Sign Of the Times

Or The Mushroom that Got Away

Disappointment is a part of life. I just wasn't expecting it for lunch. I was expecting a perfectly grilled portobello mushroom on the best ciabatta roll this side of the tracks. Our office is quite literally beside the tracks, in Jacksonville's Murray Hill neighborhood. Walls rattle and hum when a train rolls by. When the roads aren't under repair, its just a short drive to Five Points, Riverside or Avondale, with lovely rows of restaurants and shops. BUT if you want to "eat local" its Edgewood. That's where I went yesterday, specifically to 1171, with my heart set on savoring the best vegetarian sandwich in town. Alas, it was not to be. The sign taped to the door listed dinner hours and a phone number. Nothing to explain the eerily empty dining room (or my rock-star parking, for that matter). Would-be lunch patrons were left to read between the lines. 1171 has suspended lunch service. I'm sure they just need to stay healthy in these trying economic times, but so do we! They are still open for dinner, but that is cold comfort to those of us who dine closer to home. Lunch at 1171 was a bright spot in the workday. Now its a memory.

PLEASE, Jacksonville's upscale restaurant owners, find a business model that allows us to enjoy a delicious, healthy lunch without having to wait in line for most of the lunch hour.

In the meantime, does anyone know of a great place for lunch near Murray Hill? We LOVE Moon River Pizza, but you can't eat pizza EVERY DAY! 


Saveur Fare

Hey fellow foodies - we're featured in the Jan/Feb 2009 Issue of Saveur! Well, not us specifically - they are paying homage to all home cooks - with this year's Saveur 100 - Home Cook Edition! Do not miss it.

I've linked to the magazine online, but frankly you have to experience the print version to properly appreciate the style and grace of Saveur. It's a magical thing. I pore over each issue for months on end, then file it away, to be brought out when the appropriate season rolls around again. The editors treat each subject matter with such respect and reverence. The writing is warm and personal, the photography utterly authentic, and the design engaging.
Even the headlines are a tasty treat!

I LOVE my job, but how great would it be to write for Saveur... Maybe one day I'll have the pleasure, but for now I'll savor vicariously, devouring each mouthwatering item in this special issue, until the next course arrives.


Cuisine Routine

My favorite thing to do on a quiet morning is to curl up in a big chair with my coffee and a pile of cookbooks and magazines pulled randomly from the shelves lining our living and dining room walls. I might have an ingredient or a particular preparation in mind, or I might just leaf through the pages and see where the cooking gods take me. Once I have a clear plan, I usually call for reinforcements - searching Epicurious or consulting one of my favorite food blogs.

This past weekend my path to culinary inspiration included a quick flip through the Foodie Blogroll. Impressed with the wealth of food bloggers out there (the Blogroll count had recently reached 3,000), I was presented with the daunting task of deciding which to read. Fortunately, the Blogroll offered me a "randomized" solution with their
new Widget, which features the 5 most recent blogs that have been added to the roll, as well as 5 random blogs of the day. I opted to try my luck with a few of the random blogs, which felt oddly like pulling the lever on a slot machine. From there I browsed until I came across a post from a blogger who had recently dined at Thomas Keller's Bouchon Bakery Cafe at The Time Warner Center in NYC. His description of the chicken soup was exactly the inspiration I needed. Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I had been planning to make a soup using the leftover chicken and jus from last night's Chicken in a Pot, but I was yearning for something more than just the average chick and veg sendup. So when the description of Keller's ultimate chicken soup included "ricotta dumplings" The clouds were lifted from my mind and my direction was made clear to me. End search for menu inspiration, begin search for the ultimate ricotta dumpling recipe.

Food Roots

My mother likes to point out that I was the first person in the family to branch out beyond my "food roots" - the home-cooked family style recipes she taught me, which her mother taught her, and her mother before her, and so on. Basically, if it wasn't served at my great-grandmother's farmhouse table in Missouri in the 1920s, or my grandma's table in San Diego in the 1940's it wasn't likely to appear on my mom's kitchen table in California in the 1960's. Even when I married young and set up my own kitchen I wasn't so adventurous as all that. It wasn't until after that marriage ended, when I moved away and developed an "extended family" that my culinary tendrils began to unfurl.

Living in Cincinnati with its rich and diverse culinary heritage, traveling to great restaurants throughout the USA. My friends and I dined as best we could through the week, but come the weekend we would throw together these amazing feasts, jokingly called "Punk Gourmet Nights" (OK, it was the 80's, so cut me some slack)... We would meet on Saturday morning, at our mecca - the amazing
Findlay Market in Over-The-Rhine. We'd stock up on the freshest local produce, then avail ourselves of the amazing assortment of organic meats, European baked goods, sausages, cheeses, asian specialties, freshly roasted nuts and mediterranean pastries, you name it. Whatever "Punk Gourmet" theme we would devise, there were choices aplenty at the market, and unlike a trip to Whole Foods today, back then at Findlay Market we could do most of our shopping for the week and still have money in our pockets. Then we'd head home with our treasures and begin cooking for the big event. Later we would assemble at someone's apartment and make an evening of it - with one rule - NO LEFTOVERS! The fare was creative, informed by the moment and the market, and in no small part a product of all of our culinary history. My friends and I were sharing our own newly contrived dishes alongside those of our respective moms and grandmothers. I guess that was the beginning of my obsession with international cooking - and through the years I have taken the time to learn my way around regional Asian, Indian, Mediterranean, Mexican, Spanish, French, German, and even even good old American. I have amassed a sizable collection of cookbooks, and I read and write about cooking every day.

Now my dear friends are scattered across the country. I live in North Florida, where I enjoy cooking for and with my family. My niece Kelly loves to watch cooking shows and recreate the recipes. My sister Maureen is an expert at Beef Taquitos and Chicken Enchiladas, and my mom can make just about anything taste great, though she seldom strays far from those Missouri farm roots.
We all try to get together on Sundays, and whatever we choose to eat, we thoroughly enjoy one another's company.

Today we sampled cheeses from Cypress Grove Chevre. Kelly LOVES their new Truffle Tremor, my favorite is Purple Haze, but we all adore Humboldt Fog and Midnight Moon. Three generations of women "dined' at our Florida condo table
- a fresh baguette, some excellent cheeses, a bottle of wine and good company made it the perfect four ingredient meal. I'll bet all those mothers and grandmothers who came before us would have enjoyed it too. Be it ever so humble....


Deliver us From Deli / Some Good Sushi

Pinegrove Market & Deli
Recommended by a friend who lives nearby. Supposedly great soups, deli sandwiches, and a little meat market (the kind with actual raw meat...) So I go, at the lunch rush. Not much of a rush, there are just 4 parking spaces and a dude in a bloody butchers apron dragging on a cigarette out front. Inside a table of regulars are enjoying lunch in what appears to be part deli-part meat store-part drugstore, circa 1962. There is no one standing, no line, no greeter, so I present myself at the counter, behind which three people are cleaning and slicing meat. They ignore me, although I am just full-on staring at them just feet away. Seriously. For like, a whole two minutes I stand there waiting for one of them to acknowledge my presence. I'm smiling, staring them down, daring them to acknowledge me, thinking it is starting to feel a little too "Deliverance" for my taste, and now I'm thinking I am going to stand here for just one more minute, almost daring them to say SOMETHING. Am I supposed to just yell out my order, or... FINALLY one of the kitchen crew wipes his hands on a bloody towel and walks the two steps over to wait on me. I tell him my friend who is a regular here just raves about them and suggested I try the place out, and NOW he's ALL sweetness and down-home good-neighborly-like - meet the whole crew, that's whozits, thats so and so, I'm Whatchamacallit. OK, so I vow to start over with a fresh attitude. I order a chicken salad sandwich on wheat toast. Simple enough for the first visit. Don't want to annoy my new friends by actually asking them to cook something for me, right? So the sandwich is assembled, stuffed into a brown paper bag,
a receipt is hastily scribbled and pressed into my hand, and I am directed to the obviously un-attended cash register, four feet across the room, where I WAIT. AGAIN. For what seems like three or four minutes, I stand there politely, smiling at the busy crew, until finally my new best friend from the other counter comes rushing over, all apologies, and sets out to look for the guy whose job it is to ring up the occasional sale. I tell him I assume that must be the guy I passed on the way in taking his smoke break by the front door. It is, and he's still smoking... and my new buddy drags his complaining ass in to ring up my purchase. Seething, mumbling and reeking of smoke, he takes a look at the hand-scribbled receipt, punches the register a couple of times and intones "twelve fifty" . . . now, even in New York I'm not paying 12.50 for a chicken salad sandwich, so I ask for clarification. Trying to decipher my receipt, he YELLS over to the other guy - "This does say one pound chicken salad, right?" I hand him the bag with my now soggy sandwich, weighing decidedly less than a full pound, and ask for clarification. He mutters something unintelligible, there is what passes for a scuffle between the two men, registers are unlocked, MUCH grumbling ensues, my order is re-wrung, and I pay still too much I think, (but then it is lunch AND A SHOW) and make a bolt for the door in an attempt to get the heck out of dodge. My new best friend follows me out to my car, inviting me to come on back sometime when I'm looking for some real good fresh meat - seeing as how his family has been running this place for over 40 years and all - and I'm smiling, nodding and thinking "DEAR GOD get me out of here alive and I promise I'll be a better person!" Now for the chicken salad. It would make a great story if I told you it was so awesome it eclipsed the entire surreal ordering experience, right? Well, no such luck. Watery, bland, boring. All white meat, no flavor. Nothing to write home about, and certainly not worth twelve dollars a pound. Now ordinarily I give a place at least three visits before I decide how I feel about it, but in this case I think I'll quit while I'm ahead. You might like it, but don't ask me to come along.

Sushi House & Grill
on Edgewood - I really want this place to be great. Good prices, decor is borderline asian cliche. First trip - Bento box lunch - the soup is good, but its cloudiness alarmed one of our diners. A side salad heaped with the obligatory ginger dressing, another cliche. Teriyaki beef looked good, medium rare strips atop a bed of sticky, tasty brown rice. Chicken T was four slim slivers of overcooked, underseasoned chicken breast with a light teriyaki glaze drizzled on. no flavor. none. WAY too much tempura vegs for lunch. Little Gyoza were tasty, but the star was the California roll. They send out crab rangoon right from the fryer - molten sweet packets of creamy goodness. Kitchen is fast, service is good, but the food needs some work. I love shumai so I was a bit disappointed with the little buttons of steamed something or other that had a vaguely shrimpy flavor but little if any actual shrimp (easily gotten in Jax as we are fortunate to live so near the excellent little fishing village of Mayport). I'm thinking the frozen ones from the Asian market are better and way cheaper. We skip the salads and go right for the sushi. ALL GOOD - REALLY GOOD! LOVED the Jax roll - a California roll topped with eel and eel sauce - and my friend had the Crazy roll, Shrimp Tempura topped with smoked salmon and eel sauce. The menu says "Voted Best Sushi in Town", but the place JUST opened, so who voted, we wondered? Another location, most likely... Good call, voters, whomever you were.



We had sad news that our aunt Alice passed early this morning. She had cancer - and we knew it was coming soon, but mom took it hard - Alice was the closest thing to a sister in her life.

As for me, If I can cook Mexican at all well it is because of her. I grew up watching her assemble enchiladas and salsas, moles, rice and frijoles - her methods and recipes account for some of my family's best home cooking. M & K came over and made fried chicken and mashed potatoes, and we drank VATS of wine and shared stories about Alice and uncle Gene. We'll miss you Alicia - see you on the other side!




Just a quick shout-out to Youri for suggesting SPICE in the East Village. Sarah and I wandered down there Sunday night - our last night in the city for Amy's wedding trip. A great little space - vibrant urban scene, warm and stylish. We had a great time - The food was awesome - simple elegant presentation - and flavors were spot-on! Service was not all that, but I'll definitely be back to try again next time I'm in the city. Hey - think they deliver to Ponte Vedra Beach? :-)

More Jax Food Faves

Pretty, posh and oh so close to the office! Edgewood (1171 is the street address) area favorite with a simple but elegant menu. I usually get the Parisian sandwich and sweet potato fries with garlic / parsley sauce - YUM! The salmon is good to, and the Portobella sandwich on ciabatta makes me think I could become a vegetarian after all... Salads tend to be a bit wet and wimpy, but the soups, sandwiches and entrees have all been great. Sweet little ginger snaps are presented on occasion, and there are some great-looking desserts but I'm never hungry after those fries! Go after 2 for the tapas menu. Full bar, friendly service, reasonable prices. I've never been for dinner but I hear the steaks are fabulous!

Basil Thai & Sushi
across from BB's in the Jax "urban core" - hot spot for the usual thai faves and good sushi. a see and be seen scene. Everyone at our table seemed to enjoy their selections - Mine was Green Curry Chicken (5) - delicious, but I must say the potato and carrot chunks were a tad undercooked. They were beautifully carved, but the potato was a wee bit off tasting. Just saying - in the interest of full disclosure. I'll try again and get shumai and sushi next time!

Ohhh - a new Sushi / Japanese place opened on Edgewood - where the Thai place was - Sam brought us a menu for the office (she knows good food and has a serious foodie-chef husband, so we trust her judgment on all things gastronomic). I'm checking it out this week and will post an update - anyone who's been already?