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Saturday, September 13, 2014

Fleet Landing in Charleston, SC Has It All

Charleston, South Carolina.  Old World atmosphere. Cobblestone streets.  Architecture back to the 1700’s. Friendly folks.

Ok, fine.  You get the portrait of this charming older lady by the sea.  What’s another word that comes to mind?  Seafood.

Yep, you can find it in seafood shops and seafood restaurants and even at the Saturday Farmer’s Market, where a local vendor calls out in the low country patois, “Aw shrimp was swimmin’ yes-ta-dei.”

Shrimp and oysters.  I raise the flag and salute both of those mainstays.  But, that’s not to leave out hand caught crabs and bounteous fish and seasonal soft shell crabs.

I’ve long since forgotten how many times I’ve visited The Holy City, or how many restaurants have come and gone.  And not all that have disappeared were second rate.  Families gave up the pressured life of serving the public.  Leases lapsed.  Tastes changed.

One thing for sure.  In Charleston, restaurant longevity rests on two things:  atmosphere and food.  Believe me, to survive you better be real heavy on the second.  Atmosphere will get people in the door, but only the high quality, deliciousness of what’s on the plate will bring them again and again, and make them tell their friends, family, and folks they’ve met at the bar to “Get your ass over there and go early, ‘cause there’s gonna be a line.”

What’s the first place I think of when I want seafood?  Fleet Landing.  Sure, there have been other pretty faces in my misspent youth, but Fleet Landing remains.  You can well ask, “If you can get seafood all over Charleston, why play a favorite?”

Ok.  You’ve probably never been there, so I’m going to forgive you for asking.  The answer in simple English is:  Lots of Stuff!  As you might guess, FRESH is the key word.  But, that’s not all.  The menu covers the gamut from the usual (and especially delicious) fried fare, to fantastic salads, gumbo, and crispy flounder with apricot glaze.  Don’t give me that look, you unbelievers!  Check out the menu.

Don't miss the gumbo!

Thanks to Chef Drew Hedlund, this seafood haven has caught the eye of not only Charlestonians, but national foodie magazines.

Fleet Landing sits right near the old vegetable market, on the water’s edge, in the marsh, with a panoramic view of the harbor.  Built by the U.S. Navy in 1942, Tradd Newton turned it into a first class restaurant in 1988. Almost thirty years later, it’s still packed at rush hour.

Walk through the market, past the Old Custom’s House, and continue toward the water.  Look to the right.  There it is.

The City Market, not to be confused with the Saturday Farmer's Market on Marion Square
Of course, there’s a nautical theme throughout the interior, but tastefully done.  A long, inviting bar slides gracefully along one side of the dining room. Large, revealing windows make you feel like you’re on a dock, ready to put to sea.  Matter of fact, if you really want the feeling of being on a dock, sit outside on the wrap-around porch.

On one visit, the air conditioning was out.  This was summer in Charleston and normally, a restaurant without air conditioning would be an abandoned building.  With the staff prying open windows that hadn’t been opened in years, the interior welcomed the cooling comfort of a sea breeze.  A hint of salty air captured the aroma of frying shrimp, creole flavors, and delicate greens.  It was beyond comfortable.  I ordered another Martini.  This was Charleston as it should be, a historic seaport, redolent with the sea.

Outside was a tranquil harbor that had once been the site of wars and home to pirates.  Fleet Landing hadn’t been there for all of that, but now it is definitely a part of the glamor and the history.

Over the entry, frozen in cement are the words:  U.S.  Navy.  Inside is the spaciousness of an open restaurant, bordered by a sweeping porch, serving the best of Charleston seafood. 

History.  Atmosphere.  Spectacular food.  Fleet Landing has it all.  No wonder it’s my first choice, every time.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Florence (Firenze), Italy’s Jeweled Necklace

Perseus with the head of Medusa, by Cellini (1554)

So, you’re on your way to Florence, Italy.   Good choice.  By the way, Italians call it Firenze (Fear-in-say).  How long have you got?  A year?  A month?  At least a week?  What, only a few hours?  Pity drips from my every pore.  To me, even more than Rome, Florence is the heart of Italy.

With only a few hours, better get started and I mean a year before you go.  If you don’t know what you’re looking at, you’re only a dull dog watching TV.  Read a couple of thousand books, become an authority on Michelangelo, Botticelli, Donatello, and dozens of other Renaissance artists.  Bone up on the Medicis, Machiavelli and other Italian political powers.

Think I’m joking?  There are some twenty major museums in Firenze.  That doesn’t count wandering the streets, and visiting the Ponte Vecchio, perhaps one of the top ten famous bridges of the world.  Bring credit cards, P.V.  is a throng of jewelry shops.  Oh, yeah, there’s the Plazzio Vecchio Musuem and tower.

Don’t feel like standing in line for tickets to the world famous Uffizi Gallery Museum?  Get your ticket online.  Of course, the Uffizi has some 45 corridors, so if you get there in the morning, be sure to switch the lights off when you leave.

We had only four hours?  Who’s the prankster?  You could spend four hours just waiting in line at the Uffizi.

So, what can you do to entertain yourself in the blink of an Italian eye?  I pondered that question.  Simple mind.  Simple answer.

Piazza dela Signoria, compliments of Wikipedia 

The Piazza dela Signoria is a good place to start.  Lots to see, including The David by Michelangelo, which is in front of the Palazzo Vecchio (Old Palace).  The original is in the Galleria dell'Accademia.  Lots of other statues in the Piazza dela Signoria, in fact too many to list. And, that goes for the rest of Florence!

It was here that the Bonfire of the Vanities took place.  Nope, not talking about Tom Wolfe’s 1990 novel.  This real life bonfire was lit by a Dominican priest, Girolamo Savonarola, who wanted to rid society of every temptation to sin, including everything that had to do with vanity.  Books.  Cosmetics.  Mirrors.  Paintings. Etc-freaking-cetera.  In the end, Savonarola got what was coming to him.  Denounced by the Inquisition, he was burned at the stake. The place of his conflagration is marked in the piazza.

Which makes a good point. Without getting too political, time marches on and humans are humans.  Want to stop time, or stop humans from being human?  Good luck.  Been tried.  In my often-inebriated opinion, the good and the bad of humanity are with us to stay.  A corollary:  often, both good and bad are moving targets and truth goes along for the ride.  Name a topical triumph or defeat and you’ll easily find humans who long to reverse the decision.

I say, forget those things we cannot change and go have a pizza and a wine.  In Florence, no problem.

After shopping for leather coats, and being blinded by tears when I saw the price tags, it was time to find a cool spot for a tall cool one.  And, by tall cool one, I only wish I were talking about the raven haired, dark-eyed beauties swishing by in diaphanous skirts and blouses.  Father Savonarola, you must be burning over in your grave.

But, no, I’m talking about wine and beer.  Take what you get and remain the portrait of grace and tranquility.  Rested after a leisurely wine or two?  Time to move on.

Maybe you’d like to idle a few moments visiting the final resting places of the giants.  Michelangelo, Dante, Rossini, Galileo, among many others.  Trot over to the Basilica di Santa Croce. Don’t worry, Florence is compact, so it’s an easy walk.  But, touring the basilica will take awhile.  Purchase a map at the entry to avoid missing the highlights.

Basilica di Santa Croce

Galileo's  Tomb

Michelangelo's Tomb

Dante's Tomb

It’s hot.  You’re sweaty and tired again.  Time is almost up.  You have one more mission-that’s-possible, and you’re a fool, Ethan Hunt, if you don’t accept it.  In a word:  Gelato!

You’ve heard of the frozen, Italian confection, but maybe you always thought, “Ah, what the hell, just another word for ice cream.”  Is that your final answer?  Lots of differences.  Gelato has less fat (5 to 7% instead of 10%), less air (25% vs 50%), and isn’t frozen as solidly.  The differences add up to a more intense flavor.  But, do they have sugar-free, lactose-free, calorie-free, made only from sustainable plants, sold at fair-market prices, in factories where workers are paid a living wage, and have free healthcare, including contraceptive devices????  Gosh, I don’t know.  I’ll have two scoops while I do the research.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Gluten-Free Biscuit? Muffin? Whatever, They’re Delicious

Ok, I know, the jury is still out.  Some say  - and have made an obscene amount of money saying it – that gluten is the root of all eating-evil.  They say most of the multitudinous obese Americans should blame their rotund waistlines and generally poor health on wheat, rye, barley, and being overly familiar with Crispy-Kreme.

Then I read another article that claimed, of the 18% of Americans who go gluten-free, about 1% of them really need to.  Also read the % is far less than 1%.  I’m confused, which you can tell from the whiff of first-class whisky on my breath.

I’m ashamed to admit it, but I’m not a scientist, or a medical doctor, or a dietician.  On the other hand, I don’t have to carry a Ship Load of Insurance. And, to my credit, I’m also not either a politician or an economist.   

I’m just a normal, whiskey drinking, boob obsessed guy.  I don’t go racing through the streets, waving my arms, screaming about the downfall of civilization when I see someone eating bread.  I save that for when I run out of beer.  Beer, by the way also has gluten.  Damn you, Goddess-of-the-Harvest!

I do have friends (which may come as a shock) who are gluten-free for both cosmetic and genuine health reasons.  And I have to admit I’ve seen dramatic results from those diagnosed with Celiac disease who have chosen to go gluten-free.

Even when it’s not called gluten-free, there are a lot of diet regimens that don’t allow grains.  Akins and Peleo are just two I can mention.  Every diet has it’s bad points. Those two also leave out essentials, like pudding, and French-fries.

Some things you may think have gluten don't:  Rice in all its forms and corn in all its forms, plus millet, buckwheat, quinoa, sorghum, soy, potatoes, and others.

Ah, science.  It’s wonderful moving target.  The so-called ‘facts’ change with the next set of data points.  So refreshing.  Yesterday’s scoundrel (eggs, fat) is today’s hail-fellow-well-met.  Redemption by data.

But, let’s skip the petty bickering and get to the real ‘biscuit in the oven.’  For those who want to go gluten-free and are tired of corn tortillas, baked potatoes, and grits, I have a semi-wonderful alternative to make those newly redeemed mornings of streaky bacon and eggs-over-easy really blossom.  Gluten-free Biscuits!  Easy to make, easy to bake.  You can even call them muffins if you want to feel really, really naughty.

The very simple recipe:

Preheat the oven to 450ºF (230ºC)

In a medium bowl, mix two cups of gluten-free flour, two heaping tablespoons of baking powder, and a half-teaspoon of salt.  Stir well. 

Using a pastry cutter or a fork, cut-in 6 tablespoons of butter.  The mixture should look grainy.

Thoroughly stir in one cup of water.  The batter will be as thin as pancake batter.  Wait a minute or two and it will thicken to the consistency of cake batter.

Grease eight muffin cups and fill them with equal amounts of batter.  Put the pan in the oven and bake for 14 minutes.  The muffins will rise and turn tan.  They’re ready!  Don’t wait for them to brown.

Voilà!  Perfectly delicious!  Ready for jam, unless you’re diabetic, or lactose free, or just not into feeling really, really naughty.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Fox Brothers and Heirloom - Atlanta BBQ

Plenty of barbeque joints around Atlanta.  Most are about as genuine as a Hollywood boob job. Thank da Lawd, there are two super exceptions.  For my money, Atlanta BBQ is all about Heirloom and Fox Brothers.  Period.

I wrote about Heirloom previously.  Here’s the link:

I despaired of finding another smoky haven, but then a thoughtful friend dragged my hungry self into Fox Bros.

Fox Bros means BBQ Texas Roadhouse style.  Looks like a converted barn, inside and out.  That’s a good indication that you’re strolling into the heart of barbecue country.

Of course, as every man who’s ever lifted a beer at happy hour on a Friday night knows, looks can be deceiving.

Fortunately, that’s not the case at Fox Bros.  ‘Shamefully delicious’ jumps right off the menu and that’s only the start.  Ask your server about the specials.  Go ahead, punk…ASK!

OK if I skip most of the palaver and get right to the food? Thanks, ‘cause my mouth is watering just thinking about it.

Beef Rib with a side of Brunswick Stew

The star of the show, on this particular hot, thirsty afternoon, was succulent, well-smoked beef rib.  Yep, that’s singular.  Thickly peppered and meaty.  Anybody who can eat more than one of these hunks needs to live on the prairie and track down his own buffalo.

Fork tender, yet succulent and every morsel bursting with flavor.  To get beef this tender, you have to smoke it longer than it takes to sit through four blind dates sober.

What else is worth the mention?  Just about everything.  Pulled pork is as it should be, flavorful and juicy.  Ribs?  You bet!  Then there’s something called Brisket Taquitos.  Cheese, smoked beef, vegetable bits, and a special sauce, tightly wrapped.  Grab some Chicken wings with the look of aged mahogany and the taste of barbecue heaven.

Beef Taquitos

That’s it?  Barbecue.  Not by a long shot.  Take on some Brunswick Stew, grab an order of fried pickles.  Pick out your favorite beverage from the well stocked bar.  I chanced on a Mimosa.  Fresh juice and champagne.  An unconventional choice, but an excellent counterpoint to the spicy Q.

Fried Dill Slices


Think you can make barbecue in the smoker at home?  You’re welcome to try.  Fox Bros sells jars of both sauce and rub.  The problem is, at home you’re contending with a bunch of different things you probably haven’t considered:  type of wood for smoking.  Temperature control.  Smoke control.  Tending the fire - for long periods of time you can’t spare.

I often say that barbecue is more than the cut of meat, the equipment, and the time.  It’s part science, but mostly art.  All cooking is like that to some extent, but barbecue requires a special skill all its own.  Look around.  Do some tasting.  Every BBQ joint the same? 

Fortunately for the folks who live near Atlanta, or are passing through, I’ve done the work for you.  Only two names you need to remember, Fox Bros and Heirloom.

Ok, let’s split some hairs.  Which one is better?  I simply cannot answer the question, but I can point out some differences.  Heirloom is strictly a standup and eat affair.  Also, the four or five sauces are each wonderful, with separate flavors and spiciness.  Plus, because one of the chefs is from Texas and the other from South Korea, you get flavor combinations and accompaniments that catch your eye and take your taste buds where they’ve never been before.  However, the Q (and especially the ribs and brisket) are always the main events.  If you go expecting barbeque taken to the highest level, you’re always going to get what you came for.

Need to sit down with a group of friends and linger over lunch or dinner?  Fox Bros every time.  The beef is out of this world and there are many more traditional side dishes.   Don’t expect the unexpected…with one huge exception:  you’ll never experience BBQ that’s any better than this.

Two Atlanta BBQ things to remember:  Heirloom.  Fox Bros.