Sunday, July 13, 2008


Ranch Hand Fries - topped with melted cheeses and pulled chicken.

Fresh off a great time at the Chef & Wine Experience, I met Cecilia at Rub BBQ at the back end of Federal Hill on Light Street. I had been wanting to check out Rub for quite some time and with the heavy thunderstorms and high humidity plowing through the city, what better time to check it out?

Billing itself as "Authentic Texas Barbecue," Rub is a lot smaller than I expected. Think converted neighborhood bar rather than neighborhood restaurant and you'll start to get the idea of the size. As you drive down Light Street, past all of the commercial areas of Federal Hill and into a more residential area, you start to wonder if you've somehow missed it. That is, until you see the glow from the very large neon sign mounted to the side of the building like a beacon in the wilderness.

The interior reminds me of a Texas honkytonk: dark with a bar that's illuminated almost solely by a variety of neon beer signs. There's only about three people working the front of the house on this Sunday evening and there's maybe a total of fifteen guests, including Cecilia and myself.

As I peruse the menu, I'm thinking strategy. The fried green tomatoes look interesting but I'd like to know how their fries taste, but I don't want to order fries with my meal since there's a plethora of tasty-sounding sides that need proper exploration. Field greens and chicken wings seem as though they would be a waste of tummy space, so I decide to order the Ranch Hand Fries topped with melted cheese and pulled chicken or beef. After consulting with our server, who says the chicken is the most popular, we go with that.

It takes a good, long while for that appetizer to arrive. Meanwhile, I'm sampling the sweet tea and it's about average. Nothing to write home about but nothing to send back either. Still waiting for the appetizer. We chat. Still waiting. The rain is just starting. Still waiting.

My third child is about to graduate from college and I'm still waiting.

Finally, the appetizer arrives and it's anti-climactic. A few bites later and I'm wondering what took so darn long? Did they run to SuperFresh to buy some more potatoes? The fries are on the soft side and undercooked. They're also frozen foodservice fries lazily placed on a plate and slathered with shredded chicken and a white and yellow cheddar mix before being tossed under the broiler. Once the cheese is melted, some diced tomatoes are thrown on top (along with one tiny slice of onion) and a lame ranch dressing placed on the side.

By now, I'm starving and my eating of the dish is fueled by hunger rather than desire. It's ugly and the dish is terrible. Just lazy and thoughtless. There's a very weird pineapple taste in the dish and I can't figure out why. It's sweet and disgusting. I taste a couple of bites with the ranch dressing and it's certainly not an improvement. In fact, the dressing makes it worse.

Two Meat Platter - black angus brisket, Texas flat ribs, mac-n-cheese, home-style green beans.

Next it's time to order our main courses. Like I said, I like to sample a variety of flavors, which is why I was flabbergasted when Cecilia decided to order the same main course as I did. I chose the two meat mixed plate, and with five types of meats on the menu to choose from, you'd think that she would order two different ones that we could share.

But maybe I'm just being petty.

For my meats, I chose the Black Angus Brisket and the Texas Flat Ribs with macaroni and cheese and home-style green beans as the sides. Cecilia chose cole slaw and Texas Corn Pudding as her sides. And again we waited.

This time, my third child got married.

For a place that's relatively empty and slow on a Sunday night, the orders were taking inordinately long. And it's not as though these are meats they're cooking a la minute. The brisket is billed as the house specialty, slow-smoked for 12-14 hours. It's gotta be done by now.

Finally, the platters arrive and there's a slight problem: two Corn Puddings but no slaw. That's rectified quickly enough but the slaw is terrible too. Lots of mayo but no bite. Where's the vinegar? Where's the balance? The corn pudding is quite good though. Creamy, tasty with a definite corn flavor and a slight bite from the serrano peppers. It's second only to my macaroni and cheese, which is kinda plain in a Kraft kinda way - Kraft that's been broiled in the oven, which I actually like.

The platters are served with two slices of Texas Toast, some pickled onions and spicy sliced pickles. The pickles are tasty but I have to wonder about the toast. They look like the commercial Texas Toast you buy at the grocery store. In fact, I'd swear it was the very same bread you buy in the grocery store. Is this really how authentic bbq is eaten in Texas?

Then there are the green beans. Order them and it's an extra dollar. With that kind of pricing and hype, I'm expecting them to be killer.

They're okay. At least their fresh. But they've been cooked past their snap point so they're slightly on the soggy side. Cooked with onion, bacon, butter and chicken stock they're kinda tasty - at least there's a lot of bacon to chew on, but I'm not pounding them down like I would expect.

Which brings us to the meat. I have to be honest. I want to like the meat. I desperately want to write great things about it. But I can't. At best, it was disappointing. At worst, it was horrible.

Twelve to fourteen hours for the brisket. Perhaps ten would be better. The brisket was dry. Maybe it was cooked too long. Maybe it was rethermalized improperly. Whatever the case, it was dry, lifeless and tasted like cardboard. It needed the bbq sauce on the table.

Unfortunately, the ribs weren't much better. Again, on the dry side with a rub that really didn't compliment the meat. In fact, the rub was just a letdown. It offered very little to the experience. Maybe there wasn't enough applied at cooking. The ribs too needed the table sauces.

Cecilia wanted to go for dessert. I just couldn't stomach anymore. She ordered the peach cobbler (or something like that). I tasted it. It wasn't bad, but I had had enough.

In the end, I'm disappointed with Rub. I expected so much from this place. I had heard positive things. I wanted to love the place. Unfortunately, the food fell flat and I went home in the rain.

1843 Light Street
Baltimore, MD 21230

The Chef & Wine Experience

Michaele Weissman invited me to join her and Spike Gjerde and give a coffee talk at the Baltimore Chefs & Wine Experience. It's an annual event where the public comes to meet chefs, listen to them speak, sample their food and try all sorts of wines and other vestiges of Good Living.

For those of you who may not know, Michaele wrote a book on the coffee industry's Third Wave - that eclectic crew of hipster/geek coffee people who work to revolutionize the coffee industry (of course, the question is: are they really "revolutionary" or actually evolutionary?). It's called God In A Cup and available nationwide at your local booksellers.

In spite of the fact that I do coffee for a living, the enthusiasm of the general public about coffee continually surprises me. We had about fifty people pack into our little lecture room where Michaele shared her thoughts on the industry, Spike talked about bringing a New World Order of coffee to restaurants and I generally pontificated about drinking and enjoying your coffee.

In addition to merely chatting about coffee, we decided to have a coffee tasting. Nothing as stuffy or important as cupping with geeky coffee people slurping and talking about "black currants and frozen nutmeg." No, nothing as silly as that. Just some simple press potted coffee served in small cups - actually, the venue (showing their knowledge, sophistication and grasp of coffee) gave us styrofoam cups. Bastards.

For our tasting, I chose two coffees. The first, a Sumatra Mandheling Organic from Indonesia, roasted by Origins Organic Coffee of Vancouver, Canada, as well as the Finca El Puente from Honduras, roasted by Counter Culture Coffee of Durham, NC. I chose the two because of their difference. I didn't want some lame coffee, I wanted something interesting and vibrant. Coffees that would be so different than from each other that it would be easier for the uninitiated to experience the difference.

That's one thing that continually irritates me: accessibility. Whether it's wine or coffee, we tend to speak with such fancy terms that regular people have a hard time connecting. There's red wine and rose petals in coffee??? Only the truly geeky ever speak like this - and only the disconnected actually speak like this to the uninitiated.

For our tasting, I told the audience that it's okay to use those fancy terms but what's more important is to be able to describe the sensation in your own words - however that may manifest itself. For previous tastings, I've encouraged people to use everything from fancy words to colors to rock bands. Man, this tastes like AC/DC's Shoot To Thrill...

Whatever it takes to make it your own, that's what you should use.

Lots of questions followed, and one girl in the audience asked me if I like sugar and cream in my coffee. Hmmm, good question. The hardcore in the Third Wave would immediately stand up and impose their vision like the Fourth Reich and give an absolute "NO" for an answer. Truth is, she asked if I liked cream and sugar in my coffee - and if I'm not tasting the coffee critically and simply drinking it for personal enjoyment, then the answer is an emphatic "YES MA'AM" And if the Third Wave doesn't like it, they can go screw themselves because I absolutely love an 8z coffee with a half teaspoon of sugar and a touch of cream to go with a deep-fried chocolate frosted donut.

I don't know if perhaps I was talking too much, going over time or my revelation about the sugar and cream was too much for Michaele to handle because that's when she steered our discussion back to trying the coffee black to see how it tastes (of course, the girl that asked the question was also the same girl with an unabashed love for sweet frappuccinos). But the audience was great. Even more questions and some great insight into the coffees. For many of them, I'm guessing it was their first time trying some seriously great coffees and I hope they tasted a glimpse into what is possible out there. Hopefully, they'll seek out better quality or maybe come and visit The Spro.

Overall, I had a great time at the event. It was fun to be amongst the great chefs of Baltimore. Several Food Network celebrities were in attendance and earlier, we stopped in to watch one of them give a presentation. For someone with a national television show, I was disappointed in the delivery and level of engagement this person gave at the presentation. From an entertainment standpoint, it was pretty darn lame and disappointing. I went in hoping to pick up some presentation tips from a celebrity, I left after ten minutes because my mind was numbing. Gosh, I hope I'm not that bad in front of an audience.

Speaking of television and food, Jill was hanging out and came to see our presentation. It's always great seeing Jill and she's leaving this week in some sort of mystery trip where she may or may not be picked up for next season's Top Chef. She's sworn to secrecy, so details are sketchy. All we know is that she'll be gone for six weeks and we'll find out the rest next season.

I also met a really nice lady who asked for my card and said she would forward it on to the producer of Hell's Kitchen. Wow. That was a surprise. How much fun would it be to spend a television season being yelled at and berated by Gordon Ramsay? Hey you, I've had enough of that, yeah big boy? Put it in the bin, you fucking donkey....

Good fun, indeed.

Chicken Joy

The girls relating with the chickens.

My nieces have been staying at the house for the past few days and I've been teaching them a little bit about cooking. Yesterday, I showed them how to individually freeze fresh bing cherries and also how to make cherry jam.

The thing about working with me is that it's not a show-and-tell demonstration class, it's live and hands-on. They're doing the work. I'm just making sure they're doing it correctly.

But today we drove up to Springfield Farm to tour the grounds and see how the animals live. Touring the farm is always enlightening. Over time, you start to get a feel for how they do things as the pens move across the land offering the chickens, ducks and geese new, fertile ground upon which to graze.

Ready to eat those chickens.

Since my experiences last year, I've become a believer in understanding where your food comes from. Which is why I brought the girls here today and let them mingle with the chickens. They asked learned that this is where our chickens come from. That these chickens pecking around in front of us would, someday, be in front of us again - and on a plate. They seemed very comfortable going from talking with the chickens in the pens to pulling whole birds out of the refrigerator.

Back at the house, it was time for fried chicken. After butchering a chicken (okay, I did that part), the girls dried off the parts, seasoned them with salt and pepper, then shook them in flour before we laid them in the cast iron filled with 375F oil.

Fifteen minutes later, the chicken was golden, crispy and delicious. I wanted mine with rice. They wanted theirs with ketchup.

Guess I'll have to keep working on them...