Tuesday, July 31, 2007

D.C.’s suburbs

July 30

La Caravelle was one of the last bastions of French fine dining in New York before its owners, Rita and André Jammet, one of the nicest couples in the city’s restaurant world, decided to close it with dignity a couple of years ago.
Jonathan Ray and Markus Müller are college friends of mine who live in the Washington, D.C., area. Wise, fun to hang out with and loyal in a low-maintenance sort of way, they’re the type of friends who contribute to the pleasant background noise in my psyche that makes the world seem less lonely. It would be nice to see them more often.
So when Rita sent me an e-mail invitation to the opening of sweetgreen, her son's grab-and-go salad-and-frozen-yogurt shop in Georgetown, it seemed like the perfect opportunity for a road trip.
Nicolas Jammet is partners with three of his fellow 2007 Georgetown grads, who saw a need in the neighborhood for high-quality salads with as many organic ingredients as possible. They thought offering tart, Pinkberry-style frozen yogurt and organic beverages — many from the company where Nicolas's twin brother Patrick works — was a good idea too.
I arrived in Georgetown with time to spare, so I stopped by Hook, two blocks away from the party, for a local ale. Since the crudo was priced below my resistance level, at three for $8, I sampled some of them, too (trout roe, barracuda and black bass).
sweetgreen’s landlord also owns an event space a couple of doors down from the restaurant, and she lent it to the kids for their party.
“We wanted to invite as many people as possible,” Nicolas told me, and a lot of people came, because Jammet and company understand how to work their connections. They got me there after all, didn’t they?
Bill Yosses, the White House’s pastry chef, was there, too. So was the Swiss ambassador and no-doubt other important people I didn’t recognize. sweetgreen’s owners also managed to secure a liquor license for the event, and Nicolas picked such unusual wines for the party that I thought maybe André had helped him. André denies it, and I believe him, because I don’t think he liked the smokey Shiraz that was being poured. I didn’t ask him about the French vin mousseux or the Chardonnay.
I munched on crudités and sample salads while chatting with Bill and some of his co-workers, including a freelance pastry chef who had just quit her job as an English professor, possibly to pursue a life in professional kitchens. She had worked at the White House during the holidays to help make the 40,000 Christmas cookies that were baked there during the season.
So it was a good party, and I stayed longer than I’d planned and didn't arrive at my dinner destination until after 9.
I was eating at Restaurant Eve in Alexandria, a place its publicist, Bronwyn Jacoby, had been after me to check out ever since it opened. I'd just been on a panel in New Orleans with its sommelier, Todd Thrasher, so the timing seemed right.
Restaurant Eve has three sections — a bar, a bistro and a tasting room. Bronwyn and I sat in the tasting room and left ourselves in the hands of Todd Thrasher and chef Cathal (pronounced kuh-HALL — it’s an Irish thing) Armstrong and spoke of many things. So it was after midnight when we finally arrived at PX, Todd’s speakeasy-style cocktail lounge. It’s the only cocktail lounge I've been to that actually seemed like a speakeasy, which effectively made me feel cool and elite.
So I was somewhat woozy when I woke up the next morning, but I managed to take the metro, D.C.’s mass-transit system, to Silver Spring, Md., where Jonathan picked me up. We bought sandwiches and pasta at Whole Foods and drove to his home at the other end of Silver Spring, where we had lunch with Jonathan's wife, Michelle, and their precocious, good-natured daughters Joanna (five-and-a-half) and Sage (two-and-a-half, but already quite articulate). I played with the kids, half-watched part of a Mets game with Jonathan (he’s from Mt. Kisco, N.Y., and will always be a Mets fan — he is not to be spoken to when a game is on), and napped until it was time to head back to Alexandria for dinner with Markus.
I described sweetgreen to Jonathan and Michelle. It’s of interest to them because Jonathan’s a history professor at Georgetown and could use a good salad for lunch.
I had never been to a Pinkberry, but Michelle, a native of Los Angeles, said she didn’t understand what the fuss was about, nor did she see the novelty in it. She said that in its early days, frozen yogurt — a product of southern California — was always a tart affair. It was only later that it was sweetened and flavored. Pinkberry, it seems, had simply revived an old custom, much as Cold Stone Creamery is simply a new-generation version of Steve’s, which was mixing stuff into ice cream on marble slabs in the 1980s (but not in California, where frozen yogurt had already taken root and premium ice cream didn't manage to gain a foothold).
Michelle stayed at home with the girls and Jonathan and I met Markus at Farrah Olivia, the restaurant of Ivorian chef Morou Ouattara, whom you may recall took me on a dine around of West African restaurants in D.C. last year.
Markus does something very impressive with regard to international development, particularly in the Middle East these days, although I've never managed to ascertain what exactly.
He did advise me on what to do about the messy state of my cubicle, which causes quite serious consternation among upper management (and human resources) at Nation’s Restaurant News.
If I threw away every single thing on my desk, he asked, what was the chance that I would miss any of it?
Indeed, I admitted, the chance was slim.

Some of the things we ate at Farrah Olivia (as you will notice, Morou is playing with the molecular gastronomy):

diver scallop with bacon powder and melon seed milk
Sweet plantain fitters with refried coconut and peanut butter powder
shocked escolar with wasabi pearls (made with gelatin, not alginate) and pickled watermelon rind
stuffed quail with garden vegetable brûlée and chorizo oil

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Acquired situational narcissism

July 24

Celebrities are boring. I can’t believe it has taken me 40 years to figure that out, but it’s true, at least for people who don’t know them.
It’s not their fault. If people treat you like stories about your bowel movements are enthralling, that’s what you’ll talk about, and the people will gush and repeat until they die the tale of how they heard Mark Wahlberg or whomever talk about poop.
That’s what the title of this blog entry is about. It was a term highlighted in The New York Times a few years back in a year-in-review section about ideas that had emerged that year. It means, of course, that if people treat you like you’re the center of the universe you’ll start acting that way.
I think that's why I left the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen with a touch of ennui. I met plenty of interesting people, but I think I felt a need to engage in banter with the famous ones. I should know better. If you don’t have anything to say to someone, famous or otherwise, don’t bother.
Even the ones who have something to say often don’t have a chance to. At Chefs & Champagne, a James Beard Foundation function in the Hamptons that I went to this past weekend, celebrity chef Charlie Trotter, who was the honoree, was answering a question I’d asked about his own foundation’s work, and we were interrupted by a local fan who semi-accosted the poor guy, expressing shock and delight to actually see him in person. So I left to talk to other people.
But what really has reminded me recently of the boringness of celebrities was meeting several rather unfamous but fascinating ones. I mentioned Tariq Hanna a few entries back. He decided to learn about pastry by working for a Dunkin’ Donuts franchise and determined that the best way to learn to cook was in a diner. Fascinating.
Last night I had dinner at Beppe with Sylvia Casares Copeland, chef-owner of Sylvia’s Enchilada Kitchen in Houston (she had me pick the restaurant, and I think moderately creative Italian exemplifies New York’s cuisine well).
Sylvia’s working on being a celebrity, but she isn’t yet. She’s making more TV appearances and she has a self-published DVD. She was in town to visit a dear friend and also meet with an agent and similar types. And her publicist had arranged for her to have dinner with me.
But for now she’s a divorced woman from Brownsville, Texas, in her third career. She parlayed her degree in Home Economics into a research chef job with Uncle Ben's. Then she sold Sara Lee desserts to restaurants in three states before opening her own restaurant, originally with her husband, until they got divorced. She opened it with no restaurant experience.
She opened her current restaurant after the divorce, five years ago, learning as she went, and the restaurant’s doing quite well.
She also had interesting observations about human nature and was in no way boring or pretentious.
What a relief.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Stone Barns

July 22

Blue Hill at Stone Barns invited me to come up and visit the place. They said they’d happily send a car for me. It’s not the most environmentally sound way to get up to the historic former dairy farm near Tarrytown, but I agreed to it anyway.
Kari Naegler, who works on the food at Whole Foods’ Bowery location, was going too, and we live in the same neighborhood, so they sent the same car for both of us. That’s more environmentally sound, and it also made for a nice ride, because Kari’s cool and smart and told me that her store has keitan sushi. I had no idea (since my job involves eating in restaurants a lot, I have little need for supermarkets). We agreed on many things, such as the silliness of switching to dark chocolate because you think it’s better for you than milk chocolate. It’s chocolate; it contains high levels of sugar and fat. That’s okay because it’s delicious, but eat it because it’s delicious.
I didn’t realize I was going to Stone Barns to get a sales pitch about the facility’s classes on sustainable cooking, which it’s doing in conjunction with the French Culinary Institute, but I still enjoyed touring the farm and hanging out with Kari and Megan Steintrager (formerly of Restaurant Business, now of Epicurious). We were taken on a tour of the green house, and we got to see the pigs running around at what looked like a campsite. Sheep were baah-ing in a nearby meadow. Wild turkeys were wandering around.
Helping to lead our tour was Gabrielle Langholtz from the Greenmarket, which, in case you don’t live in New York, is the network of farmers markets in New York City. I’d never met her before, but I’d spoken to her once to complain about my local Greenmarket, the Grand Army Plaza one, which I have suspected more than once of giving us their leftovers because they know that my neighbors in Park Slope have so bought in to the whole movement that they’ll buy whatever garbage a farmer hands to them. That’s the only way I can explain the fact that at the height of strawberry season I’ve bought strawberries that tasted like golf balls. The poor quality of some of the produce — and the fact that apples are for sale year-round at all of the greenmarkets — I think does a disservice to the notion of local produce, which really ought to taste better than anything else. But of course if you keep an apple in cold storage for months it doesn’t matter where it came from.
My rant went something like that when I called her some years ago. For the record, this year I’ve had extraordinary strawberries from my Greenmarket, and I’ve never bought a bad grape there (no, they’re not in season yet, but Gabrielle says the first apples that actually are in season have arrived).
Anyway, I tried not to give Gabrielle too hard a time, because I liked her on the phone, I liked her better in person, and I think that farm-fresh food is a great idea. However I did point out that the tag on the canvas bag I’d been handed at the Greenmarket yesterday, when I bought some red and black currants, had an inaccuracy. The tag, with the unfortunately self-righteous slogan “Saving the world one bag at a time,” was printed with explanations on how plastic bags are bad for the environment. One of the bullet points said that paper doesn’t biodegrade in landfills, which of course it does. It takes awhile, but it does. I’m pretty sure they meant to type “plastic” instead of “paper.”
Gabrielle agreed.
I mean, if you’re going to be self-righteous, find a decent proof reader. It’s a drag when you try to save the world through education and then fail to provide accurate information.
Anyway, I lunched with Megan and Kari on salad, which I think was $12.95 a pound, and then Kari and I were taken back home. We dropped Megan off at the Tarrytown train station.

Chefs & Champagne

July 21

Five hours is a long way to go for a party.

Monday, July 23, 2007

It’s all fun and games until someone loses a city

July 20

Tales of the Cocktail is an extraordinary drinkfest held in New Orleans ostensibly, in part at least, to further educate the cocktail cognoscenti about local, national and global spirit trends. But mostly it’s a four-day-long, booze-drenched party.
I’m not complaining, I’m just saying.
I hear the seminars are well-attended, however, but I wouldn’t know because the only one I went to was the one I participated in.
I could only make it there for a day: My pages at NRN were closing on Wednesday and I was going to Chefs & Champagne in the Hamptons on Saturday, so a brief commando-style arrival on Thursday afternoon with a Friday afternoon departure was all I could manage.
And during my time there I was fully booked.
I landed, took a shower, checked e-mail and headed to Café Adelaide for drinks with Ti Adelaide Martin and Lally Brennan, because they’re charming people with whom I drink at every opportnity (you might recall that I drank with Ti in Aspen), and also because they’re from the Brennan family, which makes them as close as the American restaurant world has to royalty.
Lally drank a classic Daiquiri, Ti had a Tequila Mockingbird II (reposado tequila, limoncello, Angostura bitters and something else that I have forgotten; it tasted like an older, more worldly cousin of the Margarita) and I had a Corpse Reviver II (gin, Cointreau, Lillet, lemon juice and herbsaint, garnished with a stemless cherry). We shared sips. Ti tried my cocktail and immediately handed it to a member of the restaurant staff and said “Uh-uh. Try again.”
Oh how embarrassing for the bartender. Imagine that your bosses are entertaining a national food writer like me and your cocktail is rejected. What if he wrote about it in his blog or something?
But hey, I guess that’s what makes the Brennans successful. (It turns out that the lemons they were using were unusually sour, requiring the addition of two drops of simple syrup).
We chatted about many things, including of course New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina (universally called “The Storm” in The Big Easy), in which infrastructure repairs are held-up by delays in funding from Washington, in which nearly every night someone dining in Commander’s Palace (which suffered $6.5 million in damage) is doing so because it’s their last night in town.
Ti asked me what the rest of the country thought of New Orleans these days, and I decided to be honest and tell her that we weren’t thinking much of it at all.
So that was sad, but Ti and Lally said that the people of New Orleans had risen to the occasion, and that as many people were moving to New Orleans as were leaving.
In the restaurant world, Ti pointed out that New Orleans Times-Picayune restaurant critic Brett Anderson had stopped rating restarants with stars since the storm. Instead, he was simply describing them, because who wants to pick on the restarants of a city that was nearly destroyed?
Ti gave me a ride to my next appointment, at Sucré, the new dessert restaurant of another veteran New Orleans restaurateur, Joel Dondis, who had imported chef Tariq Hanna from Detroit as his partner.
I meant to just pop in, say hi, and then find a quiet corner in Commander’s Palace to go over data for my Friday morning panel, but instead I stayed for two-and-a-half hours, sampling the strawberry shortcake milkshake, four kinds of ice cream (coconut-basil, brown butter-pecan, chocolate and something intended to taste like Snowballs) and ten different chocolate bonbons.
That was followed by dinner at Commander’s Palace with chef Tory McPhail’s food paired with Audrey Saunders‘s cocktails. Perhaps I’ll list the menu for it when I find it.
At that party I finally met Stephen Beaumont, who does NRN’s Beer, Wine and Spirits page and recently took over from Gary Regan as our beverage columnist. He seemed very much the good-natured bon vivant I expected, and I ended up hanging out with him and others (Robin Schempp and Ron Givens, a beverage writer, among other things, who recently moved from New York to Iowa) at the Carousel Bar, so named because it rotates — a quality that I found literally nauseating, but not so much so that it kept me from sampling the local beer.
I declared a need for fried food, and the four of us set out to find some, finally finding Alibi. I was thinking of something like a fried oyster po’ boy, but instead we had breaded, fried things in baskets and fries drenched in chili and cheese. I made do.
I was also thinking that we would eat fried food, have a last beer and head back to the hotel. Instead I found myself back in my hotel room at 4 a.m. So I spent half an hour taking notes for my panel the next day and then called it a night, which it most certainly was.
I woke up at 9 a.m. for my 10 a.m. panel (I had to check out of the hotel and check into the conference, something I hadn’t had a chance to do yet).
I was at the conference because of my friend Erica Duecy. She had introduced me to the people who organize Tales of the Cocktail because she wanted me to come down and drink with her, and they soon invited me, asking me to organize a panel discussion and develop a cocktail to present.
I pointed out that, as a food writer, not a beverage writer or cocktail expert, I didn’t actually have the expertise appropriate to develop an intelligent panel and produce a cocktail for it. But they asked if I’d at least be on a panel and I said I would.
Fortunately, Nation’s Restarant News had orchestrated a beverage-trend survey that I had access to, and I had moderated a four-hour-long beverage roundtable that we sponsored at the Restaurant Show in Chicago in May, so I had enough data to speak intelligently about trends.
My fellow panelists — James Meehan from New York, Todd Thrasher from DC (really Alexandria these days) and John Kinder from Chicago — bartenders all, were amazing and smart and articulate and I wanted to drink their cocktails.
Todd actually made one that was served during the discussion that contained a sweetened tobacco infusion, honeycomb (not the cereal but the real thing), rum and other stuff. We all gulped it down, except for James who wanted an Advil and said so. In retrospect, someone should have gotten him one. What were we thinking?
Our panel was relatively well-attended, and people theoretically paid $50 just to go to that panel, so that’s nice.
I slept well on the plane home.

Izakaya Ten

July 17

Chandler and I had dinner at Izakaya Ten, a restaurant whose name should never be written Izakaya 10, as "ten" in this case is the Japanese word for “sky” or “heaven.”
Chandler was a few minutes late (it happens to all of us in Manhattan, especially when going as far west as 10th Avenue as we forget how far west that really is) so I took the time to ask my waitress about the restaurant’s name. I don’t speak Japanese, but I can get by in Mandarin Chinese, and the Japanese use Chinese characers as part of their overwrought writing system, which also includes two syllabaries, one for Japanese words and one for foreign ones, and, increasingly, romanji, or Roman letters.
(A syllabary is different from an alphabet in that each symbol — or most of them if you want to split hairs — represents a consonant-vowell combination, so one symbol would represent "ka" another "ke" and so on).
So “ten” was of course the character for “sky” or “heaven.” The middle character in Izakaya represented alcohol, which is the character the Japanese use for “sake,” and the last one was the character for “shop” or “store.” I didn’t know the first one, but my waitress said it meant “stay.” So an izakaya is either a shop where you stay for sake or a shop where sake stays, I’m not sure which. In either case it translates well as “bar,” although the folks at Izakaya Ten translate it cleverly and not inaccurately as “gastropub.”
Now Chandler, on the other hand, speaks Japanese quite well, so he chatted with the waitress about any number of things, and started to do so with the owner, Lannie Ahn, but she said, “Actually, I’m Korean.”
She sent out a bunch of food, including grilled smelt, raw octopus marinated with wasabi, and most anything else on the menu — more than I felt like writing down — plus a lot of sushi per Chandler’s request. She sent out a bunch of sakes, too, and several infused shochus.
Chandler, being The New York Times' scent critic, smelled everything.
“This smells like perfume,” he declared of one shochu. “Vanillin!” he said triumphantly.
I took a sip and wondered if that flavor that wasn’t vanilla might be shiso. Indeed, Lannie said it was, causing Chandler to look at me as though he were impressed.
We also had shochu infused with cherry and one with plum.
For dessert, three ice creams: green tea, red bean and sesame.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Celebrating Shane

July 16

My friend Shane Curcuru is not the easiest person to get to know. Quirky and often introverted, he seems to view the world at right angles from most other people and is not particularly interested in how they feel about that.
But it is worth the effort to get to know him, and not merely because he would happily detach his own right arm for a good friend. Shane is brilliant and fascinating and quite a good baker.
An engineer by training, a history buff by vocation (he took high-level history classes at Tufts for fun while getting a degree in mechanical engineering) and a computer programmer of sorts by trade, he has plotted his own course to happiness, figured out what matters to him — good friends, strongly roasted coffee, pastry, cats, privacy — and has set up a nice life for himself, his wife and daughter in the Boston suburbs.
So it stands to reason that if he wants to celebrate he will find a reason to do it. The reason he thought of last weekend: The 10th anniversary of his bachelor party.
I thought it was a brilliant idea, as did most of the people I mentioned it to, although others thought it boded ill for his marriage.
It doesn’t: Shane’s friends marvel at the compatibility he has with his wife Amy, a sometimes timid, always clever former entomology student who to us it seems must have been molded by some higher being, maybe out of alabaster, expressly to be Shane’s companion.
Bachelor parties can include many activities meant to express independence, manliness, lust or merely a desire to celebrate.
And the group of friends that Shane and I share, from my first and second years of college, are far more inclined to get together for an orgy of food than of anything else.
Indeed, in my sophomore year of college we formed a sort of secret society around monthly dinners.
Okay, it wasn’t that secret, although for the sake of propriety I shall not mention its name, but what was discussed at dinner was not to be discussed elsewhere.
Seafood was usually involved in the meal, as we were in New England, and generally some kind of red meat and very likely something deep-fried.
It was supposed to be all-male and I think it generally has stayed that way, but I’m not sure as I spent much of the 1990s living overseas and generally out of touch with the group, although I did fly in for computer networking system consultant John Bruce aka JB’s wedding (people in the foodservice industry might be interested to know that John’s little brother Charlie is an executive chef for Sodexho at one of their accounts in Richmond, Va.).
Anyway, on Saturday we convened at the Concord Rod and Gun Club where we fired guns in the basement shooting range and then middle school science teacher Michael Gerber sliced up raw tuna and mollusks to eat as sashimi, and clams just to eat, while JB — after scouring nearby suburbs for a butcher with bone-in rib-eyes — charred us up some steaks and roasted corn on the cob.
Customarily we would discuss our romantic pursuits, but everyone but me was married and my romantic life remains as boring as ever, so inevitably we talked about kids instead (I talked about my nieces and nephew).
I spent the night at Shane’s and the next day he, Amy, their daughter Roxanne and I had a late lunch at La Verdad, Ken Oringer’s new Mexican restaurant on Lansdowne Street, just outside Fenway Park. The Red Sox were playing, so we went there after the game had started and the crowd had moved from the restaurant to Fenway. We had chips and guacamole, mole chicken wings and roasted corn with cheese and chiles, followed by assorted tacos, a chicken burrito and a chile relleno torta.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Note to self: Eat more hot dogs

July 13

Ray Garcia organized an outing to watch the Mets play. He thinks this might be their year, but they showed no indication of that tonight; the Reds trounced them. I spent $29 on four beers and had what I believe was my first ballpark hot dog in several years. It was fantastic.
A good time was had by all.

Friday, July 13, 2007

pizza barbecue

July 12

Oh what fun last night. My friend Julie Besonen, who assigns stories for Paper, and her friend Tobey Grumet, who has an apartment with a backyard in Cobble Hilll, Brooklyn, joined forces to throw a grilled-pizza party.
Tobey supplied the venue, Julie supplied her husband, Jim Knapp, who made the pizza — crunchy, barely smokey, with good, simple ingredients (I don’t like to comment on the quality of the restaurant food, because that’s a slippery slope toward becoming a “critic” — imagine Alfred Hitchcock saying “actor” — but I love to comment on my friends’ cooking, as long as it’s good). Punch was made using leftover free stuff sent to Julie — coconut-infused vodka, pineapple juice and something else, so it was a sort of non-frozen Piña Colada with vodka instead of rum (later we drank pineapple-infused rum as a cordial).
Dave Wondrich, a nicer person than whom I don’t think exists, made some sort of delicious classic punch, but I spent more time with the rosé wines that
Alice Feiring brought. I sipped them as she broke down her strategies for giving away all the wine sent to her that she deems unworthy of her palate.
Dave and Steve Kelley — formerly of the Institute of Culinary Education and now a wine merchant — exchanged stories of extreme drunkenness in their youth and stories in their recent past of dealing with a particularly dishonest, unpleasant and darkhearted co-owner of a trendy pizza place on Flatbush. Andrea Strong and I exchanged opinions of the food blog world.
I kept meaning to leave but insead stayed and munched on pickled garlic and olives as the hosts opened a forgotten bottle of rosé.
I finally left later than I care to admit, it being a school night, but I had good subway mojo; the 2 train arrived just as I made it to the subway platform

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Singapore night at the Beard House

July 11

Did you know that Mitchell Davis was vice president of the James Beard Foundation? I had no idea. I thought he was just communications director or something, but he was named VP a couple of months ago.
I learned that last night at the Beard House, where a Singaporean export-promotion organization was having local and Singaporean chefs cook, and having Chris Johnson from Bao 111 make cocktails, including traditional Singapore Slings and an invented one called The Colonial, which is a mangosteen bellini with a sugared rim and a piece of candied ginger to chew on (the recipe says it should have a candied ginger rim, but that apparently didn't happen).
Last night marked the end of the Fancy Food Show at the Javitz Center, and Mitchell introduced me to several people who were in town for the show and had ended up at the Beard House, including some charming truffle exporters from Bologna (apparently Alba truffles are extremely hard to come by these days, but plenty of them are lodged at the roots of oak trees in Emilia-Romagna) and an Iranian caviar exporter — or maybe he was based in New York, and thus would have been an Iranian-caviar importer.
The always engaging Penny Trenk was there and I told her about my meal the night before at Benjamin Steakhouse, but since her son Michael is the GM at The Capital Grille in the Chrysler Building, she said she can’t go to anyone else’s steakhouse, which is fair enough.
At dinner I spent a fair amount of time talking to Alexa Goldstein, who like me spent time in China, and now works for an organization called International Enterprise Singapore, encouraging purchase in the U.S. of Singaporean goods and services.
Cooking were Cedric Tovar, the chef at Peacock Alley, Jake Klein, who used to be at Pulse, a restaurant at The Sports Club LA in Rockefeller Center, but apparently he’s not anymore (I’m looking into that even as I write this), and Daniel Tay, a Singaporean pastry chef and the owner of Bakerzin, a bakery-cafe chain with units in Malaysia, Indonesia and China as well as Singapore and the U.S. (on in the U.S., in Tucson).

Here's what they served:

hors d'oeuvres:
tiny fish maw in curry
salmon wrapped in lettuce
Hainanese chicken rice
lobster salad on rotis
Singapore Sling, The Colonial and Tiger Beer

Gado gado trio
Singapore Sling, The Colonial and Tiger Beer

Satay trio: lobster with kalamansi, tandoori foie gras, and xiao xing short ribs
2005 Ladera Sagrada Castelo Do Papa Godello (Galicia, Spain)

Laksa noodles with grilled cuttlefish
2005 Gainey Vineyard Riesling (Santa Inez Valley, Calif.)

Beef Rendang
2003 La Nunsio Barbera D’Asti (Piedmont, Italy)

Lemon grass jelly and golden raisin in a Martini glass
Molten chocolate cake with kumquat marmalade and vanilla ice cream
2005 Quady Essensia (Madera, Callif.)

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Undercover cocktails, steak and Andy

July 10

I wasn’t done yesterday after my two-and-a-half-hour lunch at Cafe Nougatine, oh no. I went to Benjamin Steakhouse for dinner with the excellent Andy Battaglia, The Onion’s city editor for New York. I’m pretty sure that of all my friends Andy loves steak the most, and he has certainly eaten at Peter Luger more often than any of my other friends — possibly more than all of them combined. So it made sense to take him to a steakhouse whose kitchen was being run by a Luger veteran.
So we ate German potatoes and the Benjamin salad — which had lump crab meat, avocado and other things — and asparagus and the porterhouse for two with a bottle of Frog's Leap Cabernet followed by pecan pie and cheesecake with tawny port.
But first, I asked about cocktails.
Victor, the manager, said the cocktail list hadn't been printed yet, but he gave me a nearly completed version, and now I give it to you (in case you're wondering, I had a Vesper — which is not a traditional Vesper as it is made with Bombay Sapphire rather than Gordon’s — and Andy had the Rang Pur Bloodhound):

Benjamin Steakhouse Cocktails

Benjamin’s Martini — Remy XO, Grand Marnier, Amaro Montenegro, dash of lemon juice
The Vesper Martini — Bombay Sapphire Gin, Stolichnaya Vodka, dash of Lillet, lemon twist
Negroni Classico — Campari Orange, Beefeater Gin, Cinzano Sweet Vermouth
Don Julio Margarita — Don Julio Blanco, Grand Marnier, lime juice, simple syrup
French Connection — Courvoisier VSOP, Amaretto Dissarono
Tequila Sunrise — Cuervo Tradicional, Grand Marnier, finished with a dash of grenadine
Rang Pur Bloodhound — Tanqueray Rang Pur, Dry Vermouth, Sweet Vermouth, orange juice
Crimson Crush — Belvedere, lemon juice, dash of cranberry juice, raspberries and Chambord
Yellow Cab — Navan Vanilla Cognac, pineapple juice, Cointreau
Espresso Martini — Absolut Vanil, Tia Maria, Kahlua, Bailey’s, espresso
The Left Bank — Smirnoff Vanilla Vodka, Chambord, pineapple juice
Apple of Eden Martini — Grey Goose Citron, Apple Pucker, lime juice, apple sliver
Cosmopolitan Martini — Absolut Citron, Cointreau orange, Cranberry juice, dash of lime juice
Bellini — Prosecco, peach schnapps and peach nectar
Royal Peaches and Cream — Crown Royal, peach schnapps, Grand Marnier, vanilla ice cream
Kir Royale — Moët & Chandon, Crème de Cassis
Scropino — Moët & Chandon, Grey Goose Citron and mango or raspberry sorbet
Chocotini — Smirnoff vanilla, Bailey’s Godiva liqueur, spash of cream


July 10

Yesterday I was planning to have a mellow, not-too-long lunch with David Leite at Cafe Nougatine, the casual restaurant in the atrium of Jean Georges.
But chef and owner Jean-Georges Vongerichten was talking on the phone when I came in, saw me, sauntered over to our table and asked if he could cook for us.
To say no would have been mean.

So we ate:

Caviar over scrambled eggs and other goodies, served in an eggshell
Santa Barbara sea urchin, black bread, jalapeño and yuzu
Sea trout sashimi draped in trout eggs with lemon, dill and horseradish
Foie gras brûlé, slowly roasted strawberries and aged balsamic vinegar
Crab and mango salad with chile-Champagne sabayon
Halibut steamed with honshimeji mushrooms and lemon grass consommé (the server originally told us it was black cod and then discovered that the chef had swapped in halibut instead because it was especially good that day; you gotta love it when servers correct their mistakes, tell you when they don't know something and then find out, and generally treat you like a person)
Smoked squab à l'orange, Asian pear, candied tamarind
Assorted Cheeses
A plate of four desserts themed in chocolate and strawberry: Molten chocolate cake with Madagascar vanilla ice cream, mini chocolate-hazelnut panini, strawberry shortcake, strawberry ice cream with strawberry-lavendar fruit leather. We were instructed to eat the molten cake first and the ice cream last, which isn’t the way most people would do it, but I think fruit desserts should follow chocolate ones as they refresh the palate and leave a better aftertaste.

listen to me

Neil Chase interviewed me for Hong Kong radio and you can listen to it here. I’m interview #14, the one titled "The Food Scene..."

Monday, July 09, 2007

A soon-to-be-refurbished Italian villa without a chef

July 9

My friend and boss, NRN editor-in-chief Ellen Koteff, and I spent a Saturday afternoon outside the town of Chester, N.Y., at the very beginning of the Catskills, where her friends Dan DeSimone and Alan Steinberg are busily supervising the overhaul of a forgotten Tuscan-style Italian villa.
The mansion, called Glenmere, feels remote and isolated, but it’s just an hour-and-twenty-minute drive from New York City. Dan and Alan are working on turning it into a super-luxurious, 19-room hotel. They were inspired by Wheatleigh in Lenox, Mass., but Glenmere is on a much bigger, more isolated piece of land, with a grand view of Glenmere Lake and close proximity to fertile “black dirt” country, where we drove by fields of sweet onions and strawberries and corn and lettuce and so on.
And they’re looking for a chef, someone who wants to be immersed in the local flora and manage a luxurious kitchen from which to serve, say, 20 people a day, plus staff, except during weddings and such when of course more people would be eating.
So, if you’re a chef who wants to settle down into the country on a lovely piece of land in a beautiful villa not really that far from New York and cook for rich people, let me know.
The hotel is on track (for now) to open in May of 2009, but Dan and Alan want to have a chef on board within the next six months to help design the kitchen.
So, post a comment here or e-mail me at bthorn@nrn.com if you’d like to visit the place.

hot dog

July 9

In reference to the annual July 4 Nathan’s hot dog eating contest, here's a gem posted to the ASFS Listerv last week, about food-eating contests in general, by Ken Albala:

“This is American culture at its most refined. Football is a complete bore, baseball like death warmed over. You want our values encapsulated and deified, and true excitement, it's got to be stuffing hot dogs.”

Friday, July 06, 2007

Food by which to sing overproduced karaoke

July 6

Last night I had dinner at Spotlight Live, that gigantic space on Broadway and 48th that used to be Noche. Now it’s a restaurant and karaoke lounge, but not just any karaoke lounge. It has a green room where you can prepare (although most people don't seem to). It has backup singers and dancers. The performances are broadcast live on a giant screen on Times Square. They also are recorded, and you can purchase a DVD of your performance if you want to, or you can view it on the Internet. Too shy to get on stage? Cut your track in a private booth, but try not to do anything you don’t want the whole world to see — those tracks are on the Internet, too.
Conversation with the two publicists hosting me was somewhat hampered by the need to shout over bad versions of Love Shack by giggling rhythmless women; a respectable version of Uptown Girl by a bridge-and-tunnel South Asian; really quite good versions of any number of songs — Total Eclipse of the Heart comes to mind — by a zoftig sultry-voiced alto; an embarrassing version of Bye Bye Bye by teenagers who should be too young to have any interest in *NSYNC; genuinely terrifying performances by kids too young to be shaking their bodies that way in public, in front of parents who instead of wrapping their children in blankets and ushering them away were videotaping them; and so on.
All the while the backup singers and dancers admirably stayed out of the way of good performances and tactfully sang over bad ones (it helps that management has control of the mic volumes).
So conversation was somewhat hampered, as I said, but we really got used to the circmstances and managed to engage in interesting discussion while also passing judgment on the people onstage.
Spotlight Live’s food apparently has not been getting good reviews. I hadn’t seen any reviews, but the publicists indicated that the critics had not been particularly kind, especially to the entrées, although the critics’ biggest beef seemed to be that they didn’t understand why a well established chef like Kerry Simon would sully himself by orchestrating the menu for a giant space where food is not the priority.
David Burke is in a similar situation at the nearby Hawaiian Tropic Zone, a suntan-lotion-theme restaurant with scantily-clad, numbered waitresses — or “table concierges” as the PR material calls them — who perform twice-nightly floor shows. Why, critics have asked, would David Burke do that?
“Why don’t they just ask me?” David has asked me in response.
Why indeed? Give him a call. He can often be reached at Davdburke & Donatella. Or you can go through his publicists, Bullfrog & Baum (who don’t, incidentally, represent Spotlight Live; LaForce+Stevens does, so they can field your questions about Kerry Simon’s career decisions).
And the attack on the entrées raises another interesting issue with regard to restaurant criticism. Spotlight Live does manage to sell a fair amount of the pork tenderloin entrée (pretzel-crusted pork tenderloin with sweet potato mash and grainy mustard), but clearly this is a place for appetizers and desserts, and so perhaps that’s what reviews should focus on.
It’s certainly what we focused on in our meal.
To wit:
Popcorn shrimp with lemon grass aïoli and chile ponzu
Spiced Asian soy and citrus glazed baby back ribs
French onion dip and Yukon gold potato chips
Beef carpaccio pizza with blue cheese, arugula and truffle oil
Iron Chef mini burgers with bacon, cheddar cheese and truffle fries (which are on the entrée menu, but they work as appetizers)
The Make Your Own Sundae (chocolate, vanilla and strawberry ice cream, caramel and chocolate sauce, whipped cream, sprinkles, crushed Oreos, M&Ms, strawberries and Gummi bears)
Spotlight junkfood sampler (housemade versions of Snowballs, Hostess Cupcakes and Rice Krispy treats)

Thursday, July 05, 2007

a good day for quotations

July 5

My favorite, from an e-mail from a restaurant-industry friend: “minor cases of ennui have been known to occur during or immediately after aspen.”

But also good, from a guy I met at the National Restaurant Association show in Chicago who sent me gift certificates for the restaurant chain he works for: “Please enjoy and don’t say it sucks!”

And randomly amusing but sad, the post-script of a comment posted to the ASFS listserv: “I know how hard it is to put food on your family… -- George W Bush”

A menu without a restaurant

Chris Cheung, my favorite Cantonese chef from Bensonhurst, is on his own again. He had a difference of opinion with the owners of Almond Flower Bistro about where the restaurant should go culinarily. Chris wanted a menu that used Western ingredients in Chinese cooking techniques — something he already was doing to a certain extent with items such as foie gras roast char siu bao with black truffle. The owners, according to Chris, have decided instead to serve $5 plates in a kitchen without a chef.
Anyway, this was the menu that Chris wanted, and he says he hopes to implement something like it somewhere soon.

evolutionary asian american cuisine

Noodle wrapped jumbo Maya shrimp 8
Foie gras roast pork buns 9
Roasted baby conch, black bean foam 7
Short rib lobster rice roll “cherng fun” 12
Asian green salad, mandarin oranges 6
Seared foie gras w/sautéed lychees 16
Truffled congee soup w/abalone wontons 12
Seafood chowder w/lotus chips 9
Wasabi crabcake 10
Mabu tofu wonton crisps 7
Crispy short rib wontons, truffle soy 8
Baked clams w/chili garlic gratin 9
Sliced salmon wrapped shrimp tempura 9
Sleeping oysters w/grilled scallops 16
Crispy calamari 8

Chilled baby conch 7
Shrimp cocktail 7
Clams on the half shell 8
Oysters on the half shell 15
Steamers (served hot) 15
The “Sea” cold platter 25
(3) clams (3) oysters (4) shrimp cocktail, chilled lobster
The “Ocean” cold platter 50
(6) clams (6) oysters (8) shrimp cocktail (3) baby conch, chilled lobster

Sweet and spicy baby back ribs 13
Char siu roast pork w/manndarin orange marmalade 12
Broiled ½ Lobster w/blue crab chili 18
Pan seared flounder 14
Asian and American vegetable medley 10
Black cod w/char siu marinade 16
Pan seared sirloin 13

Szechuan pepper crusted salmon w/mandarin orange marmalade 19
Peking duck w/scallion hoisin pancakes, mango reduction 25
Rack of lamb, baby vegetables, minted daikon 28
Pan seared sirloin w/wasabi scallion mash 27
Grilled chicken w/yellow curry rice stew 17
5 spice braised short rib w/pappardelle noodles 17
Seared squid udon pasta 17
Vegetable medley w/spinach noodles 13
Seafood stir fry 25
Mai fun rice noodles w/Chinese sausage and clams 17

Ginger and garlic hoi nam rice 3
Jasmine rice 2
Wasabi scallion mash potato 4
Little vegetables 4


Chocolate French tuile fortune cookie
Lychee custard tart
Mango cheesecake
Chocolate volcano cake
Assorted ice cream or sorbet

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Fifth drink buyback

June 28

The Sonoma County Winegrape Commission wants some attention, and they hired Larry Levine to get it for him. Larry in turn hired Zagat-editor-turned-publicist Ben Schmerler to get the attention of New York media.
Ben, by the way, also is a new father as of June 25 — welcome to the world Sophie Anne Schmerler.
So Ben asked me if I would please meet Larry for a drink.
I wondered if it was the Bay Area-based publicist Larry Levine that I already knew, but there are several Larry Levines out there, so I didn’t mention it.
But indeed it was that boisterous, old-school publicist I’d known for years but hadn’t seen for awhile.
Ben, being smart, arranged for us to meet at Aquavit, which is across the street from the Nation’s Restaurant News headquarters.
We bellied up to the bar and I suggested he try the house-infused spirits, and we agreed that a three-drink sampler was a good idea. Larry went for the citrus ones, and I went for horseradish, saffron and peach-anise.
We found that we weren’t done catching up when we drained our drinks, so we each had another. I ordered another peach-anise aquavit. Larry had a Carlsberg, and since we had ordered four drinks, the bartender immediately poured us a fifth one — mango-chile aquavit.
That was too spicy for Larry’s delicate baby-boomer palate (statistically, Gen-Xers such as me have the strongest penchant for spicy food — more so than the youngsters). So he gave it to me.
Now, the aquavit served at Aquavit comes in small glasses, but, I mean, the sixth one meant I was well-primed for dinner, which I was having with another publicist, Philip Ruskin, at Colors, a restaurant owned and operated by a cooperative of former Windows on the World employees. That makes it a sentimental favorite, but not enough of one to make it a huge commercial success. They’re working on it.
Chef Jean Pierre (I’m not being excessively familiar; Pierre is his last name and he comes from Haïti) sent out samosas and scallop ceviche while I munched on papadams. Then we had a hot preparation of chicken and green papaya named Pam Thai because it was invented by one of their Thai chefs, whose name is Pam, along with braised pork ribs and bowls of pozole verde.
I’m not exactly sure what Philip and I talked about.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Raw scallops and the WASPiest WASPs in WASPtown

June 27

I really like Rhode Island. Have I ever mentioned that?
It’s this tiny little state that one passes through on the way to Massachusetts, and most people don’t give it a second thought, but it’s great. The people are totally different culturally from their neighbors in Connecticut and Massachusetts (although the cultural divide isn’t demarcated by state borders; I’ve heard the Rhode Island term “quahog,” for a type of large clam, used as far north as Falmouth, Mass. [Since writing this, I have been informed that the term “quahog” is widespread throughout eastern and central Massachusetts; I don't know about western Mass., so I’d be delighted to hear from someone from Stockbridge or Pittsfield or Lenox or Great Barrington]).
And the accents! Oh I wish I could do their accents. They sound like they’re making fun of Bostonians.
The capital, Providence, is a multicultural hodgepodge, but for the past few days I have been in Newport, which contrary to its name is one of the oldest settlements in the Northeast, and has a lot of Old Money to go with that fact.
“Rum and slaves,” Eben Klemm said to me, looking at the mansions for which the town is famous. Eben’s the historically-informed head bartender for BR Guest restaurants in New York.
Okay, actually he’s not, he’s like, senior director of beverages or something, but you get the idea. He was in Newport to talk at the International Corporate Chefs Association’s annual summit.
He was talking about cocktails, which is reasonable enough. I was there ostensibly to talk about New England food trends and to add my august presence to the proceedings, but really I was there to hang out with chain restaurant corporate chefs — fascinating people who do things like develop Buca di Beppo’s meatballs and make new salsas for On the Border.
The corporate chefs at Dunkin’ Brands — which includes Dunkin’ Donuts and Baskin-Robbins — I learned, are working on their own brand of soft-serve. I asked one of them if they could please also have dipped soft serve, with that hard chocolate shell, and he said that was problematic at this time as it’s hard to get it to harden without using trans fats.
Anyway, Old Money — the type that I imagine still distinguishes between different types of northern Europeans and that continues to be mostly Protestant and of Anglo-Saxon stock (and of course white, I mean, come on) — was very much in evidence in Newport.
I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere that seems so dominated by WASPs.
There were so many WASPs that some of them were doing manual labor. The groundskeepers at the International Tennis Hall of Fame (which I didn’t know was in Newport, but wasn’t surprised to find out) were blond-haired white guys.
The bell staff at the Viking Hotel, where the ICCA summit was held, looked like they’d come straight out of an Abercrombie & Fitch catalog.
Portuguese was about as “ethnic” as it seemed to get.
The summit, as conferences like these tend to be, was mostly a series of panel discussions on different topics, preceded by a keynote address, usually about leadership — given in this case by Dunkin’ Brands chief Jon Luther. But we also got to go out on the water if we wanted to (others visited an organic farm and someplace else I didn’t want to see). Some people went deep-sea fishing, others went out on a lobster boat, I spent half a day with some corporate chefs, some representatives from the meeting’s sponsors, the owner of American Mussel (which to me sounds like a gay porn site but isn’t) and his 19-year-old son Justin, an able deck-hand and nice kid.
American Mussel actually is a mollusk producer and processor. We first visited their oyster farm on the eastern passage of Narragansett Bay, where small oysters are put in crates stringed one on top of the other and hung in mid-stream, where the bulk of the plankton swim by. The oysters eat the plankton and grow, and then American Mussel harvests and sells them. They also process mussels and clams and scallops, but they don’t process them much. They just keep them alive and clean them and ship them out.
We toured the facilities and then ate steamed clams and mussels and raw clams and oysters and, for the first time in my life, a raw scallop.
Dear reader, you might have noticed that I eat pretty much whatever anyone puts in front of me and that I’ve tried many, many things just since I started writing this blog, but I cannot remember a more joyful, ethereal culinary experience than eating a raw scallop.
It was super fresh, mind you — still pulsing as it was being removed from the shell. Simultaneously firm and silky-smooth, sweet and briny, I wanted to curl up on the concrete floor of American Mussel and go to sleep, so at peace was I.
“I didn’t care for it,” said someone from the California Avocado Commission.
Great, I thought, more for me, and I proceeded to get stoned on mollusk protein.