Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Eating Branson.

Several readers have asked me how I go about collecting information for this blog. Well, there are several ways. Sometimes I just go to one place in-between my daily duties and gather what I need. Other times I make a day of it and pick up material for a couple of columns. And then there are the travelogue trips.

Over this past week, I have been collecting information for an upcoming issue of Let's Go magazine on Culinary Branson. The once humble Ozarkian burg is now an entertainment superhub, with hundreds of shows and attractions to enjoy. However, it can sometimes be culinarily misconstrued, to the point of a friend suggesting I call my piece "Branson, Still Covered In Gravy."

Happily, I can share with you that not only is the town not covered in gravy (it'd pour down into the valleys, anyway), it's vibrantly full of food choices. I've had the pleasure on my last several visits to pick up a bit here and there. This time around, I enjoyed quite a lot. It all started with hor d'ouerves from Bleu Olive consumed at a reception at Chateau on the Lake on a pleasant Thursday evening. This delightful lamb-and-brie-in-pastry snack was a great pick-me-up to us road-weary travelers. They also served up warmed stuffed grape leaves. The restaurant itself is located at 2nd and Commercial downtown, and offers a good bar and American-ized Mediterranean cuisine.

I was fortunate enough to be a guest at a special dinner Thursday night at the Chateau, and I certainly enjoyed it. Chef Doug Knopp is finally back from his stint with Four Seasons. His creations are definitely more high-end than you would expect in a city like Branson -- but hey, who's complaining. This salad-and-cheese plate included Bundle of Organic Field Greens (wrapped in a super-thin long slice of cucumber, yummy), Crostini with Tomato Comfit (good match, sure), slice of brie cheese and raspberry vinaigrette (that's what you see being drizzled from the spoon there). Chef Knopp's abuse of tomatoes is highly condoned... the comfit tomato was tasty enough, but pales in comparison to the "overnight tomato" in the entree he served up -- a very surprising plate of contrasts that delighted some and shocked others at our table.

The herb-soaked beef filet topped a mound of savory-sweet apple and sweet potato risotto, under that cap of "overnight tomato," and with the accompanying fois gras butter was this delightful "who needs to eat anything more" complete dinner in itself. The tartness of said tomato made me wonder what made it an overnighter, and if it had somehow been proportionally bruised by late hours and deadlines like I had been in my overnight days.
The fun part of the entree, though, was the Orange Chili Glazed Sea Bass with Vanilla Foam. Because there is no way any sane person would have put said items together. Just wouldn't have happened. Think delicate sea bass with what could be an overwhelming whack of a sauce reminiscent of a General Tso base -- covered in whipped cream. That's right -- whipped cream on fish. It should not have worked. But it did -- brilliantly.

Our dessert came from the mind and skills of a fabulous pianist and performer, Dino Kartsonakis. I was lucky enough to work with him and his wife Cheryl back on a trip during my TV days, and he seems to be just as warm and popular as ever. The two of them have ventured into a bakery... based on this particular item, called Dino's 24Karat Cake. It's a carrot cake he's made for a while, packed with carrots and walnuts and uber-rich. The raspberry and white chocolate sauce it was served with just make it more of a party. I liked it so much, I showed my disappointment with the server who came to reclaim my plate. I was rewarded for my insolence with another slice in a take-home box.

Next morning, we were up and early and headed over to Silver Dollar City. I know people who go to Silver Dollar City at certain times of the year, just to eat. They start heading downhill on one side of the park in the morning and end up back the other side, having consumed just about every sort of good thing you can think of.

I started at Eva and Delilah's Bakery, which is just inside the entry to the park. These lovely eclairs greeted me, close enough to snatch and big as a sub sandwich. Tempting, no? I overheard a conversation about all the great eats at the shop, and how the bakers here start at 3am and continue to cook until the park closes each day. The gentleman in this photo is making up their cheese sticks. I was tempted to start begging for samples, but I had another destination and deadline to meet, so passed. Besides, I reasoned, I could grab something on the way out of the park.

Good thing my manners held me back, because when I arrived at the special breakfast I was headed to I discovered this lovely cinnamon roll loaf. This is what my folks call monkey bread -- with the rolled up bits all crammed into a loaf pan, easy to break off and share.

The morning's gathering included a lot of information on upcoming events, such as the Bluegrass and BBQ festival coming up the last two weeks of May. What startled us was the sheer amount of food. You tell the good folks there that you're writing about food, and they take good care of you. They always take good care of folks, anyway. I was quite content with the ginormous bowl of succotash set on our table -- just like I am when I get a bowl on-park.
But it was followed by more food, and more food, and more food.

Such as Harvest Skillet (green and yellow string beans, carrots, potatoes and ham).

Such as very good fried chicken.

Such as the gargantuan tray of pork ribs and pulled pork barbecue that arrived at the table.

Corn on the cob.

Mashed potatoes and milk gravy.
A real family reunion-style meal that was passed around and enjoyed by all. Don't worry -- the leftovers (oh heavens, were there ever leftovers!) were sent to the park's cantina... and undoubtedly consumed with as much gusto as we mustered.
The Silver Dollar City folks also set us up with two desserts -- a slice of delectable Hummingbird Cake (no worries -- no hummingbirds were injured in the making of said cake) and a slice of Raspberry Lemon Torte like that proudly served on the Showboat Branson Belle. I could have inhaled it all, but I was too busy savoring my fourth piece of fried chicken. I'm all into chicken thighs, in case you were wondering.

We all headed out after that to different points in the park. Lots of people went to the ice cream shop, but my traveling companions and I headed down hill towards the Opera House to catch a show.
On the way, I captured lots of food-related photos, such as a succotash skillet in the making.

I refrained from entering Honey Heaven this time around -- I've purchased more honey and honey-related sweets there in the past decade than I care to admit. Highly addictive.

Silver Dollar City offers a whole lot of those foods you can't really get anywhere else commercially, such as hot-and-ready pork rinds (here's the before and after photos) that you eat like chips. There are also strange Ozarkian things like fried pickles and calico potatoes.

Barbecue is a big thing here now -- and I saw it in all its glory, ribs and brisket and chicken and pulled pork and beans, wafting from a couple of different places. Even with the vast repast I had just eaten, I was still tempted.

I was also heartened to find some truly accessible healthy snacks for kids being offered. Sure, there was plenty of kettle corn and fries to go around, but there were also neat cups of prepared fruit as well as whole fruit to purchase and nibble. I'm all about that.

We went to see the Zhejiang Chinese Acrobats show -- about an hour of incredible feats, just about the right amount of time to be amazed and to have an infant fall asleep in your arms. Beautiful artistry. I love this time of year... WorldFest is always rather cool.

After the show, we wandered and shopped and gawked. My insatiable appetite came back, and I wandered into the Frisco Barn, where delights from around the world were available. There I dined on Greek moussaka and spanikopita and Irish fish and chips. And completely forgot to photograph them. Silly me.

We had scheduled ourselves in to a session for the new Silver Dollar City Culinary and Craft School, which opened last fall. It's in a gorgeous building across from the Red Gold Hall. The craftwork inside comes from the park's own artisans and craftsmen, including this fabulous copper backsplash. I was not expecting such an impressive facility.

Our instructor was Debbie Uhrig, a native of Platt, MO. She had been a music educator but followed her path on to being a food writer (sound familiar?) and cooking consultant. She started doing cooking demos and ended up with the spectacular and wonderful job of sharing her knowledge with others at Silver Dollar City.

Debbie shared with us a lot of little tidbits about the park in addition to her own past.

For instance, the Red Gold Hall is named for a specific type of tomato grown around the turn of the 19th/20th century and later that was called "red gold" because it was a great cash crop.

She also shared tips for cooking bacon on sheet pans and revealed that all of the bacon served at SDC is cooked in that fashion.

The two soups she covered in her hour long class were created by people who worked there.

She demonstrated Silver Dollar City's Potato Leek Soup, a rich bacon-grease tinted concoction that was heavy with lots of cream and butter.
She also shared the recipe for the Ozarks Red Gold Bisque, which I thought was just about perfect and will be trying at home myself.

We also sampled the park's famous Ginger Cookies, and received recipes for what we had sampled. Yes, there are samples with the $10 class -- good sized samples that are worth sitting in during a time when you could be sampling the park's other goodies.

We had to leave shortly after class to make it to our dinner date.

On the way out, we passed by more of the park's food fare, including giant skillet dinners being prepared, hot funnel cakes being pulled out of the fat and dappled with powdered sugar,
and peanut and pecan brittle being handmade in the park's signature candy store.

Our dinner date was at one of Branson's many dinner shows. Once confined to just a few spots, the trend is growing, and for that we are somewhat happy. We have enjoyed the great show with Todd Oliver and his dogs on the Showboat
Branson Belle, and watched
the rodeo-like splendor (and eaten with our fingers) at the Dixie Stampede.

The new early dinner show at the Dick Clark American Bandstand Theater is quite different. For one, the hotspot features a full bar. For two, the show is definately for a different crowd -- Bob Anderson is a man who's made his money
off his unique ability to bring the Rat Pack back to life through musical interpretation (and what a fun little show it is).

What was strange, though, was the dinner itself. The salad was quite possibly the strangest salad I have encountered. It started off well -- lettuce, tomato, a little cabbage, peanuts. Then raisins, dried cranberries, fresh strawberries, croutons, and what
seemed to be Catalina dressing. Maybe it was a retro salad -- and that would have been kinda cool.

Our entrees were a little surprising because they weren't retro -- meat and potatoes, veggies and bread. Not that my traveling companion (my mom) didn't enjoy the pork tenderloin -- she said it was just fine. My chicken with its dollop of mango salsa was also fine. The mashed potatoes were filling and the veggies were... veggies. The diamond-shaped bread, though, was pretty awesome.

Dessert was surprisingly simple and good -- a pudding mousse layered with Oreo cookie bits and a bit of strawberry. And that's what I wanted to see more of.

I would recommend that the theater consider doing some sort of retro dish, such as Hot Dog Casserole or Creamed Chicken, stuffed green bell peppers or cabbage rolls, even fondue (now there'd be a fun thing to offer!). Maybe it'd be a bigger crowd-draw. Maybe not. Just a thought.

The show was great, and afterwards we took advantage of all the great photo opportunities available in the lobby, including a chance at an inter-generational photo with my mom and daughter.

Next morning, we got up and attended breakfast over at The Titanic, catered by a local place called Flame. Eggs Benedict and
custom-filled crepes were an excellent idea. I don't know if that also holds true for vodka-laced Bloody Mary soup in shotglasses... but when in Rome....

Later, we hopped over to the Branson Convention Center for the Great American Pie Show, and were lucky enough to chat with Al Roker of NBC's Today Show. He was in town to judge at the show and to offer copies of his new book. He's now my second-favorite Al.

The show itself was something. The exterior room contained booth after booth of vendors offering everything from cakes and pies to dips and chips -- you really could get a full meal off the offerings. The interior room featured the theater space and samples from Country Mart, Highland Dairy and more --
as well as the individual kitchens for those participating in competitions. I like the look and feel of the new Convention Center -- it's rather pretty.

We took time out while downtown to visit Dick's Five and Dime -- an emporium of all sorts of every sort of good you can imagine. I include it here because of its vast collection of kitchenware and implements -- from "pinch" scoops to aluminum funnels to pie birds to copper Jello molds. It's an impressively stuffed place to check out, but something that can absorb several hours of your afternoon if you let it.

We caught another dinner show Saturday night at the Circle B Chuckwagon Dinner and Show. This one, I thought, had the chance to be boring or expected. Instead, I found it to be the biggest and most pleasant food surprise of my trip. Talk about getting it right. There's popcorn for all comers when you arrive. Then everyone's served their chuckwagon meals -- big hefty servings of beef brisket (with a house BBQ sauce available), chunks of sausage, whole baked potatoes with butter, corn muffins (yes, they're Yankee sweet), baked beans, applesauce, and iced tea. Somehow, we missed out on our applesauce, but the food was incredibly good. I thought the beef brisket hit that perfect note on the moistness and seasoning scale even before the sauce was added. The corn muffins were also a favorite. The show also offers root beer and sasparilla for those who want more than tea to drink. The meal was capped off with a gooey and rich cinnamon roll that was perfect -- PERFECT for the evening. And the show was full of corn and beans of the comedy sort -- which ain't a bad thing.

Sunday morning we ventured over to Grand Village for breakfast at the Hard Luck Diner. It's a cute little 60s style diner where the wait staff sings for you. Not only did the cooks whip up a beef serving for pork-allergic me, we were plied with several rounds of pancakes. Of course, you go for the atmosphere -- and if you have an infant in the family, you'll get as much attention as the waiters.

We stopped in at Sugar Leaf Treats for more information about the family that runs the bakery and a taste of the baked goods. The apple strawberry turnovers were mighty fine.

One little secret -- Mulberry Mill, a little Victorian-era gift shop with a big secret. The shop spans three spaces -- and the one in the middle contains one of the best dip-sampling bars I have ever seen. There were a dozen different dip-and-dipper samples available to try, along with raspberry lemonade and two sorts of Fireside Coffee. For those who dig the sample gig, it's a must-stop.

Later in the day, we stopped in at one of our favorite places, Montana Mike's. The small steakhouse chain offers reasonably priced large hunks of beef and other good eating. All around town, you'll see coupon offerings for 1/2 an order of onion rings. This is what that looks like -- enough onion rings to happily serve two.

I usually go for a ribeye or a sirloin dinner, but this time around I asked for a suggestion. Our waitress recommended the Ribeye Steak Sandwich ($9.99) -- and I'm glad I did. The hearty seven inches of butter-soft beef on an oversized bun was accompanied by a mayo sauce on the side and lettuce and tomato on the sandwich -- and an impossibly large serving of French fries. Seriously large -- Whatta-Burger large. I found myself completely unable to comprehend consuming said fries, thanks to the vast nature of the sandwich with which they were served.

We also sampled the Five Berry Cobbler ($5.99) -- raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, cranberries, and strawberries cooked up under a crunchy crust and topped with vanilla bean ice cream. I don't know how anyone could ever get around to trying dessert at Montana Mike's, though -- the portions are all so very large.

We wrapped up our culinary sojourn with a Sunday night dinner -- namely, the five course Winemaker Dinner that was part of the Missouri Wine Festival at Chateau on the Lake. The dishes, again by Chef Knopp, were accompanied by wines from Mount Pleasant Winery -- an old winery with a new facility in Branson.

After an appetizer of brie and beef salami wrapped together and served with Ten Bucks Sparkling (a refreshingly eppervescent and sweet white), we enjoyed a salad course of Baked Brie and Portabello Mushroom with Parmesan cheese and pine nuts. We did find the pea tendrils that accompanied the dish a bit unnecessary.

The intermezzo that followed, a shaved lemon ice, was perfect.

Dinner was Sorghum-Glazed Salmon with Grilled Beef Medallions, served with sculpted Yukon whipped potatoes and a savory stack of marinated and grilled vegetables with rosemary.

The meat and fish were good -- but it's the vegetables that stick out in my mind, simple comforting food that held their own with the more expensive protein items.

And then there was dessert -- a lovely chocolate glazed cylinder next to a small pile of cream that first led me to think "oh my, a Ding Dong." Nothing of the sort. In fact, this Hazelnut Marquise Au Chocolate was a compressed and delightful stand of power chocolate with a side of sweet flavored cream. The port served with it gave the dish a very round and chubby feel, not at all unwelcome. It was a good and fitting ending to the day.

I'm still de-charging from the trip -- and its uber-rich food. But I do have to say -- Branson has come a long way in a short time. Many of the shows and eateries are doing well to offer visitors not only something new but other items that are orally accessible and that appeal to the standard diner. The prices for these things is not at all unreasonable as well.

Anyway, be looking for the article in Let's Go, and more about my latest Branson adventure in upcoming editions of this blog.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Rite of Spring.

Some may count the blooming of jonquils and dogwoods as the first sign of spring.

For others, it's children playing in the Easter sunshine, searching out eggs.

Some even note the vernal arrival through the dusting of pollen that sends them fleeing to a car wash.

And there are those who don't count spring as having sprung until the farmers have migrated back to their perpetual roost at the River Market.

These vendors and produce growers and distributors and just general folks return year after year to participate in the Farmers Market... specifically, the Little Rock Farmers Market, which is celebrating its 35th year of operation.

They come bearing all manner of produce, both local and non-local. Some bring local products such as jarred honey and salsa.

Others offer shucked peas and beans, okra, the first tomatoes of the season and the first dug sweet potatoes.

Still more offer spindly new plants to take home for you to raise -- tomato vines, bean sproutings, and any number of fresh herbs.

There are also those who bring in fruits whose time has yet to dawn here -- watermelons from hothouses, mushrooms from Pennsylvania, bananas from South America.

What makes these many items attractive are their prices -- and their freshness, and their not-picked-over-ness, whatever the word for that is.

It all creates such a colorful melange, a backdrop to the starting of the day.

Maybe not so convenient... I mean, you do have to go downtown and find a spot to park... but certainly lovely.

I didn't have a lick of trouble finding a spot at 7 a.m. along President Clinton Avenue. In fact, I parked mere yards away from St. Vincent Plaza, one of the streets that lies next to the River Market Pavilion.

The street is closed to all but foot traffic most of the time, and on market days it's lined with vendors of crafts such as patchwork pants, shopping bags, bible covers and knitted hats. In fact, the hats were a bit too much of a distraction for me, and I wasn't calmed until one ended up on my head, my wallet a shy bit lighter.

My companion had asked for cauliflower and cucumber, and while I saw none of the former there I did see many perky examples of the latter.

I walked westward from one end of the covered area to the other, snapping all sorts of photos as I went.

Being the first day of this season, I suppose I expected more bustle, perhaps live shots from the local TV stations or the bobbing sight of another photographer among the masses.

But there were no masses, just a handful of fellow gawkers and a few serious shoppers, buzzing about like fat bumblebees around an azalea.

The soft conch-shell echo of traffic over the I-30 river bridge didn't seem so loud here, though we were a mere block and a half away from its convergence over the River Market.

Orange hues graced the far-off sky over the blue and white peaks of the Riverfest Amphitheater stage.

I snapped away, asking a few questions but generally taking in a bit here and there.

Strawberries were everywhere -- being one of the few Arkansas crops that's all ready to go. They come from Cabot now, and in a few weeks Bald Knob berries should also arrive. The fat red berries lay flat after flat after flat across tables all along the way.

Some items seemed art-inspired, or maybe the other way around. I enjoyed the colors of young green onions and scallions and more, vibrant and far more colorful than any kitchen art could duplicate.

I saw bunches of carrots, parsnips, and radishes bound together with their roots out, like some wild sort of Dale Chihuly glasswork.

There were also flowers, loads of flowers in glorious combinations in hanging baskets, individually potted, and all still rooted in fine soil. The bursts of color amongst the green were yet another reminder that the long nights of winter are over for another several months.

After my little sojourn, my whetted appetite lead me over to the Old Mill Bakery truck. I'd crawled out of bed earlier than the rest of the family this morning and high-tailed it on down, and had missed my morning snack. A Lemon Raspberry Walnut scone was just the thing, along with a little Snickerdoodle Cafe au Lait from Coast Cafe.

It seems weird, Shaka Smoke Lodge being gone. Many of the other businesses inside forgo the morning breakfast rush. I was surprised to see that Casa Manana was not ready for breakfast -- which was a change, since I was craving a good Huervos con Machaca to warm me up a little.

As I savored the scone and coffee, I took down a few notes. There's a bakery operating in here, the Brown Sugar Bakery, and the selections looked mighty fine. But while there's plenty of bustle behind that counter, the lines tend to form further down the way at Boulevard Bread Company and at Coast Cafe. Perhaps it's the coffee. Perhaps it's the avoidance of calories. Who knows?

A group of men sat sharing a newspaper, talking little. A few work-bound suits hustled through, grabbing up orders and hustling right back out, barely noticing the near-perfect temperature or the market outside.

I finished my scone and my notes and took what remained of my coffee out with me, ready to knock out a bit of dinner shopping. First stop, of course, was the cucumbers, procured from a Little Rock based company. The glossy tubular orbs slipped into my handbag, to shortly be joined by other delights.

I was especially pleased to be able to pick up a couple of green tomatoes. My companion had seen them on TV the other day and had told me straight out he hadn't had fried green tomatoes in years. I had to correct him on that -- they appeared on his plate last summer, dusted with cornmeal and brown from a

cast iron skillet. But his short memory simply means they must be replicated rather soon.

I also picked up sweet potatoes to mash for my daughter, who's starting solids already and who can't get enough of the orange tubers. At 80 cents a pound and with all sorts of sizes available, I can easily grab several smaller specimen and pay out of my pocket change.

Adding in a whole quart basket of half-dollar sized wax potatoes, and I was off to head home before the rest of the family got about for the day.

It's the start of the half-year run of the Little Rock Farmers Market -- an April-October affair that meets from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., Tuesdays and Saturdays. If you need more information, check out the website.