Friday, February 13, 2015

FOOD FANS, ASHEVILLE - Free Lunch at West Village Market & Deli

SO....  I decided I wanna shoot video.  Food related video, of myself and my friends, Dawn, my mom, other famous food fans, random motherfuckers, all out and about in Asheville and surrounds, eating the awesome food, and meeting the awesome food makers!  So, like I like to do when I wanna do something, I started doing it.

My Motto is:  Just fuckin' do it.  

It's kinda like the Nike motto, only way better, because it has a swear word and an apostrophe in it.


I ran my idea of shooting video about the food scene in Asheville past a few reliable people, and they all agreed that it was a good one, so I decided to start right away, raw, with no experience or script, or anything beyond an iPhone, a date with a contest winner, and my usual levels of enthusiasm and "fuck it-all-edness."

I'm titling my series "Food Fans, Asheville" and it stars me, in typical, annoying selfie mode.

This first installment also stars the lovely and interesting Kiere Shafer, who won a FaceBook contest to have "FREE LUNCH with the  FOOD CRITIC" sponsored by The West Village Market & Deli.

Our co-stars include Tom, who gave me a ride, Adams Wood who is a fellow food fan that we met at the deli counter, and then Hyette and Thomas who both work at the deli counter.  Hyette explains what "paleo food" is, after Thomas admits that he doesn't know "exactly what the fuck that means!"

Thomas was a great interview subject, and Kierre was also very natural in front of the camera.  Adams and Hyette were awesome too, and my friend Tom is a stone-cold stud.

Hmmm... I'm definitely the weak link here...  Ha ha!  JK, I'm a muhfuckin' supah-star, Baby! 

You can watch the video below and then read more about the lunch and our conversation below that.

This is my first attempt at shooting a video like this, ever, so it's kinda shaky and choppy, and runs about twice as long or longer than it needs to, but there are some funny moments, and good info, and like I said, the people in it totally rule.  

Enjoy the video!  Here's a teaser for the writing below it:  

"Delving deeper into the topic, we expressed a mutual admiration for the Scandinavian people, who had gone from one of the most brutal and fearsome cultures in history to one of the most civilized and peaceful in the world today.  Kiere had obviously thought about this before, and had very interesting things to say..."

LUNCH WITH KIERE - West Village Market & Deli - West Asheville

I got to the West Village Market & Deli about 15 mins early, and got myself some hot coffee (in a ceramic mug!) from the self-serve coffee area, and situated myself near the deli counter in the back, to wait for my lunch date, and fellow food fan, Kiere Shafer.  I was very much looking forward to our free lunch, on the house, which part of a promotional contest that I ran on my FaceBook page.

I've done "free lunch with the food critic" contests in the past, and this one was similar to others in that the entrants had to convince me to some degree that we would have a good time together at lunch.  No duds.  I ain't eatin' lunch with a fuckin' dud.  Or a jerk.  Or any dick-heads.  Fuck dick-heads.

I asked the entrants to come up with"Three possible topics of conversation" that we could discuss over lunch, and they came through with some good ones, so it was a little hard to decide, but in the end I picked Kiere, as her three topics appealed to many of my personal interests:

1) The evolution of Viking culture into one of the most civilized on Earth
2) Hot dogs for every occasion!
3) How can we stop the use of (the font) Papyrus in Asheville

Yeah, man!  Vikings, evolution, festive occasions, fonts, and hot dogs!  I could talk about fonts alone for the whole lunch.  I contacted Kiere to let her know that she won, and we set up a time to meet for lunch.

She showed up right on time, we hugged (Hey, Asheville! Hug City, USA), and I think we were talking about hot dogs before she even got her coat off.  My kind of person.

After some initial chit chat, we decided to order. Kiere was all about the tempeh, which I found interesting, because she's obviously a meat-eater (she makes a "breakfast hot dog"at home), but she said she loves the "Tempeh's So Asheville" sandwich at WVMD, and was going to try the tempeh Reuben this time.  I like tempeh too, even though I eat the shit out of some meat.

Asheville is a town where there's not always a hard divide between the meat-eaters and the veg crowd.  I like that.  

I ordered something called the "Roast Beast," that was roast beef, horse radish sauce, roasted red peppers, spinach, cheese, and red onions.  Hold those fucking onions, throw in on the panini press, and I'm all good to go!

My sandwich was excellent.  Very moist, and flavorful, and the bread was crispy on the outside, and still soft and fresh tasting on the inside.  I knew that the ingredients were all high-quality, because I know for a fact that the people who run WVMD give a shit about me, and you, and all of their customers, and they want to feed us high quality food.

I ate every bite of my sandwich, and Kiere seemed to be enjoying her's too.  We were both members of the clean plate club.  Even the pickles went down.

I have to say, these sandwiches tasted a lot better than they look in this picture! The plates were super-cool, vintage plastic plates, that I really liked, but the ugly retro colors were not flattering to the food.  The table was also retro and I liked it very much!  You can see the handle of my coffee mug.  It's a classic, ceramic, diner mug.  I approve.
We also tasted the soups: I got Minestrone and she got the Ginger Bisque.  Mine was great!  Very hardy and savory, the broth was not watery at all, and the flavors were well-rounded and had depth to them.  It was a tasty, comforting cup of soup.  Kiere's ginger bisque did not impress her, which suprised me, but made more sense later, when Thomas the deli guy expressed a lack of enthusiasm for his own creation, explaining that he intentionally made it very mild, for the folks who prefer mild foods.  Thomas clearly prefers spicy food, and I had a feeling that Kiere does too, based on some of our lunch conversation.

And speaking of our conversation...

PAPYRUS - We agreed that Papyrus needs to die.  It is one of the original free fonts that came with every fucking Mac ever produced. Maybe on PCs too, I wouldn't know.  It looks like this...

(Image by "milky" from  Also pictured:  comic cans.)

You've seen it.  It's in use still to this very day.  People like it.  People in Asheville seem to like it a little more than people in other parts of the world.  Graphic designers fucking hate it.

I've been doing freelance graphic design for 23 years, and every time I see Papyrus, I die a small angry death inside.  "Why?  Why why why Pa-pie?"

Turns out, ya'll; Kiere is a graphic designer too! She told me a horror story...  a nightmare really...  about a recent experience in which a client insisted on Papyrus.  Y'know that small angry death I mentioned above?  That's just from seeing the dreaded font.  Poor Kiere was being asked to work with it. Touch it. Move it around on a screen with photos and graphics, using her brain and eyeballs to do design with it, and then sign-off on the finished product once the client gave her the thumbs-up.

Night.  Mare.

I was dying angry sympathy-deaths for her, but the conversation was saved from total morbidity when she said wryly, "It wasn't a portfolio piece," and we had a good laugh at the very idea.  Kiere has a good sense of humor.  Another reason I was glad I picked her as the contest winner.

VIKINGS - We talked about Vikings and Viking Culture, and Kiere asked me if I watch the dramatic TV series titled Vikings.  I said no, it's too dramatic for me, but I suggested that she check out the movie Valhalla Rising, which is maybe the best Viking Movie ever made, and she said she would!  As a side-bar, I mentioned that it has a good droney/doomy soundtrack, and she said that she could understand how that would work well with Vikings.  Yeah, Man.  Kierre is a cool chick.

Delving deeper into the topic, we expressed a mutual admiration for the Scandinavian people, who had gone from one of the most brutal and fearsome cultures in history to one of the most civilized and peaceful in the world today.  Kiere had obviously thought about this before, and had very interesting things to say, including that the Viking women were treated as equals, so an atmosphere of equality was fostered over the decades.  She added that the Vikings were known to assimilate the cultures they conquered, so we extrapolated that as more and more of the people the Vikings conquered became part of Viking society, this attitude of equality was extended outwardly to other tribes...  until eventually... world peace became a Viking tradition!  Fuck yeah.  Vikings!!!

HOT DOGS - As I said, we were talkin' hot dogs the minute Kiere arrived at the Deli, and that particular topic was recurring.  When she reminded me that she had posted on my FaceBook page one time about her breakfast hot dog, which included scrambled eggs, and I was all, like, "Oh yeahhh!  I remember you!"  We agreed that breakfast hot dogs should be standard fare on menus all over Asheville, and across 'Merca.  I mean, WTF, World?  Breakfast hot dog.  Duh.

I told her about my hot dog pizza recipe, which is a toaster oven treat that can't be beat, made from naan and a butterflied, "twice cooked" dog, complete with pizza sauce, mozzarella, ketchup, and mustard.  It's one of my all-time greatest creations.

Yeah.  We mostly talked about food, as food fans are wont to do, and we even ran into Ben from Sovereign Remedies, who was shopping for lunch.  He stopped to say hi, then politely backed away when I started foaming at the mouth about hot dogs...  or Vikings.. or fonts...  Hey, Ben!  I'll be in to see you soon, and we'll pick up where we left off!  Ha ha!  JK

I gave Kierre a pop-quiz essay question at the very end:

"It's Kwanzaa," I said, "what's your hot dog?" 

She froze, and admitted that she didn't know much about "Jewish holidays."


If I knew Kiere a little better I would have mercilessly made fun of her right then and there, but since I never know how my cruel sense of humor is going to go over with new friends, I informed her that Kwanzaa is an African American holiday, and we agreed that at the very least a festive African pattern could be created using ketchup, mustard, and relish.  I suggested Ethiopian bread instead of a bun, but we left it open, and I "joked" that I would be expecting her real answer soon.  "Joked."  Kiere.  As in:  I was serious.

The whole lunch was really tasty, and fun, and I even got a nice interview with the deli people after Kiere said her goodbyes!  Thanks, Kiere!  You're the best!

And thanks to Rosanne, Belle, Hyette, and Thomas from the West Village Market!  The food was great, and the whole thing was a blast! 

I even left some Asheville Flyer for Kids among the mags at the front!  Where the kids can find them.  It's free, and fun.  Please find them and take them.
### END ###

Tuesday, February 10, 2015


Sometimes I even cook at home...  And since I don't have kids, I eat steak!  Yeah, man, good ol' steak 'n' taters, with a side of broccoli.  I love it, and I've got a special method of doing this meal that is easy-peasy, though slightly dangerous as fuck, so y'know,  don't follow these instructions! Unless you're as stupid as I am...

FIRST: You will need:

1) A potato
2) A piece of steak
3) Frozen Broccoli Florets
3) Salt
4) Pepper
5) Olive Oil
6) Butter

Here are 3 of the ingredients you will need.
FYI:  My best friend in this whole world is a toaster oven.  I love it, it loves me.  Like Dr. Who, every once in a while it dies, and is reborn, looking different, more modern, and more powerful than ever, but remaining my bestie.

TIP: Salt and pepper your steak while it's still raw, and leave it out for a bit, so that it warms to room temperature.

NEXT: You will need to...

1) Cover your toaster oven tray in tin-foil...
2) Then pour a thin layer of olive oil on it
3) Chop-up your tater into reasonable sized pieces
4) Spread 'em out on the tray
5) Add salt and pepper


SO: You will need to figure yours out for yourself.  I set mine on "toast" for ten minutes, then flip all the taters and toast them again for ten more minutes.  I know that my taters are going to take 20 minutes every time, so I time everything else accordingly.  Knowmsayin'?  You figure your toaster over / potato sitch out, and you'll have a time frame to work with.

Red skin potatoes work particularly well with the toaster oven method.

1) Put about 1/8 inch of water into the bottom of a small sauce pan
2) Put in some frozen broccoli florets
3) Place a decent-sized pad of butter on top of the florets
4) Cover
5) Place on medium-to-low flame

My friend Joe the vegan told me "Stu, it's ok to eat frozen vegetables," so I do.

Place four pads of butter (or more) into a medium sized frying pan

More butter = more better.

Get all your muhfuckin' burners goin', Yo!

• Borocolli covered on low
• Frying pan of butter on medium
• Open burner on high

Danger. It's what's for dinner.



Sizzle the shizzle outta that betch.
By the time you transfer the meat into the pan, your butter should already be hotter than fuck.  For a thick steak like the one pictured, I'll sear each side for three mins, and then turn the heat way down and cook each side for another 7 minutes.

Be sure to turn your oven fan on or your fire alarms are likely to go off!  True story...ies.

• Your taters are crispy on the outside and thoroughly cooked inside.
• Your broccoli is hot, and soft, but not mushy
• Your steak is seared to perfection on the outside, and pink-to-red on the inside, depending on how you like it.

TIP:  Be sure to let your steak sit for a minute or two before you cut into it.  That will help it stay juicy while you eat it, and also help the flavor settle down a bit as it cools slightly.

Even at home, I try to make things look nice when I have time.  Other times, I eat straight out of the pans.

• I added a little shredded cheddar cheese to the broccoli and...

• I made my own steak sauce out of organic catchup and balsamic vinegar

That shit was fuckin' goood, Yo!
### END ###

Monday, February 9, 2015


"Um...  it's not a house." 

This was my first thought upon recently stumbling across the winner of the 2014 National Ginger Bread House Competition at the Grove Park Inn, in Asheville North Carolina.

It was sitting in a display case, tucked in a semi-remote hallway of the famous hotel, which has been host to the annual, gingerbread house contest for 22 years.  I used to go check it out yearly, but it lost me a while back, because the entries seemed really slick and pro, and had nothing to do with Asheville, or the GPI, or actual gingerbread houses anymore.  The entries, it seemed, could be and were, shaped like whatever, and some of the themes seemed questionable, or tacky at the very least.

Last year, for example, Ann Bailey was the big winner in the Adult category, with her entry titled, "Pawn Stars," which resembles a really fancy, Christmas-themed chess board, complete with reindeer, elves, and X-mas trees comprising some of the chess-pieces. A variety of very fancified stars act as the pawns, in two lines facing each other from across the board.

I know it was the winner in the "adult" category, but I think the title is perhaps a little TOO adult, if you know what I'm sayin'.
Here are my problems with this gingerbread house...

• As I said...  it's NOT A HOUSE.  I dunno, but if I was going to have a contest, and the very title of that contest contained the word "house," as in, let's say...  a...  Green House Building contest ...and someone submitted, ohhhhh... a chair my Green House Building contest... they certainly would not win.  Even if the chair was gorgeous, and was made out of glass, and had plants inside, it would still be a chair, and not a green house.  "Pawn Stars" is a chess board.  Not a gingerbread house. If I was a judge at the GPI gingerbread HOUSE competition, I'd be wanting to see some amazing... gingerbread... houses.

• Pawn Stars is a TV show, and a really inane one at that.  It is an inane TV show that has absolutely nothing to do with: Christmas, chess, gingerbread, gingerbread houses, Asheville, the GPI, or seemingly ANYTHING related to this contest or entry, except for the 1/2-clever pun being made with the title.  I hate 1/2-clever shit.  Again, if I was a judge in this contest, I would ask Ms. Baily, "What is the connection between the TV show that your piece is named after, and the concept of your piece, beyond the pun?"  If Ann could explain that to me in a satisfactory manner, I would have less of a problem with her entry, but still, I hate when bullshit, mainstream, force-it-down-your-throat, media culture seeps into our quaint traditions. It's annoying to me.

• The title of the TV show Pawn Stars, is itself a 1/2-clever take on the cultural term "Porn Stars," as in: People who fuck for a living.  I'm sorry to be vulgar, but let's call it like it is.  The TV show Pawn Stars -- though it has nothing to do with the porn industry -- is named after people who are paid for having sex in front of cameras, for the pleasure of others.  That's just a fact.  And...  so...  in turn...  this cute little Christmas chess set is likewise titled after those people who are employed to fuck.  Thaaaat's charming.  And is a perfect example of why I hate 1/2-clever shit. Isn't the GPI Ginger Bread House competition supposed to be for families? I don't think the porn industry needs to be given a tip o' the hat from an entry in any family-oriented event.  Am I wrong about that?  Should I soften my stance on references to porn around kids?  Well, I'm not going to.

• Where's the gingerbread? I looked and looked and looked at Pawn Stars slowly rotating on its electric lazy-Susan-type-pedestal inside the glass case at the GPI, but nowhere could I ascertain any gingerbread. No. Where. I saw what appeared to be an assload of fondant, and food coloring, and I suppose there may have been some gingerbread underneath all that fondant, but who the fuck knows?  There could have also been chicken wire, Styrofoam, human remains... almost anything can be covered in fondant and presented as food.  What would we find if we cracked open one of the "pawn stars" on Ann's chess board? The world may never know, because I guess the sad truth is that these contest entries are never meant to be eaten, and so they don't need to be edible.  When you put it that way, who cares what's under the fondant? I mean, it's not a cookie, Stu, it's a sculpture.

Well, in that case, World, why the fuck is this contest titled The National Gingerbread House Competition if it doesn't need to be a house, and it doesn't need to made out of gingerbread?  Why not just call it the National Fondant Sculpture Competition?

Because there is no interest in fondant as a food item, that's why, and there is no cultural history of fondant sculpture contests.  If the title of this competition were more accurate, no one would give a shit.  

There is, however, a strong interest in gingerbread as a food item, and a long cultural history of gingerbread house competitions.

I feel as though the original spirit of such contests has been completely lost at the GPI Gingerbread House Competition, and that is exactly why they have lost me as a fan, and vocal proponent of their competition. I used to tell people how much I liked it.  Now, I curl my lip at the mere mention of this falsely advertized contest of fondant manipulators.

I am aware that the entries to modern Gingerbread House competitions are generally meant to be displayed for long periods of time, up to a month or even much longer, and are not intended to be eaten, ever, by anyone, but, I think that's bullshit. Take a fuckin' picture, then eat that thing.  One of the criteria for winning a gingerbread house contest should be how your gingerbread house TASTES in my opinion.

When I was a kid (Oh, Christ, here comes Grandpa) half the fun of making a gingerbread house was destroying it and eating it.  Now I guess the fun is in...  looking at it until you throw it away.


The logo for The National Gingerbread House Competition depicts a house, made of gingerbread. The winner of The National Gingerbread House Competition in the background is a chess board made out of Femo... er...  I mean, fondant.
 ### END ###

Thursday, January 8, 2015

GOT THAT GET GIG! - Will Work for Food part II

First, a Glossary...

GET = Grey Eagle Taqueria
RAD = River Arts District
PMA = Positive Mental Attitude
TLA = Three-Letter Acronym

I am an adherent to certain principals and practices of thinking first described by Napoleon Hill, and later dubbed "Positive Mental Attitude."

One of the most fun and effective techniques of PMA is to "create a job."  I've done it dozens of times.  Thousands, if you count every time I've rustled-up some work as an artist and graphic designer, but beyond my core skills and interests in art, I enjoy creating jobs for myself in other areas.  Like booking bands, organizing shows and festivals, or writing about food!

It's true that at this early stage of my food writing career, I almost never get paid, but I'm working towards that goal!  In the meantime, I wanted to test myself, and see if I could create another job for myself within the food industry, at a restaurant that has great food, but also suffers from issues in the areas of image, branding, promotions, and the bottom line.

The test would be A) to create that job and B) to see if I could succeed in helping a restaurant do better. 

Y'know, like, can the famously harsh Food Critic put his money where his mouth is, and get paid to do it?

I had a few spots in mind to approach, then I randomly ate lunch at the GET, and I immediately knew, there was no question in my mind, that this was the place.

It seemed like most people I talk to don't even know that the GET exists, let alone that it's open six days a week, serving great food from noon to 8pm, and even later if there's a live show at The Grey Eagle.

So, I went home, typed up a proposal, and emailed it to Russel Keith, the manager of both the Grey Eagle and the GET, and the very next time I ran into him (at Clingman Cafe in the RAD) he said, "Yeah, I got that e-mail! Sounds great!  Let's talk in the new year!"

In my proposal, I offered to work for half my salary in the form of food. Russel liked that. I'm going to use some of my work credits to try everything on the menu, at least once so that I can speak about each and every muhfuckin' thing that I'll be promoting with some knowledge and authoritay. I've had the tacos, and they are fucking good.  But there are many things on the menu that I haven't tried, from salads to cheeseburgers, and I want to make sure I eat it all before I report to you... in excruciating detail...  about every single, savory bite.

Russel and I had a meeting to talk about stuff, and we have some really fun ideas for promotions and give-aways 'n' shit in the near future, so keep an eye out for contests and what-not coming up real soon.

The first part of my job -- the job I created for myself using PMA -- is to let as many people as possible know that the GET exists.  I'm doing that now!!!

Another facet of my my job is letting you guys know what's what over there at the GET, and I'm gonna start with some info about Benton Wade.

Maybe you didn't know -- I didn't know until recently -- that the head cook at the GET has a pedigree which includes praise-worthy local restaurants like Fig, Cucina24, and Rhubarb.

Benton's major influence is Latin Cuisine, and his Pork Pastoral is one of his signature dishes, prepared the traditional way, by using pineapple to break down the enzymes in the pork.  Even typing those words made my mouth water just now.  I'm not even bullshitting.  I've had it. It's really good.

I've met Benton twice now, and he seems nice. A man of few words. So far.

The jack-ass in the foreground is me.  The guy in the background is Benton. He seemed thrilled to be working together.
I'll try to get to know him a little bit better and give you more deets as I spend my lunch hours eating his food and promoting the fuck out of it to you guys!

Yay!  I'm gonna love my new job!

Saturday, January 3, 2015


Oh, it's tempting to make up a million fun categories and give out Stoobie Awards on Ashvegas forever, but ultimately, I decided to put a cap on it this year, eliminating such categories as Breakfast of the Year, Hot Dog of the Year, and Most Improved Venue of the Year.  That last one seems like a back-handed compliment anyways, but the list of superlatives in general was getting too long and daunting.  I hate being daunted at.

So I cut the fat and trimmed the gristle, but before doing that, I wrote some gobbledegook here and there on the above topics, most of it not worth publishing, but in the category of Least Annoying Music, I got pretty far, so I've finished it up, and posted it here on my blog, as an extra tid bit for you.

The nominees in the category of Least Annoying Music are...

ZAMBRA - Zomb's has been a fave of ours since we first arrived in Asheville and part of the reason for that is the atmosphere.  The lighting is perfect, the decor is inviting and just weird enough to be old-school Asheville style, and the music is ALWAYS not annoying.  Whatever they are playing, I hope they keep playing it.  It's un-obtrussive, mellow, jazzy, modern, and pleasant.  Every once in a great while I have noted to Dawn, "I like the music they're playing," but other than that it just kinda happens.  This one time, there was a little jazz trio playing live in there, and it might have been the best live music I've ever experienced during a dinner out, ever.  I hardly even noticed it!  Except to think to myself that I was totally not being annoyed by it.

NIGHTBELL - Nightbell is the one venue on this list that I actually know a little bit about the music, and who programs it.  César is in charge of the music at Nightbell, and personally, I love what he does.  It's definitely got that Euro-dancey-thing going on, but not in an obnoxious "thump thump thump" kind of way.  Plus the lighting is set to change with the music in some magical fashion that I don't quite understand, but I enjoy every much.

IMPERIAL LIFE - When they leave it up to the staff and not the DJ, the music at Imperial Life is great, and is often comprised of classic B-Sides by popular and lesser know Soul/R&B acts.  B-sides are key.  A-sides are for A-holes.  And people under thirty.  Commercials, cheesy movie soundtracks, and crappy FM radio have ruined just about every single A-side ever pressed for me, forever and ever.  I never ever ever want to hear some of the greatest songs ever written and recorded ever again.  And the bad ones?  Holy shit.  I actually got angry when the DJ played a Lionel Richie song at Imperial Life one time.  It's the staff that really seems to have a good thing going on there.  A pandora station, or a really good iShuffle or something. 

IZZY'S COFFEE DEN- Izzy's is the one and only place in Asheville where I regularly wonder to myself, in a good way, "What's this music?"  It's almost like listening to a really great college radio station when you're in there.  When I do recognize a tune or band I feel like I'm kinda cool, and hip, and not so old after all.  Of course, having all those feelings only proves that I'm actually not cool, or hip, and I really am old after all, but... whatever! I'm still cool enough to go into Izzy's and dig the tunes.  Jerk.

URBAN ORCHARD - Dawn and I have noted on more than one occasion that the music in Urban Orchard is not annoying.  It's usually some kind of indie rock type of stuff, and it's not too loud, or too whiny.  I'm not the world's hugest indie rock fan myself, so I never know any of the songs, which is one of the keys to un-annoying restaurant music.  For the most part, I don't wanna hear songs that I know.  Too distracting.  The otherwise excellent restaurant on Patton Ave known as Table nearly got a dang Peevey award for playing a CCR song during our elegant meal last July.  No, thank you, I don't want to Run Through The Jungle right now.  I'm eating.  Urb Orch scores high points for not annoying the crap out of us with their unfamiliar indie rock soundtrack.

And the winner isssss...

IZZY'S COFFEEEEE DENNNNNN!!!  This was a tough call, because I really fucking love what César is doing with the music / lights / ambiance of Nightbell, but when I thought hard about it, I realized that unlike any other place in Asheville,  I often feel like asking the staff at Izzy's what's playing.  It's that good.  I'll brave the cloud of cigarette smoke outside Izzy's door and risk encountering more clouds of pure BO on the inside, just because I know I'm going to get a really good cup of joe at a reasonable price, AND some sweet jams that'll make me feel like I'm listening to something fucking cool, hip, and different.  It's always at the right volume too, so thanks, Izzy's, here's your Stoobie Award:

###  END ###

Monday, December 29, 2014


One of the more sickeningly sweet aspects of Christmas around Food Critic Headquarters is the tradition of the "Christmas Cake."

It's something I started with my family about 6 years ago and we've done it every Christmas ever since.
Here's the basic poop:

• I bake a cake.

• I hide eight "trinkets" inside the cake.

• Each trinket has a significance.

• One special trinket is the "Christmas King or Queen" trinket.  

• The person who gets that special trinket in their slice of cake is crowned with our family Tam, and declared The Christmas King or Queen!

There are various facets, nuances, rules, and regulations surrounding the Christmas Cake that we discuss, recognize, and adhere to as a family, and those are all subject to change at the Monarch's will and/or the Will of the People, to a degree.

And, too, also... there's prognosticating involved.

It's a little weird, and the weirdest part of this whole thing  --  the part that surprised and confused my family at first  --  is that I bake a cake.  Now they're used to it, but in beginning...  yeah, it was weird that I volunteered to bake a cake.

I can honestly say that I have no recollection of ever baking a cake in my entire life before I decided to take on this task six years ago, so before beginning, I sought the advice of my home-cooking gurus:  My Mom and Dawn, and to a lesser extent, my social media network.

Here are the most important things I learned:

• Why kill yourself? - Make a cake from scratch?!?  Who am I Karen Donatelli?  No, I am not.  The home cooks in my life all gave me permission to start with a box.  I always buy organic cake mix with the fewest possible ingredients on the label, so it's like, good.

• Add an extra egg. - If the box calls for 2 eggs, use 3.  It makes the cake moister.  Simple as a pimple.

• Add an extra pinch of salt. - It's like magic pixie dust.  Just one little pinch...  or maybe two... makes everything taste better, and therefor it makes life happier, and therefor it is exactly like magic pixie dust.

Melt the butter in a pot, then let it cool a bit before adding it to the milk and eggs.  If it's still hot, it'll fuck-up the eggs, Yo.

I always make a two-layer cake, using two 9", round baking pans.  They are "non-stick" but that is utter and total bullshit.  If you do not grease and powder the fuck out of these two shits, the cake will stick.  For realz.  Heed my warning!!!

Mmm...  cake batter.  I wanna eat it with a fucking spoon!  It does, however, contain 3 raw eggs, so yeah...  no. 

Oh my gosh, they came out beautifully this year!  So golden yellowy brown!  My oven runs a little hot, so I took 'em out a few mins before the box recommended.  When I did the toothpick trick, they were super moist, so I asked Dawn if she thought they were too moist and she said, "No.  They'll cook a little more out of the oven anyways." She was right!  As far as the moistness goes, this was my best cake ever!

What looks like delicious cornbread, is actually delicious, moist, all natch, organic, vanilla cake!

Arrrrg!  I remembered to grease the pans, but forgot to powder them, so my cakes stuck to the bottom of the pans a li'l bit.  I managed to piece them together  --  Frankencake style  --  and using that sweet Spackle we call frosting, no one was the wiser.  ;-)  Until just now...  when I revealed my secret failure to you, the public.

They might appear a little monstrous, but they were fucking good, and with a little plastic surgery, they were beautiful again!

I made an icing tool out of a Ziplock baggie with one corner cut-off, and used it to squeeze a circle of frosting along the inner top edge of the bottom layer, and then stuck the top layer on.  In past years, I've iced the entire top of the bottom layer, but I decided that was way too much frosting in the end.  We're not a huge frosting family.  Sure, frosting is yummy, and totally essential to the cake experience, but enough is enough already.  Nomesayin'?

After the two layers were assembled, I positioned all of the trinkets on top.  There are 8 people in our core X-Mas dinner group, and this year I opted for seven pedestrian penguins and one special X-Mas Penguin.  In years past, there have been eight different trinkets, each with its own meaning, but there has always been one special X-Mas trinket.

I buy my magic "trinkets" at Chevron Bead Company on N. Lexington ave.  They are beads.

As I have said, there is prognosticating involved in the Christmas Cake tradition, and in the past there has always been a Prognosticator's trinket.  The person who found that trinket in their slice of cake was responsible for making predictions for every other person at the table.  This year, that position was eliminated and those responsibilities were absorbed into the duties of the Christmas Monarch.  We had a brief family council meeting in which I notified everyone of these changes, and they agreed to them.  My nephew Asa was the Monarch of 2013/14, and he was down with the changes, and so it was decreed.  And there was much rejoicing.

Whaaat?!?  How fucking cute are these guys?  I usually buy glass beads, sometimes glazed ceramic, but never plastic or Femo.

Getting the trinkets into the cake has always posed a dilemma, until I realized I could just push those little fuckers into the dang cake and fill in the holes with frosting!  Duh.

Burying the bodies...  in frosting!!!  Yay! Bury me in frosting when I die, please.
People always ask, "Do you bake the trinkets into the cake?"  Good question, and that did occur to me the first year, but I realized that would make it very difficult to know where the trinkets are hidden in the cake.  The location of specific trinkets should remain a mystery to all, including me, but the locations of the 8 trinkets in general must be known to the person who slices the cake, so that each person is assured one, and only one, trinket.

U go bye bye now.  Aw.  Don't haz a sad! We see u soon!
After filling in the holes with frosting, I marked each trinket with a tiny sugar ball called a "pearl," so that I would know where they were after the frosting had hidden all trace of their shallow graves.

Let the frosting of the cake being!  Hey! "Frosting" is both a noun and a verb.  I like that.
The frosting I use is from a simple recipe that Dawn gave me, which consists of butter, sugar, and cream cheese.  I reduce the amount of sugar the recipe calls for by about a 1/4 cup.  Again, I like sugar, but ooftah!  Enough is enough, Motherfuckers.  I just whip it a little extra long to make up for the lost volume of the sugar.

EXTREEEEEME CLOSSSE-UP!  Yeah, Man.  Sugar balls.  Which also happens to be my nickname.
I used a clunky rubber spatula and a crappy plastic knife to spread the frosting around.  Y'know what?  I think next year, I'm gonna splurge and buy myself some cake frosting implements.  Fuck it, Man.  No more Ziplock baggies and plastic knives!  I mean, I do an Okay job with my bonobo tools, but I think if I had the real deal, I could do some pretty dang purdy deesigns. I am an artist after all! 

Starting to shape up!

Frosting the cake used to stress the fuck out of me, until I decided that I do not give a shit about making it smooth.  Now I just go for the stucco look and I love it.  You don't liiike?  No cake for you!

That's a human eyeball in the small dish... no it isn't.  It's an Atomic Fireball.  I'll explain later. 
After the cake is entirely frosted, I further delineate the slices with a snowflake pattern.  In the past I have used the Ziplock squeeze-bag to make my snowflake, but this year, Dawn brought me some "Sparkle Gel" that I thought would be perfect for the job, and it was!  Thanks, Dawn!

Good gawd.  I usually use some kind of freaky stuff from the cake making Isle of Ingle's  This year, it's "Sparkle Gel."
To make the snowflake design, I make four crisscrossing lines, to form and asterisk/star/cartoon ass-hole shape. Then I add a "V" shape about a 1/2 inch in from the ends of each line, to form a bit of a crows foot.  It looks just like a muhfuckin' snowflake, plus it gives me a diagram of 8 perfect slices  --  each with a trinket inside  --  to work with when it's time to cut the cake!  Yeah, Man!  Slicing the cake can be stressful, so this reduces the stress by about 83%.

Awwww...  pretty snowflake!
The final task for decorating the cake is to add "XMAS 2014" to the top.  It works perfectly that one letter or number fits onto to each slice of the cake!  People pick their slice by telling me which number or letter they want.  This year, I left my food coloring at my sisters house, after handing my nephews their asses in a Santa Cookie decorating competition, so I had to improvise the colored frosting for the final decoration.

We had an ass-load of candy in the house because of Christmas, so I took an Atomic Fireball and soaked it in a small amount of water for about 40 minutes.  The water turned bright red, so that when I mixed it with the frosting in the squeeze bag it all turned pink.  I was planning to decorate the cake with blue frosting this year, but pink was better than nothing, plus it added a very slight cinnamon flavor that everyone seemed to either not notice or actually enjoy.  My mother even said it was my best cake yet!  I admit that I'm proud of my MacGyvered-up Atomic Fireball frosting solution.  Sometimes, you gotta think on your muhfuckin' feets in the kitchen!

I am not a professional cake decorator.
Even though I hold a BFA in Illustration from the Art Institute of Boston, and have been a professional artist / graphic designer for about twenty years, I totally suck balls at decorating cakes.  This I know, and accept about myself, after six years of failing at it every Christmas.  My motto:  Don't Care! I just fucking go for it and the world can eat a bag of royal fuck if they don't like it.  Maybe my fancy tools will improve my skills next year.  Buuut, probably not.

I repeat:  I am NOT a professional cake decorator.
My whole family spazzes the fuck out when it's time to finally eat the cake and find the trinkets.  My nephews couldn't give less of a shit about the actual cake, until after they discover whether or not they've received the special X-Mas trinket, and get to wear the awesome family tam as Christmas Monarch for a whole year.   

The first year winner/Monarch was my Bro-In-Law, Willy.  We have theee most hilarious pictures of him receiving the tam.  His.  Face.  Was.  Killing me.

In Year two, Dawn won the crown, and the following year it was my my sister's turn to be the lucky wearer of the tam.  Dawn was thrilled, but my sister's face was almost equally as hilarious as Willy's in it's un-thrilled-ness.  Meanwhile, the nephews were fucking DYING to win.  And me too.  Maybe.  Secretly.  Just a little.   

Finally in years four & five my nephew Hanson was a two-time winner, and then last year his older brother Asa took it away from him to claim the tam from December 25th 2013, up until December 25th 2014.  

That's when I got it.

Yeeeah, Man!!!  I got the X-Mas trinket, I received the Fam Tam,  and I am the current, reigning King of Christmas, mother fuckers!!!

This photo was staged after the fact.  I was too busy stuffing my face with cake to take pictures during events as they took place.

Okay, the truth is, the trinket wasn't actually in my piece of cake, but I invoked an old, somewhat obscure and rarely cited rule, in which a period of trading may be conducted BEFORE prognostication begins.  In past years, if a family member was unhappy with their trinket, they could ask if anyone wanted to trade.  If there were takers, a bargain was struck.  Well...

My step-dad got the special X-Mas trinket in his piece of cake this year, but because of the new, added duties of the King, he was unhappy about it.  Asa was first to invoke the trade rule, but he was shot down as last year's winner, so that's when I spoke up, accepted the trade, and just like that, baddah-bing-baddah-boom, allah-kazzam, shamma-lamma-ding-dong, I became the Christmas Monarch. 

As Willy put it:  "The rightful king abdicated his throne to his eccentric step-son."  

The "aaand this did not bode well for the Kingdom" was implied.

### THE END ###

Thursday, December 11, 2014


Dawn and I are quite the high-class people these days...  or, more like, Dawn is... and I'm just that guy who is often seen with Dawn.  If not for her, I wouldn't go anywhere fancy or eat anything nice.  I'd be stuck in a rut of hamburgers and hot dogs and mac 'n' cheese and  pizza...  mmm...  hungry now...


When Dawn heard about this thing called the "Tuesday Tasting Menu" at Nightbell, she was all about it.  She looked it up on line, read the reviews and such, and told me that she wanted to go to one.  I was like, "Sure!  I'll do that!"  Actually, I probably said "I do that," because that's the way I talk half the fucking time now.  Like an idiot.  Constantly making fun of teen-speak has resulted in the unfortunate reality that I now talk like that even when I'm not intending to. Soops annoying.

Okay, so Dawn talks to our friend Anita  --  who just happens to be the Assistant Manager over at Curaté  --  about joining us, and even though it was a little late in the game, Anita managed to squeeeeze us into one of the last Tuesday Tastings of 2014!  Whoop whoop!  Sorry to our good friends Kelly and Henco Billy, who got squeeeezed out of the mix due to a shortage of seating.  :(  We should have planned this thing well in advance, which is my advice to you all for the future:  When the tasting season starts up again in 2015, be sure to book your rez well ahead of time, especially if your party consists of 3 or more people.

Here's the menu for the night we were there...

Sorry for the crappy pictures.  The lighting in Nightbell is really soft, and low, and even involves colored gels that change to the music, so it's really hard to get a decent picture.  In real life, everything is much less yellowy than it looks here.  I'll describe each dish below the picture of the dish.  You can click on the pictures to see larger versions...

This was, like, a tiny starter cocktail that they called "snow."  It was exactly the consistency of a very light fluffy little ball of actual snow.  From the sky.  It had gin and lemon zest, and other stuff I think, and was light and bright and tart and refreshing.  Even though I don't drink alcohol, I ate my wee snow ball because it only contained a miniscule amount of booze.  It's copious amounts of booze that I avoid.

We each got two crispy blue prawn heads on a dollop of remoulade sauce as an amuse bouche.  This might  have been my fave part of the meal.  The flavor was incredible.  If you've ever sucked out the head of a crawfish, it was like that, only about 1,000 times better, because the idea here is to eat the whole thing like a soft shell crab.  Holy shit.  I friggin' loved these.  I could have eaten a bucket of them.  

This picture does ZERO justice to the potato leak soup, which was fan-fucking tastic.  Our server, Lisa Marie (who rules), brought out a wee bowl that had the clams, pancetta crumble, and parsley puree in the bottom, and then she poured the hot leaky-potato goodness on top.  I shot a video, but it's as crappy as the pictures.  The flavor, temperature, and consistency of this soup were all excellent.  Yom.  Soup.

This was a contender for my fave dish of the night.  The tails of those blue prawns we ate the heads of earlier were cooked to perfection and served with parsley leaves, parsley puree, and a sauteed mushroom side that was very savory and earthy and comforting. The whole meal had a comforting, autumnal quality to it.  Blue prawn taste sweet, like lobster, to me, and these were beautiful, served warm, they went just exactly right with the fresh, familiar flavor of the parsley.  I friggin' loved this dish.

This is roasted cauliflower with curry and raisins and such.  It was really great, but was definitely the least favorite thing among us.  Which is kind of like saying that one puppy in a litter is the least cute.  They's all cute!  It's just, y'know, one has to be least cute.  The cauliflower was the least cute puppy.

Dawn and Anita made me take a picture of this drink.  I don't remember why.  A big part of these tastings is the "wine pairing" and "cocktail tasting" aspects, which I did not partake in.  Dawn got the wine and Anita got the cocktails and they shared.  They both more or less oooh'd and ahhh'd over 90% of the drinks that came out from behind the bar.  I thought the Bartender had a very soothing voice and pleasant manner that made me wish he would describe each drink forever.  I smelled the drinks, like I do, and they smelled fucking awesome!  They have "mocktails" at Nightbell, and I really wanted one, but some part deep down inside of me thinks that it's just a royal pain in the ass for a bartender to make me my special virgin drinks, so I stuck with water and coffee.  Next time, for sure!

This is duck, with braised endive, pickled cherries, and stuff.  I love braised endive.  It's one of my favorite vegetable preparations.  I've even made it at home and it comes out great.  This braised endive was excellent, and I loved it!  It was tender and succulent, and went well with the duck which was prepared very nicely, so that it was likewise tender and juicy, without coming anywhere near being "greasy," the way that people often describe duck.  I have to admit that I do find the layer of fat on duck to be a little hard to take after a while and I left a teeny tiny piece of it on my plate.  That was literally the only morsel of food that went back to the kitchen from me that night.  If chef Katie Button had a dog that lived on scraps, it would starve to death.  The entire meal was stupendous, from start to finish, and we ate every ort.  Then out came dessert...  holyyyy...

Dessert was in-fucking-credible.  Just LOOK at this masterpiece...  Do you see that little green curly-Q thingy-ma-bob?  It was edible, and made of pine needle squeezin's or some such!  It tasted fucking great.  The sorbet was toasted coconut, which is one of my all-time fave frozen-treat flavors, and it had a bunch of awesome crumblies underneath it.  The truffle was completely amaze-balls.  The top was a hard, sugary crust, and underneath was a small, rectangular... dream.  That's what this dish was.  A dream.  The pomegranate gumdrops were, like, "whoa."

I've been known to say that the pastry chef at Nightbell  --  Chef Carmen Vaquera  --  is second only to Chef Karen Donatelli in this town as top pastry chef, but after eating this thing, I had to rethink my thoughts.

Here are my new new thoughts:  Chef Karen and Chef Carmen are like Wonder Woman and Super Girl.  They are both so awesome, it's literally impossible to say which is more awesome. In a crazy universe where they might have to fight each other, I'm not sure who would win.

Wonder Woman has got a lot of experience, but Super Girl is part of that whole "Super" family, which is pretty hard to beat, although, technically Diana is a God, so that's gotta count for something...  Then there's that invisible airplane.  What?  Oh yeah... Nightbell... It fucking rules.

If you haven't been there yet, go do that as soon as you can. Chef Katie Button has never once served me a bite of food that wasn't fantastically delicious.  True story.  You're probably S.O.L. when it comes to the Tuesday Tastings until next year, but I'm pretty sure I heard more than one person say they were going to add the blue prawn heads and tails to the regular menu soon, so, yeah, get that.

In the meantime, here's two minutes and nineteen seconds of this guy... 

And because why not, here's this...