Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Las Vegas: America's Culinary Playground

For a real foodie, it's an edible Disneyland

Without question, no other city in America has undergone a culinary transformation like Las Vegas.

Remember the days of .25 shrimp cocktails and $1.99 steak and eggs?


Truth be told, Las Vegas had a major problem some 10 years ago… how to compete with every Tom, Dick and Indian Reservation that offered localized gambling. It was a real problem, and the fate of sin city was in question. It could turn into a discount den… or step up to the plate and further its reputation as a worldwide destination…. and that it did.

Today, Las Vegas is a true entertainment destination for everyone (gulp, even families)… and gambling is only an attraction instead of the main show. Today’s Vegas has it all…. sprawling hotels with amazing water-park like pools, top notch Broadway entertainment, theme park areas with thrill rides, A-list music concerts…. and food. Oh my, the food.

Vegas is simply a playground for the world’s top chefs. From the Emeril’s, to the Palmer’s, to the Flay’s and Puck’s… Las Vegas may be the most exciting culinary destination in the world. Really.

Not to say that New York, Paris, London, Los Angeles, etc… don’t have amazing spots. It’s just that all of these spots are crammed into a 2.2 mile stretch of land called the Strip. Each hotel which used to have a “signature” restaurant, now has 5… and counting. You can literally have any experience you want here, and rest assured it will be fantastic.

Because it has to be. It’s Vegas.

This week I have been reintroduced to the culinary scene here, and will be reporting back about a few terrific spots… some old, and a few new, including the hip Mirage eatery “Stack”. Look for a blog in the next few days about it.

Lunching at Spago today was a joy. Yes, it’s Spago, and sure, it is a Vegas staple… but good is good. The “Rich and Famous” pizza… thinly sliced salmon and caviar layered over crème fraiche on thin, crispy dough. Homemade, hand cut pastas, freshly roasted meats…. and a Weiner schnitzel topped with capers served with tangy roasted German-style potatoes. Damn.

Puck and his team of talented chefs have figured out something that many places miss. They cook food people want to eat. Sounds silly, but the pretentiousness of the Puck empire was lost years ago, when they figured out that no matter how high brow they wanted to be, they needed to make your mouth water when you looked at the menu. This means that even a simple palate could fall in love with meatloaf wrapped in prosciutto, go home and tell 10 people. It is a genius approach, and one that Wolfie has taken to the bank. Well done.

Simplicity isn’t lost on me… as much as I like to adventure while dining out (yes, I’ve ordered a lobster corn dog or two in my day), I enjoy getting back to the basics. The Spago menu accomplished just that, in more ways than one… so make a reservation, and see for yourself…. and oh yea, you just may see a celeb or two while you are there.

So, what else do I recommend? Here are my favorite Las Vegas dining spots, in no particular order…..

In my opinion, one of the best steaks Vegas has to offer. Get the chocolate soufflé.

Commander’s Palace
The sister restaurant to the legend in New Orleans, they just do everything right.

The food is solid. The setting is out of this world.

The vertical wine celler is reason enough, but Palmer backs it up with amazing dishes.

L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon
Maybe the best French in Vegas…

Le Cirque
Has never lost a step since the day they opened at the Bellagio… worth the money.

In and Out Burger
Sure, you can have a kobe beef burger at 5 different places, but where can you get a double-double animal style?

Stay tuned… there is more Las Vegas on the way……

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Gumbo: Tasting Your Family Tree

Generation to Generation, The Family Recipe Is Our Spice of Life

Daily life in South Louisiana is full of intangibles. Politics, gossip, football, sorted affairs... eavesdropping at a local coffee house has become a local pastime... well, a way of life. Yet among the juicy talk and sly winks that surely ensue, the ever changing scenery of the local landscape confirms one certainty... no two pots of Gumbo are the same.

Being a southern aristocrat has afforded me one rite of passage, a jewel I hold dearly. My momma's gumbo recipe.

As with all family recipes, each generation learns from the last, adds this or that, and calls it their own. My gumbo recipe is the same. Watching my Grandfather (or my Papa) cook his gumbo was always interesting. He was big into fowl, duck and oysters... and loved a dark, rich roux that would turn the gravy very dark. This wasn't a gumbo you'd eat a gallon of.... but a delicate mixture you might enjoy before a main course. He was a terrific cook and I only wish I would have paid more attention.

My own mom mastered her recipe early on, and our household was raised on a diet of shrimp and okra gumbo. Sure, she would make different varieties with chicken, turkey and/or sausage.... but the tried and true was always shrimp and okra, mainly because of a dear woman around the corner (Mrs. Johnson) who would park her old white pickup truck and sell the most amazing shrimp out of her own coolers... shrimp her husband had pulled out of the gulf the night before. Mrs. Johnson recently passed away, and it was a day we reflected on with mountains of wonderful memories.

I watched my momma in our kitchen for years before I took a stab at the family recipe. I started getting serious about it in college, while living away from Louisiana. My first apartment as a grown-up was in Kansas City, Kansas, with a roommate while studying at The University of Missouri at Kansas City Conservatory of Music. It was significant in many ways (as first apartments are) but it did spawn something I didn't realize until the day I moved in. I had my own kitchen.

Well, it didn't take long before I was at the cheapest place in town buying pots and pans... and planning dinner parties for a group of friends, themselves self-proclaimed foodies. Within days I was cooking like mad, and having dinner parties that were labeled in social circles as "must attend". My days were filled with school, rehearsals and a great job at the Fedora Café on the Plaza as a pasta chef. At night, I practiced on my own.

Gumbo can come in many forms. The 2 that seem to be most common are roux based... and okra based. Roux is a mixture of flour and oil, slowly cooked in a skillet or pot, until a desired color is reached. Rouxs are used as soup, stew and gravy starters, because as you add water, milk or chicken stock, so the mixture thickens to a desired consistency. In Louisiana, we have a saying.... "first you make a roux".

It is a tricky skill, as over cooking your roux can and will ruin your dish. The wonderfully nutty texture turns burnt and bitter, and no matter what seasonings you add... it is a taste that you can't hide. I've included some tips below.

That said, I use a roux base.... AND add okra, which was used by the creoles as a thickening agent. Truth be told, there are a group of people who believe gumbo isn't gumbo without okra. I am one of them. For me, it's the flavor. Growing up, I wasn't a big okra fan... only in gumbo, where is was cooked to smithereens. Later in life, I fell in love with smothered okra (okra cooked down with onions and tomatoes).. and then realized that what I was eating was the backbone of flavor I had been using in my own gumbo for years.

So, breaking tradition, I pass along my own gumbo recipe to you. This is the version I make in my own home, and it is my all-time favorite. I hope you will adopt it as your own, and pass it down to your family members as well. It's exactly how I like it, so I call it....

Andre’s Gumbo Like I Like It

(Shrimp and Okra Version)

4- 5 Quarts Chicken Stock
4 pounds frozen okra
1 lrg can of diced tomatoes
1 regular can of diced tomatoes
2 large white onions, diced fine
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/⁄2 teaspoon chopped garlic, fine
1⁄/2 teaspoon salt
1/⁄2 teaspoon black pepper
3/⁄4 cup all purpose flour
3⁄/4 cup vegetable oil
3 tablespoon of lea and perrin’s
2 tablespoons crystal hot sauce (or frank’s)
1 1⁄/2 tablespoons of creole seasoning (Emerils or Tony’s or your own)
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon basil
1 teaspoon oregano
1⁄/2 teaspoon thyme
2-3 tablespoons Kitchen Bouquet
Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup chopped parsley, fine
4 pounds peeled medium shrimp
Chopped green onions

In a separate pot, heat 3 tbl vegetable oil, and sauté white onions. Add garlic, frozen okra and tomatoes, season with salt and pepper, and cook over medium low heat until tender (at least an hour, if not longer). Okra should be very tender and want to break up. In a large stockpot, heat oil (3/4 cup) and add flour to make roux. Stir constantly over medium heat, making sure not to burn. Bring to desired color… peanut butter color is recommended for best flavor. Once desired color is reached, whisk in chicken stock, 4 qts first and save the rest if needed (chicken base dissolved in water can also be used , but NOT bullion). Add seasonings (wet and dry) and kitchen bouquet for desired color (a rich, dark brown is perfect). Add okra mixture and bring to boil. Reduce to low simmer, and cook for 1 1/⁄2 hours. Last half hour, add shrimp and parsley and simmer and very low temp, not to overcook shrimp. Serve in bowls, topped with a scoop of cooked long grain rice and top with sprinkle of green onion.

Gumbo is best if cooked day before. Make sure to cool completely before storing in fridge.... if not, the mixture will bubble and MUST be thrown out, as the onions will certainly turn.

*** Tips on Making a Roux

More than anything else, it's the roux that gives gumbo its particular character. Making roux is something of an art. It may take some practice to get good results. If dark specks appear, or if you smell something burning, you'll need to throw out the roux and start over. Don't try to base your gumbo on a burnt roux!

That said, let's make a medium colored Cajun roux, peanut butter in color. A Cajun roux is just flour cooked in fat until it acquires a darker color and a rich, complex, somewhat smoky flavor with nut-like overtones. Some folks have claimed that one can make a roux in the oven or even in the microwave, omitting the fat, but the one true way is to cook the roux on the stove top in a deep, heavy skillet or Dutch oven. The catch is that it will take plenty of time to cook the roux at the proper temperature so that it doesn't burn, and that you will need to stir constantly, working pretty hard the whole time. Some use a large whisk or a large spatula to keep the roux moving, but I find that a large, long-handled wooden spoon works best for me.

The choice of fat does affect the taste of the gumbo. Lard and bacon fat are the traditional choices (sometimes blended together), but other animal fats, or even vegetable oil or shortening, may be used. I prefer using a good vegetable oil. The choice of fat may be influenced by the kind of gumbo you are going to make -- duck fat for a duck and sausage gumbo, for example. You may decide to use vegetable fats for a seafood-only gumbo, and animal fats for your other gumbos.

Regular bleached all-purpose flour is fine for a roux. The proportions of flour to fat vary depending on how thick you want the roux to be. Approximately two parts flour to one part fat works well for me. If I need about a cup of roux, I use a cup of flour and about half a cup of oil, perhaps increasing the quantity of fat by a tablespoon or two depending on the result I'm looking for that day.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Bar Americain: Disappointingly Good

Sometimes good just isn’t good enough.

Unfair, don’t you think? Only in New York can a fairly good restaurant get rocked for being just… good. That said, with so many great options within a four block radius at any given time, I doubt I’ll be back to Bar Americain.

You should know, I love celeb chef restaurants. I think that the pressure put on these guys to perform can make the experience and food even better that your run of the mill joint… so in essence, you can get even more for your hard earned buck. But to do that, you need to deliver. And good doesn’t cut it.

Unfortunately, Bobby Flay’s Bar Americain is a hit and miss experience…. and the misses outnumbered the hits. It makes up its mind early in the meal, to be just… good.

The spot is a sexy, expansive space tucked into a midtown locale. The room is rich in dark woods and iron, with a beautiful mirror the size of Delaware flanking the bar. It has all the buzz of a NY brasserie, including the snobby greeters, who snicker at those who spill into the space unannounced. Attitude at the door aside, I liked the feel and design… nice job.

At first glance of the single page of offerings, the menu is exciting and full of choices.

Hearing about the shellfish sampler, I dove in head first. It was a good choice, but somewhat uneven and overpriced. The crab and mango mixture was fantastic.. full of flavor and freshly made. The lobster and avocado mixture was average. The shrimp with tomatillo sauce was delicious, but the 2 lonely shrimp hanging off the glass were begging for friends… as was the glass of unused sauce that remained.

Still optimistic, we were delivered two apps that we were excited about. Again, one a hit, and one, a terrible miss.

The squash blossoms were elegant and well prepared. Filled and lightly fried, they were a small but just right portion. Pricey, but different and… well, good.

I ordered the shrimp and grits, and was thoroughly disappointed. First, at $14, I am expecting at least 2 tablespoons of grits. I was lucky for a teaspoon. Honest. On top of my teaspoon of grits (served on a small side plate) were my 5 small sautéed shrimp. I had been duped. Even I know that this dish cost $2 to prepare… so maybe they can scoop out a few spoonfuls of grits to stretch the failure to include larger or more shrimp? I’m not a portion maven, but cheap is cheap… even in Manhattan.

The main courses are tried and true Bar American staples… the Skate, topped with capers…. and the pork loin, with corn. They took 40 minutes to reach out table after we finished our apps. Ouch.

The skate had a fishy back taste, not a good sign when ordering fresh fish at a restaurant of this caliber. Remember, any fish… ANY fish you order should not have a fishy taste. That said, this dish was boxed and headed home (or to someone who needed to eat it more than us).

The pork loin was a tremendous cut, steak-like and amazingly tender. On the side was a sauce that clashed with the dish… a soy-molasses fusion that just didn’t work. The tablespoon of corn on the side was decidedly decoration and nothing that could actually satisfy an appetite. This dish had the opportunity to shine like none other… as this was the best cut of pork I have had since a trip to Seattle’s Dahlia Lounge more than a few years ago…. but again, it failed to cross the finish line. It was just, good. Nothing else.

So my two cents? Don’t try to pretend to be something your not.

If you are going to offer dishes with regional flair, you need to deliver. Keep it simple.

…and don’t strive to be good. In this town, it just won’t work.

On Andre’s scale of 1 -10 (10 being run out of your house and eat there today)…. I give Bar American a 5.

Right in the middle, of so-so and terrific. Just, well, good.

Bar Americain
Regional American Cuisine

152 W 52nd St, New York 10019
Btwn 6th & 7th Ave

$35 to $70 pp with drink, apps and dinner

Phone: 212-265-9700

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Boudin: A One of A Kind Louisiana Taste

So, what the %$#* is boudin.

First, we learn to pronounce. Say – Boo-Dan. Or like a Cajun, Boo-Deh.

What is the craze? Why are the recipes passed from generation to generation. What the hell am I talking about?

Boudin is a Cajun sausage, made by hand in South Louisiana, mainly by the Cajuns. It is a mixture of pork, rice, liver and spices. It’s the combination, process and amount of each of these ingredients that separate good boudin and the legendary stuff.

If this sounds wacko, it kinda is. Imagine rice dressing if you will, inside a sausage casing. Most Cajuns eat boudin one of two ways…. They either squeeze it out of one end into their mouths (like toothpaste through a tube), or slice it open and eat it like dressing. Either way, once you have had the real stuff… you’ll never forget it. It’s Cajun crack.

I grew up eating boudin in Baton Rouge like any other kid would go to McDonalds. That’s one thing that a Louisiana upbringing allows… lunches of fried catfish, boiled shrimp and fresh boudin. Local dives in my hometown feature daily dishes that have remained in their place for 40 years… red beans and rice, gumbo, shrimp and oyster poboys and loads of fresh seafood.

But boudin is special. First, you don’t find a lot of boudin in restaurants in Louisiana. You are more likely to find an amazing link at a gas station. No, really… a gas station (next to the cracklins… but that’s a separate blog).

The true masters of boudin are men who run gas stations, convenience stores and tire shops. They hunt and fish and cook… and share their recipes with all who care to fish a link out of a crock pot. They wrap it in foil and send you on your way.

There are seafood markets that also make the stuff. Tony’s Seafood, the largest seafood house in the southern United States invented the Boudin Ball some 15 years ago in Baton Rouge… imaging a rice dressing ball, fried like a hushpuppy. Today, they sell nearly 3000 a day…. 8000 a day during football weekends when LSU and Southern are in town. They also make crawfish boudin as well as crab and shrimp boudin.

So, for several years, I made boudin a passion…. and during this time, I stumbled upon the holy grail of boudin… that made at Jerry Lee’s Kwik Stop in Greenwell Springs, Louisiana.

Jerry Lee’s is just what it sounds… a tiny convenience store on a creek about 10 miles outside of Baton Rouge. You can get beverages, pop tarts, batteries and toilet paper. You can also pick up some sunflower seeds and an oil filer. But in the back is a commercial kitchen that simply makes the best boudin in the world. Period.

I was told about it several years ago, and brushed it off. I had tasted excellent stuff, and was sure it was all that. Truth be told, I was fairly sure that Tony’s Seafood was that place. I was told about Jerry Lee’s so many times that I couldn’t take it anymore. I made the drive, bought 3 links and headed home.

But the boudin never made it. I ate it in the parking lot. It was that good. Then I drove my wife there. She bought 2 links, and ate them in the parking lot. I went back in and bought another link. I ate it in the parking lot. See where I am going here?

Why is it so good? Because Jerry Lee uses very little liver… and just the right amount of ground pork and rice. His seasonings are delicate, and just right. It has a unique flavor that I have never grown tired of… perfect. The main problem is that once you have had it, the other stuff is average. Oh yea, I hate liver.

So by now, you are thinking, where can I get the stuff? Well, if you are traveling to Louisiana and want to make a few runs, use the link on the right side to locate dozens of stops throughout Cajun country. The stops are great, and so are the links.

But thanks to the hoopla, you can get the nice folks at Jerry Lee’s to overnight you a few pounds. It is easy to reheat (microwave until hot, or steam, or heat in hot but not boiling water, or grill)…. and keeps in the fridge for several days. You can reach them here… they ship Monday-Thursday. Remember my words… Cajun crack.

Jerry Lee’s Kwik Stop

I have also included my boudin recipe below, but unless you have made sausage before, you may want to get some help. It is a messy ordeal.

Happy eating, and don’t forget, I told you so.

Here is a simple recipe from our friend, Emeril… I have adapted to my taste.

Louisiana Boudin

2 1/2 pounds pork butt, cut into 1-inch cubes
1/2 pound pork liver, rinsed in cool water
2 quarts water
1 cup chopped onions
1/2 teaspoon minced garlic
1/2 cup chopped green bell peppers
1/2 cup chopped celery
4 1/4 teaspoons salt
2 1/2 teaspoons cayenne
1 1/2 teaspoons ground black pepper
1 cup finely chopped parsley
1 cup chopped green onions tops, (green part only)
6 cups cooked medium-grain rice
1 1/2-inch diameter, casings, about 4 feet in length

In a large sauce pan, combine the pork butt, pork liver, water, onions, garlic, bell peppers, celery, 1 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon cayenne, and 1/4 teaspoon black pepper. Bring the liquid up to a boil and reduce to a simmer. Simmer for 1 1/12 hours, or until the pork and liver are tender. Remove from the heat and drain, reserving 1 1/2 cups of the broth. Using a meat grinder with a 1/4-inch die, grind the pork mixture. 1/2 cup of the parsley, and 1/2 cup of the green onions, together. Turn the mixture into a mixing bowl. Stir in the rice, remaining salt, cayenne, black pepper, parsley, and green onions. Add the broth, 1/2 cup at a time, and mix thoroughly. Either using a feeding tube or a funnel, stuff the sausage into the casings and make 3-inch links. Bring 1 gallon of salted water up to a boil. Poach the sausage for about 5 minutes, or until the sausage is firm to the touch and plump. Remove from the water and allow to cool.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Dash and Dine: Loving Restaurant Row

It wasn’t that bad a walk from 75 Rockefeller Plaza to the theatre district’s “Restaurant Row”. If you didn't know, I’m not the fastest walker, so I sometimes opt out of cross town hikes. But after work, good luck finding a cab in midtown Manhattan.

Truth is, walking is good. It was after all a cool, spring Thursday evening… and I, along with 50,000 other New Yorkers in my 3 block area were scurrying across the city to get somewhere. To meet a girlfriend, catch a movie, get in on an happy hour cocktail… or in my case, to meet some friends before an 8pm curtain of the hit Broadway play, “Three Days of Rain”.

I was familiar with restaurant row from my early trips to NYC. It was on this street I recorded Madonna, Gwyneth Paltow, Harrision Ford and scores of other celebs in a great recording studio, then called The Warehouse. Down the street I heard my dear friend Julie Nemitz (Madelung) perform her flawless cabaret show at the (in)famous “Don’t Tell Mamas” and had sipped vodka and sang along with the piano player at the Russian joint a few doors down. I love this street.

So when my friends suggested the Italian spot “Orso”, I was intrigued. I didn’t know it.

My wife Jami and I arrived at almost the exact time, which was a miracle considering the traffic at 6:30… she in a cab, André on foot. But low and behold at 6:30, there we were at the door walking in.

Orso is a great call for pre-theatre meals simply because of it’s proximity to the theatres themselves. While some of the other extremely touristy spots on this street cater to nothing but visitors, Orso was loaded with locals from the neighborhood as well as Broadway cast members dining with parents and friends (the lead from Hairspray dined at the table next to ours with her folks).

Let me say that Orso is not a spot uttered with the names of the restaurant elite in New York. It’s not that place. This is your neighborhood, solid, delicious, I’ve got theater tickets kinda place. That said, there is a lot I like about Orso.

First off, any place that doesn’t have bread plates is A-OK in my book. As all who travel to Italy know, the bread belongs on the table… creating a crumb pile on the tablecloth.

The menu at Orso is printed daily, and changes often. The left side of the menu is printed in Italian, the right deciphered in English. There are no daily specials as the menu serves as an ever-changing selection of goodies.

What the menu revealed was mainly four areas… a starter/salad area with 10 or so options (salad with apples, walnuts and goat cheese, thinly sliced veal with tuna sauce, buffalo milk mozzarella)…. a good selection of authentic pizzas (sausage, basil and tomato, prosciutto)…. a strong list of homemade pastas (linguini with clams, rigatoni with meat sauce, ravioli, wild mushroom risotto)… and a gathering of hearty entrees (pan seared sea scallops, roasted pork chops, grilled lamb loin, free-range chicken).

Again, let me say that Orso is no Babbo, Po, Lupa, Del Posto or Felidia. But what I can’t do is knock the place. The food is delicious in a homespun sort of way. The service was prompt, the wine and cocktails never fell empty and the food was just right. You could do a lot worse on restaurant row.

I can’t particularly recommend one dish over another here as the menu changes so often, but I can recommend Orso as a pre-theatre, no gamble eating choice. In by 6:30, out by 7:45 with drinks, salads, entrees and desserts is truly admirable these days… and to do it without feeling rushed is pure skill. If you find yourself on West 46th looking for a nice meal with good wine and good friends… finding a table at Orso is a great way to kick off your evening.

322 West 46th Street (between Eighth and Ninth avenues),
New York City, NY 10036-3801


Andre's Tip: there is no bar here, so if you are looking for a drink only, check out B. Smith's next door. Reservations are essential if you are holding tickets to a show...

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

It's All About the Chicken

I’d like to interrupt our regular programming to talk about a topic that demands immediate attention.

Fried Chicken.

No, I’m serious. Being from the deep South, Fried Chicken is a serious topic. It is discussed in barber shops, grocery aisles and pot luck suppers. Recipes are guarded like loose diamonds. And oh yea, my momma’s is the best.

So… how did Fried Chicken reach cult status, and where is the BEST Fried Chicken in America? (and why am I capitalizing the words Fried Chicken?)

Some think it started in 1961 when Aunt Bea bounced out of the kitchen with a platter of Fried Chicken for Andy and Opie. Remember those dinners? Aunt Bea cooked chicken for about 12 guests but somehow Andy kept squeezing in one more bite. Barney got the leftovers.

The truth is southern pan Fried Chicken has been a staple of the old south, well, forever.

When I was growing up, we had some serious choices for fast Fried Chicken. Of course, the obligatory KFC and Churchs… but also the Atlanta-chain “Mrs. Winner’s” and the usually tasty “Popeyes” (which can really hit the spot if you are in need of a bowl of decent red beans and a side of dirty rice outside of Louisiana). Then there was the 20 unnamed spots (Joe Delpits Chicken Shack, Lee’s, etc). A big notch above that chicken was the finger-licking good stuff fried up at “Piccadilly”, a southern buffet restaurant that has become somewhat famous. And oh yea, you wouldn’t believe how good the chicken is at my neighborhood Albertson’s Grocery is…. (yes, I have waited in line for it).

But let’s stray from this variety of our favorite bird, and chat about Pan Fried Chicken.

What is so different? Well, this stuff takes forever to fry up. You can’t rush it. The chicken is usually hand cut, hand battered and hand spiced. Once the chicken is fried in a black cast iron skillet, the drippings are used to make a milk gravy…. destined for your mashed potatoes and biscuits. It is heavenly stuff… and culinary legends have been born on the backs of pan friend chickens.

What do you eat with Pan Fried Chicken? Collard greens, okra, crowder peas, green beans, white beans and rice, red beans, cream style corn, rice and gravy and hot buttermilk biscuits. Hungry?

So, where are the best places in the US to eat the stuff? I have a few helpful hints for you… and my favorites. Here we go.

Babe’s Chicken Dinner House, Roanoke, Texas
OK, so Roanoke, Texas ain’t a big place. But don’t consider it in Roanoke, because the truth is that it’s rock-skippin distance from Ft. Worth. This is crispy pan Fried Chicken in all it’s glory. The wait time here can drive you mad, but it’s worth the wait. They lose a point or two with me for cream gravy (made ahead of time I think) and good but not great biscuits… but the chicken is king here, and makes the stop well worth it. Next time you are in Dallas/Ft. Worth, make the effort. And think of me…..

The Hillbilly-Hideaway, Walnut Cove, North Carolina
Now we get serious. Anyone wandering through the NC countryside can smell this place 30 miles away… and I have to tell you, I love it. You get the full monty here… a heaping platter of chicken, a platter of country ham, and five or six side dishes of sides like smothered green beans, corn, cinnamon apples, cole slaw, pinto beans…and if you are lucky, cooked cabbage with bacon. Damn. Then, you get a basket of homemade ho-cake bread, a bowl of butter and honey and a stack of wet naps. Bring cash only and save room for pie.

And Andre’s All-Time Favorite

Stroud’s, Kansas City, Missouri
As a college student, I ate my share of junk. Well, as an adult, I still do. But one of my fondest memories of my 2 years in Kansas City was dinner at Strouds. This isn’t a restaurant as you know restaurants… it feels like Sunday dinner at your Grandma’s house. Checkered tablecloths, a lazy susan, lemonade, family-style bowls of green beans, mashed potatoes and gravy… and after a 40-minute wait… the best pan Fried Chicken you have ever, ever had. Sadly, they closed the 85th Street location a while back, but the one across town continues to pack them in. Next time in Kansas City, have lunch at Gates BBQ, and dinner at Strouds.

In New York…..

Charles' Southern Style Kitchen 2837 Eighth Ave at 152nd St.
Okra and mac and cheese make this one of the NY's best spots for chicken. Get there. Open late every night and features a buffet.

Maroon’s 244 W. 16th St., between Seventh and Eighth Aves.
Good if ya find yourself downtown baby. Fried Green Tomatoes to die for.

Or… do it yourself at home.

Andre’s Pan Fried Chicken

3 pounds chicken breasts and legs
1 egg
2/3 cup buttermilk
2 cups flour
Salt, to taste
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 cup lard or crisco
1 cup solid white vegetable shortening

Let chicken warm to room temperature. Wipe with a damp cloth. In a wide bowl, beat egg with buttermilk.

Place flour, salt and peppers in a brown paper bag. In a large skillet (preferably cast iron) heat lard and shortening. Dip each piece of chicken into the buttermilk-egg mixture and place in a brown paper bag. Close top of bag and shake until piece is well coated. Remove, and repeat for each piece.

When shortening is hot (375 degrees F on a deep-fat thermometer), ease chicken into pan and cook over high heat, turning so both sides cook evenly. Do not crowd more than a few pieces of chicken into pan at one time. When chicken is light gold on both sides, turn down heat to low and partially cover skillet. Cook 15 minutes, turning chicken once.

Remove chicken and drain on brown paper bags. Serve warm or cold. Serves 6 to 8, or André and his brother Allen.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Vive la France: An Afternoon in Nice

I love the French.

There, I've said it. In a generation of French haters, I'm not afraid to come out of the closet. Sure, they can be mean. And yes, they can be surly. Uh, OK.... they can be demeaning and rude. But if they weren't, they wouldn't be French.

I learned a long time ago that the French just don't hate Americans.... they hate everyone. Maybe hate is too strong a word. How about... "get annoyed" by everyone.

With a beautiful country, amazing wine and fantastic food, gobs of tourists invade France on a regular basis. The Italians, Germans, Dutch, Spaniards and Danes... and don't forget the Japanese, Thai, Swiss, Canadians, Polish and Greeks. Throw in a heaping helping of non-French speaking Americans... and you get a stuffy scene.

That said, you've got to go to France.

I've been in and out of France nearly 20 times in the past 10 years... and have come to love French living. I opt out of the larger, fancy hotels and look for the quiet, boutique spots (like Caron de Beaumarchais in Paris). I've had the big, fancy expensive dinners but have come to love what I call "eating off the street". This would be ham and cheese baguettes, loaves of hot bread, gallons of coffee (café creme), light salads and plate sized bistro pizzas. I love the café and bistro life in France, and have learned that the majority of French citizens happen to agree with me.

Last week I ended my quick in and out to Europe in Nice... in the heart of the cote d'Azur. It is an amazing gem of a spot... nestled in between the overrated Cannes and the spectacular Monte Carlo. Nice is a great mixture of French heritage... flower markets, Palaces, a charming old town, a hip nightlife and a simply beautiful coastline. It is an excellent place to experience the true "French" way of life.

I was shocked to find fairly reasonable prices everywhere I went... much cheaper than those in the UK. Celebrating their Provence locale in the heart of the Riviera, you find amazing wine, olive oil, salts and spices that are worth the trip alone. But what makes Nice special are the people.

This is a place that loves NOT being Paris. Unlike the Parisian's who love to remind you how great they are as well as their fair city, the people of Nice celebrate life on their own schedule. They embrace those who come to spend their money, and love to share their knowledge of the good life. They sip coffee in sunny cafés and walk arm and arm through markets. Like the Italians, they shop for market items daily and plan on having company every night.

Few places celebrate their natural resources like Nice... a lesson the rest of the world could learn from. If you are planning a trip to Europe, plan a trip to the cote d'Azur... you'll learn to appreciate the European way of life on a whole new way.

Air France, BA, Air Inter and many international airlines serve the Nice-Côte d'Azur airport. Rail connections from Paris via TGV, or by car on the Autoroute du Soleil, A6 - A8. Try NOT to book a tour with a car, you won't need it.

Suberb. Temperate winters are what started the Riviera craze in the 1830's; dry, hot summers; spring and fall usually perfect traveling weather. Enough rain to keep all that greenery in bloom, usually in November and February, but it rarely lasts long.

This is the land of the Mediterranean diet, in its best French-Provençal-Niçoise form. Fresh seafood, tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant, artichokes, olives and olive oil, garlic and onions, orchard fruits, thyme, rosemary, sage, basil. Bouillabaisse has its local variations all along the coast. Nice specialties include ravioli and gnocchi; salade niçoise with tomatoes, tuna and anchovies; pissaladiera, an onion-and-anchovy pizza. Pan Bagnat is a breadroll filled with everything in the garden, drizzled with olive oil. Aïoli is garlic mayonnaise, often served with fish soup. Pistou is a version of pesto, a paste of basil, garlic and olive oil, sometimes with parmesan or pine nuts incorporated. Tapenade is a paste of black olives, anchovies, capers and oil. And of course, the lemons of Menton. Wines are fresh and fruity Côtes de Provence, Bandol, Cassis, the rare Bellet from near Nice, and local wines from the regions of La Gaude, St-Jeannet and Menton.

Provençal specialties-perfumes, honey, herbs, lavender, olive wood bowls and artifacts-are available in shops throughout the region. Biot and Vallauris are renowned for pottery and glass. Tourrettes-sur-Loup has more than a dozen real, working artisans-weavers, gold- and silversmiths, jewelers, leather craftsmen, potters-who sell their wares from their workshops.
The food markets are irresistible: Forville in Cannes, the Cours Saleya in old Nice, the Cours Masséna in old Antibes, the old town in Vence, the Halles and the Place aux Herbes in Menton. All of these have vendors of locally pressed virgin olive oil, too. Flea markets on Saturdays in Antibes, Sunday mornings in Villefranche-sur-Mer. Grasse, of course, has perfume. Carved wooden santons, traditional figures for Christmas. (Travel specific facts provided by http://town.hall.org).

Friday, April 07, 2006

London: Ghosts of A Glorious Past

I have had the good fortune of traveling the world with my work. From Bangkok to Budapest, Denmark to Rio… I have stepped foot into some 30 + countries… and honestly, I think I’ve learned something from each and every one of them.

This week there was business to be done overseas in short fashion as I made a mad dash through Europe… starting in London. Aboard the swift EuroStar train, we completed a charter trip that landed us in Cannes, France in just 8 hours. The train averaged about 185 miles an hour. On a train, that’s moving.

I’ll expound on France in a few days, but I thought I’d take a moment to salute my friends in jolly old England. This is a spot for me to air my comments on food, travel and lifestyle and London is a city near and dear to my heart, and for mainly one reason.


For me, much of that tradition starts with the pub. Before we dig deeper regarding the jolly pub, let me qualify a few things I’ll say about the United Kingdom.

From a travel and luxury standpoint, England doesn’t exactly jump out of the travel books at you. It’s not known for spas (although there are many), extraordinary cuisine (although they boast some of the world’s greatest chefs), extreme sports (ok, the line a Harrods can get hairy at times) or sandy white beach resorts with buff tan bodies (no comeback for that one). On the flip side, the sights are plentiful… and these are places you have been staring at in history books since 3rd grade. But why does a trip to England stick with you?

The glory of the United Kingdom is tradition. You feel it, smell it, touch it. Having only a few hours off to make a foot trip across my favorite part of town, I rediscovered London again…. for the 8th time.

My “hood” is and always will be Mayfair. Mayfair is situated south of Hyde Park, and walking distance from Picadilly Circus and Soho. It is a well to-do area with some of the world’s finest shopping, boutique hotels and art galleries. It has an abundance of public squares (Berkely Square, Grovsnor, etc) and winding streets that lead to nowhere. I love this area because I love to walk to where I’m going and hate to walk back. The trip back from Soho is just far enough to justify a ride in a black taxi ( plenty far enough at 2-3 miles).

So, let’s chat about the Pub.

First, a proper British Pub is a very different place than your local bar and grill, no matter how English they try to be. Even the Brit Pubs in NYC and Boston don’t have the feeling of an authentic pub found in London. What they lack is the heart and soul of the mere existence of such a place… a value that must be earned over time. Say, several hundred years.

The proper English pub is one built of dark woods, antique carpets or shiny wooden floors, and a long bar with many taps. It is adorned with brass and copper appointments. There is an old crusty guy with a wrinkled face along side a younger, decidedly unattractive girl who has received more than her share of marriage proposals. In the air wafts the unmistakable smell of fish and chips and bangers and mash… along side of a stale beer smell that has lingered since the late 50’s. There are stairs leading to a bathroom, either up or down. The music selection is a bizarre mix of Tom Jones and Supertramp which doesn’t really matter if there is an English Football (soccer) match on the television… we’ll soon all be singing athletic songs as the evening progresses. People are smoking cigarettes like each one may be their last.

Rules abound at a proper pub. First, many pubs don’t allow sitting at the bar, as it makes the task of stepping up to difficult when the time comes to request your pint. You’ll also notice that there is a gift to pouring a beer, and if it isn’t just right, the Londoners will let the barkeep know about it. My favorite quirk?… there is an unspoken acknowledgement that you will be having another pint, no matter how many you’ve had…. therefore you never have to ask for another, you just need to know how to say stop. Depending how many pints you’ve had, this can prove to be harder than it may seem.

The Duke of Albemarle, The Audley, The Stelly… three of seemingly three thousand pubs in and around London. What makes them so amazing?


Imagine the feeling of knowing the very bar you share your workday stories at, is the same bar your Grandfather discussed proposing to your Grandmother with his chums… likely drinking the same beer.

At Brown’s, a remarkable hotel situated in the heart of Mayfair, I sipped the driest gin martini known to mankind while enjoying a Cuban cigar in their small and distinguished bar, located right off the main salon where they serve high tea daily. A bowl of cashews accompanied the cocktail as a man approached me in a crisp black jacket.

“Churchill loved this bar”, remarked the elderly bartender, the son of the previous barkeep for some 45 years in the same room. I gazed at him in amazement. “He loved taking meetings here so he could come down here afterwards and hide”, he said with a wry smile.

I later learned that Brown’s has been welcoming Heads of State and Royalty to Mayfair for well over 150 years. Imagine the conversations that had happened in this room. At my table. With this martini.


Wednesday, April 05, 2006

The Complete Kitchen

Becoming a scratch cook doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time to learn what you need and don’t need to make magic happen in the kitchen… and some trial and error at that. But the truth is having a simple list of items at your disposal at all times can make a serious difference in what and when you can whip up something special.

Now kitchens vary by taste, but the list provided below is the essential items of the Southern Kitchen. I happen to think this list transforms all areas and tastes… as I use the same basic starting point for most of my cooking…. but one thing is for sure. You can’t go wrong with this stuff in your pantry and fridge.

1. Chicken Stock and/or good quality Chicken Base
I don’t know if I can stress how important this is, as many of my dishes call for stock. Hell, even if they don’t I can pretty much betcha that I’ll be adding a splash to a savory dish I am cooking. But realize the finishing of a sauce, braising of a meat, beginning of a soup, adjusting of a gumbo or ettoufee… even smothering a pot of green beans.. calls for a good stock. Base can be easy to keep around as well (without taking up the space) if you don’t mind mixing with hot water… just make sure you avoid the brands that list salt as a main ingredient.

2. Bacon
What can I say? Flavor is flavor, and pork fat is king. Emeril didn’t make all of that cash cooking veggie lasagna. As you read down the list, you’ll see where I am going with this, but in my world most savory dishes start with fresh vegetables sautéed in bacon grease. It flavors my veggie dishes, I wrap whole chickens with it and when all else is lost, crank out a killer BLT.

3. Onions, Bell Peppers and Celery
The holy trinity. The base of most all soups, stew and casseroles below the Mason-Dixon Line and for good reason. I didn’t include garlic in this group but can tell you that I have a bag of fresh garlic in my fridge almost always as well. Throw carrots into this group and you can broaden your possibilities even more.

4. Kosher Salt/Pepper Mill
Truly important as most cooks don’t realize that cooking is a layering of flavor. We many times forget to season our chickens, hamburgers, onions and peppers, etc… kosher and/or sea salt is essential as well as a pepper mill, which can really make a difference. Refined pepper may be fine for a heaping bowl of cole slaw or seasoning a platter of catfish getting ready to be rolled in mustard and fried… but everything else deserves a twist of a good pepper mill.

5. Rice and Pasta
Well, I am guessing these are two items you may have… and rightfully so. The Chinese and Italian cultures can make a meal from these two dishes in less than 60 seconds. In the deep south, we usually put on a pot of rice… and then figure out what’s for dinner. Pasta with fresh herbs, a bit of chicken stock and a splash of cream can win you accolades for it’s decadent simplicity (add an egg and really show em! ). Don’t forget… yesterday’s pot of rice is today’s Fried Rice (or rice pudding).

6. Heavy Cream or Half and Half
A rule for me. As stated above quick pasta dishes can be sinful with just a bit of heavy whipping cream.. as well as transforming that leftover spaghetti sauce into a pink sauce tossed with rigatoni.

7. Parsley
A true secret… but almost every dish I whip up needs some sort of fresh herb for an taste of authenticity… and parsley is the call for me. OK, I also love the stuff. Try on a salad, in a soup or stew, as a garnish sprinkle… well you get it. It will make your dishes feel alive.

8. House Spice
Last but not least is something you must must have, and that is a mixtureof spices I call house spice. This is the stuff our chef friends scream “BAM” when they use it…. Remember earlier when I mentioned seasoning each layer of your dishes while you assemble them to cook? Well, here is your calling card. In my kitchen I keep a ceramic jar with a lid on it… inside is my own house spice blend of salt, pepper, cayenne, garlic power, onion powder, paprika, thyme, basil and oregano. I season just about everything everyday with this stuff. It gives my dishes a unique taste that I have used now in 2 restaurants. It is a trick most folks never get… so it is my gift to you!

The recipe below has really become a family favorite, and I find myself making it every summer at our family reunion in Michigan.... great on a warm summer night with something grilled along side. You can also serve in a carved out tomato or with a sandwich.....Get your house spice ready!

White Bean and Corn Relish

2 pound white beans, soaked overnight and rinsed
4 bay leaf
4 cups freshly shucked corn (or canned shoepeg works great)
4 tablespoons chopped shallots
Olive oil for cooking
2 cups small diced cucumber
8 tablespoons small diced red bell pepper
1 1/2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme
4 tablespoon champagne vinegar
8 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper
Creole spice(your house blend!)

In a small sauce pan cook the beans until tender: drain and rinse. Cooking time depends on how old the beans are. In a small saute pan cook the corn and the shallots in hot oil until tender, about 3 minutes. Season with creole spice. Set aside to cool. In a small bowl combine the cooled beans, cooled corn and shallots, cucumbers, peppers, thyme, vinegar and oil. Season highly with house or Creole spice.
Yield: 12 cups

Monday, April 03, 2006

A Dish Worth The Trip : OTTO

It’s no secret that I am fan of the Mario Batali empire, and just north of Washington Square in the heart of the NYU neighborhood is one of his most interesting and glorious creations, Otto.

Many people pronounce it “Ah-Toe”.. but think Oh-Toe as in the number 8, in Italian.

The restaurant is in many ways a simplified version of Babbo and Lupa… and is given free reign to experiment in ways the other two may get slapped for. But time and again Otto seems to work… as confirmed by my visit last weekend when I encountered a 25 minute wait at 11:00pm. Nice.

The interior of Otto is just about as fun as a restaurant can get in this part of town. The bar scene is just that, a scene… with an working European Train Marquis, that by flipping it’s black letters announcing that your table is ready (we were on the train to Parma).

So, let’s cut to the chase. As good as the dishes are here… the pizza is suberb and the pastas can be as well (if you are into very al dente cooking with a lean to sometimes gamey pork cheeks), but the stars of Otto are wine and cheese.

The wine list is really spectacular as Mario and partners have gathered a darn near completely Italian wine list that would make even the most uptight wine snob smile. Want to take wine classes?... You can. But the cheese. The cheese.

First, cheese in and of itself is magic. But when you compliment the cheese with say, condiments? Well… you get a reason to make a reservation at Otto.

The cheese platter comes with your choice of how many (3, 5, 9) from a list that features everything from Parmesano Reggiano to Manchego. But… oh yea, the condiments.

Well, when the busboy whisks by your table and drops three empty plates down, you get curious. Then they arrive. A bowl of sweet, gooey honey infused with black truffles, a jar of black cherries in their own compote and a jar of stewed apricots in a thick marmalade.

Enough said. Ya take the cheese, ya dip it in, ya go speechless. Paired with just the right wine, and you start to think differently about dinner. Hmmm, maybe we'll share a pizza... share a pasta. Maybe we'll order more cheese.

Each great restaurant has their signature dish.

At Otto, this is it. I'll see ya there.