a new turn in the south

I vowed to have a summer of ‘not busy’ after the busy-ness of the first half of my year.  Instead, I’ve been spending more time outside, playing in the woods, catching up with friends, as well as on reading, live music, and wandering the city.  My favorite part, and maybe Shawn’s too, is the time I’ve been spending lingering in the kitchen.  We got some great cookbooks as wedding gifts, so I’ve had all sorts of new fun inspiration.


My current favorite is A New Turn in the South by Hugh Acheson – the chef behind 5 & 10, The National (both in Athens, GA) and Empire State South in Atlanta.  My stepmother may have given me this cookbook with a hint of irony (“there is nothing wrong with Southern cooking as is!”) but I like it exactly for the combination of seasonal fresh ingredients mixed with a fresh take on Southern-sourced recipes.  Everything I’ve tried thus far has been spot on – and holds up even when a few ingredient swaps have happened.  My favorites has been the Southern Cabanara – a twist on the Italian fave with the addition of collard greens.  Special note – it was officially my first cooking of meat! (Okay, so, cooking with cured meats – prosciutto – isn’t really getting into it too far – but a big step for a 24-year vegetarian).  The simple but lovely salmon with marinated veggies and salmoriglio sauce felt a tad bit more of the northwest, but a great quick and healthy weeknight recipe.  The key was the sauce – dressing up the dish with the lemon, anchovies and herbed olive oil.

Two other front runners from my cookbook stack has been Eat Good Food – from Bi-Rite in San Francisco and Ad Hoc at Home from Thomas Keller but no specific recipes to report quite yet.

And I will sign off with a favorite of the summer that came from Bon Appetit (which I just keep loving that magazine more and more these days!) – the Oregano Chile Chimchurri sauce in the August issue article about Uruguay.  I’ve put this parsley-olive oil based sauce on everything from pasta to grilled potatoes to veggie tacos at a campsite dinner (dinner above next to the Entiat River).  Here’s to more cooking!

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new new orleans favorites

It had been about 4 years since my last New Orleans visit, so on a recent trip there in November trip with my college roommates (Hi PHPs!), I was very happy to visit all my old favorites – mentioned here previously.  But, we also happily sought out a few new spots and as always, New Orleans delivered – especially in the food department!  A few of note to add:

La Boulangerie (4600 Magazine St., Uptown) – Incredible baked goods, and raves of perfection have been heard about their traditional baguettes.

Sucre – a pristine sweets shop, they have cupcakes, gelato and perfect little truffles and chocolates, but we went in for their macaroons, which we found to be lovely.  If memory serves me, the salted caramel, chicory and peppermint were our favorites.

Creole Creamery – an old school ice cream shop vibe, but with a wide spectrum of inventive flavors.

Ignatius Eatery (4200 Magazine St, Uptown) – just a few blocks away from our rental house, we went in looking for a solid lunch in this charming old corner-grocery style restaurant.  We ended up coming away with what was probably our most favorite meal of this trip.  The Shrimp Etouffee was incredible, as well as the Shrimp Remoulade Po’boy.

Willie Mae’s Scotch House Restaurant ( 2401 Saint Ann St, 7th Ward ) –  Historically run by a spitfire of a woman – Willie Mae, still going strong – and is now run faithful to history by her granddaughter.  There was a huge volunteer effort to bring this place back after Hurricane Katrina – and I am so happy I got a chance to check it out.  Dang. Incredible fried chicken! Accompanied by very lovely and comforting red beans and rice, butter beans and cornbread – but it is really all about the chicken, made to order.

The Columns Victory Lounge –  Not a new one for me, but it does deserve a mention, since I have found myself at this timeless gathering spot almost every visit to New Orleans going way back to undergrad. Tuck yourself into one of the rooms of the main floor, or amongst the grand columns on the porch for a cocktail –  this is hands-down my favorite place for a Sazerac Rye.

Laissez les bons temps rouler!

empire state south

So, I won’t bore you with the all the details as to why it has been radio silence from me in the blogosphere in recent weeks, except for one excuse – a 10 day trip to the south – which brings some good food suggestions from afar!  The first half of my trip was to Atlanta, where arguably the best meal of the whole trip happened – at Empire State South.  A beautiful space was created in the 999 Peachtree building in Midtown – including a bocce court in the back – which set the scene for a lovely lingering lunch with the mama and Suz.  The menu, full of southern classics with modern and culinary-school twist, was created by Hugh Atcheson of Athens, GA acclaimed restaurants 5&10 and The National (not to mention some James Beard awards thrown in for good measure) and Ryan Smith (Baccanalia, among others are on his impressive resume).  It was incredibly hard to choose from all the lovely options on the menu – so I opted for a plate of 5 sides, so that I could sample a bit of everything: a cheese-y squash cassorole, brussel sprouts with marcona almonds, collard greens, skillet okra, and a field peas with Carolina rice dish that was a beautiful lemon-tinged risotto type deal.  All of which made this displaced-southerner deeply satisfied in a cure-your-homesickness kind of way.  The vanilla bean lemonade cut the richness perfectly – and the tiny gingerbread whoopie pie for dessert was the perfect bite of sweet to end the meal!

Other highlights of the Atlanta trip were the newly opened Tomatillos – a homage of sorts to long-lost Tortillas that is in East Atlanta – not fancy, but good straightforward stuff.  And the new Wrecking Bar a brew pub that has found its place in the former home of the architectural salvage place of the same name in Little 5 Points.  These guys are serious about beer, and make a lovely “in fashion” as well (thanks Lee!).  It was a great visit with my southern peeps, and a lot of fun was had with the kiddos during the 3-day Halloween extravaganza.  Next stop – New Orleans!

savannah

It was a wonderful wander around the south, and Savannah was a great place to have it come to a close, with its beautiful squares, good food, and enough amped up sultry heat to hold us for when we returned to the chilly Seattle summer.  While there are definitely specifics to recommend, I believe that Savannah’s charm is best realized strolling around the original planned city’s squares.  Checking out the decentralized campus buildings, museum and galleries of Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) is a good enough excuse as any to find yourself all over the town, and the squares are the in between.   SCAD has put a definite modern art mark on a layered historical town – and the juxtaposition is great.  Make sure to stop by the shopSCAD store for students and recent grads wares.  And stroll along Broughton for some good stores and window shopping, like Savannah Bee Company.  While strolling around downtown, stop in to fortify at the tried and true Neopolitan style pizza at Vinnie Van Go-Go’s.

I believe my favorite southern-style sit down meal was at Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room. An old-school boarding house that has held on to its dining tradition of serving up lunch for folks at communal tables.  A line starts gathering before 11am for folks to cycle through – 10 to a table at a time.  Shortly after sitting down, the barrage of bowls starts – everything from squash, collards and beans to the famous fried chicken and breads.  Faced with the tough choice between the  cherry pie and banana pudding – go with the banana pudding for its quintessential southern grandma goodness.  Earnest, yummy and worth every minute you wait outside.

Another favorite food spot in the Savannah area was on our visit to Tybee Island, and after some good beach strolling, we found the Tybee Island Social Club, a brand new (at the time) taco restaurant.  Calling it that just doesn’t quite do it justice, but they do know how to make some incredibly delicious tacos and other Mexican fare with a slight upscale coastal twist, while keeping it economical.  My favorites were the ceviche and house made chips, and the fish taco with pear puree.  Put together with a design eye, and live music from time to time, this place had a great feel for some good hanging out.

Back in the Day Bakery was our favorite morning stop – incredible muffins and decadent breakfast bread pudding – and the highly recommended cupcakes for later that day.  A great space in a well designed cluster of buildings, with tucked away courtyards for sitting a spell.  A little off the central downtown – well worth the stroll or drive.

Savannah is said to be a city built on its dead – while it sounds somewhat macabre, the city embraces it wholeheartedly, and has a whole ghost tours industry to celebrate it.  We decided to jump on board for one of those tours for a little history and camp as the evening cooled off, choosing the Hearst Ghost Tour.  Meeting up with the hearse around 10pm on River Street sets the tone and our guide was a great mix of funny and campy.  Maybe not for the serious history buff, but an interesting take on one of the oldest cities in the south, and all of its layers.

charleston

Ahhh… Charleston… my kind of place – a total foodie town!  As long as I can remember, the  regional food of Charleston, SC has been a standout in the south.  An incredible convergence of forces – everything from the Gullah and Huguenot cuisines and soul food to the seafood that is available locally, mixed with chefs educated in every tradition from french to southern – a beautiful local cuisine is created.  I was in heaven, and it is worth every calorie to eat through this town.

We started at McCrady’s – one of those evenings that you know in the moment that you will remember it forever.  We sat in the bar area of this James Beard award-winner –  a well-done renovation of a two-story covered space between two very old brick buildings (top, middle) – and had incredible snacks (top, right) and prohibition-era inspired cocktails (top, left).  How can you pass up a Corpse Reviver whiskey-drink, for example (front)? Everything was simple and straightforward, but elevated at the same time.  I don’t think you could go wrong with anything on their menu.  Of similar caliber was the next night at FIG (another Beard winner).  We stopped by for cocktails and dessert – both of which were excellent (bottom, left), peach crumble with creme fraiche ice cream (in front) and sticky toffee pudding with maple ice cream (in back). YUM!

The Hominy Grill was recommended to me from every angle, and worth all the hype.  A beloved, classic southern-cooking cafe, with all the requisite elements that one would think – somehow far better, fresher, and tasty than imagined from the straightforward sounding menu.  All sorts of southern goodness to be had – such as boiled peanuts brought as a snack, heaping vegetable plates, and catfish sandwiches to the special okra and shrimp beignets and fried grits I had the day we went.  Their desserts looked just as enticing, but we saved some room for the Sugar Bakeshop down the street.  Also worth all the hype – this Brooklyn/NYC transplant found a great little space a few blocks away from Hominy to peddle his beautiful confections.  We had wonderful cupcakes, but they were in close competition for our favorite as the local-made Sweetteeth chocolate we picked up for later.

Bowen’s Island Restaurant A low-country establishment in the inter-coastal waterways between Charleston and Folly Beach serving up “steamed” oysters (roasted over a fire), among other seafood treats, for 60 years.  We got there off-season for oysters, and a mere 3 days before the owner opened his new space, but I still loved my shrimp and grits, and the ambiance of this slice of country.   One of my favorite random-happenings of the southern road trip was when the owner, upon learning we were architects and knew about green building, toured us around the new space for half an hour – where he is pushing the sustainable angle pretty hard: green roof, hardcore water conservation, and some things, like no AC and naturally ventilation, were pretty impressive to pull off in a restaurant in Charleston! All built on top of the original shack and oyster steam pit, that burned down a year or two ago.  He was a great character, and has taken serious care to honor his grandparents legacy.

Since we only had two days, and there is so much architecture and history to cover in Charleston, we did a history tour.  You can choose from walking or van tours, various themes of focus, etc., and we found our tour guide from Charleston Tours to be quite charming.  One of those quintessential Charlestonians that perpetually sound a bit grand and a bit tipsy – all with the mischievous glint in his eye.  I was doing more listening than photo-taking, but suffice it to say if you are interested in architecture, there is a plethora of styles, all unique to this city, and vernacular details to learn from in dealing with this specific type of climate.  And as one of the countries oldest towns – layers of history to sift through.  Our last morning before heading down the road, we spent a few hours at Middleton Place.  The plantation itself has America’s oldest  landscape, designed by Le Notre (Versailles) beautifully sited on a lazy bend in the Ashley River.  The archi-geeks in us were most interested in the Inn at Middleton Place, designed by WG Clark (above, right) – a beautiful project from the late eighties that somehow transcends its time period.

Most people on the West Coast chuckle whenever I mention the name of my favorite Southern magazine – Garden and Gun.  While it does cover everything from home and garden to food to, yes, aspects of hunting in the Southeast,  it is the way they go about it that is what makes it dear to me.  Dubbed the “Soul of the New South”, it is so artfully illustrated and stated – full-page spreads, graphically beautiful and well told tales from that unique and thorough perspective that captures my displaced southern heart.  I made a complete dork out of myself when we were in Charleston – not introducing myself or anything, I ran into their office just to tell them how much I love the magazine, and left as quickly as I went in.  I am hoping it was a random happening in their busy work day that at least made them laugh.  Always a good magazine to check out for more food recommends around the south!

chapel hill – durham – raleigh

Sometimes collectively referred to as “the Triangle”, these towns are fairly intertwined, but manage to have their elements that set them apart from each other:  Chapel Hill is symbiotic with UNC and has the eternal college town feel.  Durham has rival school Duke, and strong influence from its past glory days of the tobacco industry, and Raleigh is the capital city of North Carolina.  A very strong sense of community was quickly apparent in each town, where we found some incredible farm-to-table regional food, art and architecture.

Food – Our first night, we arrived  in Chapel Hill, and although we were still full from our brunch in Asheville that morning, we headed straight to the highly recommended Crook’s Corner for a light meal and a drink.  Not just any drink, mind you, but the best drink we had of our whole trip – the Frozen Mint Julep (top, center).  I would fly back for this alone – Bulliet Bourbon poured over house-made mint sorbet.  Drinking it on a warm summer evening on the back porch of Crook’s was just about heavenly.  The green peach salad with mint and black pepper was almost as refreshing, and Shawn’s shrimp and grits was the best we had in our travels.  The next morning we headed over to Foster’s Market in Durham for a lingering breakfast on their expansive wisteria-covered front porch (top, right).  This market/cafe had incredible baked goods and house made granola, as well as all sorts of artisan products of the area.  Although plans to get the “best fried chicken” at Bullocks in Durham  were thwarted due to a summer vacation closure, we were told by several folks that it is hands down THE best spot in the area.  The Pit (in Raleigh) was a good substitute in it’s absence though.  Known more for its whole hog pit roasting BBQ, their fried chicken served Shawn and Brian right in the quest to check that off their “southern must-eats”.  For a sweet treat on hot days, we had several stops at the local paleta chain, LocoPops – incredible fresh fruit popsicles with some inventive combinations (bottom, left).  And last, but not in any way the least, Sunrise Biscuit Kitchen – a straightforward, low-brow but beautiful southern biscuit drive-thru.  I was so enthralled when I received that little bag of warmth, that I forgot to take a picture until I was almost through (bottom, right).

Art and Architecture – The North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh has a beautifully executed new building surrounded by a lovely sculpture park, designed by Thomas Phifer and Partners.  Detailed with an incredible design rigor, light-filled and spacious  – and it is free – a wonderful place to see art.  The museum has a sizable Rodin collection, along with representatives from a broad spectrum of art periods – all very well curated and placed.

Wanderings – We didn’t get a chance to spend too much time in downtown Durham, but I just love the old building stock – brick tobacco drying warehouses (center)- that have been turned into everything from restaurants to offices to condos, creating a pretty vibrant revitalized downtown.  And adjacent to Chapel Hill, is the town/neighborhood Carborro – home to the largest co-op we saw in the area, a very active art center, some great libation experts, the best farmer’s market in the area and host of  environmental movies in a vacant lot turned community living room.  This part of town is vibrant and full of an earnest idealism that was great to see.  Our favorite stop in this part of town was Johnny’s – part cafe, part store, part taco truck stop, part music venue, part community center – a great spot to sit for a spell on a sultry summer evening.

Thanks to Lynn especially for all the recommends in the Triangle!  Up next… Charleston, SC!

asheville

Asheville, North Carolina has always been one of my favorite southern getaway spots – a great town, with a vibrant artistic community, and an activist vibe in an incredibly beautiful mountain setting for all sorts of outdoorsy adventures to be had.  While a few more people have found out about this little gem this last decade or so – causing some to say it has changed with the influx – I find that it still holds true to itself.  Our visit was way too quick this time – only 2 days – but we still managed to have some of the best meals of our whole southern trip here, do some very good art meandering, and catch up with a few very special-to-me Ashevillians (or at least that is what I am calling them!).

Roaming around in the River Arts District was a highlight of this last trip.   Just a few minutes from downtown along the French Broad River, it is a grouping of old brick warehouses transformed into wonderful mazes of working artist studios.  We spent the better part of a day coveting the work spaces along with the art, and then of course had to fortify  – at 12 Bones.  DANG!  This was the best BBQ of the trip, and just one of those times where the setting, the people, the food – all came together to provide a perfect beautiful moment.  The ribs are where it is at apparently, and our table decided that the brown sugar glaze was the best.  And despite being a place that is all about meat, they do not relegate the vegetarian options to an after thought.  I had a barbecued portobello mushroom, fried green tomato sandwich (YUM!) and the sides were all incredible too – I think the jalapeno grits were my fave.   After some more wandering around in the artist studios, a stop in at THE spot for a pint in all of Asheville – The Wedge.  The people of Asheville take their brewing very seriously, and this is the favorite mecca.  I am more of a cider fan myself, and found an incredibly good, crisp North Carolina Hard Cider this trip – from McRitchie Ciderworks.  Worth looking out for.

Asheville’s downtown core is great for strolling, window shopping, and finding random happenstance buskers and performance artists – as well as home to some wonderful restaurants.  Our first night in town we headed straight for Tupelo Honey for farm-to-table, regional style eats with a twist.  My catfish with goat cheese grits was a perfect, delicate combo, and the ginger cornbread with peach butter would be worth flying in for.  The other dishes and sides at the table were just as good – there is an artist in the kitchen for sure.  The best brunch in town is at Early Girl Eatery – the best thing on the on the menu, hands down, is the Early Girl Benny – grit cakes instead of english muffins, and tomato gravy instead of hollandaise – and I was full for the entire day!  Also downtown, Malaprop’s bookstore is a touchstone of Asheville – a community epicenter of sorts, with some great book buyers making choices –  worth checking in with if you are in town.  And also the Grove Arcade – a history public market that has been beautifully restored – is a great spot to duck into on a hot day for ice cream and air conditioning.

Before leaving the area, we headed north on the Blue Ridge Parkway – a peaceful meander through the mountains, with great vistas that you can hop on just outside of Asheville.  A stop at the newly designed visitor center (Lord Aeck Sargent for you design-y types), and on to a morning hike up to Mt. Baldy for a 360-degree view.  If we had a wee bit more time, we may have headed to Natahala Outdoor Center for some rafting or kayaking, or checked out Biltmore Estate, but alas, there will just have to be another visit soon!

Thanks so much to Dean for having us and to Susanne for joining in and showing us her spots too!