Monday, October 20, 2008
New York: Hattie's
Corn bread, biscuits and hush puppies.
After six hours winding my way through the Pennsylvania and New Jersey countryside, with a long stretch on the New York Thruway, I've found myself at the door of Hattie's in Saratoga Springs.
It pains me when the curtain has been pulled back to reveal me as a charlatan but I can't hide the fact that I heard about Hattie's through Bobby Flay. Personally speaking, I can't stand Bobby Flay. Ever since his days with Jackie Malouf on Grillin' and Chillin' he's just irritated me. One day, quite some time ago, I was flicking through the tele and happened upon his new FoodTV show where he goes out and "challenges" a random chef on their turf and with the dish they're known for. The setup is that the chef is told that they're being screen-tested for a new television show and on the day they tape the chef, Flay shows up to challenge the chef to a cookoff. What a dick.
Anyway, when Flay came to town, chef Jasper Alexander remained supreme in their fried chicken cookoff and I made the decision that day that I must journey to Saratoga Springs and here I am, in the cold, hoping that they'll have a table for me at 8pm.
By the looks of it, Saratoga Springs is a touristy town. It looks like it was built to cater to tourists. Happily, Hattie's is quite down home and rustic looking - and not in a prefab, T.G.I.Friday's kind of way - and, most importantly, it's rather quiet on this Monday night.
Mac N Cheese
The Monday travel schedule had me worried enough that I called yesterday to ensure that they would be open today. It would have been my luck that the one day I manage to travel to Saratoga Springs would be the day they are closed. I would cry.
When I walked in, the restaurant was quiet. A couple to my right were finishing their meal and a four top in the center of the room had just begun. The staff was casually milling about awaiting the night to come. I was relieved that I could be seated so quickly.
Right off the bat, I started with a sweet tea and a glass of water. While reviewing the menu with my server, one of the kitchen crew remarked that I should know the menu by now since I'm here all the time. Huh? Turns out that there's some guy working in the comic book store next door that looks just like me. Could it be? Could my doppelganger live in Saratoga Springs? Too bad I won't have the time in town to find out. At least the cook promised they would take good care of me.
Not long after, an order of freshly fried hush puppies arrived at my table with a side of ketchup. Golden delicious inside and crispy brown on the outside. Beautiful. As a hush puppy should be. In another moment, a basket of warm corn bread and biscuit landed, with butter. Now was my chance - butter on corn bread is a good thing so, therefore (I'm hypothesizing now), butter on hush puppies should be even better. Wow, I'm so glad my mom gave birth to such a smart son...
The meal would be simple. First round: macaroni and cheese. Second: fried chicken. Third: dessert.
As I walked in and spied on the couple finishing their meal, I noticed the girl had barely touched her order of mac n cheese. It was unbelievably huge, she had barely put a dent in it. I made sure to order the smaller, appetizer portion - with shrimp and bacon as my server enthusiastically recommended.
Soon, a hot pile of pasta, cheese, bacon and shrimp, covered with bread crumbs and seared under salamander landed in front of me. I gingerly took a bite. It was hot. Blisteringly hot. Let it cool for a few moments and then began a thorough investigation.
It was good. It was as mac n cheese should be, but something was missing. It tasted kinda limp. The ingredients were all there. They just didn't spring to life. What this dish needed was some seasoning. A liberal application of salt.
A douse of salt later and there it was: Mac N Cheese. As It Should Be. Alive. Tasty. Decadent. The bacon adding that pleasurable flavor and the shrimp adding a new dimension that I've never had in Mac N Cheese.
In a few minutes, the fried chicken landed on my table. Four pieces. A half chicken crisp and fried to golden perfection. Just look at it: amazing. Served with mashed potatoes and collard greens. Nice.
The chicken was good. It had a spice blend that I thought was okay. It just wouldn't be my choice of spices. I prefer very simple preparations of just salt and pepper for my fried chicken. This chicken had a bit of a zing to it but also needed a liberal application of salt.
Actually, by this point, I was starting to worry. Worry that my taste buds my be losing it. Have I been eating everything so salted that I've lost the ability to discern what is and is not "salty"? Would my preferred level of seasoning leave others gagging in a salt water ocean?
But I can't taste the flavors. They're not pronounced. So I salted anyway. And once salted, the chicken flavors came to life.
While I didn't find the seasonings to my tastes, the chicken skin was absolutely wonderful. Light, delicate and perfectly crisp. I haven't been able to fry chicken like this. This fried coating was just sublime. I couldn't do it better, and I want to do it better (or at least as good). Maybe Jasper will smile on me one day and share his secret to this wonderfully light, delicate and crisp skin.
For dessert it was a simple Pecan Pie with whipped cream. Tasty, sweet and that lovely texture that should accompany a proper pecan pie. It was also searingly hot. Add a cup of coffee with sugar and cream and all is well. Of course, it's not coffee to write home about or even drink on it's own - even my server said "it's just coffee" when I asked her what kind of coffee it was. Definitely not of the caliber we know and love but a nice accompaniment to the pecan pie nonetheless.
In the truck I've got my trusty Igloo cooler loaded up with ice and ready to hold this trips' bounty. As I leave Hattie's I'm warmed by the thought that in my bag I've got two pieces of chicken, mashed potatoes, collared greens and the rest of my mac n cheese for a late morning breakfast in Montreal tomorrow.
I already know it's going to be a beautiful morning.
45 Philadelphia Street
Saratoga Springs, NY 12866