Monday, February 28, 2011

Breakfast at Interstate Bar-B-Que

On the way back from Miami, I had to get up early and fly through Memphis to get back to Atlanta.  I consoled myself in my pre-dawn travel by reminding myself that the effort would pay off if Interstate Bar-B-Que was in operation.  As I got off the plane in Memphis, I walked into an invisible cloud with the unmistakable fragrance of BBQ.  My heart leapt, I turned the corner, and there it was---the happy neon pig.
Interstate is widely considered one of the top BBQ places in the country.  Airport food has certainly improved over the years, but it is still rare to have a truly great restaurant inside an airport.  Interstate is a welcome stop for all sorts of travelers.

They have some breakfast items but they offer their full BBQ menu all day (I'm not entirely sure when they open, but I was there about 9 AM).  I wanted something fast and simple so I ordered a pulled pork sandwich and a tea. I then rushed over to my plane.

I got to the plane just in time to start boarding, so I was able to settle down quickly with my treat.  I heard one passenger say "smells good, doesn't it?".  The sandwich came with some cole slaw but no fork.  I was a little worried about spilling it if I put the slaw on the sandwich so I just ate the sandwich straight.  BBQ is comfort food and this pig certainly made me happy even if he wasn't smiling at the end.  The pork was tender and very porky without being overly strong like some cuts of pork can be.  Interstate has mastered the art of saucing a sandwich---all of the meat was touched with sauce but not enough was left to drip.  The stewardess very nicely took my trash away and my stomach was very happy as we rolled down the runway.

Interstate Bar B Q on Urbanspoon

Miami: Shorty's BBQ

The Widens introduced me to another Miami favorite, Shorty's BBQ. We had three different meats: brisket, ribs, and chicken. All were excellent. I would say the brisket was my favorite, which was was fork tender and moist.

Shorty's is best known around town for its piquant sauce. In the photo, the top sauce is a standard red, sweet BBQ sauce.  The bottom container holds Shorty's special BBQ sauce.  It was great---the highlighted spice is, I believe, cumin.  The sauce is of a lighter color than the sweet sauce, so there are other things going on as well; I suspect it has less sugar. I love cumin because it tweaks the palate in a different way than many spices.  I loved this sauce so much I ate it by the spoonful.  Bill and I agreed that this sauce is reminscent of the sauce from Arthur Bryant's in Kansas City. 

Shorty's Bar-B-Q on Urbanspoon

Miami: Captain's Tavern

My friends Bill and Henry Widen took me to one of their favorite local Miami spots, Captain's Tavern.  Just as they warned me, the decor was clearly brought from the 1970s by time travelers.  But no one seemed to mind---the restaurant was buzzing with people having fun.

Bill thought we should try some local specialties, so we got busy ordering.  This is the conch salad.  The conch itself has some tooth to it, which contrasts well with the tomato salsa.  The accompanying herbs were very nicely done.

This is the yellowtail ceviche, one of the chef's specialties.  If you haven't heard of ceviche, the fish has been chemically cooked in acid from plants, etc.  Everything is done cold but we still get the effects we want from cooking: tenderness and doneness.  Our waitress thought it would be very spicy for us but we thought the peppers added just a nice zing.  However, Bill did also ask for the scotch bonnet pepper salsa, which lived up to its reputation for heat.

I had the Florida lobster tail.  Bill said that Florida lobster is sweeter than the Maine variety and he was right.  I've decided that I really like Florida lobster.  Lobster can sometimes be boring without butter but the sweetness of this lobster tail really sold me.

Captain's Tavern on Urbanspoon
We couldn't finish without tasting a little dessert, so we tried the banana cream pie. Everything in the pie was of very high quality.  Too many restaurants scrimp but I knew this was a great pie when I tasted the whipped cream. The custard and crust were also excellent.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Decatur Diner

Category: Great local place or worth a drive if you are Greek diner deprived
Summary: Hoppin' atmosphere, open 24/7, very solid food

Decatur Diner has been open for a week or two now.  Word seems to have spread fast.  We got there just in time to get a table without waiting and the line started building as soon as we sat down.  The entryway was packed with people the entire time we were there. We saw all sorts of people: students, families, senior citizens. The combination of the food and the atmosphere is what brings people in.

This is a classic New York Greek diner.  Perhaps that's not too surprising considering the owner ran a restaurant in New York for 17 years, as he told me.  The decorations on the walls, the neon signs, the huge cakes in the refrigerator case all spell diner.  The waitstaff is friendly.  Everything moves quickly here; you don't have to wait long to eat if you're hungry.

I went for the chicken parmigana (chicken parm to the cognoscenti).  This is a classic diner dish and one of my all around favorite casual foods.  It's an Italian-American dish, way too heavy for a classic Italian table but hearty enough to fortify a busy New Yorker. You can see from the photo that the plate is covered with food; you can't tell that it's a huge plate.  I also received a soup and salad.  The sauce was fairly light and tasty with a good balance of sweet and tomato tartness.  The chicken was crispy on the outside and tender on the inside.

I don't know of a New York-style diner in Atlanta that is of this quality.  Diner food, of course, isn't fancy, so don't drive here if you are looking for artisanal cheeses and fine wines.  But it's good food and a very fun atmosphere.  If you like New York diners, I think this is a place you will want to try. If you're hungry it's a pretty good place, too.

Decatur Diner on Urbanspoon

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Cake Decorating with Fondant

I had to make a very special birthday cake featuring Elmo.  When doing such things in the past, I've hand-drawn them with decorating tips.  This time I decided to use rolled fondant.  Fondant allows me to make complex shapes from a pattern.  I can also make it before commiting it to the cake. When drawing on the cake you have to get it right the first time, an iffy proposition given my hand skills.

Here is the fondant being prepared.  I bought fondant in a box although it is quite feasible to make it yourself. The left bowl shows the yellow fondant for the nose to which I've already worked in the color. The bowl on the right shows the white fondant with the food dye added but not yet mixed.  It takes a small amount of food dye, as with coloring icing.  I always use a toothpick to add the dye.  You mix in the color by kneading the dough like a ball of clay.  It takes quite a bit of work to get an even coloring---thisis  great hand exercise.

To prepare, I found a picture of Elmo, blew it up to the right size, and printed a few copies.  I cut out different pieces as stencils: the face, nose, and eyes.  My original plan was to put the stencil on the fondant and then sprinkle powdered sugar to transfer the pattern.  That didn't work very well but it turns out that tracing the pattern with a toothpick works great. You can almost cut the fondant with the toothpick but I used a knife to make the final cut.  If you look closely at this photo you can see the pattern drawn out around the red fondant. To transfer the mouth pattern, I put the picture on top of the fondant and punched several holes through the paper around the edge of the mouth, then freehanded the lines in between.

This is the final Elmo after assembly.  I drew the moutn and irises using black food dye.  (I surprised myself by having a bottle of black dye on the shelf.  I had been planning to mix some black from several colors.)  I ignored the urge to grab a makeup brush and used a knife plus toothpick to paint: the big work with the knife and the details with the toothpick.
I then assembled and iced the cake.  Elmo was easy to pick up and transfer to the cake.  I ended up moving the different pieces separately and used some icing to glue them in place.  A little blue piping on the bottom and that's it.  I managed to do the whole thing, including baking the cakes, in about 2-1/2 hours.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Roswell: The Counter

Category: Good local place.
Verdict: Very good burgers with lots of design-your-own freedom.  A nice homey feel within the modernist decor.

The Counter is on Alpharetta Road in Roswell.  As you can see, it's in a very modern location---think postmodern burger. Inside, the vibe is chrome modern with surfing decorations.  But the place is, underneath the decor, a traditional luncheon counter.  It actually has a counter, a relative rarity among new restaurants, where teenagers sit to talk and eat their burgers. 
The Counter emphasizes the build-your-own-burger theme.  They seem to have been at it for several years, putting them toward the leading edge of the Great Burger Revival that is sweeping our great nation.  I tried a burger with bleu cheese (I've become a huge fan of bleu cheese burgers), peanut sauce, and fried onions. I really enjoyed the peanut sauce, which went well with everything else but isn't something you find on burgers every day.  The meat itself was fine.  The burger experience as a whole was pleasant but not truly revolutionary.  When I had the organic burger at Flip or the Meers Store in Oklahoma, I knew I was in the presence of a superior burger.  That's not the case here, but this does seem like one of the best burger places in the area.  It was also a little pricey, as one might expect for a postmodern burger, with the burger and tea going for just over $10 before tip.

The Counter: Custom Built Burgers on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Empire State South

My friend and colleague Steve Nowick visited, giving us the chance to try Empire State South, a relatively new restaurant at Peachtree and 10th.  It's the Atlanta outpost of a well-known Athens chef.  The restaurant itself is very spacious with large dining and bar areas. They also have some dessert items out and wrapped, as if in a small-town store.  I'm quite frankly not sure whether those are for show, carry-out, or snacking in the bar.

Steve and I agreed that we enjoyed the first two courses the most.  This is the cheese course, which had three Georgia cheeses, all of which were delicious.  The cheeses came off as fairly light, probably a combination of their intrinsic characteristics and the fact that the portions were small.

For a second course, Steve had a bean soup that he loved.  I had a field green salad which had several very thin, delicate slices of ham as a garnish.  The ham didn't overwhelm anything else because the slices were so thin---they complemented the very fresh lettuce extremely well.

I had the pork for the main course.  It too had a very subtle flavor: tender and pink on the inside with a very delicate crust.  It was very well executed but somehow didn't excite me as much as the other courses.  Perhaps I was expecting something a little more porky.  Steve had the chicken, which he also said was very good but not as much fun as the other courses.

Empire State South on Urbanspoon

Empire State South