A Hell of a Place
For nearly half my life, I watched no TV. When I tell people that, a squint of fundamental distrust screws up their faces, and they look at me like I've got lobsters crawling out of my ears. They always treat me differently afterward -- as though I've just admitted to being the second gunman on the grassy knoll or wandered too far from the short bus without my helmet.
Even though saying I watched no TV isn't entirely accurate, I say it anyway because I love the reaction, the horror of the cathode-ray addict. In this modern world, saying I lived without the succor of the glass tit is like saying I'd held my breath for fifteen years or was a virgin on my wedding night -- an impossible feat of pointless self-deprivation that makes me not a better man, but rather one of questionable mental fitness who might at any moment pull some literature out of my bag and begin talking about my personal relationship with Jesus.
The truth is, for about a decade I watched no prime-time TV. I missed anything that was on the gogglebox before, say, midnight, and I had virtually no conception of what I was missing, because nobody I knew was watching, either. This is one of those easy, unspoken sacrifices that chefs make to their work: The hours they keep prevent them from participating in the simple American ritual of the Tuesday-night lineup or any version of Must-See TV. This helps explains why cooks watch so many movies, why The Simpsons has so many fans among the culinary community -- because it airs on Sunday, the one night most have off. I never saw an episode of Seinfeld in its first-run time slot, never saw Friends or Frasier until I left the kitchens.
Since packing up my kit, though, I've become an inveterate junkie for yesterday's pop culture. I can tell time by reruns now. I watch everything, all jumbled up and out of order, while slowly reintegrating myself into that weird kind of syndicated longing for imaginary places that seizes those who watch far too much artificial life unfolding on the telly. My uncle used to live in the real Providence, Rhode Island. Shortly after an imaginary Providence began its TV run on Providence -- all those tree-shaded neighborhoods, the flaming October foliage, the old stone churches and climbing ivy -- he sold his house for almost three times what he'd paid a few years before. The city, he told me, was almost entirely overrun with people chasing after that phosphene dream of idyllic New England life. Many of Providence's original residents were more than willing to indulge this fantasy, so they sold high, packed their things and moved into huge houses one town over.
It's powerful stuff, this virtual homesickness, this desire to find a town just like the Cicely, Alaska, of Northern Exposure, to have a White House populated by the sort of fiercely smart characters created by Aaron Sorkin for the West Wing, or to hang out in a coffee shop like the one on Friends, in a mythical East Village in a mythical New York -- and I am as infected with it as anyone, not yet hardened to the inevitable disappointment, perhaps because I got started so late. I once thought I found a Cicely in Madrid, New Mexico, and came close to opening a restaurant there before heading north to Denver instead. The White House? Well, we're shit out of luck on that one; Scott McClellan is no C.J. Cregg.
But now I have that coffee shop -- that idealized, comfortable, broken-in neighborhood spot as friendly as Studio City, as easy as the Thursday-night routine. It's Devil's Food Bakery, a patisserie and java joint that's been operating without much fanfare on Old South Gaylord since 1999.
Make no mistake, though: This is a dangerous place firmly dedicated to enabling those with a weakness for the venal wrongs of gluttony to pave their way to hell with pastry. With real lemon curd, with Devonshire cream, fondant, butter cream and mousse. Profiteroles with handmade banana ice cream and banana-caramel sauce. And doughnuts, especially the signature Devil's Food doughnut: as big as the spare tire on a clown car, as dark as a black hole and with the same kind of inescapable gravity for those who venture too close, enough to tempt a saint to sinning with its skin of gleaming chocolate and dark chocolate lace covering squishy devil's food cake. It's a soft pastry, one that really requires a fork, but not everyone bothers with such social niceties. There's an undeniable joy to ripping into it with your bare hands, licking chocolate off your fingers, chasing such decadence with a two-fisted hit of warm cafe au lait, then going back in for more. It's pure indulgence, this doughnut -- what dances through the fever dreams of squirrelly Atkins dieters, what your inner fat kid screams for after too many green salads and rice cakes. And because I have suffered from a lifelong lack of any reasonable impulse control, I had two for breakfast on my first visit to Devil's Food, washing them down with bittersweet espresso, and spent the entire afternoon chittering away like a monkey before slipping down into a twelve-hour sugar coma as black as baking chocolate.
I've been looking a long time for a place like Devil's Food. A culinary home base. A reflex choice where the wife and I can go on Sunday afternoons without having to think about where we're going. A lazy spot where lingering is appreciated as an art form, with couches in front and an eclectic dining room in back, with the silver kept in thrift-store dressers; an eatery where we can settle in at eleven in the morning and make fun of other restaurants while drinking DazBog coffee and Limonata from the can, eating apple-and-brie sandwiches or flatiron-cut steak and frites with a passable Dijon mustard sauce and a haystack of tangled, crispy shoestring potatoes as thin as angel hair.
Somewhere with homemade drop scones behind the nose-smudged glass of the bakery case, good music on the pipes, tea served in individual samovars from a list as dense as any wine bible, and servers who are excited about the menu, always ready with a suggestion for a personal favorite dish, happy to rewrite checks for tables (like mine) that order seconds or thirds or want to add thirty bucks' worth of take-away pastries at the last minute.
Devil's Food is the fantasy coffee shop of my dreams and then some, since chef/owner Gerald Shorey recently expanded his spot to offer a full board of breakfast, lunch and dinner. A Scottsdale C-school grad, Shorey is a veteran of the pastry departments at Mel's, Tante Louise and the Brown Palace. His kitchen cooks seasonally, sometimes organically, and always with carefully sourced ingredients. There's real maple syrup -- thin, nutty and sweet with raw sugars -- served with the Belgian waffles at breakfast; real whipped cream, whipped sweet butter. The eggs Benny are mounted over salty French ham and topped with scratch hollandaise. The French onion soup is dark and woody-sweet and comes in a mug plugged with a Gruyère-topped crouton rather than some nasty cap of melted, oily Swiss.
For dinner, the offerings are kinked to the clatter of the fax machine and change constantly depending on the availability of good product and the whims of the chef and his crew. On a Saturday night, the menu listed crabcakes with caper tartar sauce; a sea-scallop app; seared arctic char over wilted spinach with grapefruit salsa; roasted duck with cranberry/apple-cider brown butter; and pork tenderloin with autumn veggies and sweet-potato gnocchi. By Sunday at seven, the duck was sold out, the last order of pork was going out the door, the scallop app had moved up to entree status, and the leftover cranberries had turned into a dessert sorbet.
That kind of menu -- that seat-of-the-pants, make-it-up-as-you-go, instinctive, ever-shifting board of fare -- is as much a fantasy arrangement for any chef as finding a place like Devil's Food is fulfillment for me. But the workaday reality is not always so neat. Shorey is a patissiere by trade -- not a linesman, not a cook -- and he's still adjusting to life on the line. That showed with the scallops, which I had after their promotion to entree. They sat like perfectly pan-seared marshmallows, lovely and brown, atop a ribboned nest of limp pappardelle noodles in a muddy broth that smelled great, looked like dirty dishwater and tasted like old tin. I understood the intent -- the tarn of broth sauce, the powerful herbs, the attempt to get a fragrant, earthy liquid to infuse the meat of the scallops without just making a soup -- but broth sauces on pasta are tough. They have to retain a certain viscosity to work, a silky stickiness neither too thick nor too thin, and they have to do it without breaking under heat, without becoming oily, while still remaining an unmounted liquid. Broth sauces look great on paper and in cookbooks, but they are graduate-level culinary chemistry, much easier to bungle than to bang out right, and this one was pure rookie inelegance.
The devil's in the details, as they say, and the scallops weren't Shorey's only problem. For breakfast, I tried a stuffed French toast that wasn't so much stuffed as it was a layer of sliced, glazed and roasted apples sandwiched between two bias-cut spears of the house's fantastic challah, Frenched and grilled. A compound honey-almond butter was supposed to kick up the apples -- but you know what happens to butter when it's introduced to two slices of hot bread? It melts, leaving you with damp apples and bread swimming in almond-butter soup. A good almond soup, maybe, but not right. On a previous menu, this French-toast sandwich was stuffed with honeyed mascarpone and grilled peaches, which worked better because mascarpone is thicker and can take the heat. The compound butter required a stuffed French toast that was actually stuffed -- a thick slice of challah with the apples and iced butter tucked into a pocket cut into the center -- so that the butter could slowly melt down into the guts of the bread while the outside was toasted on the flat grill.
On the lunch menu, there's a chicken paillard that isn't -- a paillard being a thin slice of chicken or veal, pounded and generally breaded, then quickly fried or sautéed like a scaloppine, not just a baked, seasoned chicken breast, as presented here. Even called by the wrong name, though, the chicken was fantastic. It came sided with a pearly garlic couscous so tender and powerful and delicious that halfway through my first helping, I was already sad that it soon would be gone and started thinking about ordering a second plate to go.
Shorey is the devil's own when it comes to cooking -- a guy who's still in the process of making that rare jump from the science of pastry to the gut-level instincts of line cooking. But once he gets it, once he hits his stride on the hot side, he'll be truly dangerous, a double threat in a business where there aren't many who can work one side of the kitchen consistently well, let alone both. And the signs are good that he will make it, because aside from the truly awful scallops, there was no mistake at Devil's Food so egregious that I actually stopped eating anything that was put in front of me. More important, there was nothing that will keep me from going back again. And again. After a long search, I've found my spot -- my Cicely, my Providence, my Friends coffeehouse. While not everything is perfect, it's close.
And in the real world -- off the sound stage and working without a script -- close to perfect is good enough for me.
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