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.