Dispatches from a Hungry Traveler

I don’t know about you, but I’m still reeling from the fried Oreos I ate last week and reported promptly to you. I swear, those things permanently gave me a food lobotomy. I’ve eaten a few things since then, yes; most notably perhaps the cheese grits with crumbled bacon on top that I heaped on my plate at my friend Jill’s Bridesmaid Brunch last Saturday in Georgia. But nothing is really striking my fancy since that marvelous French dip and those gut-busting Oreos passed my lips. It’s sad.

My early fall has been full of some significant travel. In addition to the trip to Athens, GA for Jill’s nuptials this past weekend, I was back in Austin, TX a few weeks ago for some additional work for one of my clients. Both spots offered up some goodies, and since the weather in Upstate NY will be dicey from here on out, maybe you’re considering a mini-break getaway to either Texas Hill Country or the greater Hotlanta area?

First up, because it was such a short stay, let me give a tourism shout-out to Athens, GA. Home of REM, the B-52s and other fun alterna-bands from my misspent youth, Athens also provides the home of the University of Georgia and the infamous Georgia Bulldogs football team. This cool little town is like Ithaca on steroids, with fewer hippies and perhaps a few more hipsters. Leave your patchouli at home, but pack your white belt and skinny jeans. Of course, one of the most famous places to eat in town is The Varsity, which is a frequent stop for the Food Network and Travel Channel shows, and serves up standard burgers, hot dogs, fries and the like with a heavy dose of entertainment and a sprinkling of college football fervor. Don’t try to go near this place on a game weekend, but otherwise, have at it.

I had the pleasure of a lunch at the Five Star Day Café, in downtown Athens, before reporting for duty to Jill’s bridal suite. Holy hannah, this place is pumping out some good, old, classic southern fare! I had fried green tomatoes over a kicky little black-eyed pea salsa with honey mustard dressing. Delicious! Also, I tried the fried chicken breast sandwich on a fresh, homemade, only-in-the-south biscuit. Hmm mmm mm. The counter staff was friendly; the surroundings were hip. If you like Maxie’s Supper Club in Ithaca or Hattie’s in Saratoga, you will love Five Star. And if you’re in town for football or any other reason, I wouldn’t miss it if I were you.

Another notable about Athens? Cake. That’s right. I was at a wedding, so I ate a lot of it. Different flavors! Carrot! Italian cream with raspberry filling! Applenut! Cecelia Vilaveces Cakes are the best in Athens, and my extensive sampling backs this up. I know that as a visitor, you may not wish to procure an entire cake during your time in Athens, but I highly recommend it. It’s really good cake. Moist, light, flavorful without so much richness you can’t finish your slice. That makes it perfect, in my book of sweets. Another recommendation is our hotel, the Hilton Garden Inn in Downtown Athens. On the day we arrived, they were having some staffing troubles, it’s true. Our room was not ready at 5 p.m., and as Shawn and I were already late for the rehearsal dinner, I was not a happy camper. But they totally redeemed themselves the rest of our weekend. The food was very high quality for hotel food, our room was spacious and lovely, the bartender was incredibly gracious about the rowdiness of our group as we took over a lounge area one evening, and it could not be more conveniently located. This is a great base of operations for an Athens eat-a-thon, especially because each room has a mini-fridge, in which you can put your leftover cake from Cecelia’s!

If the Georgia Bulldogs are everything you hate in college football, but hook ‘em horns adorn your man cave, then Austin may be more your flavor for an upcoming escape from the clutches of winter. On my last trip to the city, I had one of the most incredible sushi feasts I have or will ever experience, at Kenichi, which is located downtown, on 5th St. This is a chain, which I’m usually against, but you wouldn’t know it by the chic interior nor the high quality of food and craftsmanship enclosed within. My friend and colleague Courtenay, an Austin native, brought me to this gem, and I am forever indebted. We chose to go with one of the safest bets when eating in an upscale sushi restaurant: sit at the sushi bar and tell the chef to make you whatever he’d like. Chef Garcia took tremendous care of us from the second we sat down, and I can only say that his training in Japan and subsequent practice at Kenichi have paid off big time.

We first started with a couple appetizers, and I let Courtenay pick them, since this was her haunt. She did me proud, and I loved the shitake negimaki and dynamite shrimp. In the negimaki, the tender morsels of beef swam in a small pool of light soy topped with garlic chips and accented with flavorful shitake mushrooms. The shrimp delivered a more powerful kick, with a spiced red sauce, sesame seeds and green onions. Both were terrific and set our taste buds up for the subtle and sophisticated flavors Chef Garcia had in store for us.

It is contractually required that you eat beef in Texas

Our next dish was so pretty, I just want you to gaze at it first:

Basil oil and minced chilis are like art

This was yellowtail tuna with Serrano chilies and basil oil. I confess, up until this point, I’ve been an entry level sushi student. I’ve been eating it for a few years, but have dabbled mainly in rolls or seared fish, mainly featuring either crunchy tempura flakes or spicy mayo. That’s sushi 101 stuff, but since I’ve loved it all so much, I was eager to jump in the deep end and get an education in advanced, raw-fish, full-out Heaven. And boy, was it! This particular dish had no rice in sight, but wasn’t scary in the slightest. The chunks of silky tuna were firm, fresh and flawless, while the spicy chilies and savory-sweet basil oil were a rollercoaster for the tongue. It was a delicious course.

Next up was mackerel with ponzu sauce on thinly sliced cucumber, with a crispy fried fish garnish that was fully edible. This was my favorite. I loved the texture of the mackerel. It had a rougher mouth-feel than the tuna, but was similarly fresh and briney – the citrusy ponzu sauce was another fresh taste, and eaten with the crisp cucumber, this was almost a palette cleanser of a course.

Holy mackerel!

At this point, we were begging the chef for something super spicy. One of the thrills of a great sushi meal is the spice level – a ton of wasabi mixed into soy, or asking for a tuna roll extra-spicy and feeling your mouth burn after each bite and the tiny surge of capsaicin-fueled adrenalin. One of the special features at Kenichi is fresh wasabi that they ship in straight from Japan. It’s spicy but so much fresher tasting than the paste we’re used to – like the difference between fresh jalapenos and Tabasco sauce – so that was a treat. This is what we were treated to after our plea:

Quail egg yolk at 12 o’clock!

Hamachi, salmon and tuna wrapped in cucumber with fire and brimstone sauce! Ok, that probably wasn’t what the sauce was called, but I didn’t write down the ingredients. This roll was so hot, I hiccupped immediately upon swallowing! In the garnish, the red is tiny little caviar and the yellow is a quail egg yolk, which Courtenay and I dipped our subsequent pieces in – YUM! The chef knew he had gotten us and laughed as we gulped our Saporos to distinguish the flames, but despite the heat level in this roll, it was fantastic.

Next up was another palette cleanser, but maybe the prettiest one I’ve ever seen: salmon with sliced strawberries, mango and ponzu. This was light and summery, and even though salmon is not my favorite fish, I loved this offering. It was pure art – a pleasure, and a memorable one.

That’s a pretty sliver of strawberry over a luscious hunk of salmon, with the kick of mango and the light ponzu all around

And then he knocked our socks off again, with escolar, wrapped in cucumber and graced with habernero. Escolar is also yellowtail, and is sometimes called white tuna or butterfish. I loved it. This dish was less spicy than our hamachi and salmon escapade through pleasure and pain, but still packed a punch. The silky fish and fiery chilis were mounded on top of the roll thusly:

Notice that none of these rolls had as much as a grain of rice: a new concept to me. So, even though we were going through plate after plate, we weren’t stuffed. That also meant that in the spicy dishes, there was no expanse of white rice and nori to protect us from the fire. But it was all so sensuous, fun and delicious, I didn’t even notice this fact until we were begging for mercy and finishing up our beers. This was a splendid feast, and I highly recommend going to Kenichi and putting yourself in the capable hands of Chef Garcia if you ever have cause to visit Austin. I easily give this meal a nine out of 10 on the Big Hungry scale, and I’m adding it to my Don’t Miss list for Austin.

I must also add a special note that this visit was during the same trip in which I ate the tuna tartare at the Four Seasons. Well, when Courtenay heard that I liked tuna tartare, she wanted me to have the best in town. So, before we even hit Kenichi, we stopped by Perry’s Steakhouse and Grille for happy hour. And Courtenay proved to me, right there and then, that she knows her fish: Perry’s completely blew away the Four Seasons! This heaping portion of perfect brunoised tuna was mixed with, I believe the bartender told us, 16 other ingredients to achieve a tartare for the record books. You could taste ginger and soy, probably a little sesame oil, but beyond that, my taste buds were adrift in a sea of happiness. A++ to the chef who created this masterpiece!

So whether you’re camping out at home this weekend, rooting for the Giants and cooking up some chili, or traveling down south for some college ball and good eats, follow me. My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!

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