Friday, December 29, 2006

Dennis Foy

December 28

You might think that a fine dining restaurant with the name of this blog entry might be pronounced in French — dunee fwah. But no, it’s named after its owner, who used to own Mondrian and other restaurants, and pronounces his name as you'd expect an American to pronounce it.
I went there with my old college friend Jonathan Ray, who is now a history professor at Georgetown (tenure track, thank you very much). His degree, from Columbia, is specifically on Jews of Medieval Spain — 13th Century I believe — during the Reconquista, when the Christians were in the process of capturing Spain from the Muslims.
Jonathan likes to bust my chops when I say things like "Spanish food is hot." He'll point out that really it's only hot among a few American cognoscenti who bother to declare such things to be hot, and that most Americans eat burgers and fries and steak and so on and are not particularly interested in sampling pulpo a la plancha. And of course he's right.
I visited Jonathan in Spain when he was working on his dissertation. He had to visit various archives, which are only open a couple of hours each day, so I came for part of his trip to entertain him during the rest of the day.
Jonathan speaks Italian, Spanish and Portuguese and can get by in French and German, so he's good to travel with in Europe. He's also pretty good at pointing out the significance of various ancient walls and so on, but he's most fun for conversation — at outrage, outrage over bad architecture, for example.
In Barcelona we had an argument that I welcome you to join in (we're over it, but I'm curious to hear other people's opinions).
Catalonia, of which Barcelona is the capital, is home to Ferran Adrià and a variety of other chefs who have been instrumental in developing a cooking style that at the moment is being called Molecular Gastronomy (the term's on its way out; I give it another two years). Essentially, members of this artistic school of cooking use ingredients more commonly used in food manufacturing — various gums, modified food starches and so on — in their own (usually fine dining) restaurants.
I argued with Jonathan, that since this type of cooking was developed by Catalonians in Catalonia, that it therefore was Catalonian cuisine. Jonathan said that was preposterous, that the region's long-standing culinary tradition was far removed from the avant-garde experiments of a few artists in the hills.
I guess I should have asked him if he considered Gaudí's architecture to be Catalonian, but it didn't occur to me at the time.
I no longer know where I, personally, stand on the issue.
Anyway, the techniques developed or modified by these rural Catalonians and others (Heston Blumenthal in Bray, England, Homaro Cantu in Chicago, Wylie Dufresne here in New York, and really quite a few others at this point) has become mainstream enough that Dennis Foy felt that, in order to be part of New York's culinary dialog, and to appeal to the trend-conscious customers he'd like to attract to his restaurant, he needed to dabble a bit in the molecular gastronomy himself.
So sprinkled on his foie gras terrine is a foie gras powder made by mixing foe gras fat with what the chef called tapioca maltodextrin starch. Tapioca is an extremely absorbent starch, and maltodextrin is very much loved by pastry chefs because of its ability to stand up to humidity. So the foie gras, when mixed with this particular starch, is dried into a powder.
"It tastes like nothing," Jonathan said. I told him that if he closed his eyes and thought about schmaltz, it would taste like schmaltz.
Dennis Foy's daughter was sitting at a table near ours. He told us that she helped create some of the design elements. For example, she sourced the light fixtures, which are meant to resemble giant sand dollars. Whimsical curved beams in bold reds and greens and blues arc mostly over people's heads in a way that seemed to me remarkably unobtrusive. Dennis said such design elements were intended to keep the restaurant from being too stuffy.
Here's what we ate:

An amuse-bouche of Boeuf Bouguignon

Big-eye tuna tartare with apple and cinnamon
Roasted beet salad with Belgian endive and blood orange
2004 Robledo Sauvignon Blanc, Lake County, Calif.

Torchon of foie gras with eiswein gelée and foie gras powder
2002 Château Belingard Monbazillac (Bordeaux)

Sautéed potato gnocchi with mushroom and herb essence
2005 Fabian Montmayou Chardonnay, Mendoza (Argentina)

Wild striped sea bass with tomato confit and black olive "paper”*
Grilled sea scallops with celery root purée
2005 Fritz Chardonnay, Russian River

Braised short ribs with spicy red cabbage and baby carrots

Roasted loin of lamb with black pepper gastrique
2003 Morvada Cabernet Sauvignon, Mendoza

Pear tarte
Pumpkin napoleon with Indian-spiced apples and mango sorbet
more of the 2002 Château Belingard Monbazillac

*Black olive paper is another one of those molecular gastronomy things. It's made by combining agar agar with pureed black olives, spreading that very thinly on a Silpat and then dehydrating it.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Hurapan Kitchen

December 22

Taweewat Hurapan and I go way back. He was one of the first chefs I profiled for Nation's Restaurant News, in 1999, when he was the executive chef of Rain on the Upper East Side.
He has a new restaurant, Hurapan Kitchen, which he runs with his son, Dejthana, who was chef at Rain on the Upper West Side.
If you happen to be on the fencing team at City College of New York, you've probably heard of the Hurapan Trophy, which is given to the school's best fencer each year. Taweewat, who was on Thailand's Olympic fencing team in both Munich and Montreal, also did a stint as CCNY's head fencing coach.
(He lost in the first round in Munich, but he made it to 19th place out of 160 in Montreal).
Back when I interviewed him in 1999, Taweewat noted that both fencing and cooking require timing and depth perception. He also said fencing "helps in reading people's minds, because in fencing you have to read your opponent's mind and also the judge's mind. So I can also judge the customers very easily."
My friend Yishane Lee, who works for Time Inc. Interactive, and I both are friends with one of Hurapan Kitchen's publicists, Ben Schmerler, from back when he was an editor for Zagat. Growing weary of bad pitches, Ben decided he could do it better and teamed up with Michael Gitter to form their own PR company.
He asked Yishane and me separately to check out Hurapan Kitchen, and we decided to go together with Yishane's boyfriend, Ray Garcia, who also works for Time Inc., as a computer guy.
I've known Yishane even longer than I've known Taweewat. We worked together in Bangkok in 1995-96. She edited my restaurant reviews.
I picked Yishane up in her Time Inc. office and we stopped by to chat with her colleague Hooshere, who, apart from being one of Time Inc.'s web people, is a singer of contemporary Armenian music.
Hooshere is involved in the relaunching of Entertainment Weekly's web site, so that magazine had just given her a collection of their favorite bits of entertainment for the year (books, DVDs and such).
I can't tell you what was in it, but I can say that I learned that Anika Noni Rose lives in the same building in Inwood as Yishane.
Ray had some things to take care of, so Yishane and I went downstairs to Cité for wine and dollar oysters (we started drinking Sancerre but switched to a California Sauvignon Blanc).
Yishane's a walker (actually, she's a marathon runner, but she walks, too), but it was raining, so we took a subway to Hurapan Kitchen, where Taweewat sprang out and introduced me to Dejthana, whom he said was the actual chef at this restaurant.
He also pulled out some sort of hand-held computer device and showed me a picture of the profile I'd written about him. He said he uses it as his bio.
The food at Hurapan Kitchen was different from what I remember getting at Rain, which seemed toned down to suit Upper East Side tastes. The new place definitely seemed more Thai, but the chefs also knew who they were cooking for and that two out of three of us had lived in Thailand.
Ray arrived just as the appetizers did, but don't worry, he's not one of those neglectful boyfriends. In fact, he's not even a boyfriend anymore: Within 24 hours of dinner, Ray gave Yishane a ring and became her fiancé.

Here's what we ate:

Maine lobster roll with spicy greens and tangerine glaze
Roti tuna roll with pickled ginger and caramelized pineapple
Tamarind Glazed Baby Back Ribs withwild mushrooms, basil and Szechuan pepper
Tom yam kung (spicy-sour shrimp soup with mushrooms, kaffir lime and chile-lemon grass broth)
Crispy duck salad with papaya, tomato, spicy pomelo
Crispy “fillet” of whole fish with sweet-tangy-spicy sauce (a word of explanation: the fish is flavored like a whole Thai crispy fish — along the lines of pla thod rad prik, say — but instead of frying it whole, the chef fried the fillets and then served them with the fried carcass curved around them, making it exotic looking and yet convenient to eat)
Braised short ribs with roasted potatoes, peanuts and massaman curry
Fried coconut ice cream with raspberry and mango sauce
Apple & banana spring roll with green tea ice cream

Hurapan Kitchen is one of a small but growing number of restaurants that offers both light and dark roasts of coffee. The light roast is a Brazil Sanos. The dark one is a Hawaiian Kona. I have no idea if the fact that Ben also represents the coffee house Joe has anything to do with that.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Lunch at Café Gray

December 21

I wanted to interview Gray Kunz for an article I'm working on for our special NRN 50 issue.
I hadn't really met him before. Oh sure, I've been introduced to him at parties and book launchings and so on, but unless you manage to imprint yourself on someone's memory, such encounters don't count.
His publicist, Stephanie Faison née Crane, suggested we have lunch at his restaurant in the Time Warner Center, Café Gray, and then I'd chat with him afterwards. Fine with me.
I'm not sure what you call the opposite of a media whore, but Gray Kunz is pretty much that. I don't think he's intentionally press-hard-to-get. He just seems to prefer cooking and supervising the kitchen over talking to me about Thai basil or pickled green papaya or whatever.
Many people have complained about the fact that the best views in his restaurant of Columbus Circle and Central Park are from the (open) kitchen. Perhaps it was not the wisest business decision, but I think the chef wanted a nice view for himself and his staff. He's an intelligent man; if all he wanted to do was conduct business he could have gotten an MBA and been done with it. Chefs are otherwise motivated.
During the interview we sampled some items being planned for Christmas dinner, like oysters topped with red and green tobiko (cute, right?) and shrimp cocktail with traditional cocktail spice spiked with ginger.
That was nice, although I was full from lunch.
Here's what we had:

Small bites of faro salad with pine nuts, red currants and Parmesan; peaky toe crab in mango emulsion with a plantain chip, and duck confit with beets, walnuts and crème fraîche

Truffle course:
Shaved white truffles with parsnip purée, quail egg yolk and white truffle bouillon
Chestnut agnolotti in black truffle broth with shaved black truffles
Chapuy Blanc de Blancs grand cru brut reserve Champagne

Rice flake crusted lobster in green curry broth with parsnip and salsify
Pearl noodles with young ginger, lemon grass and other spices Gray Kunz likes, topped with some lobster meat.
2002 Domaine Baumann Mandelkreuz Gewürztraminer, Alsace

Spice crusted venison with Brussels sprouts and Asian pear, riebele pasta with sour cherry sauce and kohlrabi
2002 Domaine de Bonserine La Sarrasine Côte Rôtie

Roasted pork loin with crispy pork belly and sauerkraut with apples and bacon
2004 Viña Pedros Ribera del Duero

Stewed cassis berries with Champagne sorbet in cassis soup with a splash of rosé Champagne

Kaffir lime pie with schlag and orange zest in kaffir lime sauce on chocolate cookie crust
Passion fruit chocolate cake with pomelo and chocolate sorbet, finished with pistachio
2004 Domaine de Fenouilet Muscat de Beaumes de Venise
2004 Tomaso Bussola Recioto della valpolicella classico

And because the topic of seasonal sangrias came up (doesn't it always?), we sampled sommelier Matthew Conway's winter creation made from Casorzo, a red slightly sparkling wine from Piedmont, Pyrat rum and rosemary muddled with orange peel. That's served in a glass that has been rinsed with amaretto. Added to it are kumquats and, as garnish, a cinnamon stick and a rosemary sprig.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Wednesday carnage

December 20

I spent the early afternoon at Varietal, a new restaurant on 25th Street, with young pastry chef Jordan Kahn, who was showing me some stuff for an article I'm working on.
He was explaining different gelling agents and acids that he's using — and that his favorite kitchen tool is acetate sheeting — pointing out, when I used the term "molecular gastronomy," that in fact all of those things are merely tools to make dessert taste good and not nearly as kooky as people imagine.
And it's true, a lot of the hydrocolloids (or gums as regular people like to call them) that the kids are cooking with these days are actually just as "natural" or more so than gelatin, and many of the hydrolyzed soy proteins and other emulsification agents they're working with have been used in food manufacturing for years. All that's new is what's being done with it.
So we were having a nice time as he plated up a pain d'épices with 10-year-old Banyuls vinegar powder, taro puree and lychee ice spirals. Then he mentioned today's article in the New York Post that condemned his "wacky" food. Jordan was saddened that the writer, long-time critic Steve Cuozzo, didn't, in his opinion, know much about food.
Indeed, in the article, Cuozzo did call mizuna and maitake obscure ingredients, which of course they are not. Jordan pointed out that McDonald's uses mizuna in its salads.
(Cuozzo called mastic obscure, too, but mastic really is obscure)
I suggested that Cuozzo perhaps was targeting his readers, believing that they would find mizuna and maitake to be obscure.
Still, Jordan admitted to a feeling of sheepishness as he came into work on the subway this morning, looking at how many people were reading the Post.
And he pointed out that most of the article was in fact not about the restaurant but about a controversial bean that tastes a bit like vanilla. The tonga bean (actually, tonka bean, see comment #5 below) is not quite approved for consumption because it contains a blood thinner called coumarin, but chefs have in fact been using it in small quantities for years (I first had it in, oh, probably 1993 at the Mansion Kempinski Bangkok, where Rafael Neitszch was chef at the time).
Cuozzo's comments on Jordan's lime curd and macaroons didn't make it into the Post article, but he told Jordan that it was "awful."
"It's lime curd and macaroons," Jordan said to me. "How can it be awful?"
He had me and photographer Michael Harlan Turkell, who also had dropped by, sample the lime curd.
Indeed, it tasted just like lime curd. If you don't like lime curd, then it would be awful, but it seemed to Jordan that as a critic it is not fitting to condemn something as bad just because you don't like it.
Now, if you've never been a critic, that might sound strange to you, but in fact he has a point. In my opinion, critics are consumer advocates whose job is to describe what something is and whether it is a good one of those.
The one type of food I really can't stand is raw tomatoes, but back when I was a critic, I still had to sample dishes that had raw tomatoes in them. I had to taste the raw tomatoes. If I didn't mind them, I knew they were bland, flavorless tomatoes. If they tasted toxic to me, I knew they were full of flavor.
Anyway, Jordan Kahn was kind of bummed out.

And now I will try, for the first time, to post a picture here on my blog. I'm not anticipating any problems with that, since I have at least half a brain and it's nearly 2007.


This is Jordan's whipped absinthe with black sesame puree, sesame nougatine, liquid sablée spirals, tarragon puffs, ricotta, green apple sorbet, fennel and tarragon.
Jordan says he's inspired by abstract expressionists and sometimes thinks of the color he'd like a dish to be before creating it.
Stop reading now if you don't want to know what all this stuff is.
The whipped stuff near the top of the plate is the absinthe which has been added to hydrolyzed soy protein, water, sugar and salt and then whipped. The largish greenish chunks are the tarragon puffs, made by adding a gum called methylcellulose (specifically Methocel F50) to tarragon water (made by blanching and pureeing tarragon, straining it and saving the water). He seasons it with salt and sugar, pipes it into divinity shapes and then dehydrates it.
Methylcellulose, unlike most other gums, gels not when chilled but when heated, you see.
The streaks that look like they might be chocolate are in fact made by cooking black sesame seeds with water in a pressure cooker for a couple of hours and then puréeing them and flavoring them with sugar and salt.
The spiral is a sablée cookie that has been pulverized, mixed with an unsaturated fat (which is to say oil), spread between parchment paper, refrigerated to let it temper a bit, cut into strips and then looped around strips of acetate.
The ricotta's curd is broken up with a paddle and seasoned with lactic acid, salt and sugar. That's the white glob at the end of the cookie.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Bruni rumor

December 19

I actually met Frank Bruni sort of randomly long before he became The New York Times' restaurant critic. It was near the turn of the century, back when he was White House correspondent.
Having some shared interests, we exchange e-mails every once in awhile.
So when a New York restaurateur whispered to a colleague that word on the street was that Mr. Bruni was hanging up his critic's pen, I opened a new e-mail message and started typing. I offered Frank New Year's greetings and goodwill and then put on my journalist's cap and asked about the rumor.
E-mailing with Frank Bruni is really fun, because he's smart and uses words well. He also pretty much always specifies what's on the record and what isn't. I respect that.

Bruni: "I'll answer your question, but first riddle me this: according to this rumor, why am I leaving my job?"

Isn't that fun?
My colleague had left for lunch, so I did some work and then mentioned the rumor to another colleague who writes about finance and is not particularly interested in the gossip of the dining world.
She asked if it would be big news if Mr. Bruni were leaving his job. I let her know that, in fact, yes, our readers and many other people pay attention to who writes restaurant reviews for The New York Times.
My gossipy colleague came back and shrugged his shoulders, unable to provide any more information about his rumors.
Back to the e-mail:

Me: " I checked with my rumor mongering colleague and I'm afraid his source had no information (or should I say gossip?) other than that."
I then praised Frank on his blog entry on dining solo. People like positive feedback.

Bruni: "Your source in fact has no information, period. Sorry for not 'fessing up to that right away, but I wanted to see if these rumors ever get more specific. I'm not leaving --- at least not in the immediate future. Should I wake up tomorrow morning with a fully written, red-hot, $5 million screenplay -- and this would be truly miraculous, given that said screenplay has not been started --- then, yes, I may well leave my job. While I'm a glutton for Peking duck, I'm not a glutton for constant deadlines. But for the time being, I'm staying put. And you can quote me on that, as on this ---- these rumors reach my desk every few months, and they seem to come in clusters, and it's always mystifying: how they got started, why they regenerate with such regularity."

And there you have it.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

On Mexican and Hawaiian food

December 17

I was veging in front of the TV when my cell phone played the merry little tune that it plays when I have a new message.

It was Clark Mitchell:
"Any interest in lunch at lobo?"

Lobo is a Tex-Mex place in my Brooklyn neighborhood of Park Slope. Its queso dip touches some place in Clark's heart that he enjoys having touched. He's from Arkansas, a state that, as you may know, borders on Texas, and Tex-Mex food reminds him of home.
My Mexican-food heritage is slightly different. Being from Colorado (which almost borders on Texas but not quite due to intervention by the Oklahoma panhandle), the Mexican food of my childhood had a bit more of a New Mexican influence (New Mexico being due south of Colorado), so, less queso dip and Frito pie, more green and red chile.
But something would have to be seriously wrong for me to decline to break bread with Clark, and so we met for margaritas (three apiece), chips, salsa, queso dip and a sauce that was hot enough that we both fairly gulped our second margaritas. He also had fajitas, and I had a combination platter involving various things filled with other things and topped with cheese.
Clark derided those who posted comments to web sites deriding Lobo for not serving real Mexican food. It's a Tex-Mex restaurant, of course they don't serve Mexican food. Tex-Mex is an entirely different cuisine, and a perfectly legitimate one.

Conversation drifted to the Beard House. Was I going on Tuesday? No, but I was there on Friday. Oh, who was there?

Hotel Hana-Maui chef David Patterson was there with the hotel's pastry chef, Ben Tabios, featuring Hawaiian products.
It only occurred to me after Clark asked more questions that the Hawaiian chefs were doing the unexpected. Clark assumed (quite fairly), that they would be using a lot of macadamia nuts and pineapple and so on. In fact, Maui, and Hawaii in general, has enjoyed a blossoming in recent years of farmers growing a whole slew of temperate-climate items for chefs who had grown tired of shipping their lettuce from California.
Here, in fact, is what I was served on Friday:

Hors d’Oeuvre

Hana Bay Sashimi Tasting with Big Island Wasabi and Cucumber-Ogo Namasu
Thai-Spiced Ahi Tuna with Kula Sweet Corncakes
Pohole Fern Tempura with Meyer Lemon and Molokai Black Sea Salt
Hana Saketini — Sparkling Cold Sake with Plum Wine and Umeboshi

Dinner
D&D Ishii Farms Baby Greens with Kula Fennel, Caramelized Pineapple, and Vanilla–Black Pepper Sour Cream
Weingut Pfeffingen Scheurebe Spätlese 2004

Hana Onaga Tartare with Upcountry Radish Crudités and Passion Fruit Aïoli
Oroya White Table Wine NV

Roasted Mahi-Mahi with Coconut and Lime Braised–Kipahulu Taro Root and Tops
Domaine Weinbach Gewürztraminer Cuvée Laurence 2004

Seared Rare Ahi Tuna with Hawaiian Pumpkin Purée, Braised Big Island Pork Belly, Hamakua Mushrooms, and Sage
Domaine Serene Evenstad Reserve Pinot Noir 2000

Hawaiian Vintage Chocolate Truffle Cake with Ka‘u Coffee and Coconut Cream
La Face Cachée de la Pomme Niege Apple Icewine

Oh, and speaking of Hawaii, that reminds me of something else. Last night when I had dinner at Tsukushi, one plate they served was two little shumai-like dumplings that were encased in rice, so they looked like two scoops of rice, next to a scoop of macaroni salad. It reminded me very much of a Hawaiian "plate lunch," which includes some type of protein (chicken teriyaki, salmon, a burger) on two scoops of rice and macaroni salad.
So what do you think? Did this restaurant take it from the Hawaiians, or is the Hawaiian plate lunch something adopted from what the Japanese already had?

Saturday, December 16, 2006

just checking

December 16

This evening my friend Birdman and I decided to follow Jennifer Leuzzi's advice and check out Tsukushi. Birdman, aka biology professor and paleontologist David Krauss, is a Japanese food expert, owing to the fact that he's an Upper East Side boy whose father loves sushi, is a very good student, really smart, and compulsive when it comes to acquiring information about things that interest him.
So he has been gathering knowledge on all things related to Japanese cuisine for a very long time and knows a lot about it.
I also think he's what food scientists and others these days are calling "super tasters." Super tasters have many more taste buds than most people, and thus detect more nuances in the sweet-sour-salty-bitter-umami aspects of food appreciation (the rest of what we "taste" in food actually comes from other senses, primarily smell, although our sense of touch comes into play, too).
Then again, Birdman is different from typical super tasters in that he really likes bitter food, something his kind is supposed to shun.
Anyway, he also is obsessed with eating, and he seemed very satisfied with Tsukushi's food — you walk in, sit down, order drinks, answer their questions about allergies and food preferences and they bring out whatever food they want to serve that evening. We determined that it would be a good fallback from Sakagura, the underground restaurant nearby that reminds me of a Steven Segall flick whenever I go there.
Birdman's my go-to man for many issues dealing with nutrition, physiology and other natural-science topics.
Not long ago he made a cocktail-napkin diagram of a trans fat for me (or more accurately a trans fatty acid). He explained that the "trans" means that the hydrogen atoms on opposite sides of a double carbon bond are catercorner from each other, rather than next to each other (If they were next to each other they would be cis fatty acids instead of trans ones). The position of the hydrogen atoms affects the structure of the fatty acids and how our metabolism processes them. We evolved to handle naturally occurring trans fatty acids, but some of the artificial ones, created through partial hydrogenation, apparently confuse our bodies and make them do bad things. I guess the random attaching of hydrogen atoms to different parts of polyunsaturated fatty acids can make them all kinky-shaped.
Tonight I brought up high-fructose corn syrup, something that has been, as far as I can tell, irrationally demonized.
Some people complain that high-fructose corn syrup is so cheap to make (which it is) that manufacturers add it to all sorts of processed foods to make them taste better (which they do). Thus many calories that provide no nutrients other than energy find their way into our diet. So, okay, I can see why people take issue with that. But some people out there accuse HFCS (as they call it, perhaps to make it sound more dangerous, like CFCs, which are very ozone-unfriendly chlorofluorocarbons) of being unnatural and evil on a microscopic level. How high fructose corn syrup is less natural than refined cane or beet sugar is beyond me.
And then the other day a guy promoting a line of healthful sodas told me that we don't absorb high fructose corn syrup fast enough and so it goes directly to fat.
That didn't sound right to me, so I mentioned it to Birdman, who looked up from his food annoyed.
"That makes no sense," he said, and it occurred to me that, indeed, there's no way that simple sugars — fructose, sucrose, what have you — could be absorbed more slowly than the complex carbohydrates in brown rice, multi-grain bread etc.
That settled, we paid our bill and finished our early evening at Pershing Square.
Pershing Square is dead on weekend nights — and last call was at, like, 9:30 — but they stock the place with attractive bartenders and servers, have several beers that I like on tap and are close to subways.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Eating like regular people

December 14

Today I actually picked up the phone and made reservations at a restaurant like most people have to do. I was having dinner with a couple of work contacts, including former Ketchumite Ed Hoffman, who now has his own PR consulting firm, The Varick Group. He also writes the men's content for shefinds.com.
I'd had a good time at The Loft not long ago, and it seemed like a reasonable place to go. And it was fine, but I was reminded that a restaurateur who can't make ends meet in New York in December should close up shop. The place was packed and I think the servers were a little overwhelmed.
Word on the street is that this particular holiday season is especially good for New York restaurants. I guess those Wall Street bonuses are being handed out.
Good for the restaurants, but it sure can make it a hassle to eat out if you're a regular guy. I'm glad I don't have to do that too often.

What I ate:
crispy artichoke salad, assorted breaded and fried seafood, mixed meat and mushroom pizza
washed down with a red Côtes du Rhone.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Fake snow and a piñata

December 13

On this almost balmy December evening (it was in the 50s) I stopped by the opening party of the heated outdoor terrace of The Wheeltapper, an Irish pub at the (Irish) Fitzpatrick Hotel near Grand Central Terminal. A tame crowd with not many people I knew was milling among two strange machines that were blowing out tiny clumps of soap bubbles that kind of resembled snow, and they looked a lot like slush as they landed on the ground. I guess the hosts were trying to create an ersatz winter wonderland. I don't know why.
I ended up retreating into a corner with some old acquaintances to avoid letting any of the soap land in my Champagne flute, which I'm pretty sure was actually holding cava or Prosecco even if they did call it Champagne. I like cava and Prosecco, but I ended up swapping the flute for red wine anyway.
I stayed until it was time to go to Rickshaw Dumpling Bar's annual holiday staff party. As you may recall, the owner, Kenny Lao, and I have become friends, and he throws a good party. I particularly enjoy the vodka-spiked Meyer lemonade.
This year that party also included a piñata, which was strung up on girders attached to scaffolding outside the restaurant. As in most New York restaurants, a big chunk of Rickhaw's staff is Hispanic, and I guess quite a few are Mexican, because they were very skilled in piñata-attacking tactics.
I had never realized that there were tactics to employ when trying to smack a piñata, which is why I have damaged a light fixture or two in my day, but indeed there are. After being blindfolded and spun around, you should not swing your stick wildly, but rather make probing, tentative strokes in the air. Only when you make gentle contact with the piñata should you strike out with a davestating blow.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Helmsley Hotel Thanksgiving mystery

December 12

I had dinner at Mindy's, the restaurant at the Helmsley Hotel that is featuring New York products. After the meal I had a chat with the chef, John Walsh, and the topic of holiday business came up. He said they had an insanely successful Thanksgiving. They had reservations for 70 people on the books at the beginning of the day, but they ended up with a total of 225 covers. That's 155 walk-ins, on Thanksgiving. And they weren't lonely traveling businesspeople. They were mostly local neighborhood families, walking in, on Thanksgiving, as if it had just occurred to them at around 11 o'clock that morning that a turkey dinner with all the trimmings might be in order.
You would expect people to, you know, make plans for Thanksgiving — to buy a turkey or make a reservation or finagle an invitation to someone else's home. Maybe not months in advance, but at least by Sunday.
Indeed, the chef said the invasion by walk-ins left everyone at the Helmsley scratching their heads — happy, but scratching their heads.
The hotel's bar was really busy that night, too, and no one knows why.

What I ate:
Baby green salad with roasted puple onions, Parmesan crisp, slow roasted tomatoes and balsamic scalliion vinaigrette
Duck Walk Sauvignon Blanc, North Fork, Long Island

New York lobster ravioli with shellfish butter sauce and tarragon pesto
Swedish Hill Cabernet Franc, Finger Lakes

Wallkill Valley pan-fried trout with lovage and parsley, toasted almonds, boiled fingerling potatoes, baby vegetables and lemon butter sauce.
Collina 48 Merlot, North Fork, Long Island

Apple pie with vanilla ice cream
Polaris late harvest Riesling, North Fork, Long Island

Pumpkin soufflé
Brotherhood Ruby Port, Washingtonville

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Kobe Club, a future gastrosaloon and after hours at Suba

December 12

"It's like Japanese people in Houston trying to create a hip New York Japanese place, but in Houston."
That was Kenny Lao's first impression of Kobe Club, where we ate last night.
Actually, that was his second impression; his first was a shortness of breath that he thought might be an allergic reaction to something.
What can you say? It's a high-concept, Jeffrey Chodorow place. It's dark and masculine, with a stingray-skin bar in the front, some feng-shui-like twists and turns into the dining room, and design elements evoking all sorts of things. Leather fringe and Samurai swords hanging from the ceiling alluded to beef and Japanese culture, perhaps, although when combined with the dark walls, the designer chain-mail napkin rings, the video of a roaring fire along one wall, it evoked a dungeon, or maybe Hell, or ...
"It's a little S&M," I suggested.
"A little?" Kenny said.
I recommend eating out with Kenny, the teatotalling yet hedonistic young owner of Rickshaw Dumpling Bar.
I met him at the pre-Beard Awards party, "Chefs' Night Out," at Ono two or three years ago, shortly after Rickshaw had opened — before that he worked for Drew Nieporent's Myriad Restaurant Group. At Chefs' Night Out he pointed out with surprise that his steamed dumplings were outselling the fried ones by a substantial margin, which we both knew was statistically unusual, because Americans love fried things.
He's smart and fun, and periodically people stop him on the street because they saw him in the MTV documentary First Year. A lot of people watch that show.
He had a Caesar salad and a big hunk of USDA Prime rib-eye for dinner. I had raw hamachi dressed with scallion, pineaple salsa and ponzu followed by a four-ounce strip each of American and Australian wagyu beef.
Dessert was baked Alaska and chocolate "caviar" — tiny malt balls in chocolate cream, served with little sweet blinis.
Then we looked at the holiday windows at Bergdorf Goodman and elsewhere and took the subway to the East Village, where Kenny lives. Before we parted ways he pointed me to Detour, a bar that was just taken over by a former Myriad colleague of his, Robert Larcom, and Devin Tavern manager Gregg Nelson.
I swung by, had a Newcastle Brown Ale and chatted with Robert about his plans. Detour was a jazz bar, but earlier the space had been a Mexican restaurant, so there's a "huge" kitchen in the basement that he will use to transform the restaurant into a "gastrosaloon."
"Ooh, 'gastrosaloon!'" said restaurant consultant and beverage expert Jerri Banks about an hour later, when I chatted with her at Steve Olson's annual industry-only sherry party, at Suba this year.
Jerri was shopping for her new retail shop, Pour. Both she and Steve expressed uncommon enthusiasm for the concept of a gastrosaloon, which would be a gastropub, but more American.
But what was really great was that neither one of them had any idea that Robert and Gregg were opening their own place, which meant I had a nice little New York City scoop.
Here's another one: Hearth chef Marco Canora is redoing the space at the Michelangelo Hotel that once was Limoncello.
You can read more about that and the gastrosaloon in tomorrow's New York Sun.
The thing about most restaurant people, as well as the consultants, beverage salespeople and other hangers-on like me, is that they're gregarious, friendly people who regret leaving parties before they end, so several people at the party made parting remarks as they prepared to leave and somehow still were there an hour later.
I managed to escape at around 1:30.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Ennio & Michael, kohlrabi, umlauts, Mordechai Kaplan and other things

December 10

My friend Clark Mitchell had a bad week and welcomed the opportunity for a Sunday night of Italian comfort food at Ennio & Michael.
Ennio Sammarone and Michael Salvarese met years ago when they were both waiters at a now-defunct Greenwich Village restaurant named Joe's. They opened their own place in the Village 28 years ago and have been at their current location on LaGuardia for the past 18 years.
Mr. Salvarese, a native of Naples (Mr. Sammarone is from the region of Abruzzo) said NYU — their landlord and also an important customer — started tightening its belt in 2005, which included cutting back on entertainment. That has affected Ennio & Michael's bottom line, so they're trying to drum up some press.
Often when a restaurant invites me and a guest to come to dinner, it gets the added bonus that my guest also is involved in food on some level.
That's certainly the case with Clark.
I met Clark at a party thrown by our friends Karl and Margaret. Karl's an old college buddy of mine who at the time was picture editor of Time.com. Margaret was a manager at Magnolia Bakery, where Clark was a freelance cake froster when he wasn’t teaching German at Columbia.
At the party, Clark told me about his interest in becoming a food writer and expressed particular admiration for James Beard.
"What are you doing on Wednesday?" I asked him. I'd been invited to the Beard House that night and was asked to bring a guest. I hadn't found one yet.
"Nothing," he said.
So I took Clark to the Beard House and within the next year or so, quite coincidentally, he joined the editorial staff at Travel + Leisure, where he still is today. We continue to go out to dinner together with some frequency.
Clark's a fluent German speaker with a master's degree in linguistics, and a fairly observant Episcopalian, having converted from the Southern Baptism on which he was raised in Arkadelphia.
I'm a mostly-lapsed Reconstructionist Jew who speaks French, Thai and Mandarin Chinese, so we have fun talking about religion and linguistics as well as food and a variety of mundane things.
One topic today was the origins of the word kohlrabi. Clark said that there's debate whether it means "rabbi's cabbage" or "cabbage root." His master's thesis was on the umlaut, so he's something of a vowel expert, and he argued that the German word Rübe — which can refer to a variety of root vegetables — would not evolve into "Rabi" because the first vowels are so totally unrelated. "Rabbi," on the other hand, could easily become rabi, and it would not at all be unusual for a vegetable to be attributed to a group or even a specific person, such as a rabbi who was fond of it or who grew it in his garden.
(Kohl, of course, means "cabbage," as in cole slaw).
(it turns out, however, Clark later told me upon doing further research, that the root, so to speak, of kohlrabi could come from the Latin word for turnip, "rapa". As he phrased it: "p and b are made at the same point of articulation, one voiceless, one voiced. [V]owels on the ends of words can go crazy, so there's no telling what that's about.")
Discussion of vowels led to discussion of Hebrew, which famously isn't generally written with vowels.
Vowels are used in Hebrew prayer books, however, as well as poetry and in educational texts for non-native speakers. I wrote out the Hebrew alphabet (I don't speak it, but I know the alphabet and how to sound out words) and showed Clark the various markings for different vowels.
Then my own Reconstructionist roots came up and I explained its basic, left-wing approach to Judaism (in brief, that Judaism is an evolving organic civilization whose shared history and customs, rather than specific theological doctrine, are at its center) and to God (defined not as a supernatural being but as a natural collection of forces and processes that allow humans to achieve their potential).
Just for fun I paraphrased Reconstructionism's founder, Mordechai Kaplan, on his explanation of how the notion that God is a process (or collection of processes) rather than a being doesn't take a way from God's existence (Kaplan's writing was obtuse and lacking in beauty and thus lends itself well to paraphrasing).
Fire used to be thought of as a god, then it was thought of as one of four elements and now is seen as the process of rapid oxidization. The fact that fire is a process and not a god does not make it any less real or its effects less felt.
Food for thought.

Speaking of which, we ate:
Mussels and clams steamed with white wine and herbs
Fried calamari with marinara sauce
Squid ink tagliolini with spice calamari
Penne portobello
Steamed salmon
Veal scalopppine sautéed in olive oil and baked with tomato sauce and bufala mozzarella
Calf liver sautéed in olive oil and onion and sprinkled with wine and balsamic vinegar.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Arrogant mail

The London NYC hotel sent me a map of midtown Manhattan and the lower upper east and west sides (up to 70th St.), showing me landmarks, shopping, museums and theaters (excuse me, "theatres").
On the back it says: "LIVE AND PLAY IN THE HEART OF MIDTOWN
WELCOME TO OUR NEIGHBORHOOD"

Welcome? Welcome to YOUR neighborhood? I'm a relative newcomer to my job, having been here in our Midtown East offices for just under eight years, but it seems to me that a newly opened hotel really doesn't need to tell me how to find my way around, let alone welcome me, even if it did convince Gordon Ramsay to be its chef.
I think New Yorkers understand and even appreciate well-founded arrogance, but trying to throw your weight around without proving yourself doesn't go over well here. Just ask Alain Ducasse.

Fun with cachaça

December 8

Last night started with a visit to the bar at Kittichai, where I met the producer of a premium cachaça and his LA publicist, who had heard good things about Kittichai's Caipirinha — made, obviously, with his client's cachaça, which is aged in Cognac barrels. The producer describes it as something like "the heart of Brazil with a French kiss."
On the way in I ran into the restaurant's chef, the always quietly exuberant Ian Chalermkittichai, who was waiting for his girlfriend. We chatted briefly, mostly about his new dog, a Jack Russell terrier.
It turns out that Kittichai's Caipirinha is made with pineapple (as well as said premium cachaça), and the bar also has a maple-passion martini made with the same cachaça instead of vodka. Clearly we had to sample both of them, so conversation meandered onto a variety of subjects, including blogs.
The publicist, you see, also represents Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, one unit of which has been colonized by PerezHilton, the celebrity gossip blogger. Apparently he has claimed the coffee shop as his office (his health insurance card was sent there) and it's starting to affect the service of regular customers there.
There was talk of an impending intervention.
I was sent off with a bottle of cachaça, which I carried with me to Kampuchea Noodle Bar, which was having a casual we're-open-now evening and feeding many members of the media. I sampled the grilled cuttlefish salad and a bowl of noodles with everything in it. I also had a "lychee fizz," which I spiked with the cachaça. I shared it with another food writer who requested anonymity ("don't write about me drinking your cachaça in your blog.")

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Jewish Geography

December 7

Last night I went to the opening of Brasserie 52 on the corner of 52nd and 9th. I was invited by publicist Shari Bayer, whom I met years ago when she was working at Food Arts. We sat next to each other at a dinner at the Beard House and, upon learning that she was a Miami Jew, I asked if she knew Matt Shapo, another Miami Jew who was my co-features editor at the Tufts Daily in, like, 1987 and who remains one of my favorite people on Earth (and currently webmaster or some such thing for allaccess.com).
It turns out Shari's older sister is friends with Matt's younger sister Nira.
And that's how you play Jewish Geography, a favorite pastime of Jews who are not from New York City's tri-state area, where it doesn't work because the Jewish population here is too dense.
Jewish Geography is fun because my bond with Shari is not a bizarre coincidence but a pretty common situation. You might recall that I'm similarly but more tightly bonded to food writer Liz Forgang, whose niece Jenn is married to Matt.
Anyway, I say my hellos, meet the owners and begin to talk to a woman named Renée, who lives in the same building as the owners and who is married to a senior writer at Entertainment Weekly named Gary Susman.
My memory gears start spinning as I try to figure out why I know that name. Is he a famous writer? Have I met him? I let it go and we talk about other things. Then she mentions that Gary's from Denver and the gears fall into place.
Gary was a rather quiet but bright and creative guy in the B'nai B'rith Youth Organization with me. We were in different chapters — he was in AZA 705 when I was in AZA 6 — but I remembered him as a good chap anyway.
Shortly thereafter Shari's sister shows up — the friend of Nira Shapo — and we play Jewish Geography again. It's her turn.
Colorado Jew? Do I know someone named Roberta, kind of a strange last name, Eng something? They were good friends when studying in London.
"Engbar?"
"Maybe."
"Does she have an older brother Vern?"
And of course we have a big laugh because Vern Engbar was a somewhat zany cat in AZA 275.

dead horse

December 7

I just have to quote the worst attempt at spin that I've seen in quite awhile:

"The constantly evolving downtown scene is now complete with the addition of one of the Upper East Side’s favorite restaurants [name of obscure restaurant deleted]."

How can constant evolution be completed? It reminds me of the signs in Pret A Manger restaurants that declare that Pret doesn't use the "obscure" chemicals that are "common" in other fast food restaurants.
How can you be simultaneously obscure and common?

I just got another release telling me that a lounge in SoHo was "[b]ringing the excitement back into dining".
When did dining lose excitement?

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Humbug

December 6

For most people in even minor positions of editorial power, this is the Season of Unwanted Mail. I enjoy getting little holiday-greeting notes from family and friends, and I'm certainly not sneering at the cookbook and chocolates that Payard sent today (although I'm having trouble unloading the yellow bag that it was sent in — somewhere in size between a tote and a weekender, when I asked some of my more fashion-forward colleagues to define it they gave it a cursory glance and said "ugly"), but in the weeks to come I'll be opening dozens of useless cards from companies wishing me something good during this holiday season.
Is it Scroogey of me to wish that they wouldn't bother? I know they're sending the cards to hundreds of people, and although I'm sure they don't wish me ill, I'm unconvinced of any intensity in their wishes for my happiness. I'd prefer that they not waste the paper (or the bandwidth; I open and delete enough e-mail each day already, thank you).
What are the food manufacturers, publicists and others thinking as they have their interns seal the envelopes? Do they think I'll open a card — which has the potential to be an invitation to a fun party or maybe a bit of useful news — and, upon seeing that it's a greeting from a business acquaintance that I don't care about, my grinchlike heart will grow three times its size and I will feel such abiding love that I'll immediately start researching full-length features about each and every person, restaurant or product they represent? Do they think I'll be grateful for the break they're giving me from my intellectually stimulating and sensually enjoyable job to engage in the drudgery of opening mail?
Do they think even for a second that they will suddenly become close friends of mine, that I'll behold the picture of a globe with doves flying around it, pop open the card and, on seeing the hand-written signature of each member of the marketing team, realize that every one of those signatories really is like family to me even though they did misspell my name on the envelope?
Maybe I'm missing something in the realm of holiday spirit, but to me, hollow sentiment is hollow sentiment, no matter the time of year.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Coincidence?

December 4

I spent this morning at the Marriott Marquis judging a gingerbread house contest with a panel of people who are much more impressive than I am. They were architect and restaurant designer Larry Bogdanow and three pastry chefs: Pichet Ong, Florian Bellanger and Steve Evetts.
Steve is the hotel's executive pastry chef. Pichet used to work for Jean-Georges Vongerichten — he was opening pastry chef at Spice Market — and will soon have his own place, P*ONG. He hopes it will open right around Christmas.
Florian used to be the pastry chef at Fauchon and then was at Le Bernardin. He just started his own pastry wholesaling company, Mad Mac, which sells his madeleines and macaroons. He told me that the Fauchon shop on Park Ave. sells $200,000 in imported macaroons a year.
Now this is interesting because over the weekend I went to a truly excellent party thrown by writers Greg Lindsay and Sophie Donelson in their Brooklyn apartment. I swear every single person at that party was interesting. I met a glassblower and a guy who was wearing a moustache for charity. I met many cool editors and writers and agents, and I met Greg's old friend Bridget who just completed the pastry program at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris (an alma mater of mine) and is looking for work. In particular she's interested in making macaroons in America, because up to this point they're all imported.
I asked Florian about this and he said that, yes, indeed, except for his macaroons they are all being imported from France, for no reason.
Florian says business is good and he will be hiring in January, so I e-mailed Bridget.
All of the judges signed the pastry cookbooks that were given away as prizes. I have never autographed a cookbook before. I felt like it was an odd thing for me to do.
I got back into the office with about 20 minutes to spare before meeting with David Gingrass, the owner of Hawthorne Lane in San Francisco. David's in town eating and drinking as he plans the next phase of Hawthorne Lane. He's closing the restaurant at the end of the year, remodeling it and (he hopes) opening it two weeks later as a more casual place called Two. The reason for the change, he says, is a shift in his own personal taste regarding what restaurants he likes. He says he's no longer interested in drawn-out, fancy meals and simply wants (more or less) great food at decent prices without all the hoopla. So Two's menu will be tasty food that people like to eat, drawing from the California cuisine of 20 years ago that was more about using great ingredients rather than complicated preparations or flavor combinations.
So mostly during this stay in New York he is visiting more casual restaurants, but he also went out for sushi, because he loves it and he says Japanese food in San Francisco isn't very good (LA is a different story completely).
Now this is interesting because I'd just been e-mailing with Akiko Katayama, a food writer whom you might have seen as a judge on Iron Chef. She was looking for a miso expert in the Bay Area and David suggested the owner of Ochame in Berkeley.
So I e-mailed Akiko.
Another thing David plans to do at Two is to offer a house wine from a barrel.
Now that's interesting because wine-from-the-barrel also is being done in a restaurant in Atlanta.
That restaurant's name is Two.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Cocktails

November 29

I had two cocktail parties this evening. Literally, they were parties celebrating cocktails.
First I went to Ama to celebrate their new happy hour — excuse me, that should be Ora dell'Aperitivo — where I chatted with Pat Cobe from Restaurant Business and then sat down with some young women from Daily Candy and discussed fashion.
When I was done with that I left SoHo for the Upper West Side — a quick ride on the 1 train. There Loft, a place I'd never heard of, was launching a new cocktail list developed by Alex Ott, a person I'd never heard of. But of course I don't know everything, and it turns out that Herr Ott is quite the accomplished cocktail maker. He's innovative without being self-indulgent, and the drinks he was shaking this evening were fun without being childish.
They were accompanied by food that was more innovative than one would expect from an Upper West Side lounge — the spicy tuna tartare with chocolate sauce stood out in that regard. It was all prepared by young Angelo Sosa who, if you live in New York and spend an inordinate amount of time following the restaurant scene, you might remember from his brief stint as the chef at Yumcha. He also apparently had something do with the development of the menu at Buddakan in New York. Before that he mostly worked in the kitchens of Jean-Georges Vongerichten.
Mr. Sosa's consulting gig at Loft is near an end, though, so don't go rushing up there for the food.
Also at this little cocktail party was Tony Esnault, the chef at Alain Ducasse at The Essex House. He said he's also going to be the chef at the new, as-yet-unnamed incarnation of Ducasse that will open at the St. Regis Hotel some time after the imminent closing of the Essex House restaurant.
We talked a little about that, but mostly we spoke of fresh produce.

Chocolate and Cognac, caviar and Champagne

November 28

Early this afternoon I went to MarieBelle in SoHo to do a tasting of six different chocolates with three types of Hennessy Cognac. Pieces of chocolate infused wih cinnamon and cardamom were paired with XO, Caipirinha flavored white chocolate enrobed in dark chocolate, and a sweet mandarin orange-flavored white chocolate were paired with Paradis Extra, and straight-up manjari chocolate and chocolate infused with earl-grey tea were paired with Richard. It was not a bad way to spend the early afternoon.
Then in the evening I went to Petrossian's temporary holiday shop on the second floor of the Time Warner Center for Champagne, caviar, and chats with friends from eGullet, Fodor's, Food Arts and so on. That was not a bad way to spend the early evening.
Minor news: Laurent Gras is doing some consulting for Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises in Chicago. He's involved with Tru in some way, according to his wife, Jennifer Leuzzi. And she should know.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

When is a burrito not a sandwich?

November 30

The story that Nation's Restaurant News broke about a burrito not being a sandwich in Massachusetts continues to make its rounds in the news-of-the-ridiculous wires.
Motley Fool recently chimed in.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Other people's families

November 23

Since I live in New York, my family's in Colorado and I'd no sooner travel for Thanksgiving than I’d flap my arms and fly to the moon, Thanksgiving for me is a crap shoot. This year I thought I was actually going to spend it alone, giving me the opportunity to do something with the pre-cooked frozen goose that Jim Schiltz sent me. But then I got two last-minute invitations and elected once again to spend it with the family of my boss, Pam Parseghian. It was my third or fourth Thanksgiving with the delightful Parseghian clan. Two things amaze me about them:
1) The kids are among the coolest I've ever met — well behaved and helpful without being mealy-mouthed little wimps.
2) They can eat more than any regular-sized people I've ever met.
As you might be able to tell from her surname, Pam's Armenian. So is pretty much everyone in her family. Their Thanksgiving is pretty mainstream American, except that rice pilaff is served instead of mashed potatoes — although Pam's brother Steve's half-German kids apparently insisted on mashed potatoes, too, this year, so we had that too.
But being a Middle Eastern food event, the actual meal is preceded by two to three hours of mezze, during which time stuffed grape leaves called yalanchi, savory pastries called buddag, a thinly sliced cured beef called pastermah (I'm guessing that name's related to pastrami), babaghanoush, and assorted chips, dips, pretzels, nuts and seemingly anything else on hand is laid out for everyone to snack on while they chat.
So I'm always full by the time the Thanksgiving meal starts.
After the meal people repose briefly and then eat two or three pieces of pie each. It's truly amazing.
I mean, I often terrify myself by how much I can eat, but these guys are real pros.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Talking to the kids

November 20

You might remember my friend Michael from earlier this month when I had dinner with him at Dante. His wife, Shoshi, is a journalism professor at Suffolk University, and about every year I go up to Boston to talk to the students of a review-writing class.
As I say often, despite the fact that no one will listen to me, I'm not a restaurant critic. I'm a reporter. I don't say whether the food's good or not, I just say what it is. But I have written reviews in the past, and I've written about writing reviews. So I talk to the kids about how to write a review, and then we go in a huge group to a restaurant and review it. Of course, I explain to them that calling a restaurant and telling them that you and 24 of your classmates are coming to the restaurant to review it will likely skew your experience and make it difficult for you to be a proper consumer advocate. Then again, I also explain that, although wealthy publications pay exorbitant sums so their critics can sneak into restaurants and eat there multiple times, others expect their critics to eat for free, and at any rate savvy restaurateurs know who the critics are anyway, so the whole anonymity thing is a bit of a red herring.
One student in his deep Massachusetts accent said a friend of his who worked in a restaurant knew who the critics were because they ordered a lot of food and just took a couple of bites of each item.
Touché.
So after we all reviewed Stephanie's on Newbury I walked back to Boston Common and met up with Michael and his two sons, Nadav and Gilad, and then picked up Shoshi and went to Michael's parents' house in Lexington where his mother Merry was having an open house to display her paintings (my favorite was of the outside of a white house in the autumn behind a tree of brilliant orange leaves). We were joined by Michael's old friend Morgan Hott and his fiancée Ellen Wingard (I think fiancée; if not I'm sure they'll let me know). While Michael and Shoshi bathed the kids and put them to bed, Morgan explained his PhD work. He's an MD PhD and did work producing structures that could replace damaged cartilage on people.
I asked him what he used to replace the cartilage and he said "something called alginate."
Now, this is funny, because alginate also is probably the most popular hydrocolloid being used in molecular gastronomy these days. So I got to show off by saying that I knew about alginate and that it was a hydrocolloid that formed a gel when it reacted with calcium.
So we had a big laugh about that and then went to Legal Sea Foods for dinner.
Based on a recommendation by Warren, the student with the friend who worked in a restaurant, I had a cup of clam chowder. I followed that by a seafood rasam soup that I assume was the result of Legal Sea Foods' Ayurvedic promotion a few years ago.
Really, they had an Ayurvedic promotion. I couldn't make that up.

What I learned at IFEC

November 18

I just got back from the annual conference of the International Foodservice Editorial Council, which sounds like a much more serious and frightening organization than it is. IFEC brings together foodservice trade publication editors and publicists who want our attention for a series of what essentially are speed dates. The editors sit at separate tables and the publicists stop by and throw 10-minute pitches at us. It's kind of exhausting, but a lot of work gets done quickly and pretty much everyone is really nice about it. Not only do competitors get together and act friendly toward one another, but we actually have fun, go out together, eat and drink, hold seminars, raise money for our scholarship fund and generally have a good time. IFEC's board members are elected for low-key three-year terms and officers are selected annually by the board, generally by consensus, or a sort of combination of consensus and well-intended cronyism. This year's president, an absolute prince named Alexei Rudolf, from Edelman Public Relations, was "elected" last year in Savannah at an early morning board meeting despite the fact that he was late to it. He might have been late because he was out late the night before, but I can't really say because my recollection of that evening is extremely limited. I think tequila shots were involved. I know we went to a really great bar called The Jinx — gay friendly, racially integrated, with breakdancing young women and great music. If it had been in New York they wouldn't have let me in because I'm not cool enough.
I was president last year and miraculously opened my eyes at 7:26 for the 8 a.m. board meeting. Or maybe it was 8:26 for a 9 a.m. meeting, I don't know. I do know that I was alert and lucid and waited in vain for a truly appalling hangover that never materialized. Perhaps I was running on some sort of special presidential adrenaline.
Anyway, this year the conference was in Chicago, where I finally got to sample Susan Goss's food at West Town Tavern, thanks to hosts from the National Pork Board. I also ate at David Burke's Prime House, but I've had his food before, and I got to meet Moto's chef and pastry chef, Homaru Cantu and Ben Roche, who entertained IFEC attendees with a DVD version of a molecular gastronomy tasting menu.
At West Town Tavern I learned that the state secretary of agriculture is an elected office in Iowa.
I also learned that pork producers are anticipating an increase in the price of pork and a decrease in beef prices as federal mandates require more and more corn to be used in the production of ethanol. DDG, the dried, distilled grain that's left over from the ethanol-production process, is a perfectly suitable cattle feed, but pigs can't digest it. So ethanol producers will give the stuff away to cattle ranchers while hog farmers are going to have to spend more money on feed as corn prices rise (due to demand for ethanol).
Here are some other things I learned at IFEC:
Black Angus restaurants are planning to switch to all-natural beef
Big bowl is working on rolling out free-range chicken nationwide and is now serving Hutachino beers for $9 apiece.
There are eight USDA grades of beef: Prime, Choice, Select, Standard, Commercial, Canner, Utility and Cutter (some beef is not graded at all and is called "unrolled").
Umami comes not only from free glutamate, but also from glutamites and nucleotides.
Josh DeChellis isn't going to open Kobe Club for Jeffrey Chodorow after all.
Cook's Magazine (now Cook's Illustrated) founder Chris Kimball is in the same Grateful Dead cover band as former Research Chefs Association president Steve Schimoler.
Bill Yosses is doing some work at the White House. I'll have to look into that further.
The 0-grams trans fat oil that Taco Bell has started using is canola-based.
I also collected a couple of restaurant recommendations:
Colorado chain with the best green chile: Santiago's
Best Italian beef sandwiches in Chicago: Johnny's on North Avenue between Harlem and Thatcher streets.
Best place to have chile relleno tacos (yes, there is such a thing) after going to a Tahiti 80 concert at some club on Milwaukee: Flash Tacos (that recommendation's from me).

And here's something I learned post-IFEC when publicist Bill Schreiber of Jones Dairy Farm, a provider of pork products, followed up on a joke question I had about pig milk, quoting Pork Quality Assurance intern Bradley Wolter (edited by me for clarity and to remove typos):

“Pork is delicious and very healthy as many physicians recognize it as a very important source of protein. But the opportunity they present to the dairy industry is very limited.
... [P]igs will on average produce 13 lbs of milk in a day as compared to cows that produce 65 lbs of milk on average per day. Pigs unlike cows cannot become pregnant while lactating and therefore pose a severe economic problem to producers. while pigs consume less feed per day, economics does not allow pigs to be a viable source of dairy products.
The biggest challenge facing the porcine dairy industry is collecting the product. Pigs on average have fourteen teats as opposed to cows that have four teats. Pigs also differ from cows in their milk ejection time, a cow's milk ejection is stimulated by the hormone oxytocin and can last ten minutes, whereas a pig's milk ejection time only lasts fifteen seconds as the suckling pigs stimulate the release of oxytocin. The technology of a 14 cupped mechanized milking machine that can milk a pig in 15 seconds is not available to pork producers."

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Eating Miami

November 13

So Miami was fun. I don't know that I needed to be there for three days to see the IFE Americas show, which I walked in about an hour, but I had a good chat with a top tropical fruit grower who gets $12 a pound for his dragon fruit (and the Mandarin-Oriental slices them in half, serves them chilled and charges $36 for them). I also sampled three of the six (6) aloe beverages at the show, all flavored with grape juice. So apparently aloe's something to watch from a food fad perspective.
And I sampled the food of chefs whose food I hadn't eaten before. I started by taking a taxi from the airport to Michy's, chef Michelle Bernstein's latest venture with her husband David. Michelle was out of town, but I did meet David, and one of the servers told me that in a hospitality class at Florida International University Nation's Restaurant News is required reading. Since the server's from Columbus, Ohio, he liked our coverage of Cameron Mitchell restaurants, and he also liked John Barone's discussion of orange prices. So I guess he has made a good transition to Florida.
Dinner that night was at Talula, in South Beach, which is owned by husband and wife chef couple Andrea Curto-Randazzo and Frank Randazzo (Michelle Bernstein catered their wedding, incidentally). Their publicist had told me to check in with Frank, who it turns out was at home looking after the kids, but Andrea was there and graciously came out to chat once or twice, she also sent out a five-course tasting menu. I was glad for the five courses, because the restaurant's normal tasting menu is seven courses, and I didn't really need seven courses. Five -- each one paired with wine, of course -- was just right.
I was supposed to eat at Wish instead of Talula, but someone bought the entire restaurant for the evening, so I had lunch at Wish instead. I was staying at The Hotel, formerly the Tiffany Hotel, until Tiffany's sued them. A vertical marquee with the word "Tiffany" on it still rises from the hotel's roof, but now it's just a random sign, with no relation to the hotel's name. Wish is located in The Hotel, so that was easy.
Wish's chefs historically have built serious names for themselves. Its first chef, Gary Robbins, now is at the recently reopened Russian Tea Room in New York. It's second chef, E. Michael Reidt, was a Food & Wine Best New Chef and now runs Sevilla restaurant in Santa Barbara. He's one of the nicest chefs I know, and his food's yummy.
Andrea Curto, who, as we know, would later marry Frank Randazzo, was Wish's next chef. She, too, was a Food & Wine Best New Chef. Her food also is yummy.
The current chef is Michael Bloise, who started at Wish under E. Michael and then went on to do other things before being hired back as the restauran't head honcho. The Hotel's owner, I learned during lunch with its publicists wil Michael sent out multiple courses, has warmed to the idea of letting the restaurant participate in some CBS reality show in which various members of the restaurant's staff sing on camera and the best ones perform in some final competition.
I think it was CBS. I'm fuzzy on the details.
I walked to the Miami Beach Convention Center in an attempt to exercise some of the past three meals out of my system, learned more about tropical fruit and aloe, and then walked back to The Hotel before hopping into a taxi to Azul at the Mandarin-Oriental (the one with the $36 chilled dragon fruit). Incidentally, Michelle Bernstein used to be the chef there, too, but now Clay Conley's running the show.
I'm working on a theory that the Mandarin-Oriental only hires good-looking chefs.
In Miami, the lovely, vivacious Ms. Bernstein was followed by Clay, who has perhaps the bluest eyes in foodservice. Silks, the restaurant at the Mandarin-Oriental in San Francisco once had as its chef Ken Oringer, now one of Boston's top chefs and still in possession of one of the best smiles in foodservice. He was followed at Silks by blues-guitar-playing, soul-patch sporting Dante Bocuzzi (now at Aureole in New York). Now the chef at Silks is the dashing surfer boy Joel Huff. At Asiate at the Mandarin-Oriental in New York, Nori Sugi looks like a hot young Japanese surfer, and at CityZen, at DC's Mandarin-Oriental, Eric Ziebold has the sort of serious, Type-A good looks you'd expect from a veteran of Thomas Keller's kitchens.

But what did I eat at these Miami restaurants you ask?

Here goes:

at Michy's:

Ceviche of the day, made with shrimp, calamari, grouper and lime juice
Arctic char with ragu of fava beans and chanterelles, cauliflower puree and turbot demiglace
A glass of Naia Verdejo, 2004 from Rueda Spain
Michy's bread pudding with raisins, cognac, chcolate and orange zest

At Talula:

Kampachi ceviche with lime-soy and ginger marinade, sliced chiles, avocado, Asian greens on crispy malanga
Conundrum white table wine
Grilled Sonoma foie gras with caramelized fig, blue corn cakes, chile syrup and candied walnuts
DeLoache Gewurztraminer
Preserved lemon and thyme baked local grouper with roasted garlic-black peppercorn gnocchi, baby spinach, and pancetta-tomato jus
Matanzas Creek Sauvignon Blanc
Hanger steak with deep-fried shallots (like onion rings), aged cheddar-chroizo smashed potatoes, and red wine demiglace
Heller Estate organic Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmel Valley, 2002
Pistachio parfait with concord grape sorbet and a caramel tuile
with a glass of Champagne

At Wish (each course featured three dishes, which I shared with two publicists, so it's not as much food as it sounds like:
pan-seared foie gras with black pepper marshmallow, cascabel roasted banana and arugula on honey wheat
Wehlener Sonnenuhr, Austria
Crab Salad with pickled jicama, wasabi-cilandro creme fraiche, sesame flat bread and mache
Chateau D'Orshwuhr Gewurztraminer, Alsace
Sesame battered shrimp with watermelon-tomato "kimchee" and cilantro
Lucien Crochet Sancerre
black-trumpet dusted scallops with "pumpkin pie" risotto, lemon and thyme
Again with the Lucien Crochet Sancerre
Cinnamon-brased oxtail with sugar snap peas, baby carrots, gaichoi and idaho potatoes
Frogs Leap Zinfandel
Crispy-skinned snapper with grilled shrimp, Chinese sausage, jasmine rice and Vietnamese tea foam
to be eaten with either the Zinfandel or the Sancerre
PB & Jay (Jay's the name of the pastry chef): a peanut butter chocolate tart with raspberry marshmallow, peanut butter ice cream and raspberry jam
Strawberry soup with mascarpone in a sugar tuile, and 25-year balsamic ice cream
Warm apple tarte tatin with olive oil ice cream and carrot sauce
Chocolate cake with a molten white chocolate-pistachio center, and pistachio ice cream.

And at Azul:
Kumamoto oyster on cucumber carpaccio and horseradish cream, topped with osetra caviar (the single oyster was served in a soup bowl atop finely crushed ice sprinkled with chopped chives)
Prosecco
Trio of crab: cake, claw and ceviche
Arietta on the White Keys Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon blend, Napa
Red miso-marinated kobe beef on a butternut sqush puree with butternut-vegetable kimchee with toasted garlic on butter lettuce
Hollerin Prager Reisling Smarade, 2004, Austria
White truffle risotto with shaved parmigiano, white truffle and brown butter
Domaine Tempier Bandol La Tartine, Provence
Miso-marinated hamachi with sake butter
Stir-fried rice with shellfish stock and edamame dashi with shrimp dumplings
Domaine Raumier 2002 Chambolle-Musigny 1er Cru Les Cras, Burgundy
Lamp chop with eggplant puree, harissa and mint, and loin with b'steeya topped with raita and red pepper
2000 Chateau Bouscasse Tanat
And Gaia Merlot-Cabernet blend 2003, Tuscany
Great Hill Blue Cheese (Massachusetts) with caramelized peanuts
Cypress Grove Midnight Move goat cheese (California)
Pont L'Eveque (France)
All with apple puree and
Dow's 1985 vintage Port
Choclate orange caramel tower, praline ice cream, hazelnut brittle
Apple mouuse on hazelnut sable with apple pearls and caramel sauce
2004 Inniskillin Eiswein (using Vidal grapes),Canada

Now this is interesting: Azul offers a choice of five different types of espresso -- Blue Mountain, Pico Colombia, Ethiopian Yrgacheffe, Blue Tawar (from Java) and Lago Azul (from Guatamela), as well as two French press options, a dark Italian and a milder Monsoon Malaber from India.
I got the Yrgacheffe

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Is plagiarism the sincerest form of flattery?

November 12

The whole world now apparently knows that a burrito is not a sandwich, at least not in Massachusetts.

But for the record, we reported it first.

It’s nice to know that mainstream media read nrn.com. It wouldn’t kill them to quote their sources.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Mai House, and a footnote on Iberian ham

November 7

Having just come back from Boston, and with work to do before going to Miami Beach for a food trade show called IFE Americas, you wouldn't think I would have felt restless on Tuesday. Still, after going to an early evening tasting of Iberian ham* at stk, and then going back to the office to finish up what I needed to finish up before hitting the road, I found myself grabbing a drink at Buddakan (the drink was called Solid and was a bourbon-based drink involving lime) I went to Mai House, Drew Nieporent's new place between Tribeca Grill and Nobu. Who do you think was tending bar (or "shaking" as he called it), but Robert Larcom, a relatively senior executive in Drew's Myriad Restaurant Group? I met Robert last year on a similarly spontaneous visit to Centrico, where he was similarly shaking.
He observed how tending bar exercises both creative and social muscles -- a sort of combination of skills required for the front- and back-of-the-house. I pointed out that it also required managerial skills since the bartender often plays a role of managing the restaurant floor. He agreed.
It was Mai House's fourth night of operation, and I'd gotten a press release just that day announcing that it was open, which was one reason why I decided to stop by.
It's unfair and unwise to judge a four-day-old restaurant, but I wasn't there to judge, just to look. And, you know, eat and drink.
I had my first taste in quite awhile of mangosteen, in the form of puree with vodka added to it.
The mangosteen is a terrific fruit from Southeast Asia (or it might possibly have originated in South Asia; I don't know). It has hard purplish or brick red skin and a thick, deep burgundy rind. In the middle of the fruit is a milky white orb of sectioned fruit, usually with one big section that contains the seed (a bit of trivia: count the flower scars on the bottom of the fruit and you'll know how many sections will be inside).
It's hard to describe how fruits taste, because they all taste like themselves, but mangosteens have a pleasantly sour sweetness and a silky-smooth texture that makes me miss Southeast Asia. You can find them in the Chinatowns of Canadian cities, but they're not yet commercially available (except, evidently, as puree) in the United States.
That is likely to change in the next couple of years. The U.S. and Thailand are moving forward with plans to allow the importation of Thai mangosteens, but the process is likely to take another year or two, at least.
Meanwhile, mangosteens are being grown in Florida, but it takes something like 15 years for a mangosteen tree to bear a significant amount of fruit. How annoying!
As you've probably surmised, I love mangosteens, but I don't think they're best represented in puree form with vodka added, so I next had a Mai-jito, Mai House's version of a Mojito, which instead of mint has lemon grass, kaffir lime leaf and curry leaf.
And I sampled chef Michael Bao Huynh's Vietnamese sausages with green papaya salad and his seafood lacxa garnished with a whole head-on shrimp.


*Iberian, as opposed to Iberico; I'm not sure what the distinction is, but apparently it's not mere semantics. I'd love for someone to tell me the difference.
Most hogs in North America and Europe are slaughtered after six months, but those that are to be made into Iberian ham live for nine months so they can put on the extra fat needed for their long curing process.
I have no idea if that applies to Iberico.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Sons of Candida

November 6

I spent the weekend in Boston attending a conference by public health activists and lawyers who want to pass laws or sue somebody because Americans are fat. It was the fourth annual such conference and I've attended all of them.
It is no barrel of laughs, but it does give me an opportunity to go to Boston, where I have college friends, and to sample the food.
This year I followed the dining advice of publicist Chris Langley and spent my two free nights at L and Dante. It meant I would once again fail to eat at Clio, something I've been meaning to do since even before I met its chef and owner, Ken Oringer, but it did seem wise to check out the culinary stylings of some young up-and-comers.
So on Friday I went to L and was told that the chef, Pino Maffeo, Boston’s molecular gastronomer, would like to offer me a tasting menu. I told them that would be fine, because I’m not stupid.
About two and a half hours later, with my meal finished, Pino, whom I've interviewed several times but whose food I hadn't eaten since Pazo in Manhattan, where he was chef, closed several years ago, came out and sat down for a chat.
He talked about how he had changed the wording of his menu when he realized, six months after opening, that his customers didn't want to hear about what he did to the food — what was braised, what was cooked in sous-vide, every stupid detail about every ingredient. If a menu item said "beef" and people wanted beef, they’d order that. So even though he's using soy lecithin and gums to make his tomato sponge — as is appropriate for a molecular gastronomer – he’s not telling them that — as is appropriate for all but those chefs whose task is to feed the biggest food intellectuals.
I told him where I was eating the following night and Pino told me that the family of Dante de Magistris, the chef at Dante, came from the little Italian town of Candida, in Campania's Avellino province.
Around that time a diner came up. She had noticed that I’d been taking notes and asked if I was a reviewer from someplace. I told her I wasn’t, that I worked for a trade magazine, and she nonetheless told me that the service sucked but that the food was pretty good. “I can’t say it was great, because I’m from New York,” she added. Implying that New York has the best food on earth in all genres, which of course it does not. It was only then that I realized she didn’t know that I was talking to the chef, who was not wearing chef whites, but jeans and a light hoodie.
Note to New Yorkers: Shut up. No one’s interested in the fact that you think New York is the best place on Earth. Texans: Ditto.
After Stupid New Yorker pranced off, Pino observed that it was good to hear criticism. He also observed that, although New York has terrific food, it also has plenty of ridiculous, overpriced food that doesn’t taste good.
I think he’s right on both counts.
The following night, I went to Cambridge to try the food at Dante, whose chef had captivated me several weeks earlier when I interviewed him about chicken oysters.
I had been unable to find anyone who was free to eat with my on Friday, but on Saturday I managed to draw my college friend Michael Gerber away from his wife and two sons in Gloucester.
Michael is a charming and gentle teacher of science to middle school students. He was a freelance magician, and when we were in college, and afterwards, he would periodically just grab a bunch of balloons, go to a public space and make animals for people.
We got caught up while Dante sent out oysters (the raw mollusks, not the chicken kind) and Scottish langoustine and other things.
At the end of the meal Dante talked about how he, too, was working on changing his menu, to make it more apparent to people that his food was Italian-inspired.
I noticed that he and Pino look a lot alike.

Dinner at L:

dehydrated pineapple with coconut milk buffalo mozzarella (no, there’s not supposed to be a comma there) and extra virgin olive oil, topped with chopped chives.

nori sandwich of tuna tartare with Japanese and Mexican flavors
drunk with a Pinot Grigio

corn and king crab chowder with popcorn-milk froth
drunk with poochi poochi sparkling sake

watermelon-wrapped fried oysters on pickled cucumber, topped with aïoli and chives, served in oyster shells on a bed of rock salt

Roasted halibut with tomato sponge and assorted things such as ginger-pickled cucumber and bits of buffalo mozzarella in the sponge.
drunk with an Italian Arneis white wine

Tiny gnocchi, baby bok choy and Massachusetts lobster with coconut curry broth
drunk with a Merlot-Cabernet blend from Washington State

Kabuto pork with trumpet mushrooms and quince sponge

chocolate "petit four:" a spoon of milk froth with cocoa oil, bergamot oil and raspberry purée.

Red Bull and Moscato gelée, kalamansi sorbet, Asian pair and plums stewed in cranberry juice, apple juice, cinnamon and cloves, and some lecithin.

Dinner at Dante:

Heidsieck Monopole Champagne

Kampachi with yuzu-marinated vegetables, grilled kampachi cheek and poached amberjack with chickpeas

Raw trio: local Beach Point oyster with pomegranate gelée, crispy rice, shallots and Chardonnay vinegar; seared tuna with avocado purée, egg white frittata and sesame seaweed, kingfish carpaccio with spicy ginger, yuzu, topiko and organic flowers
Drunk with Napa Merryvale Chardonnay

spaghetti alla chitarra with langostino and ovoli mushrooms

lemon sole with maple sausage and Hubbard squash bisque
Drunk with a Merlot from San Benito

basil roasted guinea hen with vegetable ragù and wild mushrooms
Drunk with Allegrini Valpolicella

Wolfneck farms grilled beef tenderloin with red wine poached sekel pear, gorgonzola dolce, wild mushrooms, green beans and warm olive oil potato salad

mini ginger soda with almond wafer and salted caramel mousse
Drunk with 30-year-old sherry

Vermont cheddar cheese popover with warm apple compote, maple glaze, old fashioned vanilla ice cream, apple butter and pecans

French butter pear and blackberry cobbler with juniper ice cream.

It’s so nice to eat lightly at a conference on obesity.

Don't mess with Jeff Ackerman

November 2

You might remember my old AZA fraternal brother Jeff Ackerman from two days ago. Perhaps you were wondering why he e-mailed me after 20 years. I hope not; I hope you have a life of your own, but at any rate he called because he was in the middle of a dispute in central Massachusetts with a Panera Bread franchisee.
Jeff's a Qdoba franchisee and he had signed a lease to open a restaurant in the same shopping center where a Panera was located, and the Panera franchisee there had stipulated in the lease that no other limited-service restaurant with more than 10 percent of sales in sandwiches could open there.
The Panera franchisee was arguing that burritos were, in fact, sandwiches, so Jeff was looking for people to sign affidavits saying no they were not, either.
Thinking out loud and practicing verbal algebra, I observed that a burrito could be construed as a wrap and a wrap as a sandwich, although of course it also could be argued that when a consumer is going out for lunch, he or she does not generally equate a burrito with a sandwich.
After giving it still more thought I deemed it unwise as someone who reports on foodservice to be anything but neutral in this regard and begged off.
But if Jeff Ackerman wants to open a Qdoba, he's going to open it. The Panera folks probably didn't know this, but he was elected as AZA's Grand Aleph Godol. That's international president of the entire order and no trifling matter.
His election came as no shock to me; he could talk the sweet out of honey.
But I had forgotten that skill of his, so I was surprised to see that he got one of New England's top fine-dining chefs, Chris Schlesinger, to write an affadavit in support of the argument that a burrito is no sandwich. He got a food writer to do it, too, and a consultant who managed to scare up USDA documentation specifying exactly what a sandwich was, and further to state that, although the USDA did not consider sandwiches to be under its jurisdiction, it did claim oversight of burritos.
Really.
So now, not only does Jeff get to open his Qdoba, but the Superior Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has declared that a burrito is not a sandwich.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Today's Ducasse rumor

November 2

You may recall that at the end of the Chefs Congress I spoke to Tony Esnault, chef of Alain Ducasse at the Essex House, about published reports (in Eater and the New York Post) about the restaurant closing.
He shrugged it off as ridiculous, and then his bosses pretty much immediately announced that the Essex House location would close shop and move a few blocks away to the St. Regis.
Not exactly closing, but, well, I'll stick to relying on that particular chef for food-related information from now on and instead simply spin the rumor mill a bit on my own with gossip in the chef world, from a well-connected head-hunter on the DL*, that Alain Ducasse is merely to be a consultant in the St. Regis venture.

*My friend Birdman also was around when this bit of information was let out.
"DL?" he asked.
"Down-low," I said.
Birdman, a paleontologist, explained that if something had happened less than 70 million years ago he really wasn't up on it.
He did know that "down-low" meant "secret," though, so he's not totally out of touch. We are pushing 40, after all.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

That is some old skool stuff

October 31

Who did I hear from the other day but Jeff Ackerman? Can you imagine?
Jeff and I were in a Jewish youth group in Denver together, a fraternal organization called AZA (Judge Saul Pinchick AZA 6, to those for whom that means something). We actually both were in college together in Boston, but he was at Boston College and I was at Tufts and we never saw each other, even though I became friends with one of his roommates, John Griffin, when we spent our junior years in China together.
Anyway, I hadn’t seen Jeff since 1990, when we bumped into each other at the Tabor Center in Denver shortly after graduating from college and had like a four-minute conversation, and out of the blue he e-mails me.
It turns out he’s Qdoba’s franchisee for Massachusetts and Southern New Hampshire. It seems he wanted to bring some Denver cuisine to his adopted home, where he’s married with three kids.
So we chat on the phone and reminisce about a variety of people, which inspires him to do a web search for Peter Yanowitz, who was on the same trip to Israel as we were.
Now the interesting thing is that Peter also happened to go to Tufts with me, where he was transformed from the preppy pretty boy from Salt Lake City I knew in Israel, to a long-haired, bongo drumming Crafts House resident.
The new lifestyle seemed to work for him, because as Google told us, Peter, who now is Pedro Yanowitz, went on to become drummer for the Wallflowers, and then for Natalie Merchant, and now he’s the bassist for Morningwood.
So I e-mailed Morningwood and after a couple of back-and-forths managed to remind Pedro of how we know each other.
“ha,
that is some old skool stuff,” he said. And I learned that he’s going to be on Letterman tonight.
I guess I should set my DVR.

Underdressed

October 31

I just spent a long weekend attending the Bermuda Gourmet Getaway with my friend Birdman. I’d won the trip at a press event and knew nothing about the Getaway. What promotional materials I had told me little other than that Bobby Flay would be there — indeed, he was being marketed as the main draw.
Bobby Flay is based in New York so I don't need to go to Bermuda to see him, but I didn’t mind. I took my prize and planned for a casual, relaxing weekend on a warm, sunny island.
Shortly before the trip one of the publicists who promote Bermuda in the United States invited me to have dinner with the other journalists who were being taken to the Getaway. Dress was to be "smart casual," so I brought along a button-down, long-sleeved shirt and an off-white sport coat that seemed appropriate for island activities. Jeans count as smart casual, so I brought a pair of them, and a pair of shoes other than sneakers.
I didn't realize how British Bermuda still is, or how rich. The annual per capita income is something like $52,000, and they dress appropriately, except for the men's truly bizarre habit of wearing (Bermuda) shorts with knee-length black socks, dress shoes, dress shirts, ties and sport coats.
So I was ready for one dinner, but not for the smart-casual "Grill & Chill" event the following night, which I attended wearing shorts, a t-shirt and sneakers (Birdman had shorts, tivas and a short-sleeved button-down tropical t-shirt with some sort of giant white bird on it; maybe a Pelican). No one seemed to mind, but I didn't like it.
Then I found out that the next night, as Birdman returned to New York, that I was to attend a gala.
Where I come from, "gala" means formal and indeed a few tuxedos and ball gowns were in evidence. So were some kilts, since Bermuda still is a British colony.
Everyone but me seemed to have gotten the memo to dress up. Had I gotten such a memo, I would have had finery in tow. I'd have brought my mother-of-pearl-and-onyx tuxedo studs and matching cufflinks. I'd have tied my own bow tie. But as it was, I had jeans, a black t-shirt and my off-white sport-coat. That's a perfectly fine look for most occasions, but I felt naked at the gala, and the boss of the publicist who took me to dinner glanced down at least twice at my jeans while chitchatting with me.
She didn’t have me thrown out, though.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Dinner at the Beard House, again

October 24

Elizabeth Blau knows how to throw a party. Of course, she should: She’s largely credited with turning Las Vegas into a restaurant city. And she managed to do it without becoming full of herself.
She called me personally (and others at NRN, including my colleague Paul Frumkin) to invite me to the Beard House to sample the food of The Setai and The Heritage House. Apparently she also called Florence Fabricant from the New York Times (and Nation's Restaurant News), Adam Rapoport from GQ, Jim Poris from Food Arts, and Salma Abdelnour (isn't that a great name? Salma Abdelnour) from Food & Wine. Paul couldn't make it, but everyone else was there — quite an august body. The last time I saw Florence at the Beard House was when Morgan Freeman was there to promote his own restaurant, Madidi. And I've never seen Adam Rapoport there.
Salma and Adam sat together, which makes sense, since they know each other from their Time Out New York days.
Elizabeth Blau said Andrew Knowlton from Bon Appétit RSVPed in the affirmative too, but his chair was empty. I hope he’s okay.
I sat between Salma and one of the Beard Foundation's staff members, Sal Rizzo.
Sal and I have crossed paths for years, but we'd never really had a good conversation before, so it was great to get to know him. He's fun.
Salma and I talked about the potential pros and cons of foie gras and I went on a brief tirade about the inferiority of my local greenmarket — the one at Grand Army Plaza — where I'm convinced that the farmers have figured out that the neighborhood has so drunk the Kool-Aid of sustainable food in general and the Food Co-Op in particular that they can throw any garbage they want to at us and we'll buy it.
Shysters there sell apples all year long.
My greenmarket does have great grape merchants, but that season, alas, is over.

What I ate and drank:

Salt pressed Tasmanian ocean trout with kalamansi and daikon sprouts
Claudia Springs Pinot Gris, Anderson Valley 2005

Warm salad of California’s autumn vegetables served with pumpkin jus and truffle shavings
Fisher vineyards Mountain Estate Chardonnay, Spring Mountain, Sonoma 2004

Pan-seared Pacific day boat scallop, foie gras and Petaluma Farm braised oxtail
Pierre Morey Corton Grand Cru Hospice de Beaune, Burgundy 2001

Roasted duck breast flavored with five spice, maitake gow gee (a type of ravioli), caramelized honey and ginger reduction
Rudd Estate Red, Oakville, Napa

Seasonal Californian artisan cheese tasting, Hectors honey (in comb), Anderson Valley figs, miniature sugar pear chips and oatmeal biscuits
Schramsberg J. Schram, California 1989

Floral Jasmine Chocolate Inspiration
Royal Tokaji Trué Essencia, Hungary 1989 (it was supposed to be served on crystal spoons, but they didn’t arrive)

Assorted mignardises
Domaine de la Romanée Conti fine de Bourgogne (Brandy), Burgundy 1979


Setai executive chef Shaun Hergatt
Heritage House executive chef Nancy Kinchela

Nice Québecois, annoying wine guy

October 19

As if last night weren’t enough, I was back at the Beard House again this evening. I had been invited by Québec's New York delegation, whose chef-in-residence, Benoit Poliquin, was cooking.
I like the Québecois. I like their food, I like their surprisingly European look — dazzlingly chic if they’re from Montréal, charmingly peasantlike if they’re from the countryside — I like their distinctive culture. I like how many of them really don’t speak English. This evening I particularly liked their grain-fed veal.
I didn’t especially like sitting at the same table as the wine supplier.
Some wine writers get on my nerves. They can be overly intense and humorless, unlike most food writers who, unless they get on a high horse about sustainable cuisine or endangered sealife, generally are pretty mellow.
Most sommeliers and wine distributors are cool, but this evening I was cursed with a snob, who was disinclined to answer my questions about the wine of Graves (pronounced "grav").
I’ve learned a lot about wine at the Beard House, such as which grapes are from Bordeaux (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Sauvignon Blanc and some others) and which are from Burgundy (basically Pinot Noir and Chardonnay). But I’m no wine expert, have no particular interest in becoming one, and certainly don’t pretend that I am. So when the second of two Graves we were drinking (Graves is a section of Bordeaux), had a spiciness I usually acquainted with certain New World Pinot Noirs, I asked about it. Maybe the guy was hard of hearing — he was a native English speaker so language wasn’t an issue — but all he said was, "certainly it’s a better wine” than the first Graves we drank.
The whole notion that one wine is objectively better than another annoys me. More expensive, maybe, of more prestigious pedigree, perhaps, but the best wine is the one you like.
Over the course of two hours I did manage to coax out of the guy information that the gravelly soil of Graves (hence the name) does give it a characteristically spicy quality. I also learned that the only non-gravelly part of Bordeaux is Pomerol, where the soil is mostly clay.
Isn’t that interesting? Not interesting enough for a whole evening, but at least it was something.
I also learned that the Québecois delegation in New York has something like 34 members, which sounds like a lot (and in fact, it is a lot; Ontario has a delegation of 1), but New York is one of Québec’s largest trading partners, with annual sales in agriculture foodstuffs alone at around $10 billion.
And of course, there was plenty to eat. To wit:

Roasted sea scallops with warm artichoke and asparagus salad, barigoule vinaigrette, and Champagne-truffle tabayon
Trimbach Pinot Gris Reserve Personnelle 2000

Québec fresh foie gras torchon with Calvados and apple trilogy: Golden Delicious and pecan candy, Macintosh and rosemary jam, and Empire and pomegranate coulis
Québec Apple Icewine

Ground cherry granité with Amour en Cage liqueur

Québec grain-fed veal two ways — butter-roasted filet and four hour–braised shank with butternut squash and bitter chocolate ravioli, sautéed shiitakes, sage and veal consommé
Château Bahans Haut-Brion 2001
Château La Mission Haut-Brion 2006

Almond and herb–crusted Fromagerie Chaput Vacherin with creamy organic leeks and port caramel
Château Trotanoy 1998

Tournevent goat cheese and blueberry cheesecake with blueberry five-spice chutney and blueberry sorbet
Trimbach Vendange Tardive Pinot Gris 2000

Mignardises