A New York Weekend, Day One

A couple weeks ago, I made a road trip to New York City to help with the Charcuterie Masters competition. Considering my fellow road trippers (fellow members of The Salt Cured Pig, John Patterson and Jason Osburn) and I were only there from early Friday morning until Sunday evening, we took full advantage and crammed in as many great opportunities to eat great food and talk with great people about food. Due to the volume of activities, I will be splitting my recounting of this trip into three separate posts.

After driving for 12 hours and well into the early hours of Friday, we crashed with great expectations for the morning. We were staying in a hotel a couple doors down from the venue for the Charcuterie Masters event (Flushing Town Hall), right in the heart of Flushing. Once we were all awake and ready for the day, we decided to walk over to the venue and get a lay of the land.

While walking over there, we immediately noticed that everyone else on the sidewalk was looking at us a bit oddly. We definitely stuck out in this neighborhood, as all the people we encountered were Asian. After seeing the exterior of the Flushing Town Hall, we wandered into the market next door.

Immediately upon walking in to the market, we were met with a distinct odor of fresh seafood. When I say fresh, I mean that most of it was still alive. It was amazing to see the variety, from spider crab to geoduck to rather large sea snails. We walked around the produce section and found the usual fruits and veggies you would expect, as well as Jackfruit and Durian. We have a few Asian markets around Ann Arbor, but this one had a greater volume of items as well as a much more diverse selection. We were in a food lover’s heaven thinking of all the possibilities.

Photo of spider crab in market

Spider Crab

Photo of geoduck in the market

Geoduck

Photo of sea snails in the market

Sea snails

After meeting some of the other members of The Salt Cured Pig who were in town for the Charcuterie Masters event, we made our way to the Gowanus area of Brooklyn. Our destination was Fletcher’s Brooklyn BBQ. John knew Pitmaster Matt Fisher who provided a spread of some of the best BBQ and sides that I have ever had.

We shared a couple of Fletcher’s Platters and sampled the Beef brisket, Beef burnt ends, a house recipe Hot link, Beef tri tip,  and Pork char siu. As a fan of brisket, I expected great things, just due to the fabulous aromas, and I was not disappointed.

The brisket was lean and sliced thin, allowing the flavor of the meat to stand up well to the flavor of the smoke. The burnt ends packed a huge punch of smokey goodness that offered a great counter to the spice rub that featured a nice dose of black pepper. The Hot link was juicy and seasoned well with paprika and some ground hot peppers. Matt even surprised us with cheese burgers topped with mornay sauce that he cooked in a cast iron skillet right in the firebox of his smoker.

The tri tip was a cut that I had never tried before and I think it may have been my favorite. It was sliced thin like the brisket, but its texture was much more tender due to the marbling of fat throughout each morsel. It had a significantly more delicate smoke flavor and barely required me to chew due to its tenderness.

The char siu was another cut I had never tried previously. It appeared to be from a pork shoulder and was sliced a bit thicker. Each slice had a ribbon of fat that separated two lean very lean bites. The pork had a light smokey flavor that pared well with the tangy and slightly sweet sauce that accompanied it.

The sides we sampled were all house made and included corn bread, pickled cucumbers, pickled peppers, potato salad, pit smoked beans and collard greens. The corn bread was sweet, as expected north of the Mason-Dixon line. I enjoyed using it to cleanse my palate between each of the other dishes. After tasting each of the meats on their own, I made little finger sandwiches using the pickled veggies to top each bite. The potato salad was just the way I like it, employing a generous amount of yellow mustard to bind and flavor it.

Baked beans are one of my favorite BBQ sides. I usually expect a slightly sweet flavor and somewhat gooey texture in the beans’ sauce. These beans had a very meaty flavor and the sauce was almost more like gravy than syrupy stickiness.

The best of the sides was the collard greens. I am typically not a big fan of them because they are over-cooked and under-seasoned, so they are nothing more than a pile of mush. These were seasoned with some of the smoked meat and retained some texture so I had to actually chew them. This allowed me to savor each bite.

Photo of Pitmaster Matt Fisher

Pitmaster Matt Fisher

We hung out and chatted with Matt for a while after we finished gorging ourselves and then I determined that I needed a bit of caffeine if I was going to make it through the evening. Immediately next door to Fletcher’s BBQ, we found the Four & Twenty Blackbirds Pie Shop. I had seen a segment of a the show Unique Sweets on the Cooking Channel that featured the pies from this shop, so I felt obligated to try something. I couldn’t eat another bite of anything at that moment, so I got my espresso and a slice of salted caramel apple pie to go. (Kept in the refrigerator of the hotel room, the slice of pie made an excellent breakfast the next morning.)

At this point we left the Gowanus neighborhood and made our way to Cobble Hill. Along the historic Brooklyn waterfront, we found Pok Pok. Pok Pok serves cuisine from northern Thailand and has earned a Michelin star in 2014 and 2015. I am a novice regarding Thai food and did not really know what to expect.

We ordered three dishes to split, a spicy and sour glass noodle salad with mussels and sour pork sausage, a spicy chopped duck salad with duck liver and skin and a sweet pork belly and pork shoulder curry. Each of the dishes was unique and flavorful, but the consensus favorite was the glass noodle salad. The combination of elements in the dish melded together perfectly, with none overpowering any of the others. The sausage added a bit of richness that kept the dish from being too spicy, while dried shrimp and fish sauce contributed a subtle saltiness. The pickled garlic gave hits of sour and the shallots and carrots brought a bit of natural sweetness. It was one of the best things I ate all weekend and I would go back just to have another serving of it.

As we left Pok Pok and returned to our hotel in Flushing, I thought I had consumed all I could possibly eat. Fortunately, I was wrong. We met up with several other members of The Salt Cured Pig at the New York Food Court. One of those we met was Michael Pardus, a faculty member at the Culinary Institute of America who has spent a substantial amount of time in Asia and is one of the Asian Cuisine instructors.

As surreal as it was walking down the street and in the market in Flushing, the New York Food Court raised that feeling to another level. As we walked into the building, we encountered a large open space with tables lined up like the food court of a mall. What made the scene different was that the neon signs adorning each of 30 or so food booths were composed of characters of Chinese, Japanese or Korean alphabets.

Photo of the New York Food Court

The New York Food Court

The smells were intoxicating and there were so many choices that it was extremely difficult to decide what to try. Michael made his selection by which booth had the smell of something familiar. He had a dish of spicy intestines and noodles. I tried a couple bites of it and determined that while the texture was very appealing, I was sure I tasted a hint of the previous contents of those intestines (purely psychological, I am sure).

Photo of the hand pulled noodle shop

Hand Pulled Noodle Shop

I found a booth that sold hand pulled noodles and was temporarily mesmerized by the routine of the cook handling the dough and pulling the noodles. I am a big fan of noodles anyway, but knowing that I would be getting noodles that I could watch them make sealed the deal for me. I chose a bowl of them with beef tendon and bok choy in a beef broth. The noodles were tender and I thoroughly enjoyed them, but more impressive was the richness of the broth and the discs of beef tendon that practically melted when I place them on my tongue.

Thinking back, it is difficult to believe that we were able to pack that many food experiences into a single day. Be sure to come back to read about day 2 and day 3 of this food adventure.

Posted in Charcuterie, Travel food | 1 Comment

Date Night at Pacific Rim

A few weeks back, my wife and I were treated to the chance to get out without our daughters. A friend of ours invited them to a play date with her two daughters, and we jumped at the chance for a date night. Since we don’t go out often without the girls, there are quite a few restaurants here in town where we haven’t eaten.

I have heard good things from a few people regarding the variety and quality of the food at Pacific Rim, so we decided to give it a try. We glanced at the menu posted in the window and I saw a dish with sea scallops listed there, so I was pretty sure what I was going to order. Unfortunately, when we got inside and our waiter gave us our menus, that dish was not there. I was prepared to be disappointed by that, until I saw the Five Spice Duck. My wife opted for the Grilled Lemongrass Chicken.

For a starter, we shared the Chinese Garlic Chive Dumplings. They were flavorful with a nice crunchy exterior enveloping the tender mushroom and jicama filling. We enjoyed them, but we were even more thoroughly impressed with the salad. To be honest it was the salad dressing that was most notable element of the dish. It was well-balanced in its savory and sweet, ending with a hint of heat. Our waiter was not surprised when we asked about the dressing, and he pointed out that the recipe for it is available on the Pacific Rim website.

Then came the time for our entrees. My Five Spice Duck was a pan-seared duck breast and duck confit risotto with a Chinese five spice reduction sauce and shanghai bok choy. The unctuous duck confit and its melt in your mouth texture was the perfect addition to the creaminess of the risotto. I requested the duck breast be cooked medium rare. Its richness stood up extremely well to the balanced hit of sweet, savory, bitter, and sour of the reduction sauce. The pairing was certainly a case in which each element truly enhanced the other. I tasted my wife’s Grilled Lemongrass Chicken and it was also very good. The meat was tender and juicy and served as an excellent canvas for the floral and citrusy lemongrass in which it had been marinated.

To go along with our entrees, we selected a Grochau Cellars Pinot Noir Commuter Cuvee. It had a light, fruity aroma with a slightly tart flavor, not unlike a combination of raspberries and cranberries. I’m no wine expert, but it tasted good and seemed to go well with the richness of my entree.

For dessert, we shared a Warm Chocolate Cake. While not exactly a molten middle, this bittersweet chocolate cake had a moist exterior with a very fudgy center. Its texture was similar to a very enjoyable slightly under-baked brownie. It came with a scoop of toasted coconut-Kahlúa ice cream and was garnished with sake-macerated cherries.

Based on the positive, but somewhat limited information I had heard about Pacific Rim, I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect. Given the outcome of our meal on this impromptu date night, I am quite certain that we will visit Pacific Rim for another meal.

 

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Review of 2015

Well, 2015 has been quite a year. While I may not have been doing much writing, I have done a good bit of wandering. Travel has included a couple trips to Washington, D.C., a couple to Pittsburgh, a couple to Allegan, one to Cleveland, one to San Francisco and what has become the annual road trip to Myrtle Beach with stops in Cincinnati, Asheville, and Knoxville. Throw in a day-long visit to Charleston and I feel like I did my share of travel.

In the middle of the year of wandering, my family moved to a new (to us) house that we are settling into still.

Amid the chaos of moving and travel, I was also able to participate in some pretty amazing culinary activities. I worked with a good friend in the catering of the most interesting wedding reception I have ever seen. It included the roasting of a pig, complete with a “Pig Parade” from the cocktail party to the reception venue. What ultimately made it the most interesting reception was the bridal party’s performing as a band to entertain the attendees after dinner.

I joined a group of online friends from The Salt Cured Pig at a Cajun Boucherie. That is a whole day event that includes the dispatching, butchering and cooking of a pig. We cooked and ate two types of boudin (blanc and noir), head cheese, cracklins, and backbone stew. We also sampled the charcuterie that many of the attendees had prepared and brought to share.

Another event that The Salt Cured Pig hosted was a Charcuterie Jam. This offered me the opportunity to literally rub elbows with one of my  culinary heroes, Kate Hill. Kate brought together Dominque Chapolard, a French butcher whose family works with Kate in her cooking school in Camont, France, and Jeffrey Weiss, a chef and butcher trained in the Spanish style, to demonstrate the differences in preparation style of charcuterie from those two countries.

While I have been cooking throughout the year, I haven’t been writing about it very much. As I look forward to 2016, I hope to do more of that. While I know this isn’t the first time I’ve had a similar hiatus, I am looking to write and post more frequently and not look back on the failure to do so in the past.

Here’s to a happy and healthy 2016!!

Cheers!!!

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A Conversation with Frank Fejeran

I recently sat down to talk to Frank Fejeran, the owner and chef of Ricewood BBQ, to find out a bit about him and what led him to doing what he does. We chatted at one of the picnic tables, the al fresco seating area at Ricewood. The best part about this location was that we were able to appreciate the aromas coming from the wood smoker next to the food truck.

To say that Frank has been around is a bit of an understatement. He was born in California, but moved to Ann Arbor while in the early years of elementary school. He returned to California for high school and then went to culinary school at the Scottsdale Culinary Institute in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Frank began working in restaurants in California and met his mentor chef Riko Bartolome in Southern California. From there he moved back to Southeast Michigan to work at Tribute in Farmington Hills. Then it was to Chicago, where he cooked at Takashi and Hopleaf. Prior to opening Ricewood BBQ, Frank had been the executive chef at Raven’s Club, here in Ann Arbor.

It was the position at Hopleaf that Frank identified as career changing. He went from having the skillset of a chef to focusing on the food that he was preparing. Frank said that we live in a global economy and freshness is possible from many places, just the carbon footprint is different. Rather than solely focusing on extremely local food sources, the chef’s job is to entertain, to fill bellies and make people happy.

When I asked Frank why he chose to open a BBQ place, he replied because he loves BBQ. It is almost a hobby-like job. He said that once he figured out the core stuff, everything just falls into place. Furthermore, he stated that BBQ is not a flavor, not a meat, it’s a way of doing things. It is a tradition.

Frank did a good bit of research to determine how to make his BBQ the best it could be. He traveled to Texas to conduct this research. It was there that he determined that smoking the meat over a wood fire provided the best, most authentic flavor. As a result, you can see the offset firebox wood-fired smoker when you go to eat at Ricewood BBQ.

One of the big differences about Ricewood BBQ is the fact that your choice of meat is served over a bowl of rice with finàdene (pronounced finadini). I asked Frank why he chose to serve his BBQ over the rice bowl. He told me that it came from a family tradition. Part of his family is from Guam and their family dinners were bowls of rice with roasted meat and finàdene over the top. Leftover meat was kept in a bowl of finàdene in the refrigerator so it would marinate while being available for snacks or future meals.

I asked Frank about his plans for the future, since a food truck in Michigan is definitely a seasonal type of business. He told me that he is building a company with a goal of redefining a chef’s work/life balance. Frank said that food based businesses survive or fail due to labor and overhead. His plan is to create several micro-businesses focusing on small menus, low labor costs and small overhead.

Right now Ricewood BBQ is open Monday-Friday from 11am-3pm or until they sell out. They are also open for Nitewood, one Saturday night each month. Nitewood is only advertised via their social media accounts, so make sure to follow them on Twitter @ricewoodbbq or Facebook a2ricewood.

Posted in Ann Arbor food | 2 Comments

Pasta with Peas and Prosciutto

Pasta with Peas & Prosciutto

Pasta with Peas & Prosciutto

Tonight I am essentially living the bachelor life. My wife is chaperoning a Girl Scout sleep-over with my older daughter and my younger daughter fell asleep early at the end of a busy week. Since I didn’t need to cook for anyone else, I chose to make one of my favorite springtime dinners, pasta with peas and prosciutto.

This is favorite of mine because it is fast to cook and offers a lot of flavor. I put a pot of water on to boil and got started with my toppings. I julienned a couple thin slices of prosciutto, then peeled and sliced two shallots. I had a small package of fresh peas that I had picked up at Trader Joe’s, so I was essentially ready.

For pasta, I had a one lb. package of casarecce (short lengths of pasta rolled into S shapes). Once the water was boiling, I added the pasta and started the fire under a saute pan with a splash of olive oil in it. While the pasta cooked, I sauteed the shallots and prosciutto. When the pasta had about three minutes left in its cooking time, I added the peas to the shallots and prosciutto.

After the pasta was done cooking, I drained it and scooped a serving into a large pasta bowl. By this time, the peas were done cooking so I poured the contents of the saute pan over the serving of pasta and grated a healthy handful of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese on the top. I seasoned it with a few grinds of black pepper and called it done.

What I enjoy the most about this meal is the combination of the fresh sweetness that the peas offer juxtaposed against the saltiness of both the prosciutto and the cheese. The shallots provide a hint of onion that is tempered into an additional faint sweet flavor. Ultimately, this is a true taste of Spring to me.

Now that I have eaten dinner and done the dishes, I think it’s time for dessert. Cheers!

Bulleit Bourbon, a bachelor's dessert

Bulleit Bourbon, a bachelor’s dessert

Posted in Meal by Mike | Leave a comment

Ricewood BBQ

Ricewood BBQ
Today I decided to try out Ann Arbor’s newest food truck, Ricewood BBQ. I read the press report about their successful opening day (completely sold out in an hour and 40 minutes), so I knew that if I wanted my choice of items from the menu I would need to arrive early.

Just before noon I pulled into the parking lot behind Morgan & York, 1928 Packard Road. The first thing I noticed was the large, black food truck with a few people milling about. Next thing I saw was the pile of wood and the shiny smoker, ejecting a billowing column of smoke from its chimney.

Promptly at noon, the truck’s window popped up and they were open for business. The line was just long enough that I could see the menu and decide what to order. I am a sucker for good beef brisket, so I opted for the Brisket Ricebowl. For my wife, I got the Pork Shoulder Ricebowl. Both came with a side of marinated cucumber and I asked for the Fina’dene sauce on the side (spicy for me and gringo for my wife). Since I was taking my order home I did not order a drink, though I was tempted by the Kool-Aid of the day.

When I got home and opened the containers, I noticed that the aroma was slightly smokey with a hint of sweet. I sampled a couple bites of the pork shoulder, but saved most of my appetite for the brisket. I am of the school of thought that good BBQ does not require sauce, so the fact that the pork shoulder came with sauce initially made me leery. The menu did reveal that the pork came served wet, so I wasn’t surprised by the sauce and I discovered that it was the source of the sweetness that I had smelled. The pork was very moist and had decent flavor that the sauce did not dominate.

Turning my attention to the brisket, I saw that had a prominent smoke ring and nice layer of bark on the edge of each piece. After tasting a bite on its own, I tried dipping a bite in the spicy Fina’dene sauce. The Fina’dene gave it a good bit of heat, with a nice combination of tart vinegar and tangy soy sauce. I thought that would be a good topping for the pile of rice and it was. The brisket had more smokiness than the pork and was nicely seasoned with salt and pepper. I did reserve a couple bites to try with my own homemade BBQ sauce and that worked well too. The marinated cucumbers were a great addition to the ricebowls, providing something nice and crunchy to go along with the tender meat and sticky rice.

I have never experienced Chomorro, Pacific Island-Style BBQ before today. The flavors of the Ricewood BBQ were different than what I have ever tried before, but I really enjoyed them. It is not your typical BBQ joint and that is a good thing. I look forward to going back again and trying the ribs.

Ricewood BBQ Menu

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Ron’s Roadside BBQ

In my off and on quest to find the best BBQ in the greater Ann Arbor area, I made a trip out to Ron’s Roadside BBQ today. It is located on Pontiac Trail, just east of the intersection with Dixboro Road.

Pulling into the parking lot, it looked as I would expect and the faint column of smoke rising from the smoker smelled promising. The restaurant is in an old building that looks like it has seen better days. Regardless of the aluminum siding on the outside of the building, it appears that it may be of the same vintage as the establishment date posted inside (1957). Speaking of the interior, it is as no frills as the outside-post and plank walls and a bare concrete floor.

The meats on the menu included ribs, chicken (whole, 1/2 or pulled), brisket, pulled beef, pulled pork and pulled lamb. Sides, or Fixin’s as Ron calls them, include several that you would expect like mac n cheese, baked beans, slaw, and American potato salad. Surprises include beet salad, cucumber salad, and German potato salad.

Since I was ordering food to go, I opted for sandwiches, a pulled pork for me and a pulled chicken for my wife. I added a small side of slaw to complete our sample. After waiting what seemed to be an extraordinarily long time (between 10 and 15 minutes), I got my order and left.

We ate our sandwiches and the slaw when we got home and I would have to say it got very mixed reviews in my household. The pulled pork was very juicy, but it didn’t really have any smoke flavor and I couldn’t taste even a hint of a spice rub. It had a decent porky taste, but that was about it. My wife’s pulled chicken was pretty dry and also didn’t have any smoke flavor. The worst part of the chicken sandwich though, was the splintered bone (three pieces) that my wife found in the middle of the chicken. The slaw was ok, but tasted like it might have come from a Gordon Food Service carton.

Overall, I think the best part of the entire meal was the sandwich rolls. They had a decent crust and were soft and buttery inside, kind of like a good brioche. Mine soaked up a lot of the juice from the pulled pork and didn’t just deteriorate like many sandwich rolls do.

My complete assessment of Ron’s Roadside BBQ is very mixed as well. I was slightly disappointed that they had no brisket, but that could happen to any BBQ restaurant. The wait seemed a bit long since there was only one other person in the restaurant. The sandwiches were served with sauce on them (I follow the mantra that good BBQ doesn’t need sauce), but I wasn’t offered the chance to ask for it on the side. The pork had a decent flavor, it just didn’t have the smokey flavor that I look for in BBQ. I would be interested in trying the brisket or pulled beef, but considering that Ron’s Roadside BBQ is off the beaten path and no where near I tend to go often, it isn’t likely to happen any time soon.

 

Ron's Roadside BBQ

Ron’s Roadside BBQ

Posted in Ann Arbor food | 2 Comments