Spare Me

Wendy Jo Peterson

by ALISON F. JOHNSON   photography by  ROBERTO WESTBROOK

Ancient Greeks and Romans believed it could help prevent bee stings and ease ailments. In modern times, it often lands on top-10 lists of aphrodisiac foods. So why do so many people avoid asparagus, even at its peak in late spring and early summer?

One reason: Cooking it too long, especially if the stalks are already limp, results in a mushy mess.

“That’s the only way a lot of people have had it, and it’s disgusting,” says Wendy Jo Peterson, a registered dietitian, culinary nutritionist and author. “They need to try it al dente, with that great crunch.”

At the grocery store, don’t concentrate on color (asparagus can be green, purple or white) but look for firm stalks with bottoms that don’t appear dried out or ashy, says Peterson, who is based in San Diego and has a residence in Virginia Beach. At home, trim the bottoms and place them in an inch of water, then cover the spears with a plastic bag.

And rather than boiling, blanch: Cook asparagus in boiling water for about two minutes, followed by a 30-second soak in ice water. Or wrap baby stalks in prosciutto or bacon and bake for 10 or 15 minutes at

400 degrees (often a picky-kid favorite).

Growing asparagus takes patience, as seeds or year-old crowns planted in early spring likely won’t be ready for two or three years. The reward is a hardy perennial that can tolerate cold and dry spells and produce for 15-plus years, especially in plots with full sun and good drainage, according to the Virginia Cooperative Extension.

So shoot, asparagus haters – give it another chance?

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POTATO-CRUSTED ASPARAGUS AND PROSCIUTTO QUICHE
by Wendy Jo Peterson

 Makes: 8 wedges.

Note: Grate the potatoes into cold water to keep them from browning, or use grated potatoes from the refrigerator/freezer section of the grocery. We made our quiche with a 10-inch springform pan, 9 eggs,   1/3 cup half-and-half, and a 1-pound bag of prepared grated potatoes. Serving suggestion: Mimosas and salad tossed with Champagne vinaigrette.

INGREDIENTS
Potato crust
2 russet potatoes or prepared frozen grated potatoes
¼ red onion
½ teaspoon paprika
¼ teaspoon sea salt
¼ teaspoon cracked black pepper
1 tablespoon olive oil

Quiche filling
6 eggs
¼ cup half-and-half
2 ounces prosciutto, chopped, or more if desired
1½ cups asparagus, chopped
1 teaspoon dried thyme¼ teaspoon sea salt
¼ teaspoon cracked black pepper
1½ ounces goat cheese, crumbled, or more if desired

PREPARATION

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Grate potatoes and onion, then squeeze dry on paper towels.

In a bowl, toss potatoes, onion, paprika, and the first portions of salt and pepper.

Rub olive oil across the bottom of a 9-inch pie pan and press the potato mixture in and up along the sides.

Bake crust for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, in the same bowl, gently whisk eggs and half-and-half for 1 minute. Stir in prosciutto, asparagus, thyme, and the remaining salt and pepper. Pour mixture over potato crust and top with goat cheese. (The crust need not be cool.)

Reduce oven temperature to 375 and bake quiche for 35 to 40 minutes or until completely set in the center. (Gently shake the pan to see if the center is set.)

Ol’ Softy

by KIM O’BRIEN ROOT
photography by KEITH LANPHER

Usually considered restaurant-only fare, soft-shell crabs really aren’t that difficult to prepare at home.

The key is making sure they’re fresh, says Jerry Bryan, one of the owners of Virginia Beach’s Coastal Grill, where fried soft-shell crabs are popular.

That means practically right off the boat. Soft-shell crabs – sometimes referred to as shedders – are blue crabs plucked from the water right after they molt their hard shell but before a second, replacement shell has time to harden. Coastal Grill gets them fresh from its preferred Suffolk watermen three times a week.

Bryan prefers using the whales – a more mature soft-shell crab that’s about 5 inches across and has more meat. After being cleaned, soaked in milk and dredged in flour, the crabs are deep-fried, drizzled with scallion butter and served with homemade tartar sauce. The soft-shells are so tender, the delicate claws are easily pulled apart. They practically melt in your mouth.

“There’s no real mystery to it,” says Bryan, who’s been a chef for some 35 years and this winter opened Metropolitan Oyster Exchange in Virginia Beach. “A lot of people think we do something special.”

He advises cleaning the crabs as close to cooking time as possible. Care should be taken when frying: The crabs can hold the milk they’re dipped in, which bubbles up and causes the oil to splatter. For easier frying, Bryan suggests cutting the crabs in half, front to back, and then the remaining halves into thirds before frying. They can also be cooked on a grill.

DEEP-FRIED SOFT-SHELL CRABS WITH SCALLION BUTTER
from Coastal Grill

INGREDIENTS

Crabs, allowing 2 per person
Milk
Flour to dredge
Canola oil, enough to fill bottom of a steep-sided pot or frittata pan
Scallion butter (recipe follows)

PREPARATION

Clean soft-shells by lifting the corners of the top shell back and removing the gills (dead man) on both ends. On the belly of the crab, lift and pull off the apron, being careful not to rip the top shell. Rinse the crab in a bowl, then drain the water and add milk to cover.

Heat 1½ to 2 inches of canola oil to 350 degrees in a steep-sided pot or frittata pan; the crab may pop and splatter while cooking. You should have just enough oil that crabs will not touch each other or the bottom of fryer.

Lift crabs out of the milk and place in the flour, shaking the container so that the crab is covered with flour. Shake off any excess.

Place the crab in hot oil, allowing 2 minutes per side. Remove crabs to paper towels to absorb excess oil. Place on platter and spoon on scallion butter.

SCALLION BUTTER

INGREDIENTS
2 sticks unsalted butter
½ cup sliced green onions
1 teaspoon kosher salt

PREPARATION

Melt butter, along with other ingredients, on low, low heat until the butter is just melted. Take care not to heat the butter so long that it separates and becomes greasy, Bryan warns. Add more salt to taste. Pour over crabs.

Strawberry Jam

Recipe, Strawberry Preserves, Preserves, Strawberry, Distinction Magazine, Distinction, Magazine, Virginia

by LORRAINE EATON
photography by  ROBERTO WESTBROOK

For local farmers, strawberry fields really are forever.

May marks the season’s peak in Pungo, when fields fill with pickers plunking fat red berries into baskets and buckets.

But for the state’s largest strawberry producers, the season starts in August, when refrigerated rigs arrive bearing hundreds of thousands of “tips” – spindly, pinkie-length stalks with a serrated leaf or two on top and a few hairs of root at the base.

It doesn’t end until June when the last picker exits the rows and it’s time to prep for the August delivery from Prince Edward Island, the Canadian province where most local plants are propagated.

In between September plantings and spring picking, farmers fight deluge and fungus.

When temperatures drop in winter, farmers tuck rows under blankets as big as whole fields and haul out miles of irrigation pipe and begin all-night vigils, knowing that as the water freezes on the plants, the heat that’s released can keep them alive.

Mike Cullipher, a fourth-generation Virginia Beach grower who tends more than 5 acres of certified organic and conventional berries, has seen it all. His advice for pickers: Make sure the berries are red through and through, and start picking at the far end of the rows.

 “It seems like everybody goes to the first plant on the first row,” he says, “regardless of what we tell them.”

Cullipher figures he eats about 2 pounds of berries a day, standing right in the rows, checking for ripeness. But he grew up with a pantry stocked with strawberry preserves, made with this century-old recipe that passed to his mother, Becky Malbon Cullipher, from her grandmother to her mother. Truly a Tidewater tradition.

STRAWBERRY PRESERVES
Makes: 4 half-pint jars. Sealed properly, they keep for up to six months.

INGREDIENTS
6 cups strawberries – about 2 quarts. Select firm, ripe ones.
4½ cups sugar
1 tablespoon butter

PREPARATION

Wash, drain and cap berries. Leave them whole or chop them, but do not crush (jam is made from crushed fruit; preserves are made from larger pieces).

Combine the fruit and sugar in alternating layers and let stand for 8 to 10 hours or overnight in the refrigerator or a cool place.

Heat the mixture to boiling, stirring gently. Boil rapidly, stirring as needed to prevent sticking.

Add butter to reduce foaming. Cook until syrup is somewhat thick, about 15 or 20 minutes.

Remove from heat. Ladle into hot, clean jars; seal.

Venture Out

Restaurant, Hampton Roads, Pizza, Tater Tots, Distinction Magazine, Virginia, Virginia Restaurant, Gourmet, Gastropub

by MICHELLE WASHINGTON
photography by KEITH LANPHER

When the quests of three innovators converged, a haven of comfort food with quirky twists came together in Hampton.

Problem solving keeps Christina Bauhof going. For years, she fueled her computer-science trained brain with this puzzle: What makes a restaurant comfortable, welcoming, the kind of place where you wish you could eat every night of the week?

Bauhof pursued the answer with determination and data procured with her key-chain measuring tape, a gift from her dad in high school. When she ate at a restaurant, she measured the distance between tables to gauge the proper ratio for maximum capacity with minimum eavesdropping. She assessed the depth of tables and booths for relaxed seating and dining. She checked and rechecked the height of bars and bar stools, calculating the room needed to sit with crossed legs without cracking a knee. She noted that the bar rail had to be unobtrusive to encourage folks to lean and linger.

She knew, without a doubt, what kind of restaurant she would open if she could.

“I had always wanted to do a pizza place that’s not just a pizza place,” she says.

Bauhof’s husband, Carlyle Bland, had long believed that success in his former profession, economic development, depended on a surprising tenet: Stay serious about whimsy. He sought ways to draw people to downtown Hampton: Boat parades on dry land. A New Orleans, Mardi Gras-style “beading” event that required tossing hundreds of strands of shiny beads into the trees. Modeled after the running of the bulls in Pamplona, a “Rolling of the Bulls” that substituted roller derby divas for livestock.

“Non sequiturs are a great marketing tool,” Bland says.

Together, the pair knew, they could create a restaurant that would offer comfort and fun. But they needed a chef who would fit. They found a man who uses process and analysis to make fun, whimsical food: John Ledbetter, who spent 10 years perfecting his recipe for tater tots.

His affinity for crispy potatoes – not of the french fry variety – dated to when he was a kid, learning to cook by watching Julia Child on television. She taught him to make salmon with a potato crust. Later, he went to culinary school but abandoned it when he realized he was learning more by working two restaurant jobs – a Greek place in the morning, an Italian place in the evening – and getting paid for his education to boot.

His first night on the line at the Italian place, ridiculed by the other cooks while sloshing through a long shift at the pasta station, sealed his determination.

“I just decided I’m gonna get really good at this,” Ledbetter says.

That meant, among many other things, figuring out what to do with leftover mashed potatoes. They’re always around. They wind up in soup, in gnocchi, in potato pancakes. But he envisioned the world’s most perfect tater tots, the pinnacle of comfort food: golden and crisp outside, creamy and lush inside, kissed with enough salt to make eating one a mere gateway to eating a dozen.

His meeting with Bauhof and Bland was part familiarity, part serendipity. Bland knows Ledbetter’s parents; both Bland and Bauhof knew him from stints as a cook at restaurants on East Queens Way in Hampton. And it so happened that Ledbetter needed a job when his folks told him to go talk to Bland and Bauhof. They met one day in the winter of 2012 to discuss opening a restaurant in a recently vacated spot on that strip, one Bauhof had coveted for a decade: a long building with exposed brick walls and an open kitchen. Bland brought experience from 10 years in his first restaurant adventure, Marker 20, a locals-style pub on East Queens Way. Bauhof brought her pizza-place-that’s-not-just-a-pizza-place concept, along with a yen for a cocktails menu that offered both classics and modern spirits.

Ledbetter added suggestions for tapas and a few entrees that elevate and honor comfort staples – meatballs made with ground pork and bathed in butter, chicken stock and Thai pepper sauce; sausage smoked in-house; pork belly with sauteed apples. And he added a few dishes with quirky flavor combinations: asparagus salad with popcorn, a “Beet-za” pizza with roasted beets and arugula.

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Those, and his hard-won tater tots, square and superb.

“I’ve had tater tots all my life,” Bland says, running his hands through his hair. “I’ve never had them like he made them.”

And so, in May 2013, 52½ days after taking possession of the building at 9 East Queens Way in Hampton, Bauhof and Bland opened Venture Kitchen and Bar, with Ledbetter as head chef.

On a busy Saturday night, Venture’s line cooks churn out orders for salads and pizzas and tater tots and one of the night’s specials, a “corn dog Parmesan” with a house-made chicken and duck sausage in place of a hot dog. In a quieter space at the back of the kitchen, Ledbetter kneads, cuts, pulls and rolls his way through a slab of pizza dough bigger than a bed pillow in preparation for Sunday brunch. “I stay two days ahead of pizza dough,” he says.

He perfected his dough recipe in the weeks between signing on with Bland and Bauhof and Venture’s opening. “I had a pizza stone and a pizza peel and two months of spare time,” he says. Now he’s made it a routine, 25 pounds of flour and a cup of yeast and plenty of experience into the bowl of an industrial-size mixer with a skull for a gear shift.

Finding the rhythm of the restaurant took time. Those days between signing the lease and opening the place sped like lightning for all three of Venture’s head honchos. Bauhof and Bland built boxes to raise the booths and constructed table stands from pipe. Bauhof pulled some decor ideas from the Internet; the trio used gas pipe to suspend wood shelves to hold liquor bottles at the bar, boosting the industrial-chic, loft feel of the space. Bland added lab beakers and a science set with crucibles and glass bulbs. Bauhof had trouble choosing a single stain for some cedar planks they mounted on the wall, so Ledbetter applied all six shades. The mottled effect evokes natural weathering rather than indecision.

Bland introduces his wife as a rocket scientist; he’s only half joking. Bauhof holds degrees in aerospace engineering and computer science. She began her career working on airplane engines in Cincinnati. “I saw people whose whole life depended on the No. 5 bearing,” she says, one steel orb in a series of steel orbs inside a plane engine. “I decided that was not me.”

She shifted to computer programming, work that suited the analytical, problem-solving bent of her brain. But too often, the work was isolating. She craved social interaction. “I was by myself,” she says. “Nobody to bounce ideas off of.”

Bland had moved to Hampton to work in economic development and served as the deputy director of the nonprofit Downtown Hampton Development Partnership. His efforts to draw people to downtown leaned on his particular perception of fun. “I don’t want to appeal to everyone,” he says. “I want to appeal to people who like things a little strange, a little odd.”

But he, too, came to a turning point in his career, a moment when he would have to move up or move on to another city. He didn’t want to leave Hampton.

Opening a restaurant seemed to provide the answer for both of them.

Marker 20 came first, on New Year’s Eve of 2002. Bauhof kept working at home, but they both watched and waited for the space Venture now occupies to come open. On the 10th anniversary of opening Marker 20, they got word: The spot would soon be available for lease. They signed papers within days.

Bland calls their places, within a couple doors of each other, “his and hers restaurants.” They plan to host block parties again this summer.

For Ledbetter, Bland’s offer to work as head chef at Venture also solved a problem. When he returned to Hampton after spending time in Atlanta, Ledbetter hunted for a job for five months before his parents sent him over to talk to Bland. Bland knew his work; he had even employed him for a while at Marker 20.

Ledbetter impressed them both with his resourcefulness, his willingness to try new dishes, and his drive to perfect recipes. When Ledbetter decided he’d like to try cold-smoking salmon, Bland said, he rigged up his own smoker using a cardboard beer box and some dryer vent tubing. Then there’s the pastrami quest. For five years, Ledbetter said, he’s tried to make pastrami. “I’ve tried 300 different recipes,” he says. “When I put it in my mouth, it doesn’t taste like pastrami.”

He has a slender frame, unruly hair and a rumbly bass voice. Despite his love of cooking he sometimes gets a bit claustrophobic in the kitchen; the line cooks have learned to read the signs and give him more room. It’s born of friendship and respect, and Ledbetter runs a harmonious kitchen. He and his staff get along so well that they spent a bleary post-Christmas party Sunday morning getting identical tattoos of a bacon strip on their hands.

“Sometimes it’s fun to do something stupid,” he says.

Little stupidity shows up in his food. Sam Garrity, one of the line cooks at Venture, can fire a half a dozen dishes at once: cheddar fondue with port wine, tots in the fryer, apples sauteeing in butter to top crispy pork belly, meatballs warming in a saucepan with the rich, spicy sauce Ledbetter created.

“John’s particular about what comes out of the kitchen,” Garrity says. “He wants it to be right.” From the open kitchen, the two can both see customers’ reaction to the food. It’s part of the equation that cannot be analyzed with a measuring tape on a key chain.

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Dinner & A Show

Chef's Table, Chefs Table, Cooking Lessons HAmpton Roads, Cooking Lessons Williamsburg, cooking classes williamsburg, Williamsburg, A Chef’s Kitchen in Williamsburg, Chef John Gonzales, Distinction Magazine, Distinction, A Chef's Kitchen, Hampton Roads, Tidewater

Cooking school was never this fun.

Chef's Table, Chefs Table, Cooking Lessons HAmpton Roads, Cooking Lessons Williamsburg, cooking classes williamsburg, Williamsburg, A Chef’s Kitchen in Williamsburg, Chef John Gonzales, Distinction Magazine, Distinction, A Chef's Kitchen, Hampton Roads, Tidewater

At A Chef’s Kitchen in Williamsburg, a last touch of bourbon on candied walnuts
adds to John Gonzales’ impact.

by JANINE LATUS
photography by KEITH LANPHER

John Gonzales pours nuts onto a cloth napkin and folds it in thirds. He’s wearing a double-breasted chef’s jacket and a lapel microphone, and he’s showing his audience how to break pecans into pretty pieces for the sauce for the night’s dessert.

“Julia Child would probably just grab a skillet and whack them,” he says, “but I’m going to go with a mallet. You can do this in the food processor, but then the ones on the bottom turn to dust and the ones at the top float around like cows at the top of the tornado.”

Gonzales, 60, is co-owner and executive chef of A Chef’s Kitchen in Williamsburg. He also is a cookbook author and a performance artist whose medium is food. Behind him, stainless steel pans and bowls and skillets are stacked on open shelves. Ladles, tongs and spatulas hang or sprout from countertop canisters or are otherwise arrayed for easy reach when the bourbon flares or it’s time to de glace du fond, “which is French for ‘scrape up the brown bits in the bottom of the pan.’ ”

These, plus a Viking stove and a series of ovens, are his tools.

Tiered in front of him are three long tables, each place set with four forks, two spoons, and three wine glasses. Seated are 26 people, slightly lubricated with Champagne and eager not just to eat Gonzales’ cooking but also to learn how he makes it. Some have traveled from as far away as Ohio and Wisconsin, here for an anniversary or birthday, a few having timed their trips for his venison feast held every fall. To Gonzales’ side is his sous chef, Nick Allen, who doesn’t even glance down at the onions he’s slicing thin enough to read through.

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Teaching is a natural part of Gonzales’ professional arc, which includes the Watergate,
the Jockey Club,two of his own restaurants and Colonial Williamsburg.
Two Williamsburg cookbooks bear his name.

The idea for this combination restaurant and cooking school was born back in 2001, when Gonzales and his wife, Wanda Gonzales, were eating lunch at a many-TV’d sports bar in northern Michigan. Around them were bearded, plaid-shirted men, all of them watching Emeril Live on the Food Network, and John lamented aloud that while everyone got to watch the food being prepared, very few people got to actually taste it. Wouldn’t it be fun to have a restaurant where he could teach people how to cook what they were being served?

Gonzales (the second syllable rhymes with “sales”) grew up in Williamsburg in the Robert Carter house, right next to the Governor’s Palace. His father, Donald J. Gonzales, was a vice president in the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation under longtime president Carl Humelsine. Young John moved to Holland, Michigan, in the early ’70s to attend college, where he washed dishes at night to cover costs.

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New Zealand Cervena venison with bing cherry gastrique, roasted green beans,
and butternut squash and parsnip puree.

“I lasted three months,” he says, and his audience laughs.

His trajectory changed when two of the night cooks drunkenly sneaked into the kitchen to dress a couple of deer they’d shot off-season. The owner caught them and the police were called.

“When I came to work at 4 that afternoon I found out that I had been promoted,” Gonzales says, “and I’ve been cooking ever since.”

He is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America – “what we call the CIA,” he says – and was executive chef at the Watergate Hotel and the Jockey Club in Washington’s Fairfax Hotel, which became the Ritz-Carlton – “and they didn’t fire me, so that looks like a big jump on my resume.” He owned two restaurants – one in Maryland, one in West Virginia – and eventually was invited back to Williamsburg to take charge of the historic area’s taverns.

While there he wrote two cookbooks – The Colonial Williamsburg Tavern Cookbook and Holiday Fare: Favorite Williamsburg Recipes – the latter of which contains the recipe for this night’s corn bread.

The first thing you do with the corn bread recipe,” he says, twirling butter in a pre-heated cast iron pan until it’s brown, its sugar caramelized, “is follow it. This is baking, so it requires precision. It’s not like making a soup, where you can throw in the spare pepper in the bottom drawer.”

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With Nick Allen assisting, Gonzales steers a joy ride of science and art:
Time the baking soda precisely; shun salt containing calcium silicate.
Hanging monitors provide close-ups for the students, who must book months ahead.

He’s using unsalted butter, because salt interferes with the chemistry of the cooking and keeps the butter from turning brown. “And they’re going to add the lousy kind of salt to it,” Gonzales says, “so we don’t want to buy salt from the butter company.”

He pours a handful of Beattie’s corn meal out of its yellow bag and demonstrates how it clumps in his fist. “Quaker brand is like dry sand-meal; it settles out in the bottom of your corn bread. You need a Southern-style stone-ground.”

Next he holds up a red-labeled box of Diamond Crystal kosher salt. “This is what we use, and here’s why.” He tilts his head and reads the label through his bifocals. “What it says on the side here, ‘Ingredient. Singular. Colon. Salt.’ Heaven forbid you use this trash,” he says, holding up a blue cylinder, Morton’s. “Ingredients – with an ‘s.’ It has four of them – including sugar and calcium silicate, which is the stuff you get in the box when you buy new tennis shoes. Don’t use that.”

Next comes bicarbonate of soda, the base that will combine with an acid plus moisture to create the bubbles that will make the cornbread fluffy. “Without leavening this would be tough, chewy, gooey, corn meal mush,” he says. “I know this from experience; one of the reasons Nick is standing there watching what I do is because I get talking about these ingredients and sometimes forget to put them in.”

Nick Allen, 26, is also a CIA-trained Williamsburg native, who detoured to Sicily, then returned two years ago and began work at A Chef’s Kitchen.

Gonzales shakes baking soda into a cup and adds water. Nothing happens. “But watch this,” he says, and pours in vinegar. The mixture churns and bubbles over like a volcano at a science fair. “You have to have an acid and a base to make the bubbles, but don’t activate them too soon or they’ll go flat. That means don’t mix them and then turn on the oven. All of your fizzle will be gone and your cornbread will be a brick.”

Dinner classes at the restaurant run for three hours, each course paired with what the Gonzaleses call a “great-find” wine. The menu this night includes a cauliflower and corn chowder served with Fabrini Marche Chardonnay 2012. “This wine comes from Italy, on the Adriatic side,” Gonzales says, drawing maps in the air. “So look at Florence and look at Tuscany, and it’s to the right.”

It and dozens of other wines are available in the shop in front of the restaurant. All of the wines are $10, and each is selected by the Gonzaleses. “We always had wine with dinner – back when we got to have dinner together,” says Wanda Gonzales, “so we started trying to find the best low-budget wines. Then we thought it would be nice to have a store with wines for $10 a bottle that you know will be good.”

In “Chef John’s Favorites” – the list of ingredients attached to the recipes guests take home – Gonzales points out that all of his wines are highly recommended by professional reviewers “or we just outright adore them.” On the list also are olive oils and spices, most of them available in the store for the smallest of mark-ups.

This night’s soup is followed by roasted portobello mushroom and bok choy salad – the gills of the mushrooms scooped away with a melon baller to avoid their “too-mushroomy” flavor. The salad is tossed with a sesame-peanut vinaigrette that includes the citrus-infused soy sauce called ponzu (“Same shelf as the soy sauce,” Gonzales says. “Just look about a foot to the left”) and Sriracha hot sauce.

That’s followed by a jumbo sea scallop with grapes and a pan sauce that includes nonpareil capers, “which is fancy for small and expensive, but really it’s because they’re smaller and more tender,” Gonzales says. “They’re the flower bud of the Mediterranean caper bush.”

Each menu is made for a month, night after night of weaving the story of the science with the color of the cooking. The Gonzaleses build the menu from their own collection of recipes and those they find in cooking magazines, a menu chosen for flavor, usefulness for the audience and the potential for entertainment, either because it inspires stories or because there’s panache in the process. This is, after all, a show.

Wanda is the restaurant’s business manager,
responsible for payroll, paperwork and personnel, and until recently, The Book. The restaurant is open five nights a week year-round – six during December – and answering the phone and keeping track of the reservation book is nearly a full-time job. Corporations sometimes rent out the whole place for client or employee appreciation dinners, and some people plan entire Williamsburg vacations around their ability to reserve a seat.

On this night the protein is venison, imported from New Zealand at $24 a pound, a meat Gonzales committed to six months before. “Why not use local venison?” a guest asks, and Gonzales laughs. First, local venison is not USDA-inspected, and thus would be illegal to serve. But second, “Those deer up on the Parkway are starving on rhododendron buds, and these guys are free-range on a farm, eating bales of hay and fruit off of apple and pear trees.”

He slides one of the venison roasts onto his cutting board. Early in the night Allen had seared it, made a red wine glaze out of the drippings and stuck it all into the oven to roast. Now Gonzales gives it another moment to rest. It is plump and inflated, and if he cuts into it immediately, he says, “It will pop like a water balloon.” Instead he waits, and thus makes his audience wait, as the juices absorb back into the muscle, so when he does slice it the cutting board comes away nearly clean and the meat is tender and juicy, even though it’s about 98 percent fat-free.

Over it he serves a sauce of cherries and sugar and vinegar, sweet and tart, making the taste buds pop. And as his audience enjoys, he melts sugar in a pan, adds his beautiful pieces of pecan and swirls them until they’re candied, then adds bourbon and sets the thing ablaze, the flames flashing.

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As Gonzales is absorbed in demonstrating and talking, Allen helps keep things on track.
Less often seen but a vital ingredient: Wanda Gonzales, co-founder and the
business manager for the restaurant and its shop.

In one of the shiny bowls he whisks milk and cream, then adds heat and sugar and egg yolks, talking all the while, swiveling the whisk in his fist, explaining the necessity of running the custard through a mesh to strain out the little chalaza lumps – chalaza being a Greek word for the bits of tissue that anchor the egg yolk into the white, in case you ever need that word for Scrabble – and talking about how he likes to push things to the edge, even though he knows that if he stirs for too long he’ll have scrambled eggs instead of custard, and Allen, standing again with arms crossed, says, “Three, two, one,” and takes the bowl away and serves up airy sticky buns topped with the candied walnuts and the custard as Gonzales keeps talking – about the coagulation of dairy proteins, about the different kinds of cinnamon. If he doesn’t know an answer he looks it up in his collection of cooking science books.

“It’s theater,” Wanda says, “and when it’s time to perform John comes alive.”

The best part about it is, it’s theater you can eat.

PHO

Pho, Vietnamese Pho, Pho recipe, Distinction Magazine, Distinction, Soup Recipe

by JUDY LE
photography by AMANDA LUCIER

Pho, a traditional Vietnamese noodle soup, was one of the staples in our house. It was always big bowls and big spoons and slurping and talking. I’d never made it myself; it was a work for my elders. But with my own family, it came time.

When I asked my dad for the recipe, his first response was to correct me. That didn’t surprise me; my mother had taught English and my father had taught math, so verbal and mathematical precision was mandatory in our household. On this night he told me, This is not a recipe. It’s an art. First you will do, then you will know. And each time you will do it better.

But when he started to use units like “the biggest pot you have” for water and “about half the size of your palm” for ginger, it occurred to me: In all those years of exactness in our house, I’d never seen a measuring cup or spoon. From what I could tell, it was all experienced improvisation, using sight, taste and smell. Most of the recipes I’d gotten from my siblings featured as the primary unit of measure one of those little rice bowls you get in the Asian market; teaspoons were any small spoon we had bought from the Salvation Army. Tablespoons were the big ones. My mom – the standard by which I will always measure my cooking – had never measured a thing. She had done, and known, and done better, long before we came to America.

When I asked my dad which meat to use, he told me, “Whatever you have is fine.” Now, this I did remember from childhood. When it came to relatively expensive ingredients such as meat, we used what we could afford and made it go far. For pho, my parents, as so many before them had, cooked soup bones and big cuts of inexpensive beef and tendon, along with aromatics, for all that wonderful flavor. This soup – and all my favorite dishes from childhood – is made of very inexpensive ingredients: some form of rice, some kind of flavoring, fresh vegetable garnishes, and very little meat. To this day, I bristle at paying double digits for a Vietnamese meal out.

So for more than an hour, I pressed my dad for specifics. And for the first time, I did – I cooked up a pot of pho for my own family. And I knew; it was not the best. But each time I will do it better.

This is how I did it.

* It’s pronounced “phuh,” not “phoe.” Impress the Vietnamese speakers you know by inflecting upward, as if you’re asking a question. Pho, anyone?

THE LE FAMILY METHOD FOR MAKING PHO*

INGREDIENTS
for about 4 people (“but you could invite more!” my dad says, a nod to the Asian’s respect for social obligation):

1-2 sweet or Vidalia onions
1 chunk of ginger root, maybe 3 inches long
1 daikon radish, trimmed
Beef soup bones (big ones, if you can find them; I used a couple pounds’ worth)
1 bag of banh pho (these are very brittle, white
rice noodles; they come in small, medium and
large noodle size. I used medium.)
About a teaspoon of sugar (add more to taste)
Salt to taste, about a teaspoon
2-3 star anise (sometimes called star aniseed) pods
2 pounds oxtail, trimmed, optional
2 pounds beef chuck for flavoring the broth, optional
About 1 pound of beef for serving rare on top of  the pho (my family likes to use chuck eye or rib eye, but you can also use filet mignon)
1 package beef tendon, optional but so delicious

Toppings:
Thai basil if you can find it, though any basil will work
Cilantro
Green onions
Bean sprouts
Hot pepper sauce, such as Sriracha
Jalapeno peppers
Limes
Hoisin sauce
Fish sauce (optional)

 PREPARATION
1. Char the ginger and onions over an open flame if you have it; I didn’t, so I cut them in half and broiled them, cut side down. The ginger takes a bit longer than the onion and gets a deep yellow color inside.

2. Throw the charred onions and ginger, along with beef bones; oxtail, beef chuck and/or tendon if you have it; daikon radish; and star anise into the biggest soup pot you have. Fill the pot with water and bring to a boil. Start with a lot of water, my dad says. It boils off and concentrates for flavor.

3. Boil on low, uncovered, for at least 4 hours. With a big, shallow spoon, skim off the foam that will come to the top. After an hour, add the sugar and little salt. Don’t oversalt or sugar, my dad warns. You can always add more later. If you’re using tendon (my favorite part), you can throw it in about an hour into the cooking process. Keep careful watch over the tendon, though; “It could turn to Jell-O – actual Jell-O!” my dad says.

4. Chop up the toppings and arrange to present later. If you are using the rare beef, cut it extremely thin against the grain. Set aside.

5. When you’re about ready to make the bowl, boil up the banh pho. I’m told it’s also available “fresh” (read: pre-cooked), but I got the dry stuff. For these brittle noodles, get a big pot of water boiling, and drop them in. For this, my dad returned to his familiar precision, in English math to make absolutely sure I understood: Watch them very closely, he said. It’s important to let these go to only 95 percent done; they’ll do their final 5 percent of cooking in the bowl. I found that this took around 2-3 minutes.

6. Put a small amount of mostly cooked noodles in a large soup bowl. Again, my dad brought out the rare precision – in English: “Given that X is your bowl, fill it to no more than .4X. This is very important! No more than .4X!” You’re going to be very hungry after smelling this thing cooking all day, he warned; the temptation will be to fill to .8X. But this thing is about the broth and the toppings; the noodles are just a venue.

7. If you are using the rare beef, drop a few slices in with the noodles and they will cook in the broth as it goes in, or you can drop them into the pot of broth for less than a minute. Top the noodles with it and tendon, beef chuck or oxtail, and plenty of broth.

8. Serve with prepared toppings.

 

CHOW

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by JANINE LATUS
photography by KEITH LANPHER

Down at the north end of Colley, there’s a British guy who’s “not your grandmom” –though he and his colleagues sure cook like they are (and love the reaction).

Damian Gordon grins and moves his hands in happiness, showing how he rubbed a lamb roast with garlic and rosemary before putting it into the oven for today’s special. Beside it he’ll serve sautéed string beans, and sweet potatoes sliced thick and rubbed with olive oil and sprinkled with salt and pepper and just a touch of Cajun heat, all of it drizzled with a marsala gravy.

Gordon is the Southern grandmother creating the specials and cooking the enormous meals served at Chow, the comfort-food restaurant that opened in December on the north end of Colley in Norfolk. Except he is neither Southern nor a grandmother. Gordon, 32, grew up in London, a blend of Jamaican and English blood. Yet his chicken and dumplings is created Deep South style, the broth made of cooked-down chicken carcasses, plus onion, garlic, carrots, celery and potatoes, all simmered together until the gravy is thick and rich.

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Out front, Stephan Stockwell greets a customer from behind the bar. “Hello, miss,” he says to the middle-aged woman. Stockwell, co-owner and general manager, is 32, trim in jeans and a snug T-shirt, his arm tattooed in honor of his father.
His Triumph motorcycle is parked outside. “First time here?”

It is, but she knows what she wants – the fried chicken, with a side of the restaurant’s Yelp-renowned macaroni and cheese and a side of collards, too. And she wants a second order to go, but swap in fries and coleslaw. The restaurant serves between 100 and 150 pounds of chicken a day, dredged in flour and the simplest of spices. It is the quintessential Southern comfort food, especially paired with the collards, here cooked for hours in a broth of smoked ham hocks, vinegar, red pepper and Tabasco.

“What’s your name, darlin’?” Stockwell asks, and shakes the customer’s hand.

He and partners John Boggs and Tom Pittman, who also own A.W. Shucks and Tortilla West, envisioned Chow as a neighborhood diner, the place to go for the kind of familiar food that leaves you warm, satisfied and full. The influence is heavily Southern, with South Carolina-style pulled pork and fried catfish, but there also are spaghetti and meatballs and crab pot pie, and the PBBB – a grilled peanut-butter-banana-and-bacon sandwich. “Any region you’re from would have something that you grew up with,” says Stockwell, “something that makes you smile when you see it.”

Customers at Chow smile too because the portions are huge. “It’s all about the experience,” he says, “so when people see that plate of food come to the table, their eyes get big and they always make a joke. I love it.”

Back in the kitchen, sous chef Gordon minces fresh rosemary leaves and whisks them into a blend of cinnamon and sugar and eggs and cream. He’s making the batter for today’s lunch special – sweet and savory French toast topped with corned beef, sautéed peppers and onions, and a slice of Monterey Jack.

He comes up with new weekly specials every Wednesday, sometimes not knowing what he’ll make until he gets there, sometimes asking the other cooks for ideas and then adding a pinch of this, a touch of that, creating combinations that wouldn’t occur to most home cooks.

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Gordon worked down on the Oceanfront as a cook at Mahi Mah’s Seafood and Sushi while he studied psychology at Old Dominion University. He wanted to be a therapist, but the cooking grabbed him and he went on to study at Le Cordon Bleu Institute of Culinary Arts in Pittsburgh. “You either really love cooking or you don’t like it at all,” he says. “Either it’s in you or it’s not.”

On the Vulcan range behind him is a 4-gallon pot of mashed potatoes, boiled down this morning and blended with heavy cream and butter. They’ll be topped with gravy made of cooked-down bones and vegetables, strained and cooked with a roux.

“It’s amazing!” Gordon says, then laughs along as the restaurant’s dessert chef, Mike Sutherland, makes fun of his accent.

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The macaroni and cheese is nearby, rich with cheddar, cheddar jack, smoked gouda and cream cheese. In a jar in the refrigerator are pickled vegetables, high on the chalkboard menu near the goat cheese that Gordon squeezes into a pear shape before rolling it in panko, frying it, and then popping a sprig of mint in the top to simulate the stem of the pear. Sizzling on the griddle are slices of pineapple that will be arranged with strawberries, tomatoes, onions and flat-iron steak over a bed of arugula.

“I love making that salad!” says cook and artist Amanda Janes, who also created the restaurant’s wall-sized chalkboard menus. “It’s like having a little palette to play with.”

“Coming through,” says cook Bobbi Eaves, carrying a tray of more than a dozen perfectly roasted chickens.

In the back room of the kitchen, Sutherland, whom Gordon calls The Dessert King, is working on his peanut butter pie. His favorite is the apple, although his pecan and his bourbon-and-walnut are in high demand – all made with recipes from his Georgia grandmother.

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Up front, Stockwell maintains eight conversations at once, his hands always moving, pulling beers from local breweries O’Connor and Smartmouth, pouring the whiskeys that are the bar’s emphasis, greeting customers, often by name.

He came to Norfolk courtesy of the Navy, where he worked in ordnance, a skill set that doesn’t translate easily into the civilian world. So he took a summer job as an ice cream man, tinny music and all, and loved it. “Growing up, we had an ice cream man who knew our names,” he says, “and if we didn’t have money he’d give us little treats, so I have just great memories from that.”

He doesn’t remember the treats so much as the feeling of familiarity and joy, which is what he’s trying to give customers at Chow. “You may not remember the details of your meal,” he says, “but you’ll remember that it made you feel good, and that will keep you coming back.”

Stockwell became a waiter when A.W. Shucks opened in 2005, and from there he eventually moved up to management at Tortilla West. When Boggs and Pittman decided to open a new restaurant they asked him if he wanted in. Then the three of them waited for a space to open up, and then for it to speak to them and tell them what shape the restaurant should take. They settled on the old Tanner’s Creek location, just south of the Colley Avenue bridge. The wide windows told them to go with blond wood and keep the checkerboard floor of blue and white tiles, to give the space a homey feel. Then they asked Gordon, who was working at Shucks, if he’d come do the cooking.

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Now he dodges Janes as she lifts the chicken from the fryer while Sutherland reaches for a pan of cream cheese that he’s left to soften for a cheesecake he’s whipping up. Gordon rings the bell to send out another order – pulled pork piled high on a toasted ciabatta bun. Then he pours olive oil into his favorite pot, 4 inches deep and 2 feet across, and begins sautéing a mountain of mushrooms.

“People say, ‘I thought there was a grandma here, someone from the South,’ ” he says, and grins yet again, as Sutherland takes in the British accent and laughs. “I’m sorry,” says Gordon, “but I’m not your grandmom.”

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Barking Dog

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Distinction Magazine, Distinction, Barking Dog, Hot Dogs, Hampton, Virginia, The Barking Dog

by KIM O’BRIEN ROOT
photography by KEITH LANPHER

You might think a restaurant on the water would be just another seafood joint.

Not so in the case of The Barking Dog. Sure, seafood is on the menu, but there’s also much more – gourmet hot dogs, Carolina barbecue, an eclectic beer menu and veggie fare.

It’s all served up on a flip-flop-friendly deck that overlooks Sunset Creek near downtown Hampton. Diners can drive, walk or even boat up to a place the owners hope will become a community hangout.

Several restaurants have laid claim to the little spot next to where the fishing charter Sally T docks in the creek off the Hampton River. But none has lasted very long. About a year ago, Gary McIntyre stopped in for a beer when the restaurant was called The Hook and wondered why.

“I saw all the potential,” says McIntyre, who’s been in the Hampton Roads restaurant business for more than 30 years.

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McIntyre acquired the business and, with his partners Sean Pepe and Tricia Waclawski, gutted all but the kitchen. They covered the patio, added picnic tables, named it The Barking Dog, and hung out a cheerful yellow sign to beckon passers-by from Kecoughtan Road. The place quickly became popular after opening at the start of summer, and the owners plan to tent in the patio to keep it open year-round.

Hot dogs top the menu, but these aren’t ordinary dogs with mustard and ketchup. The Carolina Drive-In Dog is topped with barbecue, slaw and red pepper mayo. The Seattle Dog comes with cream cheese and caramelized onions. The artisan-style buns are made by a local bakery. The menu also features sausages and bratwurst, burgers, and cold salads, along with crab cakes, clam strips, popcorn shrimp and fish sandwiches. Rockfish tacos were a popular summer offering – The Barking Dog serves what’s fresh off the fishing boats.

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Drinks come in cans tucked into koozies; a can crusher mounted on the deck encourages recycling. On the tables, napkins are weighted down with river stones painted with – what else? – pictures of dogs.

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The Pie’s The Limit

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by SELENE D. GUERRERO
photography by AMANDA LUCIER

Pie making didn’t come overnight to chef Daryl Thomas. It took decades of watching his grandmother Nonie Anderson and mother Violeen whip up “toe-wiggling” tasty pies.

“It was,” he says, “an event to watch them cook.”

If he wanted blackberry pie, he’d fill a bucket with berries from the backyard of his parents’ home, in Danville. Violeen – Vy – was his main pie maker. “She’d say, ‘If you pick ’em, then I’ll make a pie.’ So of course, we’d pick ’em.”

In 2012, he decided to take all that knowledge and pour it into Vy’s Pies, his own business. After months of research and trial and error – he waves a small hand-held mixer: “That was upgraded” – he got organized and did away with the basic kitchen tools.

He started off with five recipes, all handed down from his grandmother to his mom and then to him. He has since added his own – but even those, he says, he keeps true to the techniques he learned in his mother’s and grandmother’s kitchens. “I twist them in a way to make them mine but in a way to keep them pure, the way my grandmother did and the way my mother did.”

His delectable pies can be found at local farmers’ markets, Virginia Beach’s Whole Foods Market, and online at his Vy’s Pies site. He is humbled when people choose his pies for the holidays. The fall and winter favorites, he says, are the sweet potato pie, apple pie, carrot cake and the coveted pecan pie – a recipe he concocted that eliminates the standard thick molasses flavor and leaves only that buttery pecan and hints of brown sugar taste.

It’s a secret he prefers to keep, but he’s shared with us some of his other recipes.

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Sweet potato pie

With pecan or ginger snap topping

Allow time to bake the sweet potatoes, then to let them cool before you peel them.

INGREDIENTS

One pie crust, ready for filling. (Recipe follows, or you may use a refrigerated, purchased crust.)

Olive oil

2 medium sweet potatoes

1 large egg

½ cup sugar

½ cup light brown sugar (not packed)

½ stick unsalted butter (1/4 cup), melted

¼ cup whole milk

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

1 tablespoon ground cinnamon

PREPARATION

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Wash sweet potatoes well and pat dry. Coat lightly with olive oil, then roast for about 50 minutes or until they are done. Remove from the oven and allow to cool completely.

Peel the potatoes. In a medium mixing bowl, beat them until smooth.

Add egg, sugars, melted butter, milk, vanilla and cinnamon.

Pour filling into crust. Bake for 45 minutes or until done. The pie is done if the filling barely wiggles in the middle (this yields a silkier result, Thomas says) or if a toothpick inserted in the
center comes out clean.

PECAN TOPPING INGREDIENTS

6 tablespoons butter (¾ stick)

½ cup light brown sugar (not packed)

½ cup pecan pieces

1 tablespoon heavy cream

 

PREPARATION

Prepare after the pie has baked and cooled completely, or the topping will melt.

In a medium pot over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the brown sugar and stir constantly
until it is dissolved.

Stir in pecans and cook for about 2 to 3 minutes.

Stir in cream very well, remove from heat and let the mixture cool for about 2 minutes.

With a rubber spatula or butter knife, spread the pecan mixture evenly over the cooled pie.

GINGER SNAP TOPPING

After you’ve poured the filling into the crust, arrange ginger snap cookies on top. Bake as usual.

Pie crust

Yield: two single crusts or one bottom crust with a top.

Freeze the flour for about 2 hours for a flakier crust, Daryl Thomas suggests.

The crust for the sweet potato pie doesn’t need to be baked separately since the filling is thick, but when you’re ready to bake, use the bottom rack of the oven.

INGREDIENTS
2½ cups all-purpose flour, very cold

2 tablespoons sugar

1 teaspoon salt

2 sticks unsalted butter, cold, cut into ½-inch cubes

1 teaspoon white vinegar

½ cup of ice-cold water (Thomas suggests adding

a couple of ice cubes)

PREPARATION

In a large bowl, mix flour, sugar and salt until thoroughly combined. Using a pastry blender, cut in the butter until it is the size of tiny peas.

Add the vinegar to the water and drizzle over the mixture. Use a rubber or silicone spatula to fold the dough together, pressing on it until it sticks together. (You may need to add 1 tablespoon of water at a time to bring it together.) Make a mound of the dough and knead gently. Don’t
overwork it or the crust will be tough.

Divide the dough into two even balls and flatten each into a 4-inch disk. Wrap each in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 45 minutes or up to 2 days before rolling them out. (They also may be frozen; to defrost, refrigerate 24 hours before use.)

When you’re ready to use it, roll out each piece of dough to about 12 inches wide for a 9- or 9½-inch, deep-dish pie pan. Grease pan. Place dough; trim and crimp edges. Fill and bake.

If you’re baking this crust unfilled, use the middle rack. Bake 8 to 10 minutes at 425 degrees or until golden and flaky. Prick sides and bottom with a fork and let cool in refrigerator before filling.

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Pumpkin biscotti

Daryl  Thomas offers these as a perfect recipe for gifts. We dipped ours in a ganache of semisweet chocolate chips and shortening.

INGREDIENTS

2½ cups all-purpose flour

1½ teaspoons baking soda

¼ teaspoon salt

2 large eggs

¾ cup sugar

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

2 cups (16 ounces) canned plain pumpkin

  (not pumpkin pie filling)

1 teaspoon rum (optional)

PREPARATION

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper.

In a medium mixing bowl, mix flour, baking soda and salt.

In a large bowl, combine eggs, sugar, vanilla, pumpkin puree and rum if you’re using it. Add the dry ingredients.

Mold the dough into a loaf on the cookie sheet. Bake for 40 minutes; let cool for 30 minutes.

Preheat oven again, to 400 degrees.

With a serrated bread knife, cut the loaf on a bias into ½-inch slices. Toast these slices directly on the middle rack of the oven, flat, for 7 to 10 minutes, paying close attention so that they don’t burn.

Side Show

Cobalt Grille, Spanish Coffee, Flaming Drink, Distinction Magazine, Distinction

Cobalt Grille, Virginia Beach, Spanish Coffee, Flaming Drink, Distinction Magazine, Distinction

Most things that start with Bacardi 151 don’t end well, but the flaming Spanish coffee at Cobalt Grille is a noteworthy exception.

The popular drink isn’t listed on the menu of this Virginia Beach eatery but is available by request. At tableside, bartender Christina Harbour starts with a shot of the high-proof liquor, poured into a wine glass and ignited with a lighter into a swirl of blue flames that entertain while caramelizing the sugared rim of the glass.

Sprinkles of cinnamon and nutmeg send tiny orange sparks flying, extinguished at the end by a combination of Kahlúa and coffee topped with a swirl of whipped cream.

The mesmerizing mixture smells like Christmas and looks like something out of a Harry Potter movie, but the taste is more grown-up: warm and not too sweet, the liquor not overpowering the robust French roast. It’s a perfect after-dinner drink that’s good enough to stand in for dessert but not too sugary to pair with Cobalt’s bread pudding or signature crème brûlée sampler.

It’s also a great alternative to the more-potent Irish coffee. But don’t be surprised if other patrons copy your order. Harbour says the flashy drink tends to be infectious.

 – Kathy Adams

photo by KEITH LANPHER

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