Sarasota and other Florida eats.

Florida spring training kind of sucks, in my professional opinion, because the sites are so far apart and several are wastelands for decent food. I found a handful of decent spots in my week there this year, along with a lot of mediocrity, but I’ll just focus on the good here, including the fact that Sarasota of all places has a decent little food and coffee scene happening.

Baker & Wife is a farm-to-table type of place in Sarasota, recommended to me by a friend who lives nearby, and I was impressed by both the vegetable dishes and, as you’d expect from the name, the dessert. I went with two starters rather than a main, a salad of roasted yellow beets with goat cheese, pesto, and pine nuts, along with crab cakes with a spicy green papaya slaw; of all of that, the only aspect I didn’t care for was the slaw, which tasted too much of fish sauce. The beets were really spectacular, although I am a fan of roasted beets in any form, but I think they pair so well with goat cheese, any kind of nuts, and the salty, bright punch of the pesto. Dessert, I had the “baker’s bannoffie pie,” and I’ll let the menu describe it: “pecan and graham cracker crust, house made banana & vanilla bean pudding, chocolate chips, caramel, cream.” It was that good and then some. It all worked so well together.

Perq is a new third-wave coffee bar in Sarasota, using beans from various artisan roasters around the country, and offering numerous cold-brew and single-origin espresso options along with the usual. It’s a sizable cafe too, unlike a lot of third-wave spots, and they appear to rotate through various roasters – they had a number of I knew from my travels and when I chatted up one of the baristas, he mentioned several other great roasters they’ve used, like heart, Sightglass, Four barrel, Counter Culture, and more.

I had half a decent meal at Selva, a Peruvian restaurant downtown, where the ceviche was very good and the entree I had was not. The ceviche isn’t truly traditional; they have numerous combinations that include various fruits, acids, and types of fish, and the tuna/watermelon ceviche I got had larger pieces of fish than I’m used to seeing in ceviche. It came with a spicy lime sauce for dipping or pouring to taste, and I would recommend using that if you end up here. But the main course was kind of a mess – a duck breast that was cooked very inconsistently, and served with a risotto that was anything but.

There’s also a tiny Buddy Brew location right near Selva, at the entrance to the parking garage downtown not far from Tamiami Trail. I would go to Perq before this, but Buddy Brew is solid.

Elsewhere in the state, I discovered the brand new Foxtail Coffee in Orlando’s Winter Park neighborhood thanks to a scout’s recommendation, and both times I went there was a line out the door. They had four coffees available from different countries; I tried their espresso one day and an Ethiopian Yirgacheffe pour-over the next, the latter of which came with a roasting demonstration from Iain, one of the owners and a baseball fan as well. It’s right near the old location of the Ravenous Pig, which has moved into the old Cask & Larder space but which I can report is still some of the best food to be had in the Orlando area.

Near the Jupiter complex is a very unassuming little coffee shop and roaster called Oceana, which does a lot of single origins as well but roasts most of them darker than I tend to like. Their pour-over options are the way to go – I had an Ethiopian the first day I was there, and I’ll be honest in that I was so in need of the caffeine I don’t remember much beyond the sheer pleasure of feeling it hit my bloodstream. Pass on the espresso as their extraction rate is way too high and the result is watery.

Merritt Island’s Cuban Island Cafe is worth a stop if you’re in that area, which I’d never visited before; I went for my standard choice, lechon asado, which in this case came with some amazing black beans, one maduro, one tostone, and well over a half-pound of pork.

I’ll also mention Harry’s Pizzeria in Miami, which appeared on a list of the best pizzerias in the U.S. a few years ago that I’ve kept on hand for my travels, hitting more than half of the 48 places they listed. The pizza itself was just average, but I had an escarole salad to start that was tremendous – lemon, anchovies, parmiggiano, and bread crumbs. It hit a little of everything, adding salty, sour, and umami notes to the slight bitterness of the raw greens. They have a few non-pizza options that might be worth trying if I ever go back to have that salad again.

Stick to baseball, 2/18/17.

For Insiders, I ranked the top prospects for 2017 impact, although we later removed Alex Reyes from the list now that he’s out for the year. I held my regular Klawchat on Thursday.

On the boardgame front, I reviewed the light family-friendly game Imhotep for Paste this week; it was one of the runners-up for the Spiel des Jahres last year, losing to Isle of Skye. Last week, over at Vulture, I wrote about some of the best games for couples.

You can preorder my upcoming book, Smart Baseball, on amazon, or from other sites via the Harper-Collins page for the book. Also, please sign up for my more-or-less weekly email newsletter.

And now, the links…

Stick to baseball, 2/11/17.

No Insider content this week – you’ve had plenty, so don’t get greedy. I did hold a Klawchat on Thursday.

For Paste, I reviewed the asymmetrical two-player game The Blood of an Englishman, which is based on Jack and the Beanstalk. I also returned to Vulture with a post on eight great boardgames for couples, in honor of Valentine’s Day.

You can preorder my upcoming book, Smart Baseball, on amazon, or from other sites via the Harper-Collins page for the book. Also, please sign up for my more-or-less weekly email newsletter.

And now, the links…

  • Detroit Tigers owner and Little Caesars founder Mike Ilitch passed away yesterday. Here’s a 2016 piece on the hidden cost of cheap pizza, where reducing prices often means taking it out of workers’ pockets.
  • One of the best longreads of the week covered how a Huntington, West Virginia, school official improved school lunches contrary to the meddling efforts of celebrity chef Jamie Oliver.
  • Another great longread: how a young Wikipedia editor/admin is fighting back against misogynist trolls on the site.
  • Eater has a longread, more a collection of shorter pieces than a single story, on the things people will do to hunt and pick rare mushrooms.
  • As much as I crush the NCAA for some of its policies, they’re leading the fight against anti-LGBT discrimination right now, including a threatened six-year boycott of North Carolina that would cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars in lost business over that state’s hate bill HB2, which prevents local governments from passing laws or ordinances protecting LGBT citizens from discrimination.
  • There’s a potential famine brewing in sub-Saharan Africa thanks to the spread of the fall armyworm, which is devastating crops in Zimbabwe already and may be present in six other African countries. We can talk about organic agriculture all we want, but if a synthetic pesticide stops this worm, it’ll save millions of lives.
  • Speaking of which, Dr. Paul Offit wrote about how Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring cost millions of lives too, because DDT, while clearly bad for the environment as a broad-use pesticide, is extremely effective at stopping the spread of mosquito-borne illnesses like malaria.
  • Betsy DeVos was confirmed this week as Secretary of Education, but let’s recall the damage she did in Michigan with her charter-school endeavors. I’ve said on here before that I favor at least some school choice, but school choice is not a panacea for underperforming public schools, and her appointment is a potential disaster for public education in this country.
  • TIME became (I think) the first major publication to run an editorial arguing that it’s time to impeach President Trump. Meanwhile, good journalism keeps coming from unexpected outlets, like Vogue highlighting five things Trump is doing now but for which he attacked Hillary Clinton during the campaign.
  • Buy stock in telecom giants? The new FCC is going to kill off net neutrality, opening those quasi-monopolies up for greater power to squeeze money from content providers and consumers.
  • Meanwhile, Republicans across the country are fighting to restrict voting rights, moves that are likely to help their candidates in 2018 and beyond. If you live in such a state, make your voice heard now, before it’s silenced.
  • Why did House Republicans block a vote on a resolution stating that the Holocaust targeted Jews? Are they so beholden to party that they wouldn’t even vote on a fact?
  • John Yoo, who was Justice Department official under President George W. Bush and advocated heavy use of executive orders, wrote that President Trump has taken executive power too far. This is like Tony Larussa saying a manager uses too many relievers. And a former National Security Council member also wrote for the New York Times that Steve Bannon shouldn’t be on the NSC.
  • Are Trump’s opponents falling into his ‘trap’ with their outrage? I don’t know that I agree with this National Review piece’s conclusions, but it’s worth considering that there are still many voters who will nod their heads at his populist moves without considering their consequences.
  • Is Trump’s fight against the judiciary his Watergate? I doubt it, although there are some parallels.
  • Marco Rubio has moments where he appears to be one of the few GOP leaders willing to oppose the President or stake out a position near the center, including a little-heard speech he gave this week on the demise of civil disagreements. That’s great, Marco; now vote against your party’s President on something that matters.
  • Meanwhile, the GOP continues to use the term “fake news” to keep up its attacks on respected, objective journalism outlets, such as Alabama representative Mo Brooks calling the Washington Post fact-checkers “fake news” for pointing out that his voter fraud claims were, well, fraudulent.
  • Ah, North Dakota, where two Republican legislators said in session that women should spend Sundays taking care of their husbands. Will they face any electoral consequences for this? I doubt it.
  • Vaccines! There are over 400 mumps cases in Washington State’s outbreak. That’s why Peter Hotez, Ddirector of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development, can say that the anti-vaxxers are “winning” in another NYT editorial. (I subscribed to the Times online in the fall, mostly to keep these posts going, because they are producing some tremendous content across the board right now.)
  • If you saw the Daily Mail piece claiming that politicians had been hoodwinked by falsified climate-change data, well, don’t read the Daily Mail, as it’s become an unreliable source on any economic, political, or scientific topic. And the story was utter nonsense.
  • Former Top Chef contestant Mark Simmons of NYC’s Kiwiana made his feelings on the Muslim ban quite clear with a pro-immigration message printed on his restaurant’s receipts.
  • Is artisanal chocolate the next big food trend along the lines of craft beer and coffee? I’m a little skeptical, and this piece glosses over chocolate’s big sourcing issue (there’s a lot of child labor and de facto slavery in the cacao supply chain), but I think there’s a market here for better chocolate that can make consumers feel better about what they’re eating.
  • An Intelligentsia Coffee staffer wrote this informative post on why we steep tea but brew coffee.
  • The British Academy of Film and Television Arts has published research on how to help women and people of color in the film industry, a sort of response to the #OscarsSoWhite criticisms we’ve heard the last few years. (The Oscar nominees are much more diverse this year, quelling such complaints for the moment.) It gets more at the root of the problem than the attacks on the Academy Awards do – you won’t see women nominated for Best Director if women are rarely hired as directors or if their films struggle to find funding or distribution. There were few acclaimed movies in 2016 directed by women; I think the best-reviewed was Certain Women, which received very little distribution at all.
  • Is mining asteroids an essential part of our future? I think it is, in some sense, although I’m surprised this piece doesn’t mention iridium, a critical element in manufacturing electronics; it’s believed most of the iridium on earth came from the meteor or comet that caused the K/T extinction event.
  • Vice’s Noisey asked a person with synaesthesia what several songs “taste” like to him. Synaesthesia is a rare brain function where senses ‘cross;’ Vladimir Nabokov had it. I don’t have this, but I do associate all twelve months with certain colors, because when I was maybe five my mom had a Peanuts calendar hanging in our laundry room where January, May, and September were colored in red; February, June, and October in blue; March, July, and November in green; and April, August, and December in yellow. Those months still have those colors to me today.
  • Humor: This New Yorker fake-dialogue post called “I Work from Home” hit a little close, especially as I’m writing this post at 10:30 am on Saturday while still in my pajamas.

Stick to baseball, 1/28/17.

My ranking of the top 100 prospects went up this week, and my org rankings went up last week, so ESPN set up a landing page that links to all my prospect content. When the individual team top tens and reports go up next week, you’ll be able to reach them from this page as well.

ESPN split my top 100 ranking into five posts this year, twenty prospects per page, so here they are from the top to the bottom:

I held a Klawchat Friday after the whole list was up.

And I even got another boardgame review up, this one of the new edition of the 2000 game Citadels, which is actually designed for 4 to 8 players, with rules variants included for 2 or 3. It’s definitely best with four or more, though.

You can preorder my upcoming book, Smart Baseball, on amazon, or from other sites via the Harper-Collins page for the book. Also, please sign up for my more-or-less weekly email newsletter.

And now, the links…

DC eats.

Rose’s Luxury is consistently ranked among the best restaurants in the country, so well-regarded that it has spawned a cottage industry of people who will wait in line for you (RL does not take reservations) for a fee. We were very fortunate to have Kent Bonham (of local and willing to wait for us to get a table, and his efforts were not in vain as I think we all agreed it was a meal for the ages. Even with all we ordered – probably a little more food than was reasonable, but we wanted to try everything – and some booze, I think we only paid about $80-90 a person, which is very reasonable for the quality and quantity of food we got.

Rose’s menu varies often and comprises mostly small plates, with one or two larger ‘mains’ on it at any one time; with a table of six, we ordered one of everything (except the caviar offering) and got to work. I posted the menu on my Instagram feed (which reposts automatically to my public Facebook page), so I’ll hit the highlights. Their signature dish is the pork sausage salad with lychee, habanero, and peanuts, and it’s one of the most memorable things I’ve ever eaten because there is just so much going on in the dish yet it still manages to work . You’re supposed to just mix it all together, so each bite ends up this little explosion of sweet, spicy, savory, and tart all thrown together; I get the sense that this is supposed to feel like Thai street food, because it’s so bright and messy and satisfying but nothing special to look at. Several people, including Jack (@unsilent) Kogod, specifically said beforehand to get this dish, and they were spot on.

We ordered a second helping of the fried Brussels sprouts with tahini, eel sauce, and bonito; I’m a sucker for fried Brussels sprouts anyway, but this was also bursting with umami from the bonito and benefited from the dairy-like texture of the tahini (made from sesame or benne seeds). I also could have eaten the stuffed dates with walnuts and cultured butter pretty much all night, but again, dates stuffed with walnuts or almonds are one of my favorite things to eat. Raw oysters aren’t for everyone – I’ve long had to fight my Long Island-infused aversion to the things, since growing up there we only heard about pollution and contamination – but Rose’s are marinated in sake and wasabi and served with a little apple granita on top, so the oyster is more the vessel than the star, and that’s absolutely how I like it. I’d compare these favorably to Richard Blais’ “oysters and pearls,” where he serves the oysters with little frozen pearls of horseradish and a yuzu or other citrus vinaigrette on top.

Of the four pasta dishes we ended up with, the simplest one was the best – the hand-cut trenette con cacio e pepe, just a simple, freshly-made ribbon pasta with pecorino Romano, black pepper, and the starchy pasta water to thicken the sauce. It’s peasant food done up Roman style, with an expensive cheese instead of whatever’s on hand, but showcases the pasta beautifully. I thought the pasta in the rigatoni with tomato, eggplant, anchovy, and mint was a shade undercooked – too al dente for me, at least – although the sauce was really bright. We had one member of our party who has celiac disease, and the chefs were incredibly accommodating, making her a faux-risotto with Carolina gold rice and no end of butter to substitute for the pasta courses. There was also a straciatella special that came with long slices of focaccia that had been grilled and smeared with a rich garlic puree, and if you call those “breadsticks” I will come to your house and punch you in the face.

The main course the night we were there was a smoked brisket, served in thick slices, with Texas toast, a fresh horseradish-cream sauce, and a slaw of pickled vegetables, so everyone at the table could just make his/her own mini sandwich from it. I was just about out of gas by this point, so I went sparingly just to say I tasted it, and while the meat itself had a good texture, it was the horseradish sauce that stood out the most, making up for the fact that the beef didn’t have a lot of bark or a ton of smoke flavor to it.

Rose’s alcohol options are also very impressive for a restaurant that’s primarily a restaurant and not a bar that serves food – I know my friends were pleased with whatever wine they got, and I was impressed to see several aged rums, including Ron Zacapa’s Centenario 23, available. I also went back for coffee the next day to Rose’s sibling restaurant, Pineapple & Pearls, located next door. The back of P&P is a $250 a head tasting menu place, but during the morning and early afternoon, they serve third-wave coffee (Lofted for espresso, Parlor for drip) and a few small breakfast and lunch items, including the great breakfast wrap and these great little lemon-thyme shortbread cookies. If we’d been closer I would have gone there every morning. Both halves of P&P are closed on Mondays.

On Tuesday night I headed out with longtime partner in crime Alex Speier to All-Purpose, a pizza, pasta, and small plates place from the folks behind DC’s Red Hen and a recommendation from a reader, Jim H., who gave me tons of recs for my trip. All-Purpose’s menu has a lot of pork on it, but several small plates that focus on vegetables, as well as a couple of mainstay pasta options, six standard pizza configurations, and a chance to make your own pizza as well. We started with … wait for it … the fried Brussels sprouts (hey, they’re really good for you, at least until you fry them), which here come with horseradish cream, togarashi spice, and Parmiggiano-Reggiano, and I could have licked the plate clean if my parents hadn’t raised me correctly. The strange mixture of a Japanese spice mix with some real heat and the umami-rich Italian cheese worked well together, and I couldn’t get over how thoroughly cooked the sprouts were – I’ve had a lot of fried Brussels sprouts that were still a little underdone in the center and retained some bitterness, but these did not.

Kogod tipped me off beforehand that the eggplant parm dish was “the veteran move,” and Alex was game, so we got that as well as the Cosimo pizza, which has roasted mushrooms, taleggio cheese, truffle sauce, but no tomatoes, which I think was a sharp choice because the eggplant parm dish is like a smack in the face of huge tomato flavor. Eggplant is one of those items I would generally just pass over on a menu – I don’t hate it, but it’s always going to be near the bottom of my list of choices. A-P’s version makes the eggplant the structure but not the center of the dish – this is about the tomatoes and cheese, and if you’d given me some crusty bread to make it like an open-faced sandwich I could have just laid down on the floor afterwards and slept like a baby.

The pizza was solid, but a sort of in-between style that had the crispiness of Italian-style pizzas but was probably cooked at a lower temp, so the outside browned evenly rather than getting the puffy crust around the outside with bits of char around it. I prefer thinner crusts, but A-P’s held up well under the heavier toppings of this pizza, and I’m glad we went with a white pizza and went meatless for the whole meal given how much meat I consumed the night before at Rose’s and the next day at lunch (see below).

I probably should have skipped dessert, but A-P does a ‘rainbow cake,’ a larger version of the Italian flag cookies I grew up eating from New York bakeries and have made a number of times around the holidays. The cake was six layers of a sponge cake made with almond paste, dyed to form a pastel version of the Italian flag, with raspberry and apricot jams between the layers and a thin coating of dark chocolate on top. The hardest thing about making the cookies is getting the layers to cook evenly – the outer edge wants to try out before the center is truly cooked – but this was perfect despite the fact that the layers were thicker than you’d find in a cookie.

Across the street from All-Purpose, Smoked & Stacked is the new breakfast and lunch place from Marjorie Meek-Bradley, who appeared on Top Chef Season 13 and made it to the final four, with the menu focused on their house-made pastrami. I don’t particularly care for pastrami; I loathe corned beef, but pastrami is smoked after the same kind of curing process, giving it a different taste and much better texture. S&S’s most basic sandwich is the Messy, which has pastrami, Comte cheese, sauerkraut, and slaw on very good rye bread, and it is indeed messy, as the bread can barely handle all the liquid coming from the fillings. It’s also more than I typically eat for lunch, but I ate the whole thing anyway because the bread was so damn good.

I ate one significant meal at National Harbor, at Edward Lee’s southern restaurant Succotash, which was certainly fine for a meal served to a captive audience but nothing I’d go out of my way to eat. The skillet cornbread was the best thing we ate, a traditional southern (that is, it had no sugar) cornbread served in the cast-iron skillet with sorghum butter. The fried catfish I had was good if a little pedestrian – I’ve had this same dish lots of times before and there was nothing special about this one. They make a good Old-Fashioned, though. These fake shopping villages kind of give me the creeps – it’s like they’re trying to create what’s great about a city and build it from the top down in a remote area, in this case a good 20 minutes outside of DC, rather than stay in the actual city and build it up organically. And the traffic situation down there has apparently just gotten worse now that the MGM Casino opened the day after we all left; the roads in/out of National Harbor are not built to handle volume, and driving within the complex just to get to the hotel where I stayed (the AC) was a complete pain in the ass.

Omaha eats.

My column today for ESPN, expressing my disappointment in the Mets’ decision to sign Jose Reyes, is free for anyone to read.

Omaha treated me very well last week, even with the heat and humidity. I’d heard from a few readers over the years that Omaha is a sneaky-good restaurant town – although the claim that it has the most restaurants per capita in the U.S. appears to be unfounded – and that turned out to be the case. I had four outstanding meals there, great coffee, great cocktails, and even managed to check off two more states on my visit list, leaving me with just one left (Arkansas). It’s an incredibly walkable downtown, something I miss greatly as a resident of the suburbs now, and I feel like I could easily spend a week there without running out of new places to eat.

I’ll start with the best lunch I had in Omaha, at Kitchen Table, a recommendation from one of you via Twitter. The co-owner responded with a tweet saying they’d love to have me drop by, and I discovered after I arrived that it’s because the chef/co-owner, Colin, is a big baseball nut and Red Sox fan. Their slogan is “Slow food, fast,” as the menu includes sandwiches, salads, and small plates that either can be cooked quickly or assembled from components that are slow-cooked ahead of time. I went with what is apparently their most popular sandwich, The Whole Bird, a seared chicken breast on toasted, house-made levain bread, with confit chicken-leg salad, crispy chicken skin, a fried egg, and mixed greens, a great mixture of flavors and textures that elevated the chicken breast (which never has much taste in my opinion no matter how it’s prepared) with the sauce from the over-medium egg, the saltiness and crunch of the skin, and a hint of bitterness from the greens. It didn’t hurt that the bread was so good either.

I ended up with two sides, their ‘little salad,’ which is mixed bitter greens (definitely kale and arugula, and I believe mustard greens among them?) with sprouted beans on top and a red wine vinaigrette; and their deviled eggs, a gift from the kitchen that I would never have ordered on my own. The egg yolks were incredibly smooth, seasoned with dill and smoked Spanish paprika, with just enough salt – I’m pretty demanding about eggs being properly salted, because as much as I love eggs, without salt you might as well send them down the disposal. Kitchen Table also serves their own popcorn on the tray with your order and I may also have eaten all of that too. (I didn’t finish everything on the tray, but the salad and sandwich together would have been a pretty filling meal even without the eggs.)

I got more recommendations for one of Kitchen Table’s neighbors, Block 16, than I did for KT, but there was no comparison between my experiences – KT was much better. Block 16’s menu is heavy, full of over-the-top combinations of burgers and sauces and fried things, and I didn’t think any of it worked that well. I chose the Croque Garçon burger, which Alton Brown tabbed as one of his five favorite burgers in the country, with ham, cheese, a fried egg, and truffle mayo, on a ciabatta roll. I hate to disagree with AB, but I can’t see it: The burger was overly salty, and if the meat was any good I couldn’t taste it under all of the toppings. (It probably wasn’t, or I might still have figured it out.) Their seasoned fries were just ordinary; Block 16 is known for a side called “duck duck goose fries” that involves duck confit, cheese, mayo, and crispy duck skin, but that just sounded too heavy and messy to even think about eating. Given the hype and the line out the door, this just didn’t measure up.

Every dinner I had in Omaha was outstanding, so I’ll go in chronological order. First was The Boiler Room, a recommendation from Sarah, our on-site makeup artist and, as I learned, food stylist too. Named for its space, the former boiler room for the 120-year-old building in which it’s located, The Boiler Room’s menu is small and very locally-driven, with six starters and six entrees the night I was there. The braised and smoked pork belly is served with mustard seeds, orange supremes, and a kohlrabi puree, but it’s the preparation of the meat itself that stands out here – I’m not sure I’ve ever had pork belly prepared anything like this, and I mean that in a good way. Pork belly has layers of fat and connective tissue between the highly flavorful meat layers, but this broad slice – like an inch-thick lardon – was meatier with very little of the less-pleasant bits in between, yet without becoming dry from the slow cooking. It may be the result of keeping the belly away from much direct heat that might toughen the meat layers, but anyway, it was superb, especially with multiple acidic elements on the plate for balance.

For the main course, I ordered the grilled hamachi steak, primarily because I wanted to try what it came with – herbed Parisian gnocchi with English peas and rock shrimp. Indeed, the gnocchi were the star; not only was the texture perfect, light but not toothless, but they had huge flavors, with at least thyme and tarragon but probably more herbs I couldn’t pick out. The fish itself was cooked to my idea of perfection, but I think that’s a bit more cooked in the center than many folks would like for a tuna steak. (I am not a fan of seared tuna preparations, where the center is cold.) I also loved the broth underneath the fish, light enough to work as a sauce for the fish while carrying some of the herbs from the gnocchi with it. Seafood in the heartland doesn’t sound like a great idea but this dish absolutely worked.

Dessert was an apricot-cherry cobbler with a shortbread topping, pistachios, and vanilla ice cream, and was also incredible – the topping was like a warm biscuit, and the fruit was tart, so the sweetness of the crust and the ice cream worked to balance it out, instead of the sweet-sweet-sweet approach of a lot of pies served a la mode. The Boiler Room also has an impressive cocktail menu and list of liquors to be served on their own, not just whiskeys but rums, tequilas, and cordials. I had something with two rums in it and I forget what else because I also had some Kirk & Sweeney’s 12-year after that. It had been a long day and I’m not sorry.

Moving along … The Grey Plume is located a bit west of the market district, and chef Clayton Chapman was a semifinalist for a Beard Award in 2015, so it was well worth the short drive. (I rented a car in Omaha, largely because I’m naked without one, but you could easily stay downtown and do without one.) The space and décor all say fine-dining, but the food itself is farm-to-table at heart, perhaps with more emphasis on presentation than you’d find at typical restaurants serving this type and caliber of food. For my starter, I went with the pork belly Dutch baby – a savory version of the eggy pancake, filled with caramelized onions, served with grapefruit supremes, orange puree, and cinnamon ‘snow.’

Pork belly Dutch baby at @thegreyplume in Omaha

A photo posted by Keith Law (@mrkeithlaw) on

The pancake and onions were my favorite aspect of the dish, although they needed something like the pork belly’s fattiness to balance it out – I just thought the combination was so clever, like a twist on the Italian chickpea crepe called a socca, but one where the onions get thoroughly caramelized first rather than merely browned in cooking. Also, as is probably clear, I’m a big fan of pork belly served with some sort of citrus element alongside it.

I didn’t want to have meat upon meat, so I went with the house-made agnolotti with chevre, pickled ramps, spring radishes, and asparagus. The agnolotti were strong, with good tooth to the pasta, but the accompaniments didn’t work on their own or with the pasta. That type of dumpling – that’s really what agnolotti is, just another shape like ravioli or tortellini – needs something more with it, whether it’s brown butter, a light broth, perhaps in this case taking the asparagus and blending it for a sauce, but something to complement the tangy flavor of the goat cheese and also allow the diner to get several components into one bite. That didn’t work here, especially not with the pickled ramps, which were huge (I’ve never seen ramp bulbs that size before) and overpowering.

And then, the dessert, the best single thing I ate in Omaha: A brioche donut, fried in duck fat, sprinkled with sugar, served with soft house-made vanilla ice cream and brown-butter crumbs. Words fail me. I ate the whole thing and I would do it again.

This, my friends, is a brioche donut … fried in duck fat. @thegreyplume

A photo posted by Keith Law (@mrkeithlaw) on

After all of the gluttony of my first 48 hours in Omaha, I wanted something lighter and went to Modern Love, a vegan restaurant a bit south of downtown. I’m obviously an omnivore, but I eat a lot of plants, and while I’m at home I seldom eat meat before dinner, sometimes not at all – but I’m rarely vegan, since I eat yogurt for lunch almost every day. (I’ve tried alternative yogurts but those are a bridge too far.) My colleague Adnan Virk joined me for the most surprising meal of the trip; everything we ate was savory and filling in ways you wouldn’t expect from food without meat, egg, or dairy.

We split a starter, Modern Love’s twist on deviled eggs, using chickpeas whipped with olive oil, stuffed into hollowed-out cucumber “cups” with pea tendrils on top. No one’s confusing the cukes for hard-boiled egg whites, but the filling itself was like a brighter hummus and it was easy to draw a parallel to deviled eggs beyond the visual, since the garbanzos and the olive oil gave the center plenty of fat.

For the main, I ordered the “mac and shews,” their version of a mac and cheese dish, using cashew-milk cheese for the sauce around the elbow-shaped pasta. The pasta was a little soft – the menu says it’s gluten-free, which is probably the reason – but the flavor was outstanding, slightly nutty, coating the pasta like any good sauce should. I was unaware that you could melt nut cheese to create anything this silky. The dish comes with roasted cauliflower in a BBQ sauce, garlicky kale leaves, spiced pecans, and cornmeal crusted tofu wedges. The last element didn’t add much, but the cauliflower and kale especially worked well to play off the smooth, mild flavor of the pasta. Adnan raved about the pesto gnocchi with asparagus, which looked from my spying of various dishes like the largest entree if you’re concerned about sating your appetite here.

Then the dessert, also Instagram-worthy: blueberry crisp with maple-walnut ice cream (made with cashew milk), toasted almonds, and coconut “whip.” This was also gluten-free, although you’d never have guessed that while eating it.

The highest praise I can give this is that you probably wouldn’t have blinked if I gave you this dessert and told you it was blueberry crisp with maple-walnut ice cream, omitting the parts about it being gluten-free and vegan. The blueberries themselves tasted like they were just picked, the crisp was chewy and lightly spiced, the ice cream itself had amazing mouth-feel for something without butterfat. The meal as a whole was incredibly satisfying without any of the things that I’d normally consider essential for satisfaction.

I tried three coffee places during the trip, two in Omaha and one in Council Bluffs, Iowa. The better place in Omaha was Archetype Coffee, in the Blackstone District, a local roaster with many single-origin options and one of the best espressos I’ve ever had – bright without being tart, naturally sweet, with good body. Their espresso blend is 60% Brazilian Nossa and 40% Ethiopian Cochere, and they had a few single-origin beans available as pour-over options and in bags. Their coffee was much better than what I had at Beansmith, located in the Old Market area downtown, where I tried a pour-over Kenyan that was very thin and a little papery, a good sign that the beans were old and/or the roast too light.

The coffee spot in Council Bluffs, drips, is actually an art gallery and vinyl record shop that happens to offer pour-overs of Dark Matter, a coffee roaster from Chicago. They had at least seven options available the day I was there, and the employee who served me spent some time describing the different coffees and notes to me. It’s across the street from a Con-Agra facility, if you happen to be in the area, although I can’t imagine what else would bring you to Council Bluffs.

Omaha’s even hip enough to have a real tea salon, The Tea Smith, with two locations, one in the Old Market area. I went just once, meeting Royals Review contributor and longtime friend Minda Haas Kuhlman there, because nothing suits a humid 90 degree tea like a cup of smoking hot sencha. The Tea Smith has a ridiculous selection of teas available hot or iced and in bulk, and I’d probably be there all the time if I lived nearby because I actually drink more tea than coffee even though I talk more about the latter.

I ate one breakfast out in Omaha, at Culprit Cafe, which is a bit more bakeshop than breakfast spot. I tried their most substantial option, the galette, a savory tart with braised beef cheeks, a poached egg, gruyère, caramelized onions, and a brown butter hollandaise – really a variation on a Benedict served on a pie crust. It was just too heavy for me, but I rarely eat big, heavy breakfasts like this – especially not with beef. The tart crust itself was amazing, though, so if you want coffee and a pastry, this is probably an ideal spot.

In the non-food department, Omaha has an amazing boardgame cafe close to the Archetype location called Spielbound, with food and drink options as well as a selection of what had to be 200+ boardgames, mostly Euros but with a good selection of family and trivia games too. They offer memberships and $5 one-day passes to use games from their libraries, which, given the list prices of many Eurogames, is a pretty good deal to try some out. I browsed for a while and learned that the classic game St. Petersburg was reissued by Z-Man Games within the last two years.

I also spent about an hour persuing the stacks at Jackson Street Booksellers in the Old Market, although I had pretty limited success in finding books to buy. Their selection of old, used, and out-of-print books is enormous, but perhaps even more eclectic and less organized than most large used bookshops I’ve visited; it’s quite possible they had more titles I wanted, but their system of filing them on the shelves is inscrutable and nobody offered to help in the hour I was there. I did walk out with Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, Philip José Farmer’s Hugo winner To Your Scattered Bodies Go, a Graham Greene short story collection, and a French version of Le Petit Prince for my daughter.

Had I had one more meal in town I would have tried The Local for their selection of over a hundred local craft beers. Oh, and no, I wasn’t interested in Runza or Zesto’s or Sullivan’s. I won’t judge you if you want to eat at places like those, but I do try to aim a little higher when it comes to feeding myself.

Stick to baseball, 6/4/16.

My third mock draft went up Friday morning, without a ton of big changes from the last one. Feedback from club sources so far is that it’s reasonable other than the fact that I don’t have Mickey Moniak going in the top ten; I agree with them, and was very uncomfortable with where I had him, but as I said in yesterday’s Klawchat I didn’t have a clear indication of any teams on him other than Philly and Colorado. I can add a bonus tidbit here: Boston, at 12, is on Virginia catcher Matt Thaiss as well as the other names I’ve mentioned.

I also tweaked my my rankings of the top 100 prospects for the draft, again with the help of Eric Longenhagen.

My latest monthly new music playlist went up Thursday morning.

Thanks to all of you who’ve signed up for my newsletter – I’m well over a thousand subscribers already.

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.

Stick to baseball, 3/19/16.

I had a big scouting blog post from Arizona for Insiders this week, leading with Dodgers outfielder Yusniel Diaz, plus a draft blog post on UVA’s Connor Jones and Matt Thaiss, including thoughts on why the Cavaliers have never churned out a big league starter. My weekly Klawchat transcript is up as well.

I reviewed the simple abstract strategy game Circular Reasoning for Paste.

And now, the links…

Stick to baseball, 3/12/16.

Couple of Insider blog posts this week from Arizona, one on Kenta Maeda, Jose De Leon, and Sean Manaea, and on Cody Ponce, Casey Meisner, Daniel Gossett, and Trent Clark. I also held my weekly Klawchat from the Cartel Coffee Lab location in Tempe. Many thanks to the barista with purple hair.

I appeared on’s Rocket Talk podcast, discussing science fiction, the Hugo Award, and a little baseball.

My most recent boardgame review for Paste covers the fast-moving deckbuilder Xenon Profiteer.

And now, the links…

  • A vaccine-denier couple in Canada let their baby die of meningitis rather than get him medical attention, choosing instead to give him natural treatments like maple syrup. They’re now facing criminal charges, as they should, but they’re claiming they’re being persecuted for being anti-vaccine morons. Adults who contract viral meningitis usually recover on their own, but infants are at serious risk and require medical intervention and sometimes must be hospitalized. The article doesn’t specify how their child ended up with meningitis, but it can be caused by a number of viruses, some of which – like measles, mumps, and influenza – are vaccine-preventable.
  • The BBC asks if Starbucks can succeed in Italy, where espresso is ingrained in the culture. The answer is of course they can, because Starbucks doesn’t really sell coffee: They sell highly caloric coffee-flavored drinks, food, wifi, clean bathrooms, but coffee is just a tiny part of the business. And what they’re selling more than any of that is a brand that has global cachet despite the poor quality of their products.
  • Also from the BBC, feeding young children peanuts reduces the risk of peanut allergies. So that naturalist vaccine-denier cousin of yours who didn’t give her baby peanuts till he was six probably increased the chances he’ll end up with a serious peanut allergy. Whomp, whomp.
  • Guardian sportswriter Marina Hyde with some highly intelligent fire-dropping on Maria Sharapova and why we shouldn’t believe her story.
  • Nancy Reagan died this week at age 94; her legacy includes the failed “Just Say No” campaign and associated war on drugs, as well as her part in encouraging her husband to cut funding for AIDS research as the disease was spreading fast in the U.S. Buzzfeed ran a piece from last year on how she turned down Rock Hudson’s plea for help just a few weeks before he died. The Guardian also recounts the Reagans’ refusal to commit resources to fighting the disease.
  • The New York Times with an excellent piece on the debunking of a fake CIA analyst who appeared on Fox News. While the fraudster himself, Wayne Simmons, is fascinating, the bigger question is how Fox let this guy go on air so often, saying so many inflammatory things, without anyone suspecting that his resume was inflated. We’re all susceptible to believing people who tell us what we want to hear.
  • The lawyer who controls Harper Lee’s estate – and has been accused in recent years of manipulating the author to her own benefit – has informed the publisher of To Kill a Mockinbird that the estate will no longer permit the publisher to produce the mass market paperback version. That’s the cheapest version of the novel, the one most schools and schoolkids bought. Does anyone else think Harper Lee would never, ever have permitted this? Yet I see no legal recourse, unfortunately.
  • Lot of Downton Abbey recaps, remembrances, and thinkpieces this week; this piece on Lady Mary as the series’ strongest and most central character was my favorite.
  • I did not care for this Sports Illustrated feature story on Blackhawks star and accused rapist Patrick Kane, but I will post the link here for you to judge for yourselves. I thought that it underplayed the seriousness of the accusations, and the fact that the lack of charges was due to procedural issues and the difficulty of proving rape cases rather than exonerating evidence, and didn’t sufficiently debunk the ‘theory’ it broaches about the connection between the incident and his career year.