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Downtown Chattanooga: Chowhound Hell

Chattanooga, Tennessee

Downtown Chattanooga is a gleaming, neon-hued strip of slick eateries that look like chains but have names I don’t recognize. At first I thought they were regional chains unfamiliar to me, but then I started to notice they all look as if they were designed by the same person. I guess these are chain wannabes. And a chain wannabe is about as appealing as a saxophonist who imitates Kenny G. I wandered around, slack-jawed, seeking, Diogenes-like, an honest bite. For hours.

Hair of the Dog Pub (334 Market Street, Chattanooga, Tennessee; 423-265-4615) was, I’d heard, the hip choice. It’s not a chain or trying to look like one, and I was hoping a glow of humanity might be found there. I should have been more careful what I wished for. It smelled like the morning after a frat party, and, sitting at the end of the bar, I was able to peer into a kitchen stocked with thoroughly bored-looking 17-year-old kids, all projecting a “Take This Job and Shove It” vibe. I scanned the menu but couldn’t find even an iota of promise. Having heard this was a primo beer destination, I checked the tap selection. Nothing. I looked over the bottles, hoping they might stock Hair of the Dog beer from Oregon (my favorite American brand), if only for the eponymy. They didn’t. I left.

Figuring I’d stop beating and start joining, I climbed to the rooftop bar of a glowing yuppie Mexican restaurant. Downstairs was deserted, but the loud music signaled that upstairs was hopping. Hey, even if the food was no good, I’d surely have a rollicking good time drinking and making friends!

Up the dark, spongy steps I climbed, into some designer’s cynical rendering of can’t-fail magnetic fun. The rooftop bar was populated by two dozen utterly blasé customers at comic odds with the stylized cantina décor. Eager to make this work, I sidled up to the bar and asked if they had any Mezcal. “No, we sure don’t,” replied the bartender. So I asked for a shot of dark tequila, chilled. He came back clutching two repugnant, fake bottles, one costing $11/shot, the other $12. I recall one brand as being YGS (“Yuppie Gringo Scum”), but I may have just imagined that.

I told the bartender I’d think about it and escaped down the back stairs, which took me through several levels of manipulatively fun—albeit deserted—dining rooms, and out into the street, where, in my hunger and anxiety, I started babbling aloud:

“I just need a nice salad. A nice little salad would be nice. I’ve just GOT to be able to find a decent salad somewhere, no? That’s not asking too much. It doesn’t even need to be good. I’ll find a salad. Where can I get just a NICE SALAD?”

The answer: nowhere. I wandered around for another hour (I had, at this point, been walking literally all night), peering at menus, trying to find a place serving a simple salad. You may doubt my word on this, but I assure you it’s true: There is no salad in downtown Chattanooga that does not feature cheese as a main ingredient.

As a bail-out move, I decided to duck into Big River Grille and Brewing Works (222 Broad Street, Chattanooga, Tennessee; 423-267-2739), the massive, overbearing, unbelievably contrived brewpub I’d earlier attempted to Photoshop off my chowscape. They had some hand-pumped beers—a good sign—and I ordered an IPA, which was the single worst, most insipid hand-pumped grog I’d ever quaffed (the beer-delivery lines have surely never been cleaned). I asked for a food menu, which you can see below. It seems at first a fairly normal, straight-ahead list of pubby items, but I defy you to find something decent-sounding that does not have cheese 1. melted over it or 2. cubed into it. Print it out and give it to your kids for hours of fun playing “spot the cheese.”

Mind you, I’m not anti-cheese. But I do expect at least a few cheeseless items on a given menu. Is that unreasonable?

I ordered the only two minimally edible-sounding uncheesed items I could find: vegetable of the day and french fries. The bartender nearly choked, but dutifully brought me 1. a dish of overcooked, puckering sugar snap peas, and 2. some cold, wooden (but once pretty good, I think) french fries. I braced myself for him to ask if I’d like some cheese sprinkled on that (he did not). And, strange though it sounds, I’m positive this was the best I could have done in downtown Chattanooga. I scored. A real chowhounding triumph. High five, y’all.

I continued to do best-under-the-circumstances by catching the late show of the only good movie playing at the crowded multiplex (The Illusionist), in a completely empty theater. I munched the only good candy in the concession stand (Mighty Malts, better than Whoppers and nearly as good as British Maltesers), though the counter girl hadn’t heard of it, and had to be guided to its location.

Quality seems unprized in Chattanooga. As if to highlight my unsuitability for this town, two young fellows in a pickup truck tried to run me down as I crossed (with right of way) an intersection after coming out of the theater. I glanced back as their front fender brushed the back of my pant leg, and they were laughing.

From “Top” to Bottom

From “Top” to Bottom

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Cutbacks at Copia

Copia, the American Center for Wine, Food & the Arts, is cutting back—laying off a third of its staff and planning to sell five acres of land in order to address its debt situation.

The San Francisco Chronicle reports that the five-year-old Napa-based nonprofit first envisioned by Robert and Margrit Biever Mondavi is struggling under the combined weight of debt from a $70 million bond and revenue shortfall. By eliminating 25 jobs and selling off the land, Copia president Arthur Jacobus hopes to reduce the debt to a more manageable level.

Copia, whose mission is to “explore, celebrate and share the many pleasures and benefits of wine, its relationship to food and its significance to our culture,” offers wine and food tastings, dining, shopping, garden visits, and cultural events—art exhibitions, film screenings, lectures, and concerts.

A more detailed article in local newspaper The St. Helena Star has the specifics of what these cutbacks will look like—exhibition space converted for conference rental, a greater focus on wine and less on art, and a chunk of land sold to a developer with plans to build a hotel and “shopping village.” All this done to stave off “near-financial collapse.”

“For all the wonderful things we’ve accomplished in the past year, we’ve been economically unsustainable,” Jacobus said.

Wine website points out that Copia is not the only wine education center to deal with financial woes. Both the National Wine Centre of Australia, in Adelaide, and Vinopolis, in London, have faced their share of struggles.

Could it be that most people prefer their wine with cheese and crackers, hold the education?

Behold, the Bean

It’s all about the buzz this morning as Los Angeles wakes up to a high-end package of coffee stories, courtesy of the L.A. Times. From choosing it, brewing it, and drinking it, to cooking with it and the history of its connoisseurship, the Times writers have got it all covered. They’ve produced what amounts to a clip ‘n’ save primer for the wannabe coffee highbrow.

You want in-depth coffee reporting? You’ve got it:

The fact is, strong black coffee served in tiny cups is typical of a belt extending from Spain to Hungary by way of Italy and Austria. Elsewhere in Europe, people prefer weaker drip coffee served in big cups with sugar and cream. Coffee historian Ian Bersten suggests this reflects the division between wine-drinking and beer-drinking Europe—wine being strongly flavored and served in glasses while beer is mild and served in mugs.

Whew. I feel like I just went through the 40-hour barista training program at Starbucks.

What I need now is an espresso martini.

Catch ‘Em Early

If kids haven’t developed a taste for wholesome, yummy food by kindergarten, will they be cursed with McPalates for the rest of their days? Recent news articles and blog discussions say the answer is most likely yes.

A thoughtful post by Kate of Accidental Hedonist ponders what it takes to catapult a person into a life of considered food choices—but some readers argue that nothing can convince the masses to choose their chow more wisely. “[Health-focused lunchroom chef] Ann Cooper’s experiences in Berkeley [public schools] suggest our eating preferences are set pretty firmly early in life,” writes AH visitor Nicholas Caratzas, alluding to the fact that kids often turn up their noses at the wholesome options. Meanwhile, some parents reinforce their progeny’s unhealthy preferences: As a recent New York Times article reported, two British mothers, worried about their children’s refusal to eat anything on the school cafeteria’s newly healthified menu, began selling banned fast-food items to students just outside the campus. These “meat pie mums” and their kids won’t likely be swayed by arguments for local and organic foods, writes Caratzas. And forget the older folks: “Working on anybody past grade school is going to be tough.”

Granted, childhood comfort dishes hold a special place in people’s culinary memories, meaning that a kid who grew up on Big Macs might have a soft spot for greasy drive-thru burgers. Still, plenty of people—like me, for example—have emerged from childhoods fueled by TV dinners, canned fruit, sugary cereals, and iceberg lettuce to become fully food-aware adults. Growing up, I would have been just as loath to give up my lunchroom pizza as those British kids were to forgo their fries; my food awakening didn’t come until my first year of college (it was triggered by a burgeoning awareness of environmental issues and was spurred on by a year of study in France). So I sometimes wonder whether I would have rebelled against the sustainable-food philosophy if it had been imposed on me earlier in life. (I certainly know adult candyholics who weren’t allowed any sugar as kids.)

How did you develop your interest in food? Did that interest coincide with an awareness of health/environmental issues, or was it strictly about deliciousness? A little of both?

Chicago’s (Haute) Soup Kitchen

Three cheers for “Soul-Soothing Soups,” a surprisingly heartwarming story in Food & Wine that details the work of a skilled soup maker with a heart of gold.

Taking care of the needy is a mitzvah, but doing so in a way that affirms their essential human dignity is doubly terrific. Chicago’s Mary Ellen Diaz makes soups that are good enough for the city’s best restaurants but uses them to feed 400 homeless people each week.

Stories about inspiring do-gooders have a tendency to melt down into a goopy mass of platitudes and shopworn clichés, but this particular story elegantly eludes those traps by sticking to the facts … and the food.

‘Last year we made a lot of Cajun food to feed displaced victims of Hurricane Katrina. We also get a lot of requests for food with Latin flavors, dishes that might use tortillas. Smothered pork chops are really popular. A pot of greens is definitely a big thing, because most people on the street don’t have access to farm-fresh produce. It’s interesting: A lot of our clientele grew up in rural communities, and they know more about growing fruit and vegetables than I do. They ask really specific questions about the soil and the farming methods.’

It’s easy to say that one person can’t really make a meaningful difference, which discourages taking personal
action. And it’s also easy to so over-celebrate community activists that they ascend to a seemingly unattainable saint-like plateau—which also discourages personal action. “Soul-Soothing Soups” keeps it real, and it’s difficult to read without thinking, “Well, dammit. What can I do?”

The Hunger

Some people like to think about food a lot. We call them foodies, or chowhounds. There are also those who spend a lot of mental energy on food, but not because they are gourmands. Instead they obsess about getting the most nutrition from the smallest amount of calories.

The Calorie Restriction movement posits that we can live an extra 50 years under one condition: We have to rigorously limit the amount of calories we eat.

Journalist Julian Dibbell gonzos it up by joining the CR movement for two months (during which he loses 20 pounds and learns what it’s like to go to bed hungry every night). His report in this week’s New York magazine is a riveting peek into the movement and its practitioners. Built around the meal he shares with some of Calorie Restriction’s most charismatic adherents, the piece does make a startling case for the benefits. But it also shows the warping effects of years of near starvation:

At which point Michael, having finished his helping of asparagus and Quorn, picks up his plate without a word and does what any normal person who has not eaten a truly filling meal in years would do: He holds the plate up to his face and commences licking it clean.

Mutton With Kick, and More at Hunan’s Restaurant

Hunanese food can educate you about what salty really is. The food in Hunan province is known in China for being super salty. Still, if you steer clear of the eggplant and ground pork with pickled vegetables at Hunan’s Restaurant, you’ll probably be fine, says pleasurepalate, who highly recommends toss-fried mutton with cilantro–the mutton is actually tender and although it doesn’t seem very spicy, it has a sneaky kick.

Toss-fried chicken with hot sauce is a perfect marriage of heat, texture, and flavor. Steamed Hunan style spicy fresh fish comes whole, and the sauce complements the moist, delicate flesh rather than overwhelming it.

modernist agrees; everything is really tasty here. The absolute tops is fish head with chiles; also great are lamb with cumin, and winter melon with salty egg.

Shrimp with green beans is bland though, and three-flavored dumplings are beyond bland.

Hunan’s Restaurant [San Gabriel Valley]
903 W. Valley Blvd., Alhambra

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Hunan’s Restaurant in Alhambra (review with photolink)

Giovanni’s Gnocchi Champion

If nothing else, you’ve got to admire Giovanni’s for standing up for gnocchi. Not that it’s gotten a bad rap, exactly; it’s just that the Florentine dish is often overlooked in our pasta- and pizza-focused world, say the folks at Giovanni. Hence, the menu features a “gnocchi bar.”

This place is just a few months old; PattiB reveals that it’s owned by the longtime owner of Vittorio, in Pacific Palisades. The restaurant has a clean, uncluttered look, generous portions and reasonable prices. Risotto with prawns, a special recently, is very good; also delish are zucchini fritti.

Giovanni’s Italian Restaurant and Pizzeria [North Beaches]
22235 Pacific Coast Hwy., Malibu

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Giovanni’s Italian Restaurant–Malibu


The kind of heavy, old-school German food that Schroeder’s specializes in is not something you would want to eat every day, but sometimes your soul needs Schweine Hoxen and goose liver pate. For those times, you are advised to report to Schroeder’s.

KK likes their Schweine Hoxen, or “pig’s knuckles,” basically a whole pig’s foreleg cooked beautifully with all the tendons intact. It’s fun, huge, and meaty, says Robert Lauriston. The sausages are also excellent–the Kielbasa is especially superb, which probably has something to do with the fact that the chef is Polish. They serve Pinkelwurst, a sausage of pork fat, beef fat, onions, oat groats, and spices. Goose liver pate is tasty, as is roast duck. They also pour giant servings of excellent German beer on tap.

Schroeder’s Cafe [Financial District]
240 Front St., San Francisco
415-421 4778

Board Links
Schroeder’s Update? Pinkelwurst on Nov 10th