Out and About: The Barbeque Exchange (Gordonsville, VA)

I have been hearing about The Barbeque Exchange since I moved to Charlottesville. People swear by it; they order it for every occasion (weddings, board meeting, 4th of July….). Barbecue is a somewhat new culinary experience for me – the pulled pork, the brisket, the pulled chicken and turkey, the decadent mac and cheese, the hash browns – came into my life a bit late, but I have made up for lost time. I think our noses and growling stomachs brought us to Gordonsville, Virginia, home of what is said to be the best bbq on the planet (or at least Central Virginia).

photo 9This eatery is a hidden gem. It’s quaint, unassuming and perfectly homey. The day we ventured out to Gordonsville was a hot, humid morning (typical weather of Central Virginia summers), windows down, nobody but us on the road. We pulled in the crowded parking lot, entered the establishment and were immediately hit with the spicy and sweet smell of bbq seasoning, melted cheese and a variety of hearty desserts. A line formed and we waited for what felt like a lifetime.

I have asked friends and no matter what time you choose to eat at The Barbeque Exchange, you will find crowds waiting to sink their teeth into some prime seasoned meat. Chef Craig Hartman (winner of the 2014 Best Of C-VILLE : Chef) does it the right way: old school, slow-cooked bbq. BBQ Exchange won the 2014 Best Of C-VILLE: BBQ.

I went for the classic: pulled pork with seasoned fries and a side of mac and cheese.

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Served in a soft and sweet bun, the meat melted in my mouth: perfectly cooked and seasoned. It was like butter. Now, I am a french fries freak and these were one of the best seasoned fries I have ever tasted.

photo 8Look at that beauty. The sauces can make anyone happy: Hog Fire if you dare eating fire (Francesco tried it and lived to tell the tale); Colonel Bacon, the original sauce (it includes bacon!); Craig’s Carolina, vinegar based and pretty representative of the North Carolina sauces (so they say); QX Sweet, Kansas style spicy and sweet and Soo-eet, Memphis style with molasses and onions. There is really something for everyone. I went with Craig’s Carolina for a more subtle kick.

photo7There was not much left, obviously. The Mac and Cheese held its own, perfect gooyie consistency. Overall, excellent experience. Fantastic food. It’s not going to take much for us to go back and try new things.

Out and About: 5 days in Madrid

Excuse the blog silence, but I had a lot of eating and culturing to do in Madrid. What a city! I was somewhat familiar with the lifestyle, the cuisine (both similar to my own), but, boy, this trip was a wake-up call. In between tapas, paellas, jamon Iberico, strolls in Plaza Santa Ana and breathtaking museum exhibits, I found myself again. Sure, trips to dynamic, metropolitan capitals would tend to make anyone think about his or her own existence, but somehow, it was different this time.

My daily life has become a monotonous ritual: home – work – home. Detours are rare. Not good. In Madrid, and that’s true for Italy as well, people take their free time seriously. Every afternoon/evening on our trip, people were out and about, sipping sangria, a cold cerveza, and enjoyed each other’s company. In Madrid, life is centered on living, and I mean…really living. I promised myself I would take note and start throwing some curve balls to my daily routine; nothing fancy, but just enough to feel more alive: a stroll in our gorgeous neighborhood alongside Francesco, a late dinner with dancing, a relaxing afternoon my the waterfall in our backyard. Simple things.

We landed in Madrid early Saturday and took the metro to the city’s bustling downtown district, where our hotel was located. We dropped off our luggage and hopped with excitement down the street. This was the first trip Francesco and I took by ourselves in a long time and I wanted to savor every little piece of it. The photo below was taken at Plaza del Sol, where Madrid’s official code of arms is represented with a larger than life statue.

simbolo

We decided to start our tour at one of Madrid’s most famous plazas: Plaza Mayor. The public square had many different uses throughout history including being the location for public executions during the Spanish Inquisition.

Plaza_mayor

It’s a stunning spectacle of architecture, culture and history and a center of life for Madrilenos to this day. I am a history nerd, so I stopped to inhale every scent, every sight and sound of that plaza. Much of our trip was punctuated by historical monuments and architectural brilliance, but I would be lying if I said food played no role. In fact, it was our companion day and night. Jet legged and famished, Francesco and I made our move: we had heard about this great indoor market where we could find delicious treats. Here enters Mercado San Miguel, an incredible mix of tourists and townspeople looking for the best lunch or snack in town.

Mercado_sanMiguel

The sight as we entered…and we thought that Madrid was already near and dear to our heats. Jamon Iberico was everywhere we turned. The smell of smoked and cured meat was so enticing, it literally accelerated our hunger to the point that at 11am, we decided to just go with it and eat everything we felt like.

mercado_prosciutto

Our first meal in Madrid consisted of this: The famous and utterly mouth watering jamon iberico with Manchego cheese served in a crunchy baguette. We could not have been happier to have discovered such a gem. The deal with cured meat is simple: growing up in Italy, one has unobstructed access to prosciutto (cotto or crudo), mortadella, bresaola, salame, coppa, pancetta, and the list goes on and on. But when one leaves Italy and moves to the United States, one realizes that the same quality products are really hard to find…hence, our ridiculous exuberance at the first taste of the jamon.

panino

But when you are in Spain, it would be an inexcusable miss to avoid paella entirely. See, when I was a teenager, my parents bought a motor home that allowed us to travel through Europe during the summer months. One year, we ventured westward and trekked along the Spanish coast from Barcelona to Tenerife (unbelievable and unforgettable trip). At one of our very first stops, mom, dad, brother and I dove into big portions of paella, which turns out to be one of my favorite dishes in the world. Of course, I was not going to let this one go by.

paella_mercado

It is not a joke when I say I would have eaten the entire pan, but alas, the tapas size (about 2 cups) was perfect to satiate my delirious appetite. Francesco and I looked at each other and we knew we had found El Dorado. The city itself was dynamic, loud, cultured and it was all represented in its architecture, a mixture of styles that assembled together clearly resembled its essence. We walked for miles and miles, but never once thought of us as tired or exhausted. The sky was clear, the sun shined, our belly were full and our hearts really were close to explosion.

luna

architecture

Dinner usually happened no earlier than 8pm and included some sort of meat or its derivatives. Our first night, we opted for the traditional tapas in the beautiful Plaza Santa Ana, a quick walk from our hotel. We sat with our city guide book and took it all in: slices of jamon Iberico, slices of Manchego cheese and my personal favorite: croquetas de jamon, fried potato dumplings with cheese and diced jamon.

dinner_firstnight

We had heard that the most traditional, oldest and authentic restaurants in Madrid were in the cuevas, underground caves that were converted into restaurants. By walking through Plaza Mayor, we stumbled into this cueva gem: Restaurante Las Cuevas de Luis Candelas, founded in 1949. According to its history, the restaurant is named after Luis Candela, a legendary bandit that is said to have robbed the rich to give to the poor.

cuevas_lantern

The restaurant was literally carved out in the underbelly of Madrid. An incredible experience. Sure, the cuevas were more expensive than every restaurant we tried, but the sensory experience was enough to make that hefty bill be legitimate and worth it.

cuevas_architecture

Although this restaurant is known for its roasted suckling pig or Madrid stew, Francesco and I went traditional tapas again. Almost every night, our dinner looked like this:

cuevas_cena

Even breakfast was a meal to take seriously. The very last day, we told ourselves we deserved a treat, from start to finish. It turns out, Madrid’s preferred desayuno is chocolate with churros. The chocolate is not the typical American hot chocolate, but it’s much similar to what my mom used to make us kids on dark and cold winter nights: tick, bitter dark chocolate with just a hint of milk to make it drinkable. I dunked my churros, fried pastry, into the chocolate over and over again. After “drinking” that beverage, I needed a cold bottle of water. It was so insanely delicious.

colazione

For lunch, we didn’t even try finding a little restaurant, but went directly to Mercado San Miguel, where we feasted on paella, jamon Iberico, Manchego cheese and what closely resembled small salami. We ate more jamon in this trip than I can honestly reveal, but let’s just say that I am perfectly OK with not eating it for a while.

lunch_mercado

For dinner, we asked for recommendations and we ended up eating one exquisite meal – meat paella full of chicken, lamb, beef with a mountain of bell peppers, peas and mushrooms. I even drank an alcoholic digestif! Cream of chocolate with cherries. I went to bed happy.

paella_cena

This trip has taught me not to take life so seriously. Enjoy the good, the bad and the in-between, because all we experience makes us that much richer. Hasta luego Madrid, we’ll see you soon!

noi

Out and About: Blue Moon Diner in Charlottesville

There are so many little secrets in Charlottesville. The Blue Moon Diner, a rock-and-roll eatery, is certainly one of them. Located on West Main Street, the largest artery in town, this one-of-a-kind diner is an institution. We’ve dined there for brunch, lunch and dinner and it has never disappointed our hungry mouths. The best thing is that it’s only a 3-minute walk from our apartment.

Aside from the Elvis-inspired decor, which is honestly the best I’ve seen around, the Blue Moon Diner’s food is the talk of the town. Sure, pretty amazing musicians grace the “stage” (more like a corner between two benches) on a weekly basis, and CLAW found its official home, they even have pancakes with faces on them! (Rainn Wilson, for example) but, again, the food is what it is all about. Hearty. Local. Simple. Perfect.

So, this time around, we chose brunch. Something Francesco and I love to do is wake up late on Sunday morning, take a quick shower and walk to Blue Moon. No matter what you get: “Huevos Bluemoonos ,” blueberry pancakes, meatloaf, any of the burgers platters, eggs any way you want, it’s always a solid bet. It’s going to taste good. On this day, I chose my own omelet with feta cheese, spinach and bacon. Delicious. It is served with house potatoes and a drink of your choice…hot tea for this girl.

And let’s spend a minute to discuss service. Servers are cool, fast and genuinely nice. Hearty brunch, good service and  fun decor. All things that point to a winner.

The Weekend List 11/27/11

The week of Thanksgiving is always a strange one, working wise. But this year, we had the incredible treat of being guests at Emily’s parent’s house for turkey day. Amazing. Lots of family, lots of love and of course, lots of food and two words: glow sticks.

–An intriguing article by Thomas Madrecki in The Atlantic about working for six weeks in the kitchen of the world’s best restaurant, NOMA. Located in Copenhagen, Denmark, NOMA voted voted the best two years in a row. In our recent trip to Copenhagen, not being able to dine at NOMA is my only regret. Excuse to go back? I particularly like this passage:

At Noma and at other top restaurants, anything but striving for complete and total perfection is a disgrace. And to be frank, it is still a disgrace even outside of those top kitchens. The lesson here is just as simple as having a sense of urgency: Don’t bother doing anything but your best. Don’t half-ass anything. It’s either perfect — or it’s not.

Led by chef Rene Pedzepi, NOMA perfects Nordic gourmet cuisine while keeping the traditional cooking methods of the region. A reviewer from Scotland had this to say about the restaurant. “I could very quickly run out of superlatives attempting to describe our meal experience at Noma! For me, it was quite simply the best meal I have ever eaten.” Not too shabby.

Buttz BBQ in Charlottesville. I knew the restaurant existed and I knew about its reputation around town—and was the runner-up of C-VILLE Weekly’s BBQ contest, but I never actually took the time to go to The Corner district and try it out. Big mistake. The pulled pork platted was the best I’ve ever had: the right amount of juiciness and spice with a nice and lasting smoky flavor. I am not lover of super spicy foods, so I went with their Texas BBQ sauce, a sweet addition to my already delicious pork. After reading the owners’ explanation of their product, I like them even more.

We aren’t pros… just guys that love BBQ.  We are not your traditional Memphis, Texas, North Carolina or Kansas City BBQ.  In fact, we’ve combined the best of all regions into OUR BBQ.

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–Currently on my nightstand: Tender at the bone by Ruth Reichl. I giddily enjoyed Reichl’s Garlic and Sapphires – the trials and tribulations of a food critic, so I didn’t think twice about picking this up. It’s so fascinating to read of Reichl’s difficult relationship with her mother (The Queen of Mold),  her early encounter with French gourmet cuisine via a classmate in Montreal, Canada and her escapades (which somehow end up being  always food related)  as a summer camp counselor in the French countryside. Can’t wait to read on.

Bon Appetit magazine cookie spread. It’s so unbelievably amazing. This particular page is of Peppermint meringues and cardamon crescents, but the spread includes Cherry pistachio nougat, chocolate macaroons with orange ganache, almond-oat lace cookies, butterscotch blondie bars, lemony slice-and-bakes, and chewy ginger cookies. I have plenty to choose from for this year’s Cookie Exchange!

Out and About: Copenhagen, Denmark

One of Francesco’s conferences brought us to Copenhagen, Denmark. I have been there once before, when I was young…with my parents and brother in our beloved motor home…ah, the memories! We landed early on a Friday morning and it only took us 20 minutes to get to our hotel. At 8:30am, jetlegged, tired, hungry and grumpy, we were told that our room would be ready at 2pm. So, we began walking. We walked up and down the Nyhavn Canal, to and from the famous Little Mermaid Statue, Amelienborg Slot, the Royal Residence, and just wondered through Copenhagen’s splendid little alleys, streets and gardens.

Of course, our guide became our best friends…we took it everywhere, read it while waiting for lunch or dinner.

It seemed fitting that our first dinner would be on the Canal, at Nyhavn 17 Cafe’ – the setting was pure entertainment: We sat on the outdoor patio, smack in the center of the bustling pedestrian street. It wasn’t warm by any means, but the Danish are so genius…for every table, they had a fleece blanket and better yet, a Carlsberg fleece blanket.

I made a promise to myself that I would try seafood dishes and I did. My first Copenhagen entree was fish cakes with boiled potatoes and asparagus. Delicious. Much better than crab cakes. Slam dunk on the first night. Booya!

Francesco, who doesn’t even want to consider seafood, went with a chicken sandwich with bacon and potatoes. Oh, and fries of course! Eating on the canal was the perfect people watching exercise. People from all over the world, walking, drinking beer, laughing. I could finally feel the European air filling up my lungs and for a moment I imagined myself living there.

Of course, when in Denmark eat what the Danish do best…Danishes! I found one of the most renowned, and best, bakeries in Denmark and I did a little damage…2 danishes, 1 chocolate croissant at Lagkagehuset. I mean, look at these beauties!

Here are some photos from out trip. Enjoy!

Guards at the Royal Residence.

Us at Tivoli.

Our lunch at Cafe Ultimo in the Tivoli gardens.

Copenhagen’s architecture was impressive. Amidst medieval alleys with classically built buildings, there are these ultramodern structures that highlight this city’s impeccable aesthetic. Case in point, the fantastic Opera House and Royal Theater.

This is the Opera House, whose biggest auditorium was apparently built in the shape of a heart to signify the love of music. Genius.

And this is the Royal Theater with adjoining sandy park (built for the Copenhagen Design Week).

Out and About: Ambrosia Bakery and Blue Ridge Pig BBQ

What began as a leisure hiking and blackberry picking weekend morning trip turned out to be an unexpected, wild adventure. Sunday morning, 8am, Bradley, Wesley and I left Charlottesville for Crabtree Falls for an easy hike to awake the dormant soul. Crabtree Falls are arguably the most scenic falls in Virginia, at least that’s what I have head, because I wimped out and waited for my partners in crime at the bottom of the hill. I am scared of heights and I got to the point where my knees started shaking, my heartbeat accelerated, sweat dripping from my forehead…in short, I was a mess.

In my defense, did you read the sign????? Twenty three people have died hiking to the falls. In my mind, there was danger at every turn. I gladly settled on terra ferma, camera in hand and all of a sudden very happy to be alive. I am exaggerating, of course. (Maybe just a little). On a positive note, during my time perusing the earth for some photo-worthy creature, I met a chatterbox of a park ranger, who informed me that millipedes had recently been spotted around those woods. Not bears, not jaguars, not mountain lions. Millipedes. I could hardly contain my excitement. (I did not find a single millipede, to my disappointment).

My brave buddies, who reached the falls and graciously vowed not to make fun of me for bowing out and run to the bottom.

Before the pseudo-hike, we trekked down Route 151 and found the unassuming, hole-in-the-wall Ambrosia Bakery & Deli. What a surprise! We caffeinated our bodies with coffee and tea and went straight to the bakery counter adorned with blueberry tarts, spinach and feta croissants, apple turnovers and many other incredible desserts.

As soon as my eyes found big, round cookies, I was lost. The best chocolate chip cookies I have ever had: hearty, crunchy and at the same time soft and sweet. Did you know that chocolate chip cookies were actually discovered by accident? Who knew! Apparently, Ruth Graves Wakefield, owner and founder of Toll House Cookies, was baking her favorite butter and chocolate cookies when she substituted a chocolate she cut up into cubes, to her usual dark baker’s chocolate.

This is Wesley’s breakfast, a sizable cinnamon twist with a sweet, creamy sauce. When served hot, the enticing aroma is very hard to resist.

And this is my breakfast of champions. There was really no escaping the chocolate chunks of all shapes and sizes.

Our hike, or I should say my freak out, run us very low in calories, hence our next stop. Right next to Ambrosia Bakery & Deli on Route 151 rests one of the best BBQ places in Central Virginia. I say that without a sheer of doubt, since the newspaper that employs me, said so. In July, C-VILLE Weekly hosted a BBQ contest complete with official judges, photos and prizes. It turns out, Blue Ridge Pig stands out above … almost all the rest. The judges found it just as appetizing as Barbeque Exchange in Gordonsville.

One judge called Blue Ridge Pig “clearly superior.” Now, I haven’t yet tried Barbeque Exchange, but the competition gave me a neat idea. I want to chronicle, and eat my way through the BBQ pits of Central Virginia. Blue Ridge Pig was my first victim.

When I thought about a hole-in-a-wall, I had a faint idea of what that would actually look like. When I stepped into Blue Ridge Pig, I thought I entered a far away galaxy. Nothing I was looking at seemed familiar, but everything smelled divine. Sheets of paper and business cards covered the tiny restaurant wall to wall and pigs in all shapes and forms (stuffed animals, lamp stands) adorned the space. It was a magical place and the meat did not disappoint.

We ordered a beef BBQ sandwich on a kaiser roll, split it in three and dove in. The smokiness hits my palate first, then the vinegar-based sauce and, last, the cabbage. It wasn’t what I thought it would be. It was better, much better. The meat was perfectly cooked, sweet, juicy, it melted in my mouth. Even after a good 30 minutes, the smoky flavor still lingered in my mouth. Definitely a welcome companion.

And look at this turkey sandwich, one of Bradley’s favorites. A sweet and refreshing dill mayo rounded up the distinct flavor of turkey. All in all, this joint really deserves national headlines.

Next time, I take Francesco with me. They even have his favorite, beef brisket.

New York Magazine gives thumbs up to Peter Chang’s China Grill

{Image: New York Magazine}

Peter Chang’s China Grill (which has won over my taste buds not once, but twice) has finally made headlines, big, thick headlines in one of the most important cities for foodies: NYC. Grub Street of New York Magazine has named the local restaurant among “Food Treks Worth Taking This Summer.”

May I recommend the braised short ribs? Or the shallots bubble pancakes? You won’t be sorry. I promise.

After this accolade, the disappearing chef may just stick around for a while.