in the garden with cindy

IMG_2224Chef Cindy Pawlcyn is one of the original Napa Valley trailblazers. On the eve of her pioneering eatery Mustard’s Grill celebrating it’s 30th anniversary of dishing up heaping plates of honest American fare with worldly sophistication, she took time out to take me through her gardens and sound off on what it’s like for a one-time hippie to suddenly find herself part of the establishment, the importance of educating diners about what’s on their plates, and why she can’t stand reality shows like Top Chef. Alas, you’ll have to wait until the story is published later this year; I can’t give away everything here for free.

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top 100: kin shop

My only gripe with Harold Dieterle’s fantastically unfussy contempo-Thai restaurant, Kin Shop, is the lighting. Though the dim interiors go a long way towards making everyone seem that much more attractive, it’s heinous for the amateur iPhone photographer. So, you’ll just have to trust me on this because my snapshots can’t begin to do the meal justice. Also, I’ve never been to Thailand (something I hope to remedy later this year) so neither can I vouch with any authority on esoteric matters of authenticity, yet I can safely say this is the best Thai food in New York – certainly following the all-too-brief lifespan of Lotus of Siam. Like a novice at a night market, I enter just a bit overwhelmed by the thick smells and smoky air. Immediately want a taste of everything. Instead me and my merry band do the next best thing, putting ourselves in the hands of the kitchen and opting for the five-course tasting. (At $65, it’s a smart bargain.) Things get off to a bang with miang, a traditional Thai street food of tasty bits ‘n’ pieces wrapped inside a leaf. Here it’s a mix of fluke, lychee, chili jam, and crispy fried garlic on a shiso leaf. A myriad of contrasting flavors and textures, it’s the canape equivalent of an aperitif; a wake-up call, which tingles the palate in preparation for what’s to come: grilled prawns spiked with fresh lime and Phuket-style black peppercorn sauce; a succulent king-size crispy oyster over fried pork, peanuts and mint; squid ink and hot sesame oil soup (as delicious as it sounds disgusting). I’m made even happier when the special of the night arrives amusingly enough as the equivalent of a pasta course: grilled ramp congee with Chang Mai sausage, crayfish & crispy garlic. It’s the Greenmarket version of Thai comfort food, creamy, thick, and satisfying, with the addition of ramps, no less – the locavore’s answer to crack cocaine. Two versions of duck arrive next: a perfectly pink and tender roasted breast under a fragrant mound of fresh herbs, topped with green mango and accompanied by tamarind water and a spicy duck laab salad riddled with birds-eye chilis that more than earns its four-alarm fire notation. (So potent are the effects of the chilis that more than one person in my party navigated a bout of gastrointestinal distress the following day. Me? I’ve never tasted such an exquisite mix of meat and heat in a single forkful. I could easily eat this dish over and over again.) And that’s a prime example of what’s so enjoyable about Dieterle’s menu. Even if it’s not necessarily always a traditionalist’s version of Thai food, there’s a mutual regard for both the cuisine and the diner that meets way above the middle. Except for desserts, there’s no dumbing down here for ignorant palates. In the piquant hands of this Top Chef everyone and everything rises.

 

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don’t get saucy with me, bolognese

Atlanta’s Attack of the Killer Tomato Festival celebrates some of the South’s best chefs, farmers and mixologists. Created by Top Tomato Ford Fry, the one-day event now in its third year is held at Fry’s West Midtown restaurant JCT Kitchen & Bar, which readers might remember I took quite a shine to back in November. Benefiting Georgia Organics – a non-profit organization working to integrate sustainable and locally grown foods into daily diets – a roster of noted area chefs like Canoe’s Carvel Gould (whom I also featured back in November) and Top Chef-winner Kevin Gillespie of Woodfire Grill will pair up with local farmers to create unique tomato dishes for festivalgoers to sample, while the featured mixologists will stir up signature tomato-based cocktails. A couple of highlights from last year included Pimiento cheese profiteroles with tomato jam by West Egg Café‘s Patric Bell and a Tomato Mai Tai from Stuart White of Miller Union. High profile judges from Food & Wine, Bon Appétit, and CNN sample it all then cherry-pick their favorites, bestowing awards for best tasting dish, most creative dish, best booth and best beverage. Attendees get to vote for their favorite dishes, too – then everyone waves goodbye as nearly 1,000 pounds of compostable matter gets shipped off to begin the cycle again (as worm food) courtesy of Greenco Environmental. The Attack is back July 17 – it’s as good a reason as any to ditch The Big Apple for a visit to The Hot Tomato.

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put it in your mouth and suck it

More crow. Located smack in the center of the Gaslamp, Brian Malarkey’s see and be seen Searsucker is not unlike, um, seersucker: comfortable and worn, with just enough style to make you sit up and take notice. Though the menu does not specifically focus on seafood, the “sea” in Searsucker pays playful homage to the “Top Chef” Finalist’s love of the ocean while at the same time embodying the personality of his cooking – mischievous, fun-loving, authentic. Divided into categories like Bites, Smalls, Greens, Ocean, Ranch and Farm, the food is both serious and fun – not to mention seriously fun. A high-meets-low mix of comfort foods prepared with unexpected ingredients and approachable, unpretentious dishes, all paired with local craft beers and a noteworthy wine list that’s chock-a-block with pleasant surprises. (when was the last time you saw an affordable bottle from Sardinia?) Like a smoked trout salad with grapefruit, radish and avocado; marrow bone with fleur de sel and onion jam; octopus, cress and saffron aioli; and spicy shrimp over bacon grits. I’d have loved to have tried one or two of the appetizing-sounding entrees but all those starters (and sides like fresh shucked corn with chile and roasted Brussels sprouts) got in the way. Yet that’s one of Searsucker’s finest selling points: have it your way. Graze, nibble, drink, feast, whatever – you’re in excellent hands, suckers.

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flip burger boutique

Fans of Bravo’s Top Chef series will recognize the Chicago season runner-up Richard Blais, the spiky-haired molecular gastronome currently masterminding Atlanta’s two Flip Burger boutiques.  Heralded for a creative take on American cuisine, Blais has worked his way through the kitchens of Thomas Keller,  Daniel Boulud, and Ferran Adria.  He’s even been a competitor on Iron Chef: America.  So what’s he now doing running a burger joint? Reinventing what we’ve come to expect from a burger, fries, and shakes.

“Fine dining between two buns” is Flip’s motto and it sets you up perfectly (almost) for what’s to come, starting with the sleek red and white interiors.  Spacious booths are padded out to create a cocoon of leather, giving the whole enterprise the feel of, er, well, the Enterprise.  Spotlessly clean and vaguely futuristic, you’ve arrived at a burger joint the Jetson’s could only dream of.  A quick glance across the menu and it looks like burgers and fries and shakes, but look closer:  chocolate beet milkshakes? short rib kimchee and pickled garlic burgers? foie gras nuggets?  Huh? This is serious food, meticulously prepared: parsnip frittes, sesame sweetbreads, roasted bone marrow with braised oxtail, fried pickles with buttermilk sirancha, and burgers galore, like the farmer burger (organic grass-fed beef, scuppernong preserves, tomme and collard greens), the pate melt (veal and pork, lingonberry jam, cornichons, pickled shallots and swiss cheese), and the southern (chicken fried beef, pimento cheese, b&b pickles and chow chow), all served on brioche buns.  And don’t forget the milkshakes, chilled to a custardy thickness courtesy of liquid nitrogen: nutella and burnt marshmallow, krispy kreme, and an unbelievable foie gras.  That it’s all neatly delivered in an unpretentious, budget-friendly “boutique” is genius.  That it’s delicious – even when adventurous and whimsical to a fault – well, that’s the real surprise.

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