Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Doug's Soul Food

"Bless this bread, bless this meat, bless this belly 'cause I's gon' eat!"
Reverend Williams, Soul Food - 1997

I love my Mom. She is a far better parent than I or anyone deserves. She's a good friend, a reliable go-to person when help is needed and a fabulous mother-in-law to my Wife.

But her cooking...

Mom hates to cook. To be fair, meals in our house were never late and there was plenty of it but she was not, I'm sorry to say, a particularly inspired cook. She's got a repertoire of about a dozen dishes with maybe 8 standard everyday ones. I suspect what drove me to being a Foodie as I grew up was the constant curiosity about new food that can only come from such a limited palette growing up. When I started going out to restaurants I was immediately the one who wanted to try all the exotic places. I was forever trying to talk my friends into going for Thai food, or Indian, or Nepalese or Japanese.

Doug's Soul Food cooks like I wish my Mom cooked. It cooks like I want to cook. It cooks like you wish your Mom cooked. On the front of the menu, along with a picture of the owners mother, is the motto, "Not Mom's, But Close!". It is humbly implied that this means they are not quite as good as Mom. I think the reality is closer to your Mom not being quite as good as they are.

Like good home cooking, you will find no fancy ingredients at Doug's. There is no curly parsley on the plates, there is no exotic ingredients in the food. What winds up on your plate is the fundamentals; chicken, pork, flour, butter, salt, pepper, eggs, and cheese. You are not paying for expensive ingredients, you are paying for technique.

I make pretty good fried chicken. It's one of those dishes I wanted to conquer right from the start. I think I went through about 15 or 20 derivations of the coating, the brine, the cooking method before I settled on what is now, I think, Version 2.7. Took me two years to get that far and it's still not quite finished, the hardest part still eludes me.

When you take a bite of nice, crispy friend chicken, especially a fried drumstick, you should be able to easily bite off a chunk that has some meat and some crispy, delicious fried coating in it (the best part of fried chicken, as we all know). What you are trying to avoid is the entire skin and all the breading sliding off the piece in one mouthful. The breading has to adhere to the skin and the skin has to stay on the chicken. This is not easy. Differences in temperatures, fat layers under the skin melting in the heat and providing lubricant, the wet batter, the dry batter, the fact that skin and flour don't chemically like each other and getting it all done, cooked to GBD perfection without overcooking or undercooking the meat... is a flouncing, flamboyant, flourecent BITCH. I can do it about half the time (I think it has to do with how long you leave the batter on)

The fried chicken I had at Doug's was perfect. I took a bite and left a perfect bite sized hole in the chicken. Every bite had some breading in it till I was done. That is a damn fine trick.

Soul Food has been in our state for a long time but I only began seeking it out after I began reading Southern cookbooks and watching Southern cooking shows. It was love at first taste. More than that. I'm starting to suspect I lived there in a past life. I fell head over heals for greens, love sweet potato pie and I'm dying to try grits (if I could find somewhere that does them well).

My Bride an I went to Doug's on a sleepy Sunday afternoon. We were the only two patrons and enjoyed the undivided attention of the owners. Doug's does not have a large menu but it has a lot of open-ended variables such as "Sauteed Vegitables" which could mean whatever they have that day, "Cakes" which included two selections and "Pies" which included five. The protien options are BBQ Pork Spare Ribs, Perch, Catfish, BBQ Beef Spare Ribs and Southern Fried Chicken. Every meal comes with 2 sides and a starch which are cornbread (a cornbread muffin actually), dinner roll or hush puppies (little deep fried seasoned dough balls for those who have never had). The dining room is tiny, tidy and cute with perhaps a dozen tables, a counter and classy table settings with white tablecloths.

As I've already alluded, the chicken was perfect. This is not KFC chicken. Salt and Pepper are no secret. This is good home cooking. Crispy, juicy and perfectly cooked. The hush puppies had a little kick and were another layer of crispy fried goodness. The greens were nice, tender and just bitter enough to be complex without being icky.

My Bride ordered the BBQ Pork Spare Ribs, Mac & Cheese, candied sweet potatos and cornbread. She was nice enough to let me steal a few bites of everything (in the name of science of course).

Note, in the right hand corner of the web page, it says something about me being an empiricist? Well, that's why I have to say... this is not Barbecue. Barbecuing is a cooking style that involves the application of low heat and smoke over a long period of time. Real Barbecue is famous for taking cheap, tough pieces of meat and turning them into tender, smoky, flavorful piles of goodness and love. I do not think that Doug's has a barbecue pit in the back.

Never the less, the ribs were tasty, tender-but-satisfying and possessed of a nice tangy sauce. No, it's not technically barbecue, but it's good.

My Bride raved about the Mac & Cheese and it was pretty damn good. I suspect some Velvetta was used, and it really did taste like something you threw together in your kitchen in a hurry, but it's the kind of home recipe that other people want a copy off. She plans on making both her sides Mac & Cheese when we go back. The Candied Sweet Potatoes were good, but she makes them better.

Now, I'm not normally a dessert person. Restaurant desserts, especially in this new era of "Death by Chocolate with Chocolate Ice Cream, Chocolate Sauce on Chocolate Cake with Chocolate Sprinkles and shaved Chocolate with Chocolate Mouse served on a Chocolate plate with a Chocolate fork", are not big with me. I am, however, a big fan of PIE. To me, it is the one of the Ultimate comfort foods. It's my Death Row dessert. I want the taste of a cherry/apple cream pie lingering in my mouth as they throw the switch.

Such a whore for pie am I that when it came time to decide on dessert, I took a piece of candy from the fuckit bucket and doubled down. Sweet Potato Pie and Apple Pie for me, the infamous "Edna's Lemon Cake" for My Bride.

The Sweet Potato pie was perfect. Soft, custardy and just sweet enough to accent the potato.

The apple pie was excellent as well. Note the flaky crust? I couldn't help but think that a few notes could be taken by LMNO Pies...

The dark secret my Bride waited to tell me till after we had left Doug's is that she immediately suspected that this was a doctored cake mix. Aunt Edna's cake is probably a yellow cake mix with some lemon zest, lemon juice and a sugar glaze on the outside. If you have a problem with such a thing, then consider yourself warned. If not, then good, cause it was damn good cake and I'd hate to think of you missing it.

Doug's Soul Food is another example of a place that isn't WOW food. It's not trying to impress you, it's trying to feed you and fill you up. This is not the kind of place to take an out of town guest if you want to impress them with fancy local cuisine. But on a cold fall afternoon, after a long and wearysome day, when you just don't feel like cooking and you're maybe feeling a little homesick, stop by Doug's. It's pure comfort food done right.

Friday, October 3, 2008


"Oh! hookah of the magic bowl,
Thou dost bring me greatest pleasure, Who likes not thee, hath not a soul, And can know of joy no measure. Thy fragrance brings me visions bright-- Dispels the shadows of the night."
- G. Frank Lydston

One of the Joys Of Madison is that we have such a weird and mixed culture. The word "diversity" has recently been politicized beyond recognition so it's starting to leave a bad taste in my mouth but you know what I mean.

We have numerous cultural enclaves and most of them have brought their food with them. Pretty much all of Asia has made the party, Ze Germans and the rest of Europe are here of course, as are a general representation of our African brethren, those crazy guys from the Caribbean, and just about everyone in between.

has a "Mediterranean" menu that is something of a fib. Read as having a few Greek, Italian, Lebanese and Middle-Eastern recipes with a lot of seafood and some mandatory Midwestern staples (because restaurateurs feel like people will set the place on fire if there is no hamburger on the menu... sheesh) like a Tenderloin and Shrimp Scampi. They even have a Friday Fish Fry.

Having had the food however, I'd be willing to bet there is a Lebanese or Greek cook in the back, doing some very fine work.

We went to Hookah on a Sunday night with our friend Jim. Jim was kind enough to treat us after I scraped 423,827 viruses off two of his computers.

The establishment is broken up into a bar area where you can smoke cigarettes and a dining room that has it's own bar area, where you can't smoke cigarettes but you can smoke the restaurants namesake, the Hookah or water pipe. There are about a dozen tables as well as a room full of cocktail tables/couch/settee groupings more suited for drinking and smoking than food. It's a very casual environment, a number of small TV's are set around, the booths are very Buddha friendly and admitted my large belly with comfort.

Since Jim was paying, we took relentless advantage of the bar service (to be fair, with Jim's urging). It is thereby that I can report that the Bartender/waiter (it was Sunday) mixes a very solid Martini. I give it about a 6.5 out of 10. Good for a restaurant. I also appreciate that they served their drinks in smaller 5 ounce glass. I don't equate quantity for quality in a cocktail and I think a smaller drink is more refined and responsible. Now a days places serve with 8 or 12 ounce cereal-bowl-on-a-stick glasses that make a "three martini lunch" a trip to the ER for alcohol poisoning.

I had the Shawarma plate. Shawarma is one of those dishes for me where once it is spotted on the menu, all debate has ended.

I love food I get to assemble and I love being able to eat with my hands (much to my Bride's Dismay sometimes). It's just more tactile and involved. Being able to tune up my little wraps of pita bread, meat, veg and condiment till I had a perfect mix of spicy, chewy, cool, creamy, rich and tangy... it's more fun than just shoveling food into my maw.

My Bride had the Mediterranean Pizza. She is a food-whore for anything with tomatoes and feta cheese involved.

To Quote My Bride,
"I loved the tanginess of the artichoke hearts in combination with the rest of the toppings. And as a lover of feta cheese, I especially appreciated how there was a nice, healthy dose of it. It's so frustrating to order something that says it includes feta and then have there be so little that you can't even taste it. Not an issue with this pizza at all."
The food, like the drinks, was solid. This is not lay-down awesome fare, this is not WOW food. This is just good food, flavorful, and just exotic enough to be interesting. The flavors are not everyday, but they are not so challenging that I couldn't eat them every night.

I get nervous not saying a place was EXCELLENT or FABULOUS or INCREDIBLE these days. People can be so dismissive and unappreciated of nuances. Not every restaurant is El Bulli or the French Laundry and gawds help me I don't want them to be. There is a place for every level of restaurant in this world and no matter what, someone out there will appreciate it.

Hookah is a great, casual, repeat restaurant and that is a rare thing in itself. I get the distinct feeling that I could go to Hookah 1000 times and never have a bad meal.

Now, food aside, after we finished our meals, the real star of the show made it's appearance.

I am a man who enjoys his tobacco products. There are few tobacco products out there that can be lit on fire and inhaled that I have not tried.

Before you begin with your healthy admonitions, let me add that I did successful quit smoking a few years ago and that now, apart from the occasional stress smoke at work and those shrinking few occasions when I find myself in a bar where smoking is allowed (now done mostly for nostalgia), I have cut myself down to the occasional pipe.

I possess a beautifully carved Meerschaum Calabash pipe and quite simply, life without some sublimely delicious pipe tobacco on occasion is not worth living.

I had, however, never tried a Hookah before, much to my shame.

As a pipe smoker, I was incredibly dubious about the idea of "flavored" tobacco. The idea of "Mint Mohito" flavored tobacco reached into the very base of my brain, clamped onto my fundamental core of cynicism and pulled HARD. In my mind, flavored tobacco is for blunt smokers and rave kids. Real tobacco has exotic names like Burley and Latikia, Black Cavendish, Golden Virginia.... not Watermelon.

I thank my Maker and good sense that I knew enough to let the more experience one in our party, Jim, make the call... and he made a beeline straight for the Mint Mohito.

Hookah tobacco is rolled in flavored molasses and is roasted by the application of small charcoal sticks rather than burned directly. combined with the passage of the smoke through the bubbling, water filled base of the device, it produces THE mildest smoke I have ever had. Great gasping lungfuls of the stuff could be inhaled with no discomfort in the least, all to the merry bubbling of the great glass tower which added a fantastic aural element to the experience.

Every tobacco product has it's own particular idiom. Cigars are best smoked after a meal and when you have extended time to relax. They are strong and flavorful as they need to be to reach your palate after it has been blasted senseless by a long period at the table. Conversation over cigars is permissible but are best suited to long winded old men as they require a minute of constant puffing to keep them lit, every few minuites, allowing you to speak your piece and retire into smoky consideration while your companion speaks theirs.

Cigarettes are best for short, excited conversations and debates. Something with a little more energy. They stay lit, but end quickly, allowing for the repeated act of theatric, incandescent relights. They also add weight and style to expansive hand gestures as they trail smoke or can be stubbed out firmly to punctuate the end of a sentence like a flaming ember for a period. The glowing inhalation, the puffing of smoke in long thin streams, short coughing gouts, sudden explosive bursts or slow, erotic swirls are all within the smokers repertoire. Ultimately, cigarettes are unsophisticated, rough and rude... but that's why we like them.

Oh, and they give you cancer, don't forget that part.

Pipes are unsuited for any conversations whatsoever. Beyond the occasional guttural grunt or short, one-word responses, one must puff rather constantly to keep ones pipe lit. This may sound like a detriment until you realize that pipe smoking requires you to be silent. Pipe smoking is best suited to silent reflection, away from other human interaction. A moment of self-indulgent solitary pleasure. And pleasure it is. There is no more flavorful, robust and potent way to take tobacco than by a pipe.

Hookah's are social creatures. To me, the idea of taking a Hookah by yourself is somewhat absurd. The passing of the pipe, the anticipation, the shared experience and shared pleasure add up to a very jolly, bubbling, social experience. I strongly recommend trying it before our Nanny State takes away all smoking privileges from us, it's poor, untrustworthy children.

In summation, Hookah is a fabulous casual experince that will not disapoint. It might not blow you away, but it will not disapoint. But do not go just for the food. Go for the social interaction in a comfortable enviroment... and the hookah.