Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Old "New" Kid in Town

I guess if you have done something successfully for more than eighty years, you can feel confident enough to branch out. That is just what Pepe’s did. The historic pizzeria has been making great pies since the 1920’s in New Haven. Their claim to fame is the white clam pizza. I have been away from the Northeast for many years and one of the things I miss the most is good pizza. No offense to those who grew up elsewhere in America, but if someone recommends a pizza place to me, I always ask them where they are from. If they answer Kansas, the Carolinas, Florida, hell most anywhere in America, yes, I am sorry to say even Chicago, their opinion does not count much. This is not rude, it makes as much sense as someone from Memphis, Kansas City, Texas, etc. not taking my opinion on barbeque with much weight. It simply was not part of my culture growing up. With deference to Chicago, it is part of the culture, but I do not care for it. The pies are thick and doughy, the sauce too sweet, and the overall experience lacking in my estimation. This is from eating pizza in Chicago and suburbs, not simply from eating at “Chicago Style” pizzerias elsewhere in America ( which is another entry, but I have a friend that says he does not like New York pizza, yet has never been to New York or anywhere near it, he has dined at “New York Style” pizzerias).

The point is, whenever I go home, I try to make it to New Haven for Pizza, specifically for the white clam pizza from Pepe’s. There is always a wait and they do not always have the fresh clams. They have opened a couple of locations since I last visited home and due to time constraints, I decided to go the location recently opened in Fairfield, Connecticut. We called ahead to see if they were busy as I was trying to get to the airport. The lady laughed and said no. We then asked if they had the white clam pizza today, which they did. So we stopped in on our way to JFK. Having visited the original location on Wooster Street in New Haven for some years, I was unsure of what to expect. My question as to whether or not the oven was wood fired was answered when we pulled into the parking lot and the telltale smell of a wood burning oven was not there. The location was more sterile than the original, as could be expected from a new suburban location. They do have a very large brick oven, with pizza peels that must be 12 to 15 feet long. The menu consists of a board over the main kitchen and a few more scattered about on the walls of the restaurant. The total age of any three employees does not equal the age of a single employee in New Haven, but we persisted and got a table. The waitress greeted us and took our order, asking us if we want mozzarella on our clam pizza or not. I must admit, I was somewhat confused as I had never been asked that before. I know the pie comes with minimal amounts of cheese and I wanted it the way they do it in New Haven. There was a little bit of a communication breakdown and I got it with a little bit of mozzarella, which is atypical. When I tried to correct the error, the pie was already in the oven and we got it with the mozz. Fortunately, it was very minimal amounts of mozzarella cheese. We also got a small sausage and mushroom pie.

The moment of truth arrived when she plopped down a full size sheet pan of pizza on our table. While there is a difference between a gas-fired oven and a wood-fired oven, the pie was good. It had the telltale sign of an oven that was hot enough- black bubbles on the crust. This is a constant pizza crime in the south. The pizzas are always undercooked. If pizza does not have a little black on it, it is not done properly. The south, who loves to overcook its vegetables, meats, and most things it serves, consistently undercooks pizzas in ovens that never see a degree over 500. But I digress.

The sausage and mushroom pie was less stellar. The toppings were soupy, and even after letting the pizza rest for a while, it was still just a sloppy pie. The ingredients were all good quality, but the execution was a bit off.

The clam pizza was almost as good as New Haven, and still better than most you will have in this country. I made the mistake of trying clam pizzas from other pizzerias, even acclaimed shops in the area, and they all fall short. The fact that the other locations can mean less driving, less waiting balances out the slight difference in the pies. In this humble chef’s estimation, this is worth the gas money. Go have a pie.

Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana

157 Wooster St
New Haven, CT 06511, United States
+1 203-865-5762

The Old Kid in Town

If you go to the website of Louis Lunch, there is a link to an entry at the Library of Congress that attributes the invention of the hamburger to this little shack in New Haven, Connecticut. That, in my book, makes this an historic place to dine. And that is what I did. The small place is unassuming in diminutive stature, while being quaint and eye-catching at the same time. As you enter this little historic burger joint, located across the street from some hopping clubs in New Haven, you can not help but be struck by the feeling that something is very different. In fact, it is very, very, different. The menu consists of burgers. You can get them with cheese, onion, and tomato….and that is it! They will come on toasted white bread and you will be mocked and ridiculed if you ask for ketchup or mustard. The burgers are cooked in contraptions that resemble vertical gas-fired toasters. The burger is hand formed from a pile of meat and placed in a wire-grill basket and inserted vertically into the contraption. If you want onion, it is placed on top of the meat patty. This allows the onion to cook at the same time, being basted in the fat that drips down from the patty. You can get chips with your burger, or potato salad, and a good selection of sodas including Foxon Park Sodas such as birch beer, root beer, and cream soda. Foxon Park soda has been made in East Haven Connecticut for more than eighty years. Birch beer, for those who are not familiar with it, is kind of like root beer with a lighter flavor and a bit of menthol. I used to drink the hell out of some birch beer growing up in Connecticut. I even used to shave the bark off of a birch tree just to smell it; it smelled good enough to eat or to make my own birch beer.

If you are wondering why the burgers are served on white bread, it is because they have been serving them that way since before the hamburger bun was invented. That’s right; Louis Lunch has been serving burgers this way since 1895, making Foxon Park look like johnny-come-lately company. It gets high marks in the Road Food Guide, the biblical tome leading foodies and hungry travelers to good food across America for decades.

The burgers were remarkably moist and flavorful. The onion had a great grilled flavor and the tomato added enough moisture and sweetness that no one will ever miss ketchup. America is short on things that go for more than a century, let alone things that are credited with culinary creations that have conquered the globe. You can experience both of them with a quick stop in a small shack of a burger joint in New Haven.

Louis' Lunch

263 Crown St
New Haven, CT 06511, United States
1 203-562-5507

I Did the Mash

Not the monster mash, but mash house. My stay here in Birmingham, England started out on a very sour note. Although my Ryan Air flight was on time and flawless, and I picked up my Hertz rental car in short order, and I even had a nice lunch in a local pub along with a pint, I eventually found the Warwick Castle (pronounced Warrick), albeit after a few nerve shattering errors as I tried to get used to driving on the left side of the road. The castle was impressive, if expensive. The rooms were full of figures Madam Tussaud dressed in period clothing and staged in the midst of medieval tasks. There were weapon rooms, suits of armor, and lots of art and furniture spanning the centuries the castle has been in use, all the way up to the introduction of electricity and beyond in the latter part of the 19th century. There was even of portion of the original castle built in 1068 by the order of William the Conqueror. The castle closed and we were off.

And that is when the trouble began. The plan was to take a quick drive to Stratford upon Avon, the namesake of the town were I spent my teen years. It is only about ten miles away so it seemed easy enough. The reality could not have been further from the truth. The A46 was closed due to an accident, and I spent the next four hours trying to get the forty miles to my hotel in Birmingham. I abandoned the idea of stopping in Stratford upon Avon after being grazed by a truck, scratching my rental car. The gentleman was calm as he explained that there was simply no way it could have been his fault, even though my car was not moving. I was sitting with my turn signal on trying to merge into the barely moving traffic.

So I spent a few hours in England, learning to drive on the left side of the road, in pouring rain, on country roads, wishing that every hotel I passed was my hotel. But they were not and I finally made it into Birmingham city center. The hotel I booked is under construction and has no sign. Another ½ hour was spent trying to find my hotel, which I finally did. After an overpriced meal at the bar of the hotel because I was too tired and stressed to go anywhere else, my son and I retired to our room. And retire we did. I awoke at eight in the morning and awoke my son, twice. Seeing the futility in this plan, I returned to bed, watched some television (The Rockford Files) and went back to sleep. We woke up around noon to the sound of a jack-hammer on the floor above us, putzed around and finally made it outside just shy of two P.M., heading off to the historic canals of Birmingham. The day got better. Birmingham seemed to be a great city, balancing its history with the city’s forward momentum and growth.

The historic canals are flanked by cafés, coffee houses, restaurants, and the very modern International Convention Center, Symphony Hall, and a mixed use development called The Mailbox. They are also building a massive square mixed use building aptly named The Cube.

After looking at a number of options for dining including what amounts to floating diners on converted long boats that used to carry so many goods up and down the canals, we settled on a place called The Mash. The instructions are simply laid out; 1. Choose for Pie or Sausage, 2. Choose your mash. Options range from cheddar mash, to horseradish mash, colcannon, house mash, and more. 3. Choose your gravy. Options included tarragon creamy gravy, house gravy, and more. You can also have additional veggies, salad, and a few other options for main courses.

I chose the steak and kidney pie because I am in England and no doing so would be akin to not having pizza when in Naples, Italy or not having haggis when in Scotland (which I will be trying in the next few days). I chose colcannon and tarragon gravy to go with it. My son had three sausage plate: lamb and mint, pork and apple, and honey mustard. He chose the cheddar mash and house gravy. Our food arrived promptly and displayed attractively enough. The steak and kidney pie was rich and flavorful, a dark gravy containing chucks of tender beef and the earthy flavor indicating the presence of the kidneys encased in a flaky, nicely browned pastry shell. The colcannon was very nicely prepared. The greens still had some texture and the potatoes were creamy and rich. The gravy was tasty enough, but lacked any flavor of tarragon. The sausages were nicely browned and very moist. The lamb and mint tasted as one would think, the pork and apple had a very subtle flavor of apples, and most surprising was the honey mustard sausage. I was nervous when my son ordered it. I have been inundated with grossly-sweet goopy honey mustard things in America and I was afraid that this might resemble those disgusting concoctions. To the contrary, the mustard has a hint of spiciness and the honey played a restrained supporting role. His cheddar mash was nicely balanced, not too cheesy, but had the flavor of sharp cheddar in every bite. The gravy was good too.

After our meal, I peered into the small kitchen and saw a Rational Self Cooking Center there. I pulled out my business card and handed it to the young man working there, informing him of my position with the company. After a series of questions from me, I learned that the food is prepared off premises and brought in frozen. The entrée items are placed in the Self Cooking Center on the “level control” setting. This setting is where each shelf gets its own timer that self adjust for recovery time each time the door is opened. The mashed potatoes were microwaved, and the gravy was remarkably tasty for being from a dry product that was mixed with boiling water.

The pies and sausages are cooked from frozen. I would have never guessed. This is exciting because I have been telling my customers and prospective customers that this machine could revolutionize the way they operate their kitchens. I have demonstrated this capability many times, but it is very theoretical in demo. Here I was witnessing a concept that was built around the Self Cooking Center and its advanced capabilities. They have already signed on two companies in America to franchise the concept. They will be opening 6 stores per year, half of which will be franchised, the others owned by the company.

It is only a matter of time before our country gets around to implementing what the Europeans have know for a long time: technology can increase quality, reduce food and labor costs, and allow your kitchen to be a fraction of the size of what we are used to.

If I can’t get my customers to see this, then I just might have to do it myself. Stay Tuned.