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Disappointment in Lexington, Triumph in Roanoke

Lexington, Virginia

Among the many features of Eartha, my GPS navigating assistant, is the ability to list nearby restaurants wherever I am. So as I drove the bleak stretch of Route 81 into Roanoke and learned (via cell phone) that the restaurant I’d hoped to try, the Homeplace Restaurant (4968 Catawba Valley Drive, Catawba, Virginia; 540-384-7252), is closed Mondays through Wednesdays, I let Eartha smoke out some local places I was speeding past.

As I approached the exit for Lexington, Virginia, Eartha informed me that the Southern Inn Restaurant (37 South Main Street, Lexington, Virginia; 540-463-3612) was just a few miles away. The name intrigued. Out here in the sticks, Southern Inn was sure to be a lively down-home treat.

To my surprise, I pulled up to a striking bistro serving pricey New American Cuisine.

I did not have a good feeling about the place, but it was late, and, loath to be a reverse snob, I went in and ordered a $7.45 Asian pear salad (baby field greens, local Asian pears, toasted pecans, shaved red onions, chevre cheese [sic] tossed with roasted shallot vinaigrette) and a $12.25 grilled salmon sandwich (grilled salmon fillet served on a homemade garlic-dill bagel with bacon, lettuce, tomato, and herb aioli, accompanied by homemade potato chips and country cole slaw).

You know how in big cities many young chefs cook like clones, having been indoctrinated into the standard cooking school procedures? While their work is never very personal, and usually a bit pretentious and soulless, it’s at least competent, because, after all, they went to cooking school.

The cooking at this place had all those negatives, plus it lacked competency. Every bite was utterly lifeless and rife with errors. And if I never see another homemade garlic-dill bagel in my life, that would suit me quite well.


The Lexington Catastrophe wasn’t a streak-ender, because the place had triggered no positive vibe whatever. I only dined there out of morbid curiosity. Rattled nonetheless, the next day I was pleased to find my chow-dar unaffected.

The food court in Roanoke Market, with its fake Chinese booth, fake pizza booth, et al., seems pretty lame. Yet my antennae were twitching, and I eventually found myself at a greasy, untitled burger stand tucked at the end of an otherwise flashy row of concessions. Burger in the Square (32 Market Square SE, Roanoke, Virginia; 540-982-1639) makes fantastic, memorable crunchy old-fashioned hamburgers, and fine waffle fries.

I stayed at the Doubletree Hotel Roanoke & Conference Center, formerly a grand independent hotel that’s only been improved by the addition of warm chocolate chip cookies at the front desk (the chowhoundish signature of all Doubletree hotels). Build in 1882, it’s got loads of personality.

One secret of the South is that the $150 price of a blah hotel room in Boston or San Francisco can buy you a room at the best hotel down here in towns like Roanoke. To digress further, the reign of the big hotel reservation sites like Expedia and Orbitz is over. You can no longer book rooms more cheaply than at the hotel’s own sites, so they’re no longer worth the surcharges and stricter cancellation terms.

One exception is Priceline, which, in addition to their scary bidding system, offers straight-ahead discounted reservations for named hotels in many cities. If you work really hard, though, you can still ferret out bargains. For example, I booked a highly discounted room at the execrable Trump Marina in hellish Atlantic City via a shadowy bulk discount operation called Access Atlantic City.

Roanoke is halfway between New York and Atlanta. So at this point I can say I’ve really traveled. Tomorrow, I look forward to a nice long ride on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Absinthe Will Get You in Trouble

Absinthe Will Get You in Trouble

Absinthe has a pretty elaborate set-up, which is part of the fun. The fact that real absinthe is illegal is beside the point. READ MORE

Cold Drippy Sweet

Cold Drippy Sweet

Celebrate the last sundae of the season. READ MORE

McMorning Now to Span Length of Entire McDay

In an announcement sure to be ignored by purveyors and consumers of fine food everywhere, McDonald’s has announced that it may soon offer its breakfast menu all day long.

And while it’s easy for readers of The Art of Eating and Saveur to ignore this sort of news, that doesn’t make it any less earth shattering for the estimated 300 trillion Americans who depend on McDonald’s for at least one of their daily meals on a regular basis.

The extension of breakfast menu hours could have important implications for McDonald’s specifically and fast food in general; it was the aggressive relaunching and rebranding of McDonald’s breakfast offerings—anchored by stronger coffee and McGriddles—that put the fast-food purveyor back on the road to fiscal health in 2003. Anyone who counted the original fast-food giant out after Super Size Me had better start revising their predictions.

(McGriddles, for those not in the know, are actually very delicious, if you enjoy eating a greasy hockey puck for breakfast. Which is actually better than it sounds.)

Build Your Own Burrito Bar

Build Your Own Burrito Bar

Bring your local taqueria home, dress it up, and throw it a party. READ MORE

Can Super Marketing Save the Grocery Store?

The New York Times today takes a look at traditional supermarkets (requires registration), which, despite embracing technology, are losing ground to upstart rivals. We’d all like a clean, well-lighted place to shop, but do we really need to buy our food in a store that looks like an art gallery?

In that spirit, the Times’ Julia Moskin writes about eschewing Whole Foods for her neighborhood supermarket:

I embraced the assignment of learning to love my supermarket: grimy aisles, shelves of overprocessed food and all.

Maybe the Times is cutting salaries.

She managed, though, to cobble together a list of 13 packaged foods that pass muster. The good news: Some are hidden gems. The bad news: She mostly goes for the pricier offerings. No pasta sauce (a staple for many busy folks) except Rao’s (at the exorbitant price of $11) makes the cut.

For those getting started with their first kitchen, there’s also a nice primer on stocking your pantry.

But the feature’s main focus is analyzing the state of the old-school supermarket, a place where big changes are being made by desperate execs:

In 2003 Safeway began to remake its 1,772 stores into something it termed a lifestyle concept. Perishables and prepared food sections were updated, lights were toned down and wood floors were added in the produce section.

Serious cooks and eaters have always done their gathering in lots of different places, from farmer’s markets to ethnic grocery stores. When it comes to food shopping, bigger isn’t necessarily better.

Got Meat?

The sorry life of the feedlot steer—given a recent high profile in Michael Pollan’s bestseller The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which contrasts the life of a typical cheap-burger-bound animal with those living on pasture in a small, sustainably managed farm—is turning more and more people away from supermarket meat. Today’s San Francisco Chronicle reveals another option: buying a big chunk of cow (particularly one that been grass-fed and humanely raised) direct from the rancher.

It helps to have an extra freezer, since even small farms generally require a half- or quarter-cow purchase, but intrepid city dwellers can always get together with friends and share out the extra pounds. The Chronicle article also has useful info on cooking grass-fed meat (it’s generally leaner and more muscular than typical grain-fed beef, so it can dry out and get tougher faster).

Interested? Check out the listings on Eat Wild for a ranch near you.

America’s Next Top Wino

Striking the gastronomic reality show iron while it’s hot, PBS has gathered 12 purple-lipped contestants who will compete for the opportunity to create and uncork their own wine labels.

Christened Wine Makers and set in Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo, California, the new reality show is set to air next year. An SF article explained that 12 contestants “will experience every aspect of winemaking from viticulture and enology to sales and marketing.” And the winner doesn’t just get drunk, because, according to today’s Media Post article on the subject, “the winning label will be distributed at Whole Foods stores and via”

Honestly? I’m not sure what a prize that really is. Half the time, I can’t even find the wine section at Whole Foods, and when I do, it’s so small and unvarying, I’m almost sorry I even bothered. (Just so that a bunch of Whole Foodies don’t get their backs up, I’m speaking from the experience of one San Diego, two San Francisco, and three Boston Whole Foods stores.)

If couch-judging food that people cannot taste was a hurdle for Top Chef to overcome, getting viewers interested in wine they cannot sniff, sip, or spit could be close to impossible. Of course, there’s always the option to “play along at home” with selections from their personal cellars. I’m also wondering how long it will take the winning oenophile’s special label to actually make it into the market. I mean, I’m not a winemaker by any means, but I thought making wine could take several years. Since the show will be over by then, will the impact be lessened? Will people even remember there was a Public Broadcasting Station wine to look out for?

On the other hand, maybe the show will be a ratings success and the previous year’s winner could promote the launch of their new wine in the following seasons. Unfortunately, as Cooking Under Fire proved, PBS might not have what it takes to stir up a tasty pot of nasty reality stew. Sadly, I think it’s because they are too nice, and nice doesn’t make for good ratings. Just look at this year’s Survivor: Ratings Stunt Island, where just the news of racial divide has people alternately up in arms and salivating for the premiere.

Brined for a Fight

A funny entry about oversalted potato-chip chicken on the Failed Recipes LiveJournal inspired some commenters to muse about just how much of the mineral one person can take. Poster Volkerri describes her boyfriend’s reaction as he begins eating the chicken (before she’s discovered her salty slip-up):

He took his first bite … his lips curled in. His face turned red. He started gulping his drink and running to the kitchen for more. He had his head under the faucet as I rounded the corner. Still flushed, he asked what in the world did I do to that chicken.

Commenter Coercedbynutmeg is moved to ask, “Is your boyfriend a slug? I’m amazed at his reaction to the salt! Unless you used a ton, it shouldn’t have been such a big deal.”

Mr./Ms. Nutmeg has a point: Given the excessive salinity of processed foods these days—which recently led the American Medical Association to declare a war on salt—we’re supposed to have lost that kind of sensitivity. And by the way, AMA, restaurants are apparently just as guilty of oversalting: Together with processed foods, restaurant meals make up almost 80 percent of the sodium in our diet.

Of course it’s not just McDonald’s that likes to salt it up—one of the supposed marks of a true chef is that s/he isn’t scared of liberally sprinkling sodium on everything. A friend of a friend who works in the Chez Panisse kitchen once said that your own cooking will never taste like what you’d get in a restaurant unless you add way more salt than seems appropriate. This trick (along with using tons of other seasonings, and a whopping dose of butter) is what makes lots of restaurant food so delicious. I’m all for reducing the average person’s sodium intake by requiring convenience-food manufacturers to cut back on the stuff, but if the FDA ends up regulating salt content in restaurant food as well, they might just have some angry chefs (with some very flat-tasting dishes) on their hands.

Then again, if processed foods become less salty, eateries could end up cutting back sodium levels in their food to meet changed consumer tastes. Any chefs out there want to share their thoughts?

Champa Laos: Winning Thai Fusion in Cherry Hill, NJ

Champa Laos does elegant, nuanced East-West fusion–which it describes as “Thai-Lao-French”–without sacrificing any robust seasoning, according to our first reports. michelle71 characterizes the flavors as delicate yet complex, and not Americanized in any way.

Red curry duck is a generous bowl of moist meat, prettily arranged in a knockout spicy/sweet sauce, says Markarotti. Other winners: steamed shrimp-chicken dumplings, Le Mae Khong (Chilean sea bass filet stuffed with crab, spinach, and feta, served in tamarind sauce), and deep-flavored house-made mango ice cream, presented over drizzlings of caramel and raspberry sauces. Open since winter, Champa Laos offers a lengthy menu developed by chef Michael Raethong (of Cafe de Laos and Lemongrass in Philadelphia). It comprises curries and other Thai dishes, Lao-influenced stuff like larb and namtok (grilled meat tossed with spices and roasted rice), and such hybrids as char-grilled tenderloin in Pinot Noir reduction and salmon with “Cajun-seasoned” pistachio crust in apricot brandy sauce.

It’s BYOB, so Markarotti adds some wine tips: avoid heavily oaked whites; better matches would be Viognier, Riesling, or Sauvignon Blanc. Among reds, try peppery or spicy varietals such as Shiraz or Zinfandel.

Champa Laos [Camden County]
219 Haddonfield-Berlin Rd., near Brace Rd., at Centrum Shoppes, Cherry Hill, NJ

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Champa-Laos Great New Thai-Laotian-French BYOB in CherryHill NJ