Tasting fine chocolate, succulent barbecue

February 23, 2005|By ROB KASPER

AS THE WINTER deepens, I eat better. Recently, I countered some winter days by eating some exceptional chocolate and some succulent barbecue.

I sampled the chocolate at the 14th Annual Chocolate Affair, a night of food and drink but mostly of desserts, held Feb. 10 at M&T Bank Stadium. The event raises funds for Center for Poverty Solutions.

I found the "cue" -- ribs, chopped and beef brisket -- last week at Ray Lewis' Full Moon Bar-B-Que, which has taken over the Boston Street spot in Canton that formerly housed the Atlantic restaurant.

The trick with chocolate is to make it flavorful without being too sweet or cloying. Many of the 40 vendors at the Chocolate Affair pulled this off. I know because I sampled the offerings at each booth.

One of the exceptional desserts was the pot de creme made by Jose Ayala, the pastry chef at Roy's of Baltimore. This, Ayala told me later, was a mixture of milk chocolate and cream that had been infused with two types of tea. Accompanying it was a chocolate Bavarian, a mound of bliss laced with macadamia nuts. A panel of judges, myself among them, gave this dessert duo the prize for Chocoholic's Dream.

An inventive use of chocolate, putting it in spicy chili, won the Loco Cocoa award for Sascha's catering. Catherine Bind, the chef at Sascha's, kept blending cumin, chipotle peppers, bittersweet chocolate and chili until she got the desired -- hot and sweet -- effect.

Speaking of desire, there was plenty of tempting flesh on display at the booth serving the chili. A man and woman covered with little more than cocoa powder and strategically placed fig leaves posed as centerpieces. It was hard not to look. Moreover, my judicial duties required it, and this saucy booth won for best presentation.

Ordinarily I scoff at white chocolate as faux fare. Yet the white chocolate and white pepper creme caramel with orange and pomegranate served up by Chef's Expressions turned my head and pleased my palate. It was refreshing with clean flavors.

Accompanying it were some kumquats coated with a Grand Marnier glaze. I had never had kumquats this good. One of the secrets to the remarkable flavor, according to John R. Walsh Jr., executive chef of Chef's Expression, was that these kumquats had their seeds removed. This dessert, the white chocolate and all its fruity friends, won the Palate Pleaser Award.

A night of eating only chocolate can get tiresome, at least that is what the nutritionists say. The organizers of this event tossed in some savory offerings -- soups, spreads and other quick bites -- that were chocolate-free. This year the best of this bunch, winner of the Savory Treat award, was a tangy ginger-flavored pulled pork made by Gregory Miller, executive chef at the 23rd Degree restaurant.

The glow in the aftermath of the chocolate feast was starting to fade when I visited the town's new barbecue restaurant in the Can Company building in Canton. The best way to approach any barbecue enterprise is from the rear. That way, you can check out the aroma and the wood. As I walked along Hudson Street, which backs up to the restaurant, my nose picked up the unmistakable perfume of a hickory fire.

The hickory wood, and much of the expertise for this enterprise, comes from Birmingham, Ala. That is where the Maluff brothers, David and Joseph, hail from. They run four Full Moon restaurants in Alabama and have formed a partnership with the Ravens linebacker.

I was among the throng on hand last week at a media event held a few days before the restaurant opened its door to the public on Sunday. It has both sit-down and carryout service. Ray, as he is known to almost everyone in Baltimore, was there. But he was too dressed up, resplendent in a magnificent vested gray suit, to get close to any barbecue or sauce.

Ray told me he picked barbecue restaurants as his first venture primarily because that was the type of food that the Maluffs knew well.

Ray got to know the Birmingham brothers because a Baltimore hedge fund consultant, Frank Goldman, had relatives in Birmingham who regularly sent him shipments of the Southern barbecue. Goldman shared an office with Ira Rainess, Ray's business associate. So the cue got from Birmingham to Baltimore and found its way to Rainess, who got it to Ray. Before you know it, the boys from Birmingham were bringing crews up to Baltimore to cook for Ray's annual charity bowling tournament, and eventually a partnership was formed.

I got a good look at the pit in the back of the restaurant. It is a serious piece of brickwork, 20 feet long, 5 feet wide, 4 feet deep. It was built by two more boys from Alabama, James and Kerry Brown. It will be manned, David Maluff told me, by six pitmen, three from the Baltimore area, three from Birmingham.

The pit will be manned around the clock, Maluff said, because good barbecue is cooked under low heat for a long time -- 10 to 12 hours for beef brisket, five hours for pork shoulder.

After scribbling down the facts, I put down my pen and started eating. I was impressed. The brisket was that wonderful combination of smoke and tender beef that you usually find only in Kansas City or Texas.

The baby back ribs were a little dry, but the real spare ribs, the "three and downs" were moist and went well with the restaurant's table sauce. The pork shoulders were close, but not quite, like those from the smoky North Carolina joints.

Toss in the honest-to-Mama-made-with-brown-sugar baked beans, a tart chowchow relish, a Dr Pepper and a surprisingly warm winter afternoon, and I began to wonder whether I was eating in 'Bama or Baltimore.

This pit joins the one operated by Andy Nelson , another Baltimore football player with 'Bama ties, as a welcome addition to Baltimore's smoky scene.

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