Aim for the outfield

Gay chef Abraham Salum tests his Beard dinner and hits a home run

Sea-bass-Desiree-Espada

BASS PRO | The sea bass was the star of the test menu Abraham Salum plans for his upcoming James Beard House dinner. (Photo courtesy Desiree Espada)

While the Texas Rangers are vying for the American League pennant, the World Series for one local foodie is going on right now.

Chef Abraham Salum already has a solid local reputation for his inventive cuisine, but this month, he gets called up to the bigs. As any chef knows, that means one thing: Cooking at the James Beard House in New York City.

The James Beard Foundation’s mission is “to celebrate, preserve and nurture America’s culinary heritage and diversity in order to elevate the appreciation of our culinary excellence.” That means inviting cooks to strut their stuff at a variety of events, including the chance to prepare a meal at the JBF House. The invitation alone is an honor, and one Salum will be executing on Oct. 21.

But before the big night, Salum — chef-owner of both his eponymous Uptown eatery and neighboring Komali — tested the waters on his planned JBF dinner with a preview tasting.

The evening began at Komali, with passed hors d’oeuvres. Items on deck included seafood tostadas, Lebanese style arancini balls, caprino royale Texas goat cheese and country butter biscuits with chicken fried chicken.

Next at bat: A full four courses with wine pairings, plus dessert, served up in the Salum dining room.

The lineup was luscious: Chilled cream of corn, seared diver scallop with pickled beet carpaccio, oven roasted sea bass and braised pork jowls combined for an inventive menu with mango bread pudding as a sweet closer.

It’s next to impossible to choose one favorite from this team, though the oven roasted sea bass, served over pumpkin bisque, shaved Brussels sprouts and Spanish chorizo saute topped the heavyhitters list. The fish was sweet and flaky; a sprinkle of dukkah dust formed a delicious crust on top. The chorizo and the sprout lent the perfect amount of spice and texture to the creamy bisque.

I also fell in love with the mango bread pudding served per the chef “Mexican style,” with prickly pear sauce and queso cotija ice cream. Even a bread pudding skeptic like myself would not be not ashamed to admit to devouring every morsel.

Chefs get to the Beard House, named after the late gay gourmand, having established a national or regional reputation marked by use of high-quality, seasonal and/or local ingredients with demonstrated excellence in a particular discipline as well as the recommendations of his or her peers. As Chef Salum’s test dinner proved, the local gay chef is set to knock his JBF debut right out of the ballpark.

— Jenny Block

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TASTING NOTES

The-Family-Place-CupcakeBurgers and Burgundy, the DIFFA foodie fundraiser introduced two years ago, is back for its third installment on Sunday. The combination of red wine and gourmet burgers, featuring culinary creations from chefs including host John Tesar (The Commissary), Matt McCallister (Campo), Tim Byres (Smoke) and Teicchi Sakurai (Tei An), descends on One Arts Plaza from 4 to 7 p.m., Oct. 9. (If you don’t like wine, Grey Goose vodka cocktails will be poured.) Tickets are $75, and available at all participating restaurants or online at DIFFADallas.org.

Sprinkles Cupcakes has a history of leveraging the sale of their indulgent treats into charitable benefits, and the next one is near and dear to many queer hearts. From Nov. 1–6, 100 percent of proceeds from the sale of dark chocolate cakes adorned with a lavender dot, above, will go to The Family Place to combat teen bullying. Show youth “it gets better” while scarfing down a moist Sprinkles cupcake. It doesn’t get better than that.

— Arnold Wayne Jones

 

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 7, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

Say cheese!

Macho Nacho turns apps into entrees, with queso the star

EVEN PILES | They layer the cheese on thick at Macho Nacho for the short stack, above, though the namesake dish isn’t for the calorie-conscious: It weighs about 8 lbs. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

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OVERALL RATING: 2.5 out of 5 stars
Macho Nacho, 4000 Cedar Springs Road. Open daily at 11 a.m.
Macho-Nacho.com.
Reimagined Tex-Mex with a cheeky retro vibe and kick-ass queso.

Food: 2.5 stars
Atmosphere: 2.5 stars
Service: 2.5 stars
Price: Inexpensive to moderate

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If you name your restaurant after one piece of food, you’d better be prepared to do it well and have people judge you by it. The Black-eyed Pea can’t take black-eyed peas off its menu; Chipotle had better damn well have roasted jalapenos every time I come in — and good ones, at that.

So if you’re gonna call your joint Macho Nacho, you’re saying two things: First, we do nachos well. Second, and they can kick your ass, cowboy.

To a foodie, that’s more than a promise —that’s a dare. Bring it on, pendejo.

The fact is, I’ve never actually ordered the signature macho nachos here, a party platter-sized combo of tortillas, cheese and the remnants of a raucous cinch de mayo fiesta: pork, brisket, beef, grilled onions and more. For a single diner, or even two on a date, maybe that is macho (if you consider clogging your arteries “macho”). But the other nachos available? Those are more manageable. And pretty good … if you can get yourself in the right mindset.

One problem is that, while some of these nachos are entrée sized, the concept of nachos themselves conjures up an appetizer — something the comes before. We’ve all ordered the app-portion of quesadillas and made do with them as our main course (or, occasionally, gone to the dark side, making flan and sopapillas the entrée). But actually shoehorning them in as the main dish feels both indulgent and unsatisfying, like using the chapter menu on a DVD to fast-forward to the good parts.

Of course, there’s no reason you have to make nachos the meal; there’s enough else on the menu that you can treat this upscale yet reasonably priced diner with Tex-Mex familiarity.

I was taken aback when my waiter suggested complimentary chips and salsa after I’d ordered the short stack of nachos ($5 at lunch — a great deal), but I said yes anyway. You’d think that the snack chip and the tortillas in the nachos would be the same, yet ours were different. With the salsa (a bland, chunky style), the chips were dusted with chili seasoning, arriving thick-cut and long; as part of the nachos, they were triangular and thinner, though still sturdy.

That’s nothing to take for granted: Nachos — good ones, at least — are harder to get right than you might imagine. The chips have to be engineered to withstand the weight of melted cheese and salsa, not to mention any protein you add on like grilled chicken or, in this case, brisket. But you don’t want heavy pita-like crusts, either — a tortilla needs to be firm but pliant, like a new boyfriend. Macho Nacho’s style held up, never becoming soggy and limp (a sad ending to a good beginning), but hearty, with juicy brisket as the capper.

There are non-nacho items, too, some of which soar. We ordered the “skinny” queso ($6.95), but fattened it up some by adding “muscle” (a dollop of ground beef). So, the beef probably counteracts the fit benefits of the skinny, but what’s not to like about chucks of meat bobbing around in a sea of melted milk fat? It’s like a reunion of cow parts with flavor.

Only the skinny version (60 calories per quarter-cup) has less cheese than the regular version, though you’d be hard-pressed to  notice. It’s creamy and gooey, though the body comes from a cauliflower purée, detectable only if you concentrate on parsing the slight vegetal aroma from the other ingredients.

Similar kudos are warranted for the guacamole, made obviously fresh with big chunks of avocado — like much guacamole, pretty tame on the palate.

Torta is a catch-all phrase for a panoply of sandwiches, though I was disappointed that the one I ordered did not come pressed a la cubana, but on a fluffy, torpedo-shaped hoagie roll. The fajita torta ($7.95), though ordered without onions came with. The beef, while moist, lacked finesse, as if it had been overcooked and reconstituted, and the “spicy” mayo was not, in fact, spicy, though it was improved by dipping in the skinny queso. (That dish goes with anything; I may pour it on corn flakes, just to try it out.)

The street tacos (again, two for $5 at lunch) were hit-and-miss. The chicken was acceptable, like the fajita meat in the torta, but did not pop; the pulled barbecue pork was significantly better, infused with hard-spice aromatics (cinnamon, mace) that kept it interesting. The small corn tortillas were wrinkled and firm but not hard, though no garnishes (salsas, cremas) were offered — they arrived pretty much as-is.

The décor is oddly soothing and slightly elegant — quite a departure from the rough-and-tumble burger dive look of Hunky’s that used to occupy the space. (The move across the street classed up Hunky’s as well.) Macho Nacho looks like a high-end Tijuana cantina moved into a middle-class living room in the 1970s. If I sound like I’m making fun, I’m not — at least no more than the designer, who imbued the space with a sense of humor and whimsy: Dance music echoes off the dark-stained beadboard paneling and retro clocks with go-go leather seats and funky, dia-de-los-muerte colors on the signature “moustache” painting behind the bar. Maybe that’s the real “macho” part of Macho Nacho: A bandito whose affection for Tex-Mex grows not just hair on his chest, but his upper lip, too. If that’s the results of eating here, I can only add, “Ole!”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 16, 2011.

—  Michael Stephens

Strap on the food bag: Beaujolais, Pyles, Dish

This is a foodie kinda season anyway, with Thanksgiving around the corner, but I gotta say, there are almost too many interesting eating opportunities going on this week even for me. Here are a few:

Beaujolais Festival. The French-American Chamber of Commerce for DFW hosts this event every year, on the Friday after the third Thursday in November — traditionally, the day in France when the beaujolais nouveau is first released. It’s a fun, huge event (back at the World Trade Center this year) that offers up not only 2010 beaujolais but some vintage French wines as well as some Texas-grown grape. It starts Nov. 19 at 7 p.m. and tickets are $60 at the door. Visit FACCDallas.com for info.

Stephan Pyles 5th Anniversary Festival. Pyles has been full of celebrations this week: On Tuesday his Samar cheered its naming by Esquire as one of the top 10 new restaurants in America (they didn’t hold a similar part last December, when it made my top 5, but let’s not linger). Now on Sunday, he’ll toast the fall harvest with live music, cooking demonstrations and of course food and drink. It’s Nov. 21 from 4 to 8 p.m.; the cost is $50. Visit StephanPyles.com for tickets.

Dish dinner and benefit. You can get a great meal for a good price ($45/$65 with wine pairings) and do something wonderful for the community on Wednesday — Thanksgiving Eve. Just stop by the ilume restaurant from 6 to 9 and order the special thee-course dinner and the restaurant will donate a week’s worth of groceries to a client of Resource Center Dallas for each dinner served. I mean think about that for a sec: You eat one meal, you feed someone else for a week. The dinner includes such options as mushroom risotto, herb roasted tenderloin and pecan brownie. Call 214-522-DISH to make a reservation.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Did Chef Gordon Ramsay’s harsh criticism drive Oak Cliff’s Rachel Brown to suicide in 2007?

Rachel Brown

More than three years ago we published this short story about the apparent suicide of Rachel Brown, an Oak Cliff-based personal chef who’d been a contestant on the Fox reality show Hell’s Kitchen.

This Tuesday, we noticed that for some strange reason, our story about Brown’s death was experiencing a remarkable surge in online readership (with now more than 3,000 page views in the last two days). When we looked into it, we discovered that the main “entry source” for recent readers of the story is the Google search phrase, “Rachel Brown Hell’s Kitchen.” But why, we wondered, is everyone all of a sudden searching this? Well, for one thing the new season of Hell’s Kitchen began last week. But a much bigger factor has surely been this story from CBS News, prompted by the recent suicide of another cooking show contestant:

Joseph Cerniglia, 39, of Pompton Lakes, N.J., apparently leaped to his death yesterday from the George Washington Bridge, the New York Post reported. The owner of a restaurant in suburban New York, Cerniglia had appeared in 2007 on “Kitchen Nightmares,” a show that subjected struggling restaurateurs to harsh criticism from English foodie Gordon Ramsay.

In 2007, 41-year-old Rachel Brown reportedly shot herself to death after appearing on “Hell’s Kitchen,” another show that featured Ramsay.

Ramsay is famously tough on contestants.

“Your business is about to f – - king swim down the Hudson,” Ramsay told Cerniglia, the married father of three, according to the Daily Mail.

Does that kind of talk drive people to kill themselves?

Probably not, says the former president of the American Academy of Suicidology, Dr. Robert Yufit.

“My guess is that both of these people had major problems before appearing on the show,” Yufit told CBS News. “I would almost bet that the show itself should not be held responsible. I would say say that the show might have tripped off something else that was going on in their lives.

—  John Wright

Eatzi's job fair tomorrow morning for new location

Just saw this on the Eatzi’s Facebook page for those perhaps looking to land a snazzy foodie job. Here’s the post.

DON’T FORGET TO STOP BY TOMORROW FOR OUR JOB FAIR! SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 6 from 10 am – 2 pm at our NEW location (5600 Lovers Lane, #136). We’re hiring both hourly and management positions, so stop by and let us know why you want to be a part of our team!

—  Rich Lopez