Review: Palladio

19 February 2016

I woke up in pain as my foot was killing me. Damn, this was from jumping over the fence yesterday after the electrocution…ugh! Damn it, this trip cannot end soon enough! Today is the last full day, so…at least there’s that. I headed out of Durham still thinking last night’s meal wasn’t as great as I had hoped… Rx was by far still the best of this trek, one of the best of 2016.

I headed north-east and eventually got over the border back to Virginia and I took a short stop in Petersburg. I was supposed to be somewhere late morning, but the person I was supposed to meet didn’t show up…this trip…ugh… I kept going and headed to Orange, and headed up to visit James Madison’s grave at his Montpelier estate. Last time I was here my camera was awful so wanted to take better photos.

Then I headed to nearby Barboursville Vineyards to do some wine tasting…just to relax. And I headed out with a case of good stuff. This is a beautiful winery with some excellent Italian-centric wines, all at the estate of former governor James Barbour. I was coming back for dinner at its reputable restaurant Palladio, so I headed out for the long trek to my hotel to relax.

I chilled out for a bit and got dressed (place has a dress code) and headed to Palladio on the estates. Damn, people drive like idiots on dark, winding country roads with high beams on… Got there at the 6.30pm opening time and was seated after a wee wait. Seems lots of people here are staying at the Inn on the Vineyards property. Oddly, it’s the larger group of older people being loud and annoying and younger folks were respectful. This is the sad part of the 21st century, booming boomers…utterly annoying…

As this was gonna be a wine-centric dinner I didn’t ask for anything, and they had poured some bubbly already, so… I made my choices and did a pairing and the night began. I chilled with some of the first wine, a fine rose that I had earlier bought a few bottles of. Crispy, nice. Then the first dish arrived, the beef tongue on a toasted baguette.

1-tongue

I like the presentation but sadly the dish was not that good. The tongue was utterly under-seasoned, and the texture of the baguette just ruined the tongue. It’s a prep for those people who don’t like tongue… Not a great start…

Then a different wine was poured, a generous portion to be honest, a nice viognier. I bought a pair of this earlier too, and then the dish arrived — one of their best-known dishes…

2-lobster risotto

This is a lobster saffron risotto. Fabulous, rich and flavourful. It was full and uncompromising, an excellent dish! I’m happy now! As I finished the wine the new one was poured — this time the cabernet frank. I am usually not a gamebird fan, but I went with it, the pheasant.

3-pheasant

Now this didn’t work at all. It was way, way overcooked, so it was dry and lacked flavour. The skin looked so good but it had no flavour whatsoever. Everything rested on the mustard cream, but it fought the skin. Didn’t work at all. Sigh… 1 of 3 good dishes, not an equation for a good night of food…

They poured some of the excellent “paxxito” sweet wine, of which I also took a bottle earlier, and then presented the cheese course…

4-cheeses

I went with some of the more interesting ones, but they proved somewhat boring. Again, I’m sorry I forgot to take down the details as I didn’t get a chance to photo the cheese list. But I remember the middle one being rich and truffle-laden. Not bad, but not enough crackers/crispbread…

After a nice petit selection and espresso I headed out, rather disappointed. The wine was excellent, as expected, as this is one of the best wineries in Virginia. But only the risotto worked tonight. Everything else didn’t. This wasn’t worth it really. Perhaps next time I come by will only be to pick up some wine, and save the overnight and dinner…

Not fun driving back to the hotel, with a car tailgating me with high beams on running over 65mph on a dark, winding, narrow country road. Utterly annoying… Thank goodness tomorrow is home and this trip is done…

Palladio
Barboursville Vineyards
17655 Winery Road
Barboursville, Virginia

Review: Nana’s

18 February 2016

I got up again very early and headed out of Wilmington before the bridge traffic got bad (repairs). I headed north-west and stopped in Fayetteville and made a few stops there before running up towards Raleigh. I made a few stops and was extremely disappointed to see “social activists” desecrate a historic cemetery…

But the day rolled on and I had to stop to help a colleague inspect a property. As I was doing it, I saw a area that was partly fenced off on a slope, and I hopped over it. As I was coming back down, there was no way to jump as it was too steep downward, so I tried to go under the line…

ZAP…

Fuck…why didn’t someone put a sign up that this was electrified? My shirt had a burn as did my jeans, since my knee was what grounded myself with the high voltage. Ugh! Took a few minutes to catch my breath and make sure my heart rate was normal again. UGH! And I couldn’t find any other way around so had to climb a high fence and jump off it, which caused me to roll my ankle as it was way high… UGH!

I asked them what the hell and they said it was to keep animals out…FFS… Of course I left angrily…this is the dumbest trip I’ve ever had! Ugh! I headed back to Durham and to my hotel to try to see how much damage there was. My phone was okay and my body seems okay, but there are holes in my clothes. FFS…

I really need a good dinner tonight to cover this shit. I had an early reservation at Nana’s, which is quite well-known in the area as one of the very best. Durham was busy, so it was an early booking. Got there and was seated and had a drink looking over the menu. The place filled up fast as I ordered. Soon the starter arrived, the fried quail…

1-quail

Not bad, but the breading was a bit heavy and thick — and flavouless. The quail was also rather undercooked. A bad combination. Oh well, that’s too bad. I just had a bit more wine before the main course arrived.

2-duck

This was the duck breast in a foie gras & carrot sauce. Very rich, but probably not needed. Not bad, but not as fantastic as the duck I had in other far-flung places like Juniper in Tulsa, Oklahoma or City Grocery in Oxford, Mississippi. Not bad nevertheless. But after today’s stupidity I was just not in the right frame of mind.

I did go for a dessert, surprisingly, and went for a chocolate ganache tart.

3-chocolate ganache

Not bad, bitter chocolate ruled here. I enjoyed this with a quick after-dinner drink before heading out for the long haul back to my hotel. I wasn’t too blown away by this meal, nowhere near as good as last night at Rx in Wilmington — nor as good as Stove in Portsmouth, Virginia. I was really anticipating a good meal, but this didn’t really do it for me.

I got back to my hotel needing to rest after this utterly stupid day. I guess my good luck has turned dramatically bad now…ugh…

Nana’s
2514 University Drive
Durham, North Carolina

Review: Rx

17 February 2016

I got up with a ridiculously early alarm as I had a long way to go today, and not a straight-forward run. I wanted to go through some of the North Carolina coast, so I headed out before dawn. The chest issues are going away, thank goodness, but my right hip was a bit sore still. Nevertheless there’s joy in driving on country roads in the middle of nowhere…

After a few stops along the eastern side of North Carolina, I got to New Bern — a coastal town named by its Swiss founders over 300 years ago for their home town; it actually has the same coat of arms. New Bern was the capital before Raleigh was founded; a cute little town. Then I headed down the coast through a forest and made my way to Wilmington. I had a quick trip to Brunswick Town Historic Site as well, the site of a historic settlement that was ravaged by British forces during the Revolutionary War and abandoned since.

I made my way back to Wilmington and chilled at my hotel, which had a spectacular view of the Cape Fear River, as well as the historic battleship USS North Carolina. I then headed out to dinner to a place I discovered online just a few days ago, Rx.

Yeah, of course, it was built it a former pharmacy downtown. It wasn’t very busy when I arrived so I was a little worried, but I was eating early anyway. The menu looked great and I ordered as I nursed a cocktail. Everything looked good, and I was getting optimistic — and drooly.

Soon the first item came, the opening snack, and I was in heaven…

1-ears

Crispy buffalo pigs ears. Wow. The buffalo sauce was minimal, so it didn’t affect the texture of the ears. Now these were done nearly perfect, crunchy but with the cartilage still there for the fun. No gooeyness here, This was one of the best pigs ears dish I’ve ever had, and I love these things to death! What a start!

Then I actually tried to be good, but really, two things I love also to death are beets and seasonal root vegetables, and that’s what I got.

2-beet salad

The beets were excellent, full of flavour. And the baby carrots? Absolutely divine. I could eat this all day… Fabulous stuff so far, this is by far the best meal of the trip so far! Then the main course, something I don’t do too often — chicken.

3-chicken

Not ordinary chicken but poulet rouge, with more wonderful root vegetables! The chicken was cooked perfectly, full of juice and flavour but with a crispy skin. This was executed perfectly, something that fails in so many James Beard-crowned places that I’ve been in recent years. Clearly Rx is a winner in my book, and it puts Wilmington way on the map for me.

I was nice and full and declined a dessert as I was way too full. And tired, as I’ve been awake since 5am. Plus the place was getting really busy (which is a great sign), so I took my leave.

This was an excellent meal, and as I said Rx has put Wilmington on the map for me as a place to re-visit in the future. Last night at Stove was good, but not enough to drag me into Hampton Roads just for it. Rx is good enough to make me detour all the way here next time I am in North Carolina. Awesome.

My luck is really turning around on this trip now!

Rx
421 Castle Street
Wilmington, North Carolina

Review: Stove

16 February 2016

The next day was a rainy mess — at least nothing frozen. I almost got caught in a flood around Charles City as the road was washed out…it was a raging river, to be honest. I was feeling not great, as my chest and shoulder still hurt from that stupid fall last night. But I fought my way south-east and made my way to the Hampton Roads area, a part of Virginia I’ve not been for ages.

A few stops en route brought me to Hampton University, where I visited the grave of a hero who is far too little known, Samuel Chapman Armstrong. He’s probably the only Hawai’i-born Union general during the Civil War, and after the war he founded Hampton University and pioneered education for the newly freed black population. One of those early students was the legendary Booker T Washington. And yes, he attended Punahou when he was young, and his brother was the Attorney General of the Kingdom of Hawai’i. This was a rewarding stop for me.

I drove through Norfolk and had a few stops there, including visiting the Douglas MacArthur Memorial before heading around some unpleasant toll options to get to my hotel on the other side of the river. Dinner tonight is at one of the most talked-about restaurant in the area, Stove.

I got there a little early and was seated in the small restaurant. Open kitchen, and it seems the hood didn’t work too well as I can really smell the cooking — especially the pan-fried fish. That helped me to make my decision!

I had a cocktail and made my food decisions and chilled. A quaint — and quirky — place in the historic part of Portsmouth, I can see why this appeals to locals and visitors. Then my first course arrived — I had opted for a cheese plate to start.

1-cheese

An interesting local selection (I took only the local ones), as they seemed most interesting. The pimiento cheese was interesting, as was the pepper-coated version. Not bad. I wish I took more details, but sorry, they took the cheese menu away too quickly. I should have took a quick photo, but I was still in pain from yesterday and my right arm is still not moving well thanks to the shoulder knock…

A nice start with the cheese, and then we went to the mid-course, the ham risotto…

2-ham risotto

An interesting and rich dish, the rice was cooked well and the duck egg was a nice touch. The winter squash was also quite delicious. A nice dish, very rich. Then the main course — of which the selection came based on the cooking aroma as I looked at the menu…

3-rockfish

This was today’s fish special, a pan-fried rockfish. The fish was delicious, with very nice crust to go along with the solid selection of root vegetables below. The rutabaga was especially nice. A very solid dish!

I was a bit full for a dessert but I went with a local rye, which was nice. I took my leave and thanked the staff and slowly drove back to my hotel on the other side of town. This was a good meal, what I had hoped for last night. I got it tonight. I can see why people like this place, and why it is so highly rated as one of the best places to eat in Virginia.

Maybe my luck is starting to change for this roadtrip?

Stove
2622 Detroit Street
Portsmouth, Virginia

Review: Julep’s

15 February 2016

I had arrived at Richmond a day early seeing some nasty weather reports for Presidents Day, getting into town yesterday. After a long morning strolling Hollywood Cemetery in frozen conditions I had a poor lunch at a local BBQ joint I won’t bother naming. Dinner was room service as I just didn’t feel like going on to dine alone on Valentine’s Day…

The next day was a mess, a snowy icy mess in Richmond. I slowly trudged around downtown but everywhere was closed for lunch, so back to the hotel for lunch. I knew dinner was set as I had a reservation at Julep’s — a place I had missed last time in town. I headed out for dinner and the city was caught in a nasty ice storm.

One big problem about Richmond is that there are so many abandoned/unoccupied/derelict properties in downtown, there’s clearly no agreement on what to do about snow/ice issues. And of course, as I was about to cross the street, when the damn sidewalk sloped in hilly downtown, I hit black ice…

In a matter of a millisecond I knew there was nothing I can do to prevent me falling but it was now the goal to minimise damage — especially from a head knock. Easier said than done as it was a slope and I had far less time to ensure my noggin’ survived a crack…

CRASH.

It did, but at the cost of my right elbow and left palm, which took some of the impact before my right side crashed down hard, nearly full force, on the black ice-covered concrete. I yelled in absolute anger, not in pain… After a few seconds to make sure I could, I crawled to a place that was not sloped and got back on my feet. My chest felt awful as my ribs took a very nasty knock. Throw in hip and shoulder pain…oh, this trip is starting real bad…

I slowly made my way to Julep’s and it was not comfortable to sit. My arse hurt too… A much-needed martini helped, and I ordered my food. My breathing was a bit laboured as my ribs clearly took a hard knock. I just hope I didn’t break anything. I know my lung was not punctured, but probably got a bit of bruising now. Damn it…

I tried not to think about it but it wasn’t easy. This town just earned my permanent anger for this bullshit lack-of-effort clearing up sidewalks. For a town devoted to tourism, this is piss poor. Then my starter arrived…and honestly it was hard to focus on it…

1-scallops

Scallops that are “charred smoking brined” whatever that means. Not bad, meaty and cooked well, but there was little of any charring, smoking, or brining from the taste. The base — potato cakes was not that great to be honest… Even if I wasn’t in pain I would have given this a meh or so, but when I needed a brilliant start, this wasn’t it. Too bad. Not poor, but just very ordinary.

Sorry for the poor focus. The phone took a knock and survived, and I may have been a bit impatient in taking the photo with my shoulder now in pain also… Then my main arrived, the duck étouffée.

2-duck etouffee

Not bad, though the duck was a bit bland and overcooked. The étouffée itself was also not bad, but again, there’s something quite ordinary in this dish. I was a bit disappointed as I heard a lot of praise for Julep’s and it’s pretty ordinary tonight. Perhaps being in pain didn’t help, but really, this was not as good as Roosevelt the last time I was in town.

I was still not wanting to head back into the ice again so I opted for a dessert…

3-key lime cheesecake

A key lime cheesecake. Not bad, I enjoyed it. With a bit of bourbon I chilled and finished this meal. Not bad, but nothing special, rather mediocre, sorry to say.

I headed out, hoping for no further issues en route back for the less than 2 blocks of walk to the hotel (yes, that’s how close). I avoided that same corner to say the least, walking on the streets itself thanks to the very light traffic. But the sloping sidewalk to the hotel door was not cleaned, and neither was the bricked driveway. It was an awful shuffle and I gave a piece of my mind to the hotel staff for their laziness before I headed upstairs and went to lie down.

Oh, this roadtrip is starting out real, real bad…

Julep’s
420 East Grace Street
Richmond, Virginia

Review: Barley Swine

23 January 2016

I had headed back out after that voluminous BBQ lunch from La Barbecue — which turned out to be far later than planned… Had a busy afternoon but I also had an early dinner booking this Saturday night. Tonight’s destination is the newly re-opened Barley Swine, which moved across town and had just opened. I had planned this Austin weekend stay around this meal, so was looking forward to it!

Sadly they did not offer their tasting menu as of yet post-move, so tonight will have to be a la carte. Actually probably good, because of that heavy lunch. It wasn’t that busy at the chef’s counter but for some reason they put me right next to a group of 3 — when there were 8 other open seats. Why? This is so damn annoying, a bad start courtesy of the FoH…

I looked at the menu over a cocktail, which was not bad. I ordered and chilled out. Kitchen was busy and loud — the vocal staff reminded me of that terrible night at LA’s Bestia…not bode well? At least not as deafeningly bad as Nomad in Sydney… I understand need for communications in the kitchen and having a regimented system, but the excessive shoutiness is a part of the “experience” of so many “modern” open kitchens that I don’t enjoy. In any case, the first item came out, the pig skin noodles.

1-pig skin noodles

Well, I was curious on how they did this, but it’s basically the skin soubised and cut like noodles. Nice idea, but didn’t work. It was a sticky mess, especially when it was bathed in this acidic hot sauce and sprinkled with almonds. This didn’t work at all, and it was just sticking and breaking up on the utensils. The dumplings were good, but I left a bit of the “noodles” behind. Sadly, there are better things to make “noodles” with, and there are far better ways to cook pig skin.

I had switched to a white and it tasted a little funky…hmmm… Some of this I attribute to moving issues but still, it’s not like they were closed for a long time. I’m still open-minded. Then the next dish, the marinated egg.

2-marinated egg

Well, this was basically a poached egg that had a nice flavour from the marinade. However, even with the runny yolk, it did little for the sweet potato “nest” that had little flavour and was over-fried — basically a gum-slasher… I basically mopped up the yolk and picked off the hidden goat ham (meh) and this dish was history. Rather disappointed so far, but maybe I’m ordering badly…

At this point suddenly my stomach just went crunch. Ugh, what was it, the “noodles” or runny egg? The funky txakoli or something else? It was so sudden it’s hard to pin down, but I had to run for the bathroom and just yacked. I have never vomited like this before in mid-meal at a restaurant…there was something that just didn’t sit right. The acidic food (and wine) certainly didn’t help, but something triggered this…I can’t figure out what it was.

But I was a bit green going back to the counter as I see they brought out my final dish, the blackened octopus.

3-octopus

Nope. I took a bite and asked them to wrap it for me. I didn’t feel very good and I didn’t feel very confident about eating here right now. I just took the item, downed a cup of coffee, and headed out. The “free valet parking” is annoying but whatever.

I got back to my hotel, rested for a bit. Later in the evening I heated up this dish and had it. The octopus was not bad, but the seasoning was overwhelming for such a small-sized octopus. Perhaps on a thick one it would work. The fried rice wasn’t bad, but I’m glad I got rid of the rest of the stuff off the food.

I had been hoping Barley Swine would re-open when I planned on passing through Austin, but it turned out to be a disappointment. Even if I didn’t get sick (I’m not attibuting it to anything specific, btw, please don’t assume), the cooking was very meh and many of the flavours didn’t work for me. For me it feels, sadly, more of a fail on the chef front in designing these dishes than in the execution by the cooks.

Frankly these 2 dinners in Austin couldn’t come anywhere close to the 2 dinners in San Antonio at Southerleigh and especially at Cured. I’m starting to think Austin is way, way overrated and overhyped. I’m so done with Austin…

Barley Swine
6555 Burnet Road, Suite 400
Austin, Texas

PS: The 2 dinners made such a bad impression on me I actually *skipped* dinner the next day, my final night in Austin. All I did was heat up the leftover BBQ from La Barbecue, which was still good. I am so, so done with eating in Austin… Next time I have to come back to the area for my project I will focus on the excellent and underrated San Antonio.

Review: La Barbecue

23 January 2016

I slept badly as my stomach was not happy with the acidic addition from last night’s disappointing dinner at Foreign & Domestic. But I had a busy Saturday so I was out the door by 8am. I had planned to do some BBQ and there was so much to choose from, so I ended up going with La Barbecue — which is always seen as one of the best in a BBQ-obsessed town. It was 10.30am when I got there, and there was already a modest line. I got ready to wait a little, as it wasn’t opening until 11am.

Little did I know how annoying it was to become. Due to the fact they were giving out free beers to people waiting in line, no one was in a hurry. And then worse, the “placeholders” in line suddenly went from a group of 2 to a group of 10+ when more people show up. What was a short-ish line that would have cleared in 30 minutes turned into a chat-and-cut shitshow on this unseasonably warm and sunny morning. Remember I got into the short-ish line at 10.30am…

Then I see people trying to talk the staff into cutting through line, including a suspiciously tall individual that may have been a local college athlete. Now this is utterly unfair and annoying. Plus, the people in line were getting tipsy and loud, and the already annoying coversations were getting even worse. As someone waiting by themselves this is such a stupid experience.

By the time I got to the counter, they were out of beef ribs. Remember, I got there half hour BEFORE it opened. I got my order, and actually got out of there just before 1pm. Yes, it took me 2.5 hours to get my food in what started out as a short-ish line. This is ridiculous. I’m sorry, nothing is worth this.

I drove out and this idiot cuts me off then drives 10mph under the speed limit. I gesticulate my displeasure (no fingers, I wasn’t provoking anyone in gun-happy Texas), and he slams on his brakes, gets out of his car and threatens me. Wonderful, Texas, stupid and hotheaded — and YOU CAN’T FUCKING DRIVE.

Utterly pathetic. I got around him and fought traffic (yes, on a Saturday) through Austin and went back to my hotel to take a look at the food that’s dripping oil out of the bag. I opened the items with anticipation.

The first thing I unwrapped was the fatty brisket…

fatty brisket

The aroma was intoxicating and the taste was incredible. Very possibly the best brisket I’ve ever had in my life. Rich beyond belief, smoky to the core, and the perfect flavours that bring out the best of the meat. Awesome.

fatty brisket_edited

Here’s the photo with some simple editing to show the contrast. All the photos don’t show the stuff in its glory because of the butcher paper colour, so here’s a better look at the smoke ring and the delicacy of the meat. Next up were the pork ribs.

pork ribs

These were pretty good, but not as good as the brisket. The rub was strong, very peppery, while the smoke got through very nicely. No need any sauce as you can imagine. Most of these I saved for later. Good thing my hotel room had a fridge and microwave…

pork ribs_edited

Here’s the edited version. You can really see how heavy the rub was. Then finally the homemade sausages…

sausages (spicy)

These were awesome, with a strong spicy kick on them. Solid and hot, just perfect. I saved most of these for later as well, but they were fantastic.

sausages (spicy)_edited

Here’s the edited version, probably not as necessary, but voila. Wow, this is a lot of food, and this should do for tomorrow as well (thank you fridge and microwave).

La Barbecue had some of the best BBQ I’ve ever had, especially the brisket. Just fabulous. However, I don’t think it justifies a 2.5hr wait for me. I know Austin people like to wait like this, but when you are solo, it’s just annoying — especially with the drunken, stupid groups of college kids slowing things to a crawl and chat-and-cut like there’s no tomorrow. There was free beer, so no one cared — but I couldn’t get any because I couldn’t leave the line to get it. The system just works against a single person here.

Too bad, because it was fabulous. I’d love to enjoy this ‘cue again, but no way will I wait like this. Lesson learned. If I want BBQ in Austin, go early and go on a weekday — especially if the weather is foul.

Awesome, but this was a terrible overall experience.

La Barbecue
1906 East Cesar Chavez Street
Austin, Texas