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I'm a guy who likes to cook, eat, and drink, but not necessarily in that order. This blog is nothing fancy; just my random thoughts about anything that can be baked, roasted, or fried. Enjoy!

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Restaurant Review: Paramount

It looks like the guys who brought us Trattoria Centrale and El Barrio have done it again. Recently, they opened Paramount on the corner of 20th St. North and 2nd Avenue North. For those of you who live in Birmingham, it's where the old Paramount yogurt shop used to be and before that—way back—the Paramount candy store.

© 2014 Chris Terrell
How to describe it? The bar is a cross between modern industrial with a bit of steam punk thrown in. Exposed brick walls, old tire rims, and car garage lights strung from the ceiling complete the bar scene. But what really makes this place fun and unique, besides the food, is the game room next door.
© 2014 Chris Terrell

There you will find a pool table, foosball table, skeeball, Galaga, basketball games, a pinball machine, and even a Street Fighter game, or something like it. In other words: 80s Throwback Heaven! Trust me, even in this day of complex games on your iPhone, you can’t beat a game of Missile Command or Ms. Pac Man.

Now let’s get back to the food. Yes, it’s bar food. But it’s so much more than that. For example, they have great hummus but with a twist. They call it Alabama Hummus, made from boiled peanuts! Because it has no “chick peas,” it’s safe for two bros to eat together after work. And it isn’t served with the usual dried, hard pita chips, but rather warm pita bread. 

© 2014 Chris Terrell
Another great appetizer are the Dixie Nachos, a creative twist on the ubiquitous bar snack. The Dixie Nachos are made with sweet potato chips with creamy slaw, bacon, mustard, scallions, and barbecue sauce. 

But to me, the most brilliant item on the appetizer menu is the double dipped onion rings with fresh thyme, beer batter, panko, and horsey sauce. Not only do they taste amazing, but the guys have come up with a method that avoids what I call the “vacuum slide.”  

Typically, when you bite into an onion ring, the whole onion slides out of the batter, leaving you with a big slice of onion hanging out of your mouth and your hand holding a hollow ring of batter like a Cicada shell. The guys at Paramount have solved this problem by cutting the onion rings into more manageable quarters. You bite into the ring and get onion and batter at the same time.

In my opinion, the best items on the menu are the hot dogs. These are not your 75 cent ball park specials, but knife and fork meals. My favorite hot dog, and perhaps my favorite thing on the menu, is the West Virginia, with house chili, slaw and yellow mustard. My next favorite item is a chicken sandwich called Going Back to Cali, with avocado, sweet peppers, basil-lime mayo on a wild yeast sourdough.

© 2014 Chris Terrell
And of course, don’t forget about the hamburgers. You can’t go wrong with The Standard, with lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle, horsey sauce, and cheddar. But my favorite is the You're My Boy, Blue. It's piled high with bacon, blue cheese, caramelized onions, and arugula. The sweetness of the caramelized onions, the sharpness of the blue cheese, the pepperiness of the arugula, and the smokiness of the bacon create a perfect flavor combination. 

And all this great food is easily washed down by an excellent selection of Alabama craft brews like Good People, Avondale Brewing Company, Straight to Ale, and Back Forty. 

And after you have had your belly-full of good food and beer, you can waddle over to the Galaga machine and burn off a few calories.

Paramount on Urbanspoon

More information can be found at: Paramount

Monday, April 21, 2014


We all have guilty food pleasures. Some make more sense than others. Believe it or not, I like the imitation crab meat you can buy in the grocery store; for some reason it reminds me of spring break in college. 

© 2014 Chris Terrell
Saw's Burger
But one guilty pleasure we can all agree on is a nice big, juicy hamburger. There are as many ways to prepare great hamburgers as there are opinions as to what makes a hamburger great. For me, however, I like it simple, yet classic: lettuce, tomato, red onion, American Cheese, ketchup and mustard. Occasionally, I like to mix it up with blue cheese and bacon or swiss and sautéed mushrooms.

Louis Lassen
The hamburger is an American original, though its origins remain disputed. The “official” version, if there is one, comes from the Library of Congress of all places, which has officially declared that Louis Lassen of Louis' Lunch, a small lunch wagon in New Haven, Connecticut, sold the first hamburger and steak sandwich in America in 1900. According to the Library of Congress, a customer ordered a quick, hot meal, but Louis was out of steaks. Taking ground beef trimmings, he made a patty and grilled it and put it between two slices of toast. While this story sounds apocryphal, it nonetheless comports with our sense of American pragmatism and can-do spirit. 

There are burger joints in every town in America, each with its own legion of rabid fans. I’m not talking about the national chains, but the mom and pop joints. (Though everyone has their own favorite fast-food hamburger, even those who say they “don’t do fast-food.” Mine would probably be Five Guys, though I don’t really consider them to be “fast-food;” for true fast-food, I would have to go with Wendy’s.) 

© 2014 Chris Terrell
Saw's Soul Kitchen
Birmingham has some great hamburger joints. My favorite would have to be Saw’s Soul Kitchen in Avondale.  (The name comes from a nickname of the owner, Mike Wilson—“Sorry Ass Wilson.”)  

Avondale is an up and coming neighborhood; a casual culinary outpost in an increasingly foodie town. It’s nothing fancy, with maybe eight or nine tables inside and a few tables outside. Saw’s burgers are stacked high with lettuce, tomato, onion, and their special secret sauce. It is similar to other hamburger sauces you would find in Birmingham, slightly spicy and vinegary, similar to barbecue sauce. Hamburger Heaven, Demetri’s, and Milo’s have similar sauces.

© 2014 Chris Terrell
My version of Saw's burger.
So what makes a good hamburger? It is simpler than one would think. Here are my eight tips:

1. Buy ground chuck that is 80% lean and 20% fat. Please do not get the low fat stuff and don’t, unless you live in California, get ground turkey. This is not a low-fat endeavor, nor should it. The fat holds the burger together and gives it its flavor. Besides, it’s not like you eat them every day do you?

2. Form the patties with a minimum of manipulation. Using your thumbs, put a dimple in each side. This keeps the burger from turning into a blimp while grilling. Generously salt and pepper the burgers (that’s all the seasoning you need—trust me) and place in the fridge for about two hours before you put them on the grill. Do not let them come to room temperature before putting the burgers on the grill.

3. Get that grill has hot as possible. You want Three-Mile Island to look like a ski resort. 

4. Put the hamburgers on the grill. (OK, I know this one seems obvious….) Do not take your spatula and press down on the burger. This will force out all the juices and leave you with a dry burger.

5. If your grill has a cover, leave it open. If you close it, you will cook the burger before you can get a good char.

6. Now here’s the hard part. Leave the burger alone. He’s ok by himself. Go grab another beer and talk about the game with your brother-in-law. Once the burger gives a little without sticking, flip it over. Never flip more that once.

7. At this point, place the cheese on the burgers and close the cover—you can even turn the eat down a bit.  Once the cheese is good and melted and dripping and about to cause a grease fire, remove and let rest for a few minutes. 

8. As for the buns. I like kaiser rolls that I’ve brushed with melted butter and toasted on the grill. 

Of course no hamburger is complete without french fries (more on that in a later post), but Lay’s potato chips will do in a pinch. Potato salad or even baked beans aren’t bad either. Of course, the drink of choice is a nice, ice-cold beer, preferably Miller High Life in my humble opinion. (Wine is never an option, even if it is a 1961 Château Cheval Blanc.)

I may run the risk of getting carried away here, but I think it is safe to say that the hamburger may be the perfect food. It’s inexpensive and easy to make. For most men, it’s the first thing they learn to cook, while they stand next to their old man with a beer in his hand who guides him in flipping that hamburger so carefully for the first time. Because the best hamburgers are made on an outdoor grill, they are best grilled in the summer. And when I shuffle off this mortal coil, the last sensations I will record, if I'm lucky, will be the sound of crickets in the early summer evening and the smell of hamburgers on the grill.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

History is Not Even Past in a City like Paris

One of my favorite movies is Midnight In Paris.  For those who’ve not seen it, the movie takes place in both modern-day Paris and the Paris of the 1920s. The main character, Gil Pender (played by Owen Wilson) is engaged to Inez (played by Rachel McAdams). They are in Paris on a trip with her parents. Gil writes screen plays, but aspires for something more. He wants to publish a novel about a nostalgia shop. Not surprisingly, he wishes he lived in 1920s Paris. One night, his dream comes true, as a classic Peugeot pulls up and takes him away in time to a party where he meets Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and even Salvador Dali.

As an ardent fan of this movie, as well as the writings of Ernest Hemingway, I couldn’t resist a combination Midnight in Paris and Hemingway walking tour during my recent trip to Paris. Because the MIP stops on the tour are not particulary  food or drinking related, I will focus more on the Hemingway aspect. Of course, no Hemingway walking tour would be complete without a few stops at the local watering holes!

© 2014 Chris Terrell
Where Gil is first escorted to 1920s Paris
The first stop on the MIP tour—and the most important—was Saint Etienne du Mont, the church near the Pantheon where Gil is first whisked away to 1920s Paris. 

We were famished and grabbed fish and chips at The 
Bombardier just across the street from the church. Nothing seems more incongruous than eating fish and chips and mushy peas at an English pub in Paris!  But when you’re an American who needs a break from classic French brasserie food and want a wee reminder of home (without going to McDonalds), then a trip to an English pub is close enough. It is also nice that everyone there speaks English fluently (even though almost all Parisians speak excellent English.) The servers are either from the UK (ours was from outside London) or have spent considerable time there (like my French server last year), so they understand idioms and the subtitles of the English language. This is why even if I were an expat in Paris and spoke fluent French, I would still seek out places where I could speak my native tongue.

© 2014 Chris Terrell
The Luxembourg Gardens
After refueling, we headed off to the Luxembourg Gardens, Hemingway’s favorite place to walk and think—certainly my favorite garden in Paris. 

After a stroll up the Avenue de de l’Obversatoire, we arrived at the highlight of the day’s walk: La Closerie des Lilas. This is a great brasserie and bar in Montparnasse, guarded by a bronze statue of Marshal Ney (Napoleon’s right-hand man) and, more importantly, frequented by Hemingway. 

© 2014 Chris Terrell

Me and Marshal Ney
It is rumored that Hemingway wrote The Sun Also Rises here. I was fortunate to sit at the same place at the bar where he sat (memorialized with a small brass plaque). And I must admit that I had one of the best martinis I’ve ever had.  It helps that this is an “American” style cocktail bar, so you can be sure that you are getting the best of American spirits here.  We noticed, in fact, that La Closerie des Lilas had one of the best selections of American bourbon and rye, something not always easily found in Paris.

Hemingway writes frequently of the Closerie des Lilas, a short walk from his apartment, in a Moveable Feast:

© 2014 Chris Terrell
The Closerie des Lilas was the nearest good café when we lived down the rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs in the top floor of the pavilion in the courtyard with the sawmill, and it was one of the nicest cafés in Paris. It was warm inside in the winter and in the spring and fall it was very fine outside with the tables under the shade of the trees on the side where the statue of Marshal Ney was, and the square, regular tables under the big awnings along the boulevard.

French cafe culture is fascinating indeed. There are several things I noticed. For one, lunch starts later for the French than it does for Americans. We typically arrived between 11:30am and Noon and the tables were pretty empty; by 1:00pm they were filling up; by 2:00pm, they were packed with French diners.

© 2014 Chris Terrell
The next day we had lunch at Cafe de Flore, and while it was not around during Hemingway’s time in 1920s Paris, it would have been the type of place he would have haunted. Cafe de Flore lies on the fashionable Boulevard Saint Germain. It is decorated in the classic French cafe style with a tiled floor, mirrored walls, and long red banquets. Diners are served by a complex ballet of waiters in starched white shirts, black ties, and white aprons. They move quickly and efficiently, yet elegantly. 

© 2014 Chris Terrell
What makes a Parisian cafe such an institution, however, is its pace. While the waiters hustle about, the guests sit and eat and drink and talk deliberately. Time seems to stand still.  And of course, a demitasse of espresso is a down-payment for a long-term lease to sit on the sidewalk and people watch throughout the afternoon.

One lease payment I don’t mind paying.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Cooking in French

While in Paris, Laura and I rented a studio apartment. And while we could have stayed at The Ritz or the George V, as wonderful as that would have been, spending a week in a studio apartment provides a more authentic sense of what makes Paris so special. Besides, an apartment would give me an opportunity to shop Paris’s famous markets and cook dinner.
© 2014 Chris Terrell
Our apartment was located at 10 rue Francois Miron in the Marais. The front windows looked onto a small square wedged between two imposing, yet classic, governmental buildings. On Wednesdays and Saturdays, it doubled as a market. The back window of our apartment looked onto the enclosed courtyard and the L’Eglise des Saints Gervais et Protais.

© 2014 Chris Terrell
That Wednesday morning, the square looked no different that it did the day before. In fact, it was still wet from Tuesday’s cool rain. Had I been misinformed? Then slowly, around 11:30am, a dozen or so tents began to sprout.  (Later, we discovered the Wednesday market is an afternoon market, so Parisians can shop on the way home from work.) By the time Laura and I had returned from a round of sightseeing and shopping, the market was in full stride. There were stalls selling vegetables, breads, cheeses, fruits, and flowers.

It was good for me that this was an afternoon market. We were having my dad and his significant other over for dinner, and I had not thought too hard about what to cook for dinner. In other words, I was a bit pressed for time.
© 2014 Chris Terrell
I grabbed a head of lettuce and radishes for a simple green salad; potatoes and leeks for a potato leek soup; and haricots vert. The Wednesday market does not sell poultry, meat, or seafood, so I had to go to the supermarket to grab some chicken and lemons for the chicken paillard; a baguette (of course); some dijon mustard; and cheeses, cornichons, and charcuterie. I had what I needed for dinner. And while I was gone, Laura put out the fresh tulips we had purchased at the market.

© 2014 Chris Terrell
Working hard on dinner. 
I quickly discovered that cooking that evening would be a bit of a challenge. There was no oven to speak of. I think we had a microwave that doubled as some kind of convection oven contraption. Any serious baking or roasting was out of the question. I wouldn’t be deterred, however. And it really didn’t matter—this would be a simple meal. 

I also didn’t have a food processor, immersion blender or, alas, a Vitamix to make a super smooth soup. Instead, I used the new knife I had purchased at E. Dehillerin earlier in the day to dice the potatoes and leeks in microscopic cubes and paper thin slices. Lots of salt and pepper and a little bit of cream and—voila!—I had ersatz potato leek soup!

© 2014 Chris Terrell
I sautéed some haricots vert to go with the chicken pail lard  along with shallots, butter, lemon juice, and white wine. For dessert, we had some very alcoholic sweets from a local candy store. In short, we were set for dinner in Paris.

© 2014 Chris Terrell
It was a mild evening, so we kept the windows open. Candles, flowers, jazz on the stereo, and the rhythmic sound of the Parisian police car completed the scene. At one point, I thought: “How Parisian!”  But it wasn’t really Parisian, any more than it was Italian, Spanish, American, or even Russian. We were doing what everyone likes to do: have a nice meal with loved ones and talk about the day. This time, the day just happened to have been in Paris.