Thursday, April 19, 2012

Knockin' 'em Down from Coast to Coast

Results are in from the Once-a-Year Bowling League, held this season at MacDaddy's on Golfin' Dolphin Drive in Cape Carteret, North Carolina (in the Blue Teak lanes, with the fancy furniture). High scorer was Sheldon, who bowled a 149 on lane 8. High average was Trigger, with 118.5.

Congratulations to all the winners, and, as with kiddie sports, there are no losers ... although here, nobody gets a trophy. Just T-shirts.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Where Slurping Is Discouraged, But Understandable

2706 South Croatan Highway
Nag's Head, North Carolina
(just north of the entrance to Jockey's Ridge State Park)

Elegance is not a word much thought of in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where the uniform of the day is shorts and flip-flops and any décor generally carries a fine gloss of salt spray and sand. Yet the dining room of Firefly, a purely local venture, exudes a lush dignity while maintaining the casual innocence that gives this resort area its charm. 

We stopped in after watching a spectacular sunset over Albemarle Sound from the dunes of Jockey's Ridge, and the easy friendliness of the staff refreshed us while the magnificence of the room renewed our sated spirits. We were a little leery, going in, because the legend on the sign outside warned of "Southern Cuisine," which we feared might mean saturated fat in the ice tea. Instead we found down-home cooking done with flair and a minimum of lard. Everything was delicious, and seldom has self-restraint required such exercise of will. (The self-restraint was limited in duration though: the leftovers were gone before the sun was high the next morning.) It would seem there is a qualitative difference between "Southern Cuisine" and "Southern Cooking."

What does that mean?
The first dish we tried was the Meat-n-Tater Salad. Surprisingly fresh greens and other rabbit-food in generous quantity underlay a satisfying pile of shaved prime rib of beef, of excellent quality, and Cheddar cheese. Tiny roasted potatoes ringed the outer edge of the plate, each one a gem of perfection. We opted to have the salad without the ranch dressing it normally would come with, and didn't miss it at all. There was plenty of moisture and flavour in the dish without the added fat calories of a buttermilk-based dressing.

The other dish was crab pot pie. This was served in a large-ish crock, with a flaky pastry crust over chunks of flaky crab, peas, carrots, onion and other vegetables in a creamy sauce. The combination of flavours was tremendous, and each different vegetable retained its texture and taste.

The side dishes offered are all paradigms of Southern cooking, from coleslaw to collared greens; the ones we tried were cheesy grits and fried green beans. I had high expectations for the grits, and low expectations for the beans. Both confounded me. The grits were oddly seasoned and, I thought, lacking in some essential quality: a touch of bacon? a chunk of fatback? The beans, though, proved to be extraordinary. They remained tender and crunchy inside their light shell of piquant seasoned batter, which was fried in very hot oil to create a dish that was dry to the touch. They were even better as leftovers the next day.

One of the others at our table had a cold side dish called broccoli salad, which I tried. The combination of tart, sweet and sour was fabulous, and I would say that this was my favourite among the many available side dishes on offer.
Firefly Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Never Out of Season

Oak Street Cafe
332 Main Street
Highlands, North Carolina

Highlands, North Carolina, is a high-end weekend getaway spot for the rich folk of the Southeast. It's 4,000 feet up in the mountains, somewhat remote, and lousy with the kinds of shops that still sell fur along with their designer furnishings and art. Kind of like Aspen without a treeline, Palm Springs without the desert, White Sulphur Springs without the bureaucrats. 

Oak Street Cafe fits right in. Located in the second floor of a typical main street building over a typical main street boutique, it boasts an intimate, romantically-lit dark-panelled dining room with windows giving a view of more typical main street boutiques, and a floor-to-ceiling wine rack that screens the creaky oak stairs.

What does that mean?
The season in Highlands doesn't really get started until Memorial Day, we're told; that may be why the waitstaff at this upscale place on a weeknight consists of one man, a waiter with a slight eastern-European accent and excellent presence ... when he's around. We arrived to find one occupied table and no staff on hand. After several minutes' good-natured bantering with the other customers, we seated ourselves at a table by the window, where we were eventually discovered and served. 

We started, eventually, with house salads. When, in time, these came, they had all the ingredients arranged by colour on the plate; an interesting choice, but I hesitate to call it a good one. After all, we at the table lack the utensils to toss a salad, and I for one dislike the chore of selecting one item from column A and one from column B with each bite, when I know that I could as easily have had a salad that was pre-mixed for me. 

Our next course was escargots bourguignon. Well, that was the name on the menu, though it varied from my conception of that very traditional recipe, first by being served in a puff pastry shell, and second by being served with a surprisingly thick and sweet-tasting butter and garlic sauce. The sauce grew on me, so that by the end of the dish I thought I would prefer it to the usual butter and garlic sauce; unfortunately it had a deleterious effect on the puff pastry shell, which grew gelatinous as the seconds ticked by. The snails themselves were a little on the rubbery side, not so much that they squeaked against the tooth, but enough that they threatened to. 

For entrées, we chose the two dishes recommended by the waiter. The chicken Kiev was, well, excellent.  In all honesty, it is the first I've had that is better than I could make myself. (At least, back when I would make such fatty dishes, in the 1970s.) The herbed butter inside was exquisite: not a thick slab, but a deliberately measured quantity, not sprinkled with herbs but properly mixed before being encased in the tender chicken breast, so that when cut into, the butter does not gush out like sea water through a Louisiana levee, but drains gracefully onto the plate, forming a halo around the delicate crust of the dish. The plate was shared by a generous portion of green beans that, for once, could honestly claim the moniker haricots verts. A small bowl of roasted potatoes was, in contrast, disappointing. They had a sawdust texture and little flavour, and ended the evening in the trash.

The other choice was shrimp and grits. Being enough of a Southern boy to have a fair appreciation of grits as food, I was tickled to see them on the menu in a place like this. Think Billy Carter in the White House. It's not quite that, but in that line. But Oak Street Cafe pulls it off with flair. The grits are thick enough to hold their own with the cheesy sauce and bacon flavours, and would have been delicious even without the shrimp. Mushroom slices and scallions provided textural variance without interfering in the wonderful flavours of the main ingredients. 

The prices would have bordered on inflated back home, where everything seems cheap, but they are in keeping with the economy of a place where the local workers can't afford to live. 
Oak Street Cafe on Urbanspoon

Off Again

The "First" trip of 2012 — that unexpected jaunt up to Colorado last month doesn't count — is underway. This year's Condo Trip is being held in the Spring (I forget why, but I'm sure there's a reason) in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. This year, unusually, the wife has taken enough time off from work to drive out and back with me. It's a blessing, and a curse: a blessing because, (A) I have her with me the whole time, and (2) because she helps keep me focussed on important things like WeightWatchers (even if not entirely successfully); a curse because (A) I have her with me the whole time, and (2) because she helps keep me focussed on important things like WeightWatchers. 

We started out Saturday, dropping Homer off at the kennel after watching Spurs draw at Sunderland in the early match. Along about Belton, north of Austin, I heard a noise from the front of the car and discovered that my left front tire was coming apart. That only caused a delay of maybe two hours while we replaced both front tires, counting our blessings that it happened on Saturday around noon, instead of Easter Sunday, when nothing would have been open. I had only expected to get as far as Texarkana that day, and that was as far as we got; just a little later than I'd figured on. We checked into a motel and had dinner at the first decent-looking place we saw, a steak house on the Arkansas side of Stateline Avenue. 

Pictures from this trip are in the
Picasa Web Album
"2012 Trip to the Outer Banks"
Next morning we were out early, and, after a short stretch of freeway, turned onto the back roads. My half-hearted County Quest took us first to Crater of Diamonds State Park, where we paid our seven bucks to dig for gems in their plowed fields, just as it started to rain. Digging for diamonds in the mud is, uh, an unattractive option. Oh, well. We'll have to come back some other time and make a day of it. 

An hour or two later we were in Hot Springs, where we toured an old bath house, the one the National Park uses as its visitors' center, and walked along the Grand Promenade. Then we drove up the mountain to the observation tower. The views were nice, but for me the best part was the one-way winding road. Afterwards, we headed off towards Mississippi, getting only as far as Pine Bluff, Arkansas. That leaves only Jackson County in Arkansas, which I expect to go through on my way back from Chicago in June.

The trip across Mississippi was uneventful. We were listening to an audiobook, Blowfly, by Patricia Cornwell: probably the last Patricia Cornwell novel we'll ever listen to. It doesn't have as crafty a plot as her previous works we've heard, and it seemed to absolutely wallow in gratuitous gruesomeness at every opportunity. Plus, I'll tell you one thing: I would never trust any of my secrets to her character Lucy, the former FBI agent now free-lancing as a sort of black-ops security specialist: That woman spills the beans with just a cross look.

We stopped off in Starkville, Mississippi, so I could try to track down an old man who had been a friend of my father's: the only such friend I know of. The last time I saw him I was probably six or seven years old, though I did talk to him a couple of times on the phone in the last seven or eight years. I had it in my head that he might be able to shed some light on a couple of curious points of family history. I've been calling his number for the last couple of weeks, in anticipation of this trip, but no one ever answered. I didn't have an address, just knew that he lived in a cabin or shack in the woods about four miles from the University where he used to teach. So I went to the courthouse and checked with the chancellery office, figuring he must've owned the land where his cabin was. I learned that he had died in 2009 and his property transferred to his heir. So for the next couple of hours I was full of reflections on death and memory and such, but only slight regrets that I had no further chance, that I can see, of illuminating the little mysteries of my ancestors. But knowing such things isn't really important anyway: it'd be about as significant as knowing the plot of an old Dick Van Dyke Show episode.

Late that afternoon we passed through Huntsville, Alabama, having decided to find a motel on the far side of the city. Well, guess what: when you go through Huntsville from west to east on the freeway, the city ends very suddenly, and there are no motels (or restaurants) until you get to Winchester, Tennessee. It was a beautiful drive (with the top down most of the way; so far that's been the only day it was both warm enough and dry), especially the last part, along a winding narrow hilly road in the fading light. And I thought we'd scored a bargain in the mom-and-pop hotel we found in Winchester ($38/night, with wireless internet). That always makes me more cheerful, to find a clean, comfortable, inexpensive motel along the way. The last few years, all the ones I've found, in every part of the country, have been operated by people from India, which makes me ponder the habit of immigrant groups to follow their own kind in the New Lands. I suppose it's what the Irish and Chinese and Italians did in the 19th Century, and the Scots and Germans and Swedes before them. It gives us stereotypes like Apu, the Quickie-mart owner on The Simpsons, and Chinese laundries and restaurants, and those, I suppose, linger on after the ethnic group members have merged into the general population. Well, except the Swedes, who are still all big, blond boneheaded farmers up north.

Yesterday we drove up the Sequatchie Valley in Tennessee, then back down to Chattanooga, where we spent a good part of the day at Lookout Mountain. The weather was just cooperative enough for us to admire the vistas that spot offers. We wandered around Point Park, and down to Sunset Rock, then headed east into the Smoky Mountains and crossing into North Carolina. At a visitors' center on the Ocoee River, the location for some whitewater events in the '96 Olympics, we heard about the town of Highlands, North Carolina, which sounded like Atlanta's version of Fredericksburg: a weekend getaway full of cutesy shops and restaurants and hotels. It just happened to be at the right co-ordinates for us, as we drove into town on a winding mountain road right about sunset (pausing to drive under a waterfall a mile or so west of town) and booked a room in the Highlands Inn, and old (1880) ramshackle building on the main street of the town. Everything in Highlands is seasonal, but our desk clerk found us a restaurant that was open until 8, where we enjoyed a nice dinner. By the time we were done, the weather had turned cold, which was not what we packed for, so we headed back to the room and shut ourselves in.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Almost Little Hipps

Bobby J's Old-Fashioned Hamburgers
13247 Bandera Road
(in Helotes, a couple of miles beyond Loop 1604)

Little Hipps, the iconic burger joint on McCullough Avenue, went out of business years ago, and entered into the realm of Local Lore. Another burger joint occupies the oddly-angled orange building now, openly imitating, without quite achieving, the atmosphere of the ancient temple; still another, put together by former employees of Little Hipps, opened just off Broadway near the Pearl a couple of years ago. Both are good, but neither quite matches the paradigm they aim at. 

Bobby J's, waaaaaaaaaay the Hell out in Helotes, comes even closer to attaining the status of Little Hipps without imitating it; at least not overtly, and probably not consciously. The menu is more extensive than at most burger joints, but not unbearably fru-fru; the food is simple, but very well done; the service has hit that perfect balance between unhurried familiarity and and efficient promptitude; and if the atmosphere were any more down-home, you would expect to be assigned chores before dinner. The prices are in line with what you'd expect to pay at any burger joint, and for those prices you get a better product in a more enjoyable setting. There's a big covered patio out back with a sort of Hill-Country feel (and occasional live music), and a smaller one in front where you can watch the traffic on Bandera Road and contemplate the mysteries of life in the Techie Age. 

My friend, who had suggested the place, loved his cheeseburger; it had, he reported, just the right amount of grease. It sure looked good to me, but I was equally happy with my grilled chicken sandwich, served Monterrey style with Jack cheese and green chiles, as well as the traditional 'Murrikin fixin's. For my side, I chose the bottlecaps (fried jalapeño slices), which were crispy and hot and just a little piquant. They were served with enough Ranch dressing to satisfy even people who drink that stuff. My friend went with the regular french fries, which were cut in house and fried up perfectly, then dosed with a surprisingly subtle mix of seasonings. The small order was plenty big, and the fried food wasn't greasy at all.

If this place wasn't so damn far from town, I would be a regular. 
Bobby J's Old Fashioned Hamburgers on Urbanspoon