Saturday, December 5, 2009

The New Menu and Chef at Smith

When a restaurant you have come to love changes chefs, the conflicting emotions are unavoidable. On the one hand, you want the new chef and his menu to reveal all new sensations and creative approaches and techniques. On the other, you miss what was. I'm so pleased to be able to share that new head chef Chris Howell (late of Tom Douglas's Lola) and owner Linda have done exactly the right thing: introduced some (amazing) new menu items, while retaining tried and true favorites from the days of former wunderkind chef Eliot Guthrie (as they should, because they are deservedly classic and perfect for Smith).

This is further a great sign because it shows that Chris's ego -- and all chefs have them -- is not so large as to preclude acknowledging what already works and, instead of trying to build an entirely new menu on an all new foundation, he is constructing his legacy on proven, sturdy bedrock.

A quick word on what remains: the Smith burger (still only $10); marrow bones; sweet potato fries; poutine; Cuban sandwich; gruyere and onion jam sandwich; salt cod fritters; cured meat plate; beet salad with watercress, pecans and bleu cheese; and some other bits and bobs.

Now...the thrill of the new! How about rabbit stew braised with tomato, dark ale and root vegetables? Pork loin with sunchoke puree, kale and chanterelle relish? Hanger steak with goat cheese cauliflower and winter greens? Going in, I met two friends on their way out.

"How was it?" I asked.

"Fantastic," they replied. And, at the same time, two strangers walked by and said, "You have to try the hanger steak!"

This, folks, is what's known as buzz, and to see it developing on the street, before one even sits down to table, on the first night of the new menu is one hell of a good sign.

I elected to enjoy the Brussels sprouts with bacon and sultanas as my starter and the stuffed quail with chestnuts and mushroom orzo as my main.

The Brussels sprouts (misspelled on the menu, by the way) arrive beautifully roasted bright green while also char-grilled black in places. I love it when chefs are not afraid to really char a green vegetable. I guess it's carcinogenic, but so what -- a truly roasted vegetable is a thing of beauty. The sprouts are served in a low, ceramic oval dish, lightly awash in what must be just a splash of stock and chunks of thick bacon, baked apples, streamers of greens and the promised sultanas. They are amazing. I should only hope to create sprouts like this in my life. The good news is I do not need to because Chris has it handled.

I was only halfway through these little green ball of goodness when my quail arrived. Too soon, I thought, but I was already filling up on sprouts so asked to have them boxed. Also, the room was heaving and it's very difficult for a kitchen to time everything correctly. Still, I did point out to Britt and Michael that it seemed a bit early, much to their delight I am sure...

One orders quail at their peril -- a tiny bird, it can quickly go dry in the oven and toughen. Not so the quail at Smith. The bird itself is delicious and identical in flavor to a roast chicken -- none of the watery sweetness one sometimes gets in a Cornish Game Hen nor the gamey flavors of pheasant and other game birds. The quail is pull apart tender and the little charrings at the tip of the bones are a delicious crunch of skin and juices.

The orzo bed upon which it is served, however, was the knockout of the evening. In fact, it's one of the finest things I have ever had at Smith. The orzo itself, perfectly cooked, not as melty as a risotto but chewy and substantial in the mouth. And not just blessed with butter and mushrooms, but something more like the essential soul of butter and mushrooms. I could have eaten an entire other bowl of the stuff. It's that good. You must order it. You must.

I passed on dessert (which was just as well as, unbeknownst to me I was about to get kidnapped to another table of friends for another hour or two of drinking), but noted the addition of hard cider apple fritters with vanilla ice cream. You can be assured I will enjoying those soon!

I enjoyed a 2007 Mencia from Viña Reboreda in Spain with my meal. It has raisins and cherries with very light tannins so worked wonders with the sultanas in the sprouts and the hearty orzo.

Nothing will replace Eliot at Smith; I simply enjoyed too many gloriously mind- and tongue-altering moments under his reign. But you can move on, to new things, to other moments in a life of food. And I'm so pleased to announce that it looks as if that is exactly the promise Smith holds out to me now with Chris in the kitchen. I stopped back by the pass window on my way out and greeted him -- he was very kind and said he looked forward to feeding me many more things.

Well I can assure you, chef, you'll have no trouble convincing me to keep coming back to try all your new offerings!

Friday, December 4, 2009

FLASH! New Menu Debuts Tonight at Smith

I'll report from the front this weekend, but word is it includes rabbit stew, quail and other delights. The new chef is named Chris, and I have not met him yet. I plan to attend about you?

How do you feel about menu changes? Do you like fully redone menus, no changes ever, or do you like to see old favorites kept while the rest changes?

Thursday, December 3, 2009

You've Heard of Popcorn Shrimp?

How about popcorn chicken?

Here is a chicken recipe that also includes the use of popcorn as a stuffing -- imagine that. When I found this recipe, I thought it was perfect for people like me, who just are not sure how to tell when poultry is thoroughly cooked, but not dried out. Give this a try.

4 - 5 lb. Chicken
1 cup melted butter
1 cup stuffing
1 cup uncooked popcorn
Salt/pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Brush chicken well with melted butter salt, and pepper.
Fill cavity with stuffing mixed with popcorn.
Place in baking pan with the neck end toward the back of the oven.

Listen for the popping sounds. When the chicken's ass blows the oven door open and the chicken flies across the room and lands on the table, it's done and ready to eat.


The accompanying illustration is by the amazing Brian Britigan.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Do Good by Eating Well

Late notice, but it's still worth highlighting that Linda Derschang and the gang at Oddfellows are donating a percentage of proceeds from tonight's special menu to Capitol Hill Housing, an affordable housing organization.

Nice move, Linda!

Photo from

Book 'Em Part 2: FARMfood

Cookbooks, when they are well-written and filled with quality photography, can be highly evocative of times and places. They can take you to countries and cultures to which you have never been, and bring a part of that unknown experience into your life in the form of images, flavors and smells.

Fewer cookbooks still can do you the most wonderful favor: take you home.

As a Hoosier boy, raised in the cornfields of southern Indiana, I remember a childhood of fresh meats and vegetables, almost all raised within bike-riding distance of my house. I went to school with the farmers' children, picked my own vegetables, timed meat purchases to the seasonal slaughter of farm animals, kept track of hunting and fishing seasons (and my friends who were coming home with venison and bluegill and perch)...effectively living the "locovore" lifestyle long before it became popular.

From this same small town in Indiana, Daniel Orr, one of my former childhood ice hockey teammates, eventually left to become a renowned chef, working in three star Michelin restaurants in Europe and eventually helming such culinary icons as La Grenouille in New York City, among others.

Dan has now published a cookbook called FARMfood (Indiana University Press, 2009) that is a loving, masterful tribute to that food of my youth -- and has proven that its gorgeous freshness and simplicity is attainable today, not just behind the corn silk curtain of Indiana, but across the country in cities and small towns, alike.

FARMfood is an exquisite publication -- not only are the recipes amazing, but the photography and writing is as warm and embracing as the Midwestern people who grow and cook the food on which it focuses. I cannot recommend this book more highly; I literally am having one of those Julie and Julia moments where I want to cook every recipe in the book.

And as a further note, if you are ever in Bloomington, Indiana, you can go right to the fountainhead -- Dan has opened FARMBloomington, a restaurant where he serves the delectable delights he presents in his book.

If you know a foodie, a weekend cook, or anyone interested in living a greener, more sustainable life FARMfood is the cookbook to buy them (or yourself)!

Stay tuned for updates on my attempts to cook from this book. I can't wait to "go back home" to the roots of my Life of Food, courtesy of chef Dan Orr!