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The New `Cue Review: Comin’ Right at You

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As we kick off 2013, it’s an excellent time to reflect on the sorts of things that made 2012 special. Personally, one of the most gratifying and downright fun things I did was to write a series for which they entitled “A Year of Barbecue.” Fortunately, the series ended in December, so I have a few months to get my lipid counts down from the Mr. Creosote range before my annual visit to my internist.

During the course of the year, I made many new friends on the bbq circuit, visited restaurants and smokehouses around the South and spent several nights watching whole hogs render while merry bands of derelict pitmasters did some pretty wacky things to keep themselves entertained and awake overnight.

But the details of my exploration that I can share are gathered below. I’m very proud of this series, and my editors say that they are looking to nominate it for some journalistic awards around the country. “Journalist,” heh. That’s just because I didn’t write about watching a man pee over a truck to win a $5.00 bet. More than once…

So here are the highlights of the series, conveniently gathered in one spot for your reading pleasure:

In January, I kicked the year off with some bold proclamations and promises of what I hoped to achieve in 2012. I think we accomplished most of them.

Later in January, I was fortunate enough to be invited to Mike and Amy Mills’ BBQ IQ Whole Hog Cooking Seminar at 17th Street Bar and Grill in Murphysboro, IL. Not only did I witness whole hogs being cooked by masters of the trade and learn a great deal about the business of barbecue from legends like Sweet Baby Ray and Famous Dave, but I also developed relationships with some really exceptional people. At the very top of that list is Sam Jones from The Skylight Inn in Ayden, NC. Not only is Sam a great guy, he’s also a hilarious quote machine, and my profile of him pretty much wrote itself. I’ll take the credit for writing down his best bon mots, though.

March came in like a lion but went out like a lamb, mutton that is. I joined my good friend Thomas Williams for a mutton-fueled trip to Owensboro, KY where we sampled some of the best old sheep on earth at Old Hickory BBQ and Moonlite Bar-B-Que. While the gamey mutton meat isn’t for everyone, anyone who calls himself a barbecue aficionado needs to make this pilgrimage at least once in their life.

April’s installment focused on the ultra-competitive sauce industry, where I discovered that Sweet Baby Ray is actually a friendly middle-aged white guy from the suburbs of Chicago, not the Cosby Kid caricature I had imagined. He’s also an extremely shrewd businessman whose best advice about entering the retail sauce business is…don’t do it.

As the weather warms up, more amateur pitmasters want to get outside and start to show off their talents competitively. With Memphis in May approaching, I published a fun little competition calendar to help plan your culinary road trips.

In June, I went a little wacky. Or rather Waikiki as I explored Hawaiian barbecue. You probably don’t think of `cue when you see a pig coming out of the ground at a luau, but pork cooked over indirect heat from smoky indigenous wood sounds a lot like barbecue to me.

If you are a fan of barbecue, I cannot emphasize enough how much fun you can have at the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party held each June in Madison Square Park. Expert smokers from around the country descend on the park to feed some of the best food that yankees will ever have the pleasure to enjoy. Y’know, like we can get just by driving to Nolensville any day of the week. My recap of the event and of the drive from Tennessee to NYC was one of my favorite pieces to write all year. Look for another version of the story to appear in A Taste of the South magazine this coming spring.

The heat of the summer pointed me to Texas where I took on a significant task trying to identify the best barbecue in the Lone Star State. In the end, I narrowed it to around ten joints, and I’m certain I left out some of the best. Barbecue is a cruel mistress that way.

Finding the best barbecue in Manhattan was a lot easier, since there aren’t nearly as many choices. Because my editors at Food Republic all live there, the pressure was on for me to make those sort of choices remotely. As FR’s “Southern correspondent,” they count on me to pretty much cover anything that isn’t in Manhattan or Brooklyn, but fortunately they concurred with my recommendations.

This success left me cocky enough to tackle one of the barbecue capitals of the universe, Memphis. I made no bold proclamations about the best of the Bluff City, but even bad Memphis barbecue is probably better than what passes for `cue in your hometown. The exploration of ten famous spots in one day was an experience I’ll never forget, but also probably never attempt again.

As if gorging myself in Memphis wasn’t enough, in November I described what it’s like to judge at the Jack Daniel’s World Championship Invitation Barbecue competition. Consider that taking just a small bite of everything offered for your deliberation adds up to over two pounds of food consumed and you’ll get an idea of what it’s like. Which is to say…awesome!

I finished off the year by sharing the wisdom and talents of three different masters of the whole hog, Sam Jones, Rodney Scott of Scott’s BBQ and Food Network’s culinary Mr. Wizard, Alton Brown. While their techniques and advice were very different, all three certainly know their way around a pig. (Which is really not that far considering that you have already cut the pig in half.)

So there it is in a nutshell. Would I do it again? Absolutely! But luckily I’m certain that the relationships I made this year will ensure that the study of great barbecue will be a lifelong pursuit.


The Catbird Seat-One Year In

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Anderson (L) and Habiger (R) making magic happen

A little more than a year ago, I was fortunate enough to visit The Catbird Seat back before it was the nationwide media darling that it has most deservedly become. In fact, my profile of the restaurant was my first piece that I had published on Chef Marcus Samuelsson’s national food website, Food Republic. Even though Chefs Josh Habiger and Erik Anderson had only been cooking at The Catbird for a little over a month when I first dined there, I was extremely impressed by their ingenuity and creativity in the menu planning. I’ve eaten at small-plate, prix fixe tasting menu restaurants all over the country, but I thought that this represented one of the best bargain high end dining experiences I had ever encountered. While I didn’t think that every single course worked that evening, and nobody could expect that each bite would lead to eye-rolling and moaning, I thought that overall it was the best meal I’ve ever had in Nashville. At $100/person, it was ridiculously inexpensive for the ingredients, talent and effort involved in the creation of the meal. A similiar dining experience could easily cost triple that in New York, Chicago, San Francisco or Las Vegas.

Recently, I made a return trip up the elevator above Patterson House to enjoy another meal with Habiger, Anderson and their talented staff. I lucked into a seat thanks to a cancelled resevation of a friend who was gracious enough to offer the seat to me. It turned out to be exactly one year to the day since my Food Republic article was published, so it was an opportune time to take another look at what the boys were up to.

Jane Lopes, the talented beverage manager who runs the drink program at The Catbird Seat has recently announced that she is looking to move on and ownership is currently undertaking a national search for her replacement. One of the owners of the restaurant, Ben Goldberg, took over her duties for the evening in addition to his usual job as host. I’ve known Ben for quite awhile, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a more affable and humble restaurateur unless you first encountered his brother and co-owner Max. They’re good people.

So I was a little worried for Ben to have to take on these double duties, but he handled them with great aplomb. Instead of offering the usual two levels of wine, beer and spirits pairing flights with the meal, Ben offered a non-alcoholic and an alcohol option so that he didn’t have to keep up with quite as many different drink permutations. It turns out that the one alcoholic flight offered was the lower-cost option and complemented the the meal in surprising ways throughout the evening. Ben did a great job keeping up with the progression of the plates and glasses. The entire staff should be commended for the facility with which they danced the complex ballet of 32 diners all eating at different parts of a nine-course menu, not to mention the fact that many patrons had special dietary and preference requests that forced the chefs to substitute elements of the dishes on the fly.

Anderson and Habiger seemed even more comfortable in their own skins as they concentrated on the 3-4 dishes that each is responsible for each evening. When plates begin to back up, the whole kitchen crew stepped in to assist without a word of protest about being put in the weeds with regard to their own responsibilities. In a situations that could easily have turned into a episode of I Love Lucy with an immersion circulator substituting for the chocolate conveyor belt, the staff instead put out a wonderfully paced meal of deeply thoughtful dishes.

That’s another aspect where the two young chefs have really grown since I last dined with them. With over a year of developing a repertoire of menu items, the progression from plate to plate seems much more natural then when I first peeked behind the wizards’ curtain. While you can still expect the meal to begin with the porcini/parmesean “Oreo” and the chefs’ homage to hot chicken and conclude with a sweet verion of that same cookie, what came between was a wonderful progression of inventive, beautiful food that was ultimately seasonal. Mushrooms seem to be a current obsession with the chefs, much to the delight of diners as they appeared in various incarnations throughout the evening.

A snack of a single shiitake crackerjack was so delicious that I only half-jokingly asked for a bag to take home, only to find out that unfortunately they had only made 33 pieces for the 32 diners that eveing. Y’know, in case they dropped one. The first course of a Nantucket Bay scallop and a slaw of Mt. Rose apples and a corn bread crumble was delightfully light on the tongue. The soup course which followed seemed simple enough, but remarkably every spoonful of the Sunchoke soup with caramelized yogurt tasted different as the depths of flavors magnified after the warm liquid was poured over a precious pile of black olives, black garlic and black truffles.

I thought I recognized the fish course from my first experience, but the thin red band wrapped around the golden tilefish turned out not to be the dehydrated kimchee of a year ago. In this presentation, what looked like a strip of a Fruit Roll Up turned out to be a delicious accent of chipotle which went perfectly with the tropical avocado, coconut, onions and radish accents of the rest of the dish.

I’d heard stories of the pigeon dish, served dramatically with the claw still attached to the leg. I was not at all put off by the slightly grotesque tableau on the plate, feeling instead that if you don’t recognize that poultry actually do have feet, then maybe you’d better stick to McNuggets. Served with a squab dashi and various flowers, the flavors of the pigeon dish were suprisingly delicate, which contrasted with the boldness of the presentation.

The beef course was expertly cooked and served over a blood red beet sauce with a potato crisp accenting the edge of the plate. Even beetophobes might find something to like in this dish, and if not, the Sam Adams Imperial Series Double Bock that Ben served in a glass rinsed with Aquavit would probably distract them anyway. The next course served as a transition between the savory and the final sweets. It was like a deconstructed beer, with toasted barley, hops, yeast and an orange gelee. The crunch of the barley contrasted with the luxurious orange emulsion for a remarkable sensation.

Desserts were also noteworthy, starting with a pear dish featuring a slightly bitter Fernet gel served with a pear sorbet and cardamom crisp. Where we sat at the chef’s counter, we had a direct view all evening of the half filled egg cups, so we were definitely anticipating that dish. When it was finally set before us filled with custard, maple and thyme and garnished with a strip of crispy bacon, it was well worth the wait! The last sweet course concentrated more on showing off some of the kitchen’s molecular gastronomy chops. It was served on a toasted bourbon barrel stave dusted with dehydrated cherry crisp. Vanilla cake sat next to pineapple gel, oak ice cream, slilvers of vanilla cake and gelatinous balls of bourbon which burst like alcoholic salmon roe in your mouth. I’d gladly swim upstream for more of those.

The crowd of diners in the restaurant was lively but focused on their meals. We dined early at 6:00, which is my suggestion to first-time visitors. That way you can be surprised by each course when it comes out, and if you missed out on some details of the preparation you can watch the chef prepare it for a later seating. Eating early does mean that you miss out on the craziest action as the chefs prepare multiple courses for various parties at the same time, but the calm demeanor exhibited by all the staff at The Catbird Seat doesn’t allow for much visible drama.

A reservation at this restaurant is difficult, but not impossible to get. It does require staying up late since spots open up at midnight exactly 30 days out from the desired dining date. Trust me when I tell you it’s definitely worth drinking a little late night coffee to claim your place at the table.



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