Bad food — and expensive, too!

photo (3)No, the picture over there on the right isn’t one of the 1,319 current Federal Superfund sites, but it’s a crime nonetheless. That, my friends, is an actual plate of food that I ordered and was served recently at Bruno’s Little Italy on Main Street, part of a disastrous meal which I talked about in more detail here. This particular dish — a fetid combination of chicken livers, mushrooms, pan sauce, and pasta — deserves some special recognition: it’s one of the worst dishes I’ve eaten, and it cost me $17.95. Now I’m sure that some of you reading this won’t see eighteen bucks as a lot to pay for a plate of food, but to me, that’s expensive. This writing thing manages to pay a lot of the bills, but I’m not exactly Scrooge McDucking into a pile of krugerrands wearing a speedo made out of hundred dollar bills.

Which brings me to the whole point of this article — expensive meals that suck. In the case of those chicken livers (a food with which I am normally quite enamored), the downfall lay with how they were cooked, which in a word, was burned. And not just a little burned, no, there was the robust flavor of charred flour and meat in every bite (and the livers themselves tasted a little unfresh as well). When all was said and done, I was left with a bill approaching $70…and I was still hungry. Oh, and pissed off.

The most expensive crappy meal I ever ate was at Pancetta in the downtown Marriott. That meal reached poetic proportions of badness and made me envy our ancient homo erectus ancestors — and their diet included scavenged zebra that spent days baking in the African sun. I was lucky that my newspaper was picking up the tab for that one, because if I had been forced to drop a Franklin-plus of my own money on that meal, I probably would have wound up in jail. 

Thinking back to my younger years, I recall making $4.25 an hour and thinking that a $25 meal for two was a hopeless extravagance. These days, I’m able to enjoy meals at far better places than then, but that doesn’t guarantee a good time every time. There are still some really bad places out there, and part of what I want to achieve as a food critic is warning my readers about places that will steal your hard-earned cash, fill your mouth with garbage, and then ask for a tip. A bad meal that empties your wallet is the most painful dining experience possible, and I’m just lucky to live in a city where bad meals are a rare occurrence. And don’t eat at Pancetta. Cheers!

Kava, the root of relaxation

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Long ago, on one of the islands of Vanuatu, legend speaks of a brother and sister who lived a peaceful life. The girl was very beautiful, and many men traveled from the surrounding islands to seek her hand in marriage — but she rejected them all. One of these suitors grew angry at the girl’s rejection and flew into a rage. The brother rose up to protect his sister, and the two men fought. The suitor let loose an arrow in his anger, which missed the brother and struck the sister, killing her instantly.

The brother was devastated at the death of his sister, and visited her grave daily. On one such visit, he noticed a strange plant growing on the grave which he had never seen before. As time went by, the plant grew larger and larger until an entire year had passed. The brother, still distraught over the death of his sister, went on his normal daily visit, and on this particular day, he noticed a rat chewing at the roots of the plant. As he watched, the rat suddenly died. In his grief, the brother took this as a sign, and he decided to end his life by eating the roots which had killed the rat. To his surprise, the roots did not kill him, but instead took away all his bad feelings, and he shared this knowledge with the people of the surrounding villages. The plant was a kava bush, the roots of which would become the basis of a drink sacred to many of the peoples of Oceania.

The kava plant’s scientific name, piper methysticum, means “intoxicating pepper,” and it’s an apt description. The root of the kava plant contains compounds known as “kavalactones” which produce a calming, sedative effect when consumed, while the flavor of the root (which is in the pepper family) is slightly peppery and very earthy. I’ve been drinking kava off and on for years now, and I’ve found it to be a very relaxing beverage that soothes the muscles, calms the nerves, and makes for an excellent sleep aid. The flavor can be somewhat off-putting at first, but I’ve grown very fond of it.

Traditionally, fresh or dried kava root would be chewed or pounded into a pulp, then mixed with water and strained to produce the kava beverage. In these modern times, we have two things which make this process easier: prepared, powdered kava root and the blender (although there is something quite compelling in the hypnotic motions of traditional preparation). My basic preparation is as follows:

  • 2 cups water (for best results, use warm — not boiling! — water, around 140 degrees. Cool tap water is fine, though.)
  • 1 cup almond milk (cow, soy, or other milk is fine — we’re looking for a source of fat, as the kavalactones are more readily absorbed by fat and aren’t soluble in water.)
  • 1/3 cup kava (can be adjusted for a weaker or stronger brew)

Blend the ingredients for about five minutes. At this time, I usually pop my kava into the fridge for at least 1/2 hour, but you can strain immediately if you want. To strain, I use a special nylon kava bag that a supplier sent to me after I left a nice review of their product on Amazon, but basic kava bags can be had for a few dollars. Lacking a strainer bag, feel free to use an old t-shirt or a clean nylon stocking to strain. Keep in mind that most mesh strainers are too big and coffee filters don’t work. When I strain, I let the liquid drain into a large bowl, then I squeeze out the remaining liquid from the kava pulp. Save this pulp, as you can usually get a couple of brewing sessions from it (although potency does decrease).

As for flavor, you can enjoy the kava brew as-is, or you can add things to make it more palatable. Many people add chocolate syrup, but I don’t care for the flavor of chocolate with kava. I am, however, fond of adding some Tazo chai latte concentrate to the mix for a pleasant evening brew, but more and more I’ve just taken my kava straight. Two good local sellers of excellent kava are Maison Terre Natural Products out of North Little Rock (mail order) and Dandelion Herb Shop in the Little Rock River Market. It can also be found in bulk on Amazon.

There are dozens of kava cultivars, each the product of over 3,000 years worth of artificial selection by the South Pacific islanders. This means that if you try one type of kava and don’t like it, don’t give up — try another one. Kava, for me, is preferable to alcohol, as the effects aren’t nearly as pronounced and it doesn’t leave me with a hangover. Still, some caution should be taken if you throw yourself a kava-drinking session: don’t operate a motor vehicle or heavy machinery after consuming kava, don’t mix kava with alcohol or prescription drugs, and don’t overdo it — the traditional serving of kava is 4-6 ounces, so the recipe I provided makes for multiple servings. There are also any number of instant kava mixes, pills, and extracts available on the internet, but I can’t speak to them — I prefer to just use the root. So get cheerful, get relaxed, and bula!

David’s Burgers is still the best

photo(1)Little Rock has some great burgers. Two locations of Big Orange, burger Fridays at H.A.M., classic eatery The Box — the list goes on and on. Outside the metro area, we’ve got the burger that brought Man vs. Food to town: the Cotham’s Hubcap. And of course, Russelville is home to Feltner’s, which even as a shadow of its former glory can still make a tasty burger.

But out of all these, David’s Burgers, particularly the Markham Street location, remains my favorite.

So, first things first: what makes a good burger. It starts with high quality meat with a good fat ratio. David’s uses freshly ground chuck, so they’ve got that covered. The burgers should be hand-formed (but not handled too much), then fried on a screaming-hot grill. David’s does that, too. Next, decent toppings, which David’s also does (I like cheese, tomato, grilled onions, and jalapenos on mine). Last, it shouldn’t be too expensive, and it should be served with as many fries as a man can eat — again, David’s passes those tests with flying colors.

This isn’t a fancy burger, it’s more like the Platonic ideal of what a good diner burger should be. It’s a juicy, salty, mammoth slab of ground chuck on a toasted bun, and it tastes like a burger should taste time and time again. There’s a place for fancy burgers — I’m not knocking fancy burgers — but there’s something very compelling about this down-home simple hamburger that keeps me coming back time and time again. Plus, being able to feed two people for less that $20 ain’t bad either.

Simple, delicious food, friendly service, and an endless parade of fries? Yes, that’s David’s Burgers, and it’s why it remains my favorite burger in town.

David's Burgers on Urbanspoon

Brew review: Saddlebock Dirty Blonde and Abita Andygator

photo 5We had dinner last night at Diamond Bear Brewing’s new restaurant, the Arkansas Ale House. The place has only been open for a coupe of weeks, but has proved popular — so popular, in fact, that the reserves of Diamond Bear’s own beer (which they thought would last three months) are already gone (except for their porter). Since they’re just now setting up the new brewing facilities, this means that there’s going to be some time yet before Diamond Bear products can hit the taps again — but it’s a great sign of how much people love local beer!

There are plenty of other beers on tap at the Ale House, though, and we decided to try the Andygator, a helles bock from one of our favorite breweries, Abita, and the Dirty Blonde, a kolsch from an up-and-coming Arkansas brewery, Saddlebock Brewery of Springdale. It was a mixed-result taste test which ended in a win for the home-state folks.

First, the Andygator. The color, head, and fragrance of this beer were great, with a rich golden color to the beer topped by a creamy foam. The flavor, though, left some to be desired. It started off with a strong medicinal flavor that really overshadowed anything else, and while it had a nice, malty finish, the initial shock of sharpness just put us off of the beer altogether. It did pair reasonably well with the spicy bratwurst we were eating, as the flavor of the meat and some brown mustard help cut the thickness, but overall this was a top-heavy beer that came on too strong — and at 8% ABV is a little stronger than we want for a dinner beer. Abita generally makes well-balanced beers, so this one came as a shock.

With the Dirty Blonde, though, we found a perfect summer beer. Light, crisp, and with a slight flavor of citrus, this was a refreshing brew perfect for a hot night (and perfect for pairing with spicy foods). This is a very mellow beer, very reminiscent of a cream ale, but without the thickness on the tongue that cream ales can sometimes give. It clocks in at around 5% ABV, which makes it a much better candidate for that dinner beer we were looking for — and indeed, two pints of this brew left us in good cheer but not tipsy. We were glad to see a really great beer from Saddlebock, as our last experience with them, a bomber of their hefeweizen that had gone off badly on the shelf, wasn’t a good one. Still between the beers we tried from this brewery at the Arkansas Times Craft Beer Festival last year and this experience at the Ale House, we still give high marks to what they’re doing and look forward to trying more from them.

I’ll be talking more about the Arkansas Ale House in the July 16 Arkansas Times, so stay tuned for a full run-down of their food (here’s a hint: it’s good). Cheers!

 

Brew review: Prairie Funky Gold Mosaic

20140711-181651-65811427.jpgSummer isn’t even half over and it’s already been one of the most exciting times we’ve had when it comes to Arkansas beer. First, our good friend Josiah Moody announced that he was leaving his position as brewmaster at Vino’s Brew Pub to start his own beer label, Moody Brews. Then, the Arkansas Alehouse, a collaboration between Diamond Bear Brewing and restaurateur Matt Beachboard opened its doors (and we’ll be reviewing that one for the July 16 edition of the Arkansas Times). As if that weren’t enough, Ian Beard at Stone’s Throw sent us an e-mail detailing that brewery’s plans to double their brewing capacity. Could things get any better?

Yes. Yes, they could.

In addition to all the great news coming from local breweries, we also had a change in Arkansas beer law that went into effect on July 1. This change allows for any place that has a retail license to sell beer to now sell it straight from the keg in the form of 32- and 64-ounce growlers — which means that now we can the fresh-tapped taste of keg beer from some of our favorite breweries in the privacy of our own home (and for cheaper than buying it by the pint in a bar). For more details on the new law, check out my Eat Arkansas post about it.

We bought our first (non-local) growler last weekend, a jug of Prairie Artisan Ale’s Funky Gold Mosaic. Now this is what’s known as a “wild” ale, meaning that the yeast used in fermenting this stuff went a little crazy. This craziness gives the ale a complex flavor that is sour at first taste, but then opens up to a fruity sweetness that we found quite compelling. Wild ales have a little bit of funk about them (which is a good thing), so trying your first one can be a surprise if you aren’t prepared.

Sour isn’t the only flavor here, though, as the beer finishes with a dry citrus flavor that’s very pleasant. This is a true summertime beer, perfect for serving with grilled food — and because the beer opens up nicely as it warms, you can enjoy drinking it at a leisurely pace without it turning on you — this is not a beer you want to drink ice cold, as a frigid temperature will mask a lot of the tasty stuff going on in the glass. Prairie has been one of the most consistently awesome breweries I’ve come across, and the Funky Gold Mosaic is another winner. Cheers!

In praise of the world’s tiniest grill

photo 1Being an apartment-dweller means that I’m pretty short on porch space. I mean, we do actually have a front and back porch, but there’s just not a ton of room for outdoor activities like grilling. But man, I love grilled food. So when the 4th of July rolled around this year, Jess and I decided we’d go down to the Walmarts and see if we could find a grill that would suit our needs: it needed to be small, it needed to be easy to put together, and it needed to be cheap. Like, way cheap — because let’s face it, I’m not sticking an expensive grill out on my porch in the middle of Little Rock.

What we found was this little 156-square inch grill for the bargain price of $10. Assembly took about 15 minutes, and it fit nicely on the corner of the front porch. A bit of charcoal and some fire later, we were ready to cook. So how does the world’s tiniest grill stack up? We cooked burgers, dogs, and chicken on it and were happy with the results. You wouldn’t want to feed a crowd off this thing, but for a little two person cook-out (or a way to keep from heating up the house with the stove on a hot summer day) this thing was perfect. 

photo 3Because the surface area is so small, I decided to go with a couple of Cornish game hens, butterflying them so that they would lay flat on the grill. This technique, known as “spatchcocking” is a great way to cook chicken evenly — you remove the backbone with a pair of kitchen shears, then pop the breast bone loose so that the bird lays flat, cooks evenly, and doesn’t dry out. These little guys were tasty.

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A couple of days later, I came across some small fryers at the market that were split completely into halves. This is my other favorite way to grill chicken — there’s nothing like settling down to a complete feast of white and dark meat; it also makes me feel like a medieval lord to tear into one of these birds. Again, the grill did a great job, and we were left with chicken that was flavorful, juicy, and had a crisp, crackling skin. The only complaint I have with the grill is that the single air vent on the lid isn’t sufficient to keep the oxygen flowing over the coals, so sometimes I had to leave the lid askew so that my fire wouldn’t cool down too much. But after some experimentation, I found that with a little tenacity, the world’s tiniest grill turned out some great food.

Summertime is grill season, and even if you don’t have a lot of room (like us), there’s no reason not to pick up one of these cheap-o grills and get to it. You’ll be glad you did. Happy cooking!

 

 

Carrot top pesto

carrot pestoOne of my favorite things to eat is fresh pesto. There’s just something quite wonderful about the sharp, sweet taste of basil matched with the buttery flavor of nuts, deep saltiness of Parmesan cheese, and all held together with just the right twang of good olive oil. It’s good on pasta, makes a fine dressing for sandwiches — and doesn’t do all that bad as a spread for crackers. It’s versatile, and it’s delicious.

Recently, I picked up some lovely carrots from the Bernice Garden Farmers Market grown by the CANAS Victory Garden, and I noticed that they had some really lovely, long, feathery tops to them. Like many cooks, my first inclination with carrot tops is to toss them, but these looked so lush and green that I felt like I should find a use for them. I decided to use them in a pesto, and the result was a fantastic fresh version that was every bit as good as any I’ve ever made.

Carrot Top Pesto

  • 2 cups carrot tops
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • 1/2 cup basil
  • 1/2 cup pecans
  • 1/2 cups Parmesan
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • Salt and pepper

In a food processor, pulse the carrot tops, garlic, basil, and pecans until they are chopped fine and beginning to form a paste. Add the grated Parmesan, salt and pepper (to taste) and olive oil and pulse again until everything is combined. Use your best judgement as to how coarse or fine you want everything chopped — and these ingredient amounts are all approximate, and can be adjusted for taste or amount of carrot tops you have to work with. Toss the pesto with warm pasta, or spread it on a turkey, bacon, and avocado sandwich (which is my personal favorite way to eat it). Happy cooking!