Saturday five, 12/19/14.

I’ve been busy writing up transactions all week, which is putting a real damper on my ability to make calls for the top 100 prospects list, but I shall persevere. Here are all of the Insider pieces I’ve written in the last seven days:

* The three-team trade featuring Wil Myers
* The Justin Upton trade
* The Derek Norris trade
* The Nate Eovaldi/Martin Prado trade
* The Chase Headley re-signing
* The Melky Cabrera signing
* The Jed Lowrie, Alex Rios, Brett Anderson signings & more

I also wrote up the Jimmy Rollins trade the week prior, slipping in at least eight references to Black Flag, Henry Rollins’ former band, although to this point no one has mentioned catching them.

As promised, I created a second Spotify playlist, with 40 songs that just missed the cut for my top 100 this year, although I guess I’m using that term a bit loosely:

And now, the links:

Jiro Dreams of Sushi.

The documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi has quietly been getting rave reviews from chefs and food writers but relatively less attention from mainstream film critics, probably because of its genre and language (it’s entirely in Japanese, with English subtitles) rather than its content. Following one of the most famous sushi chefs in the world and exploring his obsessive attention to detail and the demands he places on his employees and vendors, the film also features some of the most beautiful shots of food I have ever seen, the kind of cinematography that will have you pouring soy sauce on the floor in anticipation. (It’s available on Netflix Instant, which is how I watched it.)

Jiro Ono operates one of the world’s best-known and most exclusive sushi restaurants, a ten-seat establishment in Tokyo called Sukiyabashi Jiro that only serves sushi – no appetizers, no soba dishes, just the fish. He was 85 at the time the documentary was filmed, yet still works at the restaurant every day, usually serving the fish but at this point preparing relatively little of it himself, instead overseeing the rigid structure of the kitchen, where his eldest son, who will one day take over the business, is the de facto headmaster. Jiro’s obsession with quality and long track record have given him an inside track with key vendors, including a rice vendor who won’t sell Jiro’s favorite strain of rice to a large hotel that asks for it, while also making internships at his restaurant into ten-year apprenticehoods where anything less than perfection is unacceptable.

The film documents some of the more unusual kitchen practices at Sukiyabashi Jiro, although many of these are made possible by the restaurant’s small menu. They age their tuna for up to ten days, and they massage the octopus for as long as 50 minutes, nearly twice as long as other restaurants, to tenderize the meat. (I’ve had octopus sushi once or twice and hated it because it was rubbery. Now at least I know it doesn’t have to be that way.) Jiro and his son have exacting standards for flavor, texture, and preparation that I don’t want to spoil for viewers, as seeing some of these practices in action was among the highlights of the film.

Jiro’s two sons also play significant roles in the film as Japanese custom has placed them in very different roles of succession. His eldest son, Yoshikazu, runs Jiro’s restaurant now, while Jiro’s younger son, Takashi, apprenticed there but had to leave and start his own restaurant, a mirror image of Jiro’s, because the eldest son is the traditional successor in Japanese culture. Yet this subplot of sorts isn’t that dramatic because Yoshikazu doesn’t express any of the regret or frustration you’d expect a son in that situation to express – waiting for his father to retire or, more morbidly, to die, so he can take over the business. Yoshikazu didn’t seem terribly unhappy with his lot, and as it is, he handles much of the responsibility, something his father acknowledges.

One of those key responsibilities is acquiring the fish each day from Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji fish market, forming by far the most informative part of the film for me. I’d read about this market before, including a chapter in Trevor Corson’s indispensable book The Story of Sushi, but had never seen an inside look at the institution or how buyers choose their fish. Watching Jiro’s primary tuna vendor walk around a giant warehouse space, poking at giant whole tuna, taking bits of flesh and examining them with a flashlight, wasn’t gripping – really nothing in this film is – but it was enlightening.

There’s a brief discussion at the end of the film about the future of sushi and of fish as a food source in general, mostly led by Yoshikazu, who blames the spread of what I would call cheap sushi – the crap you get at the grocery store, at non-sushi restaurants, or even at awful chain sushi places like Ra that specialize in bland, lower-quality fish dressed up with toppings like a damn ice cream sundae. Sushi shouldn’t be available in packages of eight maki for $7 at the supermarket. Yoshikazu doesn’t get too far into solutions, although he mentions his own vested interest in maintaining a supply of high-quality fish; given Japan’s refusal to cut down on or eliminate its harvesting and purchasing of bluefin tuna, I’m not surprised that he held back, but I imagine he and his father would carry significant weight if they came out in favor of broad bans on environmentally damaging fishing practices.

What Jiro Dreams of Sushi might lack for some viewers is drama; most good documentaries document something more than a man and his restaurant, running into some sort of conflict along the way or covering a past event that was inherently dramatic. This is an homage to a man’s lifelong obsession with his work, with approaching perfection asymptotically, with preserving an ancient cuisine while elevating it to its highest level. It is also pornography for sushi-lovers, with mindblowing images of nigiri made by Jiro, his son, and the three other men (only men – women don’t make sushi in Japan, another issue they neglected to address) who work there. I’ve never seen fish that looked like that. It’ll make you want to, say, find the next Yu Darvish to go scout over in Tokyo – as long as you have a month’s notice to make a reservation at Jiro’s place.

Vegas, Phoenix, and Oklahoma eats.

New draft blog entry is up on Texas RHP Taylor Jungmann. Yesterday’s chat transcript is up. And I was on the Baseball Today podcast (link goes directly to the downloadable mp3) on Friday.

Anyway, time for another omnibus food post, since I haven’t had enough in any one spot for a blog entry.

I made two trips to Vegas this month, but focused on old favorite spots like Firefly and Lotus of Siam (try the tamarind beef – it’s plus). The one new place I tried was Mon Ami Gabi, a French restaurant in Paris Las Vegas (and in Chicago, which I believe is the original) that manages to slide in under the price point of the typical fine-dining experience on the Strip. I can only speak to one dish, the trout grenobloise ($18), which was excellent – a great piece of fish perfectly cooked if a little lightly sauced, with a big pile of sauteed haricots verts on the side. I was quite impressed by their version of the premeal bread basket, a crusty warm baguette brought to the table in a white paper bag. They’re apparently known for their steak frites ($23-ish), but I can’t pass up a good piece of fish, which is my favorite dish.

Back to Phoenix, I finally made it to Barrio Cafe on 16th, a frequent recommendation from readers that’s just located in an area I never hit. It’s upscale Mexican, somewhere between Los Sombreros and real fine dining but with clear ambitions toward the latter. The chips and bread come with a spicy, vinegared tapenade that’s more Mediterranean than Mexican and that I could have eaten all night. The guacamole is made tableside – a pointless, showy exercise that cuts off any flavor development, but salvaged somewhat by extremely high-quality ingredients, including the unusual addition of fresh pomegranate seeds. (Between those and the avocado the bowl could have made a nutritionist smile.)

For my main course, I couldn’t pass up the seared duck breast in a sweet and sour tamarind sauce, featuring two of my favorite ingredients (although I’m more of a leg man than a breast man … still talking about duck, people). The duck breast had to be at least briefly roasted after the sear as it was cooked medium rather than the standard medium-rare, but stopped short of drying out, something no sauce on the planet can save. That sauce, by the way, wouldn’t have been out of place in an Asian restaurant, neither too sweet nor too sour and with a dark, savory note underneath to keep it from becoming cloying. My colleague Matt Meyers went with the cochinita pibil, a slow-roasted pork shoulder that, judging by the empty plate in front of him, was probably something north of adequate.

I’ve been reluctant to try much sushi in Arizona given some mediocre raw-fish experiences around the Valley over the last few years; our distance from actual water and lack of real high-end restaurants downtown to support the kind of fresh-fish business you’d find in most comparably-sized cities leads to a lot of mediocre product sold as sushi to unsuspecting consumers. Otaku in Chandler (on Gilbert Road south of the 202/Santan) is promising, at least by my tempered expectations, with some highs and lows in a recent lunch visit. I placed two orders for nigiri in addition to a bento box, just to expand my sample size. The maguro was nothing special, definitely fresh but on the bland side, but the sea bass with a light ponzu sauce was well-balanced, the fresh flavor of the fish coming through* with the texture of fish that’s not just fresh but handled properly.

* I know I’ve said this before, but it’s worth repeating: If the sushi has a sauce on it, don’t dip it in the soy sauce. The chef has already taken care of seasoning for you.

The bento box option was a mixed bag, although I have to say it’s a lot of food for about $11-12. The server recommended the chicken with curry, more of a southeast Asian dish than Japanese, like a brown Thai curry, featuring a lot of fresh red bell pepper and white meat chicken but a little mild overall. The box comes with eight pieces of California roll featuring shredded crab and a small amount of mayonnaise, two gyoza, and a spring roll; the gyoza were the only positive of that group, as the others were just ordinary, nothing you couldn’t find at a hundred other sushi joints in the area. My main concern was the mesclun salad, with a couple of leaves that had started to go bad, just a sign that someone in the kitchen isn’t paying attention when he grabs them out of a drawer.

Re-reading that I’m probably giving you the sense that Otaku was worse than it actually is; nothing was unpleasant or badly cooked or poorly seasoned, and the fact that the raw fish was fresh is a positive. It’s at least worth another visit, which is more than I can say for most of the other sushi places I’ve tried in Arizona, but it’s not going to live up to most of the California sushi I’ve had. I’d give Otaku a preliminary grade of 50, but more like a 45 on the bento box.

I’m writing this on the plane back from Tulsa, which was as disappointing for the food as it was rewarding for the prospects. The two best spots were in Bartlesville, about 45 minutes north of Tulsa, where Dylan Bundy pitched in a high school tournament. Dink’s Barbecue on Frank Phillips Rd had good brisket and fried okra but the hot links were just weird, with a hard red casing like you’d find on a wheel of gouda and a rubbery texture inside, while the green beans were stewed into grey mushiness. Jared’s Frozen Custard on Nowata was outstanding, though, comparable to good Wisconsin frozen custard in texture and flavor – I had one of the special flavors of the day, mocha, which tasted like a light and sweet Dunkin Donuts coffee (bad flavor for hot coffee, good for ice cream), in a concrete with Oreos. Duds in Tulsa itself included breakfast at the Wild Fork, where the food was mediocre but better than the service; and Albert G’s, a well-reviewed and popular Q joint on Harvard, where I got a big serving of bone-dry brisket with absolutely zero smoke flavor. I’ll pass along a reader rec for breakfast that I never managed to hit, The Old School Bagel Factory on Peoria, which would be on my list if I ever happen to be back in Tulsa – not that unlikely, since I didn’t get Broken Arrow’s Archie Bradley this time around.

Catching up on recent eats…

‘Pomo Pizzeria*, located just north of Old Town Scottsdale in the pretentious Borgata shopping center, has been certified by the Neapolitan authority that travels the world and gives its imprimatur to pizzerias serving authentic Naples-style pizza. It lacks the cachet of Pizzeria Bianco, but has the benefit of being easier to patronize, since they’re open for lunch and take reservations, with a product that’s nearly as good as their more famous rival.

*Yes, there’s an apostrophe before the word ‘Pomo, something I have yet to decipher. The Italian word for tomatoes is pomodoro, but if the restaurant’s name derives from that word the apostrophe is on the wrong end. Perhaps the Borgata’s owners insisted on the apostrophe to ratchet up the restaurant’s elitist factor.

‘Pomo’s menu is straightforward – a few antipasti, salads, and many pizza options with an extensive list of ingredients, several of which are imported from Italy, including mozzarella di bufala and proscuitto di Parma. The oven runs up to 950 degrees, on the low end of acceptable for this kind of product, and the crust had the requisite slight char with plenty of lift to it. Neapolitan pizza doughs are very thin in the center and should still be wet when they reach the table, although they’ll tend to firm up as the pizza cools; don’t be alarmed by reviews that call it “soggy,” as that’s an application of an American standard for pizza to a completely different product. The texture is fine, while the dough’s taste is a little quiet compared to the toppings.

I went with two other writers, Nick Piecoro and Molly Knight, and somehow we all ended up with pizzas that boasted at least one pork product. I went with a bianca pizza, one of maybe a half-dozen tomato-less options on the menu, featuring mozzarella, prosciutto, and Parmiggiano-Reggiano, a combination that would be too salty and acidic if you layered any sort of cooked tomatoes underneath them. Nick and Molly both went for tomato-based pizzas featuring more charcuterie, including the diavolo, featuring a spicy salame that ‘Pomo uses in lieu of pepperoni (which is fine by me, as I find most pepperoni to be harsh).

There’s a definite focus here on fresh and authentic ingredients; the mixed greens in the salad were immaculate, the Parmiggiano-Reggiano was the real deal (not some American or Argentine knockoff), and the tomatoes come from San Marzano (although I admit I probably wouldn’t know the difference on that score). They also offer a handful of Moretti beers for about $5 apiece, including La Rossa, a red beer that’s about 8% alcohol that is outstanding but requires that I surrender my keys before ordering. Total damage for three pizzas (which run $11-16 each), a salad, a beer, and four glasses of wine was about $105 with tax but before tip, and we had probably 2/3 of a pizza left over. It wasn’t quite the transformative experience that my one meal at Pizzeria Bianco was, but it is among the best pizza experiences I’ve ever had in the United States, one I strongly recommend.

Speaking of authentic pizza in America, in December my family and I went to Via Napoli, the new restaurant in Walt Disney World at Epcot’s Italy pavilion; we were lucky to get two reservations in our week in Orlando but I understand it’s become a tough ticket as word has spread. Via Napoli’s menu is somewhat limited, with fewer toppings available and not much in the way of salads, but more antipasto options including some expertly fried verdure fritte (fried vegetables) and prosciutto e mela (prosciutto and fresh cantaloupe). The restaurant boasts three giant wood-fired ovens and the dough is superb, with thicker crusts (perhaps to suit American palates?) but less of the trademarked char on the exterior. As with ‘Pomo, Via Napoli imports many of its key ingredients and I felt the mozzarella they used was more flavorful, perhaps because it contained a little more salt. (Cheese without salt is like water without oxygen.) The dessert menu includes real gelato and a new take on zeppole, the Italian version of fried dough; Via Napoli’s includes ricotta cheese in the mix, which you’d expect would make the end product heavier but instead creates these soft, slightly sweet pillows of dough that don’t actually need any accompaniments but oh hey you brought some dark chocolate sauce so I feel obliged to use it. Via Napoli is where I discovered La Rossa and where I discovered that a large serving of it will keep me inebriated for at least six solid hours.

On to Los Angeles from mid-February, where I’ll start with the last meal I had, Bludso’s BBQ in Compton on Long Beach Boulevard, a real hole in the wall that focuses on takeout with an emphasis on brisket and beef ribs. The service was definitely more Texas than downtown LA, and when I asked what the specialty was the woman behind the counter insisted that I sample the brisket before ordering; it was smoky and tender and didn’t need sauce to provide flavor or moisture, although the salty-sweet-earthy sauce they use is a good complement. For takeout they package their meats in foil with a healthy dose of sauce, enough that it started to drown out the meat’s flavors, but that’s easily fixed by asking for less sauce or for the sauce on the side. The ribs were smaller than I expected but had good tooth and pulled away from the bone pretty easily. The collard greens were deep-South style, cooked low and slow with plenty of liquor included; the baked beans had become soft and mushy but had strong flavors from the meat included in them. For about $11 you can get two meats, two sides, a piece of northern-style (that is, very sweet) cornbread, and some of that white bread that people in Texas always serve with Q but that just confuses everyone else. Yes, it’s a bad area, but it’s worth seeking out.

I met my friend Jay Berger at his local favorite sushi place, Yoshi’s Sushi on Santa Monica in West Hollywood. We had nothing but nigiri, which has become my style anyway after reading The Story of Sushi last summer. About half came with a ponzu sauce, including the yellowtail and the halibut; everything was fresh and only the salmon was disappointing, although I should know by now that salmon nigiri is not very authentic – I just love salmon in any preparation. The albacore, which I usually find kind of boring, and red snapper were both among the best I’ve had of each kind of fish. However, I tried octopus for the first time and am still chewing it three weeks later. Next time I’ll stick with the raw stuff.

And I should throw another mention at Square One Dining in Hollywood, which is becoming my breakfast ritual when I’m in town for the Compton workout. Square One focuses on natural, local ingredients, and their breakfasts include some real throwback elements, like bacon rashers cut about three times as thick as you’d get at a typical diner or fresh eggs cooked to order. My only criticism is that despite using good tea, somehow it’s already overbrewed and bitter when it reaches the table, which makes me think they have pots of tea ready to go for breakfast service – thoughtful, but counterproductive.

Cary/Raleigh eats, part two.

Two new articles up on ESPN.com: Cliff Lee trade breakdown and brief reports on all of the players in Sunday’s Futures Game.

I took a few of your suggestions for Q and sushi in the Traingle area and stumbled on very solid frozen custard joint for my second run through North Carolina.

I’ll start with the sushi: Waraji seems to be, by acclamation, the best sushi place in the Triangle, and it may very well be that, but it’s not very good. Better than Little Tokyo, but still not good. The fish was completely tasteless; one fish, “white fish,” recommended by the chef who served me, was chewy and sinewy; they don’t offer anago or tai and were out of kanpachi; and they charged me for a nirigi I ordered but never received. The seaweed salad cost $8 and was really portioned for two, although it was the greenest I’ve ever seen, making me wonder about its legitimacy.

I tried Allen & Sons and The Pit for Q, and would unequivocally vote for the latter despite its inauthentic setting. The Pit is the only upscale Q joint I’ve come across in my travels – they even have a wine collection – and the place was filled with businessmen and -women at lunchtime. I ordered a combination plate at my server’s suggestion, getting the St. Louis ribs, the pulled pork, fried okra, and collard greens; the platter also comes with a biscuit and hush puppies, so I was full enough that I didn’t need dinner for about eight hours. The pulled pork was dry but both meats had a nice, subtle smoke flavor, and the ribs were fall-apart tender*. The okra was excellent – I’m starting to like eating in the south for the fried okra more than for the Q – and for about $12 the quantity of food was a little absurd. It’s not wow barbecue, and had a little bit of the feel of mass-smoked meat, as opposed to some guy in a shack who does it one pork shoulder at time, but it was very solid.

*There seems to be some real disagreement over whether ribs of any animal should be smoked till the meat falls off the bone. I’m in the “yes” camp, as ribs have a lot of connective tissue that I have no interest in eating. When the meat falls off the bone, the connective tissue will be largely gone. This, to me, is the entire point of low-and-slow cooking, whether it’s smoking or braising.

Allen & Sons looks good in the uniform, but the tools didn’t really play. It’s in a run-down building just off I-40 in Chapel Hill, and the menu is limited to “Carolina pork” and ribs, with the pork as their signature item. What came looked like some had scraped it off the wall after a pig exploded, an oily, vinegary, sloppy mess that tasted only of vinegar and not in the least of smoke. The best thing I can say about the dish is that it came with five hush puppies, as even the cole slaw was drowning in a mayo-vinegar slurry. It’s too bad, since that’s the sort of place where I’d expect to find the sort of artisanal work I thought the Pit’s pork lacked, but if you’re not going to put smoke flavor into the smoked meat, you might as well stick the thing in an oven.

Goodberry’s is a local chain of frozen custard shops that I think would stand up well against the competition of Milwaukee, still the capital of frozen custards as far as I can tell. Goodberry’s felt a little richer, with more butterfat, but the texture was an 80 and the chocolate, despite being a little light in color, had a rich natural cocoa flavor. They offer vanilla, chocolate, sugar-free vanilla, and a rotating flavor of the day; I was disappointed that coconut wasn’t coming until the 16th, since that + chocolate is one of my favorite ice cream flavor pairings. They also offer a long list of toppings, including freshly roasted nuts (I don’t think they’re roasted on site, though), so I’ll recommend the chocolate with Oreos and almonds combo. The location I went to, on Kildare Farms Road in Cary, has no indoor seating but there are tables with umbrellas for shade.

The Story of Sushi.

My most recent piece on ESPN.com went up yesterday – a preview of the major amateur free agents available in Latin America this summer.

I recommend a lot of books around here, but I’m not sure the last time I said that any you must read a particular book. If you like sushi, or just seafood in general, however, you need to get yourself a copy of Trevor Corson’s The Story of Sushi: An Unlikely Saga of Raw Fish and Rice (published in hardcover as The Zen of Fish), a tremendous read that blends the history of what we now refer to as sushi in the U.S. with a surprisingly interesting subplot around a class going through a sushi-chef academy near Los Angeles. Corson’s integration of the two threads is remarkable, but for me, the value was in hearing him subtly say to American diners: “SUSHI: UR DOIN IT WRONG.”

Corson boils sushi down to its core components – the rice, the vinegar in the rice, the seaweed – and even dabbles in some food chemistry by explaining why we particularly like those ingredients as well as raw fish, discussing umami and the chemicals that deliver it (glutamic acid and inosine monophosphate in particular) and why we like the flesh of sea creatures raw but generally don’t like uncooked meat from land creatures. He discusses why certain types of fish make better or worse sushi, and of course discusses wild fish versus farm-raised (wild is better, but farm-raised does have some advantages) as well as the dangers overfishing present to natural fish populations. There’s even a chapter on uni, a paste comprising the gonads of sea urchins, which I recently learned is also consumed raw in various Caribbean cuisines as well.

Those sections were interesting, but didn’t do too much to change the way I thought about sushi, since I already knew I liked the stuff. Corson also discusses the various traditions around sushi and the etiquette of eating it (use your fingers for nigiri; never rub your wooden chopsticks together; miso soup should be eaten after the meal), as well as the logic for eating certain pieces in certain ways. A good sushi chef will, if you allow him, consider the order in which you’re eating your fish, moving across a continuum from milder flavors to stronger ones, or from softer textures to firm ones. Stirring wasabi (which, you probably know, isn’t actually wasabi at most U.S. restaurants but American horseradish dyed green) into soy sauce reduces the flavor of the wasabi, because the heat is partly deactivated in liquid. The fish used in spicy tuna rolls – a thoroughly American creation – is generally refuse, scraped off the skin of the tuna after the best pieces have been removed and used for nigiri or other dishes that require better flavor and texture. In fact, most rolls are inauthentic and used to hide inferior-quality fish under ingredients that are strongly flavored, like chili oil, or that coat the tongue with fat, like mayonnaise or avocado.

I’ve never been a huge fan of complicated rolls, since they tend to layer lots of ingredients together and come with sticky-sweet sauces, and I’m not a fan of mayonnaise so I generally avoid spicy tuna anyway. Having a rich, fatty, sweet roll can burn your palate for the delicate flavors of the fish-and-rice nigiri. But Corson’s book, without ever explicitly saying, “don’t eat the fancy rolls,” presents three arguments – one based on authenticity, one on the quality of the ingredients, and the fact that sushi becomes rather unhealthy when you load it up with fats and sugars – for at least limiting your consumption of those rolls, if not eliminating them altogether. And the teachers and sushi chefs who appear in the book all share his disdain for the fancier rolls, even while they teach them at the academy because customers want them – and they’re very profitable. (Another good reason not to order them, actually – you usually get more bang for your buck with nigiri.)

A book that just discussed sushi’s history, traditions, and science would have been worth reading without an actual plot to carry it along, but Corson built his book around the story of a class at The California Sushi Academy, a school run by a longtime sushi chef named Toshi whose restaurant (adjacent to the school) is struggling and who is himself recovering from a fairly recent stroke that has sapped his energy. Corson focuses on a few specific students in the class, including Kate, the nominal star of the book, a young woman struggling to find a career while fighting depression who nearly quits the school a half-dozen times; Fie, the Danish model/actress who decided she’d rather be the bombshell behind the sushi bar; and Takumi Nishio, the former Japanese boy-band star who quit the music business to study first Italian cuisine and now authentic sushi; while also devoting some time to Zoran, the Yugoslavia-born/Australian-raised head instructor who is a True Believer in traditional sushi even as he teaches the students American-style rolls. Their stories are interesting, as are their struggles – except for Takumi, who, in the book at least, seems to be a complete natural at whatever cuisine he tries, so he’s fascinating but without much drama. Corson follows them on assignments outside the classroom, like feeding the cast and crew on a movie lot, or watches them work a shift in the back room of the restaurant, using each episode as a segue into some note on the history or components of sushi.

If you like sushi, The Story of Sushi is $10 well spent. You can simultaneously learn the history of the California roll – its inventor is actually known, and there’s a good reason why there’s an avocado in it – and why you shouldn’t really bother with it when you’re in a quality Japanese restaurant.

For more from Corson, check out his official site, which includes some notes on the people in The Story of Sushi and other links and articles about seafood.

Next review: Richard Russo’s The Whore’s Child and Other Stories.

Cary/Raleigh eats, part one.

I was in Cary, North Carolina, for a few days last week, and will be heading there again soon, so this is the first of likely two food posts on the area.

I’ll start with the one success, Coquette, a French brasserie in the North Hills mall complex in Raleigh, a recommendation of friend-of-the-dish Richard Dansky, who also met me there for dinner. Their duck confit crepes were outstanding all around, from the perfect duck leg to the three golden crepes to the just-right amount of mushroom-leek cream sauce; the only questionable inclusion were fava beans that brought color but a little bitterness and didn’t meld with the other flavors. For dessert, I tried their cashew toffee crunch profiteroles; the pastries, pate a choux with cocoa and cinnamon, were a little dry (hard to avoid), but I would order a half gallon of that ice cream, which was loaded with bits of nuts and toffee and had strong caramel notes in the ice cream itself. It’s served with a dark chocolate ganache sauce that I may have just eaten with a spoon. The only misstep was the salad recommended by our server, a frisee mix with a poached egg … but no other dressing beyond the runny yolk. Not really good eats, but they had plenty of other salad and starter options to try.

I tried two Q joints in the area, neither great. Danny’s, one of several in the area, is located in an industrial park right off Tryon Rd; the pulled pork was moist but had almost no smoke flavor and required saucing, but their sides were all very good, including outstanding fried okra and a small bean I’d never had before called “field peas” that had a little of the bright sweetness of English peas but with the firmness of black-eyed peas. Dixie Belle’s pork had slightly more flavor – I mean slightly – but was dried out, probably from being kept warm for too long. I know there’s better Q in Raleigh and Durham, but didn’t have time to head that far. The mom from one of the local host families recommended Clyde Cooper’s in downtown Raleigh, so I’ll try to hit that next time around.

I had a recommendation for a hole in the wall sushi place in Cary called Little Tokyo, which also seems to be held in high esteem by locals … and that doesn’t say good things about the state of sushi in Cary, because Little Tokyo is awful. I figured I was in trouble when I saw the menu was about 2/3 rolls, with nigiri and sashimi relegated to less than a full page without the same bells or whistles. I knew I was in trouble when I asked the chef behind the sushi bar what he recommended and he looked at me like I’d just said Yuniesky Betancourt should be the AL’s starter at shortstop in the All-Star Game. I ordered five different kinds of nigiri, none of which had a lick of taste. The nigiri fell apart when I picked them up with my hands, and the texture of the maguro was mushy. It’s clear they use the sauces and extras on rolls to cover up inferior quality fish. Avoid, avoid, avoid.

Hollywood eats.

My first draft column of 2010 is up today, a breakdown of Saturday’s showcase at the MLB Urban Youth Academy in LA, featuring just about every top senior in SoCal this year. (One guy was missing, and I’m working on finding out why.) There’s also a clip of my ESPNEWS hit today, talking Victor Martinez (my most boring answer of the day, of course). And I’ll be on ESPN Radio’s Baseball Tonight in the 10 pm EST hour tonight.

To the eats:

First meal was at Umami Burger in Hollywood, which turned out to be within walking distance of my hotel, which made me feel rather stupid for driving there and rocking the GPS to go a whopping 0.4 miles or so. Anyway, it’s a good burger, made from the relatively unknown cut of cow called flap meat, which has a strong beefy flavor and responds well to quick searing (so I don’t think you want to go past medium on your burger here). Where they shine is in the toppings, a mix of grilled and roasted vegetables designed, in theory, to hit that “fifth taste” of umami; I know I spotted caramelized onions, some kind of roasted tomato, and a little cracker made from grated, griddled Parmiggiano cheese, served on a Portuguese (and therefore slightly sweet) roll. I strongly recommend the burger, but skip the fries and try the thick-battered onion rings, with a crunchy crust that shatters on impact.

Sticking with Hollywood, I went to Ike Sushi at Hollywood and Gower, buried in a corner strip mall, which turned out to be a great find. The fish was fresh – I’m not sure how a sushi place in LA would stay open if they didn’t use the freshest fish – and other than the salmon, just barely laced with a little ponzu and some finely minced scallion, it was all served straight-up, including some of the best yellowtail I’ve ever had (Ike also had yellowtail belly, or toro, a good find although it was a little tougher than what I get at Koi in Seal Beach) and very strong maguro. Six or seven orders of fish, including tip, was under $40. They’re apparently known for their rolls and combinations, if that’s more to your tastes, but when I’m in California I want the real deal.

Breakfast the next morning was at Square One Dining, a recommendation from dak of FireJoeMorgan fame. They specialize in local & organic ingredients, and the menu incorporates a lot of fresh vegetables in their omelettes and baked egg dishes. The basil and asparagus omelette with goat cheese and squash was fresh all over, but a little light on flavor – it needed salt, but also could have used some oomph from a spice or a bitter vegetable. The thyme-roasted potatoes were golden and crispy and tasted a little more fried than roasted, not that there’s anything wrong with that, and they had an excellent tea selection, with large bags of either whole leaves or something close to it.

I also went back to the Culver City location of Versailles, a small local chain of Cuban restaurants, which I hit last year as well. I mention it here to recommend it again (the lechon asado is excellent, and the service is fast – I was in and out inside of 20 minutes after sitting at the counter) and to torment Joe Sheehan, who recommended it to me in the first place.

Washington DC eats.

Chat today at 1 pm EDT. Baseball Tonight on ESPN Radio at 10:27 pm EDT (if your local affiliate isn’t carrying the late game).

All right, I’ve been promising this for two weeks but playoff writing took precedence. I had two full days in DC plus a half-day, which turned into five different restaurants plus what I ate at the ballpark. All of these places but one are in the McPherson Square/Farragut area.

Breakfast both mornings was at Teaism, a tea salon that serves a full breakfast with a limited menu, although it was diverse enough for me. The best item – besides the tea, which is loose-leaf and served in ceramic pots – is the ginger scones, crumbly and faintly sweet with chunks of crystallized ginger in the scone and castor sugar on top. Two of those plus the cilantro scrambled eggs – cilantro and diced green bell pepper in eggs, little light on the salt and probably cooked 30 seconds past perfect – was more than enough food, since the egg platter comes with a small fruit salad and triangles of grilled whole-wheat naan. I also tried the tea-cured salmon, which had great flavor (a little sweet, a little savory, like a cup of a mild Indian black tea with a half teaspoon of sugar) and was obviously very fresh (they say they do the curing themselves) but had a chewier texture than good smoked salmon. Teaism’s only real drawback is that it’s not cheap, running $15+ each day including tip.

Worst meal of the trip, by far, was at Kaz Sushi Bistro, an overpriced Japanese restaurant where the focus is definitely not on the food. The fish itself was completely tasteless; the seaweed salad came with a mayonnaise-based dressing; everything was overpriced; and the two people serving as hosts were rude to each other and to at least one group of customers.

Casa Blanca is a small Peruvian (or Peruvian-plus) place on Vermont Ave that is an anti-Kaz in that the focus is on the food and definitely not on the decor or ambience. I ordered chicharrones (fried chunks of pork shoulder) with fried yucca, which was, of course, a bit on the heavy side but crispy and salty with a little bit of a peppery kick. Their homemade tamarind juice is good, a little too sweet for me but given the tangy taste of tamarind, I imagine this is how most people prefer the drink. They apparently also make great empanadas, although those appeared to be for takeout customers and weren’t on the menu. Service is a bit indifferent, and remained so even when I ordered in Spanish. Cash only.

I left the area once for lunch and headed over to Eastern Market to try Market Lunch, where folks apparently line up in great numbers on weekend mornings for pancakes. I had read that Market Lunch had one of the top crab cake sandwiches in the city, and their fries are hand-cut, which sold me. The crab cake was above-average, mostly crab, all lump, lightly seasoned so that the primary taste is of the crab meat, but the crab cake itself wasn’t fresh or even hot, just lukewarm, as if it had been sitting for five minutes. I understand they’re trying to keep people moving, but crab cakes should, at worst, be kept hot if they have to be held at all. The fries were on the greasy side. I suppose if you work in the area and need something fast, this is a great option, but I’m not sure it was worth the Metro* trip.

*Seriously, another city with a crappy subway system. Philly’s system is cash-only and is filthier than Rome’s. Washington’s takes credit cards, but the cost of your ride depends on exactly where you’re boarding and exiting, instead of the single-price system used, oh, everywhere else in the country. And is there a reason the stations are all so dark? You could grow white asparagus down there.

As for Nationals Park, it’s nice, clean, big, and kind of boring. It has forced character, not actual charm. And I’m sorry, you don’t get to put up posters of great players who didn’t play for your franchise – you can take the Senators’ history, by all means, but Honus Wagner is not yours. They get big props for Teddy’s Q stand out in right field. They smoke the meat right there, in a smoker that’s at the edge of the tent, and both items I had were solid. The pulled pork sandwich wasn’t too dry and only needed a little sauce for flavor, while the beef (short) rib was perfectly smoked with plenty of well-browned edges. I’m not sure what’s in the beef rub, but it’s sweet without any heat – a little pepper would balance out the sweetness well. Two quibbles: At $14, the rib should come with something on the side, even the tiny cole slaw that comes with the sandwich; and it seems odd that you have to go to another stand to get a starch like French fries. The Nats also get props for the kosher-food cart across the aisle from the Q. The knish was excellent, smoking hot (not just made, but they had the sense to keep it hot), and the three people working at the cart are animals – everything moved quickly, and when the line started to build up, they moved faster. I saw a little gelato stand up the first base line and wanted to try it, but I was so full from the Q each night that I never had the chance.

Denver eats.

There’s a short blog entry on Troy Tulowitzki’s surge from Saturday night on my ESPN blog, with another just filed this morning.

I’ll be on ESPNEWS today at 2 and 2:30 pm EDT and possibly on 710 AM in Los Angeles around 12:40 pm PDT.

Denver rocks. What a great downtown – I probably walked six or seven miles in the three days, hopped the free shuttle on 16th a few times, and had a few good meals. I love downtown ballparks where there’s an actual downtown around the park, and Coors Field has a lot going on in the area. (The presence of many clubs nearby meant quite a bit of postgame eye candy walking the other way up Blake Street, a nice bonus.)

I got four different breakfast suggestions from readers but only one was really walkable from the hotel (I didn’t rent a car) – Snooze, on Larimer, very close to the stadium. Three of you recommended it and I can see why, as their food is very fresh and they make some excellent, funky pancakes.

I went twice, and the pancakes are clearly the main attraction. The first day, I got the ginger-peach pancakes, which had diced local peaches and crystallized ginger in the batter and a topping of streusel (just a little) and ginger butter. The second day, I went with eggs, chorizo sausage, hashbrowns, plus one whole wheat-blueberry pancake with sunflower seeds, maple syrup, and blueberry butter. Both types of pancakes had a great, light texture, with lots of big air pockets and a complex flavor. The whole wheat ones were either from a mild sourdough batter or made with buttermilk, probably the latter. The peaches, unfortunately, weren’t fully ripe and ended up bitter after cooking, but I imagine on a better day they’re pretty outstanding. They also do a pancake of the day; Sunday’s had white chocolate chips in the batter, which sounded too much like dessert to me.

My first meal at Snooze came with a bit of entertainment. I was seated in one of the five chairs at the counter, and the seat to my right opened up, at which point a woman asked me if anyone was sitting there and I told her no. She proceeded to sit there to make a call on her cell phone but didn’t actually order anything, so after five minutes or so, the host told her she couldn’t sit there. A little while later, she sat down to eat in the chair to my left, and before she’d finished the process of sitting she asked me which pancakes I had gotten. It was downhill from there:

Me: The ginger-peach pancakes.

Her: What kind of peaches are they?

Me: (reaching over, opening her menu, and pointing to the entry for the ginger-peach pancakes.) It’s all right there.

Her: Yeah, but I want to know what kind of peaches they are.

Me: I don’t know. Why don’t you check the menu?

Her: But are they canned peaches?

Me: I don’t know.

Her: I just want to know if they’re canned peaches.

Me: Ma’am, I did not actually make the pancakes. I’m only eating them. Perhaps you should ask someone who works here?

Her: How could you be in such a bad mood? It’s too early to be in a bad mood.

Oh, it gets better. She had already ordered breakfast to go, but then, just as it was coming out, she decided to sit at the counter and made them take the pancakes she ordered out of the portable container and put them on a plate, which seemed petty and wasteful. Then she ordered a sampler of two or three other kinds of pancakes – like I said, these are huge – and tried the one she originally ordered, the whole-wheat blueberry pancakes, which come with maple syrup already on them. And that set her off again.

Her: Why does it come with the syrup already on the pancakes?

Server: That’s how we serve that pancake here, ma’am.

Her: But the pancakes get soaked. The syrup makes it too sweet. You know that maple syrup is mostly sugar!

Server: Ma’am, it says on the menu that it comes with maple syrup on it. [To be fair, the menu wasn’t explicit about this.]

Her: You should never serve it on the pancakes already. You should serve it on the side.

Server: Well, that’s how we do it … here.

When I went back on Sunday and sat at the counter, the server (a different one), asked if I’d been there before, and I said yes, the previous morning, and I was sitting next to a crazy woman. At which point he said, “Oh, you must have been sitting in that same chair, and she was there (pointing to her seat).” Apparently, she’s a regular, and she’s always batty.

That day-two server actually tried to coax me out of my EMP + a pancake order, saying, “You can get three eggs anywhere. I think what you really need is a benedict,” and he’s right in that they do have a half-dozen options of eggs and hollandaise. I’m not a big hollandaise guy anyway – I respect any chef willing to make it because it’s time-consuming and finicky, but I find it extremely heavy – and Snooze’s hollandaises all contained either cream cheese (which I don’t care for) or smoked cheddar (which I despise), so while a few of those options looked great (like the one with smoked pork), I didn’t see the point of getting a benedict-hold-the-hollandaise. He was right, though – the eggs etc. were on the boring side and the hashbrowns were undercooked, with nowhere near enough crispy brown parts.

When I went to Long Beach earlier this month, I had sushi at Koi over in Seal Beach and sat at the sushi bar. A guy sat down next to me and clearly had been there a few times, so I asked if he was a regular, and he said he had been for years but had since moved to Denver. So we chatted for a while, and I told him I was there on business, I was a sportswriter, loved food, etc., and he said, “Wait, what’s your name?” Turns out he’s not a reader, but a friend of his is, so I pointed Gabe (the guy I was sitting next to) here and asked him to shoot me a note with some Denver food rec’s. He suggested Sushi Sasa, which turned out to be one of the best sushi places I have ever been to. It was a solid 20-minute walk from the hotel, but I got a spectacular view of the river as I crossed over the bridge to get to Platte St, and the food was well worth it.

Sushi Sasa is kind of trendy-looking inside and they do plenty of gussied-up rolls and overwrought appetizers, but if you go there for nigiri or sashimi, the fish is amazingly fresh, easily rivaling that of good West Coast or NYC joints. Sasa’s daily specials menu mentioned that two of the fish had been flown in from some specific market in Japan that day, and they make their own unagi (barbecued fresh-water eel), which I’m told (by some of you, I believe) is unusual, as most places buy it already cooked and just reheat it for service. The maguro tuna was the best I’ve ever tasted and the salmon was close. The seaweed salad was a bit of a rip at $8 and came with some very fresh but unnecessary vegetables on top (e.g., one asparagus spear, cut into 2″ lengths), but it was interesting to see three different kinds of seaweed instead of the standard one, including a burgundy variety I’ve never had before that was slightly bitter and didn’t have the tooth of the more typical, green-and-clear kind. (Sorry, I’m not up on my seaweed terminology.) Even the green tea was good.

(By the way, I’m a piker in the kitchen compared to Gabe, who chronicles some of his cooking exploits on his blog, including making his own duck prosciutto.)

My one other stop was a minor indulgence, as I am a bit of a sucker for local fast-food burger joints and saw one called Good Times across the street from my hotel. It’s not Five Guys or In-n-Out, with a bigger menu and fries that aren’t hand-cut, but for a fast-food option it was two or three steps above the McDonald’s/BK class of “only if I’m desperate and even then I’ll think twice” establishments. The toppings at Good Times were also very fresh – bright green lettuce that still crunched, thick slices of juicy and faintly sweet tomatoes – and the beef (100% all natural Coleman … do I even want to know what 80% natural beef has as its other 20%?) was better than the bland, generic fast-food burgers forced down our throa… Sorry again, CSPI just hacked my blog, but I’m back. It’s a solid fast-food burger. The fries are coated, which I don’t really like, but they’re seasoned and not over-salted; skip the “wild sauce,” which is just barbecue sauce mixed with mayonnaise and is the color of terra cotta. Good Times also serves frozen custard, which I tried the night before, although they only do two flavors a day, vanilla and a special flavor, which was strawberry on Saturday. The vanilla had a good custard texture, and the mild flavor was nothing a little hot fudge couldn’t fix.