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Archive for May, 2008

The French Room, Chapter Two

May 28th, 2008

What the heck does this have to do with snakes? I dunno. Snakes taste like chicken. And if there really had been a food shortage, my house was Y2K ready…

Yep, I’m an armchair chef. It all started with mom, I guess, who always managed to throw off something impressive on a Sunday afternoon, and I even grew up with the whole daily evening meal at the family table thing, an experience I fear far too few kids know today.

So I tried my hand at a few culinary creations in my youth, rather haphazardly if I recall. Something like a kid with a chemistry set wondering if you add enough of all of these…

It wasn’t until adulthood that I discovered what gourmet cuisine could really be, at what was, at the time, The Landmark Hotel in Dallas. Our meal was prepared under the supervision of Chef Kent Rathbun, who has done quite well since. A club membership thing made it a bit less of an extravagance, and included a night at the hotel – clearly for sleeping off the meal.

That got me hooked on figuring out a way to budget enough to do at least one killer meal like that per year. The membership later became Club Adolphus, and that was how I discovered The French Room. First meal there, I was blown away. Seriously, every taste a delight, every texture an adventure. So after being completely transported by their signature Grand Marnier souffle’ for desert, I asked how secret the recipe for such a masterpiece might be. My answer was a hand written note from the pastry chef, detailing the ingredients and procedure, and including her direct number if I had any questions.

Oh boy. Once I had successfully produced a few of my own, my head went, “what else can I do?”

So it began. Poulet Marengo. Boeuf Bourguignon. Bananas Foster. Creme Brulee’. Even my spaghetti sauce made a quantum leap. It keeps Julie smiling.

A few years later I had the pleasure of meeting and befriending the new Executive Chef, the incredibly talented Jason Weaver. He has a couple of great sons who love my show. He actually told me that I would be welcome to come and cook with the team, and last Saturday was my second experience doing just that.

To begin with, I picked a busy night to get a feel for the whole operation, and this one was a prime example. Things were hopping. Last time I was primarily helping the Pantry Chef, preparing a very cool heirloom tomato salad and helping on a couple of other dishes, but this night that station was really crazy, keeping even the Sous Chef (a very talented new guy named Donald Chalko) too busy to stop and show me how to properly create the very intricate dishes coming from there.

I ended up helping Katharine Nichter, their highly accomplished Pastry Chef, with several delightful deserts, which put me in a prime location to watch a busy night in the process of actually happening. Truth be told, I wasn’t much help this time as “in the weeds” as they were, but it gave me the chance to really watch what was happening, and even shoot some video. Whew. These guys really rock. It’s funny too, seeing clearly the contrast between the sublimely peaceful, opulent setting the guests are enjoying in the dining room, and the tight, hectic, 102 degree atmosphere of the kitchen.

Like last time, I got to taste things here and there, which included so many amazing flavor experiences in the first hour that I was almost overwhelmed. Later they even made me a complete entree, featuring the single most amazing piece of fresh wild-caught salmon I have ever tasted, topped with a thin layer of horseradish and spring greens and served over a ragout of morels, pearl onions and artichoke hearts in a sauce that was absolutely to die for. At the end of such a busy night there are usually a few tidbits left over to munch, but I could barely eat by then, despite how utterly delectable everything was.

If I’ve made all this less than clear, let’s put it this way. The 2007 Zagat Survey named my favorite place to eat THE best hotel restaurant IN AMERICA.

My thanks again to Chef Weaver and his team for an incredible evening. If you’re into fine dining, or have yet to really experience it, you simply must try The French Room at the famous Adolphus Hotel, downtown Dallas. Tell ‘em the snakeman sent you. Every waiter will know who you mean.

Snakes and the Dallas Stars

May 20th, 2008

This is pretty bizarre.

I got a call on Sunday the 11th from the concierge at the Crescent Hotel. I know they get weird requests all the time, but she declared this one to be the top so far for her.

She needed a rattlesnake. Why, I asked, did the Crescent need one? “Well, we have this guest that won’t leave…” Great answer, but I knew the truth would be stranger.

“Apparently a guest wants a defanged rattlesnake to toss out on the ice at tomorrow night’s hockey game,” she explained. “Let me guess,” I said, could the name Hicks be involved?”

The Dallas Stars’ opponent in the current round of the NHL playoffs, the Detroit Red Wings, have a tradition to bring luck during playoff games. Their mascot is an Octopus, and fans have been boiling actual octopuses in a little wine and lemon juice, then smuggling them into the games and hurling them onto the ice either at the end of the national anthem or after a Red Wings goal.

Since it’s illegal to throw anything on the ice at an NHL event, fans have been known to stand up around the hurler to shield his identity, and etiquette calls for the hurler to wait for a moment when the players are away from that area of the ice. For a while the Red Wings’ Zamboni driver had been the one to retrieve the slimy hurlee, getting a roar from the crowd when he twirled it over his head.

The NHL stopped that and declared that only the officials could remove it, and fines and even arrests have resulted when anyone was caught, especially when fans from Edmonton threw (Alberta beef) steaks on the ice and Nashville Predators loyalists hurled catfish.

So apparently Tom Hicks, or one of his people, thought the appropriate response from Dallas would be the Western Diamondback Rattlesnake. Could I provide one on a single day’s notice please?

Knowing that my friend Max had a venomoid atrox (Crotalus atrox is the species, and the venomoid process doesn’t involve removing the fangs – it’s a tubal ligation surgery between the venom gland and the delivery system) and that he would probably rent it to me if he wasn’t booked up at the time, I answered with a highly qualified yes.

First of all, no hurling. I would have to be allowed to properly handle the animal and slide him out onto the ice, and he would have to be retrieved promptly and correctly before the cold had the chance to change his body temperature much.

I next heard from one of Hicks’ people telling me about the request (I still have the voicemail) and was told I would hear from someone shortly. I did later but it sounded like things were still up in the air, and apparently a meeting about it later resulted in a wise decision not to proceed, as the logistics were clearly pretty daunting.

I suggested that a viable alternative would be to use one of those stuffed, dead, posed-in-striking-position rattlesnakes you can buy in some Texas souvenir shops. The bigger the better. The important part, in my view, was that the hurler (which I did not volunteer to be) would need to practice the hurl onto the ice before the game, because if it landed belly up on the ice, the effect would be not only blown but maybe even comically embarrassing, for the team if not for the whole city.

05/20/2008 – Well, last night (game 6 in Dallas) was the last chance for this to happen, and again the opportunity never presented itself, as the Stars were never in the lead and were almost shut out, 4-1. Another season gone, but it was a good one. We’ll get ‘em next year. Meanwhile, Go Rangers!

Texas Coral Snake!

May 19th, 2008

I got an interesting call from a family that had seen my show three years in a row. Having learned from me that most people who are bitten were trying kill the snake at the time, they had a Texas Coral snake (Micrurus tener) waiting for me in a trash can, and could I please remove it?

I knew when they said that, what part of Dallas they were calling from. In all my years herping Dallas County, the only other Micrurus I’ve personally encountered in the wild was only 500 yards away from this family’s home, in a now closed property called Camp El Har. It’s a little North of Duncanville (across I-20) and East of Spur 408. The area is called Cedar Vista. Very green and beautiful, with cedar brakes and higher elevations than most of the county.

As a kid, my church sent us there annually, and as an older kid I was also a counselor there. More recently I’ve performed there, but stopped hearing from them a couple of years ago. It’s really sad now to know why.

Anyway, the Coral snake in question had already been named “Freddie” by Mason, one of the five great kids in the family. Channel 5 ran a story about it, here’s the link, though I don’t know how long it will keep working:

http://www.nbc5i.com/news/16221757/detail.html

As usual, they interviewed me for 45 minutes and used 8 seconds or so of it, but the story was pretty well done. Of course, they played up the “deadly snakes in Dallas” angle, but failed to use the stinger – that all of the antivenom for this species was made three years ago, because production stopped in 2005. No money in it. Only 1% of venomous snakebites in the US annually are from this species. That’s no wonder – it’s a shy, reclusive animal that is rarely seen, and to get bitten by one, you basically have to pick it up.

Don’t pick it up.

Drop for drop, it’s very similar to a cobra bite, and with all the remaining antivenom on the shelves across the country expiring this October, the alternative may end up being left on a ventilator for days while the central nervous system recovers from the paralyzing effects of an envenomation. Very scary thought.

The story added that the bite, “left little time for survival” which they did not get from me. The onset of any symptoms at all can sometimes take hours or even days, which is one of the problems, as some victims tend to assume the bite failed to deliver any venom. Then later when they discover they’re in trouble, they find themselves unable to speak, and later to even breathe on their own. Not good.

In the D/FW Metroplex, none of the mimics range this far North (for the Mexican Milk snake) or West (for the Louisiana Milk snake) so EVERY red, yellow and black banded snake will be the Texas Coral snake – there’s no need to remember the little rhyme.

Just don’t pick it up.Texas Coral snake, Micurus tener

Highway turtle

May 5th, 2008

What a long drive back from Columbus. Had a great time, but it took a full day to recover from the solo travel. 11 hours behind the wheel. Not far outside Starkville (what a name) I saw a large Eastern Box Turtle in the service lane of Hwy 82, clearly headed across the road. I managed a safe stop about 150 yards later and proceeded to back up the service lane. Don’t try this. I had a clear day, a flat straight road, and lots of visibility, but what follows probably wasn’t safe at all.

As I got closer to the turtle, he crossed into the right lane of traffic, and I could see two vehicles approaching in that lane. I backed a bit into the right lane, causing the first vehicle to change lanes around me (and, I’m sure, to declare me completely insane) then returned to the service lane. I had to repeat the procedure for the second vehicle, as clearly neither had seen the turtle. As big as he was, they might have blown a tire hitting him, possibly resulting in an accident. By now I was back in the service lane and beside the turtle, and with no more oncoming traffic I was able to retrieve him and give him a good talking to.

As he gaped his mouth at me in a threatening posture, I yelled at him to be VERY afraid of the road. I then proceeded to march him down the embankment, carrying him like a briefcase on his side (he’d generally be better off afraid of humans too) and spotted a big area of runoff water below. Knowing that it wouldn’t matter which side he landed on in water of that depth, I hurled him skyward and he landed with a big splash. I returned to the van, reasonably sure that the experience would leave him disinclined to climb up to the road again.

The 2 foot American Alligator I borrowed for the festival (for which I had to carry the appropriate permit) didn’t have a name, so the Outdoor Learning Center let me name him Columbus. He is, after all, Alligator mississippiensis. Gator done!

I really want to say another big thank you to the great folks at CableOne for their kindness and hospitality. By the way, I finally figured out why no one at the festival had boiled peanuts again this year. They’re out of season. In late summer the green ones freshly harvested are boiled in salt water until soft and yummy. Apparently the ones I was introduced to that first year had been frozen after cooking for later sale. This summer I’m going to boil up a batch myself.