Saturday, March 24, 2007

That Latin Thing: and more than Irish stew (for later)

Paella Creek Refuge

The thing about ethnic ingredients - especially traditional finds and the diverse variety of selections is its increasing accessibility to American consumers. Years back, when I lived in LA there were ethnic grocery stores all over. I don't mean the mom and pop mini walk-ins. I'm referring to the mega supermarkets similar to Publix, Albertson's and so forth.

From the New York Times, a mention about the growing Hispanic market and the growing supermarket chain Rancho Liborio.

Read more: The store’s slogan pretty much says it all: “Si es de allá lo tenemos aquí.” Translated, "If it’s from there, we have it here.”

This upscale store is a new concept for the Cuban family that started the small Liborio chain in Los Angeles in 1966. The idea is to sell food to an increasingly affluent pool of Hispanic grocery shoppers as well as the growing segment of people who want their supermarkets filled with fresher, local and more authentic food.

With its bright, wide aisles, agua fresca bar and an expansive selection of hot food like carnitas and even pizza, Rancho Liborio wants to be the go-to store for second- and third-generation shoppers who are attracted to markets like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, but want to cook and shop in a store that feels like home.

Don't get too settled now....I'll be leaping across the globe with my pen/keyboard to new Irish cuisine. Yes new/contemporary Irish cuisine is on my list of conquests. For now, read more in the San Francisco Chronicle article entitled, Irish cuisine comes of age: Emphasis on fresh, local ingredients is right at home in the Bay Area Take an eye load of the Coleslaw with Blue Cheese Dressing. The Steak and Oyster Pie is inviting too.

I'll be back next week. This girl is literally about town and I'll have more Savory Spain jaunts when I return.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Savory Spain: undercurrent of a hot commodity

Calamari @ Sangria House

Sangria @ Sangria House

It was before the tell-tale of Hollywood's recent Latin infused motion picture nominees (@ the Oscars). Way before the talk of tapas and before the Gypsy Kings. It goes back farther prior Nuevo Latino really started to find its course. More than ever Spanish cooking and the authentic ingredients associated to its savory composition is making its way forward in the states.

When I was in San Francisco a few months back, I was overwhelmed with the heavy new Spanish influx in the Bay Area. The San Francisco Chronicle highlighted the stream of consciousness that was buzzing in new Spanish cuisine - and it was searing, I have to say! I love that newspaper’s take on food and the arts as much as I love my beloved City by the Bay. They did a duo release on Spanish happenings; one article written to profile the recent undercurrent of Spanish ingredients and their recent availability. The second article previewing current finding in Spanish restaurants in SF. Here's a glimpse from the article: Now that you've made a permanent place in your pantry for balsamic vinegar, Arborio rice, Tuscan olive oil and other Italian essentials, you'll need to clear space for the next must-haves: the flood of fine ingredients from Spain.

They aren't all new to the West Coast -- local stores have long stocked sherry vinegar -- but the availability and prominence of first-rate Spanish groceries has skyrocketed in recent years. Imported chorizo, serrano ham, pimenton de La Vera and piquillo peppers have captured the attention of Bay Area chefs and home cooks, boosting sales at specialty retailers like the Spanish Table and

The marketplace "has changed completely," says Penelope Casas

Another find was in the LA TIMES. An article about the innovative style of a new restaurant CHICHEN ITZA. The name is taken from the Yucatan peninsula where the Mayan temples are located. It's exciting to know that the Nuevo Latino movement in Mexican cooking is re-thinking regional influences to bring out distinct flavors of the old combined with new techniques. Cooking continues to evolve with the global influences, and this style of is pretty reflective to the influx of more of a heady approach to our melting pot.

How refreshing to think past chips and salsa!

I’ll stay on course to discuss Latin inspired culinary endeavors and more so the ingredients. There is has been a trend in Spanish cuisine and also regional Mexican cooking which is afar from your atypical paella and crunchy taco. The driving force is a new undercurrent to the original trend fueled by our the accessibility of pure Spanish ingredients/global market, as well as savvy young chefs and restaurateurs taking the helm.

It’s been enjoyable to say I have had the recent opportunity to enjoy Spanish cuisine in northeast Florida. So far more so on the traditional side rather than cutting edge. We need the cutting edge though! A pleasant surprise off the frantic tourist track of St. Augustine's historic district, I found Café Spain; a small family run operation with a surprisingly European inspired menu. Many of the dishes are regionally from the capital city of Madrid, but I found the preparation simple, fresh and honest. The food wasn’t masked in heavy oils, poor ingredients (aside from the bland bread and plastic mini tubs of butter that was served), yet everything else was a simple representation of Spanish cuisine. A variety of paella was offered on the menu, as well as the Spanish cured ham Serranito and the traditional dish of Cazuela San Isidro.

Another surprise was at Sangria House. It was a warm Sunday afternoon, so we took advantage of the Florida sun (in March) to sit outside. We ordered a few tapas and an entrée. The calamari, Spanish style was lightly battered and fried just enough so the calamari was extremely tender. Sadly for this city, it was the best calamari I’ve had in Jacksonville after leaving California. It was impeccably fresh and delicate just as calamari should be and cooked in fresh oil (I can smell regurgitated oil from any restaurant a mile away - literally. If you can smell it from the parking lot – run.) The refrito we ordered was a blend of coarsely chopped eggplant, tomato, onion, green pepper, blended with olive oil, spices and apparently delicately cooked down to retain a tender yet al dente bite.

Saffron rice and chicken at Sangria House

The traditional saffron rice and chicken were okay. The chicken was ever so slightly on the dry side; but held its composure just enough. What regaled the dining experience was the selection of fresh and pure ingredients. The service was impeccable, yet comfortable. Real old school - simple and honest.

More to come later with my scheduled eat-in at newly presented The Tasting Room in St. Augustine....

I'm inspired again knowing there is a subculture in development that continues to ride the undercurrents releasing something new for us to taste. In turn, let's watch if it challenges the kitchens and palettes in northeast Florida.

Cafe Spain
193 San Marco Avenue
St. Augustine, Florida 32084

Sangria House
4320 Deerwood Lake Parkway, Suite #203
Jacksonville, Florida 32217

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

TasteMemory: a soft opening to food happenings

It’s the first day of spring – I’ve chosen as a soft opening for my much awaited makings of!

Welcome to TasteMemory. What is TasteMemory? I’ve written TasteMemory to identify, report and forecast restaurant, culinary developments and trends. I also intend to focus on the culinary and cultural undercurrents by region as well as globally and in turn perhaps its affect on local restaurant/food happenings.

What is taste memory? Some food for thought from the reverent James Beard in Delights and Prejudices, 1964: The ability to recall a taste sensation, which I think of as "taste memory," is a God-given talent, akin to perfect pitch, which makes your life richer if you possess it. If you aren't born with it, you can never seem to acquire it....And naturally good chefs and cooks must depend upon memory when they season or when they are combining subtle flavors to create a new sauce or dish.

Many of you know me from the cultural programs I’ve developed in Historic Springfield and Downtown Jacksonville that have been arts and film festival based. As residents here you have seen and experienced the overwhelming development in the arts and cultural community in perhaps just a span of few years. A definite credit to all the community groups in making this happen! The creative community grows when you have the neighborhood pioneers as seen in the events orchestrated by Open Gallery in San Marco, downtown’s Art Center Cooperative, Downtown Vision Inc.’s monthly First Wednesday Art Walk, Final Friday’s hosted by Jim Draper’s Studios in Historic Springfield and of course the original Brooklyn Arts Center to name a few. It’s always about the ‘neighborhood pioneers’ that define the cultural identity of a community. It’s always their passionate vision that weaves the community together supported by the traditional cultural venues for example the Times Union Center and Florida Theatre.

A stand out in recent years living in Jacksonville is the ‘no particular’ direction of the local culinary scene. There are spottings of traditional southern inspired fare, barbeque, many many chain restaurants, ethnic restaurants and obvious high end dining. But as atypical as the visual and performing arts scene was in Jacksonville about 5 years ago with no branding of identity, vision, connectivity (as a whole); so does the culinary and restaurant scenario stand to this day in this community.

If you consider what a city’s culinary and restaurant identity is, consider cities mentioned as San Francisco, Berkeley, Los Angeles, New York and Boston. Divide up the locations in that city and you’ll come across sections that are hyper-fat in regionally diverse Italian fare, Mexican: Baja inspired, Yucatan, Northern Mexican, etc., Spanish, Basque, various regional France, Japanese noodle houses, sushi, Japanese Shabu Shabu, Franco-Japanese; now do you get the picture? There are obvious sections in the city with defining regional cultural cooking.

The patronage in those cities demand the quality and diversity as they would in other cultural developments.

Jacksonville, Florida is the largest city in area in the contiguous 48 states at 841 square miles. So with the influx of transplants from the northeast, east coast, west coast and globally you would think there would be some sort of identifying resonance in the food culture. Not yet. It is obviously developing in some places, a handful of restaurants here and there; made up of several passionate chefs that believe in quality and not just quantity.

Will it be up to our chefs to keep our regional transplants happily fed to remain here? Would it be the defining dishes at Crush Bistro or Bistro Aix that would woo residents from let’s say Pittsburgh, PA (YES-Pittsburgh – they are culinary savvy there!) to northeast Florida? What about the tourists finding there way through a city ‘Where Florida begins’? Sometimes it’s gotta be more that just ‘fresh’, and btw how do you define what ‘fresh’is? Asking if the fish is fresh to what parameter is my question to my local fish monger!

I hope to provide readers an anchor of concepts for those passionate about the cultural development of their local, regional and global community. Our community is so much more global now with the developments in our means of communications. I hope to share some insight about food, culture, the arts and anything else that propels what defines our cultural identity.

So get ready to step outside of the box, broaden horizons and perhaps your belt size…..

Monday, March 12, 2007

Second servings: Koja Sushi II

A pleasantly nice haven(shown): tuna & avocado roll, soft shell crab roll, hamachi & roe roll.

Since departing from California, via Ohio - well....let's say I've had an uphill swim trying to find good sushi. Well, like really good sushi. The California stint really put the top plate on a lot of things and sushi is one of them. So you would think it would be easy to find in a coastal city like Jacksonville since it faces that Atlantic?! More to be written on this later.

I had a pleasantly nice sushi lunch prepared for me at Koja Sushi II which recently opened on Baymeadows Road. The maguro and hamachi were at it's freshest I've indulged thus far. There was gladly none of the overtly use of excessive sticky rice bigger than the opening of my mouth or even heavy handedness of the blade apparent in the slices of my maguro.

So with that said,(sigh!)with ambling thoughts to myself: I am still missing the 'delicate' art of sushi that many California expatriates are aware of; my lunch at Koja Sushi II was pleasantly nice and filled that least temporarily.

Koja Sushi II
9866 Old Baymeadows Road, Suite #8
Jacksonville, Florida 32256

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Food Revolt

Every great culture needs a revolution.

Notably, every great culture needs a food revolution. Marco Polo’s visit to China spurned the spice trade and one of the first semi-spherical recipe swaps – ie: noodles to pasta, rice to risotto. By the late nineteenth century with the progression of the railways began the popularity of public restaurants; beginning with the patisserie and tea rooms. Decades after, the Bay Area had their turn of events led by the 'food revolution' beginning in the 1970's that prompted the forefront of culinary developments to this day. Today dynamic gastronomic challenges enlighten the food scene from jaunts spanning the Pacific Northwest, Las Vegas and regional cooking from Argentina, Spain to Asia. The tremendous influx of inhabitants from other countries continues to fold into the global roux, tempting even the plainest of palates.

Though mediocrity continues to reign and dilute the food chain; fortunately there are many who attempt to contribute to the ‘revolution’ of food (and wine) development to assure the future.

TasteMemory is about food and the memory response to food. It’s about the simplest forms of food, but also stepping outside of the comforts to another dimension beyond the golden triangle of daily foods. It is about the global conditions that effect food in our lives and how some of these contributions release the inhibitions of our palates toward our evolving world. I write to observe, recollect, retain, salute and most especially to challenge mediocrity.

Every revolution needs its pioneers and TasteMemory strives efforts to consider the individuals and experiences that do so.

Some examples of mediocrity results from sub standardizing in decisions. There is the use of under par ingredients such as vegetables for the sake of cost and timeliness. Watering down a fiery ethnic dish in order to please the simpler palates and forecast sales to the general population. Spottiness of the mundane include menus designed with dishes that don’t represent the regional aspects of ethnic cookery or perhaps dishes are bluntly over fried, over oiled, over cooked and thus a menu without identity but to please a general populous palate just to claim more bang for the buck.

Growing up in the restaurant industry in the San Francisco Bay Area with the day to mouth experiences; I have responded to food as a creative framework in our lives that continue to enhance more of what we are destined to become. Obviously there is a cultural identity to the development of foods as there are in the visual arts, theatre, music and movies. The stunning reality of cities like San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami and New York responding to the ethnic core of their community is the result of commitment. The commitment to stay affixed to pure ingredients, fresh produce and meats. It seems there is a common bond with the wholesaler, fish monger, buyers and purchasers to stay on the lines of quality and elite selection. With hope that people inherently respond to challenges - It’s refreshing to see restaurateurs challenging their diners and in turn patrons eagerly responding.

I live in a city at it’s cusp of cultural and urban development. Jacksonville Florida is located on the Northeast side of Florida. Often referred to as ‘south Georgia’, for various reasons – but the city is adjacent to the Georgia border. Yes the urban sprawl has hit here. But there is a ‘pleasing of the masses’ that seems to the mediocrity that stems from the base of the food pyramid beginning with the produce buyers at the grocery stores, from food courts to restaurants and down to the general patron of food arts. Yet there is intriguing insight propelled by pioneering efforts by the chefs from Bistro Aix, Pastiche, The Tasting Room to name a few of the upscale jaunts. Pure comfort foods that are notable in their earnest preparation and quality control efforts goes to some of my frequent haunts in Downtown and University Boulevard surroundings. A recent overwhelming impression was from my dining experience at Tento’s Churrascaria in Jacksonville Beach. A simple example of quality control presented in absolute exquisite, passionate, consistent and crazy delicious detail. I’ll share an upcoming review on Tento’s later.

Growing up in the Bay Area during the food revolution had a challenging effect on me. When I stepped into the outside world after that, I continued to seek that level of beauty throughout my life. I seek to write about that level of beauty in all things and especially in food and our memory’s response to that sustenance.