Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Food & Garden Festival at Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden

Yo!  Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden has it's annual Food & Garden Festival going on this weekend!  I'm out of town and unfortunately can't make it but I thought I'd spread the word.  It sounds like a fun event and a great chance to learn about various plants found on the grounds and see chefs using them to make delicious dishes.  Plus, you'll get to see cooking demos and meet local culinary celebrities like Simply Delicioso's Ingrid Hoffman (who is also behind the Latin Burger & Taco Truck), Wok Star Elenor Hoh, and Mango & Lime's Paula Nino.

For more information, tickets, and even a $5 coupon, click on over to Fairchild's site here.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Dinner In Paradise

My mother is a vegetable eater.  If she didn't like the occasional protein, I'm quite sure she would eat nothing but vegetables.  As a result, I grew up hearing, "eat your veggies" quite a bit.  So, when I first experienced Dinner In Paradise as part of the South Beach Wine & Food Festival in 2009, I knew it would be a perfect gift to fly her down and take her to one.

On April 11th, my Mum and I made the drive from Coconut Grove down to Paradise Farms, an organic farm located in Homestead, Florida, far removed from the bright lights of the city.  The weather was not cooperative at first, with blinding rain pouring down on us as we drove South.  A recorded voicemail message let us know that the dinner area was under shelter and that the show would go on.  Luckily, the rain ceased just as we pulled in to park outside Paradise Farms.  A simple sign greets each visitor - Welcome to Paradise Farms - No Meat - No Cigarettes.

The concept of Dinner In Paradise is simple.  Chefs from the Miami area are called upon to create a six-course meal using local organic products.  Each course is paired with wine, courtesy of Shari Gherman, President of American Fine Wine Competiton & Gold Medal Wine Tour.  This dinner featured Jeff McInnis of The Dilido at Ritz Carlton South Beach, Marco Ferraro of Wish at The Hotel, and John Critchley of Area 31 at the Epic Hotel.  After a cocktail hour with passed hors d' ouevres, guests are treated to a tour of the farm.  Mum loved the tour and was happy to hear that all but one of the flowers that bloomed all over the farm were edible and could be plucked and tasted as we walked the grounds.

Oyster mushrooms growing @ Paradise Farms

The grounds @ Paradise Farms

At the end of the tour we were seated at communal tables of ten for dinner.  After exchanging hellos with the rest of our table, we sat silent as Gabrielle gave an introduction to the dinner and the first course made its way to the table.  Chef McInnis had prepared fried green tomatoes with local goat cheese cherry tomato jam, seared sheep's milk cheese with chilled watermelon, and farm cheese with roasted beets and honeycomb.  Chef McInnis talked of being raised in Florida and gave a shoutout to his brother who was in attendance and also sporting a kickass handlebar 'stache.  I love a good cheese course and this one was a great way to start a meal.  My favorite was the seared sheep's milk cheese with watermelon.  It was incredibly refreshing.

Chef McInnis introduces his first dish

Chef Ferraro's chilled corn soup being plated

Chef Ferraro provided the second dish, a chilled corn soup with corn hash, toasted pine nuts, corn shoots, basil oil, and lemongrass foam.  He explained that no cream was added to the soup.  Instead, the soup relied on the natural "milk" from the corn along with a minimal amount of butter.  The result was absolutely fantastic.  I could have devoured an entire swimming pool of this soup.  I loved how the textures of the corn and pine nuts worked in this dish.  A truly awesome soup.

Course three brought Chef McInnis back to provide us with a coconut crab salad with avocado, grapefruit ginger, and cashew oil (pictured at the beginning of this post).  I liked the flavor of this dish when I was able to get a bit of the grapefruit on my fork along with the crab.  Chef Critchley came out with the fourth course which was meant as a palate cleanser.  A lychee "sponge" with lychee, curry leaf, a farro crisp, and some bee pollen was plated before us.  The most interesting thing was the use of the curry leaf, something I'd never had before.  This dish was also paired with a 2009 Il Poggio Sangiovese that was my favorite wine of the night.

I think we were all a bit puzzled looking at the menu and not seeing any proteins listed.  That was a minor gaffe.  The fifth course wasn't just cherry tomato, easter egg radishes, charred green beans, baby carrots, and mixed herbs with tomato dressing.  Chef Ferraro informed us that there was also a nice piece of skate involved that somehow got left off of the menu description.  The skate was light and flaky and soaked up the flavor of the veggies and dressing nicely.  My favorite part of this dish, however, was the cherry tomato.  These tiny tomatoes grow on the farm and are so incredibly flavorful.  I remembered them from my last Dinner In Paradise and I hope to find out how I can obtain some for home use.

 Gabrielle presents the chefs with hats and knives

Chef Critchley finished the meal with a dessert consisting of a rich bittersweet chocolate seasoned with flecks of sea salt and local mango.  Wine flowed freely as things began to wind down and Gabrielle thanked everyone for attending and supporting the farm.  She also presented the chefs with a Paradise Farms hat and a knife that I forget what the brand was.  One lucky guest also won a knife.  Though the night got off to a rough start with some rain that had me shaking my fist towards the sky in frustration, it ended up being just perfect.  The skies ceased their crying and we got to experience all of what Paradise Farms' Dinner In Paradise has to offer.  The dishes were incredibly fresh and filling and the company was great too.  Best of all was that I got to spend some nice quality time with my Mum which is something I don't get to do too often (and kudos to her for all of the great pics!).  I recommend that anyone who is looking for a different kind of dinner experience to check out next year's Dinner In Paradise series.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

On the Road: Southern BBQ - Part II

This week I returned to the South on business, knocking off another state I'd never been to - Alabama.  I flew into Birmingham on American Airlines' inaugural MIA-BHM direct flight and they had a nice reception waiting in Birmingham which was pretty cool.  After an afternoon of meetings, my sales rep, Bobby, and I were pretty hungry.  He lives in the Birmingham area and knows I love to eat so he took me to a place called Cajun Steamer.  Apparently the owners are originally from Louisiana and had moved to Alabama, missed the flavor of N'Awlins, and opened a restaurant.  I, for one, am thankful they did.

It was a perfect day for sitting outside so we did just that.  We started out with a full order of freshly boiled crawfish.  These little buggers were meaty and nice and spicy.  Sucking the heads really gave you a blast of flavor.  I think I've got my crawfish technique down to a dominant form of art now.  After the crawfish, we split an appetizer of fried green tomatoes that came topped with crab, corn, and a remoulade sauce.  This was a great dish.  The tomatoes were lightly fried in a cornmeal batter and the combination of the crab, corn, and sauce really worked well.

I was ready to tap out and call it quits, full on beer, crawfish, and the fried tomato app but Bobby suggested we finish off with an oyster po' boy.  I didn't think I could handle it but my manhood was questioned and I knew it would be 16 hours before I ate again so I ordered one.  It was a good call.  The oysters were lightly fried and flavorful and the bread was ultra soft.  Tomatoes and lettuce and a little remoulade made for a refreshingly filling sandwich.

The following day we had a couple of really good meetings with a stop at Hamburger Heaven thrown in between.  I was pumped when I saw a giant New England Patriots flag flying over the registers!  Bobby said the burgers tasted like you cooked 'em yourself on a grill in your backyard and he was right.  I had a nice and juicy bacon cheeseburger, its flavor enhanced by a "secret sauce" that had a nice spice to it.  The fries were kind of a whiff though and were dry and not crisp.

At the end of the day we ended up by the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) and Bobby recommended we go for some BBQ.  "Hell yeah!" was my reply.

The UAB area was a pretty cool looking college town with tons of shops, bars, and restaurants.  "See the smoke?", Bobby asked, "That's where we're eating."  Smoke billowed from the building that housed Dreamland Bar-B-Que, a small chain that originated in Tuscaloosa and had made its' way down to Birmingham.  The restaurant was filled with the charm of license plates from all over the country, some with funny vanity tags like "HI OFCR".

 Crappy iPhone pic of the barbecue pit @ Dreamland Bar-B-Que
 A large wood-fired barbecue pit manned by two dudes is where the action went down.  Above the pit was a large neon sign that read, "No Farting".  Awesome!  I bet that request has been ignored often.  We decided to split a full rack o' ribs and a basket of fries.

 Soft white bread and spicy bbq sauce "amuse bouche" lol

Rack o' Ribs @ Dreamland Bar-B-Que
While we waited we were served some soft white bread along wtih some barbecue sauce for dipping.  The sauce was similar to a vinegar based North Carolina sauce but thickened a bit with a nice spicy heat to it.  The ribs and fries arrived a few minutes later.  These were spare ribs, not baby backs, with the rib tips and cartilage intact.  The meat was a bit more toothsome than the baby backs I'd had in Charlotte and Memphis on my last trip to the South and held strong to the bone.  Nevertheless, the sauce helped enhance the flavor of the smokey meat.  I'm really particular about my fries and these fries were awesome.  They came to the table piping hot and lightly seasoned.  The fries had a nicely crisped outside and tasted like they were cut fresh.  The basket was a big mutha of a basket and sadly we left a nice pile of them behind because we were too full.  The way I've been eating lately, that was probably a good thing.

I was really happy with my first trip to Alabama.  I met with a good group of customers that have a lot of potential and I got to chow down on some Cajun crawfish and good ol' fashioned barbecue.  You can't go wrong with that.  I also learned of the Robert Trent Jones Trail, a smattering of 19 or so golf courses spread throughout Alabama, most of which are no more than an hour and a half outside of Birmingham.  That's going on the "To Do" list for next trip.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Taking a Stroll with Johnny Walker

This past Friday, I met up with a few friends and headed over to the Adrienne Arsht Center to check out The House of Walker Experience - a Johnnie Walker tasting event.  After all, having given The Macallan single malt scotch a try at a tasting on the previous Thursday, I thought it was only fair to give a blended scotch whisky it's fair shake. 

We arrived a tad late and missed the opening appetizers and cocktails.  One of the staff members named David told me we could stick around afterward for a cocktail and he would be happy to get us some apps.  He was the first of many of the event staff we met that night that was friendly and accommodating.  We entered the House of Walker to find long, white leather couches and tables lining three sides of the room, with projector screens on each of the three opposite walls.  In front of each seat inside the House of Walker, ingrained in the table was a little box with the brand logo and circles for the five blends of Johnnie Walker we would be sampling - Black, Red, Gold, Green, and Blue Label - though only three were present and filled when we arrived (black, red, green).   A video of a Scotsman taking a walk educated us on the history of Johnnie Walker and his blended scotch whisky.  It was a really cool video.

When the video ended Master of Whisky, Stephen Wilson, walked onto the stage and began to drop knowledge of all things Johnnie Walker on us.  We started with the Black Label which Stephen said was his favorite everyday whisky.  The Black Label was light in color, nose, and flavor with hints of fig and spice coming through on the palate.  It's a smooth scotch.  The next Walker brand we tried was the Red Label but first Stephen had us take a sliced strawberry from the little dish in front of us and dip it in a mixture of ground black pepper that was also sitting on the table.  The combination was surprisingly fantastic!  The sweetness of the strawberry and heat from the pepper really worked well and helped cleanse our palates.  We then sipped the Red Label.  This was my first time trying Red Label and I found it to be far less refined than the Black Label.  It had a heavier alcohol burn and I didn't enjoy the flavor as much.

The next glass in front of us held Johnnie Walker Green Label but we skipped that for the time being as lovely ladies entered the room carrying chilled glasses filled with Gold Label which is comprised of whiskys aged anywhere from 18-20 years.  Chilling the whisky in the freezer makes in more viscous.  That's what we learned as we swirled the alcohol around in our glasses, watching the "legs" form on the sides of the glass much like they do with wine.  The Gold Label had a honey, sugar nose and I tasted notes of vanilla and cake batter.  The texture of this particular whisky was velvety and creamy and there was less of an alcohol burn than the previous whiskys we had tried. 

The lovely ladies vanished and it was time to sip the Green Label, aged 15 years.  Before we took a sip, however, Stephen had us use the eyedropper on our tables to place a few drops of the whisky into the palm of our hand and then rub our hands together and take a whiff.  Doing this really brought out the scent of the wood barrels used during the aging process, giving my hands a nice woody, oak scent.  The whisky tasted grainy on the tongue as well, with a hint of sweetness in the finish.

Oohs and ahhs could be heard throughout the room as it was announced that the final Johnnie Walker we would be tasting was the ultra premium and ultra expensive Blue Label.  We learned that Blue Label is produced from a variety of aged whiskys.  It's expensive so it must be good, right?  Not if you ask me.  It had a grainy, floral nose to it but to me tasted flat and lacked definition.  If I were a Johnnie Walker drinker, I'd ignore the Blue Label altogether and stick with the Black or Gold Label whiskys. 

With the tasting now finished, Stephen took questions from the audience and then talked about "Swing" briefly but I didn't understand what Swing was?  Scotch?  What's the difference?  There wasn't an explanation.  Stephen also introduced us to Johnnie Walker Double Black, a smokier flavored Black Label that would be coming out soon.  At that point the event was over and we filtered out into the lobby.  My friends and I took David up on his offer and stayed for a cocktail, talking with him about the event.  David brought Stephen Wilson over and we had a nice chat.  Of course I had to ask if he enjoyed bourbon and he indeed said he did.  We sampled a few appetizers that were being passed around for the next showing of the House of Walker Experience and then hit the road.

So, what did we learn?  Well, I learned that I'm more of a fan of a single malt scotch like The Macallan as opposed to a blended scotch like Johnnie Walker.  However, from a presentation and brand building standpoint, I thought the House of Walker Experience was a far better produced event.  The staff was organized, guests were treated to appetizers and a pre-event cocktail (to be fair, I arrived at The Macallan event late so I may have missed apps and cocktails if they did that), and Stephen Wilson did a great job of walking us through the many different flavors of Johnnie Walker.  I also thought the venue showcased the brand extremely well.  Before tasting each whisky, the lights in the room would turn the color of that particular "Label" and a brief video would come on.  Even the furniture was impressive and had the brand worked into it.  The House of Walker was indeed an Experience and a good one at that. 

Sunday, April 4, 2010

On the Road: Southern BBQ

A few weeks back, my work travels took me to Charlotte, NC followed by a nice couple of days in Memphis, TN with a quick jaunt up to Jonesboro, AR thrown in between.  Naturally, I did what any man who loves southern food would do - I ate BBQ.  Every.  Single.  Day.

I arrived in Charlotte on a Saturday morning to help one of my customers prepare for a trade show.  I had worked this same show last year and remembered it was a good 20 minutes outside the city.  Without a car, I was limited for eating options but I remembered having some decent 'cue at a chain called Smoky Bones that was right across the street from my hotel.  An industry buddy of mine that I'd met the year before at this show was there again so we decided to head over to Smoky Bones for lunch and then made a return visit on Sunday for dinner.  The ribs at Smoky Bones are pretty good but not awe inspiring.  They give you a choice of BBQ sauces on the side, one being a sweet BBQ sauce and the other a mustard based sauce.  I love mustard based BBQ sauce and this sauce was pretty good and made a tender, moist pulled pork that much better.  They do a nice side of grilled corn at Smoky Bones with char marks on the kernels and a little mesquite flavor added.  It was nice to have a BBQ option close by, made even better with good, friendly service and decent pricing.

After surviving a scary but surprisingly tame car accident involving my cab and an 18-wheeler, I was on my way to Memphis.  I rented a car and drove up to Jonesboro, AR to see some good customers.  Did you know Arkansas is responsible for 48% of rice production in the United States?  Rice paddies are strewn throughout the land as I observed on my drive North from Memphis to Jonesboro.  Yup, lots of farmland there.  After meeting with a few customers, I was starving.  That's when I looked up and saw this sign...

 Bar-B-Que + Pig = Awesome

The word "Bar-B-Que" and a picture of a pig was all I needed to know that I'd probably be in good hands at Couch's Bar-B-Que.  I was a little surprised to find a lone woman inside setting tables when I walked in around 4pm (very late lunch).  She said it was just about to get busy and she was right.  I ordered a pulled pork sandwich and went with her recommendation on getting it piled with slaw.

Pulled Pork sandwich @ Couch's, Paragould, AR

The pork wasn't smothered in BBQ sauce, rather lightly spritzed with a somewhat spicy vinegar based sauce like one might expect to find in North Carolina.  I liked it.  A lot.  It really allowed the flavor of the pork to shine.  The slaw was a great call too, providing a nice crunchy texture and a contrasting cool to the spicy sauce that I was now squirting onto each bite.  After downing some unsweetened tea (I can't do sweet tea, regardless of how prevalent it is in the South.  It's just too sweet for me.) and a side of fried zucchini that was pretty good for being previously frozen, I headed on my way back to Memphis.

I had told my Dad I was looking forward to BBQ and live blues in Memphis and, being the great Dad that he is, he did some research for me.  He found out that Corky's BBQ had won best BBQ ribs in Memphis for the past 21 years!  Naturally, I had to check it out.

The location on Poplar Ave in Memphis is the original Corky's location, with additional locations that have taken root in Cordova and Collierville.  It was a Monday night around 8pm when I walked through the door and the place was packed!  "This must be some good 'cue", I thought to myself.  As luck would have it, a bar seat opened up immediately at the packed bar and I capitalized on my good fortune by hopping in the saddle and ordering a Sam Adams Nobel Pils.  Latty, the Bartender, was friendly as hell.  He offered me a menu and let me browse a minute before asking if it was my first visit to Corky's.  When I replied that it indeed was my first visit, he pointed to the pulled pork and ribs combo and said, "That is what you're having and you're getting the ribs with the rub.  No sauce."  I loved the confidence and went with it.

While I waited for my dinner at the bar, Latty pointed out to me and some other bar folk that there was a birthday in the dining room and that meant that Kelly would be singing Happy Birthday.  Sure enough, a waitress named Kelly asked for the crowd to say "Happy Birthday" and then be quiet so she could sing it.  Everyone got a kick out of that.  We said our part and then Kelly belted out a killer version of the Happy Birthday song.  Latty remarked that one of the great things about working at Corky's was that they encourage everyone to be themselves.  It was clear this was no problem for Kelly the waitress.

The birthday song was a nice prelude to the tasty notes that would soon be doing a jig on my palate.  My plate arrived with a 1/2 rack of ribs, pulled pork smothered in Corky's BBQ sauce, slaw, and corn on the cob.  I attacked the ribs first and immediately noticed the smoky aroma of the meat along with the spices of the dry rub.  The meat was fall-off-the-bone tender but not sloppy at all and your could really taste the flavor of the pork itself.  The dry rub added an awesome punch of flavor, enhancing every bite.  After mowing down about half of my ribs, I noticed that the pulled pork was a little lonely and gave it a try.  The pork was super tender but I didn't like the sauce.  For one, there was too much of it and it overpowered the flavor of the pork.  Second, the sauce was just too sweet for me.  Next time, I'd order it sans sauce and maybe add some of Corky's Spicy BBQ sauce which seemed less sweet.  Overall, it was a kickass meal and the ribs really blew me away.  Having eaten a fair share of ribs in my life, I feel confident saying that Corky's BBQ ribs are the best I've ever had.

 photo courtesy: "zeller" on Panoramio

Latty had made me promise that if I had time for a lunch stop on Tuesday, that I would try Gus' Famous Fried Chicken, claiming it to be the best fried chicken in the world.  When my 1pm meeting was moved to 3pm, I made good on that promise.

Lots of people waiting 30+ minutes for a table says something...

Latty had warned that I'd better have a substantial amount of time for lunch since the popularity of Gus' sometimes meant a 30+ minute wait for a table to open up and then another 30 minutes for your food to arrive.  He also advised that service can be somewhat non-existent but I didn't have a problem with it at all.  I checked in with the guy at the counter and he said I was lucky for two reasons: they had just sat a bunch and I was next on the list and he and I shared the same name so he wouldn't forget who was up next.  A few tables opened up and I grabbed one.  I ordered an unsweetened iced tea, the best I'd had yet on my trip, and then ordered the fried chicken breast along with sides of slaw and baked beans.  Twenty minutes and an iced tea later, my fried chicken plate arrived.

Crappy iPhone pic of a slightly dominated fried chicken plate @ Gus' Famous Fried Chicken

The chicken was fortified by a crisp exterior that held together nicely (rather than crumbling like some fried chicken can) and the meat was tender, releasing a little steam with each bite.  The breading mix was slightly spicy with the flavor of the spice gaining heat as I continued to eat but I don't think it was spicy enough to scare off a person who doesn't like spicy food.  I liked the baked beans.  They were smokey and not too sweet.  The slaw had an incredibly fresh flavor and texture.  I loved it even if it was a bit runnier than I usually prefer.  All of this food came at a price tag of around $10 and I'm pretty sure that included tip.  It was a great lunch.

Later that night I ventured down to historic Beale Street to check out Blues City Cafe which is down by the Mississippi River that divides Tennessee and Arkansas.  Lots of blues history on this street and lots of blues bars.  Even B.B. King is in on the action with a blues bar bearing his name.  I met some local guys at the bar and we talked as they demolished some ribs.  When I asked if the ribs were any good, one guy said, "Maaaan, did you see how fast we just demolished that plate?"  So, my decision was made.  Ribs.  Again.  The ribs were covered in a sweet sauce that, once again, I found a little too sweet.  The slaw and corn was pretty good though.

(A brief sidebar here...  The two dudes I met at the bar were the 5th and 6th locals to tell me that, while Corky's had won best BBQ ribs for the past 21 years, they favored Charlie Vergos' Rendezvous.  In fact, every local I asked said to go there.  Mr. Vergos passed away as a barbecue legend a few days after I left town.  This is a must try on my next visit.  For what it's worth, both ship their famous ribs all over the country, to which Latty at Corky's attested that they keep their awesomeness even when cooked at home.  I'd rather be there though.)

After dinner, I headed over to The Band Box part of Blues City Cafe where a band was covering Johnny Cash and Elvis on stage.  That's not what I was looking for so I strolled down Beale in search of some down and dirty blues.  About 2 joints down is where I heard the wail of a harmonica coming from Blues Hall Juke Joint and I knew I'd found my spot for the night.  The lead singer cranked on the harmonica and a guy who was in the audience got up and melted my face off with a killer solo during one of the tunes.  I now understood why they call Memphis the "home of the blues and the birthplace of rock n' roll".

As I made my way to the airport the following morning, I thought about the great time I'd had in Memphis.  It's a fun city with a lot of American history and spirit, especially when it comes to food and music.  I also really enjoyed seeing the diversity of the city.  Memphis was definitely my favorite stop.  It was a productive work trip and a nice time away from Miami.  I sampled some great barbecue and met a lot of really cool people while learning about each city and it's history.  I'm hopeful that my travels will take me back to Memphis someday to explore and taste more of what the city has to offer.