The Cats

February 17, 2013 – When I’m in California The Cats is our go to restaurant.

It has everything.  History.  Romance.  Drama.  Glamour.  Overcoming adversity.  And great, irresistible, smoky barbeque.

First, the history.  Just south of Los Gatos, two large white cats, Leo and Leona, guard the gate that leads up to what’s known locally as Poet’s Canyon.  The lawyer, writer, painter and political activist Colonel Charles Erskine Scott Wood and his wife, the poet and suffragist Sara Bard Field, wanted to create an enclave where they could work with minimal intrusion from the world.  They commissioned the sculptor Robert Paine to create the cats in 1922.  (As a side note, Wood, a graduate of West Point, was present at the surrender of Nez Perce Chief Joseph and was the guy who heard and immortalized the great Native American leader’s words, “I will fight no more forever.”)

Wood had a healthy disrespect for the machinations of Washington, D.C.  He was especially contemptuous of Prohibition, the passage of which he clearly thought unwise.  To show his contempt, Wood planted a vineyard.  An elegant gesture of genteel civil disobedience.

The restaurant itself resides in a 19th century building a few hundred feet from the gates leading into Poet’s Canyon.  It was originally a stop offering food and refreshment to travelers on the old stagecoach line that once ran through the Santa Cruz Mountains.  It housed a speakeasy during Prohibition, surely to Colonel Wood’s delight.  Over the following decades it housed a series of businesses before once again becoming a restaurant and tavern in 1967.  The previous owners closed the business in 2006 and for two years the building sat empty.

In 2008 Mark Edwards and David Peterson bought the building with the intent of reopening the restaurant.  And this is where the “overcoming adversity” part comes in.

Edwards and Peterson were stunned when they were confronted by bureaucrats from three departments of state government, Planning, Building and Health.  They were told flat out that they would never be allowed to reopen the restaurant.  But these are two determined guys with indomitable attitudes.  They struggled for three years to get the necessary government permits and in the meantime invested heavily in modernizing the building and furnishing it with an eclectic assortment of unique items that together create an atmosphere that’s just plain fun.  (My favorite is the small, old fashioned hand-cranked drill hanging over the bar.  Haven’t seen one of those since I was a small boy rummaging through my grandfather’s tool box.)  At long last Edwards and Peterson celebrated the grand opening of The Cats on New Year’s Eve, 2011.

So here’s the best part.  The great food.  They didn’t waste those three years.  They studied barbeque under legendary Pit Master Paul Kirk, the Barbeque Guru of Kansas City.  They became certified Pit Masters and convinced Kirk to come to The Cats to personally train their staff.  They worked hard to create a great barbeque product and every time I visit The Cats I am sincerely grateful for their efforts.

When we walk in the door Ashley, our favorite waitress, knows we’ll want the fried mushrooms and cowboy chips before we even consider entrees.  The mushrooms are lightly breaded and delightfully juicy when you bite into them.  The cowboy chips are full length, inch thick wedges of perfectly fried potato, crispy on the outside, tender on the inside.  Both these starter dishes are so good we sometimes don’t get any farther down the menu.

My wife is generally loyal to California chardonnay but I like to explore the imaginative cocktail list.  My favorites are the Cat House Margarita, made with Cazadores Blanco, a very smooth tequila, and The Cat’s own sweet & sour concoction, and the Sara Bard’s Sapphire Cucumber Fizz, which is made with Bombay Sapphire gin bolstered by a bit of agave nectar, a few cucumber slices and basil leaves, lime juice and club soda.  The latter cocktail reminds me of a Pimm’s Cup, one of my favorites.

Now we get to the best part of all.  Barbeque.  The Cats produces a slow-cooked product that could be unique in its smokiness.  Their ribs are dry rubbed (they use Paul Kirk’s rub) and so good we hardly ever put sauce on them.  Same story with their chicken, which comes to table juicy and smoky and alluring.  I’m especially fond of their pulled pork sandwich, piled high with both pork and cole slaw.  They also serve a ribeye steak that is very close to the best I’ve ever tasted.

Wait a minute.  Did I say the barbeque was the best part of all?  Well, yeah, it’s great barbeque.  But there might be one dish at The Cats that really is the best of all.  Burnt end baked beans.  Spiked with chunks of slow-cooked barbeque these beans just tantalize your palate with their smoky sweetness.  So good you could dream about them.  Far from just a side dish, the burnt end baked beans are a wonderful equal partner to excellent barbeque.

The history.  The drama, romance and glamour.  Great smoky barbeque.  Burnt end baked beans.  The Cats.  You gotta love the place.

French 75

February 3, 2013 – The French 75 got its name from the small but powerful artillery piece used by the French army in World War I.  The story goes that when bartender Harry MacElhone served the first of his newly created libation at Harry’s New York Bar in Paris in 1915 the customer said, “That drink has a kick like a French 75.”  And that’s the way legends are born.

The cocktail became the favorite of Ernest Hemingway and that group of expatriate Americans who hovered around him in 1920s Paris.  And it was in that same high flying decade that it was introduced to the U.S. at New York’s fashionable Stork Club.

I first became acquainted with the refreshing but potent French 75 just a couple of years ago at Left Bank, a Parisian style sidewalk café in San Jose.  After a long day of conference calls, it was especially relaxing to sit at a sidewalk table sipping a French 75 while watching people wandering by.  Stress relief.  Which brings us to Super Bowl Sunday.

My wife’s beloved 49er’s were in the Super Bowl.  She was emotionally invested in the big game.  I decided the day called for something special.  I figured that if the Niner’s won she would want to toast the victory with something festive.  If they lost, well, something strong in a glass would be helpful.  French 75s.

There are various recipes for the French 75.  They all involve sugar or simple syrup, lemon juice and sparkling wine.  I’m convinced the original recipe used gin as its base but there are some who claim it should be brandy or vodka.  I don’t think so.  There is a similar drink made with brandy but that’s called a King’s Peg.  And if vodka is used in place of gin it’s called a French 76, which makes me think that sometime after 1915 someone made a French 75 but substituted vodka.  I’m standing by gin.

The original French 75 was probably served in a tall Collins glass but they’re now served also in champagne flutes, wine glasses, cocktail coupes (those shallow bowled glasses on a stem popularized by the champagne cocktail) or even in old fashioned glasses.  Personally I prefer a martini glass.  Probably because we always have a couple of martini glasses chilling in the freezer.

French 75

(makes two cocktails)

2 oz good quality gin, (I like Hendrick’s, which I keep in the freezer)

Sparkling wine (I prefer Mumm’s Napa Brut Prestige)

1 heaping tspn of powdered sugar

Juice of ½ a lemon

Lemon peel

Cocktail shaker

Crushed ice

Chilled martini glasses (or whichever glass you choose)

With a paring knife cut two thin strips of lemon peel and set aside.

Fill the cocktail shaker about 1/3 full of crushed ice.  Add the gin, sugar and lemon juice.  Shake thoroughly to mix well.

Pour an ounce of the liquor in each of the two chilled glasses. Fill the glasses with sparkling wine.  Garnish with lemon peel.

Bon temps!

Bear Tooth Grill

January 25, 2013 – I was surprised to learn that it was dessert that would bring me back to the Bear Tooth Grill in Anchorage.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’ve been to the Bear Tooth Grill many times and the food is consistently good, with a menu cleverly combining Mexican-influenced fare and pastas with an Alaska touch.  In the interest of full disclosure, the Bear Tooth Grill is part of the family that includes the Theatre Pub, Moose’s Tooth Pizza and the Broken Tooth Brewery, where my son David is head brewer.  I’m a fan of all four entities.

I met my friend Doug DeVore at the Grill for lunch on this day.  Since I hadn’t been there for a while my daughter-in-law Amber had told me her current favorites were the onion rings and the pulled pork sandwich.  I didn’t see any way to go wrong with that recommendation.

The onion rings arrived first.  Substantial, beautifully browned, pile high on the plate.  And I was thrilled at the small revolving tray containing six ( count’em, six) bottles of hot sauces.  I managed to try three of them, each adding a touch of welcome heat to the onion rings.  Sort of a warming up exercise for the taste buds.

Doug and I both ordered pulled pork sandwiches.  The sandwiches came on large round buns, grand samples of the baker’s art.  Substantial enough to contain the shredded pork filling; delicate and soft to the bite.  The pulled pork was moistened with house made barbeque sauce reminiscent of the vinegar based eastern Carolina style sauce of which I’m so very fond.  The sandwiches were accompanied by cole slaw, also made in house, and deliciously spicy French fries seasoned with garlic and cilantro.  The whole was a very nice assortment of tastes.  A hearty sandwich paired with complimentary side dishes.

And then came the big surprise of the day.  The waitress asked if we’d like dessert.  Doug said he didn’t think so.  I said if I’m going to write about this meal I want all of it.  I ordered a banana tostada.  Doug ordered a personal chocolate mousse.

The chocolate mousse came in a demitasse, topped with a swirl of whipped cream sprinkled with shavings of chocolate.  It looked good.  Doug said it was good.

But the banana tostada was, well, just amazing.  Rum custard sandwiched between a couple of fried flour tortillas, topped by slices of lightly sautéed banana, the whole drizzled with cajeta.  A cajeta is a thick Mexican caramel made by slowly simmering milk, sugar and vanilla.  It is similar to the better known dulce de leche though the cajeta is traditionally made with goat’s milk.  The perfect topping for sautéed bananas and custard.

A Mexican style banana pudding with fireworks.  Spectacular.


January 22, 2013 – I thought the stylized fish sculpture over the door leading into Kinley’s looked like a rockfish, those less than beautiful denizens of the deep that we in Alaska sometimes pull up instead of the halibut for which we’re hoping.  Kinley’s owner and head chef Brett Knipmeyer told me he found the sculpture years ago in New Zealand and bought it for no particular reason.  Just on a whim.  Down there it’s called a snapper but Brett says it is, in fact, very similar to the rockfish found in Alaska.

Either way the sculpture is bold.  Adventurous.  Much like the restaurant itself.  Chef Knipmeyer, who named the restaurant after his daughter, isn’t afraid to have fun with food.  To mix things up and see what happens.  Consequently the dishes that arrive at table are bold in preparation, adventurous in presentation and startlingly excellent in taste.

Knipmeyer worked for almost seven years under the late Jens Hansen, one of Alaska’s best loved chefs and owner of the very popular Jens Restaurant in Anchorage.  He left in 2006 to open Kinley’s, which he has now established as one of Alaska’s best in the field for fine dining.

I met my client, Brenda Shepard, and her husband, Terry, for dinner.  I have always envied Terry.  He’s a great golfer, a status to which I’ve always aspired but will never attain.  Better than that he has one of the greatest gigs ever.  He tests golf courses for Golf magazine.  How does it get better than that?  I’ve always looked forward to those business trips when Terry would accompany Brenda because I knew  Terry would get us onto some spectacular golf courses in the neighborhood.

Brenda and Terry were already seated when I arrived.  They had ordered a calamari steak appetizer.  I thought I’d order another appetizer and was studying the menu when the calamari arrived.  It was sliced into pieces about four inches long and, I’m not kidding here, an inch thick.  My first thought was that had to come from a squid big enough to challenge Captain Nemo.  No need for a second appetizer.  There was enough calamari to feed all three of us.

The meltingly tender pan-seared calamari was reminiscent of those large, wild and wonderful  abalone steaks that we used to get many years ago.  The simple tomato and herb beurre blanc sauce lent a bit of acid that was a perfect complement to the delicate taste of the seafood.  Terry and I were especially grateful for the accompanying garlic bread, great, as Terry said, for “sopping” up the sauce after we had finished off the calamari.

For an entrée, Brenda ordered a ribeye steak.  Terry and I couldn’t resist the chef’s special offering of the evening, a short rib.

When it arrived I again thought bold.  Adventurous.  I also thought huge.  Delightful.  And fun.  Moistened with a bit of root beer based barbeque sauce, the short rib was fork tender.  Cooked perfectly.  It rested on a cleverly devised bacon and cheddar waffle and was surrounded by a sweet potato, kale and onion hash.  A single piece of crisped kale topped the rib.  The dish presented a complex and ultimately satisfying contest among tart, sweet and savory.   My final thought was, “Delicious.  Just delicious.”


Natchitoches Meat Pies

January 20, 2013 – Is gazillion a word?  Doesn’t matter.  That’s roughly how many Natchitoches meat pies I’ve eaten so far in my life.

The meat pie is probably the most international of foods.  The first recorded mention of a meat pie was in ancient Greece.  It was called an artocreas.  Most every society on Earth has created its own version.  The British have the pastie, which originated in the Cornwall region.  Latin America has the empanada and Poland the pierogi.  The French Canadians have the tourtiere.  In Louisiana it’s the Natchitoches meat pie.

Natchitoches (pronounced nak’ i tosh) is a fascinating place.  It was founded by a French explorer named St. Denis in 1714, four years before New Orleans was settled.  The two main streets of town are still paved with bricks.  Natchitoches started out as a river town laid out on both sides of the Red River.   Many years ago the river decided to take another course but left a piece of itself behind.  That piece is now called Cane River though it’s not a river at all but a long, thin lake occupying what was once the riverbed.

The small central Louisiana town is filled with beautiful old homes, some dating back to the 18th century.  Those beautiful houses are why it was chosen as the setting for the movie “Steel Magnolias.”  Natchitoches is probably the best-known little-known town in the U.S.  If you’ve seen “Steel Magnolias” you’ve seen Natchitoches.

The Natchitoches meat pie first appeared in the 18th century.  There’s little doubt that it’s a version of the Spanish empanada as the Spanish were very active in the area in those days with a fort just a few miles west of the French settlement.

I hadn’t made Natchitoches meat pies in quite a long time when my daughter-in-law Amber called to ask if we could cook up a batch.  My son David loves Natchitoches meat pies.  I had given them my recipe and she wanted to be sure she had them right.  So I get to be executive chef with Amber as sous chef?  Sounded like a good deal to me.

Natchitoches Meat Pies

For the filling:    1 ½ lbs ground beef                           For the dough:  4 C self-rising flour

1 ½ lbs ground pork                                                    2 t salt

1 C green onions, chopped                                        1 egg, beaten

2 t salt (or to taste)                                                     ½ C shortening

1 t course ground black pepper                                  1 C milk

1 t crushed red pepper (optional)

½ t cayenne (optional)

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 green pepper, chopped

1/3 C all purpose flour


Peanut oil for deep frying

To make the filling:  Combine meat, vegetables and seasonings.  Cook over medium heat, stirring often, until the vegetables are soft and the meat is well browned but not dry.  Taste and adjust the seasonings.  Add salt a little at a time as you taste.  My theory is you can always add salt but it’s not as easy to take it out.

Sift the 1/3 cup of flour into the meat and combine well.  The flour will serve as a binder for the filler and will also soak up any excess moisture.  Too much liquid in the meat and the dough will fall apart.

To make the dough:  Sift the dry ingredients together.  Cut the shortening into the flour.  The best way to do that is to use two plain table knives in a cross-cutting motion.  Keep cutting the shortening until it looks like small peas or gravel in the bowl.

Add the beaten egg and milk.  Stir to combine and create a dough.

Form the dough into a ball.  Cover your work space with flour and roll your ball of dough over the flour.  Be sure that the surface of the dough is well floured so that it doesn’t stick to the rolling pin.  Working with small portions of the dough, perhaps a third at a time, roll the dough out until it’s about 1/8 of an inch thick.  It has to be thin enough to be manipulated but thick enough to hold together when the meat filling is added.

Cut the dough into rounds of five to six inches in diameter.  A pot lid of that size will make perfect rounds.  After you’ve cut as many rounds as you can get from the dough you’ve rolled out you’ll have some left over.  Work it back into your ball of dough and roll out another third to make more rounds.  Keep repeating the process until you don’t have enough dough left to make another round.

To assemble:  Place a heaping tablespoon of the meat mixture in the center of a round.  Moisten your finger with a little water and run it gently around the edge of half the round, dampening it very lightly to help the edges stick together.   Not wet.  Just very lightly dampened.  Fold the dough over making the rounded edges meet.  Seal the edges with the tines of a fork.  Lay the assembled meat pies on a plate with waxed papers between layers to keep them from sticking together.

To cook:  Preheat the peanut oil to about 350.   Deep fry the meat pies in the oil until the dough is brown.  Remove the browned pies from the oil with a slotted spoon and place them on a plate covered with paper towels to let them drain.

Serve with a little chili sauce on the side.

Bon temps!