Sunday, May 18, 2008

The view from everywhere

I might have mentioned to you once or several dozen times that I recently celebrated a birthday. Josh was away at the time but after he finally arrived home, he and I went out for dinner. One of my many food related goals was to have dinner at Restaurant Medure in Ponte Vedra Beach before leaving. Here was my opportunity! I wiggled myself into the best table in town, fulfilled a goal (I am driven, even when it comes to dinner), and celebrated a birthday in the ever-so-sleek-and-chic dining room at Matthew Medure's second restaurant adventure in greater Jacksonville.

I feel I should restate how sleek it is. If a restaurant could wear a tuxedo, it is in Ralph Collection. It is dark and awash in icy-cool tones: some grey here, black there, greige there. The woods are dark, dark, dark. The lights are low, low, low. I mean so, very, low. There is one tiny tea light in a tiny glass holder on the table. The place is minimal in that way, not in many others which is why my mind is stuck on the tea light. It just does not fit, it does not say well-thought out. And it might be the only thing in the entire enterprise which did not. Maybe they wanted to see if I would notice? If it was going to wear on my last neurotic nerve for days on end (oh, has it ever). If it was a little joke on our sense of thoroughness?

It has driven me near mad ever since. I have considered, in every single hour that has passed, how many other things could be placed in the spot which would be polished and minimal. How easy it would be to arrive at something worthy of the Medure show: A tiny perfect water lily. One small chocolate-color rose left on the center of the table, as if someone romantic and forgetful had just stepped away, a small piece of creamy or dark sea glass to hold that one maddening tea light. But now you see how my mind works: The tart and snappy spinach salad served over the itty-bittiest piece of duck confit, the show-stopping duck breast (on sweet potato, kind of confusing given the heat of the day and beachy location), and the billowy, winking chocolate souffle with creme anglaise. Oh, it was all so minutely and perfectly tied up. Neat as a pin, delicious, and so refined. And were it not my birthday, and had we not met another lovely couple, I might have remembered the entire experience less than the candle because it remains so very perplexing.

There is just one other thing I might mention, knowing full-well I am running down an well-disputed road: It's a tad too dressed up for a place at the beach. But Ponte Vedra must respond accordingly, lest Medure not have survived for seven years. I will never argue to dress the guests or the place-settings down: Not if Jimmy Buffet himself tortures me. However, the sleekness of the place seemed wildly disjointed against the guests, many of whom appeared to be golfers just off the course and some other hip, laid-back beachy sorts. I think the joint is a glam memorial to all of the super-metro destinations travelers might be accustomed to, certainly we were, coming as we have from New York and Boston. But I am not sure I want that on vacation. I am not sure I want to be blown away by what a museum the place is. I might like it to cool down a little, be a smidge more welcoming, pat itself on the back one less time, take a moment to smile at the customers, and have a banquette more than five inches from the floor. You know, be a likeable place I would want to come back to on a Wednesday, say, and have it lend itself just a tad more to a "regular."

It is a date-celebration place, certainly. But I would like it to remain and be successful. I would like it to cozy up a little, be less self-conscious. The trouble with it as I see it now is that it would only pop back into mind for this purpose; celebrating something big. But it is not excessive nor even unreasonable in price, they have a very nice wine selection, and I suspect the servers might even be nice people who smile from time to time in real life. I would like to be familiar enough that were I resident here, I would feel justified in eating there before my next birthday. As it stands right now, I don't.

All that said, I hope two things for you: I hope you get to go to Restaurant Medure in this big life. And when you do, I hope they have done something about that infernal tea light. Alright, enough about that.

Sometimes I wonder if I imagine things just to amuse myself. But, I am relieved to report I am not the only one who read this blog and spotted, ironically, a Gosling's Rum advertisement in a recent Bon Appetit. There it is in glaring print, "for seven stubborn generations our family has simply refused to place quantity above quality." Curious. Maybe the quality initiative was time sensitive? Or did not extend to their new spiffy plastic bottling practice? Possibly it was just practical, and something was agreed to in a manufacturing and procurement meeting: Enough is enough, quality is for other rum's! Change to the plastic, we are throwing off our costumes and preparing to disappoint widely and shamelessly! Tell the supply chain to stock us mad full of all that plastic crap! I am off to my office to watch the profits roll in, boys!

Not now, not ever, will I believe that quality is job one in that house. No, sir. But, I will not go into that again. Nor will I go anywhere Gosling's is served quietly! Here I sit, gazing at their pompous ad and giggling to myself over the three bottles evident in their glossy pic: All glass, and neary a plastic bottle in sight. I am no rum rube. I am not a Dark and Stormy devotee of such blindness that I cannot see their obvious slight. I am so over their stuff, to be perfectly eloquent about our spilt. You go your way, Mr. Gosling, and I will go mine. But I promise you one thing: Should you ever find the Blushing Hostess down on her luck and holding a bottle, it will not be plastic. There are just some cliffs from which one may never, in any form of unenviable straights, fall. And your plastic bottle, is at the bottom of that unacceptable cliff.

Enough of that, too. Righty-o, then. Off we go. In the meanwhile, I continue on, cooking and baking, while the world goes off the deep end holding plastic rum bottles and cheap tea lights around me.

Yesterday, there was a mixed bag of experimentation: Oh, another bout with vegetarian cooking which rarely truly satisfies us (but I will keep trudging). It seemed a brilliant idea to replace the ground skirt steak in the ragu we enjoyed so with mushrooms and, using the same process, attempt to create a rich, silky vegetarian ragu. It was fine. But I must own up to tasting it twice, the first time re-seasoning it and the second time (throwing down the mantle of vegetarian ragu while wistfully remembering my skirt steak ragu) I dishonored the vegetarian establishment by pitching two tablespoons of hard-fought beef demi-glace into the pot. My, it was deep, luxe, and flavorful then. We all loved it, including my bouncing baby girl. I would give you the recipe but I am afraid you will not return if I encourage you to make demi-glace to that end. It is well worth the trouble, but I know my place.

And then the Chickpea-Artichoke "Meatballs." They were quite good, just the smallest bit dry, but I am getting there. These will reappear here one fine and victorious day, but today is not that day, Friends. Oh, and that fabulous faux Arugula-spiked Caesar dressing. Well, we'll get there.

I will tell you, beamingly, that I slayed at breakfast though: Huevos Rancheros (sans Beans) with my own Salsa Verde, Breakfast Potatoes Lyonaisse (in honor of Raffles Hotel in Singapore), and Strawberry Pecan Bread. That's right. I only wish you had been here. I will tell you how to arrive at all of these items but you must be patient. I am typing as fast as I can and you know, I must experience life in order to write for you. I am dropping the bread recipe into our collective vault, it comes from a purely insane recipe in The Southern Junior League Cookbook edited by Ann Seranne: a volume neither actually so complete as to be true in calling itself a cookbook, nor in claiming to be edited. But there are ideas in there, however rough they are, that might surprise you. I hope you enjoy this one. In the meanwhile, sit here next to me, we need to be stalwart and enduring as they throw tea lights and plastic recyclables at us. Someone, Darling, someone, must hang on to decorum as the world falters.

Strawberry Pecan Bread
Adapted from The Southern Junior League Cookbook
Serves 12, at least

1 cup butter, softened
1 1/2 cups sugar
4 eggs
3 cups all purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup buttermilk
3/4 cup strawberry preserves
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Zest of one half a lemon
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
1/2 cup toasted pecans, chopped
1/2 cup strawberries, chopped

Preheat the oven to 350. Generously butter two loaf pans or one large bundt pan. Set aside.

Sift together dry ingredents; Flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer or with a hand mixer, cream butter until light and fluffy. Add sugar and mix until evenly combined, scraping down the sides of the bowl once during mixing. Add dry ingredients in three parts, alternating with the buttermilk in two additions, always begin and end with dry ingredients. Stop twice in process to scrape down the bowl. Do not over-mix.

Add vanilla, lemon zest, cinnamon, nutmeg, and preserves. Mix to combine. Scrape down the bowl once again. Add pecans and stawberries and mix gently only to combine.

Transfer the mixture in generally even amounts into the pan(s). Bake for one hour or until the center of the cake springs back completely to your touch. Remove from the oven and allow to cool in the pan(s) for ten minutes then turn the cake(s) on to a cooling rack and allow to cool completely before slicing.

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