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…

Saturday five, 8/1/15.

So I was kind of busy this week, writing these pieces for Insiders on the major trades leading up to Friday’s trade deadline.

Yoenis Cespedes to the Mets
Mike Leake to San Francisco
Latos/Olivera/Wood three-team trade
David Price to Toronto
Joakim Soria to Pittsburgh
Carlos Gomez/Mike Fiers to Houston
Brandon Moss to St. Louis
Cole Hamels to Texas
Jonathan Papelbon to Washington
Ben Zobrist to Kansas City
Troy Tulowitzki to Toronto
Tyler Clippard to the Mets
Johnny Cueto to Kansas City
Several smaller trades
The Mets/Carlos Gomez trade that didn’t happen

I also have a scouting post up on some Mets and Yankees AA prospects.

And now, the links… saturdayfive

  • Earlier this month, a fan at a Brewers game was hit in the face by a line drive, severely injuring her and missing killing her by centimeters. There’s a fundraising page for her medical bills if you’d like to donate.
  • Twitter is now hiding plagiarized jokes and other tweets if the original authors file complaints. It’s a minor issue compared to some of the abuse hurled at women and minorities on Twitter, but I’ll take any step toward greater editorial control on Twitter as a positive.
  • Molly Knight talked to Lasorda’s Lair about her book on the Dodgers and her history of anxiety disorder. If you haven’t yet, you should buy her book.
  • The Shreveport Times has a sharp opinion piece on how the Lafayette massacre won’t change anything. The piece specifically singles out Louisiana’s “weak and non-existent gun control.” It’s on us, though; you vote for candidates who take money from the NRA, this is what you get. If you don’t like it, get out there and campaign for the other side.
  • Is the song “Happy Birthday” still protected by copyright? It appears it may not be, although we’ll need the judge’s ruling to be sure. There’s a big fight coming in 2018 over expiring copyrights, one that puts me (in favor of putting many older works in the public domain) on the opposite side from my employer (Disney, which has a fair concern about Mickey Mouse falling into p.d.).
  • The Fibonacci shelf takes the mathematical sequence and turns it into stackable furniture. I want this.
  • Three “next-level” recipes for rum punch. That first one, a planter’s punch with homemade grenadine, sounds right up my alley; planter’s punch is the first strong (may I say “grown-up?”) cocktail I liked.
  • Go ahead, be sarcastic, at least with people you know well: it can boost creative thinking, according to a new study by three business school professors.
  • A fantastic profile of prodigy turned mathematician Terry Tao, considered (per the piece) “the finest mathematician of his generation,” and more broadly a piece on number theory. I share Tao’s love of the original computer game Civilization and the difficulty in putting it aside; it occupied a huge portion of the fall semester of my junior year of college, unfortunately. That said, it kills me that the article’s author felt that “prime number” required a definition. You shouldn’t be able to get to high school without knowing what that means.

New York City eats, 2014 edition.

The highlight meal of the trip, and the one big splurge, was a recommendation by Sother Teague at Amor y Amargo, whose establishment I’ll discuss in a moment. Sother directed me to the tasting menu at Hearth, which is only* $86 for a seven-course meal that showed incredible skill and breadth within the farm-to-table genre.

* I say “only” because this kind of meal can easily cost you north of $100, and I think the only thing Hearth’s tasting menu lacked was flash.

The meal started with an amuse-bouche, a chilled carrot soup with blackberry-balsamic drizzle on top, served in a tall narrow glass to allow you to drink the soup in one or two shots. The first proper course was also a chilled soup, this one a zucchini soup with pistachios, sun gold tomato, basil, and chunks of Parmiggiano-Reggiano. The zucchini was pureed and slightly aerated; I assume there was cream added given the soup’s tremendous body, but that much fat would have muted the flavor, and in this case there was no dampening of the taste of the squash itself at all. The nuts and small chunks of cheese are sprinkled throughout the soup, emphasizing the textural contrast – and I can’t say I ever realized what a great combination pistachios and zucchini would make until I had this soup. I was hoping I could get a gallon of this to go as a parting gift, but no such luck.

Second course was my favorite of all seven savory courses: a warm summer vegetable salad with a red wine vinegar/shallot dressing that reminded me in flavor of a buerre blanc, but in fact was made by simmering potatoes and then using some of them to thicken the dressing and coat the remaining vegetables, which included green beans, more zucchini, and cauliflower. People who think they don’t like vegetables should go eat this dish. I’ve never had a vegetable dish with this much flavor that didn’t involve cooking the vegetables to the point where they brown.

The next three courses involved proteins, and each was very good to great. The swordfish dish with eggplant, tomatoes, shelling beans, and black bean puree had two issues for me, although the fish itself was perfectly cooked – by far the most important part. I personally like swordfish served very simply: grilled, topped with sea salt, fresh black pepper, a little olive oil, and citrus juice. The way steak lovers want a fine steak is how I want my swordfish – don’t get in the way of the star ingredient. The other issue was that the eggplant was very soft, too much so, and I ended up setting it aside. The restaurant was dark enough that when the dish arrived, one strip of eggplant with a little of the skin and cap still on the end … well, I’ll just say it didn’t look very appetizing, because this isn’t Top Chef.

The lamb dish involved two different cuts, including a small piece of lamb rib meat that had been rubbed with Middle Eastern spices, smoked off the bone, and seared on both sides, giving it the look and texture of Texas BBQ but with the flavor profile of Turkish or Arabic cuisine. The remaining lamb pieces were slices of loin, served very rare, with roasted carrots and a smear of labneh (Lebanese strained yogurt) underneath. I wouldn’t have ordered this because lamb is my least favorite protein, but as it turned out the dish was fantastic and my only complaint is that I wanted more of the smoked rib (even if it meant less of the loin meat). The carrots were coated in some amaranth kernels, giving the dish a little more crunch – kind of like quinoa but without the bitterness.

Their “iconic” (that was my server’s word for it) meatball dish was very good, but I’m a tough critic on meatballs and I think I’ve had better, including Coppa in Boston … and in my own kitchen. The meatball comprises veal and ricotta, served in a traditional southern Italian tomato sauce (don’t call it “gravy,” please) with cannelloni filled with “market greens.” I prefer meatballs that have been browned more, to max out that Maillard reaction, and like a mixture of meats that isn’t so veal-heavy because veal is so lean that the proteins in it can tighten up when cooked through, as a meatball has to be, and there’s always a slightly dry mouthfeel because of that lack of fat.

The first dessert course was more like a palate cleanser, a watermelon granita with a tiny quenelle of creme fraiche and some toasted pine nuts. It looks like pink rock salt, so the fact that it’s subtle and sweet and cold is a big surprise – and, as with the pistachios and zucchinis, the pine nuts and watermelon worked shockingly well together.

The second dessert was the memorable one, as in I’ll remember eating this for the next twenty years. It was a chocolate-peanut butter sundae, without ice cream: Chocolate sorbet on soft whipped cream on a peanut-butter sauce, surrounded by a crumbled peanut butter cookie. Sure, you could make the whipped cream and cookie at home, and the sauce is probably doable (it was smooth like caramel), but that sorbet – I don’t know how you get something that dark and cocoa-intense without dairy or eggs. Grom in the west Village does a chocolate sorbet with egg yolks, but I think Hearth’s is just sorbet, based on what two staff members told me. Speaking of which, everyone I spoke to there was wonderful – I ended up chatting with a few of them up front before leaving and they’ve clearly done a good job assembling a team full of good people.

I visited two cocktail bars while in the city, one of which was the aforementioned Amor y Amargo, Sother Teague’s 240 square foot place in the East Village where he stocks no juices or other mixers. It’s all spirits and bitters – liquors, liqueurs, potable bitters (like Campari or Aperol), and the little flavoring agents you probably think of when you hear “bitters” (like Angostura or Peychaud’s). Sother’s good people, so if you go and you see him behind the bar, mention I sent you. I tried two of his drinks, one his own suggestion – a mixture of three varieties of whiskeys, finished with a habanero bitters, so the result was like standing over a grill on which you’re smoking a pork shoulder over hickory. It’s a really cool space too, and most of the bitters are out on display – I’d never heard of more than half of the brands, and Sother told me he’s got a dozen or so bottles of stuff that’s no longer made or otherwise very difficult to procure. If you’re also a fan of Amor y Amargo, you can vote for Sother in Edible Manhattan’s Cocktail Contest, which runs through August 31st. The winner gets a $5000 prize.

After recommending Hearth, Sother also recommended Pouring Ribbons, a hidden bar on Avenue B just off 14th, in Alphabet City, so well disguised it might as well be a speakeasy. (The password is to be very nice to the guy at the door.) I got one drink, because when I’d finished that I couldn’t feel the tip of my nose, generally a sign that the libation has done its job. The Trouble in Paradise cocktail starts with Appleton V/X rum, probably my favorite rum for mixing, and adds a charred pineapple-infused rum, sweet vermouth, and campari – a small upgrade on a Kingston Negroni. For a drink that was all alcohol, it was surprisingly subtle, even understated – the booze doesn’t overpower the rest of the drink. It’s rich, well-rounded, a little smoky, a little sweet (I find rum in general is a little sweet, as if it has memories of whence it came), better than any true Negroni I’ve ever had – and I do like true Negronis, which are made with gin rather than rum.

While in the neighborhood one of those nights, I stopped into the renowned Big Gay Ice Cream shop to see what the fuss was about … and I was underwhelmed. It’s decent soft serve ice cream, served with lots of crappy toppings. You can’t make premium ice cream and then coat it in stale grocery-store marshmallows – but that’s just what I ended up with when I ordered the Rocky Roadhouse cone. You can build your own cone or sundae, but the use of subpar ingredients is a big negative for me.

Whenever I’m at Citi Field and can sneak away long enough for lunch, I take the 7 train one more stop to its end in Flushing’s Chinatown, which seems to get bigger and busier every time I go there. I usually go for a dish of steamed dumplings (xiao long baozi), which is a popular item in that neighborhood and the kind of thing that can serve as a meal in itself. The serious eats blog had a few posts extolling the virtues of a small basement food stall called Tianjin Dumpling House in the Golden Mall, located down Main Street towards 41st Ave, which serves an absolute bargain of a dozen dumplings for $3-6 total. The pork, shrimp, and chive version didn’t seem to have much shrimp, but the pork and chives were well seasoned and juicy without any grease. The dough wrappers were just thick enough to retain a little tooth and didn’t tear or leak, but not so much so that they came out gummy or undercooked.

Their dumplings were much better than those at the very popular table-service restaurant Nan Xiang Dumpling House on Prince Street, which took much longer to get (even for take-out). Theirs are soup dumplings, so inside the wrapper is a tablespoon or so of broth that bursts (or slops) out when you bite into it – on to your shirt if you’re not careful. The tradeoff is you get less filling, and since their servings are only a half-dozen to an order, I added an order of vegetable dumplings, which were filled mostly with spinach. Unfortunately, I found a hair in the container of the latter – not actually in the dumplings, but still a hit to the confidence even though the place has an A rating from the board of health.

I almost never go into NYC without hitting up at least one pizzeria, and tried two from that old Food and Wine list of the country’s best pizzerias … neither of which was all that special. Don Antonio by Starita, which is partly owned by the co-owner of my favorite pizzeria in the city, Keste, is VPN certified for authenticity, but I thought the crust was too thick in the center for that. The dough was otherwise the strength of the pizza, though, with good texture and just a little charring around the outside. I went with one of their signature combinations, a pistachio pesto and sausage pizza with mozzarella but no tomatoes or sauce; the pesto itself was kind of heavy and gave the pizza a nut butter-like flavor that just didn’t seem to belong on a pizza. I’d like to try this place again with a more traditional set of toppings to see if the dough holds up better under a lighter load.

Nicoletta, also in the east village area, was a big disappointment – their pizza is a hybrid of New York-style and Italian-style but doesn’t grab the best traits of either of them. The crust was crispier and held its shape when pulled off the plate, with very little lift at the edges. The tomato sauce tasted overcooked and acidic, and there was grease on the top like you’d expect at a mediocre pizza shop. I can’t imagine why it was on Food and Wine‘s list.

Atlanta eats, 2014 edition.

I’m starting with the least famous of the three restaurants where I had dinner, The Lawrence, where the kitchen is run by former Richard Blais protege Chef Mark Nanna. The Lawrence’s menu focuses on local produce in southern-influenced dishes, many straightforward, a few with clever twists, but all easily recognizable to diners who aren’t familiar with (or, God forbid, fans of) Blais’ more experimental style.

I went with small plates at the Lawrence, rather than the very reasonably priced entrees (none over $26), so I could sample more items, which turned out to be a great call because I ended up with a pair of superb salads along with one meat course and one fish. The first salad was the kale “seasar,” using fried smelt as the croutons rather than mixing anchovies into the dressing (which isn’t authentic anyway), so the dish had that umami component but without the stale croutons you’re probably used to finding in most Caesars. The mixed radish salad was a small portion of thinly shaved radishes, including daikon and Cherry Belle, with a light lemon/celery seed dressing, slighty bitter but balanced by the acidity of the lemon juice, and generally a good representation of early spring produce on the plate.

For proteins, I couldn’t pass on the tuna tartare, the Lawrence’s twist on the familiar “spicy tuna” abomination found at most sushi places, where you get the scrapings left over after the tuna fillets are sliced for nigiri, all tossed in spicy mayonnaise so you no longer taste the fish. The Lawrence’s version has diced tuna mixed with a scallion mayonnaise and a spicy sambal sauce, but the fish’s flavor and texture remains at the front of the dish, with the heat from the chili coming afterwards, balanced out from the fat in the mayonnaise. It’s served under a hilariously large rice cracker that doubles as your serving spoon when broken into bits. My server said the baby back ribs starter was their most popular dish (of the small plates, I assume): served with a sriracha glaze, pickled chili peppers, and cilantro leaves, they are fiery, but I was most impressed by how the meat tore right off the bone without falling apart itself, retaining sufficient tooth to give that primal satisfaction that only meat can provide.

And that led me to dessert, my favorite dish of the meal, a chocolate tart with spiced nuts, cinnamon/sugar ice cream, and honey. The tart itself reminded me of one of my favorite packaged cookies from when I was a kid, even though I’m sure I’d despise them now: Stella d’Oro Swiss Fudge cookies, a shortbread thumbprint cookie with a creamy milk chocolate filling. (Fellow New York natives may remember their “no cookies?” commercials, as well as the “breakfast treats” commercial parodied by Patton Oswalt.) Anyway, the Lawrence’s version is a trillion times better – a perfect shortcrust tart with a dark chocolate filling, curried crushed peanuts, and a quenelle of vanilla ice cream with a faint cinnamon flavor. The crust was the revelation, crumbly but not brittle, easy to break into pieces without shattering all over the plate, and the chocolate was dark enough for my tastes but I don’t think it would turn off people who prefer milk chocolate to bittersweet. The entire meal, all five plates, was about $44 before tip.

The first meal I had in Atlanta was dinner at Hugh Acheson’s Empire State South, where Kiley McDaniel and I opted for the six-course tasting menu rather than trying to pick and choose from all the appealing menu items. It was too much food overall for me, but I didn’t care for the dessert option (personal tastes, nothing wrong with it) so I stopped there. The meal started with an oyster shooter as an amuse-bouche, then led into the one vegetarian course, a salad of beets and strawberries, with house-made ricotta, candied pecans, rhubarb, burnt honey, and bee pollen – a lot going on, but the dish was primarily about the beets and strawberries, with the rhubarb (pickled, if I remember correctly) providing some acidic to balance the sweetness of the two central ingredients. That was followed by the catfish sausage, which was … well, exactly what you’d expect, served over a smoked catfish crème fraiche. Fish sausage is peculiar, I think because lifelong carnivores have programmed their brains to expect a different set of flavors and textures when presented with something that looks like sausage, but this version had that mild, freshly-caught catfish flavor – not “fishy” in the pejorative sense, but I do find even very fresh catfish to have that sort of creek flavor that marks it as fish. It benefited from the searing that’s visible in the photo below.

Jumping forward a little bit, after a seared flounder dish and a “stuffed” quail with andouille sausage (not really astuffed so much as served-with, still very good), we got to the star of the meal: Medium-rare New York strip steak served over braised short ribs. I don’t often eat cow, but when I do, this is what I want, the best-quality beef cooked two ways, both superbly, and in ways that complemented each other, particularly the slightly tannic note from the short ribs (which may have been cooked in red wine, although I don’t think the menu or server said).

Oh, and I can’t forget the cocktail of choice, the Circuit Hymn: Bourbon, Rainwater Madeira (a lighter, drier variation of regular Madeira), vanilla liqueur, and orange & chocolate bitters, served in an old-fashioned glass with one enormous ice cube. I’m not a straight bourbon drinker, but the combination here amplified bourbon’s better qualities and tempered the smoke note that has always dominated aged whiskeys to my palate.

The third dinner was back to Blais’ place, the Spence, where I’ve spent enough time that my server recognized me from last April. The Spence is conveniently located within walking distance of Georgia Tech’s baseball field, so I was able to sneak in there for a dinner of a few small plates and still make it into the stadium in time for Luke Weaver’s first pitch. I think my favorite plate this time – the menu changes every few days, although there are a few standbys – was the one I didn’t order, a gift from the kitchen since Alex (my server) recognized me: salt-cured sunchokes, quickly fried, served with a romesco sauce, a traditional Catalunian sauce made from pureed nuts, red peppers, and often roasted or smoked tomatoes. The Spence’s version was creamier than others I’ve had, more like an aioli than a pesto, and was the ideal sauce for the sunchokes, like an upscale variation on the popular hand-cut French fries with spicy mayo combination you’ll find at upscale burger joints.

I always try to order one of the two fresh pastas on the menu at the Spence, taking Alex’s suggestion this time of the tarragon bucatini with pulled chicken and grapes – a chicken salad sandwich reimagined as a piping hot pasta dish. A bite with every element in it did indeed evoke the sandwich, but in a much more enjoyable way – I tend to think of chicken salad as a combination of dried-out meat and too much mayonnaise, but this, of course, had neither of those problems. I also loved the white anchovy tartine, with avocado, thinly sliced black radish, and candied kumquats, although I’ve never met a white anchovy dish I didn’t like. They’re natural brothers to avocados, and whatever bread the Spence uses for its tartines and terrines, it is absolutely inhalable when grilled.

Moving on from dinner, I had one lunch of note, meeting a friend for sushi at Tomo in Buckhead, what I’d call solid-average for its nigiri offerings, getting bonus points because the snapper came with lemon juice already on it and the server said not to dip it in the soy sauce – usually a good sign of authenticity. The fish was fresh but not California-fresh, more noticeable in the texture than the flavor. The rolls tended toward the American palate, with lots of inauthentic ingredients, and the spicy tuna roll my friend ordered was, as usual, oversauced with mayonnaise. I’ve definitely become more spartan in my sushi tastes over the years – a seaweed salad and some simple nigiri options are a perfect meal for me – so those of you who enjoy American-style rolls and combinations may enjoy Tomo more than I did.

My coffee quest brought me to Octane Coffee in the Midtown West area, almost by mistake – I’d read they served coffee from Counter Culture, one of the best roasters in the country, but it now appears Octane roasts its own, with single origins for pourovers as well as a blend for espresso that changes regularly. The espresso the day I visited was mostly Brazilian and Peruvian (I think), with a little Yirgacheffe (Ethiopian) to add some citrus notes. I like a little more character in an espresso but the shot was perfectly pulled and had good body to it. Octane also has a few food items, including a very fun “PB&J granola parfait,” with yogurt, peanut butter, fresh strawberry preserves, and granola in it, as well as locally made pastries like the oversized croissant I ordered but couldn’t finish after the parfait. This Octane location, one of five (three in Atlanta, two in Birmingham), serves beer and lunch as well, and the whole vibe is somewhere between hipster hangout and European cafe. They get bonus points for the cashier taking an extra minute to answer my question about the espresso blend with the actual ratio of beans – even though it held up the line for another minute or two, I appreciate the effort.

Sip the Experience was the one disappointment of the trip; they do serve Counter Culture Coffee, but my espresso was watery and bland, and the egg scramble was overcooked to the point of rubberiness. I also found the service unfriendly, not that I’d care that much if the coffee was solid.

One last Atlanta food note: My #sources tell me Top Chef alumnus Eli Kirshtein is opening his new restaurant, the Luminary, possibly in May, in the Krog Street Market development in Inman Park, just east of downtown. It’ll be one of my next stops whenever I get back to Georgia.

Arizona eats, March 2014 edition.

My last spring training dispatch went up Monday morning, and I’m reposting the link to my review of the awful Downton Abbey boardgame in case folks missed it.

I tried a handful of new (to me) restaurants on my two-week trip to Arizona, but was a little limited in choices because I had the family with me and we chose to stay further out of town to be closer to friends near where we used to live (and to save the company a little money too). I did get to a few spots I’d been dying to try, and have a few new recommendations for those of you still out there.

Isabel’s Amor is a brand-new authentic Mexican restaurant in western Gilbert, on the northeast corner of Williams Field and Val Vista, and it’s spectacular, offering what I interpreted as Mexican comfort food with very fresh ingredients. We went with two starters, starting with their salsa trio, featuring a fresh vegetable salsa, a tomatillo-avocado pureed salsa, and a chunkier mango-jalapeño salsa; all three were good, none as spicy as the thin red salsa that came gratis, with the mango salsa my personal favorite for the perfect sweet-sour-spice balance and brightness of the mango flavor. Their Mexican street corn (elotes) was outstanding, roasted corn kernels served with cotija cheese, chili powder, cilantro, and a dollop of mayonnaise on top; you’re supposed to stir it all together to form the sauce, which I found produced a better result than the standard version where it’s mixed in the kitchen and can end up very watery by the time it reaches the table. For the entrees, my wife ordered the chili verde, made with beef braised in a dark green chile sauce, mildly spicy, a dish my wife compared favorably (and accurately) to pot roast, Mexican-style. I ordered the pescado de la parrilla, a fillet of corvina drum (fish) heavily marinated in lime juice and tequila and then grilled, served with that same mango-jalapeño salsa, along with sides of rice and your choice of beans. The fish tasted of lime and tequila more than anything, and had the slightly translucent look of fish that has been marinated for a long time before cooking, so the flavors were amazing but the texture wasn’t quite up to the same level. I was very impressed by the black beans, which were al dente rather than the mush I’m used to getting even at decent Mexican restaurants, and the fresh flour tortillas are incredible – someone’s grandmother is clearly making these by hand every morning, probably with lard given how good they taste. I was shocked to find out that the family behind Isabel’s is also reponsible for Someburros, one of the many chains of mediocre Mexican food that pollute the valley, but it appears that someone grew a culinary conscience and decided to offer the public a higher-quality product.

The Welcome Diner is a hipster spot – there’s no other way to describe it, that’s not even an insult, it just is. There are a couple of seats inside at a counter but most of the seating is outside at picnic tables, and the menu is short, mostly burgers and fried-chicken-and-biscuit options. The fried chicken on a biscuit is a bit over the top, really, even the fairly simple option I got – local honey, mustard, and bread and butter pickles, piled on a huge chunk of fried chicken breast, served on a very rich biscuit that couldn’t hold together when I tried to cut the whole thing like a sandwich. The components were all good, but eaten together were too rich and very heavy. My wife ordered a burger well-done – I’ve told her that this is a cardinal sin, but she won’t listen – and received something short of medium. The fries were excellent, though, clearly just cut and fried to order. Remember to wear your vintage clothes, though.

Republica Empanada in downtown Mesa was the other great new find of the trip, serving a number of perfectly-fried hot pockets pastries filled with a variety of meats, traditional and otherwise. I stuck with the traditional options, one with pernil (slow-roasted pork shoulder) and one with chicken and vegetables. Both came with a green dipping sauce that I believe contained tomatillos, cilantro, and a little chili pepper. They also make wonderful maduros, the fried sweet plantains that are among my favorite foods on the planet, serving eight large pieces for just $5. The mere fact that the empanadas are fried and not greasy makes them above-average, and the fact that they had a chicken offering that wasn’t dry or bland pushes them even higher. Two of them and the maduros was a small lunch; three might have been a little too much for me.

I didn’t get to try noca, one of the best-reviewed restaurants in Phoenix proper, but did swing by to grab lunch at nocawich, where they offer a handful of artisan sandwiches every day, including the Dolly, a giant fried-chicken sandwich (thicker than a cutlet but still on the thin side) with house-made pickles and a very flavorful, tangy/creamy cabbage slaw. I shouldn’t have eaten the whole thing – it was at least a portion and a half for me – but I did anyway because it was way too good to let one bite go to waste. I’d really like to get to noca for dinner to try the house-made pastas, but it’s the location that gets me – we didn’t live close, we never stay close when we’re visiting, and it’s not really near any ballparks.

Defalco’s was one of two Italian markets I wanted to try in Scottsdale – the other, Andreoli’s, was a little more out of my way but I understand is very good – and it’s very convenient to Old Town, further south on Scottsdale Road, near Los Sombreros. Defalco’s offers a pretty long list of sandwiches, mostly traditional New York-Italian options. I’ll pretty much always choose a sandwich with fresh mozzarella, prosciutto, and roasted red peppers on it; Defalco’s has something like a half a dozen bread choices, and while the focaccia was really good (not too greasy on top), it couldn’t exactly contain what was in the sandwich. Service is a little strange, like they’re doing you a favor, although I wouldn’t anyone was rude, just not the norm for Arizona where, if anything, you get people who seem a little too happy to help.

Taco Haus, the new spinoff of Scottsdale’s Brat Haus, is a little more remote from Salt River Fields than I’d realized, all the way up at Scottsdale Road and Shea Blvd, worth a visit if you want to eat and drink, but not a destination if you just want good tacos – I’d send you to Otro or Gallo Blanco for that. Taco Haus’ tacos are small, street-style, and the various fillings are all high-quality but overdone, too many elements on the plate so that the meat, which should in theory be the star ingredient, gets overwhelmed by acidity or mayonnaise.

Among return visits, the most notable meal was one at crudo, one of the two best restaurants I’ve tried in Arizona (Virtu in Scottsdale is the other). I branched out a bit this time, and would specifically cite the squid-ink risotto with tuna as an absolute standout dish, one that transcends the gimmicky nature of squid-ink dishes (“oooh! black food!”) with the perfect combination of texture, flavor, and presentation. I also love their cocktail menu’s inclusion of many local products, including spirits from the AZ Distilling Company in Tempe.

We split our breakfasts between the Hillside Spot and Crepe Bar. The Hillside Spot has switched from using Cartel Coffee to another vendor, espressions, whose beans I don’t like as much, and we actually had one kind of disappointing meal of about seven breakfasts we had there – a busy Sunday morning when nothing was quite up to par – but every other time it was consistently excellent. Crepe Bar’s menu is more limited but they use heart coffee from Portland, Oregon, which is among my favorite roasters in the country. The regular staff at both places were great, especially once they saw us a few times and got to know my daughter.

I didn’t make it to several spots I wanted to hit, including Atlas Bistro (tried to go without a reservation but they were booked up past our daughter’s bedtime), Bink’s, El Chullo, Beaver Choice, and Draft House in Peoria. There’s always Fall League…

Nashville and New Orleans eats.

My Insider column on Tuesday covered why teams should bat their best hitters second, with a particular focus on the Reds doing it wrong. This week’s Behind the Dish podcast features a conversation between me and ESPN Insider Chris Sprow, comparing the NFL and MLB drafts and engaging in a serious discussion of one piece of technical jargon employed by scouts in both sports.

My last scouting trip gave me a day/evening in Nashville and the same in Louisiana, so I had to go into the trip with some food targets. I returned to Fido in Nashville for lunch, looking for something a little lighter or more healthful than what I knew I’d be eating in New Orleans (viz.: pig) and had their Eden salad, with mache lettuce, granny smith apples, sun dried figs, berries, parmesan crisp, candied walnuts, feta, and a caramel-champagne vinaigrette. Everything was very high-quality, although I could have used more figs (I just really like figs), and I got a side of their smoked salmon to make it more like a full meal. Unfortunately, as good as it all was, it didn’t hold me very long, and I swung by Mike’s Ice Cream in downtown Nashville, but found their product very disappointing – the texture was fine but the flavors were very flat.

Dinner, on the other hand, was outstanding. I first read about Rolf & Daughters in a recent issue of Bon Appetit that highlighted artisan bread offerings at high-end restaurants around the country, mentioning Rolf’s sourdough bread appetizer with seaweed butter and flaked sea salt for $5. I ordered that as well as their North Carolina brook trout with savoy cabbage, crème fraiche, and dill entree, which was a little different from what I expected – the crème fraiche was blended into a thin broth, so the sourness wasn’t overpowering, and the cabbage had just started to wilt in the broth but retained its crunch. The beauty of the combo was that I could use the bread to soak up the broth, which had a rich flavor and texture but didn’t feel heavy because the base was water rather than fat. The bread itself was good, not as good as the best sourdough app I’ve ever had (that would be at Mas Tapas in Charlottesville), but the seaweed butter was like a spread of pure umami. You can make it at home, either from scratch or using the prepared seaweed paste called momoya. Their cocktail menu is also strong; I had a Bimshire, a daiquiri (the real kind, not the fruity thing from the blender) that also included the Italian amaro called Meletti and grapefruit juice along with aged Barbados rum and lime juice.

It must have been his night off.

Moving on to Louisiana, my destination was Baton Rouge but I detoured into New Orleans to have lunch at Cochon, recently named by Bon Appetit as one of the country’s twenty most important restaurants – it was an odd conceit and an odder list – and very widely regarded for the things they do with pig. I was early enough to snag a seat at the chef’s bar, a half-dozen stools at a counter that looks into the kitchen, and which came with a bonus dish – their house-made head cheese, served traditionally with whole-grain mustard and lightly pickled onions. Before I realized that was coming, I also ordered their fried boudin (a Cajun sausage that includes pork, pork livers, and rice, in this case rolled into balls and fried), the pork cheek terrine (served warm, with blistered tomatoes and a very mild vinaigrette on top), and the lima beans side dish that included, of course, more pork. The terrine was the best dish, with the meat very tender and a little more loosely formed than a typical cold terrine made with ground pork, and the acidity perfectly balanced against the soft, rich texture of the pork; the boudin was my least favorite, mostly because frying something that already contains so much fat makes it incredibly heavy, and the liver ended up just slightly grainy, not something I’m used to from pork liver. The dish I didn’t order, but wish I’d had room for, was the rabbit and dumplings, which I saw go into the wood-fired oven in front of me several times over the course of a half-hour or so.

Baton Rouge was a bit of a disappointment, mostly because of timing. I tried the beignets at Coffee Call, which were good (it’s hard to make a bad beignet) but not as good as Rue Beignet’s were, while the late end of the LSU-South Carolina game limited my dinner options, so I ended up having a fringe-average meal at Chimes, duck/andouille gumbo and an absurdly oversized shrimp po’boy, both fine but neither anything to write home about. I had hoped to try Magpie Cafe, an espresso bar and cafe with an emphasis on local ingredients, for breakfast, but they’re closed on Sundays.

Atlanta eats, 2013 edition.

I’ve got a new draft blog post up on likely top ten pick Austin Meadows of Grayson High School. Also, if you missed my review of dinner at The Spence, Top Chef All-Stars winner Richard Blais’ newest venture, you should head there first. I was still thinking about that meal two days later.

I did have another memorable dinner in Atlanta, at Decatur’s Cakes & Ale, which has twice made Bon Appetit‘s list of the ten best new restaurants in the country (they bent the rules and listed it again in 2012 when C&A opened a new location with a bakery attached). The name is accurate, as they sell both cakes and ales, but the standouts on their menu involve local produce, factoring heavily in every dish.

After a helpful chat with the server, I went with three smaller plates instead of a single entree, paying a few dollars more (maybe $3-5 more) but getting more variety and I think more food overall. The menu changes frequently, so these items may not be available a few weeks from this review. First up was the house-cured lardo on crostini with browned broccolini, mirin, and a side salad of tatsoi, a green leafy member of the Brassica family with a mustardy flavor. The lardo was indulgent, of course, infused into the bread by the heat of the latter, but balanced with the acidity of the mirin and slight sweetness of the caramelized, crispy bits of the baby broccoli. I could have done without the tatsoi salad, however, which was also very acidic and more than the plate required, but the crostini were unforgettable right down to the golden color where the lardo had melted into the bread.

Next up was a verdant spring salad of baby golden beets, sliced radishes, kohlrabi matchsticks, shaved celery, frisee, and sliced almonds, tossed with a rhubarb vinaigrette and served over creamy fromage blanc (a white farmer’s cheese). Hugh Acheson would have approved of this salad: it had texture, it had color, it had sweet and bitter elements, and it had a light tang from the dressing. I doubt I’ve ever eaten a salad faster and it certainly didn’t advertise itself as “health food,” even though it was an antioxidant bomb.

The third small plate was the polenta verde with roasted asparagus, a fried egg, and a small salad of frisee, roasted (I assume) shiitake mushrooms, and pancetta. The polenta was rich and creamy but still had some tooth to it, and could have stood as a side item on its own. The asparagus spears were cooked perfectly, tender but not mushy or stringy, and played well with the polenta and the salad. The one disappointment was the sunnyside-up egg, which was overcooked; the yolk was congealed underneath and didn’t run, which meant no sauce for the asparagus. It’s harder to poach eggs to order than fry them, but a poached egg would make this dish more cohesive. You can bury me in that polenta verde, though.

I mentioned to the server that “I was told there was cake,” which produced a dessert menu featuring an item called Coffee & cream: a layered torte of devil’s food cake, espresso-chocolate mousse, and praline crunch underneath, served with a smear of dark chocolate fudge sauce. This dessert could have been designed especially for me – rich, dark, slightly bitter underneath the sweetness, featuring two of my favorite flavors, chocolate and coffee, together. The hazelnut gelato on the side was nice but unnecessary as a potential obstacle between me and the chocolate.

I should also mention the solid cocktail menu, featuring the Welcome Wagon – Gosling’s Black Seal dark rum from Bermuda, Aperol (a low-alcohol amargo similar to Campari), aquavit, lemon bitters, and ginger ale. It sounds like a lot of alcohol, but the flavors worked well together for a warm, rounded punch. I also tried a local beer, a red rye ale that I believe was from Terrapin Brewery in Athens, although from their site I’m not sure if that was the Mosaic or another offering.

Moving away from fine dining to Q, I had the chance to meet a friend at Fox Brothers BBQ, not far from Cakes & Ale’s location in Decatur. Fox Brothers’ menu is straightforward Q, but to their credit there’s some attention paid to seasonal items – they won’t serve fried okra out of season, for example. The chicken fried ribs starter was a new thing for me – just what it sounds like, smoked ribs, cut up and deep fried. They were surprisingly un-greasy, probably fried very fast at a very high temperature, and of course, very, very delicious. At the server’s suggestion I got the sliced brisket plate with tater tots and collard greens. The meat was a little dry but had a powerful smoke flavor, as much as any brisket I’ve ever tried, even though the smoke ring itself was small. The point of smoked meat is to taste the smoke as well as the meat, so Fox Brothers hit on that. The sides were solid, and I mostly had to stop eating them because this was an absurd amount of food. It’s good Q for anywhere, but in Atlanta, which seems to be a Q desert, this was superb.

And if you find yourself in Sylvester, Georgia, down in Worth County south of Macon and west of I-75, I can recommend Fat Boy for some solid Q as well, with very good “chipped” (shredded) pork at really reasonable prices. I’d skip the fried okra there, though, as it clearly came from a freezer bag. Several sites suggested Pap’s in Sylvester for fried chicken, but it appears to be abandoned and the phone has been disconnected.