There’s a New Chick-en Town

Next week, the nation’s largest chicken chain (by sales), Chick-Fil-A, will launch a new grilled chicken recipe that it spent seven years and more than $50 million dollars developing. The new recipe is designed to get customers to crave grilled chicken as much as their signature “Southern fried chicken sandwiches”, a tall order to be sure. Chick-Fil-A’s recipe for more healthy, tasty offerings have helped propel the chain past Yum! Brands (the parent company that owns KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut) in total annual sales. The Atlanta-based Chick-Fil-A took in $5 billion last year to KFC’s $4.22 billion and did it with only 1/3 the number of locations. Enter Super Chix, an unassuming, singular restaurant which opened just this week in Arlington, Texas. Super Chix is (hopefully) Yum! Brands’ answer to the seemingly unstoppable, juicy juggernaut that is Chick-Fil-A.

Although Super Chix is, at least for the moment, a single test location deep in the heart of Texas, Yum! could quickly seed Super Chix resturants across the country should the concept prove successful. And just what is that concept? Although it’s tempting to brand Super Chix as clone of Chick-Fil-A, it actually seems more like a remix of several successful chains. Super Chix founders, three guys named Christophe, Nick and Jeff, say they offer simple food made with “ingredients everyone can pronounce,” made with no MSG, high-fructose corn syrup or phosphates. The chain offers hand-squeezed lemonade, hand-cut Idaho fries ala Five Guys, and three types of pickles for their sandwiches – Sriracha sweet & sour sauce and kosher. For my money though, one of the most notable lines of attack isn’t what they’re offering, so much as when they’re offering it:

With increased pressure from casual fast food chains like Chipotle Mexican Grill, Panera Bread and especially Chick-Fil-A, Yum! knows they need to get crackin’ in order to stem sliding sales. Good, simple food is certainly the best way to turn things around but Super Chix would also give consumers an important choice in the morality department. Chick-Fil-A and its owner Dan Cathy, came under scrutiny in 2010 for his documented support of anti-gay, Christian organizations which sparked several grass-roots boycotts. It’s uncertain if those boycotts hurt Chick-Fil-A or not but the PR backlash was real and probably led to Cathy’s reversal of company policy in 2012. Furthermore, Cathy recently admitted he wants his business to “move past” the anti-gay controversy, leave politics to politicians and focus on expanding the chain’s offerings. Sounds great, but consumers like me have a long memory. If I had a place to patronize that gave me all the delicious chicken goodness of Chick-Fil-A without any of the “holier than thou” attitude, I for one would certainly take it.

For the time being you’ll have to visit Arlington if you want to try a Super Chix chicken sandwich, chicken tenders or their creamy frozen custards. I certainly won’t be making a pilgrimage to Texas any time soon, but I will be hoping (not praying) that the test market is successful enough to warrant future expansions. Besides, those adorable cows have hogged the lime light long enough.

Poached Perfection

If you follow me on Instagram or on Twitter then you probably know I enjoy cooking. I love all kinds of foods but eggs hold a special place in my heart, most especially the poached egg. For years I’ve been on a quest to find the best / most foolproof method for poaching eggs and I’m pleased to report I think I’ve finally found it.

When it comes to cooking the perfect poached eggs, there are many factors that can lead to failure or at the very least, eggs that are not pretty or are a pain in the clean-up department. I’ve tried Gordon Ramsay’s method, America’s Test Kitchen’s, and most recently Heston Blumenthal’s recipe which I was convinced was the holy grail of poaching eggs. But then I came across an unassuming video from Life Hacker on ways to cook eggs in the microwave. Although the first two (scrambled and sunny-side up) resulted in less than spectacular results, the third for poaching works *perfectly*. And I do mean perfectly. The method is easy. Simply fill a small bowl 1/2 with water, crack the egg into it, cover with a saucer and microwave for at least 1 min. Cooking times vary greatly depending on the strength of your microwave but once you dial the proper setting in for your own equipment, you can produce one perfectly poached egg after another in very little time and with next to no clean-up. Just remember to use fresh water each time so the left-over, heated water doesn’t mess with your timing and over-cook your eggs.

Unlike dropping a raw egg into a pot of boiling water, there is no where for the egg white to go. Since the bowl is so small, the egg proteins can’t disperse. You don’t need vinegar or whisking the water into a vortex, or a pocket of cling film or even have to worry about bubbles on the bottom of the pan turning your creation into a real eggo waffle. If you love a good poached egg, have a microwave (who doesn’t?) and want to change your culinary life forever, give this method a go. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got second breakfast to make.

Double Standards for Chopped All-Stars

SPOILER WARNING: This post contains mild spoilers for ep. 1 of the new season Food Network’s Chopped All-Stars. If you’re a stickler for spoilers, leave the kitchen now.

If you’re a fan of Food Network’s reality TV competition, Chopped, then you’re no doubt you’re relishing the new season of all-stars which started this past week. The show pits the biggest names of the network head to head in the Chopped kitchen to see who stands above the rest. The All-Stars edition is a great opportunity to see how talented chefs deal with the pressures of limited time and crazy mystery ingredients in a creative and professional manner. Or so one would think.

In the first episode of Chopped All-Stars, two of the competing Iron Chefs, Marc Forgione and Michael Symon each drank from a bottle of coconut rum they were given and then proceeded to pour the ingredient from the same bottle into their pots. As any fan of the show can tell you, whenever competing chefs commit a cooking no-no like this, they are always called out by the judges at the end of the round. Always. Judge Scott Conant is a stickler for cleanliness and has made many competitors feel 10 inches tall after having tasted from a spoon and then used the very same spoon to stir their creations. Mysteriously, during the all-star edition no one called out either Forgione or Symon for their un-professional behavior.

Another tidbit that’s just as telling is Iron Chef Cat Cora’s use of raw red onions in one of her dishes, an ingredient Conant is infamous for hating. His dislike of red onion is legendary on Chopped but for some reason he didn’t seem to mind Cora’s use of the onion at all. These details are nit-picky to be sure, but are important none-the-less. Speaking as a fan, it rubs my rhubarb to know the Food Network’s talent is put on a pedestal instead of the chopping block where they belong.

Even Faster Food

Blame the ailing economy if you like, but in recent years businesses have become more and more willing to experiment in order to get a leg up on the competition. Seeking to capitalize on the increasingly tech-savvy public, the acclaimed burger chain Five Guys, has introduced a new iPhone and Android application that aims to make your dining experience quick and effortless.

Five Guys joins the ranks of restaurant chains like Chipolte Mexican Grill and Outback Steakhouse that let customers not only browse their menus but also place a to-go order right from their smart phones. I take food out from local Greensboro eateries a lot and I usually try to call ahead so I can get in and out as quickly as possible. The breakdown in efficency usually occurs at the time of payment and so I end up waiting in line to fork over my debit card while I hope and pray my food is even ready.

When ordering with Five Guys’ or Chipolte’s apps, you specify what time you want to pick up your food, pay for it via secure ordering and even save your favorite selections for future reference. I tried the Five Guys app today and it was a dream. I entered the store, went directly to the pickup counter and simply gave my name. The order was ready to go and I was enjoying my lunch all within minutes of walking in the door.

I can envision a time in the not-too-distant future when customers won’t even need to pull out a wallet when eating at their favorite restaurant. The advent of smart phone payment apps like Square and iOS 5′s geo-fencing technology have already started to revolutionize the way people shop, and soon dining experiences like the one I had today at Five Guys will be the rule, not the exception. Now if we could only design an app to get us through TSA lines as quick and “painlessly”.

[Dan Frakes and David Lanham contributed to this post]

What’s Wrong with the Radish?

Something’s wrong with the humble radish. When I was a kid I remember these funny little root vegetables burning my face off from just a single bite, but lately I’ve found they have no more kick than a cramped kangaroo. Part of me suspects that the heat of the modern day radish has somehow been bred out of it for a wider appeal to mainstream American consumers. A quick check of Wikipedia reveals that there are no less than 10 common varieties of radishes. The Cherry Belle is the version most often purchased in North American grocery stores. From the taste and smell of them they must be some of the blandest radishes on the block.

I first became addicted to radishes when I was very young. My aunt grew them in her garden and would often give them to me and my cousins to chomp on along with freshly dug carrots. Aunt Lorraine’s radishes were strong enough to put hair on your chest and I loved them to death. I also remember the veggie from the Passover celebrations in my church. Part of the ritual involved eating “bitter herbs” and although radishes were probably not historically accurate, I distinctly remember eating slices of radish on pita bread while listening to Fiddler on the Roof. Come to think of it, I’m not sure why our Catholic parish ever celebrated a Jewish event, but I’m glad we did because that’s where I learned to love radishes.

These days radishes might as well be turnips or potatoes because they have about as much flavor. I’ve searched high and low for radishes with heat and not found any in years. The topic came up at lunch today with the guys from work and David suggested checking out the locally grown radishes of the Piedmont Triad Farmers Market. I’ll be heading there this weekend to do some research and hopefully return home with my hot-headed pearls. If all else fails, you can be sure I’ll be sending away for my own super-hot radish seeds next spring. By hook or by crook, the heat will be on!

Wishful Dining

I’m going to apologize right up front to the scores of local folks who will read this post and complain that I’m poo-pooing the Triad’s dining scene. This post isn’t about the lack of dining quality in the Triad, it’s about the lack of establishments that meet the criteria to be on Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. Several weeks ago, a producer from Triple D emailed local bloggers to ask for suggestions about places in the Triad that might be right for the show. Ed Cone put up a post to ask for input and many people chimed in. The trouble is, none of these people actually seem to watch the show.

If they did they’d know that there are very few, if any restaurants in the area that Guy Fieri should be visiting. That’s not to say the diners, drive-ins and dives in Greensboro, High Point and Winston aren’t good, many of them are. Take one of my favorite sandwich places, Jams Deli, which is just up the road from my office on Friendly Avenue. I love Jams very much and I and the guys at work enjoy eating there at least once a week for lunch. Yesterday I noticed a sign on Jam’s window asking for people to email Guy and suggest Jams to be on the show. As much as I love Jams, they too, seemingly have never watched Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. If they did they’d know Jams isn’t Triple D material.

The eateries that are featured on the Food Network show have at least three things that make them TV worthy. First, they make all their food from scratch. Last time I checked, Jam’s doesn’t make their french fries, hot chips, onion rings, buns or rolls from scratch. Second, they usually have waiting lines out the door at all times of day. The closest place Triple D has featured, The Penguin Drive-In in Charlotte, NC typically has a 20-45 minute wait to get a table any day of the week. Third, they serve interesting food. Over at Cone’s, Liv Jones suggested Johnson’s in Siler City for their yummie burgers. While I respect Liv’s opinion, Siler City isn’t the Triad, and Johnson’s burgers have nothing on burgers featured on Triple D. The places the producers are looking for have notable items no one else has. Like homemade fried pickle chips or a giant hot dog affectionately called “The Homewrecker”.

Same goes for almost all of the other places I saw suggested at Cone’s blog: Country BBQ (it’s good, but it’s also standard NC fair) Beef Burger (ate there 2 weeks ago, absolutely over rated, not all food made from scratch), Texas Tavern (in Virginia, not the Triad, no interesting food items). About the closest I think would meet the show’s criteria is Yum Yum. Because it’s a college hangout, it’s always busy and people rave about the place, but I don’t know if the food is made from scratch or what.

At this point I can sense you really are upset with me. Upset because I’m not begging the producers of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives to come to Greensboro and film their show. Trust me, I’ve watched every episode and no one would love for them to come here more than me. I would just love to be able to point them at a place like Henrietta NY’s Dibella’s Old Fashion Subs and say “This is the place you’ve been looking for!” But I can’t. If there was a place in the Triad that deserved to be on the show, I’d be eating there every single day. Of course there are plenty of places in Greensboro I’ve never been, so go watch a few Triple D clips and get a sense for the kind of food they showcase. If you still think you know a place that can measure up, suggest it in the comments. I would love nothing more than to be proven wrong, wrong, wrong on this one. In the meantime, I’m heading to Charlotte to check out Penguin. Who’s with me?

Unpretentious World Cuisine at Greensboro’s Table 16

If you met me on the street it wouldn’t be difficult to deduce that I enjoy eating. My mother loves to say that I’m “big boned”, but the truth is I love food. I consider myself a fairly skilled cook and I find that as I grow older, my appreciation for well prepared meals has increased. So when I was invited to join a group of local bloggers to “tastecast” Table 16 here in Greensboro, I was only too eager to jump at the chance. I was not disappointed.

Located at 600 South Elm St. here in Greensboro, Table 16 offers up a fine dining experience unlike many others you have probably encountered. Chef Graham Heaton prides himself on crafting appetizers, entrees and deserts that are as varied in approach as they are filled with love. If you’ve never had the privilege of enjoying an 8 course menu the head chef has prepared especially for you, Table 16 is the place to start. Although only in his early 30′s, Heaton’s approach to the tasting menu he created combined thoughtful preparation and exceptional skill. This is the kind of dining you often see on television or read in very thick novels, but wouldn’t think to experience here in Greensboro. Now you can.

Our wonderful dinner began with a light vichyssoise served with yukon gold potatoes, georgia onion and crab salsa and progressed through items such as pan seared halibut with creamed corn & pernod to NY strip steak w/ tasso ham & fried green tomatoes. Each delightful dish that was brought to our table was proceeded by a special wine pairing that heightened each of the courses. I don’t drink myself, but judging from the reactions of my fellow diners, the wine choices were spot on each and every time.

Of all the dishes we enjoyed during our time at Table 16, my favorite had to be the second course. Ahi tuna and hot sausage poke (tartar) served on a wonton cracker with wasabi and fava bean pureé. This little heavenly delight had all the elements that make a dish great – varied textures and deep, rich flavors which were all cleverly combined in a way that, at first glance, seems simple. However, after just one bite you realize you’re in for something special. I gave the Chef several “thumbs ups” as he gazed from the kitchen to make sure we were enjoying our dinner. He smiled back and knew I was happy.

As incredible as the food was, the other great thing that struck me about Table 16 was how comfortable I was while we ate. It’s fair to say that five-star dining is a once-in-a-blue-moon experience for me and my wife. The cost, attire and locations one must endure to enjoy such an evening are usually prohibitive. While the expense of Table 16 is what you would expect to pay for such a wonderful and varied menu, the decor and atmosphere of the restaurant is just perfect for those usually intimidated by “fancy places”. It is true that the dining room offers a lovely view of Sound Elm and gives the hustle and bustle feeling of big city dining. This is offset by the warm and friendly staff who go out of their way to make you feel at home. From their friendly banter to the modest decor, Table 16 forgoes the usual stuffy nods to put all its attention into the food, where it belongs.

All too often I’ve wondered what it would be like to dine at a certain fine restaurant only to be turned back by the need to turn myself into someone I’m not. I don’t own fine suits, I don’t have all the money in the world and I certainly don’t need to be handled with kid gloves. While we ate, I saw other customers wearing much less formal attire than I (t-shirt & jeans) and having the meal of their lives. Thankfully the owners realize that customers come in all shapes, sizes and means and they are better for it.

Table 16 is a proverbial diamond in the rough. The menu is delectable and the kitchen is run by a Chef that obviously loves what he does and cares about his customers. The owners reached out to the local blogging community and generously offered to host our evening in the hopes that word could spread about this unassuming little eatery in the heart of downtown Greensboro. I thank both Table 16, as well as Scott Brewster, Adam Marney and all the other wonderful people I had the pleasure of meeting and dining with that evening. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Table 16 to anyone looking for a night of culinary discovery in a relaxed and friendly atmosphere. Don’t miss it.

To Thine Own Self Be True

SPOILER WARNING: This post contains spoilers for season 5 of Bravo TV’s Top Chef. If you’ve not watched the finale episode yet, then you should stop reading right now. I really mean it. Just stop.

Part of the problem, and allure, of reality television is that it doesn’t always go how you want it to. Take the conclusion of one of my favorite shows, Bravo’s Top Chef. Season five of the hit reality series about a group of wannabe Julia Childs seemed to be full of promise. There were a number of chefs that really knew their way around the kitchen and were worth rooting for.

They ranged from fan favorite Fabio, a suave Italian competing to be Europe’s first Top Chef, to my personal favorite, Carla Hall, the eclectic cook who put a heaping tablespoon of love in each of her dishes. Like many others, I didn’t like Carla at first. She seemed too flighty to be a serious competitor and didn’t win any of the Quick Fire Challenges early on. Then a strange thing happened. Carla decided to make dishes from her roots and cook food she was passionate about. She began to earn the respect of the judges, edged out Fabio for one of the 3 spots in the finale and seemed to be poised to take the title.

I was sure the competition in the final round would be between Carla and Stefan. The other finalist, Hosea Rosenberg never seemed to have his act together, a fact illustrated when he crossed the line flirting with another contestant, Leah Cohen. In addition, despite owning his own seafood restaurant, Hosea lost a critical seafood challenge. So when Hosea managed to best both Carla and Steffan for the ultimate title of season 5 Top Chef, I was upset.

I was upset with Carla not because she cooked poorly or made mistakes, but because she let herself be second-guessed by her assigned soux chef, Casey Thompson from season 3. Casey convinced Carla to cook her main entree using a technique she wasn’t familiar with, sous vide. The meat was rubbery and didn’t have the soulful feel the judges had come to expect from Carla. In addition Carla took another bit of advice from Casey and changed her desert course from a tart to a much more risky soufflé. Carla didn’t pay attention to the oven temperature and the soufflés were ultimately ruined.

By taking direction from the person who was assigned to her, Carla effectively gave the $100,000 prize to Hosea. To add insult to injury, Hosea managed to pull an upset against the man who has served as William Shatner’s personal chef, Stefan. If anyone of the three deserved to lose Top Chef, it was Hosea, and judging from the polling that night about who the audience thought would win (Carla 65%, Stefan 20%, Hosea 15%), the final results came as a shock.

Carla doesn’t blame Casey for her loss, and although I was upset with Casey at first, I’ve come to realize it wasn’t her fault. Carla was the one who didn’t listen to her inner chef and follow through with her plans. Like so many of us in our day to day lives, Carla let hesitation creep in and as a result, her once strong plans turned sour. If there’s a lesson I’m going to take away from my latest bout with reality TV, it’s simply this – stay true to yourself. That plus don’t take cooking advice from runner-ups. Here endeth the lesson, we still love ya’ Carla.

New ‘Dinner’ Is Impossible To Swallow

Food Network’s Dinner: Impossible used to be one of my very favorite shows on television. The reality series about chef Robert Irvine tackling increasingly difficult culinary challenges with absurd time limits made for great drama. The show was a bright spot in a network lineup filled with Americanized knock-offs of genuine hits and talentless hacks who think big boobs and native pronunciations pass for cooking ability. Then, early in 2008 it was revealed that the show’s host, Irvine, had padded some of the more impressive parts of his culinary resume. This, combined with some bad business decisions by Irvine surrounding two new St. Petersburg, FL restaurants, led Food Network to can Irvine in favor of Michael Symon of Iron Chef America fame.

Viewers got a taste of the new Dinner: Impossible on July 20th, with a special advanced viewing of Symon as host. The results were not encouraging. Symon stumbled through his first challenge like a freshman CIA student, all the while annoying us with his goofy giggle. You might be tempted to chalk this unpleasant outing up to beginner’s nerves. But Symons deals with high pressure cooking situations every time he does battle in Iron Chef America’s Kitchen Stadium. No, it seems clear that Symons isn’t compelling or likable enough to shoulder Impossible without Alton Brown riding shotgun.

Even though Robert Irvine didn’t actually work on Princess Diana or Prince Charle’s wedding cake, it turns out he was perfectly skilled to host Dinner: Impossible. Irvine was a tough, but fair chef who brought out the best (and worst) in those he worked with. Whether he was cooking in -30 degree temperatures for the ice hotel episode or giving a set of his prized knives away to soux-chefs who inspired him, Robert Irvine made Impossible what it was. I don’t particularly care if Food Network didn’t bother to check his credentials before they hired him, I throughly enjoyed watching him cook under pressure. The suits that canned Irvine have proven once again that what viewers want, and what network executives want are two very different things.

The official start to season 5 of Dinner: Impossible with host Michael Symon starts August 20th, 2008. However, the show’s producers had better get Symon’s buns in gear or they may find viewers souring on DI, permanently. Personally, I think they should have given the gig to Guy Fieri. He turned in a fun and memorable performance as a guest chef on Dinner: Impossible last season and would strike the perfect balance between challenge completion and humor the show so desperately needs. Even an aging Emeril Lagasse would have been a better choice than Symons to helm the show. If I had to choose between Emeril’s “Bam!” and Symon’s silly cackle every week, “Bam!” wins hands down. I can’t believe I just wrote that.

Restaurant Graveyard Additions

Back in March I wrote a post about some of my favorite local restaurants that, for one reason or another, have kicked the bucket. As much as we’d love for our favorite hangouts to thrive and flourish, unfortunately this isn’t always the case. A city is a living, breathing thing and businesses are born, live, and then eventually they sometimes die. If you live in a place long enough, you see it happen all to often and in today’s tight economic times, it seems to be happening more and more. Here is a short update of two places that I used to frequent that have gone to what I call, Greensboro’s Restaurant Graveyard.

Imperial Gourmet – Vanishing International Buffet

Until a week ago, Imperial Gourmet was located near the intersection of W. Wendover Ave and Stanley Road here in Greensboro. If you drive by on your way to Home Depot or Best Buy, today you’ll notice only an empty lot. Bulldozed to the ground, Imperial Gourmet was the only real option for chinese dim sum in Greensboro. Before it opened back around 1998, one had to travel as far away as China One in Durham for pork sticky buns and turnip cake. Sadly the food had been declining in recent years and the owners couldn’t decide if they wanted to offer Japanese Sushi, Chinese-American fusion or authentic dim sum, none done well. Despite having a prime location on one of the busiest roads in Greensboro, Imperial Gourmet exists only as a memory and now even China One is closed. The search or good dim sum in the Triad starts anew.

Giacomo’s Italian Market – Beware the Ghost of Simply Italian!

The intersection of Hilltop and Highpoint Road must be cursed. It previously claimed my favorite drive thru of all time, Simply Italian, and now it has murdered another local favorite, Giacomo’s Italian Market. While Giacomo’s isn’t a traditional sit-down restaurant, it did offer some of the best quality Italian food anywhere in Greensboro. I’ve written about the chain’s other location on New Garden Road and their wonderfully delicious sub sandwiches before. And while I had not visited the Highpoint Road Giacomo’s for several years, I have no doubt it was the location that finally did it in. Highpoint Road has been dying slowly for years as traffic and development shifted west to Wendover Ave, leaving several businesses in dire straights. Giacomo’s Italian Market was only the latest casualty in a long line of eateries that went up to dining heaven. Hopefully the New Garden location will survive for years to come.

Restaurant Death Watch Update

I’m pleased to report that my original picks for Restaurant Death Watch are still here and kicking. Of the three, I most frequently visit Mykonos Grill and I have to say every time I eat there the place is jumping. So much so that I think they could stand to move into a larger space, but then again I don’t want to upset the delicate balance that they have going so I’ll just squeeze in when I can.

Panizzo’s Cafe & Bakery

– This fun little cafe has some of the best lunch fare and baked goods anywhere in town. Unfortunately when I and the guys from work visit for lunch, the dining room is usually close to empty. I’m not sure what’s keeping the place from being successful, but if things keep going the way they are, I fear a new addition to the graveyard any time now. Keep your canolis crossed. UPDATE: Talos just learned that Panizzo’s is closing for “renovations” soon. Hopefully these are renovations of the temporary kind and not “permanent” if you know what I mean.

What about you? Have any favorite restaurants that bought the farm? Feel free to add yours in the comments below. Misery loves company!