Stick to baseball, 9/9/17.

I wrote two Insider pieces this week, naming ESPN’s 2017 Prospect of the Year (hint: it’s Vlad Jr.) and covering and on the strange saga of Juan Nicasio over the last ten days. I held a Klawchat on Thursday.

Last week, I wrote about the major Game of Thrones-themed boardgames for Vulture. My next boardgame review for Paste will come this week.

My book, Smart Baseball, is out and still selling well (or so I’m told); thanks to all of you who’ve already picked up a copy. And please sign up for my free email newsletter, which is back to more or less weekly at this point now that I’m not traveling for a bit.

And now, the links…

Boardgame news will return next week; I know of two significant Kickstarters to launch on Tuesday, but at least one of them is currently covered by an embargo so I can’t talk about it just yet.

Miami eats.

My recap of the 2017 Futures Game is now up for Insiders.

Downtown Miami itself is … not that great, really. The city was badly overmatched by the traffic and crowds in town for the weekend, with cops stationed at many corners but not doing anything to direct traffic or stop the many drivers doing illegal things (right turn from the left lane, blowing through red lights). I ended up spending most of my free time in the artsy Wynwood area, which seems to be the booming neighborhood for food, bars, and culture.

Lung Yai Thai Tapas is not really a tapas place, but it does indeed appear to be a Thai place, and I’d read several glowing reviews before my trip. I also rarely eat Thai food at or near home, since my wife is allergic to shellfish and Thai cuisine has a lot of hidden shellfish (oyster sauce, shrimp paste) in its recipes. Lung Yai’s lunch menu had mostly familiar dishes, so I went with the green papaya salad and with the first dish in the ‘chef’s recommendations’ section, khao soi gai, a northern Thai noodle dish served like a soup, with a coconut milk-curry sauce over boiled egg noodles and chicken, with crispy fried noodles on top. My experience with northern Thai dishes is pretty limited, but the khao soi had a huge umami base with the natural sweetness of the coconut and the flavors of yellow curry without any heat. It’s a tiny spot, with maybe 15 seats around a long counter, in a rundown neighborhood, but the food justified the trip out of my way. I’ve seen comments online that there’s a soup-Nazi atmosphere here, with rules you have to follow, but service was friendly and attentive, and if there were unwritten rules I guess I didn’t break any.

Kyu is an uber-trendy see-and-be-seen sort of restaurant that happens to serve great food, although it certainly wasn’t my sort of scene, and the front of house staff had a little bit of that “we’re doing you a favor by letting you eat here” vibe that drives me up a wall. But the food itself was worth the wait. Their duck breast “burnt ends” is really just a slow-smoked duck breast that develops a bbq char on the outside of the skin and the texture of a high-quality pork chop in the center despite being cooked through (which would ordinarily dry a duck breast out). I think there was five-spice in the rub and/or the sauce it’s served on, which, by the way, is all it’s served on: you get a large duck breast cut into slices and that’s it. I had ordered one side, the grilled baby bok choy with crispy garlic and chiles, which is the best bok choy dish I’ve ever had – garlic and chile are the two main flavor affinities for bok choy anyway, but this version had multiple textures and really crushed the salt-spice component. The garlic was there but didn’t overpower the dish, which I think is often a copout for dark green vegetable preparations. Kyu is particularly well known for their coconut cake, with what I think is a cream cheese-based icing (it was sweet and a little tangy, not just straight sweet), served with a scoop of coconut ice cream, and I can vouch that 1) it was amazing in every aspect and 2) when it showed up there was suddenly a lot of attention from the folks sitting and standing around me.

Panther Coffee is the best-known third-wave roaster in south Florida, maybe in all of Florida, and they do both outstanding espresso and some unique varietals for pour-over preparations. The espresso was bright and balancced with a ton of body, just lacking that sweetness that some of my favorite espressos (Blue Bottle in particular) offer. For a pour-over, I tried a Tanzanian that had a lot of berry and stone fruit notes but not the citrus of a lot of East African beans. Panther also has a big selection of high-quality pastries – I had a croissant, because coffee on an empty stomach is not a pleasant experience for me – from area bakeries, including some donuts that looked like little works of art.

I had drinks on Sunday night with longtime friend Will Leitch, which we realized is probably the longest conversation we’ve ever had in person despite knowing each other for a really long time. (I first met him when he did a reading for his book God Save the Fan in LA, so that had to be the spring of 2008.) We met up at the bar portion of Edge Steak & Bar inside the Four Seasons, which is actually not priced like a Four Seasons hotel restaurant might be and has a great bar menu of small plates as well as an enormous whiskey selection if you’re inclined to that sort of spirit. I tried two dishes – the bay scallop crudo with grapefruit, pomegranate seeds, and cucumbers, which had the perfect acid/sweet ratio; and the tostones with an avocado spread that was kind of a mild guacamole, also very good but on the heavy side. I can also verify that two of their Boulevardier cocktails, in essence a negroni with rye, were enough that I was glad I hadn’t driven to the hotel.

I left first thing Monday morning, but if I’d had one more dinner in Miami I would have tried to get to Niu Kitchen, a tapas place specializing in regional Spanish dishes, with jamón iberico and boquerones on the menu. That’ll have to wait for a scouting trip down there next year.

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.

Salted caramel rum ice cream.

So I posted a video and a picture on my Instagram feed of this salted caramel rum ice cream, the video showing the sugar caramelizing and the picture showing the final product. That generated a few recipe requests, so here’s my best rendering of what I did, because I winged it at a few points.

If you’ve never made caramel, it is chemistry in motion and the movement of the sugar through various stages never ceases to fascinate me … but it’s also a bit dangerous, as the sugar will reach temperatures well above boiling, and if it splashes at all, it will stick to your skin. Don’t skip the corn syrup in the recipe; the addition of an additional sugar beyond sucrose prevents sugar crystals from forming, which would prevent caramelization.

You’ll need an ice-cream maker of some sort for this, as well as a metallic whisk, and I recommend a heatproof silicone spatula for stirring the custard once the eggs are integrated.

Salted rum caramel ice cream

1 vanilla bean
1 cup white sugar
1 Tbsp light corn syrup
¼ cup water
1.5 cups heavy cream
1 cup milk (2% or higher)
6 large egg yolks
2 Tbsp rum
large pinch of salt

1. Whisk egg yolks to an even blend in a large bowl and set aside.

2. Split the vanilla bean and scrape out the interior seeds into a sauce pan with the sugar, corn syrup, and water. Warm over medium heat until the sugar is dissolved, then boil rapidly, occasionally brushing down the sides of the pan to remove any sugar crystals, until the mixture starts to turn brown, around 320 F/160 C. Swirl pan occasionally to ensure even heating and to prevent burning once the browning begins. When the entire mixture is a deep amber color (around 340 F), turn off the heat.

3. Add cream to the pan carefully (it may splatter), then return to low heat and whisk or stir to dissolve all solids. Add milk and heat to a simmer.

4. Slowly pour the hot mixture into the egg yolks, whisking constantly, to temper the eggs. (If you pour too fast, you’ll just scramble the yolks.) Return the entire mixture to the saucepan and heat over medium-low, stirring constantly until the custard reaches 170 F/76 C. (The heatproof rubber spatula will let you scrape the bottom of the pan to prevent any of the mixture from overcooking.)

5. Remove the pan from the heat and add the rum and salt. Store in the refrigerator overnight. The next day, process in an ice cream maker; mine took about 25 minutes to reach the right texture. Freeze until firm.

If you enjoyed this, check out my annual list of cookbook recommendations or my gift guide for cooks too!

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.

Gluten-free cocoa brownies.

One of the recipes that first got me hooked on Alton Brown’s show Good Eats was his first brownie recipe, which he calls cocoa brownies and featured on the legendary “Art of Darkness II” episode, as well as in his book Good Eats: Volume 1, The Early Years. (He later modified the baking technique in a blog post to create a gooier end product, but I haven’t tried this.) I loved this recipe because the brownies tasted like cocoa rather than like fudge, and hit that perfect textural note that isn’t too fudgy but isn’t too much like chocolate cake. It gets lift from the eggs rather than baking powder or soda, and using brown sugar for half of the sweetener introduces a more complex and slightly darker note. The only alteration I would ever make was to swap out half of the butter for half a cup of a neutral vegetable oil, because all-butter baked goods dry out too quickly, while baked goods made with at least some oil will stay moist for several more days.

Since I now have a few folks around me who need to avoid gluten, I’ve been experimenting a bit with converting recipes rather than buying expensive, highly processed gluten-free mixes that take all of the adjustments out of my hands. When I had a request for GF brownies, I thought of AB’s recipe because it calls for so little flour – ½ cup, or about 70 grams. Swapping that out for some King Arthur Gluten Free Multi Purpose Flour (not their GF baking mix) and adding 1/8 tsp xanthan gum for structure produced a brownie that looked and tasted just like the original version did, with only the slightest hint afterwards that something was different. (You can get both of those ingredients at Whole Foods.)

So here’s my gluten-free adjustment to Alton Brown’s cocoa brownies:

4 large eggs (they don’t have to be organic or cage-free, but I do prefer them for many reasons)
1 cup white sugar
1 cup brown sugar
4 ounces (1 stick) melted unsalted butter
½ cup neutral vegetable oil (soybean, corn, sunflower, safflower, canola)
2 tsp vanilla extract
½ tsp salt
1¼ cup (about 150 g) cocoa powder, either natural or Dutch-processed (my preference)
½ cup (about 70 g) King Arthur gluten-free multi-purpose flour
⅛ tsp xanthan gum

1. Grease and flour an 8×8 metal baking pan or line it with an aluminum foil sling for easy removal. Preheat the oven to 300 F.

2. In your stand mixer, whisk the four eggs until yellow and foamy. Add both sugars, the salt, and the vanilla extract and whisk until fully combined.

3. Combine the oil and melted butter, and whisk them into the egg/sugar mixture.

4. Sift the cocoa powder, gluten-free flour, and xanthan gum together and add to the bowl. Mix on low speed until no dry clumps or pockets remain, scraping the sides and bottom if necessary.

5. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for one hour (yes, it’s much longer), testing the center with a toothpick, which should come out nearly clean. The center may remain a bit gooey but that’s a good thing. Let them cool to room temperature before attempting to cut them. Just trust me on that.

NYC eats, August 2015.

I’ve got two posts up for Insiders today, one on sustainable breakthroughs so far in 2015 and one on this weekend’s Metropolitan Classic high school tournament.

I had quite a run of food in the city (that’s New York for all you non-New Yorkers; the qualifier simply isn’t required for the rest of us, nor is capitalization) over the weekend, between a pizza pilgrimage, an artisan coffee roaster, and a restaurant crawl with the O.G. Top Chef Harold Dieterle.

Pizza first … I’ve heard for years about Paulie Gee’s, a small pizzeria in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, that’s only open in the evenings and can easily run two-hour waits. They’re considered one of the best pizza joints in the country, including a spot on that 2013 Food and Wine list that I’ve been using as a sort of travel guide. (I’ve now eaten at 25 of the 47 that are still open, including all but one of the NYC entries.) By going solo I was able to get right in and sit at the bar, which had a rather convenient reading light right by my seat. The pizza is thin-crust, cooked in an Italian-built wood-fired oven, with various preset options ranging from the traditional to the bizarre. I went with a mostly traditional option of fresh mozzarella, arugula, and prosciutto, but – and I know I won’t get a good reaction from the crowd with this – the pizza was overcooked. The edges were too charred, and there were small parts of the center of the dough that were burned underneath. I have no complaints with the toppings and it probably would have been outstanding had it come out of the oven as little as 20 seconds sooner. Fortunately for me, they’re planning to open a second location in Hampden near Baltimore, so I’ll get to try them again.

The coffee spot was Blue Bottle, a roaster based in San Francisco with a couple of outlets in the city, and that is some damn good espresso. They offer a number of varietals in pour-overs, but as I was pressed for time both mornings (and particularly desperate for caffeine on the second morning), I went with espresso, which they make with blends rather than single-origins. Their roasts are light (“third-wave”) so you can still taste the flavors of the beans.

Harold Dieterle, the winner of the first season of Top Chef, is a huge Mets fan and reader of my stuff, so we’ve been in touch for a while and trying to get together for a food crawl in Manhattan, which finally happened on Friday night. The first stop was Cata, a tapas place on the Lower East Side where the alcohol consumption began – they specialize in gin and tonics, and I got one with Fever Tree tonic and lavender – and we had a handful of small plates. I’m pretty sure this was the first time I’d had jamón iberico, the Spanish version of prosciutto made from black Iberian pigs, often fed just on acorns. It’s less salty than prosciutto and the meat has a luxurious, buttery character with a distinct nutty flavor. It’s carved to order from a leg that’s sitting on the bar counter and costs $29 for a plate. We tried a handful of other tapas, best of which were the smoked oysters, the patatas bravas (fried potatoes, but not really French fries) served with an aerated aioli, and the marinated anchovy toasts.

Danny Meyer’s restaurant empire continues to grow, as the entrepreneur best known for creating Shake Shack is behind the new place called Untitled at the Whitney Museum. Head chef Michael Anthony (not the guy from Chickenfoot, although that would be cool) has created a vegetable-focused but not vegetarian menu that changes very frequently to reflect whatever’s most in season. We had at least a half-dozen dishes, some of which were gifts from the kitchen (for Harold, not for me), and the standouts included a tomato/melon “sashimi” that highlighted the spectacular tomatoes with just a little salt and I presume olive oil; a plate of grilled pole beans with squid and toasted hazelnuts, presenting a vegetable I rarely see in a way I hadn’t tried before; nectarine “toasts,” again taking a central item from the produce section and making it the runaway star; pork fritters, opulent little balls of shredded pork shoulder just barely breaded and fried, served over a corn relish; and duck sausage with mustard sauce, which turned out to be the second-best duck dish I had on the evening. The only dish I didn’t love was one of their most famous, the smashed cucumbers with black sesame seeds and soba noodles, which ended up lost in the sea of liquid underneath it, a hazard of working with high-quality in-season cukes. The space itself is very cool, with high ceilings and long pendant lights, plus lots of glass looking out on Gansevoort. Chef Anthony came out to chat and is an incredibly nice guy who’s a fairly serious Reds fan.

The last spot, and the most decadent, was Cosme, a Mexican-inspired upscale restaurant that, according to Harold, has one of the best duck dishes in the city: Duck carnitas, a whole braised duck leg served in a cast-iron skillet with thinly sliced onions and radishes, served with blue-corn tortillas, salsa verde, chile de arbol salsa (I tried it; it’s hot), and lime wedges. The duck shreds like smoked pork shoulder, but has a softer, smoother texture, and it stays moist between the braising and the way it’s served under the browned skin. It’s more than enough to share, but it’s also a steep $59. Whether that’s worth it depends on your budget, but I will say it’s probably the best duck dish I’ve ever had in a restaurant.

We also had Chef Enrique Olvera’s now-famous dessert, a pavlova he calls “Husk Meringue with Corn Mousse,” with burned and powdered corn husks in the giant meringue, which is served cracked in half so that the corn mousse (made with mascarpone) appears to be spilling out of the center. You can see pictures of both dishes in the glowing NY Times review from February. If Olvera’s name rings a bell, he appeared as a judge in one of the Mexico City episodes of the last season of Top Chef.

Birmingham eats, 2015 edition.

I had to get up at 5 am and connect through Orlando to get to Birmingham for the Vanderbilt-Alabama game on Saturday, so once I got to my rental car I headed straight for Octane Coffee in the Homewood neighborhood, the best coffee place I’ve found in Birmingham. It’s not on par with my favorite small roasters – Intelligentsia, Four Barrel, Counter Culture, Cartel, etc. – but it’s a lighter roast of higher-quality beans than your mass-market chains offer. I hung out for a while to write a few things, including starting the mock draft post for Tuesday, and ended up chatting about SSRIs with a few med school students sitting at my table, then chatting boardgames with a young couple playing Rivals for Catan (who also suggested a newish game called The Duke to me).

I was there long enough that I ended up going next door to the Mexican/BBQ place Little Donkey for lunch. Their midday menu offers plates for $8.75 with two tacos of your choosing, most of which contain large piles of smoked meats, and one of their sides. (You can also get a burrito, a salad, or tamales instead of tacos.) I also added a grilled corn on the cob for $2, and the total was more food than I could consume because the tacos were so much larger than I expected. The pork al pastor was the better option, although I did like the smoked brisket too; the latter probably just had too much meat relative to its toppings. The chipotle slaw was perfectly flavored, with the egg in the dressing cutting some of the sharpness of the pepper, and the elote (corn) was solid-average other than (I’m nitpicking) a very uneven distribution of the paprika on the outside. They make their tortillas by hand, and it was evident as they were worth the trip all by themselves. Reader Aaron, who lives nearby, says dinner isn’t quite such good value, but I thought it was very reasonable for the size and quantity of the lunch.

While I was sitting in Octane, Alton Brown sent out a tweet to his favorite road eats from the southern portion of his national tour, and on it was Steel City Pops, which is located right next door to Octane. Serving large paletas in fruit and dairy options for $3 a pop from five (soon to be seven) area locations, Steel City has a great assortment of straightforward and clever flavor combinations that change from time to time. I went with guava, which tasted like … guava. It was good, though. I wanted to try the caramel or the coffee, but didn’t think I could handle that on top of lunch.

My last meal was a substantial disappointment, due to what I think was a process breakdown in the kitchen. Hot & Hot Fish Club is one of the top-rated restaurants in the city, winning a James Beard Award in 2012, offering a menu full of farm-to-table that reflects seasonal produce as well as any I’ve come across. The menu on Saturday was loaded with spring vegetables across the starters and mains, and I was quite optimistic after seeing the salad, with young lettuce leaves still on the head along with English peas, shaved Parmiggiano-Reggiano, and a tart dressing that might have contained anchovies (although the menu didn’t say so, and that would be an odd omission). Even the breads to start the meal, served with fresh butter and their own green salt with dried herbs, were superb, especially the soft white bread, with the crust of a sponge bread but the tender crumb of a highly enriched loaf.

Then I waited. It was somewhere between 30 and 40 minutes before my entree arrived, and that only because I finally asked my server (the bartender) for an ETA on it. He later explained that when he asked the kitchen to fire the dish, they hadn’t done so, and when it did arrive less than five minutes after he made the second request, it wasn’t right – edible, certainly, not worth sending back, but not right, either. The dish was duck breast with “crispy” duck confit served with creamy grits, a blueberry gastrique, grilled peaches, and pecans. The duck breast was almost too tough to chew or even cut; the confit thigh wasn’t crispy in any way and its meat didn’t want to come off the bone. The gastrique was absent, although there were maybe a dozen cooked blueberries in two pockets on the plate. I dislike sending food that is edible back to the kitchen; something has to be unsafe to eat or cooked beyond palatability for me to take that step. This wasn’t at that level; it was just done wrong. The bartender had the kitchen send out a small cup of their spring pea soup, pureed with fresh mint and creme fraiche, but that was – and I don’t use this word often or lightly – terrible. The peas tasted both raw and underripe, so the soup was grassy and very bitter. We grow English peas in our backyard every spring, and when ripe they are juicy and sweet and perfect right out of the pod. Sometimes we pick a pod that isn’t ready, and that was the flavor in the soup. The kitchen just had an off night.

Atlanta eats, 2015 edition.

My Atlanta trip was much better for food than it was for scouting, with a washout on Friday and one of the players I went to see drawing three walks in four times up to the plate. As for food, though, I couldn’t have done much better: I met Hugh Acheson at Empire State South; saw my friend Eli Kirshtein at his new spot, the Luminary; met a reader and diehard baseball fan, Kaleb, behind the bar at Holeman & Finch; and went to one of Bon Appetit’s Best New Restaurants of 2014, Lusca.

I went to Empire State South once for lunch and twice for breakfast and coffee; if there’s a better coffee spot in Atlanta, I’d love to hear about it, as ESS uses beans from some of the best roasters in the country, including Counter Culture and 49th Parallel. They usually have three options for coffee brewed via Chemex – barista (and coffee sommelier of sorts) Dale Donchey treated me to a pair of coffees from the same mountain in Colombia but different roasters – and they do excellent espressos. Their breakfast menu is strong, with healthful options (their house-made granola with yogurt and honey is excellent) and less healthful ones (fried chicken on a biscuit with bacon and egg and OH MY GOD), and various pastries that seem to change daily. For lunch, I had the pork belly sandwich you saw on my Instagram feed, with just the right amount of pork, balanced by a very lightly spicy salsa de arbol and what amounts to a slaw of cabbage, radish, and cilantro with “crema” (which had the texture of mayo but a thinner consistency), served on a roll that had a texture like English muffin bread. I’ve now had four meals at ESS, including breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and have never had anything but outstanding food and service.

My lunch was better than yours: pork belly sandwich at @essouth

A photo posted by Keith Law (@mrkeithlaw) on

The Luminary is Kirshtein’s new place, open less than a year, mimicking the food and feel of a French brasserie. (If Eli’s name isn’t familiar, he was a contestant on season 6 of Top Chef along with the Voltaggio brothers, and you can see him with his hand up a dead fish in Richard Blais’ Try This at Home.) It’s located in the very cool Krog Market space along with other restaurants, food stands, and shops; on Wednesday night around 9 pm the place was still buzzing. I let Eli order for me and went with four small plates rather than a main. Three were outstanding, especially the catfish brandade, which read to me like a twist on southern fish fritters that also put them to shame. A brandade usually contains a mixture of bacalhao (dried salt cod) and olive oil, whipped to an emulsion, then mixed with or served on bread or potatoes. The Luminary’s version whips the catfish into whipped potatoes, then breads it tempura-style and fries it. Where fritters tend to be dense, heavy, and greasy, these were much lighter and smoother, without any grease; if I had a complaint it’s that they held their heat too well, so the last one was still steaming when I broke into it. (Not an actual complaint.) The seared octopus with fava beans is so new it hasn’t made their online menu yet; octopus is one of the few proteins I avoid, just because bad octopus is like galvanized rubber and most octopus I’ve had has been bad octopus, but this was not at all like that. The sear from the plancha gave it a depth of flavor I haven’t had on octopus before. The gnocchi came with cheese curds and a mixture of wild local mushrooms, giving the sauce a rich, earthy flavor (disclaimer: I fucking love mushrooms) that contrasted well with the light, airy texture of the pasta. The only dish I wouldn’t call plus was the crispy pig ears, which were just a little thicker than I like them, so they had more chew and less crunch than the ears I’ve had at crudo in Phoenix or the Purple Pig in Chicago. (That’s a dish I will always, always order when I see it.) I had to forgo dessert because I was over-full by that point, and that’s without finishing the pig ears or the gnocchi plate, although the Queen Batch – a twist on a gin and tonic that adds Campari and dill – probably didn’t help matters either.

Holeman & Finch is famous for their burgers, in part because it was once a scarce item: they’d make just two dozen a night, and when they were gone, they were gone. That gimmick is over, but the burger remains a staple of the menu: two patties with a slice of cheese on each, bread and butter pickles, steamed onions, and a soft (I’m guessing milk-based) bun. In texture and flavor it is a lot like a Shake Shack burger, cooked a little more than I like, on the medium side of medium well; it held together much better than Shake Shack’s burgers do (with a better bun), and H&F’s fries are hand-cut and fried till deep golden brown, as fries should be. I don’t see what the cheese added, but I also don’t like cheese on a hamburger in general. Kaleb made an off-menu cocktail for me that he calls the Rebirth of Slick, with rum, Foro (an Italian amaro), lime juice, dry orange bitters, and a spray of rosemary essence. Full disclosure: I did not pay full price for this meal, dinner at the Luminary, or the lunch at ESS. As always, there was no quid quo pro or expectation of a positive writeup or any writeup at all.

Lusca is a weird place: There’s a raw bar and they serve sashimi, but otherwise the cuisine is modern Italian, not Japanese or Asian or even seafood-centric. The best thing I ate didn’t have any seafood at all: a braised lamb neck starter with olives, chilis, and a thick slice of grilled sourdough. The meat itself had the texture of perfectly cooked short ribs, maybe even a little more tender, and while I would call lamb my least favorite animal protein, this was superb and didn’t have that odd gamy taste that put me off lamb several years ago. For a main dish, I had their house-made cavatelli with clams, mushrooms, tiny square lardons of bacon, and shallots; the pasta was perfectly al dente, even toothsome, and the mushrooms and bacon balanced out the clams so the latter didn’t overwhelm the dish. I was also amazed at how tender the clams were as, like octopus, they are often overcooked. Dessert was a chocolate tart with a layer of salted caramel under the dark chocolate custard or pudding, with chopped pistachios on top; the flavors were there but the presentation was a little off, as the custard was so soft that it started to slide out of the thin tart crust when I broke into it.

I met up with my former colleague and frequent partner-in-food-crime Kiley McDaniel for lunch at Leon’s Full Service, a suggestion from Kaleb, in fact, and a good one at that. Located right near Cakes & Ale in Decatur, Leon’s is located in a former service station and at least some of the staff had attendant-like uniforms. The sandwich menu has two staples (a burger and a brisket sandwich) while the remainder are subject to change; I had a fantastic cornmeal-crusted trout sandwich with a cabbage slaw and a side of Brussels sprout hash (bacon, apples, and cider vinegar) on the side, while Kiley went the lamb burger and kale salad with cotija, although really it was obvious he was jealous that I out-ordered him. We split the chocolate-nutella candy bar with toasted hazelnuts and sea salt, and thank God we did because eating that whole thing might have killed me.

San Diego eats, 2014 edition.

I have been writing the things for Insiders, on the Justin Upton trade and the Derek Norris/Jesse Hahn trade just in the last 24 hours.

The best meal in San Diego, our annual big writers’ night out, was at Juniper & Ivy, Richard Blais’ restaurant in Little Italy and one of my favorite restaurants in the country. I arranged the dinner well ahead of time, so we had a prix-fixe menu that included some items (like the amazing mac and cheese with house-made pasta and fontina) that aren’t on the typical menu. The takeoff on the Yodel is a regular item, though, and it’s bonkers … I split one with USA Today football writer Lindsay Jones and it didn’t stand a chance. There was a second dessert, not listed on the menu, that had to be tasted to be believed: blood-orange gelée, frozen yogurt, clementine supremes, lemongrass ice cream, and shards of roasted-citrus ice. I wanted to take that gelée home, but was afraid I couldn’t get a pound of it through airport security. The staff went all-out for us, clearly, and the service was exemplary. I reviewed J&I in full in March, and have now eaten there three more times, never once walking away less than fully satisfied.

If you aren't jealous, you should be. @juniperandivy @richardblais

A photo posted by Keith Law (@mrkeithlaw) on

Bird Rock Coffee Roasters, based in La Jolla, opened a second location a month ago, right across the street from Juniper & Ivy, and it’s now the best coffee option in the city, a small-batch roaster that is also the only direct-trade outlet in San Diego. I had an espresso macchiatto there each morning, but they also offer pour-overs and Chemex brews as well.

My other dinners in San Diego came at Cucina Urbana and Prep Kitchen, both strong, with Cucina Urbana my preference among the two. A new, upscale but reasonably-priced Italian trattoria, Cucina Urbana features a deep menu of pizzas, house-made pastas, and a slew of small plates, including the daily “polenta board,” assembled tableside with a ragù spread on top of a thick smear of creamy polenta on a wooden board. My pasta dish, bucatini with tomato, guanciale, cabbage, chili pepper, and a poached egg, was a great southern-Italian comfort-food dish, satisfying in texture (al dente, with the added bite from the jowl meat and the cabbage; smooth from the egg mixing with the tomato) and flavor (obvious), with just the right portion size between the starter polenta and the fact that I wasn’t leaving without trying the chocolate donuts with hazelnut filling, which didn’t even need the passion fruit dipping sauce except maybe to cool them off enough to eat them.

Prep Kitchen was a little more hit-or-miss. The yellowtail crudo was actually a slight disappointment, with a not-subtle fishy note marking the tuna as less than perfectly fresh, and the chocolate “budino” wasn’t a budino (an Italian custard, often thickened with cornstarch as well as eggs) but a warm chocolate cake served in a mason jar, but the pumpkin bread pudding had great balance of sweet and savory flavors without turning to mush, and the porchetta (which appears to be off the menu already) was superb if slightly fattier than I’ve had elsewhere.

I grabbed lunch twice at Bottega Americano, located just east of Petco Park in a cute space that combines a little Italian market and deli counter with a sit-down restaurant. Despite the grammatical error in its name, the restaurant serves excellent sandwiches and salads and makes a legit French macaron as well. The speck (smoked prosciutto), fuyu persimmon, shallot marmellata, arugula, and goat cheese sandwich on olive bread was my favorite for flavor, although I found it tough to tear through the speck, which they need to slice more thinly before serving; the olive-oil poached tuna sandwich with yellow pepper aioli and farmer’s egg (I didn’t know farmers laid eggs, but perhaps that’s a new mutation) was much easier to eat but needed more acidity somewhere in the mix. That was a better option than Kebab House, which is outstanding if you’re looking for cheap eats near the ballpark but was much heavier and I think a little overloaded with garlic.

I am in love with the Mission for breakfast in San Diego, and ended up eating there three mornings out of four; the one variation was at the Fig Tree Cafe in Hillcrest, where I had a disappointing salmon benedict with a potato/arugula side dish that couldn’t live up to the Mission’s amazing rosemary potatoes. I know the Tractor Room gets raves for its brunches, but I wasn’t there any morning when it was open for breakfast and have to save that for a future trip.