Cary/Raleigh eats, part two.

Two new articles up on Cliff Lee trade breakdown and brief reports on all of the players in Sunday’s Futures Game.

I took a few of your suggestions for Q and sushi in the Traingle area and stumbled on very solid frozen custard joint for my second run through North Carolina.

I’ll start with the sushi: Waraji seems to be, by acclamation, the best sushi place in the Triangle, and it may very well be that, but it’s not very good. Better than Little Tokyo, but still not good. The fish was completely tasteless; one fish, “white fish,” recommended by the chef who served me, was chewy and sinewy; they don’t offer anago or tai and were out of kanpachi; and they charged me for a nirigi I ordered but never received. The seaweed salad cost $8 and was really portioned for two, although it was the greenest I’ve ever seen, making me wonder about its legitimacy.

I tried Allen & Sons and The Pit for Q, and would unequivocally vote for the latter despite its inauthentic setting. The Pit is the only upscale Q joint I’ve come across in my travels – they even have a wine collection – and the place was filled with businessmen and -women at lunchtime. I ordered a combination plate at my server’s suggestion, getting the St. Louis ribs, the pulled pork, fried okra, and collard greens; the platter also comes with a biscuit and hush puppies, so I was full enough that I didn’t need dinner for about eight hours. The pulled pork was dry but both meats had a nice, subtle smoke flavor, and the ribs were fall-apart tender*. The okra was excellent – I’m starting to like eating in the south for the fried okra more than for the Q – and for about $12 the quantity of food was a little absurd. It’s not wow barbecue, and had a little bit of the feel of mass-smoked meat, as opposed to some guy in a shack who does it one pork shoulder at time, but it was very solid.

*There seems to be some real disagreement over whether ribs of any animal should be smoked till the meat falls off the bone. I’m in the “yes” camp, as ribs have a lot of connective tissue that I have no interest in eating. When the meat falls off the bone, the connective tissue will be largely gone. This, to me, is the entire point of low-and-slow cooking, whether it’s smoking or braising.

Allen & Sons looks good in the uniform, but the tools didn’t really play. It’s in a run-down building just off I-40 in Chapel Hill, and the menu is limited to “Carolina pork” and ribs, with the pork as their signature item. What came looked like some had scraped it off the wall after a pig exploded, an oily, vinegary, sloppy mess that tasted only of vinegar and not in the least of smoke. The best thing I can say about the dish is that it came with five hush puppies, as even the cole slaw was drowning in a mayo-vinegar slurry. It’s too bad, since that’s the sort of place where I’d expect to find the sort of artisanal work I thought the Pit’s pork lacked, but if you’re not going to put smoke flavor into the smoked meat, you might as well stick the thing in an oven.

Goodberry’s is a local chain of frozen custard shops that I think would stand up well against the competition of Milwaukee, still the capital of frozen custards as far as I can tell. Goodberry’s felt a little richer, with more butterfat, but the texture was an 80 and the chocolate, despite being a little light in color, had a rich natural cocoa flavor. They offer vanilla, chocolate, sugar-free vanilla, and a rotating flavor of the day; I was disappointed that coconut wasn’t coming until the 16th, since that + chocolate is one of my favorite ice cream flavor pairings. They also offer a long list of toppings, including freshly roasted nuts (I don’t think they’re roasted on site, though), so I’ll recommend the chocolate with Oreos and almonds combo. The location I went to, on Kildare Farms Road in Cary, has no indoor seating but there are tables with umbrellas for shade.

The Story of Sushi.

My most recent piece on went up yesterday – a preview of the major amateur free agents available in Latin America this summer.

I recommend a lot of books around here, but I’m not sure the last time I said that any you must read a particular book. If you like sushi, or just seafood in general, however, you need to get yourself a copy of Trevor Corson’s The Story of Sushi: An Unlikely Saga of Raw Fish and Rice (published in hardcover as The Zen of Fish), a tremendous read that blends the history of what we now refer to as sushi in the U.S. with a surprisingly interesting subplot around a class going through a sushi-chef academy near Los Angeles. Corson’s integration of the two threads is remarkable, but for me, the value was in hearing him subtly say to American diners: “SUSHI: UR DOIN IT WRONG.”

Corson boils sushi down to its core components – the rice, the vinegar in the rice, the seaweed – and even dabbles in some food chemistry by explaining why we particularly like those ingredients as well as raw fish, discussing umami and the chemicals that deliver it (glutamic acid and inosine monophosphate in particular) and why we like the flesh of sea creatures raw but generally don’t like uncooked meat from land creatures. He discusses why certain types of fish make better or worse sushi, and of course discusses wild fish versus farm-raised (wild is better, but farm-raised does have some advantages) as well as the dangers overfishing present to natural fish populations. There’s even a chapter on uni, a paste comprising the gonads of sea urchins, which I recently learned is also consumed raw in various Caribbean cuisines as well.

Those sections were interesting, but didn’t do too much to change the way I thought about sushi, since I already knew I liked the stuff. Corson also discusses the various traditions around sushi and the etiquette of eating it (use your fingers for nigiri; never rub your wooden chopsticks together; miso soup should be eaten after the meal), as well as the logic for eating certain pieces in certain ways. A good sushi chef will, if you allow him, consider the order in which you’re eating your fish, moving across a continuum from milder flavors to stronger ones, or from softer textures to firm ones. Stirring wasabi (which, you probably know, isn’t actually wasabi at most U.S. restaurants but American horseradish dyed green) into soy sauce reduces the flavor of the wasabi, because the heat is partly deactivated in liquid. The fish used in spicy tuna rolls – a thoroughly American creation – is generally refuse, scraped off the skin of the tuna after the best pieces have been removed and used for nigiri or other dishes that require better flavor and texture. In fact, most rolls are inauthentic and used to hide inferior-quality fish under ingredients that are strongly flavored, like chili oil, or that coat the tongue with fat, like mayonnaise or avocado.

I’ve never been a huge fan of complicated rolls, since they tend to layer lots of ingredients together and come with sticky-sweet sauces, and I’m not a fan of mayonnaise so I generally avoid spicy tuna anyway. Having a rich, fatty, sweet roll can burn your palate for the delicate flavors of the fish-and-rice nigiri. But Corson’s book, without ever explicitly saying, “don’t eat the fancy rolls,” presents three arguments – one based on authenticity, one on the quality of the ingredients, and the fact that sushi becomes rather unhealthy when you load it up with fats and sugars – for at least limiting your consumption of those rolls, if not eliminating them altogether. And the teachers and sushi chefs who appear in the book all share his disdain for the fancier rolls, even while they teach them at the academy because customers want them – and they’re very profitable. (Another good reason not to order them, actually – you usually get more bang for your buck with nigiri.)

A book that just discussed sushi’s history, traditions, and science would have been worth reading without an actual plot to carry it along, but Corson built his book around the story of a class at The California Sushi Academy, a school run by a longtime sushi chef named Toshi whose restaurant (adjacent to the school) is struggling and who is himself recovering from a fairly recent stroke that has sapped his energy. Corson focuses on a few specific students in the class, including Kate, the nominal star of the book, a young woman struggling to find a career while fighting depression who nearly quits the school a half-dozen times; Fie, the Danish model/actress who decided she’d rather be the bombshell behind the sushi bar; and Takumi Nishio, the former Japanese boy-band star who quit the music business to study first Italian cuisine and now authentic sushi; while also devoting some time to Zoran, the Yugoslavia-born/Australian-raised head instructor who is a True Believer in traditional sushi even as he teaches the students American-style rolls. Their stories are interesting, as are their struggles – except for Takumi, who, in the book at least, seems to be a complete natural at whatever cuisine he tries, so he’s fascinating but without much drama. Corson follows them on assignments outside the classroom, like feeding the cast and crew on a movie lot, or watches them work a shift in the back room of the restaurant, using each episode as a segue into some note on the history or components of sushi.

If you like sushi, The Story of Sushi is $10 well spent. You can simultaneously learn the history of the California roll – its inventor is actually known, and there’s a good reason why there’s an avocado in it – and why you shouldn’t really bother with it when you’re in a quality Japanese restaurant.

For more from Corson, check out his official site, which includes some notes on the people in The Story of Sushi and other links and articles about seafood.

Next review: Richard Russo’s The Whore’s Child and Other Stories.

Cary/Raleigh eats, part one.

I was in Cary, North Carolina, for a few days last week, and will be heading there again soon, so this is the first of likely two food posts on the area.

I’ll start with the one success, Coquette, a French brasserie in the North Hills mall complex in Raleigh, a recommendation of friend-of-the-dish Richard Dansky, who also met me there for dinner. Their duck confit crepes were outstanding all around, from the perfect duck leg to the three golden crepes to the just-right amount of mushroom-leek cream sauce; the only questionable inclusion were fava beans that brought color but a little bitterness and didn’t meld with the other flavors. For dessert, I tried their cashew toffee crunch profiteroles; the pastries, pate a choux with cocoa and cinnamon, were a little dry (hard to avoid), but I would order a half gallon of that ice cream, which was loaded with bits of nuts and toffee and had strong caramel notes in the ice cream itself. It’s served with a dark chocolate ganache sauce that I may have just eaten with a spoon. The only misstep was the salad recommended by our server, a frisee mix with a poached egg … but no other dressing beyond the runny yolk. Not really good eats, but they had plenty of other salad and starter options to try.

I tried two Q joints in the area, neither great. Danny’s, one of several in the area, is located in an industrial park right off Tryon Rd; the pulled pork was moist but had almost no smoke flavor and required saucing, but their sides were all very good, including outstanding fried okra and a small bean I’d never had before called “field peas” that had a little of the bright sweetness of English peas but with the firmness of black-eyed peas. Dixie Belle’s pork had slightly more flavor – I mean slightly – but was dried out, probably from being kept warm for too long. I know there’s better Q in Raleigh and Durham, but didn’t have time to head that far. The mom from one of the local host families recommended Clyde Cooper’s in downtown Raleigh, so I’ll try to hit that next time around.

I had a recommendation for a hole in the wall sushi place in Cary called Little Tokyo, which also seems to be held in high esteem by locals … and that doesn’t say good things about the state of sushi in Cary, because Little Tokyo is awful. I figured I was in trouble when I saw the menu was about 2/3 rolls, with nigiri and sashimi relegated to less than a full page without the same bells or whistles. I knew I was in trouble when I asked the chef behind the sushi bar what he recommended and he looked at me like I’d just said Yuniesky Betancourt should be the AL’s starter at shortstop in the All-Star Game. I ordered five different kinds of nigiri, none of which had a lick of taste. The nigiri fell apart when I picked them up with my hands, and the texture of the maguro was mushy. It’s clear they use the sauces and extras on rolls to cover up inferior quality fish. Avoid, avoid, avoid.

What happened to Bermuda?

My last Tournament of Stars update is on I still have some video to file as well.

I mentioned in my St. Kitts post that my wife and I decided against a return trip to Bermuda for our 15th anniversary after we went there on our honeymoon, our fifth anniversary, and our tenth anniversary. A few of you asked me to elaborate, so I’ll do so, but I have to emphasize up front that our last trip there was (if you’re too lazy to do the math) five years ago, and it may be out of date.

Let me start with what we liked about Bermuda. It’s a beautiful island, naturally pretty, but was also fairly prosperous and well-maintained. The capital city, Hamilton, is like something out of a dream, clean, bright, open, busy in a quiet way, walkable with shops and restaurants up and down its few main streets. There’s a second town, more of a village, called St. George, on the east end of the island, also worth at least one visit. The island is small and easily navigable by moped – tourists are not permitted to rent cars – and I have to say that sitting in a closed car would rob you of some of the experience. Locals would chat with us while we were stopped at red lights, and we got a restaurant recommendation or two that way. The beaches have sand flecked with pink, and the water is as blue and clear as anything we found in St. Kitts. One of my favorite rums in the world, Gosling’s Black Seal, is blended and bottled in Bermuda. Most of the people we met on our visits there were friendly. And it’s just a two-hour flight from the east coast of the U.S.

We had a few favorites for food across our trips. The best place that’s still operating is Bistro J, in downtown Hamilton, where the menu changes daily, with five entree options and I believe two or three desserts written each afternoon on a blackboard in the dining room. Everything we ate there was spectacular and I will always remember that as the place I first tried sticky toffee pudding. Monty’s was at one point a simple, slightly cheap spot for locals that served amazing breakfasts, although it had gone upscale by the time we visited in 2005. The Hog Penny is a British pub in Hamilton that we discovered on our first trip, and the Swizzle Inn does make a killer rum swizzle, a cocktail that masks its potency with fruit juice. Paraquet is a little place catering mostly to locals that makes an incredible fried fish sandwich; it’s located in an apartment complex in Paget Parish right on South Road.

We stayed somewhere different on each trip; our favorite was the Salt Kettle Inn, a very small but perfectly located B&B just across the bay from Hamilton and thus a short ferry ride or moped trip into town. (The benefit of taking the moped in the mornings is that you get to see Johnny Barnes, the friendliest man in the world, waving to you and all the other commuters into Hamilton each morning.) We also stayed at the Elbow Beach resort for our honeymoon in 1995; the beach is outstanding for swimming, but the hotel itself is just an average American hotel with shops and restaurants added, with the room no better than what you’d find at a standard Hilton or Marriott, but at twice the price.

Hotel beaches in Bermuda are largely private, but they do have some excellent public ones. Our favorite public beach was Church Bay, on the western side of the south shore. The snorkeling there was amazing with plenty to see even when the water is just a few feet deep, and the water is fairly calm because of outlying rocks. There’s another beach on the eastern half called Shelly Bay Beach that’s very long and shallow and would be great for kids or unconfident swimmers. We usually took an afternoon to visit the small zoo and aquarium, and just generally tooled around the island. Getting around the island was simple between the moped and taxis, and we could go from St. George to the Dockyard (one end of Bermuda to the other) in about an hour.

That’s the good, but when we went back in 2005 we found it didn’t measure up to our memories from the first two trips. The biggest issue was that the place was starting to look a little run down. They’d had a hurricane a year prior but by August of ’05 still hadn’t finished basic maintenance tasks, like fixing a broken walkway from the parking area to the sand at Church Bay. We saw drunk locals in the streets of Hamilton for the first time – completely harmless, but still a sign that the economy there wasn’t in such great shape. And Front Street in Hamilton had gone from three department stores in 1995 to none in 2005, and as far as I can tell none has been replaced. (I understand that those stores were critical to locals, but they offered plenty for tourists who were looking for non-touristy shopping.)

We also found that the quality of the food at several of our favorite places had fallen off. We ate at the Hog Penny at least twice on that last trip, and everything we had underwhelmed us, even though in probably a half-dozen or more meals there on the previous two trips we had always loved the food. The Swizzle Inn changed its menu completely between 2000 and 2005, and the food quality went south as well. The food at Monty’s didn’t change, but the price went up with the décor, although it’s still the best breakfast bet we found on the island.

I also noticed in 2005 that while locals were still on the whole very friendly, we encountered more rudeness than we had before, and my guess is that it was a little anti-Americanism at work. (For whatever it’s worth, and that may be nothing, the poor treatment we received never came from black Bermudians, only whites. I don’t know why that would be true, but it is.)

And the final straw for us was the price. It’s very expensive to stay and eat in Bermuda, and the lack of any major U.S. Chain on the island means that frequent-guest points are useless there. (There are two Fairmont hotels, if that’s how you roll.) Renting a moped for the week, while fun, isn’t cheap, and heading there now with a four-year-old would mean a lot of cab fares, and getting a cab from a public beach was not easy.
But Bermuda has a more fundamental price problem – they slap a tax of 25% or more on all imported goods, so the prices of even basic goods are jacked up, and it flows through to restaurant meals, hotel prices, and of course affects people who live on the island greatly. Add to that their unwillingness to wean themselves from the teat of cruise ship docking fees, even though cruise ship customers do nothing to help island businesses directly but are happy to come and consume public resources like beaches, making it less appealing for people who want to come and actually contribute directly to island hotels, restaurants, and shops.

Bermuda was a little less appealing for us than it might be to a first-time visitor because we will compare everything to our previous visits to the island; I imagine if we went there for the first time now, we’d find it charming, because we lacked any knowledge of what it was like ten or fifteen years ago. And, again, we haven’t been in five years, so it may have made a major turnaround in that time. I haven’t heard anything to that effect, and as far as I know the massive import tax is still in place and the cruise ships are still coming and throwing their weight around. I would love to have my old Bermuda back, but I’m afraid now it may be gone for good.

Saint Kitts.

As most of you know by now, I was completely off the grid last week for a family vacation to the Caribbean island of St. Kitts, half of a two-island nation (Saint Kitts and Nevis, formerly Saint Christopher and Nevis) in the Leeward Islands, a little bit east of Puerto Rico. My wife and I settled on St. Kitts for a few reasons, one of which was the presence of a Marriott where I could utilize all these points I’ve racked up, and another was the fact that we didn’t know anyone who’d been. I’d read previously that the island had been making a strong effort to cultivate high-end tourism as its main economic activity, since the sugar cane industry had died owing to high labor costs (the canes have to be harvested by hand) and the United States’ absurd sugar quotas, which prop up a dying domestic sugar industry in Florida, support our nation’s addiction to high fructose corn syrup, and really stick it to various allies of ours in the sugar business, including Australia. But I digress. We had fun and ate well, but it’s more of a rest-and-relax destination than a place for serious sightseeing.

We spent most of our time at the resort itself, largely a function of our daughter’s primary interest, going in the resort’s pools. The St. Kitts Marriott is adjacent to a beach – all beaches in St. Kitts are public so it would be inaccurate to say the hotel has a beach – but it’s on the Atlantic side of the island, with somewhat rougher waters and zero scenic value. The pools are perfect for kids; the two we used go no deeper than four feet, including the one with the swim-up bar. The staff were over-the-top friendly, and the service everywhere in the hotel was top-notch, although my wife and I noticed that each new staff member we met began with a slight standoffishness that disappeared after a few moments of chatter. When I asked one of the waitresses we knew particularly well if that had something to do with Americans being rude*, she confirmed it, off the record of course.

*Seriously. I don’t know if Americans – and we saw at least two such incidents ourselves – treat the staff there rudely because the staff members are not Americans, or because they speak with accents, or, most likely, because they are black, but if you’re one of those Americans, do me a favor and stay home, so I can stop pretending I’m Canadian every time I leave the damn country. The waitresses and porters and valets are service workers, but that does not entitle you to treat them like they’re the help.

There were a few hiccups at the hotel when we got there, as they “upgraded” us to a room that turned out to lack air conditioning (we were told, after three calls to the front desk finally produced a staff member at our door, that the “chiller” was broken), but they did fall all over themselves to make it right. I also think it’s weird that the towel hut by the pools closes at 6:30 pm – if you don’t return the towels by then they charge you $25 – when the pools are open till 11 and guests might want to take towels to an off-site beach.

And we did, as we found a superior beach within walking distance of the hotel (or a $6 cab ride away) at Frigate Bay, home also of a row of restaurant-bars known as the Strip. Frigate Bay Beach sits on the Caribbean side, and despite the lack of a visible row of rocks to break some of the waves, it was significantly calmer than the beach next to the Marriott, and my daughter was thrilled at the number and variety of seashells there. We ate at one of the restaurants on the Strip, Mr. X’s Shiggidy Shack, but I’ll save that for the food portion of the post.

The third beach we visited was a haul from the hotel, a $22 cab ride that took at least 20 minutes, but it was the most beautiful by far: Cockleshell Bay Beach, on the southern tip of the island of St. Kitts, only about two miles from Nevis. The sand was the cleanest, the scenery the most lush, and the view of Nevis is tremendous, with the latter’s central volcano practically throwing its shadow on you. And, true to its name, it had many shells, mostly cockles.

Our one other expedition outside the hotel was to “the city,” Basseterre, the nation’s capital and the only significant population center on the island. It was disappointing, although I think that is in part because we compared it to Hamilton, Bermuda, the only other island town we’ve ever visited; Hamilton is (or at least was in 2005) clean, bright, and busy, with wide streets and plenty of places to eat and shop. Basseterre has a shlock district called Port Zante that is new, bright, and full of stores selling crappy trinkets, cheap liquor (not that there’s anything wrong with that), jewelry, or other duty-free items for tourists on cruise ships, who generally do little to help the economies of the islands they visit. From there, we crossed into the Circus area, where we found a few local shops but not much in the way of restaurants or other establishments to keep us in town. The streets are narrow and many of the buildings outside of Port Zante were run down. I’m well aware that the town is there for its residents and not its tourists, but I saw a lost opportunity there for an island that is trying to cultivate a niche in high-end tourism.

You can do some nature tours within Saint Kitts or Nevis, both of which have rain forests around their central volcanoes (Saint Kitts’ peak is extinct, while Nevis’ has been dormant for millennia), but even without my daughter there I’m not sure I would have suggested that sort of activity. It was way too hot.

The airport merits mention because it’s so hilariously small. There are four “gates,” which are just doors a few feet apart in the same wall of the lone departure lounge, and all exit to the same piece of asphalt. The tower is actually across the runway in an adjacent field. There is no restaurant, just a tiny bar that serves prefab sandwiches and three trinket shops before security. The duty free stores after security did offer excellent prices on liquor, cheaper than anything I saw elsewhere. I’ll get to the liquor in a second.

My main complaint about St. Kitts aside from the absence of a nice town is the expense of getting around the island. Getting from the hotel to town was $12 without tip each way, for a trip of about ten minutes. It’s not an exorbitant fare, but suddenly it’s $30 round-trip to get to Basseterre, $50 round-trip to get to Cockleshell Bay (and a good restaurant there), $15 each way from the airport, and it adds up. I’d rather spend my money on food or local goods than on getting around, but there’s no alternative, and we spent more time in the hotel as a result. We also skipped Nevis, partly for cost reasons (it would have been $80-100 round-trip just to get there), but mostly because we didn’t think my daughter would be up for the roughly 90 minutes it would have taken each way to get from our hotel to the Botanical Gardens, the one site on Nevis we thought might hold her interest. At the end of the day, she was happy in the pool.

Last stop before I run through the restaurants: St. Kitts does have three local rum producers, and I brought home one bottle of Belmont Estates’ gold rum. It’s unaged, which means it has a harsher taste than any of my preferred rums from around the region (Appleton and Cruzan are my favorites at the moment), and the bars at the Marriott didn’t offer it. They did offer Brinley rums, five varieties of flavored rums blended on the island but (I believe) distilled elsewhere, and anyway flavored rums are for sissies so I never bothered. The third kind is CSR, short for Cane Spirit Rothschild, distilled from sugar cane rather than from molasses, and like that style of spirit it’s more for sipping than for mixing. The duty free stores I found usually had a few options from around the region, including Appleton, Cruzan, Bacardi (a waste of good molasses, in my opinion), Myers, and Mount Gay, as did the bars at the Marriott*.

*Rum and ginger ale was my drink of choice during the week, with either Myers dark or Appleton gold, but I did order two other drinks. One was a guava daiquiri, mostly because I love guava anything, but the resulting drink tasted mostly of … guava, with the rum well buried in the background. The other was planter’s punch, which I thought was always based on a fairly standard formula, but the Marriott’s version had Bacardi, Myers dark, a liqueur I didn’t catch, and a splash of juice. If I had gone in St. Kitts to forget something, it would have been the perfect drink.

Now, the food, starting with the options in the hotel. Cafe Calypso serves breakfast and lunch, and the breakfast buffet is pricey ($21-25) but excellent. There’s section of local breakfast items, with one rotating protein dish (fried tilapia, a stew with salt cod, pork stew, some kind of spicy chicken) alongside fried plantains, cinnamon-tinged jonnycakes, grilled vegetables, and crepes with what I assume was a house-made three-berry compote that was incredible – my daughter and I inhaled the stuff. They also have the standard assortment of American foods, and a strong array of pastries which were definitely made in-house (we talked to the pastry chef). The only miss was the horrible tea selection: I’m in a former British colony and you’re offering me … Bigelow?

The lunch menu isn’t long, but it’s diverse, including a turkey BLT with a fried egg as one of the layers, a Caesar wrap with fried fish (tasted great, but the heat from the fish made the dressing run), a chicken roti (traditional local fare, with curried chicken wrapped in a lavash-like bread, but the filling had zero salt and thus near zero taste), chimichurri skirt steak with mashed potatoes (the steak was a little undermarinated but they had the righ idea), and, my favorite item, ribs with a guava BBQ sauce (extremely tender with a sweet-and-sour sauce that would go on just about any meat – I’d love that with duck). The chefs all over the hotel are accommodating if you have an off-menu request, and they made grilled cheese for my (vegetarian) daughter that was actually grilled, with grill marks; I don’t think she failed to finish any of the ones she had at the Calypso.

Outside the restaurant is the actual cafe, with a full assortment of espresso-based drinks, although their espresso-making skills are a little lacking; twice I saw the barista put the grounds in the portafilter without tamping them down, which is a good way to make brown water if that’s what you’re going for. They have a pastry case with cookies, muffins, and, for $4, desserts like slices of opera cake or Black Forest Cake, or individiual tiramisu portions that were big enough for my wife and I to split. We ate well in the hotel all week, but the pastry chef gets the gold star for the tiramisu and for the donuts, also made in-house and likely the best I have ever tasted.

It is also worth mentioning that the staff at the Calypso were outstanding and took the time to learn our names, greeted our daughter every morning (even waitresses who weren’t working our section would come over to say hi), and memorize our drink orders. They don’t have to do any of that, and I would never expect it, but it added a lot to our stay. And they did this knowing full well that we came from the U.S. In fact, we found everyone we met on the island to be friendly once we proved we wouldn’t bite, and many locals thanked us for choosing to take our vacation on St. Kitts.

Still in the Marriott, there’s a very strong Italian restaurant called La Cucina that has an antipasto bar that I’d call a can’t-miss, including real prosciutto, marinated artichokes, roasted peppers (three colors!), and a giant block of Parmiggiano-Reggiano from which you can carve your own slices or chunks. The entrees I had were both just short of great. The risotto with wild mushrooms and sun-dried tomatoes had huge mushroom flavor, including morels (that is, an actual wild mushroom, as opposed to places that say “wild mushroom” and give you creminis), but they used a strain of rice I haven’t seen in risotto before, and it didn’t produce the right creamy texture I’d expect in that dish. The ravioli in butter were just that: House-made ravioli served in melted butter, not fried briefly in butter to get some color on the pasta, then served in brown butter. It was fine, and my daughter might not have tried them if they’d been browned, but nothing that an average home cook couldn’t produce. My wife had the pasta alla bolognese twice, getting a generous portion of pasta and meat with a sauce that featured strong, fresh flavors of all the vegetables it contained (carrots, onions, and celery, at the very least).

We ate one other meal at Blu, a seafood restaurant at the Marriott with an impressive array of fish options, although the best thing I had there was the mashed potatoes with truffle oil, sweet, ridiculously creamy, but with the irregular texture of “smashed” potatoes, a nice contrast to the largely soft potato-crusted grouper I had as my main course. The house salad has a pomegranate vinaigrette that wasn’t cloyingly sweet like berry vinaigrettes usually are, and the greens looked like they’d just been picked*. The chocolate-and-peanut-butter mousse tart could have been a little darker, but was otherwise excellent. My wife went with the pork chop – she doesn’t care for fish – and said it was good but so thick that it started to dry out on the edges.

*That was actually a trend all week: Unbelievable salad greens. Brighter colors, crisper leaves, fresher flavors. Maybe that’s their niche within their niche: Come for the beaches, stay for the produce.

Moving off site … Mr. X’s Shiggedy Shack is, in fact, a shack on Frigate Bay Beach, covered but open, with a limited menu that ranges from $30 grilled lobster to $5 burgers. Every local we talked to said that was the one place to eat outside the Marriott, and our favorite waitress at the Marriott told me to get the mahi-mahi, which was incredibly fresh and clean and perfectly grilled, one of the two best pieces of fish I had in a week where I ate a lot of fish. The sides mostly just took up space. Their house rum punch, the Shiggedy Jig, wasn’t very strong and had a liqueur I couldn’t place (Amaretto?) but that dominated the drink. In a rum punch, I should taste the rum, right?

PJ’s is an “authentic” Italian place on the same road as the Marriott and is awful. Imagine if a lifelong resident of St. Kitts had never visited Italy or eaten Italian food but got an old Italian cookbook and decided to open an Italian restaurant. That’s PJ’s.

The Spice Mill has been open on Cockleshell Bay Beach for about a year and a half and had the most innovative menu we found anywhere on the island. My wife had a pulled pork sandwich that she said was outstanding aside from the huge smear of mayonnaise on the bun, which wasn’t advertised on the menu and was about three times as much as a sandwich really needs (besides, pulled pork doesn’t really scream for mayo). I took the server’s advice and went with the Greek salad with mahi-mahi; the fish was the best piece of fish I had all week, immaculately cooked, and the salad was bright and fresh with some mixed greens and diced mango … but feta and mahi-mahi just don’t go together. If they took the cheese out and just called it a mixed salad with mahi-mahi, it would be worth the $50 round-trip cab fare alone.

And that brings me to my last point: For some reason, you need to jump up and down or light your table on fire to get a check at any restaurant in St. Kitts other than Calypso. It took a minimum of 15 minutes from when I asked for the check to when I had a copy of something to sign at La Cucina, the Spice Mill, and Mr. X’s, although the Shack at least deserves credit for owning up to the fact that their register was on the fritz and having the server come to the table and add up the bill for us on a calculator. I’ve heard about people moving on “island time,” but when a customer asks for the check, the restaurant’s goal should be to give it to him and clear the table ASAP.

Would we go to St. Kitts again? Maybe, but I feel like it’s a place worth seeing once rather than twice. There isn’t enough on the island for a young child to do beyond the beaches, and while I like museums that’s not what I’m going for when I head to an island where it’s 90 degrees every day. Once I rack up enough miles to for another island trip, we’re probably headed for someplace new, since St. Kitts didn’t have the same appeal as Bermuda did once upon a time (the decline of Bermuda is another post entirely) and we’d like to experience and see something else. If you’re looking at trying St. Kitts for the first time, though, it’s pretty enough and the Marriott would be an excellent choice for the stay for its staff, its food options, and for its proximity to Frigate Bay Beach, and I can guarantee you that your visit will be appreciated.

Atlanta & Dallas eats.

The updated draft top 100 went up on Friday, and I just went into the Conversation to answer your questions.

I was only on the ground in Atlanta for about 24 hours last week but did end up eating at three new places.

Big Daddy’s is a well-reviewed and inexpensive soul food place just south of the airport where you order at the counter from steam trays, much like the meat-and-three places I found in Nashville a few years ago. The one surprise to me was the lack of fried dishes – they offer fried fish to order but no fried chicken, which I think of as a staple of Southern cuisine. I’m assuming that they don’t offer it because fried chicken that has been sitting is just not good eats. The service was extremely friendly, but the food – roasted chicken, cornbread stuffing that was way too salty, steamed okra that was just slimy, and collard greens – was unremarkable. Grade 45.

I met a friend of mine from high school for dinner at Milton’s in the town of that name in Fulton County, where we ended up ordering the same thing, the panko-crusted trout with black sesame seeds, which the server told us was their most popular dish. The fish was excellent, very fresh, pan-fried but not greasy, and the sweet red chili sauce underneath was a good complement to the slightly salty taste of the breading. The dish was overloaded with sides, including shrimp-sweet potato fritters that looked amazing but were kind of gummy, and some ho-hum mashed potatoes. I’d give them a 50 for the fish but they may be trying too hard with the extras.

The best meal of the trip came on a tip from Friend of the Dish Richard Dansky, whose novel Firefly Rain earned my recommendation last month. The Buckhead Bread Company is part bakery, part upscale brunch spot. I’m not normally a French toast guy, but I figured that was a smart order in restaurant attached to a bakery. The chef uses rounds cut from brioche and must finish them under a broiler to add a sweet, crunchy crumb topping, and the dish comes with a blueberry sauce and fresh blueberries, strawberries, and blackberries. I also had the sausage patties, which were on the savory side for breakfast and were overcooked, but the saltiness was a good offset to the sweetness of the French toast, which could easily have been on the dessert menu for a fine restaurant. (Pain perdu, the French version of French toast, is served as dessert in France, not as breakfast.) The menu wasn’t extensive but they had several other offerings I wanted to try, so between that and the high quality of what I got, it’s a 55.

My 24 hours in Dallas were less productive from an eating perspective, as I only ate one meal outside a hotel or ballpark. Spring Creek BBQ is a local chain of Q joints, and there’s one not far from UTA’s park that was reasonably convenient for me to hit before hopping my flight out of DFW. Their sliced beef (brisket) was mixed – the ends were flavorful on their own and just needed a little sauce to cut their dryness, while the center slices were almost too moist and had the texture of corned beef (one of the few foods that I absolutely despise). The mild smoked sausage was plus, a salty-sweet-smoky link of porcine goodness. The sides are serve-yourself, which makes me think about how utterly disgusting most people are, but the meal comes with unlimited hot rolls, a little like a large Parker house roll but white rather than slightly yellow inside, which I assume means it’s made with milk but doesn’t contain much butter. It’s a high 50 for me.

Pressure-cooker carnitas with blue corn pancakes.

Pressure cookers cook foods faster by utilizing the fact that water boils at a higher temperature when it’s under higher pressure; the typical pressure cooker works at 15 psi, a pressure level at which water boils at 250 degrees. For stews or other long braises, this can reduce cooking times by 75% or more, yet you don’t lose the braise’s power to break down connective tissue or extract gelatin (or its precursors) from bones, and of all my pressure-cooking escapades only beans come out substantially different when cooked under pressure. (It causes beans to pop out of their skins, which is fine if your intent is to mash or puree them.)

Cooking with pressure requires no special skills or other equipment beyond the cooker itself, and unlike your mother’s (or grandmother’s) pressure cooker, today’s models aren’t likely to explode and leave your dinner on the ceiling. The model I use is no longer in production; this Presto 6-quart model seems to be the best starter cooker available, although I can’t tell from the item description if it has two pressure settings or just one.

Somehow, I got the idea the other day to try to make carnitas, which I had often in Phoenix and now miss, via the pressure cooker. Pork carnitas refers to a pork butt (really the shoulder), the same cut you would smoke to make barbecued pulled pork, but braised low and slow in a slightly salty liquid with aromatics and spices, especially cumin. A quick Google search for recipes that might tell me how long to cook the meat turned up this recipe, which didn’t require much modification. After thirty minutes under pressure, the chunks of pork held their shape but could pull apart easily with a fork, and the oven finish brought out the flavors you’d ordinarily get by browning the meat before braising or roasting it. You could take the meat, wrap it in a tortilla with some rice, beans, and salsa, and make a burrito; you could serve it with guacamole and rice as a main course; or you could do what I did: Toss a bunch of it on some blue corn pancakes as a sort of Mexican/New Mexican take on chicken and waffles. A recipe for those pancakes follows.

Pressure-cooker carnitas

One 3-4 lb pork butt (shoulder), trimmed of exterior fat and cut into large (two-inch-ish) chunks
1.5 Tbsp salt
2 tsp cumin
1 tsp coriander
1 Tbsp ancho chili powder
1/8-1/4 tsp cayenne pepper (optional)
1 bay leaf
1 onion, roughly chopped
1 jalapeño pepper, seeds and stem removed, chopped
3 cloves garlic, bruised

1. In a large bowl, toss the pork with the salt and seasonings.
2. Add the pork, bay leaf, and aromatics to a pressure cooker with enough water to cover – it took just over a liter for me to cover 3.3 pounds of meat.
3. Close the cooker, turn the valve to its maximum setting, and put over high heat until the cooker begins hissing loudly. Reduce the heat to bring the cooker to a faint hiss and cook for 30 minutes. With about ten minutes to go, preheat your oven to 350 degrees.
4. Release the pressure according to the cooker’s manual – usually that means turning the dial down a level at a time – and remove the pork. Transfer it to an oven-safe skillet or rimmed sheet pan and lightly press each piece with a fork to expose more surface area to the oven’s heat. Re-season with more salt, cumin, etc.
5. Roast the pork with a very thin layer of either the braising liquid or hot water for about 15 minutes, until much of the exposed surface has turned brown. Do not let the pork burn or dry out – check it at the ten-minute mark. Serve.

Blue corn pancakes

I find these sweet without sugar because of the corn, but if you want to make these more breakfasty, you could add 1 Tbsp of sugar, agave nectar, or maple syrup to the mix.

2 cups blue corn flour, preferably whole grain (I like Arrowhead Mills, available at Whole Foods)
1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
1 cup AP flour
3/4 tsp salt
4 tsp baking powder (more if you want thicker pancakes, but for the pork, I like them thinner)
4 cups milk, 2% to whole
2 sticks (1/2 pound) butter, melted and cooled slightly
4 eggs

1. Mix the flours, baking powder, and salt in a bowl.
2. Whisk the milk, butter, and eggs until well combined. Pour over the dry ingredients and beat just until moistened with no visible lumps. Cook on electric griddle or skillet as you would regular pancakes, on one side until brown at the edges, then flip and cook roughly half as long on the second side. If the pancakes aren’t cooking through, you can thin the batter slightly with a little more milk, or reduce the heat on the griddle.

In a Perfect World.

Laura Kasischke’s In a Perfect World soft, ethereal prose with a distinctly dystopian vision hauntingly grounded in current reality to tell a story about grace and maternal love in difficult, unexpected circumstances. It’s a little like The Road as written by the female version of Richard Russo.

The protagonist, Jiselle Dorn, is a flight attendant who has just married a handsome pilot and widowed father of three named Mark and moved into his house with his three kids just as a virulent illness known as “the Phoenix flu” is starting to spread, killing, on page 9, Britney Spears, as well as a few other celebrities. Rather than drop us into a post-apocalyptic world as McCarthy did, Kasischke focuses on minutiae, with the relationship between Jiselle and two of Mark’s three kids – her immediate bond with his youngest child, Sam, and the animosity she faces from middle child Sara – at the center of the novel’s first half. The flu’s spread accelerates and society begins to slowly crack around the family, while Mark ends up stuck out of the country, leaving Jiselle to run his house and family and cope with large and small issues simultaneously while evaluating the choices she’s made, the factors in her life that made her make those very choices, and the evolving situation around her.

The novel ends almost mid-sentence, without clear resolutions to macro plot questions like how far and wide the epidemic spreads. The resolution resides in tiny gestures and words and little symbols of hope and grace, and I had to re-read the last few pages to grasp where Kasischke wanted to leave us while shaking off my innate desire for some sort of clear conclusion to the Phoenix flu storyline, which was, after all, just background. It’s a bold way to end a novel, risky for anyone looking for a mass-market audience that likes its chapters short, its villains villainous, and its endings neat. But because Kasischke crafted the Jiselle character so well, I empathized with her to the point that, after the second read, I got the ending by standing in the character’s place.

The one flaw in the novel mirrored Russo’s work as well. Russo has never been great at crafting female characters, and nearly all of the men in In a Perfect World are two-dimensional or worse. Mark in particular is more plot device than character, and I found it very hard to understand some of his actions toward Jiselle and his children. Outside of Mark’s son, Sam, the rest of the men seemed like props, and a potential plot thread involving neighbor Paul Temple went nowhere.

In a Perfect World was published in 2009 and I assume it was written in 2008, before the H1N1 threat emerged, making her choice to build the book around a scary communicable disease a little prescient. Beyond that, however, Kasischke touches on issues like climate change, energy costs, and distrust of government, dropping accent colors in the background rather than giving us long-winded sermons by central characters. It’s a thoughtful, compelling read if you appreciate books driven by small events and emotions rather than major turning points, and the gradual decline in the world inside the book provides more than enough narrative greed to get you to the end.

Next up: As promised, Aldous Huxley’s Island. I received both books gratis from the publisher.

Las Vegas and Utah eats.

I had a quick run through Vegas and Utah last week to see Kris Bryant and Marcus Littlewood and ate pretty well overall, with only one bad meal and a few gems in Utah.

First meal in Vegas was west of the Strip at Yassou Greek Grill on West Charleston, serving gyros, hummus, and other basic Greek items at very reasonable prices. Their lemon-herb chicken is heavily marinated and has a strong flavor without any compromise in the texture, and the pitas they use in their gyros are soft and thick, nothing like the dry pitas you get at the grocery store. The gyro passed my tzatziki test – when I held it perpendicular to the table, I didn’t get any glops of tzatziki, which means they sauced it properly. That gyro plus a side Greek salad and rice pilaf (just rice prepared pilaf-style, with no other ingredients) ran about $8.30 before tax and drink.

I’ve been to the original Mesa Grill location in Manhattan but haven’t had a chance to get back in nearly two years, so I dropped into the Caesar’s Palace location on this trip and decided to branch out, trying two appetizers and a dessert, for research purposes, of course. The blue corn pancake with barbecued duck was dominated by the flavor of the hoisin sauce on the duck; hoisin’s sticky-sweet flavor and texture make it the elephant on the plate, and in this case it wiped out the flavor of the duck itself. I liked the presentation and am certainly a fan of shredded meat in a crepe or pancake, but all I tasted here was hoisin. The creamy wild Mushroom Grits with poached egg, charred serrano sauce, cotija cheese, and blue corn tortilla were better, very creamy as advertised, with only the serrano sauce (which tasted largely of burn) failing to add something to the dish. For dessert, the bartender recommended the churros with chocolate dipping sauce, which were the second-best I’ve had, behind only the version at Toro in Boston.

One bad meal on the trip was at the highly-touted Hash House a Go-Go in Imperial Palace, one of two locations in Vegas. I went for breakfast and ordered the top hash on the menu, a roasted chicken hash with rosemary and asparagus. The dish was incredibly dry, especially the chicken, all white meat and often inedibly tough. Great concept – who doesn’t love a good hash? – but horrid execution.

I made a day trip to St. George, Utah, from Vegas – just under two hours each way, including a very cool drive through the Virgin River Gorge – and had an unbelievable lunch at the Painted Pony, which I would say is in “downtown St. George” except that there doesn’t seem to be much to it besides downtown. The Painted Pony is the sort of local restaurant of which Gordon Ramsay would approve, at least for lunch, with simple dishes focusing on fresh, vibrant flavors. Their torta ahogada sandwich comes on this absolutely perfect ciabatta-style roll and features roasted beef tenderloin, caramelized onions, bell peppers, and cotija cheese, with a rich red sauce on the side, so the sandwich becomes a sort of New Mexican take on French Dip. The side salad was also fresh, with walnuts and julienned apples, and none of the wilted leaves that often plague mixed greens.

I skipped their opulent desserts to hit up Croshaw’s Pies on the, um, west side of town, which was a good call. Their “very berry” pie is sweet-tart with its mix of raspberries and blackberries, and the crust was soft and butter, more tender than flaky, which is how I prefer my pie crusts anyway. It didn’t have great structure, since the filling wept slightly on to the plate, but the compensation was that it didn’t have the slightly gluey texture that comes from using too much cornstarch. Croshaw’s recently opened a second location in Mesa, Arizona, on Brown Road well east of the Cubs’ facilities.

Recent articles & radio.

First up, chef Dan Barber’s incredible talk on how he fell in love with a fish, one that’s really about sustainable aquaculture and his hopes for the future of food. I’m also fascinated by this post on waffle-fried chicken and waffles, although the chicken in that photo doesn’t appear breaded.

Next, my radio hits from this week: Thursday on the Herd, Wednesday with Ryen Russillo, and Wednesday with Mike and Mike. I also appear a few times in the Fantasy Focus draft preview video, with a half-dozen or so taped segments on the top 2010 prospect at each position.

I’ve been blogging daily from Arizona, and my most recent pieces are on:

I just fired in a blog post covering several Padre prospects, including Adys Portillo, plus brief notes on a few Cleveland and White Sox pitchers.