March 29, 2012

a little road trip

We took a short but fun little road trip last weekend down to Atlanta. It was my third time there, each trip only lasting a couple of days, but with each one I've come back with an appreciation for the major metropolis just Southeast of us. It's only a four-hour drive away, so not that much of a stretch to go for the weekend. And the city has so much to offer.

The reason for the getaway was a trip to IKEA for some things we needed for our rental property. Now that it's getting down to the wire, we are outfitting the three units in our rental house with new appliances, kitchen cabinets and countertops, the latter of which we wanted to buy at IKEA. They have a great selection of unique materials (mostly laminate or wood) for a really good price.

(this is one of them)

Let's just say the store was a bit overwhelming. It was our first foray into the world of the Swedish home goods mega producer of things you never knew you wanted or needed and I don't feel the need to go back anytime soon. I thought Daniel was going to have a heart attack by the time the third hour wore on as he tried to follow me as I weaved in and out of all the stuff and throngs of people, all the while pushing the cart with June and trying to keep her entertained. I will say that the store is very well-equipped for children as they have all these little toddler play stations set up all over that really came in handy when it was getting close to meltdown time. And the family restrooms were amazing.

That being said, it would have probably been much easier to do this shopping trip without a toddler, but whatever. We got it done, she had fun (mostly) and then we went on to enjoy ourselves in Atlanta. And we had a fun little lunch there of Swedish meatballs and smoked salmon that were pretty good and lingonberry juice, which just makes us laugh every time we say it.

Our first meal was dinner at Cakes & Ale in Decatur. I had been hearing about this place since my last trip to Atlanta about four years ago (during which I ate some pretty great food). I didn't have the chance to go then, so this time it was still high on my list. We weren't able to get a reservation, but they offered us the patio which ended up being perfect. The weather was beautiful and there was only one other table of nice people out there and June could play around a little and not be disruptive.

We had some much-needed drinks after that horrendous shopping experience and finally started to relax. Then we shared a plate of oysters that were excellent and an appetizer of arrancini (little fried rice balls) that were okay but not as good as I've had elsewhere.

I had steelhead trout with spring vegetables for dinner and Daniel had a nice plate of lasagne verde with pork rag├╣. His only complaint was that it was too small. Mine was perfect. June had a yummy farro salad with root vegetables which mostly got eaten by us.

And for dessert we all shared a slice of this beautiful ice cream cake which practically made our our daughter flip her lid it was so good. I wish I could have eaten all the desserts on the menu. The restaurant also operates a bakery next door and it looked like everything they made there was over-the-top delicious. I wanted to go back in the morning, but they were closed on Sundays. Dang.

Instead we had breakfast at Ria's Bluebird (blogged about before, see above link) which is always a fun place. But this time, we had to wait just a little too long and the service was very slow. The table next to us sent their pancakes back because they were cold and while I wouldn't go that far, our food was not the best. I wish we would have gone out of the way a little further and tried brunch at one of the two other places I had in mind (Empire State South or Miller Union). Next time.

Sunday was spent making June happy since she had been such a champ the day before both in the car and at the mega store. So we went to a beautiful park right in the center of the city called Grant Park and played on the playground and then ended up at the Atlanta Zoo which is just at the south entrance to the park. It was a beautiful Spring day and the zoo was fun -- the panda bears were the highlight for me. I think June enjoyed all of it.

And no trip to Atlanta would be complete without a stop at Waffle House. Started in a suburb of Atlanta more than 50 years ago, it's a staple of Southern road trips. And, as much as I hate to admit it, their waffles are pretty amazing --especially the pecan waffle, served with a side of hashbrowns "smothered, covered and diced" (with cheese, onions and...I forgot what else that means). June had a good old time there and could have stayed there all weekend.

Oh- and just before hitting the interstate to head home on Sunday, we accidentally found one of the coffee shops that had been recommended to me by my friends at Crema. Called Octane, it was a beautiful new, airy garage-like space with a super cool pour-over station and an attached bakery called The Little Tart. All I had was an iced pour-over, but it was really good. I should have grabbed some pastries for the road, but thought better of it. Second mistake. Next time, we'll do breakfast and coffee there.

Now that we've had a taste of what a little getaway trip can do for the psyche, we're all ready to hit the road again. We're hoping our next adventure will include some water and sand.

March 20, 2012

The CREMA {Slow Bar}

I had the opportunity last week to attend a really fun and informative class that got me thinking about the state of the Nashville food scene. As anyone who has been paying attention to the national press lately will know, our city has been on the radar recently of national media such as Rolling Stone magazine, The New York Times, Bon Appetit and more. It always feels good to see this kind of press when you have watched the food community around you grow and know some of its participants. This kind of attention benefits everyone and it can only be good for Nashville going forward.

However, there has been one glaring omission in my humble opinion. I really believe (and the class I just mentioned-- which I'll get to shortly-- only solidified this for me) that the folks over at Crema are pioneers in Nashville and in the region when it comes to coffee. The fact that they've been open for 4 years and are still somewhat under the (national) radar is slightly mystifying. But that's likely to change soon.

I am not a coffee expert by any stretch. But I love good coffee and most of all, I love people who care about making whatever they love the best it can be and translating that to the customer. That's the first impression I got on my first visit to Crema back in January of 2008. I knew right away that this would be the place I talked about to everyone I knew in Nashville, the place I sent all my out of town visitors and the place I looked forward to going for my frequent coffee bar experiences. It was official: I'd finally found a place I could go to relive my Italian love affair with coffee.

I am a huge fan of how the folks at Crema have grown and run their business, steadily educating their devoted customers about coffee, its origins, its brewing methods, its flavors and its numerous possibilities. A sea change (which has been going on in larger cities for a while now) is underway in the coffee culture, and Nashville is making a name for itself in the larger coffee community mostly because of Crema. Its dedicated owners and passionate staff are slowly but surely changing the way we think about, consume and enjoy coffee.

To this end, they have recently added a new element to the ways they are sharing their unique love for coffee with the rest of us: The CREMA {Slow Bar}. Late last year, Crema reached a goal of theirs by moving a shiny new roaster into the renovated space in the old machine shop they occupy on Rutledge Hill. The Crema roasterie gives them the freedom to roast their own small-batch coffees, refining the beans they purchase from carefully selected farms and co-ops around the world and individualizing the roasting process based on the specific bean and its characteristics. It's a very elaborate process as I learned from our guides, Sean Stewart and Nathanael Mehrens, award-winning baristas, owners of Beve Mobile Coffee and Crema's resident Professors of Coffee (that last title courtesy of me). Crema have hired Sean and Nathanael to orchestrate training sessions for staff and educational events for customers, and Sean, along with Winston Harrison are Crema's full-time roasters.

These guys really know their stuff and they do a remarkable job of conveying that. Over the course of an hour and four different coffees made using four different brewing methods and served with four small food pairings, we got a glimpse into what these guys do everyday in the roasting process. They roast, cup (taste), sip, analyze, discuss and then refine each recipe for each type of bean, all in an effort to bring out the best aspects of that particular coffee.

I learned why they are roasting the coffees a lot lighter at Crema than what the typical American coffee drinker is used to. Having tasted, both in the shop and at home, the fruits of their labors, I already knew that the results of Crema's first foray into roasting were spectacular; I just didn't know why. You can see in the color of the finished product how light the beans are. It's striking to compare Crema's beans to the Italian-roasted espresso beans I used to buy. As it was explained during the class, they want to highlight the best aspects of each coffee and light roasting allows all of the varied characteristics of origin to come through.

So for example, the rustic, sweet, chocolatey-orange notes of the Tanzania (paired beautifully with fig-raisin compote, tiny orange pieces and toasted macadamias) were really in evidence in the coffee. The flavor profile the guys had spent so much time elaborating in the roasting process was not just their imaginations. It really described the taste I got from that particular coffee and I was shocked at how much those flavors were intensified by eating the small bites described above.

I also learned about different brewing methods, some of them familiar to me like the French Press or the Chemex, others totally new like the Flannel-Drip or the geeky, complex Siphon (at right) that looked like something Walt from Breaking Bad would dream up. Each method was chosen for its unique ability to once again enhance the already present flavors and characteristics of the particular coffee being showcased.

In short, I was blown away by Sean and Nathaniel's knowledge, the thought and preparation that went into the set-up and pairings (even down to choosing a different kind of cup or glass for each different coffee), and the sincerity with which they wanted to impart their love of coffee to the rest of us. And you don't have to be a coffee geek like them or even a connoisseur to get a lot out of this experience. Anyone who has ever gotten excited by the complexity of flavors and colors, or the elaborate process of cultivating and producing a single thing such as wine, olive oil or a certain style of cheese would appreciate this kind of intensity about coffee. Or if you simply drink it every day and love it like I do, then this opportunity to delve deeper into the culinary side of coffee and what makes it such an interesting, complex (and extraordinary) drink, is something not to be missed.

The next Slow Bar is scheduled for March 23. There are only six spots available for each session, so get a reservation now, before everyone hears about it in Food & Wine magazine and you can't get in.

(Special thanks to my always-toting-camera friend, Lori)