Flowers to Magnolia

I agree that Greg Cox got it right in The News & Observer today with the majority of his best restaurant picks for 2011 in the Triangle. I certainly agree with the top pick, Magnolia Grill in Durham, N.C.

It’s easy to forget that, long before the boom in Triangle restaurants and when the idea of “eat local” made diners scratch their heads, chef Ben Barker was out in front. Twenty years ago, the fact that he asked local farmers to actually grow produce just for him was weird enough to warrant articles. Now, connecting with local producers is an accepted fact for restaurants with any aspirations. Not to mention the restaurant kitchens that are populated with Magnolia Grill graduates. Read the rest of the list here and see what you think.

It’s been a big time for the Triangle in publications. Bon Appetit finally discovered us, and the February issue is plump with mentions of  Triangle goodies, from hot sauce Cackalacky (one of my favorites, it includes sweet potatoes as an ingredient) to a piece called “One Rowdy Night in Carolina.”

When I see national (usually New York-based) publications write about North Carolina, I think of a time a decade or so ago when I contacted the New York Times about a place they wrote about that was listed as being in this state. I hadn’t heard of it. When I got hold of the writer, he gave me the location – in a town in SOUTH Carolina. When I pointed out his error, he replied: “Aren’t they the same?”

For a magazine who knows North Carolina, the current issue of Our State is food themed and stuffed with sweet goodies. The cover, showing a maple syrup and, yes, country ham cake, should have been printed in scratch-and-sniff.

Carolina class

I had been warned that the James Beard Awards Gala in New York was a mob scene, but no one mentioned that potbellied pigs would be in attendance. As I joined the hordes on May 9 in the post-awards crawl through the area outside Avery Fisher Hall where nearly 60 tables of food and drink from restaurants across the country sat, there they were. In black tie, of course. Those were working pigs, promoting WhistlePig Whiskey.

Before diving into the cocktails, food and milling thousands, I had the privilege of seeing Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill, N.C. honored as an American Classic – and viewing chef Bill Smith resplendent in an Alexander Julian tux with Carolina Blue jacket lining. (A surprise gift from Julian, who also designed the Tar Heels’ basketball uniforms.) That was appropriate, since comedian and Cooking Channel show host Mo Rocca said Crook’s was a place where UNC and Duke fans can come together. Rocca obviously hasn’t spent much time here during basketball season – I fear that not even Smith’s wonderful shrimp and grits or honeysuckle sorbet could accomplish a detente. In a classy touch, Smith thanked his Hispanic cooks in Spanish.

North Carolina really brought the class to the awards, with Andrea Reusing, chef of Lantern in Chapel Hill, going home with Best Chef: Southeast honors.

But what y’all want to know is what I ate, right? One standout for me was from Rachel Yang of Joule in Seattle: A combination of buttery smoked walu (also known as escolar) with a fennel and bean paste. A simple combination that showed how the good stuff works together was thinly sliced Spanish ham topped with American caviar from Jose Andres of Washington, D.C. Andy Ricker, chef of Pok Pok in Portland, Ore., fresh off his Best Chef: Northwest win, was sending out cubes of rice cakes in pumpkin and melon flavors. And perhaps because of the excesses around me, salmon sushi from Sushi Zen of New York hit a soothing spot as I was on my way to cocktails.

I am always surprised at how many random people have connections to North Carolina. I met bartenders serving powerful vodka martinis, PR folks smiling and handing out business cards, restaurateurs – all with some connection to the Tar Heel State.

If you want all the awards, visit here.

Professional eater on closed course: Do not try at home

“What, they couldn’t hit double digits?” I thought when I received an invitation to a nine-course dinner prepared by 13 culinary students at The Art Institute of Raleigh-Durham. Nine courses in one Monday night? That’s an Olympic contest as much as a meal. But I’m sure that competitors in that event where you ski a whole bunch, then fling yourself on the ground and shoot a rifle never eat this well.

The evening started with Ahi Tuna, Avocado and Crab Timbale, a stack of beautifully cubed tuna and avocado with a layer of crab on the bottom, dotted with sweet soy sauce. Light, refreshing, a good start, although I thought the crab on the bottom kind of muddied things up flavor-wise. And it came with the first of six wines. Next, Tomato Sliders and V7. The play on a slider, using a soft, slightly sweet cookie “bun,” was filled with chopped tomato and shallot. A small  glass of “V7” was a twist on V8 juice, but lighter and with a kick (the students had considered lighting the vodka on the top, but thought again). I liked the contrasting flavors of sweet, tart and hot.

So far, this looked like a breeze.

The third dish, Roasted Beet Salad with Red Onion, Poblano and Lime lacked any poblano flavor that I could discern, and my portion was a little heavy on the oil. But it was vegetables, and I ate it. Still six courses to go, and I needed vitamins. It was time to start pacing myself, so I tasted only a few spoonfuls of the Roasted Apple and Parsnip Soup. It was velvety smooth but a bit sweet for me, although other guests raved about it. I’m just a tart girl. I also restrained on nibbling all of the Trio of Crostini: Eggplant Caviar, Goat Cheese and Salmon Rillette.

The room filled with exotic perfume as the Spiced Duck, Farro and Cumin-Scent Carrots arrived. The perfectly spiced and cooked duck slices and crispy carrot strips, and the aroma, shook off my palate fatigue. The farro (a grain) described as “creamy” wasn’t, but it didn’t matter next to  the wonderful duck. When Yogurt Pannacotta with Cucumber-Mint Sauce arrived, I knew I had to slow it down or I wouldn’t make it to the Fruit Napoleon with Papaya Shooter and Raspberry Coulis. The goal was in sight.

Rack of Lamb with Risotto and Grilled Asparagus stood between me and the dessert finish line. Perfectly cooked lamb with a passion-fruit sauce was the good part; risotto that wasn’t herb-flavored as described and a little thick was the not-so-good. But I reached the finish line, where a fluffy stack of crisp phyllo and spiced cream with pureed papaya awaited. A light dessert, thank goodness.

The dinner was a test for the students in the two-year program, and the room of invited restaurant and industry professionals went through each dish with the chef-instructor and evaluated them.

If you haven’t trained for such a marathon, the restaurant, The District, is open to the public. The days and hours depend on the institute’s 11-week semesters, but the next semester opening should be around April 15. Call 919-317-3200 for information. When open, The District offers breakfast on Fridays and lunch on Thursdays and Fridays. And the WMCA’s treadmills are right across the hall.

Light a lantern for Beard finalists

Congratulations to Andrea Reusing of Chapel Hill’s Lantern restaurant for making the final six for Best Chef: Southeast in the James Beard Awards. The finalists were announced today, and winners will be named May 9. Another North Carolina chef is among the finalists: John Fleer, chef of Canyon Kitchen in Cashiers. The others are Hugh Acheson of Athens, GA.; Craig Deihl of Charleston, S.C.;  Linton Hopkins of Atlanta; and Edward Lee of Louisville, KY.

Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill has been named an American Classic, one of four restaurants to receive that designation.


James Beard Awards semi-finalists

I remember when most people outside North Carolina thought there was nothing in this state but barbecue and bootleg liquor. Now, the state has real chef cred. Nine North Carolina chefs are among the 20 semi-finalists for Best Chef-Southeast in the James Beard Awards. The names were announced today.

The chefs are: Ashley Christensen, Poole’s, Raleigh; Scott Crawford, Herons at the Umstead Hotel and Spa, Cary; Scott Howell, Nana’s, Durham; Shane Ingram, Four Square, Durham; Andrea Reusing, Lantern, Chapel Hill; Chip Smith, Bonne Soiree, Chapel Hill; Aaron Vandemark, Panciuto, Hillsborough; John Fleer, Canyon Kitchen at Lonesome Valley, Cashiers; and Keith Rhodes, Catch, Wilmington.

Ben Barker of Magnolia Grill in Durham is a semi-finalists for Outstanding Chef, a nationwide award.

Finalists will be announced on March 21 with the winners to be named in May. Go out this weekend and show our own star chefs the love. For more information on the James Beard Foundation and the awards, visit here.

Food news roundup

If you’ve ever wondered why restaurant critics don’t all weigh 300 pounds, Greg Cox, restaurant critic for the News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.), shares his eating strategies here as part of the N&O’s series on diet and weight loss.

At the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer, a Grinchily worn down Kathleen Purvis devises a plan to spread out the holidays. See if you agree here.

Do not adjust your computer: Those are actual animals made into beer containers in the photo with an article in the Independent Weekly (Durham, N.C.) about the year in beer. Despite the frightening roadkill bottles (limited edition versions by BrewDog), the article here is interesting. Did you know home brewing is still illegal in Alabama and Mississippi? introduces us to the Grease Beast: A cheeseburger between two grilled cheese sandwiches with onion rings, cheese fries and ranch dressing. Defibrillator, anyone?

“Foraged food is the new organic produce” declares the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel as it gazes forward into food trends for the coming year. Read more here.

Things are wild in the food world today. The Minneapolis Star Tribune writes about farm-raised wild boar. I tell you, they are some ugly looking hogs.

A charging station for electric vehicles at a wine bar? Only in Portland, Ore. Read more of the Oregonian’s 100 Things We Love here.

If you’re planning a trip west to escape the cold, check out San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic Michael Bauer’s picks for the best Bay Area restaurants of 2010. It’s here.

Food news roundup

I opened my News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.) Features section today to….”Survivor.” Apparently, the new season starts tonight, and I still don’t know why I should care. Where’s my Food? Oh, at the bottom of the page, next to a rock concert review. The article is by your humble blogger, offering tips to make football tailgating simple. I can’t help your team, though. It’s here.

A new downtown city market is contemplated in the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer. The question is, will anyone shop there? Read more here.

The joy of end-of-summer dining at walk-up windows is the topic in the Wilmington (N.C.) Star-News. Save money, too. The story is here.

Another installment in the ongoing story of the opening of Husk is in the Post and Courier in Charleston, S.C. The restaurant’s chef, Sean Brock, will source everything on the menu from the South. That means no olive oil or balsamic vinegar, among other things. I hope for bacon fat as a substitute. Read more here.

The San Francisco Chronicle takes readers behind the scenes at the French Laundry, the California restaurant recognized as one of the world’s best. I couldn’t help thinking of “Ratatouille.” The article is here.

Exotic new flavors of soda pop and how to cook with them is the subject in the Chicago Tribune. Anyone remember Wacky Cake? Read the article, accompanied by a photo of a stunningly pink cake, here.

The balm of burgers and brews

There are times in your life when you crave basic food. My husband and I had one of those times this weekend in Kansas City, MO. Thanks to inadequate directions from the ladies at the rental car counter (bad sign: person says she doesn’t live in the city), we became epically lost trying to get from the airport to the hotel. Spectacularly lost. We ended up in Kansas. We crossed the Missouri River five times, on the same bridge. Ramps turned into exit-only lanes, and we were on three to four different numbered highways going in what we thought were the same direction, only to see them diverge. We almost went the wrong way on a roundabout. When we found a place that looked safe enough to stop, we called the hotel. The clerk said, “You’re WHERE?” but easily talked us in, finally. (Before you say it, I know – one word next time: Garmin.)

We parked the car and didn’t want to see it ever again. We wanted to see beers, many of them. Luckily, I had planned ahead by asking my colleague in the Association of Food Journalists, Jill Silva, food editor of the Kansas City Star, for restaurant suggestions. One was a mere block away: Blanc Burgers + Bottles. The beer menu was longer than the food menu, which was fine with us. We sampled two local microbrews by Boulevard Brewing, a pale ale and an unfiltered wheat, both smooth and soothing.

There are salads and sides, like the delicious onion rings with house-made ketchup and chipotle aioli, but they are but handmaidens to the burgers. The knowledgeable waiter said that all the beef, except that on the American kobe burger, is locally sourced. The brioche buns, large enough to accommodate the half-pound burgers, come from a local bakery. There are bison and turkey burgers, and lentil and portobello burgers, but I had no use for them. The Surf & Turf was tempting – an American kobe burger with lobster tail, lobster butter, fennel and asparagus salad. As was the $100 Burger (actually $15), stuffed with red wine-braised short ribs and topped with foie gras butter and onion marmalade. But my husband went with the Classic: lettuce, tomato, mustard, house-made ketchup and pickles on a sesame brioche bun. On the waiter’s suggestion, I ordered the Inside Out, a burger stuffed with blue cheese and served topped with an onion ring, bacon, ketchup and lettuce on an onion brioche bun. It contained just enough blue cheese to enhance without overpowering the beef; no mean feat.

There are times in life when a meal matches exactly what you’re craving, even if you didn’t know you were craving it. And at that time, in that situation, it’s the best thing you ever ate. That’s what happened to us that night. I felt so good that I didn’t even think about smacking our kindly waiter when he looked at the shard or two of burger and bun on my plate and said, “Gee, most people don’t finish that one.” OK, so I was a big honkin’ burger hog, but I was a happy one.

Congratulations, nominees

The final nominations for the James Beard Awards were announced today, and two Triangle chefs remain in the running for the national honors. Andrea Reusing of Lantern and Bill Smith of Crook’s Corner, both in Chapel Hill, N.C., are two of the five nominees for Best Chef Southeast. The other nominees are Sean Brock of McCrady’s in Charleston, S.C. and Hugh Acheson of Five and Ten in Athens, Ga.

Find out more about the awards here.

Food news roundup

Peanut butter is on the mind at The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.) today. Andrea Weigl’s article is about uses for this economical ingredient that most people love. But it does not address the eternal question: Why does the bread always land peanut-butter-side down when you drop it on the floor? Read more here.

But what’s really in that jar of peanut butter could be pretty jarring. Kathleen Purvis rips the lid off the ingredients in commercial spreads in the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer, here.

The Winston-Salem (N.C.) Journal explains how to make great pizza at home. And, no, you don’t have to be able to toss the crust in the air. Read more here.

Harissa is a fiery African condiment, made from peppers, garlic and spices, that will heat up any dish. The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.) says that it’s especially good for pumping up the flavor in vegetarian recipes. Check it out here.

The Los Angeles Times has an interesting piece about how restaurants are installing gardens on site and trying to be more sustainable in their practices. Read it here.