H is for Hamilton Tavern

Hamilton Tavern like walking into a Dorothea Lange photo, only everyone’s skinny because they’re Lauraville hipsters instead of starving Dust Bowlers. The walls are strewn with artfully arranged saws and farm equipment that allude to the tavern’s commitment to locally sourced and seasonal foods. You won’t find tomatoes on the burgers, because tomatoes in May are worthless. You won’t find stout on tap until autumn, because the summer is better suited to Resurrection and IPAs. While the Ham Tav is a haul from my hood, it’s a carefully designed restaurant with a clear idea behind it, one that I can respect and admire. It’s a nice marriage a modern concept with an antiqued decor.

Hamilton Tavern has a limited menu — about eight appetizers and six sandwiches. The kitchen has wisely limited itself to things it does well. This week’s dip of the week was spicy black bean; I do wish I’d had the chance to try the smoked salmon dip from some weeks past. Mmm, smoked salmon. (Note: if anyone has any local smoked salmon dishes to recommend, please put them in the comments!)

Genny and I ordered fried pickles, which were the best I’ve ever had, although I think fried pickles are a contradiction in terms. While I love pickles and I love fried things, pickles are just too soggy to really achieve the crispness that defines fried food. (I feel the same way about Black Velvets. I adore champagne and Guinness, but can’t imagine them mingling.) Hamilton Tavern’s goat cheese side sauce is a tasty addition to the fried cukes. I still preferred the buffalo tofu — the creamy dullness of the tofu compliments the spicy of the buffalo sauce well.

In any case, Genny was pleased with the vegetarian options. There were some meatier things that I would have tried if we’d been there for a full-on dinner (namely the pulled duck BBQ sandwich, since I’ve had duck on the brain lately). Service was serviceable, but not special. Kudos goes to the designer, though. The farm equipment, pressed tin ceiling and fairy lights on the railing give an unearned patina to a very new restaurant. The ladies room is neatly papered in torn pages from authors like Edith Wharton and Kate Chopin. As an affirmed bookworm, I WILL do this to my powder room some day, even though I often come home from work so exhausted by words I want revert to pictograms and smoke signals.l

Restaurant owners would likely weep on a review that ends with a praise of the bathroom decor, and the Hamilton Tavern deserves better than that. I’ll have to go back sometime soon, and try that duck sandwich and check out the intriguing but as-yet-neglected-by-me wine list.

Incidentally, the people have spoken in regard to the Hamilton Tavern — it edged Heninger’s for AAH honors. Apparently no one has any love for Hull Street Blues in Locust Point. I have my I spot (iSpot?) all picked out, but start thinking about J places. Thanks.


Well that’s just ducky

Marylanders celebrate high holy days with crab feasts. You get a basket of some of the most beautiful, blue-tinted and darkly speckled creatures from the sea and boil them alive with a firey shower of Old Bay. Then you disembowel the now-rosy animals by hand, stuffing yourself to overfull and commenting how there’s no better way to spend a summer day. Such things tend to inure you against the horrors of butchery.

I am not sentimental about animals. I didn’t grow up with any pets, aside from short-lived goldfish, which are notoriously bad at cuddling and doing tricks and all those other anthropomorphic things. I love food so much that I instinctively recoil from anything that limits culinary possibilities. But I also like to think of myself as a Good Person, as most of us do, which is why I enjoyed the evenhanded exploration of the ethics of foie gras in Mark Caro’s book The Foie Gras Wars: How a 5,000 Year Old Delicacy Inspired the World’s Fiercest Food Fight.

Caro is a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times who was drawn into the fold of foie due to a professional slap flight between two noted Windy City restauranteurs, Charlie Trotter and Rick Tram0nto. Trotter removed foie from his menu for ethical reasons, a move that eventually culminated in a city-wide ban on selling the fatty duck livers, produced by force-feeding the birds to the point of obesity. Gourmets balked at the idea of having a treasured item removed from their menus. Animal activists balked that anyone would argue a delicious tidbit was worth the torture of innocent animals. Conservatives balked that such a specific law should be imposed upon restauranteurs and consumers when everyone could just let the market decide that engorged duck livers weren’t worth the ethical or financial trouble of eating or producing them. So Caro went on a journey from Chicago to New York, California and France to see what the fuss is about. Surprising, it’s about quite a lot — ethics, culture and commerce, to name just a few.

Caro explores how and why other places have banned foie gras. Surprisingly, Israel is at the top of the list. Foie has roots in Europe’s Jewish communities — it’s basically a high-end version of schmaltz, the beloved Kosher poultry fat schmeared on bread by bubbes the world over. It was one of Israel’s first export industries. (The book mentions that Maryland briefly considered a ban, but it ultimately didn’t go anywhere. Still, the incident made producers nervous that a state “without much of a culinary scene” (!) would likely enter the foie fray on the side of the animals and their cohorts.)

Besides the halls of the Israeli Supreme Court, Caro explores duck farms in the U.S. and in France, talks with animal activists and participates in the process himself, sending the readers interest in foie — as well as his own cholesterol score — through the roof. The activists and chefs and farmers make for better reading than the aldermen; Caro does his darndest to make the Chicago city council’s parlimentary procedures seem dramatic but it is a thankless task.

The Foie Gras Wars is not for the faint of heart, since even the mildest description of the most humane abbatoir may leave you reaching for a veggie burrito afterwards. But it’s worth plowing through the icky (if well-written) parts to explore the ethics of fatty duck and goose livers. Caro gets contradicting stories about the amount of suffering the birds experience during force feeding — advocates say they don’t mind, detractors say it’s torture — because there’s basically no one who investigates such matters that doesn’t have a stake in the outcome. People who turn their nose up at the cruelty of foie happily power down Purdue oven stuffer roasters, even though said chickens are treated much worse than the average foie bird. Don’t eat veal because you don’t want to support the industry? Veal is a side business for the dairy industry, so you’re going to have cut out cheese and cream and milk as well to make that stand.

But just because it’s hard to avoid cruelly treated animals doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t. And surely just because we can’t attain the ideal of veganism doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do our best to minimizing suffering in the world. Right?

The foie gras debate can seem like a twee Rich People Problem, but its implications are larger. The idea of suffering, and the argument that ends can justify means, is not wholly divorced from other issues, like President Obama’s decision to withhold pictures of tortured detainees.

Does the end justify the means when the end is sustenence? What about pleasure? What about tremendous pleasure that can’t be achieved in any other way? What about the hypocrisy of being sentimental about one animal or one food and not another?

What about when the end is national security? What if short-term gains are ultimately more damaging to America’s interests? Are images of suffering unnecessarily inflamatory, or necessary to make informed decisions about how we live our lives and enjoy our freedoms? (That last one applies to both detainees and ducks.)

Philosophers, presidents, chefs and citizens struggle with these questions every day. They stare back at us from the television screen, from a plate of seared foie served with quince and toast points, and from our paper box of Chicken Nuggets with Sweet and Sour Sauce. Freedom of choice can be a terrible, magnificent burden.

H is for Help Me Please, Readers

G is for Grano

Grano, a petite pasta bar in Hampden, is an unlikely choice for happy hour, but it’s in my neighborhood and I am deeply lazy. Despite logistics (so tiny you can’t bring a crowd, no liquor license), it was a decent place to knock back a few glasses of wine with my friend Annie. We feasted mightly upon gossip and pasta.

There aren’t any appetizers on Grano’s menu, although there are salads. We bypassed the greenery in favor of pasta. Grano offers 10 sauces that can be paired with seven types of pasta. Annie, another recovering Catholic schoolgirl, gave up alcohol for Lent, so originally Grano was meant to be a meat- and wine-binge, but in the end I ordered a meatless vodka sauce with linguine and she got the pomodoro sauce with penne. (We chose conservatively — the more exotic sauces include a Gorgonzola Walnut and Calamari Vesuvio.) Although my noodles could have been strained better, Grano should be applauded for getting Italian Annie to say their pasta was cooked al dente.

We split a meatball the size of a newborn’s head for $1.95. For a traditional snack-y happy hour, order a few meatballs and some Calamari Vesuvio (available in an appetizer portion without pasta). No liquor license means BYOB. (BYOB — hooray!) I brought an Australian rose from the Wine Source down the Avenue. One of Grano’s few service missteps was that they don’t mention the corkage fee until you get the check. It’s $3, which is a steal compared to most restaurant wine mark-ups, but almost every other surcharge is carefully enumerated on the menu, save this one. And even if the waiter was nice enough to put the bottle in the fridge while I waited for Annie, being charged $3 to open a screw-top wine rubs me the wrong way. (Corkage fee — boooo!)

For dessert, I was delighted to find Pitango Gelato, imported directly from the store in Fell’s Point. Pitango is something I’d drive across town for, to get a cup heaped with the creamy goodness of Chocolate Noir and Bourbon Vanilla. I don’t know that I’d go out of my way for Grano, but since it’s in my ‘hood, I’d probably go back.

Grano — 1031 West 36th Street, Baltimore, Md. 21211 (no website)

I is for Irate

I usually don’t pick out my AHH spots too far in advance, but after this I’m reserving the I spot for Iron Bridge Wine Company in Columbia. which has been vandalized twice in the past month. The first time, on March 23, anti-foie gras protestors took credit for the act. This time, no one has stepped up, but it appears to be the same group.

I have had foie gras exactly once in my life, at 1789 in Georgetown. It tasted like meat butter, and I was undecided on if I liked it or not. I’ve read Fast Food Nation and Consider the Lobster. I’m aware that other cities have banned foie gras for ethical reasons. I realize that gavage is not all the fun you can have with your feathers on for the ducks. But I do not like violence or destruction or waste, which is what vandalizing a restaurant in protest of one dish on their extensive menu is. Restaurants are tough businesses to keep afloat, and repeated  vandalizations don’t help the bottom line. Foie gras protestors, vote with your wallet, protest outside the building and start a petition to outlaw foie in Maryland. Just keep it legal. You’re winning more foes than friends. How many people eat foie per year anyway? Wouldn’t it be more effective to lobby against unethically raised cows or chicken?

Arguably my aforementioned distate for violence and destruction and waste could be targeted towards the people who turn living, breathing duckies into meat butter. But because of the methods employed, my sympathies lie with the restauranteurs who seem rational and professional in comparison to the childish antics of the protestors. Quoth Steve Wecker, a co-owner of IBWC: “You can be an activist. You don’t have to be an anarchist or an idiot.”

Word, Steve. I’ll see you in a few weeks.  I’m going to eat so much foie that my liver will become deliciously engorged with fat and you’ll want to serve me with toast points and truffle butter.

Give Us This Day Our Daily Meat

I officially ended my Lenten meaten fast this morning with a Jimmy Dean sausage patty on an English muffin, and scarfed some Pascal ham and several other meaty hors d’oeuvres today. I tried not to go too nuts, since I’ve heard that re-integrating meat into your diet can be tricky. I don’t know that 40 days would really make that much of a difference…plus I slipped up a few times.

Forbidden Meat #1 — I entered the break room during  an all-day work event and was so excited to see the free food that any non-meat promises flew straight out of my head. You’d think I’d never seen a steam tray of hot dogs before.

Forbidden Meat #2 — Ain’t no way I was telling my boyfriend’s parents, who don’t speak the best English and who had prepared me a wonderful chicken dinner, that I wasn’t going to eat it. Also, my mom’s rule when we were growing up was that it was more of a sin to waste food that it was to break fast, so I figured this fell under that category as well. The chicken was cooked, and turning it down wasn’t going to accomplish anything. That said, it must be difficult  for real vegetarians to find ways to turn down animal-based food graciously. Kudos to those who do it well.

Forbidden Meat #3 — I initially didn’t see any vegetarian appetizers while at a cocktail party so I ate some Swedish meatballs and chicken fingers. After I found the veggie eggrolls, I stopped. Mostly.

Forbidden Meat #4 — In a round-robin tournament between Jesus and a hotel breakfast buffet, Jesus went 0-2. The Son of God lost to longtime favorite free bacon, and, in a surprising upset, chicken apple sausage. It was the morning after the cocktail party so the whole weekend was something of a meat bender.

Forbidden Meat #5 (?) — My dad made me pasta with what I think was meat sauce on it.

All in all, I was not a very good vegetarian. Or at least not a very healthy vegetarian. I tried to eat lots of yogurt and beans to get protein, but you know what’s vegetarian? Onion rings. And french fries. And diet soda. I would eat a nice salad with some nuts in it for lunch and then flag mid-afternoon and prop myself up with caffeine and salty snacks. I most certainly did not lose any weight. Dropping lbs. was not a priority, but I wondered if it might happen, just because I read so much about how Americans eat too much meat.

As it turns out, I didn’t miss meat as main course as much as I missed meat as accent. As I alluded to the ode to a veggie quesedilla in my E is for El Salto entry, meat can provide a depth of flavor that vegetarian dishes often lack. I’m sure there are ways to manipulate vegetables and soy and dairy to be as complexly delicious as meat, but I didn’t find it in the last 40 days. (If you have suggestions for good veggie dishes I should try, please post in comments.)

Personally I’m better off having a deli sandwich for lunch and not compensating with meatless but unhealthy midafternoon snacks. Halfway through Lent, I was fantasizing about driving to Andy Nelson’s while mainlining bacon fat, but today I’m surprisingly meh on meat.

I am planning on checking out a G spot (…that’s what she said) with a friend who gave up alcohol for Lent. We shall feast mightly upon meat and wine. But perhaps not as mightly as I once planned.

F is for Fletcher’s

I have this thing about water chestnuts: I LOVE THEM. They have this perfect crunchy texture without being dry, and I wish they were in everything. Sadly, they are in nothing but Chinese stir fries and rumaki.

So I was elated when I saw Fletcher’s online menu that features shrimp and water chestnut dip. Huzzah! I couldn’t believe that a rock venue would bother to have an  interesting menu in the first place, and it was really vegetarian-friendly to boot (edamame, black bean hummus, veggie burger options).

Unfortunately, when I got to Fletcher’s, the menu had changed. I ate enormous fried shrimp  in  sriracha-cilantro sauce and washed it down with a few happy hour beers, but I’m still sad I didn’t get any water chestnuts. I also didn’t get any onion rings, which were my first choice. (They were out.)  The brooding indie rocker two barstools down also didn’t get lettuce on his burger, because they were out. I consoled myself with a few cheap games of pool on Fletcher’s really busted pool tables. The brooding indie rocker probably wrote a song about loss and disappointment.

I’m trying not to dwell on the bad stuff, because Fletcher’s deserve major points for effort, and also because one of the cooks told me they are revamping the menu in the next few weeks to make it more locally sourced. Very ambitious for a dark hole of a rock club decorated with garlands of Pabst Blue Ribbon and Genny Cream Ale empties.

Incidentally, the chef wore horn-rimmed glasses and was super-cute. And that was just the chef, to say nothing of all the skinny boys in black loitering around the place. So if you like better-than-average bar food and emo guys, Fletcher’s is the spot for you.

I didn’t explore the performance space upstairs, so I should probably go back sometime. The performers from Lion of Ido were really nice and “Beatles meets Weezer” sounds like something I’d like. Unfortunately I am a total square with an office job, so there’s no way I’d make it to a show that starts at 10:45 on a Monday. I was lame and went home and fell asleep in front of the soporific brilliance of the North Carolina Tar Heels.

Addendum: If anyone has recipes involving water chestnuts, please post in the comments!