 'holy crap!' to it. So with our first round-number anniversary approaching, getting the heck out of Dodge again was necessary. Personally, I think Portugal might have been fine enough if not for a couple of meals that put the nail in the Portuguese food coffin. "Wait for it, wait for it, I bet we get potatoes AND rice and overdone meat again. Here it comes. Put your bets in. YEP!" I'm a snob and Spain spoiled me. Plus, it might have been fine - it WAS insanely relaxing - but that Newark passport-control line. Oh, that line. 300 people and four booth attendants. Screw you, Newark! Screw you! I no longer love you!

So we came home, let it mentally sit, and promptly booked a three-day trip to Charleston, South Carolina to eat Sean Brock's food because he seems nice. It was right around this time that we had a home meal of the best chicken we've had in years. 

Saffron-lemon chicken from Saveur (October issue - New Classics). We probably had it with some Spanish-style potatoes or something and a salad. Best damn chicken ever and I don't think that's overstating things. It's Spanish chicken without putting it into a Spanish box. And don't be skimpy. Drink good stuff with it, like the 2004 La Rioja Alta Viña Ardanza Reserva Especial ($30-ish - Binny's), which is back at Vin Chicago. I just got the email. It's $28. We've had a few of the 2001, a historic vintage in Rioja, loved them for the most part, and the 2004 is just as good. I may not remember the details of this meal but I remember the feeling, and that was all tickle-y Good and Happy. All of the good that comes with great Spanish flavors clicking together. Food. Wine. Separate. Together. And incredible together.

...Charleston is like a rich Southern retiree's Disneyland. It's overpriced because it can be, some of the streets feel like something on a Universal film lot (almost fake), tchotchke stores galore, and most of the city feels like the Emperor from Star Wars saying, "You will spend gobs of money on shit you don't need or want here. Gooooood! Give in to your blind consumerism!" But frankly, the place is charming. We sat on the bay in the late-afternoon, hot Southern breeze blowing off the water, and both of us thought, "I get it."

But we went for Mr. Brock, and at Husk restaurant, we had the best meal out in the world we've had since Komi or Arzak or El Trujal del Abuelo two years ago. Beautiful place. Fantastic, thoughtful food. A wine list organized by soil type and a wine list that's reasonably priced, selected to match the food, fun, and overall feels like each one was chosen by the staff because they liked them in the purest sense of that. Rare thing of late. Great staff. Overall, Charleston seemed to have a ton of transplants/getting-back-to's that were there because they were sick of the noise and stupidity elsewhere and the Low Country brought the quiet and reason they craved. That was nice. And that pine-y, herb-y, palm-y smell on Queen Street? What was that?

Also hit Minero, Mr. Brock's taco jam with Southern inflections. It's fancy tacos that maybe miss the down-dirty-sloppy business that comes with great tacos but doesn't miss in flavor for the most part. Some great, some quite good, some missed a bit. But fantastic corn tortillas that took him months to get right (he LOVES corn), homemade rice milk horchata, utensils and napkins in the table drawer (loving that trend), Texas pineapple wine, Frappato, Grenache Blanc, Cab Franc, Gamay on the menu at a taco place... It's good stuff that feels like Mr. Brock said, "I want a good taco place in town. With tequila. And stuff. I got the money. Let's do that."

McCrady's was a toss-in for the most part. We were in town, it's Mr. Brock's fancy option under his growing umbrella, why not? Went with the four-course and can't for the life of me remember much. Duck and chocolate is the best I can do and digging out the receipt seems like a lot right now. Pretty space. Very good staff that was funny, loose, relaxed, and smart. Sat next to a couple couldn't for the life of them conceal their racist racism. They just HAD to belch it out. We get an earful about everything that's happened in their lives since the husband retired and I know more about the BP oil spill than I really wanted to know.

A couple more Charleston notes. If you're sitting on the bay, enjoying it, turn your head to the north and see a bridge and think, "we should walk to that bridge. Get a good walk in, see more of the town." Don't. Don't do that. It's farther than you think. And sweaty. Southern sweaty. If you can avoid eight hours in the Charleston airport, do that. A plane malfunction that wasn't handled in the bestest way by United led to us doing that. But here's a secret. I know you're mad such things happened, fellow passengers. I know you have places to go, people to see. But if you're nice to the United person behind the desk, magical things happen. Like first-class tickets on another airline. If you snarl and gasp and throw a fit like a flailing five year-old, the person behind the counter will relish in fucking up your trip. Dopes.

Let's review things that currently sit in my head before they bleed out. Oh, on bleeding. Use the safety grip on the mandolin because you'll slice the tip of your finger off. That thing bled for HOURS!

Our dog made Dog-Shaming. Because she pukes on Tuesdays.

Portugal and Charleston left us in the poor house, so cheap meals with wine in the house popped up. Anne Burrell chicken Milanese with 2013 Matthiasson Tendu White ($22 - Vin) made an appearance. I put the Tendu in the 'Drink Now' house pile, thinking it's gotta be winding down. Nope. I think it might have been the best it's shown, hitting a strangely perfect acid-refreshment edge while maintaining a sufficient level of tarragon-zest-grass complexity. Gee-whiz. That's good wine. And in the ideal liter form.  Birthday fish tacos were delicious with a 2010 Selbach-Oster Riesling. And for my birthday, buying me Dagueneau Silex is ALWAYS the best birthday gift ever. Every year.

I thought the 2012 Mark Herold Acha Blanca ($21 - Binny's) was merely an interesting one-off the last time we had it with brandade and fennel-blood orange salad back in March. But with halloumi and fava-tomato-dill-pepper-avocado salad for Monday lunch, it shed its baby fat (? - it's a 2012 but that's how it tasted) and became more streamlined and simple in the best sense.

Mineral cut, lychee lightness, lilting, bobbing acid.

This was a great lunch.

Saffron chicken was a meal to remember during this hiatus, but Yotem Ottolenghi and his goat-stuffed artichokes over saffron rice, from Jerusalem: A Cookbook (gotta remember to buy that) is stupid-light and deliciously complex. Tastes like he took from everything that's good from ALL over the Middle East and made it into a dish.

Last had it in March (March was a good food month), stuffed it with ground goat ($5/lb at Farm City on Devon) instead of lamb this time. And use frozen artichokes. Don't muck about with prickly fresh artichokes when frozen ones are delicious. Even Mr. Ottolenghi and Claudia Roden say it's fine. Goat's delicious. Eat it. It's $5/lb (cash only) and fresh as all get-out from Farm City. This meal was light on light on light with a slow build-up of depth and complexity from the cooking. A little char here, herbs there, saffron, and we got this insanely balanced, filling dinner that was some of the best food we've had in months. A bottle of 2013 Broc Cellars Valdiguié Solano County ($25 - Perman) with it, which only accentuated the lightness-with-guts of this meal. A bit of raspberry and chocolate, with a freakin' great pause in the middle that said, "Stop. Think about what you just tasted. Good, huh?" and then moved on to a wispy, herby finish that played into the herbs in the meal so beautifully. Perfect weight match that made the wine feel like yet another great ingredient in the food.

I hate fall flavors. At least the media barrage of fall-flavor recipes that hit in October, like "30 Ways To Make Butternut Squash" and "How To Put Pumpkin Spice In Virtually Everything." Blow me, fall. Take your sweetness and go sell stupid someplace else. Like butternut squash soup. First, it's soup. No. Second, butternut squash? It's like Thanksgiving dinner. If it was so good, we'd find a way to have it all year round. It's not.

Except with this meal. Hanger steak rubbed with all-purpose California beef rub. Slow-roasted yellow grape tomatoes. Israeli couscous. Lapsang-souchong-steeped black lentils. Purée of roasted kabocha squash, roasted garlic, tangerine zest/juice and couscous cooking water. Cinnamon-toasted pepitas, basil, 18-year balsamic and extra virgin olive oil.

The squash and rub brought a hint of sweetness that was taken down a notch by the bitter tea, char, herbs and zesty freshness. Layered as hell, with a different combo in each bite. Always stayed that way and never wandered into sweet exhaustion or bite-repetition. Take the meat off and you have a great vegan dinner, it's that whack-a-doodle in flavor, texture and goodness. We missed in the pairing with a bottle of 2008 DeLille Doyenne Signature Syrah Yakima ($40 - Vin). Plenty of time to open up, yet it couldn't get its motor going. Wanted to, just never became complete. Nice plum and coffee with a gamey-foresty note, very syrah, but promptly shut itself down before it become truly broad and engrossing.

Big fan of Jet-Dry (non-sequitur of the year)

Claudia Roden's The New Book of Middle Eastern Food brought another winner. Marquis Quastal, or lamb tagine with chestnuts, a delicious Tunisian lamb stew over farro, served with a bottle of 2010 Antica Terra Pinot Noir Willamette Valley ($50 - Vin Chicago). Used lamb round steak, which is a piece cut with a marrow bone in its center, so the marrow was cooked into the braise. Omitted the honey, added a splash of rosewater at the end. Pomegranate seeds to top, probably an anchovy or two in the onions. Tough to remember all of the details but Mrs. Ney follows Ms. Roden's recipe as closely as possible because that book is boss. This was heavenly. Familiar, yet so unique. A complete, balanced, perfect, distinctive meal. Feels like it might be in the running for our Christmas dinner, it's that good. We check in on this bottling of Antica Terra every vintage. It might be overpriced, it may be a touch too run-of-the-mill, but we both love its dirt. And it has a lil bit of black tea to it that has been missing in our scattershot drinking of Oregon pinot noir of late. Great meal. Solid pairing.

Last one. Pasta with celery and lemon, from Food & Wine. Have an odd craving for celery? Make this. Altered somewhat significantly. More celery, evoo instead of butter, garlic instead of shallot, pecorino instead of parmesan, charred scallions instead of chives, plus Mrs. Ney added mint and a bit of fennel pollen. It's simple food, Mrs. Ney didn't want it while she was cooking, but poof! Once we gave it a minute to cool, this turned into crazy business! It's a celery vehicle without clubbing you over the head with it. Something about the fennel pollen and charred scallions filled in the tiny gaps and brought a shocking depth. Really shocking. And when it comes to wine feeling necessary with a meal and becoming an essential ingredient to a dinner, the 2011 Palmina Malvasia Blanca Santa Barbara ($26 - Winery) was the epitome of that here. The floral-mint-ginger-zest in this wine was just what the food wanted, and the meal became that time when you have wine with food and think, "WHY ISN'T EVERYBODY DOING THIS?"

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