So far, 2014 has been a whirlwind of dozens of deviled eggs, teetering stacks of tea sandwiches, cocoa powder in every crevice of the house, lemon curd down my back (still not sure how that happened), and puddles upon puddles of melted butter, as my lovely friend Marnie and I work nonstop on our upcoming picnic cookbook, a collaboration with our friend and author Andrea Slonecker, which will be published in spring 2015 by Artisan.
Once upon a time I was a pretty decent cook and even had my own little dessert catering business for a while, but as you know, these days, I’m predominantly an eater outer, not an eater inner. Which is why I sometimes forget basic baking fundamentals and do things like try and develop brownie recipes that have two pounds of chocolate in them. (It kind of worked. I mean, I ate them.) And after three straight weeks of recipe testing and developing at least eight hours a day, I was desperate to get out of the kitchen and back into a restaurant. So Marnie and I took last Friday night off, picked up Michelle, and checked out Chris Whaley and Jenny Nickolaus’ delightful new American Local restaurant, followed by a kava and king cake nightcap. So you know, just your average Friday night on Division Street.
Tucked into the corner spot formerly occupied by Caffe Pallino, directly across from the soon-to-open Bollywood Theater deux, American Local was packed when we got there, so we took a spot at the communal table, next to three friendly strangers we later gave one of our bacon beignets to. It’s telling when you end up sharing your bacon beignets with total strangers at a restaurant, I always think that’s a good sign.
The restaurant’s concept reflects Whaley and Nickolaus’s affections for both classic regional American vittles and the buoyant spirit of an izakaya, which makes for a fun, energetic, comfortably casual atmosphere and eclectic menu. As far as drinks go, our fellow patrons were sipping everything from pints of Amnesia pale ale to organic sake, and we opted for the house ginger soda, Sokol Blosser’s Evolution sparkly, and a butternut squash and rum cocktail (aptly described as being “sort of like pumpkin egg nog”).
Lots of shared small plates is the way to go here, and there are so many tempting choices–the menu is sectioned into bread-based small plates like the pillowy homemade fry bread mounded with mushrooms and sheep’s milk cheese and the aforementioned bacon beignets with housemade espellete powder and honey….
Seafood specialties like crispy grit cakes piled with spanking fresh salmon tartare, and rows of beautiful barbecued Netarts Bay oysters with chile, garlic and preserved lemon…
A robust vegetable section from which we sampled a vivid and spunky watermelon radish salad with black garlic and scallions in nuoc cham, and the rich combination of Brussels sprouts, pickled jalapeño, blood orange and miso….
A half dozen skewers like the tender octopus blanketed in harissa….
And finally, the mains—of the four on the menu, we tried the savory fried quinoa dish with fat pink shrimp and a perfectly oozy onsen egg. I could eat this every night.
Lest I neglect dessert, and you know I would never, we tried two—the maple cheesecake with stewed apples and candied kumquats, and the crowd favorite—a jarred parfait layered with banana cream, bananas, banana cake, and hazelnut praline.
It was a delicious meal, a perfect re-entry into the eating out atmosphere after those first few long hard weeks of cleaning cocoa powder and lemon zest out of my oven knobs and ears, and we left fat and happy, with the merry cocktail clinking and buzz of conversation that are the hallmarks of a great neighborhood joint trailing us out the door.
Savoring this sweet freedom, unwilling to immediately return to our butter-slicked kitchens and egg salad-soaked cookbook writing realities, we skipped up the street to the Richmond Bar, but it was straining at the seams, so we backtracked until we spotted the kava bar next door to Block + Tackle, which looked just about right—not too raucous, not too sleepy. Plus everyone seemed to be drinking out of coconut shells, and we’re suckers for any beverage served in a coconut shell.
At this point, we lost Marnie to her teapot, cozy couch and book, while Michelle and I forged ahead, suddenly certain that the ideal way to unwind after this long work week would be to drink some kava. We’d heard rumors of its mythical properties as a relaxant, and the shop was warm and peaceful, filled with quiet couples playing chess. The beaming girl behind the counter helped us choose a good starter kava, and explained how to drink it properly—say Bula, clap once, down the kava, eat the pineapple chaser suspended over it on a skewer, clap twice to scare away bad juju. It seemed straightforward enough.
We got our kava bowls, sat down, took a sip, and nearly spit up all over the table. The girl had warned us that kava is earthy, but we weren’t expecting it to be quite that earthy. We sat there silently, peering suspiciously into the murky bowls, as my mouth started to go tingly and numb, like when you eat Szechuan pepper or too many stinging nettles that haven’t been cooked properly.
A kindly gentleman materialized at our table with a paper bag in hand, interrupting this awkward lull in our kava ceremony gone awry. He held the bag up, and explained that he was sharing his personal collection of authentic Mardi Gras beads with his fellow kava-guzzlers, and that we could borrow as many strands as we wanted. As we wound a few around our neck, he pointed in the direction of a cake box on the counter and said he’d brought a traditional Mardi Gras king cake, from Petite Provence, to share with everyone in the bar. There were two pieces left, he explained, and nobody had eaten the baby yet. We were alarmed, nobody had said anything about the kava ritual involving the consumption of babies, but he explained that king cakes have a tiny plastic baby hidden in them, and if you chomp down on the baby, you earn certain privileges and responsibilities, in this case, both being dubbed royalty, and having to bring the next king cake. Although he had hidden a ceramic sheep in his cake, so nobody would be eating any babies. We were still pretty full of banana parfait, but really, can you ever be too full to squeeze in a bit of free cake? No. So we said:
He brought us slices of king cake, and Michelle took one bite of hers and promptly spit out a small ceramic sheep. Our generous benefactor crowned her queen of the kavadom with a gold paper crown, and everyone clapped and shouted “Hail to Queen Michelle!” The Queen was then tasked with bringing the next weekend’s king cake, and because, even in spite of my frozen face, I was laughing so hard I almost fell out of my chair, I was guilted into into coming back with her. (Like I’d miss an encore of that.) Which is why we’ll be back at the Bula Kava House this Saturday, Feb. 8th at 8:30pm, with a king cake, and you’re invited.
So hopefully we’ll see each other twice this Saturday—first, in the afternoon at my West Elm book signing with delicious accomplices Olympic Provisions, Quin Candy Shoppe and Alma Chocolate, then at Bula Kava House (3115 SE Division St.) at 8:30pm for kava, king cake camaraderie, borrowed beads, and a good belly laugh. Bula!