Raleigh eats.

Two new ESPN posts from Saturday – my report on Carlos Rodon and some more prep bats, and my 2014 MLB predictions.

I decided to make this trip to the Triangle into a tour of Ashley Christensen’s Raleigh restaurants, after receiving several recommendations from scout friends and (I think) hearing of her via Hugh Acheson. Christensen has four outposts in downtown Raleigh, three of them on the same block of Wilmington Street, which served for all three of my dinners plus a breakfast/coffee stop.

Poole’s Diner is her high-end shop, with a menu that changes weekly or daily and focuses on local products, meaning it’s very heavy on vegetables even in the mains – which was a positive since I took my cousin, a vegetarian, for dinner. The best item was actually a side dish, sauteed Brussels sprouts with oyster mushrooms and a sherry cream sauce. Mushrooms and fortified wines like sherry or madeira are great friends, and mounting the resulting sauce with cream (saute the mushrooms, deglaze with the wine, finish with just enough cream to thicken) adds flavor and mouthfeel that goes with almost everything … but I’ve never had it with Brussels sprouts or any other brassica before. The combination was unexpected but provided great balance to the slight bitterness of the sprouts, with the cream limiting that bitter note and allowing the umami of the mushrooms to move to the front.

My entree was a seared halibut over farro with a roasted tomato relish, everything perfectly cooked, with the farro actually the best part of the dish. Farro, an “ancient grain” in the wheat family that can refer to spelt, emmer, or einkorn; the hulled berries are cooked until al dente and can substitute in many recipes for rice or barley, but with more flavor than plain rice and less of that good-for-you taste of barley. We shared a dark chocolate/mocha pot de crème with coffee shortbread, served in a wide-mouth mason jar, my kind of dessert – bittersweet, not cloying, with the consistency of a thick mousse so that even a half portion was very satisfying.

Poole’s also has its own house cocktail menu; I couldn’t pass on a drink based on Mount Gay XO rum (especially after I heard rumors, unfounded as it turns out, that Mount Gay was shutting down). The cocktail included Mount Gay, sweet vermouth, and orange bitters, served with a strip of orange peel, and for a drink that had no non-alcoholic components it was surprisingly smooth, and the dark rum provides a hint of sweetness without any added sugar in the drink. The entree, the side, my cousin’s salad (an entree portion size), dessert, and the cocktail came to about $75 before tip.

Couple of important notes on Poole’s: They don’t take reservations, but there’s a large bar where you can get happy while you wait; there’s a large parking lot across the street that’s free after 5 pm; and their website discourages diners from bringing children.

Beasley’s Chicken + Honey, Christensen’s fried chicken restaurant – I know most of you are already sold at this point – actually shares a space with Chuck, her burger place, separated by a wall but with staffers going back and forth between the two. Beasley’s was the better place by far; the chicken was excellent, among the best fried chicken I’ve ever had, served with a very slight drizzle of honey over the top – just enough for the taste, not enough to make it sticky. But the sides are absolutely incredible; one friend of mine who lives in the Triangle says he only gets the $9 plate of three sides and skips the chicken altogether. I went with the roasted beets with pickled onions and an orange & white balsamic vinaigrette, and the green cabbage slaw with malt vinegar, roasted tomatoes, and what I think was a celery seed mayo dressing that may have had dried mustard as well. The beets came cold, both red and golden, with the vinaigrette thicker than a typical dressing, somewhere between the consistency of a regular vinaigrette and that of pure maple syrup, with the onions on top, giving two elements of acidity to brighten and balance the sweetness of the beets. (Disclaimer: I love roasted beets in pretty much any form as long as they never saw the inside of a can.)

The cabbage slaw was also strong, maybe a little overdressed, but the celery seeds in the dressing were a surprising and effective touch; I might have though of crushed caraway seeds or mustard seeds, both of which work extremely well with cabbages, but the celery seeds were a note I kept coming back to after eating. Also, they have bourbon chocolate pecan pie for dessert and that was hands-down the best pecan pie I’ve ever tasted, maybe the first time I’ve had one where I never thought for a second, “this is a little too sweet.” The predominant flavors were the dark chocolate and the bourbon – the booze wasn’t there for nomenclature, but you actually get that smoky/sweet flavor in the finished product.

Chuck was a little disappointing after my meals at the other two spots, mostly because the burger itself was underseasoned. Although the good folks on the Beasley’s twitter feed advised me to get the Dirty South – a burger with smoked pork shoulder and chili on top of the patty itself – I couldn’t bring myself to order it, not with an avocado and bacon-onion jam option staring me in the face. (Besides, I wanted to taste the beef, and though the Dirty South would overwhelm it with the pork flavor.) Also, the bun was kind of nondescript. The hand-cut fries were good, and seemed to have all the salt that was missing from the burger; you get your choices of two dipping sauces from a list of seven or eight, and I recommend the espelette mayo, although if you like garlic mayo theirs is potent as well. They offer unusual milkshake flavors and will spike them with alcohol, but I didn’t partake. A five-ounce burger (they offer a half-pound, but really, no one needs that) and a quarter pound of fries was more than enough for me.

Joule’s Coffee is the Christensen coffee/breakfast joint, a few doors down from Beasley’s and Chuck, using beans from Durham’s Counter Culture, one of the best roasters on the east coast. They offer drip, cold brew, pour-overs, and various espresso drinks, with your choice of two different single-origin beans for the last option. The breakfast menu includes egg dishes, croissant French toast, sausage and biscuits, and, my choice, house-made yogurt (thick, like Greek yogurt or labneh) with granola and fresh blueberries. The coffee, a Rwandan varietal, was good enough that I contemplated getting up a half-hour earlier the next morning to drive over there before my flight home – I didn’t, because I like sleep too, but I was tempted – and the yogurt was a good reminder that homemade can beat even the best packaged, authentic Greek yogurts*.

* Authentic Greek yogurt means it’s strained yogurt, without any added thickeners. The FDA has no guidelines on Greek yogurt or the use of the word “authentic” here, so you get major yogurt brands creating fake Greek yogurt by adding vegetable gums, pectin, or corn starch. Read the labels and buy the real stuff – Chobani, Fage, and Whole Foods all do it right.

My one non-Christensen meal spot was La Farm Bakery in Cary, not too far from the USA Baseball complex where I was attending the NHSI tournament. La Farm was founded by a baker of traditional European breads, including sourdoughs, dark ryes, and pain de campagne – the French bread style that can be formed into decorative shapes. They also sell a variety of traditional French pastries and do salads and sandwiches for the lunch crowd. The bread is the star, a solid 70 on the 20-80 scale, especially the Italian bread with sesame seeds and the focaccia, with the ciabatta closer to average for me. The sandwiches were a mixed bag; I loved the Mediterraneo, with fresh mozzarella, roasted tomatoes, basil, and balsamic vinaigrette, but the “award-winning” albacore tuna salad sandwich was very ordinary. The BLT was very good, better with the added avocado option, but there was about twice as much chipotle mayo as the sandwich needed. On one of those days, one MLB team’s contingent walked in right as I was finishing, so I hung out for a bit and saw what they ate, with the kale salad with eggless Caesar dressing the most appealing. If I lived near Cary, I’d be buying bread from them twice a week, at least.

Juniper & Ivy.

I was fortunate enough to have time on Saturday to visit Juniper and Ivy, the new San Diego restaurant from Top Chef (and onetime podcast guest) Richard Blais. I can report that Chef Blais’ hair is even crazier in person. Also, the food was spectacular – different from what I had at the Spence in Atlanta, but with a similarly experimental bent, very much what you’d expect at a place with Blais’ name on it.

(Full disclosure – Richard was kind enough to send out a number of dishes for me to sample, so portions of my meal were complimentary. As always, this doesn’t affect what I’m telling you about the meal or its quality, but I’d prefer you know this information up front.)

The menu is extensive, longer (I think) than the Spence’s, divided into a number of distinct sections: Snacks, Raw items, Pastas, Toasts, Small plates (including salads and vegetable dishes), Entrees, and Desserts. I didn’t really need to capitalize all of those, now that I think about it. The restaurant opens at 4 pm for cocktails and snacks, with the full menu available at 5 pm.

The first item on the Snacks menu is a buttermilk biscuit served with smoked butter. I have never turned down a biscuit, but I think I’m something of a biscuit snob – I like them tender, not flaky; I think buttermilk is overrated; and I demand a browned crust. J&I’s biscuit hit all three points. The texture was more like that of a warm cake than a traditional biscuit, with no layers like you’d expect from biscuits that came out of a can. The buttermilk flavor was subtle – it reminded me of a tangy Southern buttermilk biscuit, without smacking me in the face with that soured milk flavor. And the top was crispy, with the salty smoked butter drizzled over the top. The presentation is slick as well, coming out under glass, served in a miniature cast-iron pot. Blais’ Chicken and Biscuits should be coming to a strip mall near you, damn it.

From the raw menu, I ordered the one item both Chef Blais and my server, Alexis, recommended – Dungeness crab with meyer lemon curd and dill pollen, served on a nasturtium leaf that you roll up to eat the crab mixture, almost like you’re stuffing a grape leaf. The peppery leaf was a good offset for the two sweet elements inside of it (crab meat tastes sweet to me, at least); Blais loves lemon curd, which is the star ingredient in the recipe I cook most often from his Try This At Home, lemon curd chicken, and here I would have been happy with a little more curd to crank up the acidity even further.

Chef Blais sent out the hamachi (yellowtail) crudo, served with a tiny panzanella on top that included sliced olives, giant raisins (I’m not sure what kind but they tasted more like dried cherries than grapes), and samphire – glasswort, a wonderfully crunchy, salty vegetable that isn’t used often enough in my opinion – with a jamón vinaigrette. I enjoyed the panzanella, but at the end of the day, a crudo dish lives and dies by the quality of the fish, and this was top-end, beyond fresh, sliced sashimi-style, and if they’d sent the fish out as one plate and the panzanella as another I’d still rave about both because the fish was that good. (The main food item or category I missed while living in Arizona was quality fish; in fact, the only restaurant where I’d order raw fish preparations in the Valley was, appropriately enough, crudo.)

The Toasts menu had three items, two of which included things I prefer not to eat – raw beef and beef heart – so I went with the vegetarian option, charred black grapes with ricotta, hyssop, and ice wine vinegar. (Hyssop is a strongly flavored herb used in a lot of cough medicines as well as in the liquor Chartreuse.) The grapes were skinned but served whole, all on a giant slab of grilled sourdough bread that was coated with a thin layer of ricotta, a flavor combination (grapes and ricotta, which isn’t even really cheese) I wouldn’t have thought of myself – grapes and cheese, yes, but I think of ricotta as a pretty generic food because I grew up only knowing the kind that came in the plastic tub from the supermarket. (So did Blais, who grew up a few towns over from me.) The creaminess of the ricotta helped balance the sweetness and slight acidity of the grapes plus the brighter acidity of the vinegar, and I’m a pretty big fan of grilled bread in all its permutations. I didn’t really notice the hyssop, or anything that reminded me of Chartreuse.

Chef Blais also suggested the green gazpacho, which is poured tableside – a bowl arrives with “early” green grape tomatoes, green almonds (a new item for me), lime caviar, and what I think was coarsely diced honeydew, after which the rich green soup, which is more like a dressing, is poured over the top, tableside. This was a vegetable-lover’s treat, with all of the huge flavors coming from the produce itself, especially the tomatoes. This is the kind of dish I would have hated twenty years ago because it was all vegetables, and ten years ago because it has tart and savory notes, but now I could easily see this as the centerpiece of a vegetarian meal. It is potent, almost aggressive in its vibrancy, like a spring harvest in a bowl.

It wouldn’t be a meal at a Richard Blais restaurant without at least one weird plate. “Abologna” is pretty much what it sounds like: mortadella, a forcemeat that originated in Bologna, that includes abalone in place of some of the pork fat. J&I’s abologna also includes pistachios and is served in slices with drops of passion fruit-Dijon mustard. Once I got over my initial reaction – the abologna looks like olive loaf, a form of bologna popular in New York that I have always found repulsive – I was shocked by the texture of the abologna, softer than the American bologna, more like an airier paté than a typical forcemeat. The fish added a sea-air flavor but there was nothing fishy about the taste; I think the conflict between the pork and sea flavors is the dish’s defining characteristic. It lacked a contrasting textural element, however; anything this soft needs something hard or crunchy to offset it, even just some grilled bread, and the pistachios weren’t able to fill that need.

That brings me to the best item of the night, the prawn-and-pork rigatoni, which is just what it sounds like. It’s a classic New York Italian red sauce with meat, but this time also uses bits of prawns, which add more texture than anything else. The result is a small plate (a primo portion) of pasta that feels more satisfying because the three main components, the pasta, the pork, and the shrimp, all have some tooth to them. You could split one of those biscuits in half and cover it with this sauce and probably get a line halfway to Escondido. You could also put a few New York Italian grandmothers to shame with this sauce. I’ll even forgive Blais calling it “gravy.” It’s sauce. Salsa pomodoro. Save your gravy for Thanksgiving.

Dessert was one of the treats sent from the kitchen, but it was actually the dessert option I would have chosen of the four on the menu: coconut panna cotta with passion fruit, crushed almond macaron, and jasmine rice sorbet. The sorbet was the most interesting and peculiar sorbets I’ve ever tasted; sorbet is usually kind of a letdown, all ice and no mouthfeel, but this one had the essence of the rice so that one taste brought to mind all the flavors and experiences of sitting in a Thai restaurant, then reinforced by the coconut flavor in the perfect panna cotta. It was also the most visually stunning dish of the night.

Juniper & Ivy also has an exclusive cocktail menu, including a gin drink similar to the Sailor’s Crutch that I liked so much at the Spence. I went for the rum drink this time, however, called Twice on the Vine – rum, grape-tarragon gastrique, lime, and fino (sherry) finish. Aside from the garish magenta color, it was solid, with about the right sweet/sour/strong balance for a rum drink, although the rum itself was a little lost under all of the finishing flavors. (The classic ratio for rum cocktails, especially the one best known as planter’s punch, is encoded in rhyme: One of sour, two of sweet, three of strong, four of weak. Flip the sweet and sour and you lose the rhyme but get a less cloying result.)

The prices are very reasonable for this kind of cuisine, especially given the superlative quality of the inputs, comparable to the price point of the nearby Searsucker (another great place to eat in downtown San Diego) but providing better presentation and more creativity to the dishes. It’s a little further off the beaten path, however, so it won’t likely get the walk-in traffic that Searsucker could get if it weren’t already so well-regarded. If you’re in San Diego, Juniper & Ivy is well worth the ride over to Little Italy whether it’s for a meal or just drinks and a biscuit.

The Audacity of Hops.

Klawchat today at 1 pm ET.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Downton Abbey, season 4.

My second post on the UVA-East Carolina series, about the four major position player prospects on Virginia, is up for Insiders now.

I haven’t written about Downton Abbey in two years, skipping any commentary on season three, probably just because of time but maybe because I found that season to be such a disappointment. Three of the original cast members chose not to return after the end of their three-season contracts, so series creator Julian Fellowes killed two of their characters off, one in the most incongruous and seemingly spiteful ways imaginable. Along with some other absurd subplots – not that this show has ever been a model of realism, but Fellowes at least kept it in the realm of the highbrow soap opera most of the time, rather than trying to be General Hospital with English accents – the third season was a huge letdown after two strong ones to start the series.

The fourth season, which finished airing in the U.S. just two days ago and wrapped up in the U.K. in December, was a significant and surpising comeback for the series, which is still soapy but found a better balance between the serious and the sentimental this time around. Few series bounce back from the kind of dropoff Downton Abbey had in season three, but the fourth season was wittier, saw real character development from several principles, and righted a few of the ships set adrift with those two deaths the previous go-round.

Rather than try to unravel the various interwoven plot strands, I thought I’d tackle a few of those central characters who had major roles this season – nearly all female, as it turns out, another unusual feature in a show with such broad appeal.

* Lady Mary begins the season in mourning, but the offscreen passage of time allows Fellowes to move her past that to the point where we can at least see Michelle Dockery smile on occasion and display her razor-sharp delivery of acerbic humor, which for my money has to be half of why she is constantly beset by suitors. (She’s attractive enough, but you’d think she was Heidi Klum by the way men abase themselves before her in the show.) The emergence of Lady Mary from the dour, unpleasant character she was before marrying Matthew into a more mature, strong-willed woman willing to take on a leadership role at Downton while also showing incredible mindfulness of her own emotional state as a recently widowed young woman – without shedding the occasional viciousness that was an essential part of her character – was the season’s greatest development. She is the show’s clear center at this part, a flawed heroine, still capable of owning a scene, whether it’s her involvement as confidant in Anna’s subplot or her presence as commentator on family scenes. Her quip in the Christmas special about “grandmama” and the poker game is the funniest line in the series’ history uttered by anyone other than Lady Violet. Of course, if Mary eventually chooses to marry Mr. Blake, Fellowes must cast Michael Kitchen as the father of the groom, or all of England might lynch him.

* Anna Bates’ subplot was the most serious in the show’s history, and for my money an unwelcome one – not that such things don’t or didn’t happen (they most certainly do), but that it was a darker story than anything else across its four seasons to date, and didn’t do anything we haven’t seen many times before in fictional rape narratives. The victim blames herself and is caught in a spiral of shame and guilt, incredibly frustrating to any viewer who just wants someone to make her understand that none of what happened was her fault; or the victim fights back, presses charges, testifies, and everyone pretends to live happily ever after. Fellowes chose the first route, as if he needed some kind of subplot to cause strife in the Bates’ happy marriage, and perhaps something more meaty for Joanne Froggatt to tackle, rather than standing around and looking cute most of the time. The only real value the storyline provided to the viewer was the connection to the purloined letter in the Christmas special – an episode where we got to see a good bit more of Bates’ nefarious side, another example of the character development in the season that made it, on the whole, so positive, but not something that seemed to extend to Anna after her story’s resolution.

* Lady Rose would like to go to London, please.

* Isobel was left adrift for too much of the season, a waste of the very talented Penelope Wilton, although her occasional moments with Tom Branson as two outsiders trying to figure out whether they still fit in at Downton after their respective losses were strengths – something we should see more of, as they have that natural kinship, and Isobel’s maternal affection for Branson is evident.

* The Alfred-Jimmy-Ivy-Daisy storyline played itself out too quickly for the season, and eventually became tiresome other than the sweet – maybe a little too sweet – conclusion where Daisy gets advice from her father-in-law, another character we could use a little more of. Daisy likes Alfred, who likes Ivy, who likes Jimmy, who likes himself. Something in that chain had to break or reverse or Mrs. Patmore was going to have to club someone with a cast-iron skillet. (Mrs. Patmore also got a little more breadth to her character, appearing more confident than in seasons one and two and more like the captain of her kitchen than a harassed and perhaps not-that-competent servant.)

* And then we have Lady Edith, whose subplot was clearly too good to be true for a character who gets punched in the stomach at least one per season despite deserving pretty much none of it. Her witchiness toward Mary has evaporated post-Sybil, and if she has a character flaw remaining it was absent this past season. The story had more than a touch of the absurd, while also dropping her whole bid for independence through writing, and I can only hope the two revelations in the Christmas special, extending this storyline into season five, provide more value than we got from it this season. Even the brief foray into the dangers facing a woman who sought to end a pregnancy in a time when abortion was illegal, and thus practiced in circumstances that posed great risks to the woman, was over before having any impact. With these seasons set in the inter-war period, a time of great social change, Fellowes has some room for social commentary, especially on the roles of women, and other than boosting Lady Mary to a more central role, I don’t think he did enough of that.

* Oddly enough, of all the male characters on the show, it was Moseley who had the most to do in season four, getting knocked down but getting up again, and by the end of the season playing a pivotal role in the culture downstairs. I think the idea that Moseley’s descent from a valet to a footman was almost too big a fall for him to bear can’t resonate with modern audiences – isn’t a lesser job at the Abbey better than pouring tar, or being unemployed? – but putting him in the lower quarters while he worked to find his own self-respect had interesting consequences, and may finally give Thomas a proper foil for his intrigues.

* Finally, Lady Violet was in rare form all season; I thought her dialogue was wittier and Fellowes was careful not to excessively liberalize her given what was going on with her granddaughters. She needs to be the guardian of the old ways, in a sense, while balancing that with her love and care for Mary and Edith. Dame Maggie Smith has shown she can handle anything – just watch her virtuoso, Oscar-winning turn as the title character in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – and Fellowes should continue to challenge her with the character. Besides, who else could deliver a rejoinder to Isobel’s “How you hate to be wrong” like Smith did with Lady Violet’s retort, “I wouldn’t know; I’m not familiar with the sensation?”

Staunton and Charlottesville, Virginia.

My draft blog post on Jeff Hoffman is up for Insiders, as is a short reaction to Baltimore signing Nelson Cruz. Look for another draft blog post, on UVA hitters, on Tuesday.

Esquire ran a piece last week that profiled a new, tiny restaurant called the Shack, located in the Virginia mountain hamlet of Staunton (pronounced like Giancarlo’s surname), while also somehow praising the writer for finding this hidden gem. That link’s serendipitous appearance in my Twitter feed came a few days before my scheduled trip to Charlottesville, itself a wonderful food town, but just 45 minutes away from Staunton – a bit of fortuitous timing I couldn’t pass up.

And the Shack is indeed a fantastic experience, both for food and for value: $40 for a prix-fixe menu, only available on Friday and Saturday nights, that comprises three courses (one choice each among three starters, three entrees, and two desserts) with huge flavors and a great focus on produce. I’m not sure how much of what I ate was local, given the time of year, but much of it was at least seasonally appropriate, and the deftness of the execution was remarkable.

The first course was my favorite of the night: sweetbread-filled tortelloni with beech mushrooms, basil leaves, and a Meyer lemon paste (possibly from confit) underneath, with the pasta itself made fresh in the back. Cooked perfectly al dente, the tortelloni had an ideal dough/filling ratio, and the mushrooms brought a huge earthy note to the dish that seemed to increase the potency of the minced sweetbread inside the dumplings. (I concede I am a sucker for any pasta dish made with good mushrooms.) The lemon underneath the pasta was hidden, requiring a little extra effort to get it into each bite, but the balance of sweet, sour, salty, and umami flavors was spot on – and never during the meal did I have a thought of “this needs salt.”

My entree was a seared trout with cured trout roe, brussels sprouts, and parsnip puree. The trout itself tasted unbelievably fresh – I don’t know if it’s even the right time of year for it, but the fish tasted as if it had just been caught – and this was the best trout skin I’ve ever eaten; even at home I often just skip it because of the work required to make it this well. Imagine the texture of a potato chip, so thin it’s nearly translucent, taken right out of the fryer, and you have a sense of how the skin tasted. I’m quibbling here, but the dish tended a shade too much toward the sweet side because of all of the natural sugar in the parsnips, and I’d have liked a little more of the finger lime vinaigrette to balance it – but I only noticed it because everything else was so perfectly done. (Finger limes are new to me, a citrus plant native to Australia and only recently commercialized and grown in the United States.)

The dessert was described in the most basic terms on the menu: “apples + bananas + vanilla wafers + terragon [sic],” but as the other option was full of hazelnuts, one of my least favorite flavors in the culinary catalog, I chose the fruit dish with no idea what I might get. What I got was sparse but bursting with flavor, centered around beautifully browned chunks of banana, with crumbled vanilla wafers underneath like a deconstructed pie crust. It lacked something to bind all of the elements together – a little crême fraîche, perhaps, or some honeyed labneh – but the flavors on the plate were beautiful.

The Shack is waiting on its beer/wine license, which should arrive by early March, and seating will likely remain limited – the tiny space seats about 32 people, all in tables for four, so while I had a table to myself for a while, the server asked me if I’d mind sharing with a couple who had just arrived. I said yes, of course, and ended up having a long conversation with the couple, a bit closer to my parents’ age, about Staunton, food, and places we’d traveled. I had just seen Alton Brown’s Edible Inevitable tour, during which he expounds on the role of food as a shared experience – the act of eating is what brings us to the table, together, to break bread. I would never have met that couple or had that conversation without word of The Shack’s amazing food spreading to the point that it reached me and made me want to make the trip. The food alone was worth it – $40 for that kind of quality, both in execution and in inputs, is a screaming bargain – but the experience as a whole was one-of-a-kind.

* Of course, leaving Charlottesville for dinner limited my dining time in that town to just the next morning’s breakfast and a stop for coffee. Breakfast at the Blue Moon Diner was fine, nothing remarkable other than bad service (I sat at the counter, where two servers were more interested in doing things like organizing the vinyl records for the turntable). Coffee at Shenandoah Joe’s, a reader suggestion, was much better: they offer pour-overs with a few dozen options, all roasted in-house, although the folks at the register didn’t seem to know much about which beans were the freshest. (Older beans tend to lose some of their brighter notes, like acidity, something I just learned very recently.) I had their Guatemalan El Tambor offering in a pour-over, only offered in 16 oz size for about $2.50, and other than lacking some acidity it was a great cup, with deep roasted cocoa nib and rum/molasses notes.

Takenoko.

Takenoko is our new favorite family game, easy enough for my 7-year-old to understand (and, after two plays, completely memorize) the rules, just complex enough to require some serious decision-making, with beautiful components and a kid-friendly theme. Aside from one small hiccup in the rules, it’s about as perfect as any adult/kid boardgame out there.

In Takenoko, the emperor of Japan has been given a panda as a gift, and the panda does what pandas do – he starts running around the emperor’s garden eating bamboo, frustrating the royal gardener. The board changes each game as players lay hex tiles in three different colors on the table, starting with the central pond tile, then irrigating each tile so they can add bamboo stacks to it – although the panda will move around the board and eat bamboo when the players need to collect some.

On a turn, a player takes two actions and may not perform the same type of action twice. Action choices include adding a hex tile (draw three, choose one to place, return the other two to the bottom of the stack); add an irrigation canal; move the gardener to an irrigated tile, adding bamboo to that one and any adjacent, irrigated tiles of the same color; move the panda, eating one bamboo section from the tile where he lands; or take another objective card to try to score more points. After round one, each player rolls a “weather” die before his/her turn, allowing him/her to take a third action, perform the same action twice, or do specific tasks like moving the panda for free.

Players all work to build up the royal gardens, earning points by completing “objectives” on three types of cards. The first kind involves creating patterns of hex tiles on the board, with the player scoring points once the tiles are placed in the right pattern and are all irrigated. The second requires the player to collect bamboo sections, scoring once he’s obtained the whole set shown on the card. The third and most difficult kind, the gardener cards, require constructing specific bamboo stacks – four sections of a single color on a specific tile type, or sets of three or four stacks of exactly three sections, all of the same color. Task rewards range from 2 points up to 7, and the game ends when a player reaches a specific threshold based on the number of players in the game (equal to 11 minus the number of players, if you don’t mind a little arithmetic). The player to reach that threshold first gets the Emperor card, worth an additional 2 points.

The tile types I mentioned above involve improvement tokens, some of which are printed on the hex tiles already, with 9 more miniature tiles available for players to add to tiles as they see fit. One type prohibits the panda from eating bamboo sections on that tile (which means the stack can never shrink); another makes the tile particularly fertile, so it adds two bamboo sections instead of one each time the gardener drops by; and the third, the watershed token, adds irrigation to a tile regardless of its access to the central network of canals. These can make reaching certain objectives easier, but the gardener cards that call for building a bamboo stack of four sections specify what improvements are required to earn points – some cards call for a specific token, and the others can only be scored if the stack is on a hex tile with no improvement tokens at all.

The lone hiccup in the game comes from the existence of multiple objective cards with the same pattern or requirement within each deck. In the gardener and tile-pattern decks, that means a player could draw the same card twice and, in theory, score twice for fulfilling its requirements just once. The rulebook points out this possibility and suggests a house rule to cover it; we’ve played with the simplest solution, that no player can score the same objective card from these decks twice. The panda objective cards don’t present this problem, because to score such a card you have to return the bamboo sections you’ve collected to the central repository; if you draw the same panda objective card again, you have to start collecting from scratch anyway.

Takenoko has a high interactive element with a low screw-your-opponent factor; you can sometimes infer what your opponent is trying to do, but you probably won’t be certain, and making a move to stop him/her just sets you back from achieving your own objectives. You can, however, benefit from what someone else does, or find an opponent has inadvertently blocked you, so choosing what steps to take when is a big part of Takenoko strategy. The time required to run irrigation lines out to hex tiles placed two or three spaces away from the central pond is also a big factor in deciding when or whether to go for a hex-pattern objective, and because the panda and gardener can only move in straight lines, you may also find yourself trying to position them in your current turn so you’ll have a fighting chance to get them ready to strike in your next one.

Games run very quickly, maybe a half hour for the three of us to complete a game, in large part because the rules are straightforward enough for my daughter to make reasonably fast decisions and to decide before her turn arrives what she wants to do. (This also involved her making vague threats to my wife and myself about what might happen if we screwed up what she was trying to accomplish on her next turn.) The components are well-made and attractive, with a sensible box for storage and the right number of small bags to keep the bamboo stacks and other pieces separated.

Sherlock, season three.

Sherlock, season three, executive summary: fun, amazing, disappointing, in exactly that order.

When your seasons are just three episodes long and each one of them is the length of a short feature film, it’s hard to build up longer story arcs or engage in large-scale character development. For the third season of Sherlock, Mark Gatiss’ and Stephen Moffatt’s adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s character and stories into a modern setting, we do get some surprising alterations in Sherlock’s character, but unfortunately some of it comes at the expense of what makes him who he is: The deductions.

(I’m assuming if you’re reading this, you’re familiar with the series already; you may want to start with my reviews of season one and season two.)

We last saw our titular hero taking a dive off the edge of a building in a staged suicide attempt that was intended to foil the evil plans of evildoer Moriarty and save John Watson, a riff on the short story “The Final Problem,” where ACD killed off Holmes, only to bring him back a few years later in response to public outrage over the character’s death. We knew Holmes didn’t die here, but the first episode had to, as it were, un-kill him – and the writers had a bit of fun with it, posing increasingly preposterous solutions before showing what might be the actual one, only to have Holmes himself cast doubt on his own explanation of actual events. (Gatiss has pointed out that there are only so many ways to jump off a building and survive, so I think we can accept Sherlock’s last answer as the correct one.) “The Empty Hearse” thus brings Holmes back to life, to London, and to Dr. Watson, the last of which provides some of the series’ darkest comedy to date – as one might expect Watson to be a little peeved that his BFF faked his own death and disappeared for two years without a word. The series of reunions that bring Sherlock back, more or less, to his old circle of partner-antagonists takes up the bulk of the episode, but we do get an actual case, this time an act of domestic terrorism that Sherlock has to stop both by deduction and by action. The balance of intellectual crime-solving, the interplay between Sherlock and Watson, and the filling in of the blanks of the previous season’s cliffhanger differs greatly from the formula for the previous six episodes, but Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock) carries the extra weight beautifully and the episode felt like an appetizer for the remaining two parts of the season.

The second episode, “The Sign of Three,” was a high point for the series, perhaps my favorite episode to date, in large part due to a tour de force performance from Cumberbatch, balancing Sherlock’s discomfort with social situations (here, as the best man in Watson’s wedding) against his intense fascination with the puzzle of any case – here, two mysteries that intersect at the wedding in a third incident that Sherlock has to try to prevent while giving the traditional speech. Cumberbatch owns the screen, pushing the boundaries of the character, mostly showing more humanity through his evident affection for Watson (hey, the short stories were one of literature’s original bromances), radiating huge quantities of energy through his voice, his body language, and his facial expressions as he first stalls for time and then solves the case without ceding the floor. It’s a peculiarity of the episode that Watson is relegated to a side character in an episode devoted to his own wedding, but as great as Martin Freeman is as the good doctor, we are here to see Mr. Holmes do his thing, and in “The Sign of Three” (an allusion to the short novel The Sign of Four) he does it superbly.

That peak made the third episode, “His Last Vow,” an even bigger letdown than normal. Sherlock has disappeared again, this time for a shorter period, and Watson finds him working undercover, in the middle of a case, with the target the media magnate Charles Augustus Magnussen, a blackmailing version of Rubert Murdoch who holds a trove of damaging information on virtually everyone of importance in the Western world. The client is unclear, at least at first, although the case eventually takes on a more personal aspect for Sherlock, leading him to an emotional reaction that puts his ability to solve the case rationally in jeopardy.

Aside from the return of Janine (played by the Irish-Pakistani comedienne Yasmine Akram) from the preceding episode, “His Last Vow” fell short in every aspect that has made this series so great. The interplay between Holmes and Watson is limited, and strained when it occurs; the rapid-fire His Girl Friday dialogue that populates most of the first eight episodes is nearly absent here, and their chemistry with each other is short-circuited by Watson’s ire over Holmes’ initial disappearance and later by the personal nature of the case. We get very little of Holmes’ deduction, and what we do get is short of the mark. Lestrade doesn’t appear – in fact, he’s in far too little of this season overall. The villainous Magnussen is too odious, comically repugnant beyond the point of realism. I don’t wish to spoil the twist, but my understanding of that method of information storage is that it works for short-term storage but not the kind of long-term solution Magnussen would require.

So while “The Sign of Three” was revelatory, a leap forward for the series by developing its central characters while meeting or exceeding its previous standards for intelligence, the rest of the season was a disappointment. Had “The Empty Hearse” been the only deviation from the series’ main formula, the season could have been as good as or better than the first two, but the decision to craft a melodramatic finale that deemphasized Sherlock’s essential Holmesness did not succeed.

The Last Dragonslayer.

In case you missed anything, here’s the full set of links to the top 100 prospects package. The piece on 10 prospects who just missed the 100 will now run on Wednesday, rather than today.

I’m a longtime fan of Jasper Fforde’s novels – the Thursday Next series, the two Nursery Crimes books, and the dying-for-a-sequel Shades of Grey – and just tackled his first young adult novel, The Last Dragonslayer, last week. The first in the “Chronicles of Kazam” series, the book is quite Ffordian, just without the sex and swearing we’re used to from the Thursday Next books, yet still very ffunny and still willing to address big themes like death, moral choices, and greed.

Set in an alternate version of our world where magic exists (albeit in decline) and the U.K. has splintered into the Ununited Kingdoms, The Last Dragonslayer revolves around 15-year-old Jennifer Strange, the temporary manager of the Kazam employment agency for sorcerors and, as it turns out, the next in the line of dragonslayers. Here be dragons, or at least nearby, thanks to the Dragonpact that set up boundaries between dragons and humans – but the dragon nearest Kazam is dying and every human wants to rush in and claim some of the soon-to-be-unoccupied land. Fforde loves to riff on capitalism run amok and spares no one here in his assaults on human and corporate avarice, not even the local idiot King of Hereford, who believes Jennifer should be acting in his interests as one of his subjects.

Strange herself has no magical abilities, although she’s running the shop at Kazam, which rents out the services of its various mages for things like home rewirings and pizza deliveries (all those magic carpets have to find some use). She’s the ideal Ffordian hero: uncertain, underconfident, stronger than she realizes, female yet not overtly feminine, and fiercely loyal to her friends and to her principles. One of those friends, filling the role of Pickwick the dodo, is the Quarkbeast, whose only dialogue comprises the occasional interjection, “Quark.”

The successful completion of Jennifer’s mission involves more cunning than fighting, and she outwits several opponents to her half-formed plans to try to do the Right Thing, even though she’s far from clear on what that is. The story moves quickly, unfettered by much in the way of subplots – the missing owner of Kazam will likely wait for another day to resurface, and I imagine we’ll hear more of the origins of both Jennifer and her fellow foundling “Tiger” Prawns in a future book – with plenty of the dry wit that makes Fforde’s books such a pleasure to read. I think it’s appropriate for ages 8 or 9 and up, but wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to any adult.

State of Wonder.

Thursday’s Klawchat had a lot of Hall of Fame talk plus some prospect content. The Top 100 prospects package will run the week of January 27th.

Ann Patchett’s 2011 novel State of Wonder marks a return to form for the author of one of my all-time favorite novels, Bel Canto, where she pays homage to Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain while drawing on the real-life hostage crisis at the Japanese embassy in Lima, Peru. In between those two books, Patchett wrote just one novel, the embarrassing Run, a not-even-thinly-veiled love letter to then Senator Barack Obama, whom Patchett clearly hoped would run for President and win. That novel lost all of what made Patchett special, even in the quality of her prose, but State of Wonder brings everything back together.

Marina Singh is a pharmacologist working for a major drug researcher that has been funding a long-running development project deep in the Amazon basin, where the women in a tribe of natives, the Lakashi, maintain fertility well into their 70s. The eccentric researcher running the project, Dr. Annick Swenson, has cut off nearly all contact with her benefactors, and another researcher sent to locate her and report back on her progress, Marina’s colleague Anders Eckmann, died of fever while still in Brazil. Marina, who studied under Dr. Swenson over a decade earlier before an incident pushed her out of obstetrics into pharmacology, draws the short straw and has to go track down her former mentor, but finds that her mission is more complicated in both a practical and philosophical sense than anyone realized.

The lead characters in State of Wonder, Marina and Dr. Swenson, stand alongside Patchett’s best characters from Bel Canto and The Magician’s Assistant as smart, three-dimensional personas. Their thinking is complex and real without becoming unrealistic; Dr. Swenson is a genius, and a different sort of person, but her character is logical and thinks and behaves in logical ways. Marina’s back story is more involved, and her character, while very intelligent, is less mature, and she’s still grappling with the fallout from that incident that caused her to switch her specialty during her residency. (The novel would also pass the Bechdel test if it were made into a film.)

Marina spends a few weeks in the (real) Brazilian city of Manaus before finding Dr. Swenson and heading into the remote jungle location of the research labs, encountering some oddball, entertaining side characters that make up for some of their two-dimensionality with their injection of humor. But Patchett’s renderings of the settings, both Manaus and the Lakashi region, are beautifully detailed, and she represents the natives, by any Western definition a “primitive” people, without resorting to condescension over their way of life, even though it would likely be warranted.

Patchett has commented in interviews that her book was inspired by several films, notably Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (TL;DW), but there’s also a clear evocation of Evelyn Waugh’s demented A Handful of Dust, where one of the protagonists, Tony Last, meets perhaps the worst non-death fate of any major character in literature, all in the remote jungles of the Amazon basin. (Patchett slips in some Dickens references which make the allusion to Waugh obvious.) State of Wonder also steps back from the overwrought political leanings of Run, instead presenting soft arguments, pro and con, on environmental subjects and treatment of isolated peoples like the Lakashi, without detracting from the central story, one of delayed emotional development for Marina. Her professional success hasn’t been mirrored by happiness, and Patchett matures her without giving her a forced Hollywood ending. Marina ends up having to make a choice with huge moral implications before leaving the Amazon, the kind of decision that ages you emotionally when you face it but that was necessary to conclude the story without turning it into a saccharine mess.

Next up: Still slogging through Robert Tressell’s socialism-pamphlet-cum-novel The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.

Top 100 songs of 2013.

Last year I discovered (for myself, that is) enough good new music to do my first serious annual music ranking, listing my top 40 songs of 2012, a list that I originally intended to just go to 20 titles but that kept expanding as I kept writing and exploring. This year, I started the exploring a little sooner, and also ended up on a few promotional lists that exposed me to even more new stuff, so by midyear it was very clear to me that I’d have more than enough songs to get to 100. I had over 150 candidates if you count all of the album tracks I liked enough to consider, but forced it down to 100 (which didn’t work out that well, as you’ll see shortly).

As with my list of the top albums of 2013, this list is my personal preference. If I don’t like a song, it’s not here. That wipes out some critically-acclaimed artists entirely, including Daft Punk, Haim, Vampire Weekend, Deafheaven (and please, people, death metal and black metal are not the same thing), Rhye, the Lumineers (more like Ho Hum), American Authors, James Blake, Foxygen, Majikal Cloudz, Phosphorescent, Jason Isbell (I just do not like country music), and My Bloody Valentine. Other folks liked that stuff. I didn’t.

Some songs that were among the last ones I cut from my list, in no particular order, looking just at artists that didn’t make it: Birds of Tokyo – “Lanterns;” Midlake – “Antiphon;” Harrison Hudson – “Curious;” Cumulus – “Do You Remember;” Young Galaxy – “Pretty Boy;” The 1975 – “Chocolate;” Blondfire – “Waves.” The last two got the axe for lyrics too stupid for me to abide. I’ve mentioned several other songs I liked, but not enough to get them into the top 100, within the comments below.

I’m going to start with two extra tracks that were the final two cuts from the list, ones I actually wrote up at first before realizing I’d forgotten two other tracks that belonged on here.

Wild Nothing – Dancing Shell. One of my biggest misses from my 2012 list was Wild Nothing’s Nocturne, which I picked up in January on the recommendations of several readers and loved for its dream-pop leanings with experimental twists – but with more guitar than most bands in this subgenre employ. “Dancing Shell” is more dance/electronic than straight-ahead rock but showcases the creativity of Jack Tatum, who records all of Wild Nothing’s music himself, with other members joining him just for live shows. His 2013 EP wasn’t as good as Nocturne but including this song lets me mention again how badly I whiffed by not including the album on my list from last year.

Ejecta – Jeremiah (The Denier). A side project for Neon Indian’s keyboardist Leanne Macomber, Ejecta offers spacey electro-pop, although I think they’ve received more press for their debut album’s cover, which features a nude Macomber posing as if one of the great Renaissance masters was about to paint her. That might just be overshadowing the music, which has the early-80s New Wave leanings of most electro-pop but pairs it with Macomber’s languorous, breathy vocals to temper its brightness. “It’s Only Love” is also worth checking out.

And now, to the top 100. This entire list, including both of those bonus tracks, is available as a Spotify playlist, in order. Amazon and iTunes links go to full albums, where you can just buy the specific song I mentioned (this reduced the number of links I had to create).
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