The Double Musky

The Double Musky August 18, 2013 – I feel an affinity with Bob Persons, the owner of the Double Musky in Girdwood, the ski resort community just south of Anchorage.  I’ve never met him.  We’ve traded a few e-mails.  Talked on the phone once.  I’ve come to like him.  We have a lot in common.

We both have traveled in the course of making a living.  Bob’s first career was as an auditor for Chrysler.  Traveling people eat a lot of meals in restaurants.  We appreciate good restaurants.  We develop a certain sophistication in our tastes.  At least we think we do.  Sometimes we begin to believe that we could run a restaurant and put a good, even a great meal on the table.  And sometimes, as in the case of Bob Persons, we might be right.

Bob and I both have connections with Louisiana.  I was born there and lived there for the first 12 years of my life before moving to Alaska.  Bob married Deanna, a native of Louisiana.  They spend a few weeks of each year in Louisiana.

We both love Alaska.  I grew up there and always consider it home no matter where I am on any given day.  Bob visited Alaska briefly after his discharge from the army and from that day on wanted to find a way to get back.  He finally made it when he got word that Chrysler had a job opening in Anchorage that met his qualifications.  He and Deanna headed north.  Dining in Alaska was about to change.

A man who traveled to make a living.  Ate in a lot of restaurants.  Thought, “I could do this.”  Married a woman from Louisiana where food is a way of life.  Found himself in Alaska where he always had wanted to be.  It was the late 1970s and it was just about to come together for Bob and Deanna.  They decided to open the restaurant they had dreamed about.

They started with the Girdwood Grill, a hamburger haven housed in a small building that had been the first post office in Girdwood.  Within a few months they heard that the Double Musky was for sale.  Housed in a ramshackle cabin on the road that borders Crow Creek, The Musky had been around since I was a teenager skiing the slopes of Mount Alyeska.  It had lurched from owner to owner through the years without ever meeting with any success or making much of an impression.

In the spring of 1979 with the Musky up for sale yet again, Bob and Deanna were ready to put it all together.  With the help of a friend they bought the property.  They were in business.  Customers were coming through the door.  They were putting meals on the table.

But it was a struggle in those early days.  They started with just the two of them.  It was hard work with little relief.  And Bob realized something important.  He owned and was operating a restaurant but had never had any training in the food business.

He laughs when he talks about it now.  “Food was a hobby,” he says, “and I was trying to run a business.”

He had the instinct and the passion.  He needed education.  He called Paul Prudhomme, the great chef from Opelousas, Louisiana.  Prudhomme had been head chef at Commander’s Palace in New Orleans before leaving to open his own world famous K-Paul’s on Chartres Street in the Vieux Carre.  That was about the time that he literally invented the blackened redfish craze that swept the nation a couple of decades ago.

Bob explained his situation to Chef Paul.  Prudhomme said, “Why don’t you come on down for a couple of months?”

Bob headed to New Orleans.  He spent the next several weeks learning from Chef Paul the techniques that would enable him to convert instinct and passion into some of the best food in the nation.  The Double Musky had arrived.

Since the Persons opened the doors of their restaurant in 1979 the Double Musky has become a legend in Alaska.  They don’t take reservations but that’s ok.  Anchoragites will drive the 36 miles to Girdwood and try to get there early so they’ll be at the front of the line when the doors open.The line forms early at the Double Musky

The building has been upgraded and expanded but has retained its Alaska cabin-like appearance.  At least on the outside.  On the inside it’s more like Mardi Gras in New Orleans.  Beads, doubloons and posters of Carnival are everywhere.  It’s festive.  It’s fun.

The menu reflects the Persons’ Louisiana and Alaska connections.  They offer Louisiana standards like etouffee, gumbo and  jambalaya.  They use a lot of Alaska seafood.  King crab, halibut, salmon, shrimp, scallops.  But they are most famous for their steaks.  Food critics from the Food Network to the Washington Post have praised their pepper steak.

My son, David, and daughter-in-law, Amber, accompanied me on my latest visit to the Musky.  We drove down alongside the majestic Chugach Mountains on a rainy Sunday afternoon.  On the other side of the highway the tide was full in Turnagain Arm.  Pulling in among the dripping spruce trees surrounding the Musky we found the line at the door already formed.  But we were still there in time to get in for the first seating.  The next hour and a half were a delight.

As always every table was occupied.  The bar was standing room only as later arrivals enjoyed cocktails while waiting for tables to open up.  The servers were moving quickly and efficiently from table to kitchen and back to table.

At our table we shared a plate of Cajun Popcorn, crawfish tails lightly battered and fried.  Pleasingly browned and crunchy on the outside, delicate and sweet on the inside.  The perfect snack as we enjoyed before dinner cocktails.

All three of us ordered gumbo.  Bob makes his gumbo in the style he learned from Chef Paul.  South Louisiana gumbo with a heavy, dark roux.  The way I like it.  No, the way I love it.  Served over rice, filled with slices of sausage and large shrimp.  A flawless presentation of Louisiana’s greatest traditional dish.

After the crawfish tails and gumbo I considered staying Cajun all the way.  Maybe etouffee.  Or halibut stuffed with king crab.

But no.  I go through the same thought process every time I’m at the Musky.  And usually, not always, but usually it ends the same way.  I’m there for beef.  Prime rib.  Rare.

A few minutes later I was looking down at a huge slab of perfectly rare beef.  The roasting was superlative.  Accompanied by a simple baked potato drowned in butter.  I was dining in the Double Musky at its best.

I have only one complaint about the Musky.  It’s the same one I’ve had for years.  I love their desserts.  And by the time I get through the appetizers and entrees that I also love, I’m always too full for dessert.  I look longingly at the tray of sweet offerings knowing that I can’t take another bite.

But I’ve been here before.

“Double Musky pie to go, please.”

After all, it’s a 36 mile drive back to Anchorage, too.

Serrano’s

August 15, 2013 – I’m not a huge fan of fast food places. At least not the cookie cutter variety where everything is pre-measured, pre-cooked and sitting on a rack for who knows how long.

But there are those days when there just isn’t time for a leisurely meal. Fortunately there are also restaurants that serve food quickly. Good food. Prepared and plated after you have ordered.

Serrano’s Mexican Grill in Anchorage is one of those places. They don’t have a “fast food” attitude. They define themselves as a “Taco Pub.” Their attitude is about expeditious service to hungry people who want good food but just don’t have a lot of time.

It’s true that you step up to a register to place and pay for your order. After that it simply becomes a good restaurant experience. You are comfortably seated at a nice table of heavy, dark wood. Soon a member of their courteous staff delivers your meal on attractive, substantial plateware. Tortillas are delivered in a woven basket wrapped in real cloth, keeping them piping hot. When you’ve eaten and left, someone clears and cleans the table, preparing it for the next customer. None of this taking your cardboard containers on a tray to the trash can on your way out. Serrano’s is a real restaurant.

I ordered the Mucho Macho Dinner with pork even though I was there for lunch. I was hungry and it sounded substantial. It was substantial. The plate came piled high with chunks of pulled pork cooked down with onion, bits of spicy peppers and cilantro. It was accompanied by the standard rice and refried beans though the rice was deliciously full of corn and the refried beans were sprinkled with a nicely salty Queso Fresca. As I pulled the first of the tortillas from the small basket I found it hot, steamy with that wonderful corn tortilla aroma.

The pork was appetizingly moist, the seasoning delectable. I quickly made a taco with the meat, adding a bit of pico de gallo and a few slices of pickled jalapeno. Delightful is the word that comes to mind. I made a second taco. My appetite was satisfied after that but half the pork was still on the plate. It made an excellent dinner that evening.

Destinctive food. Enjoyable service. Just the restaurant for the busy lives most of us live today.

And how could you not like a restaurant that named itself after a hot pepper?

Jens’ Restaurant

August 10, 2013 – Jens Hansen was a friend of mine. That doesn’t make me unique. Jens had many friends. The man sometimes known as “the wild Dane” was perhaps the most popular restaurateur in Alaska.

Born in Copenhagen, Denmark, Jens began his culinary career in his home country, later moving to France to learn from the classicists. In 1969, at the age of 24, he found himself in Alaska as sous chef at the Crow’s Nest, high atop the Captain Cook hotel in downtown Anchorage. He rapidly became a favorite of Anchorage food lovers.

By the late 1980s Jens had left the Crow’s Nest and opened Jens’, which he always called “a café in a strip mall.” But oh, what a café. He served food that would stand up against the finest of restaurants anywhere. More importantly, he was a restaurateur. A host. A personality. Every time I entered the restaurant, he was there to greet me, often with a glass of red wine in his hand, a slight bow of the head, a big grin and a warm “Hello, welcome back,” in his gravelly voice.

The legendary Alaskan and organizer of the Eskimo Scouts during World War II, General Marvin “Muktuk” Marston, once told me that being an Alaskan is a spiritual thing. “Some people live here all their lives,” he said, “and never get it. Others step off the airplane and they’re Alaskans.” Jens Hansen was an Alaskan, through and through. He loved his adopted home. But he never forgot the land of his birth. Every January Jens shut down the restaurant and returned to Copenhagen. Back to his roots.

The tall bar table in the window alcove was Jens’ “office.” Many times over the years when I had a business luncheon that called for privacy I asked Jens if I could use his office. Always he would clear away the pile of papers and allow me the privacy of his personal space.

Jens’ sense of fun was never more evident than on July 14th. That’s when he hosted his Bastille Day celebration. It was quite a show, complete with a king and queen being brought in a carriage to their dismal fate. Though in Jens’ version the fate wasn’t all that dismal. Most people believed that it was really a celebration of Bastille Day but Jens confided to me that wasn’t it at all. He opened his restaurant on July 14th and that was the real celebration. But the showman in him just said celebrating the more well known historical occasion would be more fun.

Jens passed away in late 2012. I was saddened and somewhat surprised. Jens was one of those people that I just never considered would leave us. He was such a part of us. Such a part of Alaska.

Fortunately for us his wife of 43 years, Annelise, has kept the restaurant open. Annelise always ran the front of the house while Jens was in charge of the kitchen and, of course, being Jens. I was there recently for dinner with clients and friends, Terry and Brenda Shepard, Marnie and Tom Brennan. It’s as good as ever.

I got there early on purpose. I wanted to have a moment to sit in the bodega and have a glass of wine. A moment to adjust to being there without Jens. I ordered a glass of Sonoma Oaks Pinot Noir, an excellent wine that leaps at you. Fruity and floral. A jolly wine that Jens would have loved. I recognized members of his staff who have been there for years. I talked about Jens with the young waitress and it was about pleasant, happy memories. Not sad at all. It felt good.

Later when our party was seated, I recommended the Sonoma Oaks Pinot Noir I had sampled earlier. Our waiter brought a bottle for the table and my companions enjoyed the same leap at our palates from the Russian River grapes that I had enjoyed before they arrived.

The group voted for orders of calamari steaks for the table. One of the house specialties, the strips of steak come in a sauce of garlic, capers, herbs and lemon. Perfectly spicing up the mild flavor of the seafood. They disappeared quickly.

I ordered a ribeye, rare, for an entrée. It came with a red wine reduction. It was rare. It was excellent. Accompanied by two small mounds of mashed potatoes resting on slices of new potato, a roasted tomato, a couple of asparagus spears and a slice of roasted squash, all dressed with a béarnaise sauce. Jens would have been proud.

We ended the evening by sharing a huge chunk of German chocolate cake and a slice of ideally tart key lime pie.

It was a grand evening. A wonderful meal. Good memories. Life goes on.

Arctic Roadrunner

August 9, 2013 – 1964 was a hell of a year in Alaska.  It started out as nothing out of the ordinary.  But on March 27th, Good Friday, at 5:36 p.m. the second largest earthquake in history struck.  Centered about 70 miles east of Anchorage, the earthquake, which scored a 9.2 on the Richter scale, spread destruction across the state’s largest city as well as numerous coastal communities in Southcentral Alaska.  Officially it lasted three or four minutes, depending on which scientific paper you read.  But by my watch it went on for five and a half minutes.  Seemed like five and a half years.  Seemed like forever.

The next few weeks were difficult.  Recovery didn’t come easy.  But we survived.  We rebuilt our city.  And we all had a hand in it.  Today the only sign of the earthquake that I know in Anchorage is the slight grassy slope at the west end of the Park Strip.  That slope is the only place you can actually see the fault line that crossed downtown Anchorage, destroying much of it.

Well, there is Earthquake Park out by the airport.  But after so many years it’s pretty much a nice wooded area with hiking trails meandering through it.

That same year Dick Sanchis decided to open a hamburger stand on Arctic Boulevard.  He appropriately called it the Arctic Roadrunner.  And he made some of the best burgers ever.   

He still makes great burgers.   He has a bigger place now, perched on picturesque Campbell Creek.  Three rooms of booths surround a large stone fireplace.  The walls are covered with pictures of longtime Roadrunner customers, copies of newspaper clippings that Sanchis finds interesting and quotations that he considers motivational.

I love Arctic Roadrunner burgers.  Every time I come home I have to have one.  It’s just not coming home until I’ve been to the Roadrunner.

And I always order the same thing.  A pepper burger.  Large beef patty, fully dressed on a bun, covered in cheese with a slice of roasted poblano.  Crispy fried onion pieces.  An Oreo milkshake.   The burger is deliciously juicy and messy to eat.  The onion pieces have just enough grease to make them taste like fried onions should taste.  And the shake, well, I don’t even mind when the little pieces of Oreo cookie jam the straw and I have to clear it.

Those are the treats that welcome me home.

King Crab, Shrimp & Rice

August 5, 2013 – Pity the lowly casserole.  Shunned by food purists.  Raising memories of tasteless bowls of something not completely identifiable brought to the family reunion by someone’s third cousin.  Desperate attempts to put a nutritious meal on the table by working parents with too much stress and never enough time.  Memories.

And yet casseroles are the soul of comfort food.  Easily prepared in advance and loaded with fresh, tasty ingredients casseroles are also reminiscent of loving families gathered for an evening meal.  Often the only time during the day when a sense of calm might settle over the home of a busy working family.  The time when parents and children can escape the pressures of our stressful world.  Good memories.

I was preparing dinner for my friends Dave Gransbury and Carol Holder.  Carol is a seafood lover so that was settled.  Dave has become a fan of etouffees and gumbos, those rice-based Louisiana dishes that I love.

They were driving into town and would be arriving in the late afternoon.  I didn’t want to be working in the kitchen after they got here so I thought, “Casserole.  Why not?”  I could use all the ingredients that Dave and Carol like so much.  I could put it all together earlier in the day so we could just hang out and visit when they arrived.  And just pop it in the oven for a few minutes when we were ready to eat.

In this recipe I call for sautéed mushrooms and a bit of béchamel.  I like cooking from scratch.  But let’s be honest.  There’s not always time to make a béchamel so it’s ok to substitute a can of cream of mushroom soup.

The Campbell company first introduced canned soups in 1897.  By the 1920s cooks everywhere had figured out that canned soups could be used as substitute bases for a variety of sauces.  When cream of mushroom soup was first marketed in the ’30s it became the preferred substitute for veloute’ and béchamel sauces.  While a béchamel sauce is always better, a can of cream of mushroom soup can work just fine on a busy day.

King Crab, Shrimp &  Rice

1 cup sliced mushrooms                    Salt, freshly ground black pepper, cayenne pepper

1/2 cup onions, chopped                    1 1/2 cup béchamel sauce

1/2 cup green pepper, chopped         1 large king crab leg, shelled

3 garlic cloves, chopped                    1 pound shrimp, peeled

1 stalk celery, sliced                          3 cups cooked rice

1/4 cup parsley, chopped                  1/2 cup Panko breadcrumbs

1/4 cup butter

Saute’ mushrooms, onion, green pepper, garlic, celery and parsley in butter until the vegetables soften.  Add shrimp and cook for three to four minutes until they turn pink.  Season with salt, freshly ground black pepper and cayenne to taste.  Remove the pan from the heat.

Tear the crab into bite-sized pieces.   Add the rice, crab and béchamel to the vegetables, mixing well.  Adjust seasonings to taste.

Put the mixture into a greased, oven-proof casserole dish and sprinkle the Panko crumbs over the top.

Place it in a 400 degree oven for 20 minutes or until the breadcrumbs have browned.

Bon Temps!