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Insights, tips, and restaurant reports from CHOW editors and Chowhound.

Just One Instrument in the Orchestra

Tagging in at what may be the tail end of the umami craze—if indeed a basic form of sensory input can be considered a “craze,” as opposed to, say, an unalterable fact of life—The Art of Eating presents “A Taste by Any Other Name.”

An elegantly written exploration of the so-called fifth taste (beyond the more familiar palette of sweet, salty, sour, and bitter), the article delves into the chemistry of amino acids, the culinary history of Japan and ancient Rome, and the much-maligned mysteries of MSG.

It also hooks into the wave of grassroots interest in the taste (as expressed by a number of bloggers) while doing an admirable job of advocating restraint to those who would cook for sheer unrestrained umami impact:

The interplay of taste, aroma, texture, and visual appeal is irreducible. Umami is just one instrument in the orchestra; it sounds lousy in solos but improves the rest of the orchestra. Understanding how an oboe enriches a symphony is important knowledge for any composer, but it would be absurd to choose your music based on minutes of oboe time.


An enjoyable and informative story, to be sure—but it dodges what may be the most important fifth-taste mystery of them all: why umami causes dogs to eat absolutely terrible things.

I Heart Chattanooga


O, from what power hast thou this powerful might
With insufficiency my heart to sway?
To make me give the lie to my true sight,
And swear that brightness doth not grace the day?
    —William Shakespeare

 

Energized from yesterday’s change of heart, I kicked into high gear. Today was quite a ride. I can’t believe I did all the following in one day … but I did. It’s a testament to the chowconnaissance strategy of taking only tiny bites, painful though it is when food’s this good.

After yesterday’s hesitant forays, I decided to blast completely out of downtown and just drive and drive, pursuing serendipitous treasure—exactly what I’m always urging everyone else to do! I headed in the opposite direction of yesterday’s trajectory, but only now realize that I actually wound up quite near where I had last night’s dinner. The nabe has a magnetic allure. Sometimes it’s like that.

To get to the magical part of Chattanooga, one must pass through what I’ve dubbed “The Tunnel of Love”—a cleansing, purifying tunnel that strips away all downtown karma and empowers you to find gem after gem. I’m not sure I could find this magical tunnel again, but here is a photo:

I passed Wally’s Restaurant (6521 Ringgold Road, Chattanooga, Tennessee; 423-899-6151), an ancient spot that seemed preserved in amber, and it was love. Wally’s is love.

See photos of my lunch, below. Or perhaps it was supper. Or dinner. Who knows what they call lunch around here—I can’t keep track. Wally’s kitchen is much less weary than Bea’s, though it’s apples and oranges, as this is a restaurant, rather than a lazy-Susan joint.

I asked if the chicken with dressing was roasted or baked, and was told, “Boiled.” That’s apparently a regional style, and it works surprisingly well. There were tons of sage in the dressing, like in TV-dinner stuffing … only it was good. Turnip greens were soft and lovely; peach cobbler had some soul. A Great Chowhounding Moment: The waitress informed me that I could have three vegetables, and PEACH COBBLER COUNTS AS A VEGETABLE!

This muffin had a greater concentration of lard than any single food item I’ve ever come across. Bravo, Wally’s. Bravo!

“Green early peas” (tasted pretty much like peas).

Peach cobbler having counted as a vegetable, I felt justified in ordering dessert. The pecan pie doesn’t look so great—chintzy with the pecans and desperately crying out for some lard in the crust, à la the corn muffins. But the sweet, gooey body was deep and engrossing.

Click along with me, won’t you, every day for the rest of your life, to see what meats and vegetables Wally’s is serving today.

In conclusion, Wally’s isn’t a great place—I could imagine returning to Chattanooga without dining here. But it’s great, in its way, just for being goooood. This is straight-down-the-middle unaffected Southern diner food backed by long tradition. And I needed that.

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DIGRESSION ON SOUTHERN COOKING AND CHARLIE PARKER

Note: If the following bores you, do not by any means fail to scroll down for life-changing barbecue discoveries (complete with leering photos) and an account of dinner at what may be the country’s upscale restaurant most deserving of wider recognition.

The smooth, very sagey dressing at Wally’s reminded me of TV-dinner stuffing. And the slightly bland fried chicken at Bea’s (see installment #24) reminded me of Banquet chicken dinners. And Bea’s coleslaw resembled the slaw at KFC. And this got me thinking.

As I plunge into lesser-known foodways, I often spot signs of the earlier passage of American food executives decades earlier, sort of like Stanley following in the footsteps of Livingston. They’ve trod this trail with very different intent: to shake down cultures for recipes to bland out, adapt, and reformulate into the highly processed junk that’s filled American supermarket shelves for the past few generations.

Yes, iconic mass-market foods have roots. Who knew? Those insipid orange wafer cookies are based on a traditional Bosnian recipe that’s actually full of character. Cheez Doodles have roots in Brazil. Ring Dings are dumbed-down Peruvian alfajores. I never understood the barbecue connection of barbecue-flavored potato chips until I tried Memphis dry-rub barbecue.

Similarly, Banquet fried chicken is a reductio ad blandum of the chicken served at places like Bea’s, and Swanson sagey stuffing rips off places like Wally’s. The food execs covered the world, but they also drew from the American heartland. As a result, things like modest, sincere fried chicken and sagey dressing became caricatured to the point where outsiders tasting the original source materials mentally associate them with the mass-market junk foods they superficially resemble. Come eat down here, and you might assume the local cuisine has gone to hell.

But eat carefully, and you’ll see how the original is classier. The fried chicken at Bea’s may have tasted like Banquet fried chicken, but it wasn’t lifeless. And the coleslaw didn’t flatline like KFC’s. Same for Wally’s stuffing. The difference is soul.

Charlie Parker is considered one of the great geniuses of jazz, a saxophonist who developed an entirely new approach to music out of thin air. When I was young, I heard a profusion of lousy Charlie Parker imitators, and never cared for them. When I finally heard Parker’s recordings, I disliked him, because he sounded so much like the hacks who came after.

I’m not saying this style of cooking is as brilliant as Charlie Parker. But it chronologically predates and spiritually surpasses the dreck that came later. So it’s necessary to dump bad associations to appreciate it properly.

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This was such an intense day that lack of space compels me to give short shrift to some stunning barbecue in places right near each other on a strip I think of as Barbecue Alley.

Forgive me, Bob Garner, but the chopped pork BBQ at Old Plantation Barbecue (1515 Dodson Avenue, Chattanooga, Tennessee; 423-624-8105) is light years beyond anything served in North Carolina. And the ribs are heavenly. And the guys working there are kindhearted. And you kind of don’t ever need to seek further, because this is the barbecue you’ve always dreamed of, in a small roadside take-out shack. Let’s go directly to the snapshots, which say it all.





But seek further I did, ‘cuz it’s my job. Thus I found Sunset Inn (964 Dodson Avenue, Chattanooga, Tennessee; 423-629-9240), a cocktail lounge/restaurant that’s got to be wildly fun at night. I arrived in midday, and while the owner was nowhere near as friendly as the guys at Plantation, his barbecuing prowess earns him all the aloof gravitas in the world.



The Sunset Inn guy is a true master, who achieves a textbook rosy glow in the meat via immaculate smoking. Meat is tender but nowhere near overcooked (“falling off the bone” is not the goal of true ‘cue), and the sauce fits like a glove.

Note: I’m raving about Sunset Inn’s ribs. Their chopped barbecue is sort of a mushy mess. But with ribs such as these, nothing else really matters.

Another titan can be found in a parking lot next to the car wash at 2218 McCallie Avenue, operating the massive Ms. Tina’s Hot Meals on Wheels truck and its adjoining blue tent. I found no trace of Ms. Tina, just a shaved-headed guy making superb ribs.






These were great ribs, with all the fatty juicy crunchy meatiness one could ask for. They’re the sort of ribs that make you nod your head in admiration. My only quibble is strictly a matter of personal taste: I found the meat just slightly oversmoked. But the smoke level nonetheless falls easily within the boundaries of great and proper barbecue.

This guy, whom I think of as Mr. Tina, will soon open a late-night full-service barbecue joint and music café just up the block. In the following photo, notice the workmen congregated in front of the brown house on the left. That’s the spot.

Plantation’s barbecue was at the other side of the spectrum, slightly mild in the smoking (though smoke’s definitely in there). In both cases, I’m quite sure the result is exactly what’s being aimed for, but Sunset Inn seems to strike an ideal middle ground. All three are killer, though, and unforgettable ‘cue tourism could be enjoyed by spending a weekend in the neighborhood shuttling between all three venues—and discovering still more outlets, ripe for the picking thereabouts.

In that same nabe, I had charming barbecue from some itinerant ladies cooking in a parking lot at the corner of Dodson Avenue at McCallie Avenue. Their sauce is strictly commercial, and, horrors, they grill hot (with Kingsford charcoal briquets), rather than smoke—a sacrilege that would make some declare this not real barbecue. But the proof’s in the eating, and to sample their work leaves no doubt of its genuineness. These ladies have barbecue so deeply in their bones that they could probably produce something tasty over a couple of cans of Sterno. Score one for transcendence of the material plane.

I took this shot—

—as a self-reminder to follow up on the tip, but I never did make it out there. If you ever try Tony’s Lounge and Blues Spot (I like the sound of it), please report back on the Chowhound.com South message board!

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I was hoping for dessert, and the gods of chowhounding yielded forth a sign for Cake Lady (1414 McCallie Avenue, Chattanooga, Tennessee; 423-624-0505), a name impossible to resist.

The Cake Lady sells as a concession within a deli, and it’s not a real fancy place. And the cake looks like nothing special, either.

But her baking is first rate. The luscious strawberry cake, with good cream cheese frosting, especially impressed me with its unprepossessing plainness. The frosting wasn’t dyed red to make it look more strawberryish, and the result is as plain and greyish in appearance as it is resplendent in flavor.

This homely looking cake sells purely on its deliciousness. I was so moved by this (and by her stocking of both Miss Vickie’s and Zapp’s potato chips) that I did something I only rarely do cold with strangers: I hit up the Cake Lady for chow tips.

She offered some half-hearted suggestions in the Chattanooga area, so I pushed her for suggestions further afield. Finally, she coughed up the pearl I’d hoped for: Canyon Grill. Up a mountain in the middle of nowhere. Expensive but worth it. All cooking done with incredible care and skill. I booked a reservation for that very night—late, to give me time to try to digest all the barbecue and cake and everything.

Canyon Grill (28 Scenic Highway, Rising Fawn, Georgia; 706-398-9510) is perched atop a mountain in rural Georgia. A generic freeway provides fast access from Chattanooga, but I opted for the scenic route, driving out of town via Broad Street to the base of Lookout Mountain (note: Right there is an interesting-looking Thai restaurant, plus a joint advertising “brownies and barbecue” that I can’t believe I didn’t try). From there, it’s a series of switchbacks and long, slow climbs—a hunger-building drive through fresh air and gorgeous scenery. There doesn’t seem to be much exciting going on on Lookout Mountain (exception: a hang-gliding academy perched on a cliff), but the ride sets you up perfectly for a remarkable dining experience.

Canyon Grill is something of a miracle, seamlessly integrating seemingly contrary factors. Food, service, and décor are the essence of sophistication, yet the result somehow feels perfectly natural atop a mountain in rural Georgia. There’s zero pretension in a place that depends on diners to travel far and pay dearly. This is no capsule of aloof elegance planted rakishly in the middle of nowhere for the gentry to coo over. Rather, it fits in with its surroundings—a tough task for a refined venue atop a mountain in Rising Fawn, Georgia.

Décor is urbane, background music is swanky, service is solicitous, and food is refined, but the result is utterly unself-conscious, as if the operation had just sprung up organically. Make no mistake: This isn’t just a local joint of unusual quality. Canyon Grill is a top-drawer destination restaurant deserving coverage in glossy food magazines.

I suppose the best way to describe the place is “honest”—talented, unprepossessing folks serving food they believe in … and leaving it at that, with none of the self-consciousness or posing that afflicts so many other ambitious eateries. The menu includes ordinary-sounding items, but while nothing’s prissy, this isn’t vernacular cooking. The touches are far too subtle, the ingredients far too carefully chosen (chef Johnny Holland is a sourcing maniac).

It’s like when folks move into some incredibly rural area and build a luxury house, but take great care to ensure that it fits harmoniously into the surroundings. That’s what the food tastes like. Respectful but staunchly personal—and kick-ass delicious.

I wanted to order something grilled (the restaurant’s founder invented the fancy wood-burning Smokey Mountain Grill, which can be bought at the restaurant for several thousand dollars), and they’re equally proud of their fish, so I ordered a seafood platter of intense and pristine hickory-grilled wild Gulf shrimp with lemon butter; rich, luscious fried Gulf oysters; and fried catfish that spoke volumes of poetic subtext without resorting to clever touches. And, at last: great mashed potatoes from what apparently is the last kitchen in the South that hasn’t gone over to the dark side (i.e., instant).

I can now say that at least once in my life I had perfect strawberry shortcake.

The meal was unforgettable; definitely worth the hour ride from Chattanooga, likely worth the two-hour trip from Atlanta, and quite possibly worth a pilgrimmage from NYC. I suppose I’d be rash, after one visit, to suggest that this is one of America’s finest undiscovered (on a national level) restaurants. But I’m tempted. Canyon Grill seems to have received no national press, yet it offers everything one could hope from high-end dining: meticulous care, unfailing deliciousness (maybe I got lucky, but not one bite, including bread, was less than sublime), deft personal touch, impeccable ingredients, beautiful yet comfortable surroundings, and even a BYO wine policy.

While the $40 price tag (before tax and tip) is stratospheric for the area, it was a superb value. I’m smitten, and encourage you to go and get smitten yourself.

After dinner, I slipped into a backwoods benefit for a local fire department, and shot a short, grainy, claustrophobic video attempting to convey my profound disorientation: Movie file

Chattanooga Redux

On my first day in Chattanooga, I noticed that the water in my hotel tasted funny. Three days later, I’ve figured it out: It tastes like catfish. And now I can’t get enough of it.

I clearly ought to quit while I’m ahead, because I’ll never surpass today’s finds. So tomorrow I head west.

Great Moments in Beef

Great Moments in Beef

From cave paintings to burgers, beef has long been a part of human history. READ MORE

Deep in the Heart of Texas

Can you really deep-fry a can of Coke? You might think so, looking at the headline of Michael Bauer’s blog on SFGate. But the treat that’s greasing the midway is actually just that old fair favorite, fried dough, now doused with Coke syrup and gussied up with whipped cream, cinnamon, and a cherry on top. Maybe it’s the Texas connection that has Bauer, a former Dallas Times Herald writer turned San Francisco restaurant reviewer and food editor, promising to re-create the sticky-sweet treat in the San Francisco Chronicle’s posh test kitchen.

Alas, the Texas State Fair deep-fried its last Coke on Sunday, but you can still take a look at the caffeinated calorie bomb over on Dethroner, which dubs it the “Latest State Fair Death Snack.” According to the fair’s Big Tex website, concessionaire Abel Gonzales was no newcomer to the fryer—at last year’s fair, he sold over 25,000 deep-fried peanut butter, jelly, and banana sandwiches.

Not a Coke drinker (or eater)? You still could have gone into a Lipitor swoon with the Deep Fried Cosmopolitan—a kind of cheesecake-filled, cranberry-and-lime-glazed Hot Pocket that also made it onto the fair’s contest-finalists list. Somehow, I don’t think that’s what Samantha ordered.

Great Grater, and Now Greater Graters

Great Grater, and Now Greater Graters

Microplane changed cheese graters forever. It just keeps getting better. READ MORE

The Sweet Fruits of a Bitter Divorce

As if trying to atone for running hardcore food porn, the October Gourmet also ran a thoughtful piece on the split between Taiwanese and mainland Chinese cuisine.

Like much of the best food writing, “Made in Taiwan” goes beyond the realm of the edible and mixes it up in the outside world. It follows the acrimonius 1949 split between the mainland and Taiwan, and how — paradoxically — mainland cooking traditions were actually better preserved on the island, where they were insulated from the 1960s famine and Cultural Revolution.

In fact, when the Kuomingtang exiles were finally able to return to the mainland, they were shocked by what they saw. “The food had lost its identity and tasted awful,” says Feng Zhaloin, who went to Shanghai in 1993, after years of cooking Shanghaiese dishes in exile. “The Cultural Revolution broke the chain of inheritance from master to apprentice, and there was a long period of total stagnation. My food is definitely more traditional than what you get in Shanghai.”


The piece gets into the cultural politics (what defines “traditional,” anyway?) about as deeply as it gets into the politics politics, which is to say surprisingly deeply for a food piece. Many food magazine articles feel like 500 words of material padded out into 1,500 words of copy; “Made in Taiwan” feels like a book elegantly shrunk down to an excerpt.

Flat-Out Fabulous: Pancakes at Stamford’s Lakeside Diner

At Lakeside Diner, the pancakes are so good you may not even want syrup. “I think I’m in love,” sighs adamclyde, whose object of desire is eggy, slightly tangy, more savory than sweet, and most surely made in-house from a real recipe, not from Acme Food Services Pancake Mix #1. They’re thin, around eight inches across, and cooked to a delicate crisp. “The other diner pancakes I’ve had in Stamford tasted like Bisquick batter,” adam adds. “This place is unique and has their own recipe. And I think it works great.”

Beyond pancakes, go for the solid and filling Lakeside Special (two eggs, bacon, ham, or sausage, home fries, French toast, and toast)–a ton of decent breakfast chow for $5.

Lakeside Diner [Fairfield County]
1050 Long Ridge Rd., near Webbs Hill Rd., Stamford, CT
203-322-2252
Map

Board Links
Pancakes at Lakeside diner in Stamford

Prime Smoked Meats: A New Bacon Contender

Prime Smoked Meats makes a delicious, well-marbled bacon, says Curtis. Its flavors are well-balanced, with a nice smoke and sweetness, and it’s meaty, well-cured, and sliced thick. Some area butchers sell it, including Dan-R Meats, for about $4.99 a pound–still a bargain compared to many artisanal bacons–but if you go directly to their warehouse (open to the public) at their processing facility, you can buy it in three-pound increments for $2.59 a pound, says Eugene Park.

Dan-R Meats is worth the trip in its own right. The butcher breaks his own beef and buys it by the side, dry aging and trimming it all himself. He also makes his own sausage. And–if you’re inclined–he will make you a turducken at a great price.

Prime Smoked Meats [Jack London Square]
220 Alice St., Oakland
510-832-7167
Locater

Dan-R Meats [Dimond District]
1440 Leimert Blvd., Oakland, CA
510-482-2519
Locater

Board Links
Prime Smoked Meats = crispy bacony goodness (isn’t about time for a bacon throwdown?)

Seasonal Ice Creams

rworange has been conducting first-hand research into the various pumpkin and seasonal-flavored ice creams around the area. (She even took down a Jack-in-the-Box pumpkin milkshake, in the name of science.) She has a winner, and it’s Fairfax Scoop. The lavors are true and intense, the texture is perfect, the prices are fair, and they make their own waffle cones. Green Gulch pumpkin ice cream has the most true, pure, fresh pumpkin flavor, with unbelievably perfect spicing. Try it with a scoop of Brown Sugar Pecan, which tastes exactly as it sounds.

Honorable mention goes to Three Twins Ice Cream, which serves Japanese pumpkin pie ice cream, nicely spiced with pieces of Japanese pumpkin. It’s dense, not too sweet, full of flavor. They also serve butternut squash ice cream, which has no discernable spice and basically tastes like butternut squash. Kugel ice cream and cranberry ice cream are also available.

Sketch Ice Cream gets another honorable mention for its tart, smooth, spiced apple sorbet, and for pear ice cream with great texture and delicate pear flavor. No word on their pumpkin ice cream yet–it comes out around Halloween.

Fairfax Scoop [Marin County]
63 Broadway Blvd., Fairfax
415-453-3130
Locater

Three Twins Ice Cream [Marin County]
641 Del Ganado Road., San Rafael, CA
415-492-8946
Locater

Sketch [East Bay]
1809A Fourth St.Berkeley
510-665-5650
Locater

Board Links
Fairfax Scoop – Green Gulch pure pumpkin pleasure
Berkeley–Sketch–super apple spice sorbet & fig cakes
San Rafael–Three Twins Ice Cream – Japanese pumpkin pie, butternut squash, kugel & possibly cranberry

Creamy Riches in a Bowl of Tomato Soup

Tomato soup at Sarabeth’s may not be the stuff of legend, as the menu would have it, but it does not disappoint. theannerska reports amazingly creamy, tomatoey soup, perfect with house-made biscuits or seven-grain bread. Butternut squash soup, which is in the rotation, is another winner.

Sarabeth’s [Upper West Side]
423 Amsterdam Ave., between W. 80th and 81st Sts., Manhattan
212-496-6280
Locater

Sarabeth’s [Upper East Side]
1295 Madison Ave., between E. 92nd and 93rd Sts., Manhattan
212-410-7335
Locater

Sarabeth’s Bakery [Chelsea]
75 9th Ave., at W. 15th St., in Chelsea Market, Manhattan
212-989-2424
Locater

Sarabeth’s [Midtown]
40 Central Park S., between 6th and 5th Aves., Manhattan
212-826-5959
Map

Sarabeth’s at the Whitney [Upper East Side]
945 Madison Ave., at E. 75th St., Manhattan
212-570-3670
Locater

Board Links
chow ivo Amsterdam and W. 79th?