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Archive for August, 2009

The homegrowing ways of chef Billy Allin

The Allin family. (Credit: Jeremy Jones Photography)

The Allin family. (Credit: Jeremy Jones Photography)

Remember “Restaurant Stories” — my column that appears in the Sunday print edition of the AJC? Yeah, didn’t think so.

I’ve been remiss in uploading my column to this blog. But, anyhow, here’s the latest about chef Billy Allin of Cakes & Ale, who grows a lot of the produce for his popular Decatur restaurant in his magical backyard garden.

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Pork skins with Margrit Mondavi

Robert Mondavi’s widow, Margrit Biever Mondavi, passed through Atlanta recently on a meet-and-greet mission and invited me to join her before a dinner engagement for a quick snack and a drink at Abattoir. So I arrived one brutally hot late afternoon at this westside meat museum from chefs Anne Quatrano and Clifford Harrison, sat down with Mrs. Mondavi and a couple of her colleagues from the winery, and joined them for fresh pig-skin chicharrones (in the bowl at left) and a recent vintage of Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve. It made for a strange Happy Hour menu, but a delightful time.

I had heard that the Swiss-born Mrs. Mondavi was a very charming character, and she more than lived up to her reputation. Not only had she gamely not wilted in the August sun, but seemed to dive into the menu with gusto.

“I’d love to try some real Southern food!’ she enthused, which is easier said than done at Abattoir. (Are lamb liver fritters Southern? Discuss.)

We eventually ended up with …

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“Top Chef” recap, episode 2: Crapshoot

Credit: Bravo TV

Credit: Bravo TV

This weekly recap of “Top Chef: Las Vegas” CONTAINS SPOILERS. If you are adverse to SPOILERS then there is really only one thing you can do. Take your laptop and completely enclose it in Glad Press ‘N Seal, which clings to a variety of surfaces including fruit cocktail, seat-back airplane trays, tuna tartare, Padma’s fetching cerulean shorts, Tom’s shiny pate and Eve’s Midwestern dipthongs.

Aah. Poor Eve. Poor Michigan. The Wolverine State has not had a good run of things lately. First Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick obstructs justice. Then General Motors goes bankrupt. And now Eve, mauler of shrimp, heads home to the land of “pets or meat.” But more on Eve’s sad fate later.

Our sixteen chefs begin their grueling competition in the Top Chef kitchen where Padma and guest judge Todd English (chef and restaurateur, Figs and Olives) are standing by a craps table. The chefs must prepare a Japanese steakhouse feast on this felt-covered table, complete with airborne …

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Delighting in awful restaurant service





While on vacation this summer, my family and I endured an evening in a restaurant where we were that table — the one where everything went wrong. The drinks never came. The staff was overwhelmed. The kitchen was soooooo slow and then rushed our order, resulting in slapdash cooking. At one point, we saw our waitress head into the kitchen crying. 

As experiences go, it was a miserable one. But in a perverse way I enjoyed it. It got me thinking about my early days as a food writer when I reviewed restaurants and nobody knew who I was. Not only is it fun to write about dining disasters, but you are doing a public service for readers. I think being privy to a restaurant at its worst gives you some insight into how it is at its best. 

The subject came up recently, when Bill Keller, the editor of the New York Times, addressed the lack of anonymity of that paper’s new restaurant critic, Sam Sifton in an online chat

That got me thinking about the whole …

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Jen and Betty



A wise blogger also sees the resemblance between Philadelphian-to-beat Jennifer Carroll from “Top Chef: Las Vegas” and Betty Draper.

Of course, Betty is a gimlet gal, while Jen’s drinking habits run closer to those of George Thorogood.

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“Top Chef” recap: on vice cuisine, fried steak and showgirls

Credit: Bravo TV

Credit: Bravo TV

Note: This will be the first of weekly recaps of “Top Chef: Las Vegas.” They will CONTAIN SPOILERS, so if you haven’t seen this week’s episode yet and don’t want to know the results, don’t read this. Thanks!

And so it begins. Seventeen eager chefs sporting at least 400 tattoos have arrived in a magical place where there are slot machines in the airport: Las Vegas.
Padma Lakshmi explains that the contestants are vying for many prizes, which include a roll of Glad Wrap and a subscription to Food & Wine. Or something like that. Maybe some cash.

Who do we have? Shall we meet them? Maybe not all of them – 17 is a lot of chef to absorb. But let’s start with a few.

We have, all together now, three Atlantans: Hector Santiago from Pura Vida, who likes to smoke and run his hand through his ponytail when he’s nervous. Go Hector! We have Kevin Gillespie from Woodfire Grill, who says he turned down a full scholarship to M.I.T. to go to cooking school. (Have his parents …

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Red, red chiles and homemade sriracha

When we came home from vacation last week, the ever-abundant jalapeño and serrano chile plants in our garden were heavy with ripe, red and ready-to-rot fruit. If I wanted to use this bounty, I figured that I had only three options: I could make an inedibly spicy dinner that night. I could pick the peppers and stick them in the back of the vegetable crisper to continue rotting. Or I could try and devise some way to preserve them.

And so I decided to make my own version of sriracha sauce. Reading the label on the back of the Huy Fong bottle, the recipe seemed to consist of little more than ripe red chiles, sugar, garlic and vinegar.

Easy enough. I coarsely chopped the red chiles as well as a few green ones with some garlic and tossed them with several spoonfuls of sugar to macerate, much like berries for a pie. I covered the bowl and forgot about them until the next day.

At that point, the soupy chilies found their way to the blender. I added some seasoned rice vinegar, some …

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Top Chef: Las Vegas. There will be showgirls…

Guess what happens in the first episode of “Top Chef,” which airs Wednesday night?

Now that I’ve seen a preview of the full show, I can tell you a few things in that kind of vague, TV critic way — “interesting developments,” “compelling characters” — but of course I can’t reveal any spoilers. I couldn’t, for instance, tell you that a contestant named Betty sticks her hand into a running Robot Coupe food processor to dislodge an errant piece of fennel, with tragic results. Or that Jose makes a three-course repast entirely with dried roots he bought from a Chinese herbalist.

These events will not happen. There is no Betty. There is no Jose.

I guess I can tell you the following bits of information and informed opinion. Though if my friends at Bravo TV detect spoilage, I will have to wrap up this post in one of the Glad family of products and stick it on ice. So read quickly. Here’s what I have for you:

  1. The show starts with a whopping 17 contestants, and will run about 15 minutes …

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The best thing I ate on vacation



My family and I are just back from a week in the Berkshire Mountains of Western Massachusetts — home to several world-class summer arts festivals and more than a few mediocre restaurants. Suffice it way this wasn’t an eating vacation.

But we did tack on a couple of days in New York at the end of the trip to visit family, walk around the city, shop and….hey, kids, let’s go to Ssam Bar!

I wasn’t quite sure how my daughters would like this pork-happy, offal-intensive, Asian-sorta-kinda-but-not-really link in the small chain of Momofuku restaurants in the East Village. (SSam refers to a Korean dishes that are wrapped; the house signature is a barbecued pork shoulder with lettuce wraps.)

My kids wouldn’t have much to relate to at this restaurant. But, as it turned out, they loved it all — everything from the cured trout with watermelon and roe, to sugar snaps tossed in an intense to XO sauce with minced egg mimosa, to the crispy pig’s head patties served …

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“Top Chef” Countdown

Credit: Bravo TV

Credit: Bravo TV

I just got off a conference call with two of the four “Top Chef” judges — Toby Young (at the far left in the photo) and Gail Simmons (far right). This Bravo TV reality cooking show begins its new season next Wednesday with a “supersized episode” that will last from 9 p.m. to 10:15 p.m. Three of the 17 contestants are Atlantans.

The judges answered a bunch of questions from journalists about what they thought of Las Vegas, what the conditions were like on the set, what impact the show has had, and so on.

Here’s what I found interesting:

On Las Vegas:

  • Young said he liked it because he could be a “Libertarian” there, walking around the casino floor in his bathrobe and holding a cigar. Um, “libertine”?
  • Simmons loved getting off the Strip and visiting the Neon Museum of old signs. She also said the city’s dry climate was a godsend to the chefs’ baking efforts. In previous cities, the humidity played a decisive role in the success and failure of different …

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