Wednesday, June 20, 2012

On the Road: Ridgewood Barbecue, Bluff City, TN

Ridgewood Barbecue- home of the best BBQ Pork sandwich I've ever had
One of the best things about putting together Cobaya events has been meeting the various diners who attend each meal.  At a recent Cobaya dinner, I got into a discussion with a girl named Allison and her husband who I'd met at a previous event.  We were extolling the virtues of the pulled pork sandwich, an item I seem to consume on an almost daily basis when traveling throughout the South.  I've mentioned my love for the South Carolina mustard-based BBQ pulled pork sandwich from Maurice BBQ.  It's been my favorite to date and my love of mustard has a pretty heavy influence on that.  The couple told me that should I ever find myself in the Bristol, TN area, that I must check out a spot called Ridgewood Barbecue due South down in Bluff City that served their favorite BBQ pork sandwich.  It just so happens I have a customer in Bristol, TN.  It also just so happens that I was set to be there within a week of our conversation.

I was coming from Newark, NJ, visiting a few customers in the middle of Pennsylvania, then making the 7 hour trek South to Bristol.  After stopping for dinner in Roanoke, VA, I decided I'd finish off the trip that night.  This would give me ample time to fit in Ridgewood Barbecue for lunch the following day before my meeting.  Ridgewood is literally in the middle of nowhere, off a state road that leads barbecue seekers to a winding mountain road.  You work for this 'cue.

A Tennessee smokeout!
I pulled into the parking lot around noon and was greeted by two large shacks with smoke billowing out of their screened in walls.  Hot damn, did it smell good!  I headed in and took a seat at one of the few booths available, a glass partition the only thing separating me from the open air kitchen that was ripe with the smell of barbecue and french fries.  I was more than OK knowing I'd be leaving wearing that scent.

The kitchen stacked with plates pumping out some fatboy BBQ sandwiches!
I ordered some un-sweet tea and for some reason asked to see a menu even though I already knew what I was going to order.  When the tea came, I placed my order for the BBQ pork sandwich topped with slaw and asked the waitress what else she recommended.  She said the beans and fries were the way to go.  Sold!

Beans, beans, the musical fruit...
Fresh cut fries
The beans were as delicious as advertised, served warm with hunks of pork that made an occasional cameo on my spoon as I took each bite.  The fries, however, were a miss.  I think the oil wasn't hot enough because they were dry and not very crisp at all.  They also weren't seasoned.  It actually turned out to be a good thing that I only ate a few because the beans and fries were just taking up valuable stomach real estate and I came for the pork sandwich.

Sweet fancy Moses!  That's one big ass sandwich!
My sandwich came and it was as colossal as the ones I'd seen the kitchen plating up for other orders.  I sliced my sandwich in half and took a look at 'er.  What stood out immediately was that this was not "pulled" pork like many places serve.  Instead, they slice the pork ever so thin and then finish it on the flat top grill.  Thin slices mean that's all surface area...the flavor has nowhere to hide.  And hide it could not.  I have to admit that looking at a few of those sandwiches being plated I noticed BBQ sauce dripping out of the side and was concerned that my sandwich would be swimming in sauce.  Thankfully, this was not the case at all.  There was just enough to provide a nice spicy tang to the sandwich along with a little moisture. The slaw added a mild sweetness to the sandwich.  The bites where the sauce was absent were most impressive as they allowed the incredible smokiness of the pork to shine.  So here we had an oh-so-tender BBQ pork sandwich with spicy, tangy, sweet, and smokey flavor in nearly every bite.  Before I knew it, half of my sandwich was gone.  After a quick breather the other half disappeared.  I'd been at Ridgewood for lunch for twenty-four minutes and was already asking for my check.

Inside the belly of the beast!
I'm here to tell ya that if you're ever in the Bristol, TN area, a trip to Ridgewood Barbecue is an absolute must.  Big shoutout to Allison for the recommendation!  I later found out that she and her husband love this pork so much they freeze it and bring some back to Miami to enjoy when the mood strikes.  This barbecue sandwich now occupies the top spot for best BBQ pork sandwich I've ever had and that's saying more than something.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Experiment #25 - Cobaya Edge

Wow, our 25th Cobaya "experiment".  It's been nearly three years since the inaugural Cobaya dinner and boy has it been a lot of fun.  The fun and great food continued to rock n' roll with Chef Aaron Brooks of Edge Steak & Bar taking the reigns for another impressive meal.

I met Chef Brooks via Twitter.  He called me out to come in and try his take on a lobster roll.  After seeing some fried razor clams on his menu one day for lunch and learning he'd spent time in my home city of Boston, I decided it was time to head in and see what I could see.  I enjoyed an incredibly flavorful dinner on my first visit and I liked the atmosphere of the restaurant space a lot.  Great staff too.  There wasn't any lobster roll to be had on the dinner menu but a lunch visit at a later date proved that although it was somewhat an un-traditional lobster roll (lettuce, tomato jam, sliced avocado) it was still tasty.  I have made lots of visits since and have tried a good portion of the menu.  I've also attended a few of the specialty dinners held at Edge, namely the Bourbon & Beer dinner and a visit to the darkside at a scotch dinner.  I think the thing that impresses me most about Chef Brooks' cooking style is his ability to provide distinct, true flavor while also combining various textures to round out a dish and keep it interesting. 

As fun as Cobaya can be for the diners, we also encourage the chefs to have fun and cook what they love cooking.  Chef Brooks really embraced this concept.  Manning the helm of a restaurant within the Four Seasons has him restricted to certain concepts.  In this case it's steakhouse with an occasional Latin twist with instructions that Asian dishes are not within the concept.  Chef Brooks is originally from Australia and has a passion for Southeast Asian cuisine.  He treated this meal like he was cooking for a group of friends at home and went to town with it.

Fried Clams
Our meal was held in a private corridor surrounded by large glass windows with views of the massive hotel waterfall on one side and overlooking Biscayne Bay on the other.  A late lightning storm over the bay made for some nice fireworks during the meal.  The fireworks had already begun with this first dish, a not-so-Southeast-Asian but beautifully presented plate of fried clams.  This dish touched on the chef's time spent in Boston.  The fry on these bad boys was spot on perfect with what I grew up eating.  They sat in their shells atop a tartar-like crema that had nice flavor.  I could've eaten a whole box of these.  Actually, I plan to request that Chef Brooks do that sometime because I think it would be a hit (and if not I'll happily eat any and all leftovers).

George's Bank Scallops, soft tofu, fried egg, pickled shallot, baby cucumber (photo: Melissa Thrasher)
The next dish, fresh George's Bank scallops, showcased the chef's aforementioned skill with texture.  Soft, sweet scallops worked with a soft tofu and were counterbalanced by the crisp of some fried scrambled egg and crunch of baby cucumber.  A little heat in this dish as well from what I believe were pepper flakes worked well too.  Fantastic dish.

Chilled mussel salad, young lotus root, fire roasted peanuts, mint, cured pig's face, chili jam
Another beautiful presentation brought forth a chilled mussel salad that I thought would be my favorite dish of the night.  It had it all - briny flavor from the mussels, crunchy peanuts, fragrant nasturtium, a little heat from the chili jam counterbalanced with the cooling of mint leaves.  Chef's cured pig's face was phenomenal.  The tender little rolls with a fantastic flavor tucked into the dish and were treated like treasure as I made my way thru each bite.  This was another dish I'd love to see again and again.

Hot & Sour Soup, squid noodles, fragrant herbs, Thai sausage, shrimp, shrimp cake
Surprising as I felt to say it, this Hot & Sour soup was the dish that, for me, was the standout of the night.  Everything about this dish worked incredibly well and it all started with a perfect broth that I wasn't afraid to drink at our fancy dining table.  The Thai sausage had a wonderful texture to it and I really liked the creativity of using thin ribbons of squid as noodles.  They were beautifully tender.  Kaffir lime leaves and cilantro provided some great aromatics as well.  Absolutely knock-down-drag-out phenomenal dish.

Short rib cooked in coconut, sweet potato, snake bean, basil (photo: Melissa Thrasher)
I gotta be honest...  I think my love for the previous dish caused a blackout because I don't remember much of this dish at all outside of the shortrib being very tender and the fresh basil sticking with the fragrant theme that had come with many of the night's dishes.  It could've also had to do with the fact that it was sandwiched between my favorite dish of the night and another favorite that came next...

Grilled duck, foie gras curry, heirloom potatoes, lychee, radish
When it comes to eating duck, to me temperature is everything.  As soon as I saw the pinkish flesh of this dish, I knew temperature was on point, so much so that I dove in before remembering to snap a photo.  The duck had a perfectly cooked texture to it.  After another bite or two, I noticed a richness to this dish coming from the sauce.  I looked at my Cobaya co-conspirator, The Chowfather, and said, "I think there is some foie in here."  He nodded and pointed out that I'd missed the menu description. Holy shit was this sauce good!!  I'm talkin' lick-your-plate good!  There was a little spice to it and that worked well with the spiciness from the radish and cool, sweet lychees that we love down here in South Florida.  I've never been a big fan of curry but I was a huge fan of this foie gras curry.

Orange Almond Cake, mango fluid gel, coconut sorbet, black sesame (photo: Melissa Thrasher)
A light, refreshing dessert of orange almond cake with tangy mango and pleasant coconut sorbet rounded out the night.

Having been a fan of Chef Brooks since my first dining experience at his restaurant, I had looked forward to seeing what he could do in the Cobaya kitchen.  He brought forth a fantastic meal that was creative, fresh, and delicious.  A huge thanks goes out to Chef Brooks, GM Peter Triolo, and all of the staff at the Four Seasons Brickell and Edge Steak & Bar who made for a memorable 25th Cobaya dinner.  If you haven't been to Edge yet, I strongly recommend checking them out, especially their specialty dinners towards the end of the month.

Next up, Cobaya brunch on 6/24!  Stay tuned...

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Happy National Bourbon Day!

As you may have figured out by now from reading this blog - every day is bourbon day.  Today we've got something for everyone else.  Yes indeed, folks!  Today, on this lovely 14th day of June, marks National Bourbon Day.  Why today?  I have no idea.  In the age of National (insert something totally random here) Days we've finally come across one worth noting.

Bourbon whiskey is the only spirit designated as a distinct product of the United States of America.  By law, in order to be bourbon the following factors must be in play:
  • Made of a grain mixture that is at least 51% corn
  • Distilled to a proof of no higher than 160 proof
  • Dumped into a barrel at a proof of no higher than 125 proof
  • Aged in a new, charred white oak barrel
  • Bottled at a proof of no lower than 80 proof
These guidelines are also known as "How to Make Liquid Awesome".

Bourbon has a history that coincides with American history itself and, like American history, some of it's legends and claims are somewhat foggy.  Take it's development for example.  Some claim the Reverend Elijah Craig was the man responsible for bourbon whiskey, that he was the first to age in charred oak casks which led to the clear whiskey distillate working into the grain of the barrel and taking on the reddish hue of bourbon whiskey.  Others claim that a distiller by the name of James Spears who lived in Bourbon County was the first to label his whiskey as "Bourbon Whiskey" and therefore is responsible for it coming to light.  Some refute all claims, stating there is no clear cut inventor.

Please note that none of the laws that designate a spirit as bourbon whiskey state that it must be made in a specific state.  Today, about 90-95% of all bourbon is made in the state of Kentucky.  As you can guess, that makes Kentucky a bourbon mecca.  They hold the Kentucky Bourbon Festival each September (which is National Bourbon Heritage Month) and have setup the Kentucky Bourbon Trail which encourages tourism of various distilleries around the bluegrass state.

Here at The Blind Tastes Speakeasy (aka The BTS pictured atop this post) we are big fans of the Old Fashioned and after much experimentation we have found our preferred recipe.  Today, on National Bourbon Day, we share it with you.

The BTS Old Fashioned

4oz W.L. Weller Antique 107 proof bourbon
1 sugar cube
4 dashes Orange Angostura bitters
splash of water (small splash!  helps dissolve the sugar)
1 ice ball or large ice cube
orange zest
Double Old Fashioned glass (or rocks glass of your choosing)

Drop a sugar cube into a rocks glass and add bitters and splash of water and muddle until the cube is dissolved.  Add the ice ball and give 'er a spin for a minute to cool the glass.  Add the bourbon.  Zest an orange so it's about 1/2 inch wide and 2-3 inches long, making sure to avoid too much of the white pithe that is more bitter.  Squeeze or twist the zest over the glass.  You'll see the oils from the zest spray out into the cocktail.  Rub the rim with the orange peel and toss that puppy in the drink.  Give it a stir and enjoy!

Monday, June 4, 2012

Experiment #24 - Cobaya Carmellini - The Whole Damn Thing

In the nearly 3 years that we've been putting on Cobaya dinners, we've had some pretty incredible meals.  Word has spread organically and our list of willing guinea pigs has grown to a rather large following.  Cobaya dinners are selling out fast and seats are increasingly more difficult to obtain.  More and more chefs are learning about these dinners and many are eager to participate.  So you can imagine it was pretty awesome when 2-time James Beard Award-winning, Michelin star-earning, Chef Andrew Carmellini, the man responsible for The Dutch NYC and Miami, Locanda Verde NYC, and The Sausage Boss NYC, reached out on Twitter to say he was down to get his Cobaya on. 

The dinner was held at The Dutch which is located inside the W Hotel on Miami Beach.  The setting was the outdoor terrace at a long table that fit all 30 guests.  The staff was great and service was flawless.  The menu?  Badass with a capital "B".

After a starter of assorted canapes, one of which being an insanely delicious foie gras meatball, Chef Carmellini greeted the guests and talked about his theme for this dinner.  He dubbed it "The Whole Damn Thing" and utilized an entire 50 pound pig as well as some whole turbot.  The results were frickin' awesome. 

This dish was absolutely fantastic and definitely one of the best dishes I've had this year.  Creamy polenta with smoked sable, trout roe, and a lemon beurre blanc foam.  Everything worked - the saltiness of the roe, the smokiness of the sable, the acid from the lemon, the texture plays of the polenta and sable and pops from the roe.  I could've left satisfied after just this one dish.

It takes a lot of balls to serve a pasta dish to a group dining outside in Miami in the summer.  This one was worth any increase in body temperature.  House made potato gnocchi with braised morels, ramp greens, english and sugar snap peas, and topped with parmesan cheese was a light dish with lots of flavor.

About that whole turbot...  Here is the resulting dish which featured the perfectly tender fish sitting atop curried cous cous salad and darted with tea poached raisins, burnoise red onion, turkish apricot, mint, cilantro, and sliced almonds.  Another masterful dish that I'll not be forgetting any time soon.

Now it was time for the piggy party.  The photo above shows what got us going - a salad of julienned crispy pig ears with arugula, shaved radish, and meyer lemon (which reminded me very much of the Pig Ear Salad at Michael's Genuine Food & Drink); house made pickled tomatoes, cauliflower, and carrots; house made pickled ramp relish; and a little boat of crispy testa (head cheese) with gribiche.  Giddy.  Up.

I don't even know how to describe the smoked ribs glazed with apple cider served to us by Chef Carmellini other than to say that they were gigantic and incredibly awesome!!!  The skin was crispy while still having that slight chewiness that pork skin has that makes me unable to stop eating it because I really just want to bite into it again and again. You see that circle of meat on the right side of the rib in the picture above?  It was so tender, so smokey, so delicious that it took a couple of pieces of crispy skin for me to regain consciousness afterward.  I've been thinking about that circle of meat ever since.  Carmellini should start a food truck that just sells those circles.  Hands down my favorite dish of the night.

I think my love affair with the aforementioned ribs possibly was responsible for me not really digging the pastrami spiced pork belly.  The belly was roasted perfectly but the pastrami spices were trying to break us up.  I didn't want pastrami anymore.  I wanted that rib again.

photo mashup courtesy of The Chowfather

I'm not a dessert guy really but the dessert was not only delicious but impressive too.  A sparkling croque en bouche from Pastry Chef Josh Gripper along with some assorted sorbets and ice creams.  Chef Carmellini said that this was served at his wedding instead of wedding cake. A great ending to an over-the-top fantastic meal. 

Huge 'thank you' to Chef Carmellini and all his staff and crew along with the team from The Dutch and The W who helped execute the plan for a great night.  That was one for the ages.  The only not-so-great part was being the only Celtics fan at the bar afterward where the Heat ripped off a huge comeback to win game two and go up 2-0 in the series.  I got over it pretty quickly though by thinking about that rib dish again.

Additional thanks to all the guinea pigs who came out and those who continue to show enough support and interest to keep this Cobaya thing going.  We see lots of new faces each meal and that's been really cool.  We've just announced that The Summer of Cobaya rolls on with two more events in June - one dinner, one brunch.  More details here.