Monday, July 21, 2008

Hill Country Correction

Gregg informs me that every establishment we visited served shoulder clod. Yet there was some concern that it was a leaner cut and so we avoided it, which in retrospect was a mistake.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Hill Country, Day Two

We began the second day in Lockhart’s Kreuz Market, which has to be one of the few remaining American restaurants founded in the nineteenth century. A victim of too much success, in 1999 it moved from the downtown smokehouse that it made historic to Lockhart’s outskirts. Kreuz is now housed in a giant red shed of a roadhouse that, like many of its Texas barbeque brethren, could well suit a putsch. Patrons order meats by the pound inside the cavernous pit – and just like at Meyer’s, they may not enter until summoned.

The smell of smoked meat was so intoxicating that it was difficult to focus on the menu. We entrusted the ordering to our expert, Gregg, who was rendered powerless by the glorious smoky aroma. In his BBQ-fueled stupor, he failed to order the shoulder clod that we saw only at Kreuz’s, leaving us just with a pound each of beef brisket, ham, beef and pork ribs, prime rib, pork chops, and sausage. I love my younger brother, but I remain bitter.

Kreuz, in spite of its reputation as a purist’s redoubt, was the only establishment that sold legitimate side dishes; nevertheless, they were segregated and sold in one of the large dining rooms flanking the pit. The exemplary side dishes included a vinegary German potato salad (which is to say, one not tainted by that culinary ejaculate, mayonnaise), a hot and zesty sauerkraut concoction, and satisfying baked beans.

Kreuz's brisket was the best of the trip. It had a great crust and smoky ring from the post-oak, and was tender, though not meltingly so. Both sets of ribs were delicious. Ironically, in the heart of beef country, the pork chop may have been the best thing of all. Of course, I didn’t have the clod so I can’t say with certainty. (Thanks, Gregg.) The pork chop stands out and was transcendently good with its deep smoky flavor and meaty texture. (OK, so “meaty texture” isn’t exactly the most evocative description, but dude, IT WAS MEAT AND ME LIKE MEAT.) It alone would warrant a return trip to the reddest of states. Kreuz forbids the use of forks, but this “rule” seemed more a physiological response than a normative obligation. Passing it around and eating it with our hands was totally apropos, and I was proud of any similarities to the opening scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The only drawback: Kreuz’s sausage, much like every other smokehouse’s (save Mueller’s), tasted like a greasy, unprocessed Dodger Dog.

We then moved on to Smitty’s, which is located in Kreuz’s original (and comparatively compact) location. We were somewhat nervous about going there because it had to follow Kreuz’s wild success. But Smitty’s aroma swept through its corner of tiny downtown Lockhart, its adjacent lot enticingly filled with rows upon rows of chopped post-oak. We entered directly into the hot, smoky pit, its exposed flames licking the air around the door. (There is no way this degree of danger would be tolerated in risk-averse California. I thought that it would be illegal in Texas, until I read that Texas does not even regulate its crane industry.) I could only imagine how many careless and drunken fools have fallen into the fire.

Despite its sterling pedigree and colorful setting, Smitty’s food was a disappointment. The brisket was exceedingly greasy and salty, as were the pork ribs and pork chop. The Sterns, writing in Gourmet, aptly described the sausage as “so succulent that if you plan to snap it into two pieces, you must treat it like a bottle of Champagne you are about to uncork.” However, this statement should not be construed as praise. The sausage tasted like liquefied fat. I could not swallow more than one bite. Incidentally, Smitty’s was the most racially integrated of any of the smokehouses that we visited on our trip. That was its only plus.

Our last smokehouse of the day was Black’s, a real oddity. Toward the end of the corridor where patrons enter was a pathetic salad bar of items that didn’t belong in a salad and looked like they could have prepared when Black’s opened, in 1932. My interest in eating was crushed by the salad bar's wan potato and macaroni salads and oleaginous agglomerations of beans. The interior wasn’t charmless, but after the Smitty’s fiasco and this “salad” bar, we didn’t want to stick around. So we confined ourselves to the outdoor picnic table and noshed on a pound of brisket. Seasoned only with salt and pepper, the brisket was pleasant, if somewhat greasy.

After these disappointments, T2P wisely demanded a return to Kreuz for one more pork chop. Naturally, we obliged, devoured the chop and then traveled to San Antonio for a dose of traditional tourism. We have vowed to return to Lockhart to correct Gregg’s error and try the shoulder clod.

Kreuz Market
619 N. Colorado St.
(512) 398-2361

Smitty’s Market
208 S. Commerce St.
(512) 398-9344

Black’s Barbecue
215 N. Main St.
(512) 398-2712

Monday, July 7, 2008

Le Pigeon

With the corporate expense account on its final gasp for life, AO and I hopped a plane to Portland on the flimsy pretext of transacting business. From Le Pigeon we expected a small, serene setting and a shrine to gastronomic excellence (or, at least, ambition). Instead, we found a tiny but boisterous bistro packed until midnight with a crowd of young foodies.

AO began with a nice rendition of foie gras accompanied by mashed, dried mission fig and pine on a superfluous triangular buttery pastry. The pine was the principal ingredient signifying unconventionality or “innovation,” and its mild flavor provided a soothing presence to the richer foie and sweeter fig. I loved my appetizer of warm lamb belly, which is “the meaty flap that surrounds the front ribs of the lamb” now in vogue with trailblazing chefs. It was served with a salad of asparagus, spring peas (as the meal actually took place in May), and a dab of a mint salsa verde catalyzed by pecorino. New York Times critic Merrill Stubbs is correct in arguing that lamb belly “offers a more nuanced mouthful than its porcine predecessor.”

I envied every bite of AO’s beef cheek bourguignon. Chef Gabriel Rucker’s take on the classic dish was modern but in perfect harmony with traditional recipes. The preparation consisted of succulent beef cheeks, a few carrots, and a robust sauce which deftly used salt to balance the red wine sauce. Plus, the beef cheeks were delicious.

Rucker has a reputation as an aficionado of tongue. I eschewed eating the organ until four years ago, when Babbo’s warm lamb’s tongue with a two-minute egg proved so revelatory. El Taurino/King Taco continually reinforces the Babbo experience with its brilliantly sapid taco de lengua, the best of its kind in my experience. Accordingly, I was eager to see what Rucker could do with tongue. I was concerned that the only beef tongue on the menu was mixed in with the spätzle that accompanied the flat iron steak; while I tend to enjoy spätzle, I generally do not like to order steak. Nevertheless, I put myself in Rucker's hands and, to my delight, the steak was excellent. Le Pigeon respected the cut of meat and served it rare, allowing the steak to retain its flavor. Moreover, the creamy, mustardy spätzle with the tongue was a luscious complement to the steak. It was no surprise to learn that Rucker, a native Californian, also enjoys tacos de lengua and cabeza.

My praise here is getting uncomfortably fulsome, and I admit that by the time the steak came around, AO and I were at the bottom of a second bottle of wine with one to go. But, even as we started plowing through a Vouvray Trie de Vendange—striking a minor blow against the dwindling balance sheet of my former employer—my sensory perception remained intact.

The desserts were not as successful as the savory portion of the meal, though they were good. Most enjoyable was the profiterole filled with foie gras cream and dressed with sea salt and caramel. It traversed the familiar terrain of the salty/sweet juxtaposition— and much like the bourguignon—the pendulum was set firmly, but not excessively on the salty. Less successful was the coffee pot de crème, served with crème brûlée. The pot de crème was boring, and the brûlée repeated the very same salty/sweet interplay that was in the profiterole. It was a better version of the basic, cloying American crème brûlée with its thick shell and incandescent yellow crème. The pastry chef’s inexperience here showed, and she should take a lesson in making the standard from Astier.

An exemplar of the new Portland dining scene, Le Pigeon is refreshing and exciting precisely because it is not a temple of refinement or elegance as found in New York or San Francisco. It is not even a finished product. But it exudes the freshness and exuberance that are lacking in larger cities with their Zagat scores, older clientele, and bourgeois posturing. At Le Pigeon, the artifice yields to a genuine and unpretentious desire for good and thoughtful food in the setting of a vibrant bistro.

Le Pigeon
738 E. Burnside St.
(503) 546-8796