Stick to baseball, 6/24/17.

I wrote two new pieces for Insiders this past week, one looking at teams that just drafted their new #1 prospects and a minor league scouting piece on Phillies, Cleveland, Red Sox, and Astros prospects. I held a Klawchat on Thursday.

Smart Baseball got a nice sales bump last week from Father’s Day and from George Will’s favorable review in the Wall Street Journal (subscriber link). Ty Duffy also mentions the book in passing in a smart piece on how analytics are changing the game on the field, possibly for the worse. Thank you to everyone who’s purchased it. I hope to see many of you at my upcoming signings/appearances:

* Toronto, The Sports Gallery, June 26th
* Miami, Books and Books, July 8th
* Harrisburg, Midtown Scholar, July 15th
* Berkeley, Books Inc., July 19th
* Chicago, Volumes, July 28th, 7:30 pm
* GenCon (Indianapolis), August 17th-20th

Still working on Brooklyn and Phoenix for later this summer/fall, and I believe I’ll be signing at PAX Unplugged in Philadelphia in November. Bookstores interested in hosting should contact Danielle Bartlett at HarperCollins; we’re trying to accommodate everyone we can within my work schedule.

And now, the links…

Stick to baseball, 4/8/17.

I had one Insider post this week, on the most prospect-packed minor league rosters to open the season. I have already filed a draft blog post on last night’s outing by Hunter Greene, with additional notes on a half-dozen other draft prospects, including Brendan McKay and Austin Beck. (EDIT: It’s up now.) I held my regular Klawchat on Thursday.

I resumed boardgame reviews for Paste this week with a look at the reissue of Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective, specifically the Jack the Ripper & West End Cases set, but found it more like a solitaire puzzle than a cooperative game.

You can preorder my upcoming book, Smart Baseball, on amazon, or from other sites via the Harper-Collins page for the book. The book now has two positive reviews out, one from Kirkus Reviews and one from Publishers Weekly.

Also, please sign up for my more-or-less weekly email newsletter.

And now, the links…

Arizona eats, March 2016 update.

This spring’s Arizona eats roundup is mostly about one restaurant, Okra, the fantastic new place from the folks behind crudo, both because it was so good and because I didn’t try much else new worth discussing. (I have a whole Phoenix-area dining guide with past recs.)

Okra has a completely different concept than crudo, offering an upscale twist on southern comfort foods, generally via better ingredients rather than new tricks or techniques. The Calabrian pork bites, served over collard greens, are small pieces of pork belly lightly seasoned, kind of a twist on the southern greens cooked with ham hocks, but one where the pork is more the star of the plate rather than the collards. You could have this with a biscuit and probably call it a meal. The potato fritti are long fingerling potatoes sliced in half and seemed twice-cooked, mostly roasted and then quickly fried, served in gravy with a very slight drizzle of pimento cheese sauce that I didn’t even taste because the gravy and potato were so dominant. We also got a plate of the rendezvous spiced pork rinds, which were good but frankly I’ve never had bad fried pork rinds so I’m not sure what to say.

For entrees, I went with the pig cheek pot pie over olive oil mashed potatoes, while my daughter tried the fried chicken with grilled cornbread. I think she won, although I have no complaints about my dinner either. The fried chicken (“umbrian style,” rather than Nashville hot) was very crispy but still moist and juicy on the inside, and that corn bread – while a bit sweeter than I think true southern corn bread is – was amazing and could also be paired quite happily with those pork bites. The pork pie crust was the real gem in the dish; I could have used a little more pork as the plate as a whole had so much starch, but that crust was absolutely perfect, so much so that I have to figure there was lard involved.

For dessert, my daughter wanted the warm salted caramel “canned biscuit” donut, which is the one fixed dessert on the menu and was absolutely ridiculous – I assume it was just fried and it came with the donut hole as well, sitting on top like the king of the world. They have a daily selection of pies and I went with the Derby pie, a chocolate-walnut pie reminiscent in structure of a pecan pie, which was excellent (again, the crust was stellar, just perfectly flaky and tender) but couldn’t match the donut.

Like crudo, Okra has a craft cocktail menu, and I recommend their update on the old-fashioned, the New Gothic: Bullett rye, meletti amaro (a potable bitters), yellow chartreuse, and orange bitters.

I love crudo, but Okra is in many ways the better recommendation because their menu will have a much broader appeal, and you’re certainly getting more food (or at least more calories) for your money because crudo specializes in raw fish preparations, which are (and damn well ought to be) expensive by comparison. Plus, who doesn’t love southern-style comfort food and potent potables to wash them down?

* I’ve had O.H.S.O. Brewery on my dining guide for a few years now based on others’ recommendations, but this month’s visit was my first actual meal there. It was solid-average, nothing spectacular, with a menu centered on burgers and similar sandwiches like the salmon BLT I ordered. The beer was also good, but not as good as local craft stars like Four Peaks or Oak Creek, with the Extra Special Bitter my preference of the pours I tried. They also distill their own vodka and rum and make their own gin.

* I did try Worth Takeaway, the sandwich shop that has taken over the space previously occupied by the wonderful Urban Picnic in downtown Mesa, but it just wasn’t up to par. The options are few and the bread, which was the best part of Urban Picnic’s excellent sandwiches, isn’t as good.

* I went to downtown Gilbert for the first time in two years, and I can’t get over how much it’s changed for the better since we moved out of Chandler in June of 2013. Where previously there was just Liberty Market and Joe’s BBQ, now there are outposts of several great Phoenix/Scottsdale restaurants – Barrio Queen, Pomo Pizzeria, and Zinburger among them.

* One of you mentioned on Twitter a new coffee place in Phoenix called Futuro, founded by a former Cartel employee, that does espresso and drip (but not pour-over). I didn’t get to try it, in part because I also wanted to hit Giant at least once before leaving town, but would appreciate any reports from those of you who like that kind of third-wave coffee and get to try it.

Proof: The Science of Booze.

Adam Rogers’ book Proof: The Science of Booze delivers handsomely on its title: It’s a book about adult beverages, and it will make you want to go drink some, but it also gives quite a bit of information on the (light) science involved in the production of and flavors behind those libations, especially distilled spirits. While some of the stories around booze manufacturing get too bogged down in operational details, there are also magnificent anecdotes within the book, including the best mystery you’ll ever read where the culprit is a fungus.

Rogers divides the book into eight chapters, each revolving around some essential element of alcohol production – yeast, sugar, fermentation, distillation, aging – or its consumption – smell/taste, body and brain, and the hangover. That gives him the latitude to talk about just about anything he wants that’s related to the manufacture of sauce and suds, including but hardly limited to some deep dives on what we do and don’t know about the science of such beverages.

Alcoholic beverages, especially distilled spirits – often called “hard liquors,” produced by putting some alcohol-containing mixture through a still, leading to whiskey (from fermented grain mash, like that created in beer production), brandy (typically from wine), rum (from fermented molasses or sugar cane), vodka (usually potatoes), and so on – have dozens or even hundreds of aromatic and flavor compounds, some of which still aren’t identified, that give them their distinctive tastes and smells. When you sip an aged spirit, often whiskey but applicable to rum and brandy as well, you may pick up “notes” much like you’d identify in good wines or coffees; those notes are specific chemicals or combinations of chemicals formed during the aging process, sometimes on their own and sometimes due to the interactions between the spirit and the wooden (sometimes charred wooden) casks in which they’re housed.

Rogers explores this angle, and many others, with visits to artisanal producers of these various beverages, moving his writing lens from wide shot to close-up and back, extrapolating from individual producers’ experiences to discuss larger points that he can back up (sometimes) with science. He talks about the obsessions distillers have with the shapes of their stills, even trying to reproduce flaws in old stills when it comes time to replace them with new ones. He talks to a barrel maker – apparently this is about as dying as a dying art can be without being, you know, dead – about the specifics of manufacture and the demands of clients. He gets into the lactones formed during the aging of whiskey in wood barrels, a subject so critical it’s even been the topic of academic research. He also compares production of alcoholic beverages from eastern and western cultures; where Europeans relied heavily on Saccharomyces cerevisiae, Japanese beverages such as sake and shōchū come from a mold called koji (Aspergillus oryzae).

Speaking of molds and fungi, the best passage in Proof is, by far, the mystery of the whiskey fungus, practically a detective story about one man’s quest to identify a specific organism growing on buildings near a particular whiskey distillery. The distilling term “angel’s share” refers to the portion of a distilled spirit lost to evaporation during the aging process, usually water but sometimes a mixture of water and ethanol, the latter of which attracts certain fungi that will be found growing on surfaces where the evaporated alcohol may condense. The story Rogers tells is told in greater scientific detail in this free Mycologia journal article – you probably still have that back issue at home – which describes the mycologists’ development of a new genus to encompass these molds, including Baudoinia compniacensis, now identified as the “angel’s share fungus.” Rogers infuses the story with a bit more drama than the journal piece does, of course.

Rogers even gets involved in the debate over wine ratings, where the American Association of Wine Economists (led in part by the perfectly-named economist Richard Quandt) is among the leaders in arguing that the judgment of wine experts like Robert Parker is too subjective to have any value. Quandt and Orley Ashenfelter, who also appears in Ian Ayres’ book Super Crunchers, are in effect the leading sabermetricians of oenology, whereas Parker is … I don’t know, Old Scout or something. Quandt even wrote his own manifesto comparable to Percentage Baseball or early Bill James Abstracts, called “On Wine Bullshit“. Rogers takes a somewhat middle road here, pointing out that truly objective wine measures are impossible until we’ve identified all of the molecules responsible for their flavors and aromas, but I thought he sided with the quants – as will many of you, I’d wager.

As only a casual drinker but one who greatly enjoys a well-aged rum and a well-mixed cocktail, I found Proof (which I listened to as an audiobook) both entertaining and informative, aside from the occasional tangent into manufacturing minutiae. I wish he’d spent a little more time on spirits beyond whiskey, but brandy gets a fair shake and I may merely be expressing my pro-rum bias. If you tipple, you’ll enjoy this book.

Saturday five, 5/16/15.

My Insider content this week includes my redraft of the 2005 class as well as a recap of the first round picks who didn’t pan out. I also held my weekly Klawchat on Wednesday. My first mock draft will go up on Tuesday.

And now, this week’s links…saturdayfive

Guest bartending at Ulysses, June 26th.

I’ll be one of the guest bartenders at a fundraising event this Thursday, June 26th, at Ulysses Gastropub in north Wilmington, located on the southwest corner of the intersection of Marsh and Silverside. All of the tips and 15% of meal tabs go to benefit First State Montessori Academy, a new charter school opening up in downtown Wilmington this August.

Ullysses will be releasing two new micro-brews from Yards and Mispillion River. Also, we will be auctioning off Kids First Swim lessons, a value of $95.

The event runs from 6 to 9 pm; I’ll be behind the bar from 7-7:30 pm, but will be at Ulysses for the whole three hours. I hope to see some of you there!

Google Maps © 2014

Also, ICYMI, my Insider post on the Josh Byrnes firing went up last night.

A History of the World in 6 Glasses.

Klawchat at 1 pm ET today.

Tom Standage’s A History of the World in 6 Glasses gives a light, high-level history of six beverages that all had an impact on human history or development. I’m a big fan of four of them – beer, distilled spirits, coffee, and tea – and won’t turn down the fifth, wine. Only the last of the six Standage covers, Coca-Cola, seems out of place, both based on my personal tastes (I’ll only drink it if I have a headache and can’t have more coffee) and on its status as a thoroughly artifical beverage protected by trade secrets.

Standage has to stretch on occasion to make some of his historical connections, but in general he’s treading on safe ground, especially with beer and liquor, because their development or discovery had substantial economic impacts on the societies that consumed them. Beer was originally both a natural byproduct of grain storage and a safer alternative to water in an era when bacterial contamination was not understood; liquor, notably rum, drove international trade routes, agricultural production in the Caribbean and Latin America, and the slave trade with native kingdoms in western Africa. Wine was an essential part of the symposion, the Greek ancestor of the cocktail party, where great discussions took place in an atmosphere of convivial drinking … and probably excessive drinking, too, although Plato seems to have left that part out of his Dialogues.

Standage connects coffee to the academic cafe culture of western Europe, particularly London, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; the coffee was bad, prepared in large pots in advance and reheated to order, but these cafes, each of which was devoted to a specific subject or area, hosted conversations that led to great advances in areas from science to philosophy. Tea, like coffee, brought medical benefits, especially since water had to be boiled to make the beverage, and became the drink of choice in England in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a shift that led to the British colonization and development of India (for their own purposes, of course, and only after they’d wiped out the subcontinent’s native textile industry) … as well as playing a role in our own revolution against the crown.

Where Standage lost the plot a little was with his shift to an overtly commercial product, Coca-Cola, which was the product of a handful of accidents and experiments and did, as the legend has it, once contain cocaine – the name comes from its onetime use of both the coca plant and the kola nut (a natural source of caffeine) as flavoring agents. The Coca-Cola company did play a role in the post-World War II trend of globalization, but its role was hardly as essential or as organic as those of the other five beverages in the book, and unlike the other drinks Standage covers, cola has no redeeming health qualities and is unhealthful even in small quantities.

A History of the World in 6 Glasses concludes with a prediction, in Standage’s epilogue, that the next beverage to direct human history will be the first one: water, with the need for clean, reliable water supplies directing political strategies and conflicts over the next century. That could have earned a larger chapter, similar to the discussion of the topic in Empires of Food, as it’s going to be a significant issue all over the world, including in the southern half of the United States. I also wish Standage had spent some time discussing the chemistry of each beverage, or more details of its production; he focuses far more on the history aspect of each drink than the scientific or culinary angles. The idea of “notes” in different beverages, widely used in discussions of wine but popping up more and more in reviews of beers, coffees, and even chocolates, derives from the differing chemical composition of the raw materials, which is usually a function of the soil and temperature where those materials grow. Those specific characteristics help drive the higher ends of the markets for each product, which in turn represents a path for coffee and cocoa farmers (and perhaps farmers of other crops) in developing countries to earn an actual living from their work, the kind of economic development that Standage discusses in a historical context in his six primary sections.

Next up: I’m about a quarter of the way through Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. I’m not sure this lawsuit is ever going to be settled.

The Audacity of Hops.

Klawchat today at 1 pm ET.

Tom Acitelli’s The Audacity of Hops: The History of America’s Craft Beer Revolution is as comprehensive a history of the topic as I could possibly imagine, sometimes to the detriment of the book’s flow (pun intended), but also a totally fascinating look at one of the country’s greatest entrepreneurial and cultural success stories. Acitelli goes back to the movement’s origins in the 1960s, when Anchor was the nation’s only craft brewer by any reasonable definition of the term, and follows it through legal challenges, the need to educate the consumer, and some truly disgraceful behavior by executives at Big Beer (mostly Anheuser-Busch) on to the present-day climate where the U.S. is by far the world’s leader in both variety and innovation in the craft beer market. If you enjoy craft beer, as I do, this is an absolute must-read.

Acitelli’s initial section, where he describes Fritz Maytag’s takeover of the floundering Anchor brewery in San Francisco as well as other early startup efforts like Jack McAuliffe’s New Albion, spoke to me more than any other part of the book because it reflected so well my own experiences with beer. I grew up thinking I hated beer; I’d had Big Beer at various times, but despised every sip – it was watery and bitter and acrid with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. I thought it was what you drank to get drunk, or at least to seem older because you were drinking something forbidden, but never thought of beer as something you would drink because you liked it. When I was in college in the early ’90s, Sam Adams (the flagship beer of the Boston Beer Company, whose founder, Jim Koch, is one of the central characters in Audacity) was popular locally and was the first beer I’d tried and liked, or at least didn’t hate, although it wasn’t quite enough to convince me that I could like beer as a class of beverages. I was always a liquor drinker, rum and gin primarily, as well as the occasional hard cider (although many of those were too sweet, like wine coolers for people who didn’t want to be caught drinking wine coolers).

What I eventually learned, past the age of 30, was that I liked many styles of beer – just not the style promulgated by Big Beer, generally described as pale lagers or pilsners, but made in huge quantities from inferior ingredients. I love darker, richer-bodied beers – stouts and porters, of course, but also bocks, brown ales, amber ales, and even the lagers called Oktoberfest beers which are darker and have more complex flavors than pilsners. I started as a Guinness drinker, and still am to some degree – it’s a rare Big Beer brand I can get behind, along with Newcastle Brown Ale – but over the past six or seven years have found myself drinking more and more craft beers, as much for the adventure of trying new labels and styles as for the beers themselves.

The Audacity of Hops filled in countless gaps in my knowledge of the history of the styles and breweries I’ve enjoyed, starting with Anchor Porter, one of my favorite porters and, as it turns out, one of Maytag’s most important contributions to beer culture: Porter was dead as a style until Maytag brought it back. (Maytag’s great-grandfather founded the appliance maker, and his father founded the dairy farm that produces Maytag blue cheese makers as well. Pretty good bloodlines there.) He also served as the craft beer movement’s first apostle, although adherents traveled to him more than he did to them, and he was helped by English beer advocate and journalist Michael Jackson, who was among the first to sing Anchor’s praises. Maytag opened his doors to other would-be homebrewers, many of whom went on to start craft breweries of their own. Acitelli walks through what feels like every one of their stories, from those that folded, like New Albion, to ongoing success stories like Sierra Nevada (founded in 1980), Mendocino (1984), and Alaska Brewing (1986).

The book careens from story to story in Acitelli’s attempt to cover as much of the movement as possible, including as many startup stories, both of breweries and brewbups, as he can. Sometimes that is a necessary evil, such as his section on the founding of Delaware’s Dogfish Head brewery, the first serious “extreme beer” brewery, adding unusual ingredients to its beers or otherwise using unorthodox tricks with traditional styles – such as adding hops every minute during the hourlong brewing of its highly-regarded 60-minute IPA. But other times Acitelli mentions the openings of breweries or pubs that didn’t last and had no significant impact on the movement. A craft brewery that was the first in its particular state is not notable for that reason alone, and the book could have focused more on the leading figures in the movement – Maytag, Koch, Jackson, McAuliffe, Garrett Oliver of Brooklyn Brewery, and others – while losing some of the breadth of the coverage. Acitelli’s research work here is remarkable, given the number of people he must have had to track down for interviews, but the book takes a good 60-70 pages to get rolling because of the disjointed structure that bounces us back and forth between breweries and characters throughout the book’s length.

Next up: Back to the classics with Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, which will probably occupy me for the next two weeks or more.

Nashville eats, 2012 edition.

I ate really, really well in Nashville this week, which is what happens when you get the hell out of the Opryland Hotel, itself a testament to what happens when capitalism’s DNA mutates and reproduces out of control. Over the last five years it seems that Nashville has had a culinary boom, and I had more places I wanted to visit than I could have gotten to in a week.

Our first big group dinner was Monday night at City House, one of the most-recommended restaurants in Nashville by those of you who live there, and one of the most enjoyable meals I have ever had when you combine the food and the company at the table. Because of the size of our party, we were served family-style, which had the benefit of allowing us to all try more items. I thought two items really stood out above everything else: the belly ham pizza and the bread gnocchi. We tried all four pizzas on the menu, with the anchovy pizza the only disappointment, but the belly ham pizza with fresh mozzarella, oregano, and a pretty healthy dose of red chili flakes was incredible, from the light, almost cracker-like crust to the bacon-like pork to the bright, creamy cheese. The gnocchi, without potato as traditional gnocchi would have, were the best I’ve ever eaten (caveat: potato gnocchi don’t thrill me) and are served with a scant tomato sauce, braised pork butt, and grana padano (essentially Parmiggiano-Reggiano from cows near but not in that specific region). That’s the dish everyone was talking about the next morning. The octopus starter everyone’s joked about was just fair, cooked correctly (that is, not till it was a spare tire) but still not that pleasant a texture and without the powerful flavors to stand up to the fish. I loved the rigatoni with rabbit sugo and fennel, kind of like a duck ragout with big flavors from the aromatics and tomato. That night’s special dessert was a chocolate-peanut butter pie that would put Reese’s out of business.

Tuesday night’s dinner included at least 16 of us from the media side at the Pharmacy Burger Bar and Bier Garden, one of the best burger places I have ever visited. Their burgers are made with Tennessee-grown beef and served on stark white rolls that are as soft as potato bread and are custom-baked for the Pharmacy. They hand-cut their fries, including skin-on sweet potato fries served without that annoying sugar topping so many places use or any tricks to make them crispier, and they serve their own tater tots, which might have been an even bigger hit than the burgers. They also had a strong selection of regional beers, including the Nashville-brewed Yazoo Gerst Amber beer, so smooth it went down almost like soda and might be too mild for folks who are more serious about their beer than I am. As for the burgers, most of us went for their signature item, the Farm Burger, with bacon, country ham, and a fried egg on top, which is a top five burger for me at this point.

We ventured out to two new lunch places, Fido and Marché. Fido is related to the Bongo Java coffee shop and retains that coffee-shop vibe even when serving sandwiches or fish entrees like the trout special I ordered, along with a cinnamon cheesecake that Jonah Keri said was to die for and a chocolate-chocolate chip cookie that also really strong. Marche offers a duck confit sandwich about which one probably needs to say little more, because really, it’s some damn good duck confit. Molly Knight ordered a latte which was large enough to drown an orangutan. Both places were worth hitting again, especially because they gave us a chance to eat somewhat more healthful items in expectation of big dinners.

On the way to the airport I made a detour to revisit Arnold’s Country Kitchen, a meat-and-three place that seems to rate as Nashville’s best and where I had a great meal back in 2007. The meats change every day as do about half of the sides available; Thursday’s options included roast beef, while mashed potatoes and turnip greens (with ham hock) appear to always be options. One of the special sides that day was fried green tomatoes, about four-inch discs breaded with seasoned bread crumbs and quickly deep-fried. They’re not good for you – none of this is – but the salty-sour combo was surprisingly satisfying. For dessert, they offered four different kinds of pies plus a few other options. The hot pepper chocolate pie wasn’t very popular but I’d gladly eat that again – the filling had the texture of a dense mousse and the flavor of half-cooked brownies, and once you finished a bite, a warm heat took over from what I assume was cayenne pepper. A meat, three sides, bread (which I skipped), dessert, and a drink ran about $13 and I was full for the whole flight back to Arizona.

Finally, the headline meal of the trip was at The Catbird Seat, named one of the ten best new restaurants in the U.S. this year by Bon Appetit. This was the most expensive meal I have ever eaten, and one of the longest at over four hours and nine-plus courses. It’s a set tasting menu, and the food tends toward the experimental – not quite Alinea territory but along the same philosophical lines. All of the courses hit the mark save one, and I was challenged by a number of the dishes to rethink ingredients or flavors. If you’re not interested in a $150+ meal that goes on for days, feel free to stop reading here – that’s why I’m covering this last. Also, each dish comes with a wine pairing, which the sommelier introduces and explains in some depth, but as the group’s driver I skipped this part.

* The meal began with quarter-sized ‘oreos’ made of a parmiggiano cream or mousse sandwiched between two slices of porcini mushrooms, producing a gustatory dissonance as my palate kept expecting sweet. The point of this starter, other than just being playful, became evident later on.

* The first actual course was a trio of one-bite items, including a raw Island Creek oyster with kimchi and a lime foam, a “cracker jack” using shiitake mushrooms roasted until crunchy, and a rectangle of chicken skin baked until crunchy and topped with ground red pepper for a twist on Nashville hot chicken. That’s the first raw oyster I’ve ever eaten, incidentally – growing up on Long Island during a time when raw oysters were quite dangerous to eat, I had no exposure to them and had (have?) a long-standing bias against raw shellfish of any sort. The faux cracker jack was the best item here, combining the earthiness of the mushroom with the hint of sweetness and crunch you’d expect from something that looks like caramel corn.

* Second course was a diver scallop crudo, sliced thinly, served with their own dashi, smoked roe of Arctic char, crumbled chicken skin, lime juice, finely minced serrano chiles, soy sauce, and shiso leaves. As complex as that sounded, and even looked, the end result was perfectly balanced and nothing overshadowed the scallop itself. This was also one of the largest portions of the night.

* Third course was a soup of roasted sunchoke and caramelized yogurt, poured tableside over a quarter of an artichoke heart, shaved roasted fennel, black olive, black garlic, and a tiny bit of black truffle. Cooked yogurt is very much not my friend, but the texture of the soup was unreal, like double cream, and the roasted sunchokes gave it the appearance of a rich light-brown roux with hints of sweetness and a nutmeg-like spice.

* Fourth course was Arctic char with cream cheese gnudi, dill-infused oil, pureed Meyer lemon (rind and all, apparently), capers, and sorrel leaves. I love Arctic char, a fish nearly indistinguishable from salmon, but prefer it cooked a little past medium rare; this was practically swimming upstream. The gnudi, marble-sized spheres of (I presume) cream cheese with just enough flour to give them structure, had the texture of potato gnocchi and just a hint of the tang from the cheese so that they could soak up some of the dill flavor below them. (Gnudi means “nude” in Italian and refers to a filling cooked without its pasta wrapper.)

* Fifth course was probably the restaurant’s signature dish, roasted pigeon leg, served with the claw still on it, along with a celeriac ribbon, smoked butter, cured egg yolk, chestnut purée, and huckleberry reduction, with the last two items perhaps a play on peanut butter and jelly. Pigeon (usually marketed here as “squab,” for obvious reasons) was another first for me, here cooked rare with a flavor like that of a duck breast with a texture a little closer to a rare lamb rib chop. The chesnut purée stole a fair bit of the show, though, with the crisped skin of the pigeon also standing out.

* Sixth course was a large medallion of rare “Wagyu” beef ribeye with roasted Belgian endive, little spheres of Asian pear, roasted maitake mushroom, and walnut butter. This was by far the most generous portion of the night, but a little tricky to eat with all the components in one bite, in part because the beef, while tender, wasn’t quite that “like butter” consistency I’d expect from that particular cut. (There’s also a lack of labelling standards for “Wagyu” beef, but I’ll trust that the Catbird Seat is at least buying very high-quality inputs.) Getting a sphere of anything the size of a large marble on to the fork with four other elements is nearly impossible, even though the fruit’s mild sweetness was a perfect complement to the various savory elements. Great ideas here, but perhaps not fully executed.

* Seventh course was the one whiff for me, Rush Creek Reserve cheese with a curried granola, rose-water honey, and apricot jam. The cheese looks like mayonnaise and had a heavy, cheddar-y flavor that I simply don’t like. It’s supposed to be one of the best domestic cheese around, so I’m chalking this up to my specific palate and not the dish itself, although Jonah expressed his dislike of the curried granola, which I probably could eat by the bowl.

* From there we move to desserts, three plates although they’re listed on the menu as just two courses. Course 8A was a play on coffee and tea, with coffee ice cream, molasses cake, rooibos (red tea) foam, and a hazelnut and coffee crumb, just insanely good across the board, a dessert where everything was sweet but nothing was too sweet, and a great way to show off the complexity of rooibos’ flavor. (I happen to love the stuff, and especially like to drink it when I’m sick because it has no caffeine.) Course 8B was a maple-thyme flan-like custard cooked in an egg shell with a maple glaze on top and a single stick of bacon protruding from the top – an egg-and-bacon dish that implied there were pancakes on the plate that required the use of maple syrup.

* The ninth course was the most impressive dessert from an execution perspective: charred oak ice cream, vanilla cake, pineapple gelée, and bourbon balls – bourbon encapsulated in a very soft gel so they’d explode in your mouth almost on contact. The ice cream here was smoky but also had subtle flavors that reminded me of caramel, coffee, and of course whiskey, and its texture was as smooth as that of good gelato.

* Finally, another small plate of three Oreo-like items appeared, but this time, they’re sweet, with chocolate wafers and a vanilla cream. They don’t taste anything like the real thing, but speaking as a devout chocoholic, I appreciated the hit of bitter cocoa at the end of the meal.

Someone in Nashville asked me if I preferred the meal at City House or the one at the Catbird Seat but I struggled to compare them. City House is pretty straightforward upscale cuisine – recognizable dishes, done well from start to finish, using fresh, local ingredients with outstanding execution. You will also leave there stuffed. Catbird Seat is experimental and challenging; it isn’t food to be consumed so much as it’s food to be considered. Your preference would likely depend on what you prefer. Catbird Seat is doing things very few restaurants outside of New York, LA, and Chicago are doing, and that makes it the “better” restaurant, the place I’d absolutely take my wife for a special occasion or a client I wanted to blow out of the water. On the other hand, if my goal was to go have a boisterous meal with nine friends, which was what we did on Monday night, I’d take City House. You can’t lose either way.

Hawai’i eats.

I’ve got posts up for Insiders on the Hanson-Walden trade and the Span-Meyer trade, and did a Klawchat yesterday as well.

I’d never set foot in Hawai’i before our vacation there last week, so we spent a lot of time getting oriented and didn’t really start nailing the culinary tourism until the fourth or fifth day there, after which point I found a bunch of spots worth recommending. I’ll get to the food in a moment, but first some quick thoughts on touring Kauai and Oahu in general:

* Kauai was gorgeous; we spent five days there at the Marriott Beach Club in Lihue (everything was via Rewards Points), which has a great pool, including a kiddie pool with a slide, and a beach on a large, calm lagoon. The rooms were nothing special at all, and the food all over the hotel was overpriced. The biggest lesson for us was that it was worthwhile to rent a car at least for a day or two – we drove to Waimea Canyon, also called the Grand Canyon of the Pacific; and Kalalau Point, which overlooks the Napali coast and the northwest shore of the island. The car also allowed us to tour the Kauai Coffee plantation, visit the Koloa Rum Company (and buy a bottle of their dark – pricey at $30, but smooth with a bright vanilla finish), and do a little more shopping.

* The big shocker on Oahu was the traffic – I can see why there’s a local push for a light-rail line into the western suburbs, because traffic on I-H1 (an “interstate” highway) is pretty brutal, and there seemed to be no enforcement of HOV lane restrictions. We stayed out at Ko Olina, so the car was a necessity, and also drove to Sea Life Park so my wife could swim with a dolphin, which was a longtime wish of hers. I can understand people who skip Oahu entirely and fly straight to Maui or Kauai, though – the scenic parts of Oahu are a hike from Honolulu.

I’ve got two food spots to recommend on Oahu, plus one that’s great if you’re up for the price. The Whole Ox Deli isn’t actually a deli but is more of a lunch counter with picnic tables, and reminded me in many ways of our favorite Arizona haunt, The Hillside Spot, for the focus on sourcing local ingredients and making everything from scratch. The Whole Ox got its start via Kickstarter, which raised funds for a smoker that they use to smoke pork shoulder for their pulled pork sandwich, although I ended up getting the porchetta sandwich with cracklins, mustardy mayo, and caramelized fennel, everything in perfect balance on a soft baguette. The fried potatoes are like grown-up french fires, skin-on red potatoes halved or quartered, either steamed or parboiled (I assume) and then fried till brown and crispy all over. This was absolutely worth fighting our way into downtown Honolulu to visit.

So was Downtown Coffee, which is located in the Fort Street Mall, a tiny shop run by a husband-and-wife team who roast their coffees every Saturday and sell a handful of artisan pastries including a matcha torte with bamboo charcoal crust that defied any expectation I’d had – it’s sweet but subtle, without the bitter grassy taste I associate with matcha. As for the coffee, I had a cup of their downtown blend and liked it enough to buy a 7 ounce bag of their beans to try at home as espresso, as well as a smaller bag of their lighter Maui Mokka peaberry roast, on the owner’s suggestion. He was kind enough to spend about 10-15 minutes walking me through all their roasts, showing me samples of five different ones to discuss their qualities for espresso, and even gave me a sample of another drip coffee for comparison’s sake. I’ve already finished off the Maui Mokka, which produced a very smooth shot with a strong crema, a little less assertively acidic than the lighter African roasts I’ve gotten from Intelligentsia.

The one pricey meal we had on Oahu was the result of me being a company man and visiting Disney’s Aulani resort to try their dinner buffet at Makahiki. The resort is gorgeous inside, reminiscent in style of Disney’s Polynesian Resort but more updated with more open space inside. I generally avoid buffets, with two exceptions – Las Vegas and Disney, where the quality is higher and the turnover is faster. Makahiki’s buffet was very broad, with a raw fish table that included poke, sashimi, and oysters on the half-shell; cooked shellfish, including red snow crab legs; a wide selection of meat and vegetable dishes, including Hawaiian purple sweet potatoes both steamed and fried tempura-style; and a dessert table that had molten chocolate cakes that were more molten than cake, making it a great dipping sauce for the fresh berries on the next table. For a buffet, it was great. It also runs $46 per adult and $21 per child, so even with my employee discount we still dropped over $100, including two drinks and tip. They did have a full selection of local beers from Kona, including the Big Wave Golden Ale which had a very pronounced citrus flavor and virtually no bitterness.

Moving over to Kauai, the best meal option at the Marriott is the overpriced Duke’s, which earns raves for a salad bar that is really just a nice salad bar. Their fish was very fresh, and I liked their basmati rice pilaf, but the “hula pie” dessert is incredibly overrated, probably more famous for its size than its taste. We fared much better heading across Rice St to the Feral Pig, a fairly new spot with no ambience but amazing food, including house-smoked bacon and pulled pork and a solid selection of local beers as well. They hand-cut their French fries and incorporate pork belly into a number of dishes, including two specials I ordered – the potstickers, made by hand and fried just until hot through without drying the pork out, and the special burger with half Kauai-raised beef and half pork belly as well as bacon on top. I asked how they cured the bacon, and the owner said he used a recipe from one of Michael Ruhlman’s books, although they don’t use sodium nitrite, so the bacon is grey rather than pink and has a porkier flavor. Everything was excellent and it was about half of what we’d pay for inferior food at the hotel.

Lappert’s is a local ice cream chain with four locations on Kauai and two on other islands. Try the Kauai Pie, Kona coffee ice cream with fudge swirl, coconut flakes, and macadamia nuts. I never tried another flavor because why bother. Next to the Lappert’s in Hanapepe is a new-ish looking taco stand called Paco’s Tacos, which makes outstanding carnitas, slow-cooked but crispy on the outside, probably deep-fried once it’s done cooking but so, so good. The only disappointment was the guacamole, made fresh but lacking salt and acid for me. It’s a good one-two combo if you remember to save room for ice cream.

I had an interesting twist on poke at the Hanalei Dolphin restaurant in Hanalei, down towards Poipu, near a shop my wife wanted to visit. Two kinds of raw fish (one was ahi) and some cooked prawns were tossed in a coconut-lemongrass sauce that threatened to overpower the fish but never quite got there, served over a bed of mixed greens with some root-vegetable chips on the side (taro and purple sweet potato, I think) if you’d rather not use a fork. I only had poke three times on the trip, never at a truly local spot like a good fish market, so I can only say that this had the best overall flavor but I can’t speak to its authenticity.

My final recommendation is the Saturday morning farmers’ market at Kauai Community College, right near Lihue and next door to the Koloa Rum Company. The fresh fruit there was out of sight – large, juicy starfruits with orange flesh and a subtle sweet-citrus flavor; papayas with reddish-orange flesh that were also bursting with sugar; plus huge jackfruits, apple bananas, pineapple, and more than we could hope to try. We did buy some butterscotch roasted macadamia nuts from the Kauai Nut Roasters and jams from Monkeypod, but had to pass on the desserts offered by one vendor whose name I can’t find – she had a lilikoi (passion fruit) custard that was absolutely incredible but would have spoiled in the car since we were headed out to the Canyon.

One more note – several readers recommended a noodle shop called Hamura Saimin in downtown Lihue, but after talking to several locals, I passed. Every person I asked said the shop uses too much MSG in their broth, and that the place isn’t very clean, which is about the one non-food-related variable that I care about when deciding where to eat. I also read a few reviews that mentioned the use of a Spam knockoff in some of their soups, and I won’t touch that stuff, even if it is a local tradition. Meat doesn’t come from cans.