Here for the food

Former L.A. chef brings new flavors to popular Nick's Airport Inn

Former L.A. chef brings new flavors to popular Nick's Airport Inn

January 18, 2006|by JULIE E. GREENE

It wasn't long ago that Jeff Armstrong's cuisine creations were tasted by celebrities such as Johnny Depp, Kevin Costner, Eva Longoria and Britney Spears.

Now he'll be cooking his culinary delights for Tri-State area diners as executive chef at Nick's Airport Inn on U.S. 11 north of Hagerstown.

Armstrong says he was excited about General Manager Paul Giannaris' renovation plans and desire to bring a big-city atmosphere to the area.


The entire restaurant is getting renovated, including new Italian tile marble floors, a new door and portico with a fountain out front, an expanded lounge, two fireplaces and new outdoor eating areas with fountains, says Giannaris, whose family owns the restaurant. His parents, Nick and Tina, bought the restaurant in 1961 and expanded it through the years.

Renovations are expected to be done by June. The restaurant has remained open for dinner and will resume serving lunch in March.

Armstrong, a former Gaithersburg, Md., resident, also was tired of the rat race in Los Angeles, where he lived for nine years. He wanted to raise his children in a family setting.

"When I was 14, I started working in restaurants and just kind of got the bug then," he says.

As a teenager, Armstrong worked at Little Caesars, in a small crab shack, at a Gaithersburg seafood restaurant and at Louise's Trattoria in Bethesda, Md.

It was while he was working at Louise's during the day and the Gaithersburg restaurant at night that he decided to pursue going to culinary school.

"I always enjoyed cooking at home and the fast pace of the restaurant. I got into it and stuck with it," he says.

After graduating from Scotts-dale Culinary Institute in Arizona, he began his professional career with a job as sous-chef at Christopher's in Phoenix, working for award-winning chef Christopher Gross.

While sous-chef at Aubergine Restaurant in Newport Beach, Calif., he spent a month working at Sofitel Hotel in Melbourne, Australia, for a month. There he was inspired by the country's innovative southwest Asian-flavored cuisine.

Three California restaurants Armstrong has helped launch are Red Pearl Kitchen, the upscale Whist Restaurant and Dakota, a classic steak and chop house with a modern twist.

He was executive chef at 17 restaurant in the Sam Houston Hotel in Houston and at Troquet Restaurant in Costa Mesa, Calif.

In December, Armstrong, 31, moved to Hagerstown, where he lives with his wife, Janna; son Oliver, 6; and daughter Imogen, 23 months.

His accolades include a three-star review from the Los Angeles Times, being named one of Angeleno Magazine's "8 Hot Chefs" in May 2003 and being nominated for the American Culinary Federation Los Angeles Area Chef of the Year 2003 award.

At the Airport Inn, Armstrong will start introducing local diners to "new flavors and a different style of food than what we're accustomed to at Nick's," he says.

The menu will retain several of customers' favorite dishes, such as the broiled crab cakes, baked crab imperial, broiled flounder stuffed with crabmeat and black Angus New York strip steak.

And new dishes will be added such as Armstrong's braised short rib and seared hamachi. Hamachi is a yellowtail fish the restaurant imports from Japan. The new menu is expected to debut next week.

"One of my favorite things to eat is a braised meat," such as short rib or osso buco or anything braised, he says.

Armstrong aims for dishes with "bold, fresh flavors."

He says, "I don't like to manipulate stuff 10 ways. What's the point of bringing a fish from Japan to manipulate it 10 ways? I want the product to shine. ... I don't want to mask that fish.

"I think that one of the most difficult things about cooking is seasoning stuff properly. Anyone can sear a piece of meat or (grill) a great piece of fish."

The food drives Armstrong's passion for his work.

"I love to find new products. I like the ideas of the regionality of food."

In Maryland, crab and seafood are used. In California, produce is big.

"I think I'm very passionate about the cooking itself," he says.

"I didn't get into it to be Emeril (Lagasse) or somebody. I got into it because of food."

One of the things Armstrong likes to do is balance the sweet and sour flavors in a recipe.

"A lot of the food that I do has those, both components in it," he says. "Your palette likes sweet. If you can add a little sugar and a little vinegar to something."

Also, Armstrong says he tries to always make an impression on guests.

And what if the person doesn't like the dish?

"I'm OK with that because not everybody likes everything," Armstrong says. "As long as I know it was prepared properly. I want them to leave and have this 'I had this dish and I need to go back and get that' (experience)."

Seared Hamachi Salad With Cucumber Salad, Grapefruit and Ponzu

1 pound hamachi (can substitute tuna)

1 cup sugar

2 oranges

1 grapefruit

2 limes

1 cup rice vinegar

2 tablespoons sesame oil

1/2 cup soy sauce

4 chilli de arbol

2 tablespoons black sesame seeds

1 hothouse cucumber

2 large carrots

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