Saturday, October 31, 2009

Coq du Nord

On The Chopping Block

I have always been quite skeptical of Austin cooking. It doesn’t seem to make sense that a city so relaxed and laid back could ever become a culinary center. Upscale cuisines take precision and expertise – traits you wouldn’t expect from a population that is dominated by a sea of burnt orange-clad individuals that fall somewhere between 18 to 22 years old.

It’s a college town so I expected college eating. Pizza, sandwiches, Buffalo wings, and burgers – you know, that kind of cuisine. The food dollar bills and coins can buy after waking up in a morning daze of inebriation, bewilderment and confusion as to why you’re still alive after drinking every form of alcohol available on 6th Street.

Upon arrival I assented with myself, “Just give me the barbecue and Tex-Mex and we’ll call it fair game.” Lone Star and Shiner Bock would help wash it all down in normal fashion.

But I met my match on a cool Friday night this October. The menu, according to the chef, had just been thrown together the day before after a hiccup in obtaining ingredients earlier in the week.

He bought the wrong amount of potatoes. He didn’t have enough bowls. The sous-chef forced him to drink a pitcher of a beer before cooking.

Was this a sane idea? Should I have left the second after stepping through the door? It was being held at the guy’s house out of all places.

At the helm for the evening is newly established chef, Max Marshall, a native of Austin. He speaks softly yet with a touch of wit and charming cheek. Tonight he’s donning a black apron atop a black t-shirt with black jeans and slicked back hair. A small strand coolly rests in front of his face. He sips slowly on a tasse du vin while moseying about the kitchen.

All the while my fellow patrons casually stroll in – coolly acknowledging each other in such a familial way. It’s relaxed here with no need for showboat presentation. They sit down on the couch and listen to music. Someone turns on the Nintendo and hands a controller to a friend. A young lady mentions to Mr. Marshall that tonight’s bottle of wine, which she brought, “Is some expensive shit.”

Such a lack of formality is what defines Mr. Marshall’s auberge of sorts. His patrons, composed entirely of close friends, come for the pleasurable food and sociable atmosphere. Far unlike the customary theatrics of Manhattan – or even Brooklyn nowadays – Austin has retained its sense of self.

Dinner doesn’t arrive at the expected 9PM serving time. Nor does it make it at 10PM. Somewhere in-between the two-hour hands a platter of French baguette crostini and a plate of Brie make it to the table. Then a bowl of dipping oil made with parsley and garlic.

“This shit is good!” says the young lady who brought the bottle of wine.

“What’s in this?”

Eventually I manage to grab a taste for myself, although the necessity for exclamatory remarks seems to miss its cue. Hm. Perhaps I’m sampling the wrong shit?

As drinks are passed around – a mix of red wine, a bottled bock beer and Lone Star from a can – Mr. Marshall announces that dinner will be ready soon. By now it’s already twenty past 10 and the aroma of reduced stock has wafted about long enough.

The sweet smell of caramelized cipollini onions mixes with the astringency of balsamic as the meal is finally plated. Oh my, there’s a tinge of rosemary also.

With the help of his sous-chef, the plates arrive to the delight of the guests. Atop the mismatched plates: A plop of mashed potatoes here, some onion bulbs there, a cluster of tossed salad in this corner, a meager drop of sauce along the plate’s edge, two prosciutto wrapped asparagus placed over that. The meal looks quite earnest.

But I have to remind myself – this meal isn’t about the formalities of cooking, or dining, or even rectified restaurant practice. Just take a damn bite already.

The mashed potatoes are chunky yet creamy. A hint of parsley and rosemary come through.

The asparagus is a bit limp yet nicely salted, the prosciutto a bit bland albeit crispy.

The salad has the right balance of plump, yellow grape tomatoes, fresh mesclun mix and a bite of earthiness a la sunflower seeds. A creamy poppy dressing brings it all together for a mellow and buttery bite.

But the main star is the veal. Though a bit desiccative on the inside, the outer spices and rosemary-infused sauce preserves the chops. Maybe they weren’t cooked at a high enough heat or given enough space on the pan. Or maybe they’re just not thick enough to be proper chops.

And yet, the center is not brown. Nor is it a deadpan shade of sepia or drained hazel. It maintains its common medium-rare to medium center, like a good man that goes to work each day with an identical normality of the calendar.

It would be a lie to say Mr. Marshall has hit his culinary climax. The meal is good – it passes for following a recipe – yet it does not dumbfound. It hits on the intended flavor points, but it does little beyond that.

Such a meal reminds me of something a well-rounded mother might cook after mulling through culinary magazines for a few days. She surely knows how to impress the crowd – but beyond that she is but a home cook.

So maybe that’s where Mr. Marshall stands for now. His cooking is far better than what the hoi polloi can create, by far. But if he wishes to improve upon his technique and mastery he must realize the fundamental necessities of a great cook and restaurateur.

It is one thing to play up a theme of casual elegance or relaxed dining, but there is no skimping on the dainties of cuisine. Timing is key, planning is indispensable.

Dessert, if I can even recall, was forgettable. No course followed dinner either, nor an offering of coffee or tea.

Instead it went straight to the whiskey – Jameson to be exact. A real rough and tidy group needs no poppycock decorum it seems.

As bones were still being chewed at the table – while dessert was being sampled by a few - Mr. Marshall’s young feline joined in on the mix. Fumbling about the plates, the grimalkin became quite the subject of a post-dinner photo shoot and evening entertainment.

I must impart, “Informal procedure” may be an inadequate designation.

By the time the plates had made their way back to the kitchen, an incoming troupe of eight or so kindred spirits came in through the door with 18-pack in hand. It was Lone Star, of course, as it is the cheapest and most palatable of the lowbrow brews in Texas.

Yet a fun fact, whether the young individuals know it or not, is that the beer has been brewed in Illinois since 2000. Which makes the beverage more of an ill-judged novelty drink than an authentic re-creation of the 1884 original.

I’d say such a comparison falls roughly where Mr. Marshall’s cooking stands for now. It’s a novelty meal for these folks – something you don’t find at the usual college dining table. But it’s also a bit of a misconception to say it is culinary elite.

Natheless, give the man some time and he’ll surely get it right. He needs to rethink his approach.

Which is why, perhaps a wise first step for him is to fire the faulty sous-chef.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Une Err

“But these are my friends!” he cursed.

“I know them better than anyone else!”

“Jimmy just sit down now. Calm down, please.”

“No! I won’t do it! You can’t tell me how to live my life!”

“I want to get away. I want out of this place around you stupid people!”

“Now don’t be silly,” she said.

“You’re being very, very silly.”

By the time they could settle him down he was already done for. His wispy hair was wet with sweat and tears, fixed against his forehead that still had a few beads on the surface.

His mother had yet to arrive, but the lady was already weeping for him. Her blouse was speckled with droplets that revealed her pale skin underneath the silken fabric. She looked at peace, more so than him, as she stroked his hair to the side to reveal his face. His eyelids remained shut, curling upward ever so slightly where they shut close. He had eyelashes prettier than hers, but this was the first time she had noticed.

Minutes passed without a word nor a commotion. The two of them, her knees on the floor, his knees in the air, remained closer together than seconds before. It is what he wanted but he couldn’t say it. He had said the other thing to her. He had told her he knew about them.

Who was “them?” What was this “thing?”

They were foolish questions the committee decided five months after the incident. By then his mother had arrived, wept and left. She was nothing now but a soulless woman without a source of happiness. Each day her friends would tell her she’d be okay. She even told herself she was okay. But they weren’t really her friends. She didn’t even know them. But little did she know – or didn’t know – what Jimmy had meant to say before he left.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Quattro Conto

Though the water was cold on my lips,
it tranquilized my gums and numbed my tongue.

I wanted to say a word about it but someone had beaten me to the tom.

It had slapped me across the face and turned my cheeks red.
But twas not the cold that had inhibited my feeling.

“Blame the weather,” is what I heard.
Problem was, I couldn’t find my earmuffs.

The sound must’ve been silent – or sensed without notice.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Nuits à des Jours

Parlez doucement et portez un gros bâton.
C'est ce qu'ils ont dit moi. Et bien sûr, je ne l'oublierai jamais.

Pas à cause des paroles dites, mais à cause des actions
qui ont été prises.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Sancerre Anniversaire


That afternoon as Bunsen walked down the sidewalk, a festival was happening a few blocks east. By then the weather had cooled down and the knits were starting to come out. Bunsen made sure to never forget his chap stick. It’s a useful item, that chap stick. Not because it really helped fend off the chapping of his lips or defended him against the brutal cold. No, silly – that’s what they market it for. Instead he just liked the feel of it.

He often would sit at diners – specifically diners – and watch young ladies doll themselves up with carnelian-colored paste. This paste was quite similar to his chap stick. It made him laugh – watching these young ladies - especially when the paste ended up sticking to the top of their straws after a good gulp of milkshake. Most of the time he’d order his milkshake based off their choice. #4 was his order number. He liked the sound of it as the adolescent workers announced that his meal was ready.

Bunsen was an odd fellow, to say the least. He preferred to tether his pet iguana to a tree in his backyard instead of letting it live inside his quirky little abode. Only his young piglet named Petunia could roam about the house. Petunia was probably the reason why no one ever came over. Well, that and his character. Bunsen was sort of an outcast on top of being odd.

Yet he wasn’t always this way. He had been raised up by Sir Robert Wallington IV and Madame Theodora Hatherty with great care.

He was their only child, at least known to the public, thus their golden child. He began playing the violin at age 4 and practiced the cello on days when he felt exhausted from the violin. Most of his early childhood was spent picking pears at his grandmother’s house 2 hours north of their estate. Bunsen despised his grandmother, ever since age 8, merely because of this.

You see, Bunsen liked apples. He hated pears. So every time he was forced to go to Grandmother Edna’s, he balked. He screamed and he shouted, pouted and pounded, whined and chimed. It was chiming to him, at least – maybe not so much for Sir Robert and Madame Theodora – but he didn’t care much for them either.

For him, a life with Petunia and Edward, his iguana, seemed ideal. He cooked a lot of beans in a crock in his backyard also, solely because he wanted to feel like he was using nature properly. He’d lop off some branches, hack at a tree and collect old books to create his baked beans fires. It was tradition to him, to make them this way, which is why he began documenting them. For himself.

In his younger days, Bunsen was an avid painter. He liked oil painting because he always could produce the finest shades of red with oil paints. The colors of his works were always very bold also. Lots of apples were painted – but not in the usual still life fashion. Instead he made narratives out of his depictions of apples. Sometimes the apples would be triangles. Sometimes he gave them limbs. In one piece, which was secretly one of his favorites (he had an ongoing list of favorite works by himself), he painted an apple as a melting chronometer dripping on to the face of an apple-topped man, screaming as a green worm crawls from its mouth. He titled it, “Fantastical.”


Newport Storm Spring Ale, Providence IPA, Whale’s Tale Pale Ale – Cisco Brewers, Gordon Biersch Schwarz, Captain Lawrence Liquid Gold, Sixpoint Rogue, India Copper NY, Firehouse Pale Ale, Honey Nut, Steenbrugge Dubbel Bruin, Stone Ruination IPA, Arrogant Bastard Ale Cask, Avery White Rascal, Lagunitas Sumpin Sumpin Ale, Smokehaus Shiner, Duman Dupage French Country Ale, Klisch Pilsner, Coney Island Human Block Island, Captain Lawrence, Anderson Bvalley Booney Amber Ale, River Horse Special Ale ESB, Belfast Bay Lobster Ale, Rockies Hazed and Confused, Saison Ale, Einbecker, Obolon Ukranian Lager, Heinnieweisse weissebier farmhouse Ale, Dragon Stout, Hell or High Watermelon Wheat, Maredsous 8, Sword Swallower, Anchor Summer Wheat Beer, Dab Beer, Weinstephaner Dunkel, Wagner Valley Sled Dog Doppelbock, Ft. Collins Kidd Lager, River Horse Double White, Otter Creek Imperial IPA Cask, Hofbrauhaus Maibock, Smuttynose Star Island Single, Sierra Nevada Kellerweis, Rogue St. Rogue Red Ale, Spaten Munchen Dunkel, Lagunitas IPA, Sixpoint Brownstone Ale, Black Iron Brew, Castelian St. Armandus, Bluebird Bitter, OB Korean, Orion Okinawa, Lagunitas Maximator, Lucky 13 Growler, Coney Island Albino Python, Yebisu Malt Beer, Two Brothers Cane & Ebel Rye Cask, Sierra Nevada Bigfoot Barleywine Ale, Troubadour Stout, Brooklyn Saricha Ale, Kira White Ale, Einbecker Brauherren Premium Pils, Dr. Fritz Briem 13th Century Grut Bier, Uerige Duffeldorf Alstadt, Smuttynose Hanami Ale, Kostriker Schwarzbier, Smuttynose Old Brown Dog Ale, Wolavers Will Stevens Pumpkin Ale, Otter Creek Oktoberfest, Modelo Especial, Singha Lager, St. Lawrence Wheat, Sixpoint Bengali IPA, Kelso Nut Brown Ale, Allagash Curieux, Abita TurboDog, Shipyard Pumpkin Ale, Menabrea Birra, Shackmeister, Avery Sixteen, Defiant Little Thumper, Tsingtao, Presidente, Model Especial, Otter Creek Oktoberfest, Flying Dog Tire Bite Golden Ale