Monday, July 30, 2012

Southern Hospitality

Between the stresses of work, wedding planning, and my masochistic, emotionally-draining following of the downfall of my alma mater's good name, I needed to get away. I've still been feeling a bit out of sorts lately, so it was time for a change of scenery. This past weekend was exactly what I needed.

Those who know Jill and me are well aware that there are three things that we relentlessly advocate: adopting shelter animals, George Sabatino's food, and JAQK Cellars wine. It was the last of these that sent us to Nashville, Tennessee this weekend. Our good friend David is the road warrior head of sales for JAQK. (While we certainly acknowledge that our friendship with David feeds our JAQK fandom, we became big fans of the wine before we really knew him; and we wouldn't blow smoke up our other friends' asses by insisting they try wine that sucks. Life is too short to drink wine that sucks.) David had a rare few days off between road trips, so he invited us and some other good friends of his to his current home base just outside Nashville for a weekend of decompression. Things being what they have been lately, the weekend trip couldn't have come at a better time.

Without boring you with all of the details of the weekend, I want to publicly recommend checking out the following places if you happen to find yourself in Nashville, as they all helped make for a wonderfully relaxing weekend.

Kayne Prime is a meat-lover's paradise. I'm a bit of a cynic when it comes to steakhouses, because in Philly they're all chains and/or in the mold of a converted bank building. (I say this, I confess, having not eaten at Barclay Prime.) Don't get me wrong, I love a well-prepared cut of quality meat as much as the next guy, but I generally want my steak without the overbearing formality I feel in many steakhouses. So for me, Kayne was a home run: great steak and sides in a smart-casual setting. Although the steak is certainly the feature at Kayne, the highlight, must-order item for me was this beauty:

That's two thick-cut pieces of peppered bacon with maple cotton candy. David had described the flavor as being what happens when you're having pancakes with maple syrup and a side of bacon for breakfast, and some of the syrup drips off the pancakes and coats the bacon. That description was spot on—if, you know, you have top-quality bacon and maple syrup in your breakfast. Other menu highlights included the American wagyu New York Strip (as part of the New York Strip "progression" featuring prime, American wagyu, and Australian wagyu); the roasted bone marrow "canoes of beef," the macaroni gratinée (with bacon, of course), and the cream corn brulée. Kayne scored extra points for carrying my two favorite JAQK wines on its very strong wine list: Soldiers of Fortune syrah, and Black Clover merlot.

Whitfield's is a friendly, fairly casual neighborhood restaurant in Belle Meade, about 20 minutes from downtown Nashville. The menu is full of straightforward, familiar dishes that are thoughtfully well-executed. Of course, I almost didn't have room for my actual meal because the complimentary oiled baguette with sun-dried tomato compound butter was just so good; our table of five went through three of them. Highlights also included watermelon salad with arugula, goat cheese, and a balsamic reduction watermelon-lime balsamic dressing; and pan-seared salmon with a sweet chili glaze. One of our dining companions also raved about her pan-seared scallops. And David informs us that their osso bucco, on the fall seasonal menu starting in September or so, is worth a trip on its own.

Finally, Tavern is a hopping bar and restaurant smack in downtown Nashville, just a few blocks from Vanderbilt. We went for brunch, and found that Tavern offered Southern junk "morning after" food in all its artery-clogging glory. Their cheddar biscuits with chorizo gravy (pictured) is the closest rival to Silk City's biscuits and sausage gravy I've found for that type of dish. And the "Benedict Uno," a braised short rib benny with tabasco hollandaise, was a wonderfully satisfying spin on the brunch classic. But Tavern's heart- show-stopper is its "White Trash Hash," an unholy combination of mushy french fries and gooey cheese. It's exactly what you'll need to kill a pesky hangover after a late night at the Nashville honky tonks. (I would like to officially request that The Industry call up the folks at Tavern and get the recipe for this stuff; weary bar and restaurant workers will kill plates upon plates of it on Sunday afternoons.)

Thanks to David, JAQK Cellars, and all of these places for the amazing hospitality this weekend. Now that my batteries are recharged ...

Header photo by Frank Kehren, used under Creative Commons license. Other photos by author.

Metal Monday

It's Monday, time to wake up and crush some skulls ....

Monday, July 23, 2012

Bless Me Father, for I Have (Apparently) Sinned

It's long overdue time that I made this confession.

I went to Penn State because of the football team.

There, I said it. And it's a statement that's both technically true and easily subject to any number of misinterpretations. You see, I didn't go to Penn State for football in the literal sense, in that I was not a football scholarship athlete. The closest I got to gridiron glory was an endzone-to-endzone interception return for a touchdown I made—in 8th grade, during a gym class flag football game.

Nor did I go to Penn State just because I wanted to go to a "football school." Although Penn State was ranked #2 in the country when I did my application in the fall of 1999 (before the disastrous three-game skid to close out that regular season), I did not apply to the school because I was a football fanatic. If that was the case, I would have applied to at least a few other football schools—certainly Michigan, maybe Texas and Wisconsin. But that wasn't the agenda. I applied to four schools, and Penn State was the only football school in the bunch.

But when I looked at my acceptances—Vanderbilt, Wake Forest, and Penn State—and my waitlist offer from UVA, it took me all of about 5 minutes to make a confident, final decision of where to spend the next four years of my life: Happy Valley. Academically, my parents wouldn't have let me apply anywhere they wouldn't be proud to say their son attended. And frankly, I wouldn't have applied to any school that I wouldn't be proud to one day put on my resume. And I also simply wasn't concerned about being particularly close or far from home. I knew I didn't want to go to college in Philadelphia. Beyond that, I didn't really care or think about how long it would take me to drive or fly home for Thanksgiving, winter break, etc.

So my choice was truly limited to the schools' environment, which is where Penn State football comes in. Not because I was a particularly fervent football fan. So it really wasn't about that. It was about what was clear from watching Penn State football games on television: 100,000 people who shared a community—one built not just around winning athletes, but on ideas with labels like "Success With Honor" and the "Penn State Way." When I visited the Penn State campus in October 1999, it was clear that these ideas didn't just apply to the football team, but permeated every aspect of the University, and these ideals were something that every student, faculty member, alumnus, coach, and administrator were expected to live up to. To quote our Alma Mater:

For the glory of old State,
For her founders strong and great,
For the future that we wait,
Raise the song, raise the song.

Sing our love and loyalty,
Sing our hopes that, bright and free,
Rest, O Mother dear, with thee,
All with thee, all with thee.

When we stood at childhood's gate,
Shapeless in the hands of fate,
Thou didst mold us, dear old State,
Dear old State, dear old State.

May no act of ours bring shame
To one heart that loves thy name,
May our lives but swell thy fame,
Dear old State, dear old State.

While the Alma Mater is over 100 years old, and the school over 150, for my generation (and the generation immediately before mine), these ideals were embodied by a short, funny-looking Italian guy from Brooklyn with Coke-bottle glasses. This blue-collar guy with an Ivy League degree who came to a college in the middle of nowhere, Pennsylvania and began a "grand experiment" of doing things the right way, not cutting corners, and still being successful. And everyone in the University community bought into it, not just his football players.

Lightheartedly, I refer to the Penn State scandal as the Great Onion—because there are layers upon layers to the story, and they all make me cry. But when people look at Penn Staters and think we're mostly upset today because our football team is going to be bad for the better part of the next decade, they're missing the point. Because while football led me, and many like me to Penn State, it wasn't because we gave the first damn about bragging about going to a national championship-caliber school; it was about joining the grand experiment ourselves, by joining a community exemplified—but not defined—by a football team that believed in doing things the right way.

Image Credit: Penn State Live on Flickr