Friday, November 30, 2007

How my colleagues are different from Sex and the City fans

November 30

Magnolia Bakery sent me a cupcake along with a press release telling me they’d be open during the winter holidays (regular hours, except for Christmas Day, when they will be closed).
I didn't really want a cupcake today, as I am already fat, so I’ve been trying to hand it off to a colleague.
There have been no takers.

It’s not an anti-dessert or anti-food thing. My colleagues have been eating freely of the red M&Ms sent to me by a tomato supplier (don’t ask; I can’t explain why they sent them either). I've had no trouble giving away the boxes of soup stock that are sitting on my desk. Someone stole a block of my haloumi cheese from the communal fridge. They’ve been all over my Sicilian almonds (quite different from the California variety — very mild taste at first, but with a powerful amaretto-like finish).
I guess they just don’t like Magnolia Bakery cupcakes.

from peanuts to smoked pineapple to vanilla ice cream with chocolate and caviar

November 30

Long night last night.
It started around 5 p.m. in the private upstairs room at Felidia, where I went to a party thrown by the Peanut Advisory Board. It seems that drought in the Southeast is affecting the peanut crop again, with regard to quantity, not quality, so I'm told. There should still be enough peanuts for the major manufacturers, but the smaller guys may face some difficulties.
I was apprised of the situation by a nine-fingered farmer on the PAB’s board, and he should know.
I got lost in conversation with others and ended up closing down the party at 7:30, and from there I went to a sherry party announcing the winners of a cocktail competition. I caught up with food bon vivant Arlyn Blake and Marian Betancourt, writer of cookbooks and other things. I introduced them to Kevin Patricio, who's, well, actually I’m not sure what he is. When I met him in, like 2000, he was a marketer or event planner or something for Food & Wine. I’ve seen him listed as a chef. He was working at the sherry party last night, though I’m not sure in what capacity. I do know that I’m always glad to see him, and he said that he and bartender/cocktail maven Jim Meehan (mostly of PDT these days) are working on opening a restaurant together. It’s all in very preliminary stages. Jim kind of rolled his eyes when I mentioned it and changed the subject.
Then beverage consultant and sherry guru Steve Olson gave a speech and announced the cocktail winner (Giuseppe Gonzalez of Flatiron Lounge in New York City, for his Madroño Cobbler
3 oz. Williams & Humbert Dry Sack Medium Amontillado
2 Strawberries
2 cinnamon sticks
0.5 oz Torani Amer
2 barspoons of Rich Demerara Syrup
Lightly muddle one strawberry in Torani Amer. Break one cinnamon in half into shaker. Add sherry. Shake lightly with a little crushed ice. Serve in wine goblet. Top with more ice. Garnish with fanned strawberry, whole cinnamon stick & straw).
After that I went upstairs to sample cocktails, including one made with smoked pineapple — smoking’s all the rage, and you can read about that in the December 10 issue of NRN — and chatted a bit with beverage consultant Jerri Banks and Julie Reiner, who owns Flatiron Lounge. I guess I should have congratulated her.
Next I headed down to Will Goldfarb’s new place, Dessert Lounge, which is located at the back of Chocolat Michel Cluizel (and also accessible from the back of Le Pain Quotidien). I ate Will's chocolate bubbles with milk foam, and his vanilla ice cream with chocolate bits, topped with caviar, and mostly hung out with Oceana executive chef Ben Pollinger, about whom I discussed plans to make dinner for my boss, executive food editor Pam Parseghian, and her husband George Arpajian, at the home of her boss, editor-in-chief Ellen Koteff, who unlike me does not need to undertake major cleaning efforts to make her home presentable to guests.
Ben suggested that some butternut squash gnocchi would be nice "If you want to do some work." Uh-huh. It would be nice.
It’s funny, I'll bake bread, no problem. Give me some flour and yeast and I’m ready to go. But I’m not making gnocchi.
Cute idea, though.
I chatted briefly with Oceana executive pastry chef Jansen Chan, whom I don't think I’d met before, and had a nice long talk with Dave Arnold, director of culinary technology at the French Culinary Institute. He’s the cat in charge of teaching about transglutaminase and immersion circulators and various types of evaporation and distillation equipment — all the stuff that used to be called molecular gastronomy until early practitioners of it decided they didn’t like that term (Will Goldfarb, who sells various ingredients used in molecular gastronomy, refers to his own cuisine as "experiential").
Freelance writer Francine Cohen introduced me to a friend of hers named Stewart, who writes music for TV and stuff. That kind of art is beyond me. I could make up a dish, or a story, but a song? Where do you begin?
Stewart said it wasn’t really different from writing words. We agreed that the TV show Battlestar Galactica has a great soundtrack. I like how the theme song starts with a single note repeated over and over again. It's really scary. Stewart likes the dominance of percussion throughout the series. I like that too.
A propos of nothing else, let me say right here that I’m also a huge fan of the NYPD Blue theme. I think the melancholy tune underpinned by the thrumming drum beat that is the pulse of New York City sums up the show well.

Thanksgiving, and Eating New York

November 26

I spent Thanksgiving with the family of my boss, Pam Parseghian. It was very much like Thanksgiving with her clan last year, with the addition of a delicious poultry pâté that Pam made.
The trip to central New Jersey was easier than in years past. It was just an 11 minute ride to Secaucus, and then I was picked up, a day bag full of Beaujolais in hand, by Pam's brother Steve and his sons Grant and Daniel. The kids get nicer every year.
On the day after Thanksgiving I have a longstanding tradition with my friends Birdman aka Dr. David Krauss and Rusty Cappadona. We meet around noon at Joe's Shanghai for soup dumplings and then wander through the streets, restaurants and bars of Gotham, eating and drinking until we fall down, can't eat anymore or simply have had enough fun and want to go to sleep.
This year Rusty brought along his eight-year-old son, Ryan, who's quite the young gourmand, it turns out.
We taught him different techniques for eating soup dumplings, and then took him to one of Birdman's favorite dive bars, where he had his first Shirley Temple (and second, and third really because the bartender decided Ryan should do a taste comparison between Shirley Temples made with ginger ale and lemon-lime soda — he preferred the lemon-lime).
The men drank Bass Ale.
Then we took a stroll to Ground Zero, because Rusty wanted to show it to Ryan. From there we met up with Birdman's girlfriend, Emily, and headed to Great New York Noodle Town for won ton duck noodle soup.
From there we walked down Canal Street and I continued my search for mangosteens.
Success! I found a bag of them for $7. They were from Thailand, so it's a good thing they were frozen solid as mangosteen season in Thailand ends in May.
We strolled up to Little Italy for fresh mozzarella and then hopped on the 6 train to have wine and cheese at Artisanal.
Ryan was a real trooper here. He didn't care for the vacharin, but he ate quite a few other funky cheeses (and a gruyère and a cheddar) with gusto, while drinking a Shirley Temple. The rest of us split a bottle of 1996 Haut-Médoc, and I ripped open a thawing mangosteen, to the slight embarrassment of Birdman, because of course pulling out your own fruit at a fancy restaurant is inappropriate. He and the others were happy to try the mangosteen, however, which it turns out, despite having been frozen, was quite a delicious specimen, with good sugar and acid levels and its typical velvety texture.
I tried to eat the rest of the mangosteens the following day, however, and they were terrible — either inedibly bitter or rotten. So I guess you have to eat them as they thaw. That's not really surprising as even in Southeast Asia you pretty much have to eat mangosteens within a day or two of buying them.
Next we walked up to Grand Central Terminal, where Rusty and Ryan headed back to Connecticut and Birdman, Emily and I soldiered on, slurping down mostly East Coast oysters at the Grand Central Oyster Bar, while drinking beer (I sampled a couple of New England beers whose names I have forgotten).
We'd planned on a Japanese snack on St. Marks Place — some starch to top off the oysters — but we deemed the lines at the izakaya places to be unreasonably long, and so instead we went to Grand Szechuan for cured pork, Szechuan dumplings, fried rice and drank more beer (Sapporo, I think).
Then we walked to Union Square, where I topped off the evening with a Starbucks Triple Grande Cappuccino and we parted ways in the subway station. I think it was around 11pm.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

multimedia food writer

My latest podcast is up and running listen to it here.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Slash the chicken to show the monkey*

November 27

Tales of my Thanksgiving weekend adventures and the Turkish food that followed will have to wait until I finish writing the feature I’m working on for our December 10 issue, but I did want to comment on Chris Cheung’s new job. The bright kids at Eater reported that he’s the new chef at Monkey Bar, and Chris just confirmed that to me (in fact, he's been there for six or seven weeks).
I wrote a profile of Chris, a protégé of Ed Brown and then of Jean-Georges Vongerichten, way back in 2000, when he was working on opening his first restaurant, Tiger Blossom, in the East Village. It failed to thrive and closed shortly after 9/11. So it goes. He resurfaced some time later at Little Bistro in Brooklyn, and then turned some heads as chef of Almond Flower Bistro, on the edge of Chinatown.
Now here’s the interesting thing: Patricia Yeo, the chef Chris is replacing at Monkey Bar, left, if I recall correctly, following bad reviews and a sense that the food she wanted to cook was a bit more radical than the Glaziers, who own Monkey Bar, wanted it to be, and perhaps more radical than their guests wanted to eat. That happens; sometimes a great chef is not a great fit with a particular restaurant. Chris knows that: He left Almond Flower over a disagreement with the owners there over his menu, which they deemed to be more radical than they wanted.
Obviously I wish all parties involved much good fortune and success.
Here’s another funny thing. When I interviewed Chris for that profile back in 2000, I did it over lunch at AZ, the restaurant where Patricia first was put on the map in New York (AZ has since closed; it was where BLT Fish is now).

*This is a term used in both Chinese and Thai cultures. It refers to when you punish one creature to frighten another one — to make an example of someone.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Irving Mill

November 21

You might remember that my first visit to Irving Mill, on its opening night, didn’t give me much insight into the food, as not much of it was served.
But last night I had an actual sit-down dinner there with the restaurant’s publicist, Steven Hall.
The restaurant was mostly full, and pretty star-studded. Management was a-twitter because Rachel Ray was eating there. They also seemed pleased that Chelsea Clinton was dining as well.
“Really?" I asked.
“She's sitting next to you,” Steven said, which was just a minor exaggeration. He and I were in a booth, Chelsea and co. were at an adjacent table.
Does that mean I had a better table than she did? I’m never sure how that works, or what it means.
Steven was one of the first publicists I met in New York, but we’d never dined together, and we had a good time talking about the blog phenomenon, his strategies for getting press in different key publications and my strategies for deciding what to write about.
Irving Mill will probably be getting more press soon: Florence Fabricant ate there recently, and Frank Bruni has been in at least once, according to management.

What we ate:

Grilled quail with green tomato relish, cheddar cheese grits and smoked paprika
Cauliflower ravioli with hazelnuts, capers, red onion and Parmesan
Atlantic cod with roasted Brussels sprouts, carrots, apple butter and cider
Roasted poussin with roasted shallots, green olive, garlic sausage, rosemary and potato purée
Greek yogurt panna cotta with stewed apricots, quince and pistachio
Zucchini cake with orange sorbet, orange marmalade and toffee walnuts.

Carlito’s way?

November 20

Last night I had dinner at Solace, a relatively new place on Manhattan’s lower upper far east side (64th between 1st and York).
Publicist Susan Rike was having one of her little media dinners to introduce us to chef David Regueiro — not to be mistaken for David Ruggerio, a nice guy who probably is best remembered in the New York food world for alleged involvement in credit card fraud at his eponymous restaurant (located, in case you’re interested in such trivia, where BLT Steak is now).
Joining Susan and me were New York-based Chilean journalist Manuel Santilices and Michael Gencarelli, a Bensonhurst native who writes for Shecky's. We spoke of global politics and the relative images of different nationalities — "How German of you" sounds kind of insulting, while "how French of you" might well mean that you have good taste in food and wine and know how to enjoy life. But it doesn't sound as good as "how Italian of you."
David (Regueiro) was born and raised in Brooklyn, near on the Park Slope-Sunset Park border, but his parents and older siblings all were born in Cuba. His first cooking job was at the New York Stock Exchange. Then he worked under David Bouley for a couple of years and was on Charlie Palmer’s team for many years after that.
But Susan wants to play up his Cuban roots and wants him to cook "Cuban-inspired" food. She thinks that will sell on 64th and York. I’m pretty sure her conviction stems from the fact that a former client of hers, Wayne Nish, chef-owner of the now-shuttered restaurant March, in nearby upper Midtown East (58th and 1st) gained traction in 1995 when he played up his partial Japanese roots (he's part Maltese, too, and other things) and served sort-of-Japanese-inspired food.
Susan also thinks David looks like Andy Garcia, but in fact he looks more like a young Al Pacino.

Standards and Pours

Please welcome the latest blog in the Nation’s Restaurant News family, Standards and Pours. Follow my colleague Sonya Moore as she shares her observations of all things drink-related. Should be a hoot.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

steak and dessert

November 17

I spent most of the workday yesterday in the New York offices of the PR company of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, helping to judge their Beef Backers competition, which not surprisingly goes to restaurants that market beef well.
I was planning to spend the early evening in the gym in anticipation of a gigantic dessert party called Sweet. But the NCBA people asked if I wouldn't have dinner with them at BLT Prime, and I thought it would be rude to refuse.
It's fun to eat steak with beef people. Their representative, Jane Gibson, assessed the breeding of pictures of cattle in the restaurant, and not many people can do that.
We noticed that the menu said that all of the beef was either USDA Prime or Certified Black Angus. We asked the waiter how to tell which was which, and he said all the beef (except for the Kobe, which was labeled as such) was Certified Black Angus Prime. We wondered aloud to him why the "or" was on the menu then but we let it go and wondered amongst ourselves how they could sell A5 Kobe for just $26 per ounce. Actually, the NCBA people wondered. I was unaware of the classification of Japanese Kobe, but I learned that A5 is the highest grade.
I had the 20-ounce rib eye and some sauteed maitake mushrooms and we all split a piece of pecan pie, and so I was full when I got to Sweet, which probably was just as well because how many desserts should I really be eating (except for Jehangir Mehta's dessert of tomato and olive oil with a balsamic vinegar sorbet, which reminded me that I had not been eating enough vegetables lately)?
But I really wasn't there to eat anyway. Sweet was a charity event and paying guests had forked over $200 to be there, so I figured I'd leave most of the desserts to them (although I sampled a few dessert wines and tried the cocktail that Allen Katz developed) and take the time to catch up, which I did, mostly with freelancer Francine Cohen and Rachel Wharton of the Daily News.
But pretty much the whole New York food scene was there, and that's always fun. So was Michael Symon, who's based in Cleveland. I congratulated him on being the next Iron Chef.
I caught up with my friend and former colleague Erica Duecy, who's now at Fodor's, and with Jennifer Leuzzi. Will Goldfarb handed me a business card for his new Dessert Studio, which he said would open on the following day, as I ate one of his chocolate chip cookies.
Michael Laiskonis of Le Bernardin seemed happy and busy. Alex Stupak of WD-50 was his usual focused, serious self, so I just took his dessert without bothering him.
As that party wound down, I went to the afterparty upstairs, catered by Shake Shack, so I had half a burger. Then a number of us ended up at The Spotted Pig, where I drank a Six Points Rye and then followed the gang up to the restaurant's top floor, which looked like someone's apartment. We hung out in what looked like a living room with a kitchen and I compared notes with writer Jay Cheshes, who graciously defended restaurants that I think are overhyped, and he and Rachel Wharton (mostly Rachel) lamented that the Daily News' food section gets no respect.
Oh, Johnny Iuzzini, Jean Georges' pastry chef, whom The Daily News had just named New York's sexiest chef, was at Sweet, too. He looked like he respected the Daily News' food section.
I also chatted with publicist Ana Jovancicevic and Ilan Hall of Top Chef, whom I hadn't met before.
Actually, I still haven't technically met him, but we had a nice chat, about Chinese food and other things.
I got home sometime after 5 a.m., and so I decided I would probably be better off skipping the opening of Will Goldfarb's place.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Beer on the final frontier

Noveber 14

I’m in the St. Louis airport now, having spent the past day-and-a-half with the good people of Anheuser-Busch, along with a bunch of other trade magazine journalists, learning, oh, a whole bunch of things about the company’s marketing plans, and no small amount about pairing beer with food.
But it’s the little tidbits that I always enjoy.
Here are a couple:

1) Hoegaarden (one of many beers purchased by A-B in recent years) is growing in popularity in certain cities, including New York City, Boston, Denver, Seattle, San Diego and Portland (the one in Oregon), but particularly in Philadelphia, where a drink called the Dirty Hoe is gaining a following. It’s Hoegaarden — which the people at A-B pronounce who-garden, but they don’t seem to mind adjustment of the pronunciation for the sake of marketing — and framboise, a raspberry-flavored beer.

2) Some footage for the upcoming Star Trek film, being produced by "Lost" creator JJ Abrams and scheduled for release next year, will be filmed at Budweiser’s Los Angeles brewery. The brewery will play the role of Enterprise's interior. In return for letting them film, during some bar scenes Budweiser will have product placement, with the beer in just slightly futuristic-looking glasses.
I hope those scenes don’t get cut.

Monday, November 12, 2007

The great mystery of olives in Margaritas

November 12

The Margaritas that Sylvia and I ordered at the Matamoros restaurant (see the blog entry below) were served with a garnish of a green olive stuffed with a pimento.
Sylvia quickly plucked it from her drink’s rim and dropped it onto her cocktail napkin, took a sip of her Margarita and grimaced. But the problem wasn't the olive, the problem, she surmised, was that it was just too sweet. She doctored it with a bunch of lime wedges that were on the table, but she still couldn’t finish it. I thought there was something else strange in there, but the problem wasn’t the olive. Maybe it was just really bad tequila.
At any rate, we took the olive as a sign that the restaurant really didn’t understand Margaritas. We shrugged, got into her car and got in line to cross the border, emptying the contents of the bag we got at Las Palmas into our stomachs. Either the sugar or the fact that she was eating copious amounts of pastry and getting crumbs in her brother’s car after having eaten two lunches made Sylvia giddy. We were having fun.
But back to the Margarita mystery. For dinner we drove to South Padre Island to an old-school Tex-Mex place called The Palmetto Inn. I ordered enchiladas verdes and a Margarita, which came frozen. The garnish: a lime wedge and an olive on a skewer.

The Margarita was fine, but what was the olive doing there?
We finished off with a nightcap at Garcia’s, which was nearby. I ordered another Margarita, on the rocks.
It was garnished with three olives on a skewer.
“What’s up with the olives?” I asked the bartender, who told me it was a common garnish in Mexico, which of course it’s not.
Or is it?
My experience in Mexico is limited, but the Margaritas I had in the Los Mochis airport and throughout Sinaloa were free of olives.
The next day we drove to Houston and went to Sylvia’s restaurant (Sylvia’s Enchilada Kitchen) and she asked her cooks, who come from all over Mexico, about olives and Margaritas. None of them had ever seen olives in them.
Meanwhile I had a chelada and learned that American limes don’t seem to work as well in them as the milder Mexican ones — either that or the limes had been squeezed forcibly enough to extract some of the oil, adding extra lime flavor and bitterness. Also, the salt used to rim most Margarita glasses is too course for a chelada.
I ate eleven of Sylvia’s 18 varieties of enchiladas along with some tres leches cake, some chocolate tres leches cake (Sylvia’s invention) and some flan.
Today, after returning from Houston, well fed on migas and Sylvia’s signature pancakes, I e-mailed the listserv of the Association for the Study of Food and Society, the smartest people I know when it comes to foodways. Some responded accurately but unhelpfully that olives in Margaritas sounded gross. But they also speculated that the practice of adding olives might be isolated to the Lower Rio Grande Valley.
But Janet Chrzan cleverly found an entry in Wikipedia for a Mexican Martini:
This popular Texas cocktail consists of a large margarita (tequila-based) on the rocks, usually shaken and presented in the shaker, providing several servings poured by the drinker into a salt-rimmed cocktail glass with an olive garnish.
But it’s Wikipedia, and there’s nothing definitive about that.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Why Mexican beers are so bland

November 10

For years I have disdained the basically flavorless Mexican beers that infest sports bars and low-rent Mexican restaurants in the United States. I often comment that if you put lime in them, they taste like lime.
But I have just learned that that’s the whole point. In the Brownsville, Texas, area, on either side of the border with Mexico, beer is just where you begin. You can make it into a michelada — essentially a Bloody Mary made with beer instead of vodka, which you might recall can even be found in New York if you look hard enough. Or you can make it into a chelada, which is beer with a squeeze or more of lime in a salt-rimmed glass. Those beverages are often drunk over ice.
If that’s what you want — something light and refreshing with some vitamin C and salt — why, a light innocent lager like the varieties so popular in the United States and Mexico does just the trick.
That’s one of many things I learned when Sylvia Casares Copeland of Sylvia’s Enchilada Kitchen in Houston took me and her publicist Dick Dace on our cross-border journey into the world of Tex-Mex cuisine.
After dining at Vermilion last night (see the blog entry below), this morning we went to El Torito at the Brownsville Days Inn. The sign outside the restaurant just says “Mexican Food Restaurant,” but Sylvia insisted that its name was El Torito. Inside it was basically unadorned — a giant, ill-lit dining hall with some family pictures and string figures of guitars on the walls, but the breakfast tacos were like nothing I’d ever had.
Throughout the Tex-Mex world, flour tortillas, not corn ones, are the general rule, but in Brownsville the tortillas are massive, the size of dinner plates, and light and flaky like the rotis that Indians on the Malaysian island of Penang use to make murtabaks. Sylvia explained that on a hot griddle the dough, loaded with shortening, puffs up, allowing parts of the thin layers to toast to a yummy deep brown. The tortilla was folded in half over chorizo and eggs for me, chorizo with eggs and potatoes for Dick, and, for Sylvia, frijoles guisado, a tasty bean mush that was coarser and lighter than refried beans.
After two cups of good coffee we went to Las Palmas, a bakery at which the luxury items cost 75 cents. Sylvia loaded up a tray of stuff and, after an abortive visit to a tortilla factory that unbeknownst to our guide had just changed hands, we climbed into her car and drove across the bridge into the Mexican town of Matamoros.
We visited some of Sylvia’s favorite shops and then sat down to our first meal there, at Los Norteños, where the specialty was cabrito, or goat.
Sylvia suggested the plain, charcoal roasted cabrito al pastor, but I also was interested in the menu item that in English was called “goat in gravy” but in Spanish was cabrito en sangre. Goat in blood? The Bart Simpson in me couldn’t pass up anything with that name, especially if sangre were not merely a euphemism for gravy.
Sylvia asked and indeed the “gravy” was blood-based. Don’t get all creeped out, blood is a common thickening agent and adds a hearty richness to food (although, to be fair, the first, and probably only, time I saw it on the ingredient list when I was in cooking school — in a traditional civet de lapin, or rabbit stew — I was both delighted and a little scared).
It was served with frijoles charros, a simple bean soup that in this case was favored with fat back, cilantro and tomatoes.
After the cabrito en sangre, we also had a hunk of cabrito al pastor. Later in the day, as I was thinking about that straightforward, hearty smoked and grilled meat, I remembered a simple, narrow-minded woman at the James Beard House who, one night during a dinner there, saw fit to visit other tables and collect recommendations for restaurants in Barcelona. I recommended several places (Espai Sucre by reputation, Talaia Mar from past experience to sample some food by an Adria disciple), with my heartiest endorsement behind Rincón de Aragon for its roasted goat leg. She shuttered at my final suggestion and indicated that I was ridiculous. Hey, it was her loss. See if I ever share my civet de lapin with her.
Our excursion through Matamoros continued with a little more shopping, but not much, before we went to Los Portales, where I started with a chelada.
I started with a chelada at Los Norteños, too, but there it was simply beer with a squeeze of lime in a tall, salt-rimmed glass. At Los Portales it was a solid two fingers of lime juice in an ice-filled mug, served with a bottle of beer that was to be poured in the glass.
Then we had a picadillo — spiced ground beef and potatoes on a tortilla chip — more frijoles charros, and then their specialties, pollo and carne asada, which were straightforward grilled meats. Sylvia struck up a conversation with the table next to us and had foods she hadn’t tried before, like a sort of low-fat crispy (corn) tortilla made by simply toasting it on a comal.
Our neighbors started handing all of their food to Sylvia to try, and soon they were joined by César Rendón, a local politician whom I recognized from his campaign posters, which were all over town. I suppose I should have had my picture taken with him so you’d believe me.
Our last stop was a restaurant I won’t name because Sylvia and I both had the worst Margarita we had ever had in our lives there.
But it also introduced us to a puzzle that I shall explore in the next entry.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Border run

November 8

The fact that the IFEC conference was in Texas seemed like a good opportunity to take Sylvia Casares Copeland up on her offer to show me the area around her hometown of Brownsville.
Sylvia and I hit it off when we met back in July.
Her publicist, Dick Dace, was at the IFEC conference, and so this morning we climbed into his Ford Explorer and headed south.
We stopped briefly in San Antonio, so he could show me the Alamo and the Riverwalk, where we had beer and blue corn nachos at Zuni Grill. Then we stopped again in Oakville to eat at Van's Bar-B-Q, where I had pork ribs, chopped beef, sausage, potato salad, peppery pinto beans, peach cobbler and pecan pie (and a Diet Coke).
I was under the apparently false impression that Texans don’t barbecue pork much, and that their barbecued ribs are usually beef. I’m going to have to get out more.
We pulled into the La Quinta on the outskirts of Brownsville just before 7. We checked in, and Sylvia picked us up an hour later to take us to her favorite restaurant, Vermilion, where we ate nachos, shrimp tacos, beef and cheese enchiladas, fish ceviche and steak fajitas. I listened to a bit of gossip about Houston food writers, and we talked about societal ills. We also talked about Tex-Mex food, and the fact that American food snobs disparage it in favor of the food of "interior Mexico."
Why, Sylvia and I both wondered, do people fail to accord Tex-Mex cuisine the respect they will give to food from just a bit farther south.
Indeed, the United States is the birth place to three Mexican cuisines: Tex-Mex, Cal-Mex and Southwestern or New Mexican cuisine (that’s not to say cocina nueva Mexicana, but the cuisine of New Mexico). All three were developed largely by ethnic Mexicans living in the U.S. All three are distinct from one another and from cuisines that evolved in Mexico, and they all have rich and interesting heritages and are delicious (I admit that I like any cuisine if its food is prepared well). Sylvia argues that Tex-Mex is more accessible and has more universal appeal than the food of the Mexican interior. As a Coloradan, I grew up with the red chile/green chile food of New Mexico, and I wasn’t aware of the distinction between it and Tex-Mex until I left town.
I’ll no-doubt be learning more about it tomorrow.


November 8

The International Foodservice Editorial Council is a fairly small organization, and that is a testament to the fact that most publicists are not very good at their jobs.
Really, IFEC shouldn’t work, but here’s how it does: The organization centers around an annual conference, at the heart of which is a series of speed dates between foodservice trade publication editors and publicists who want our attention. We editors — from competing publications, mind you — sit at tables in a single room, one editor per table. Every ten minutes a different PR team comes to our table and talks to us about their clients and how they might fit in our publications. Notes are jotted, a bell rings, and they move to their next scheduled speed date. This goes on for a total of seven-and-a-half hours over two or three days. Then everybody goes out and eats and drinks and tours the city and shops or does whatever else they want to do, having, in the course of a couple of days, done what probably couldn't have been accomplished in a year of phone calls and e-mails.
As in every organization, IFEC has a few jerks in it, but the extraordinary thing is that they don’t behave like jerks at the conference. It is the least political organization I’ve ever seen. It’s all run by our executive director and her assistant, with various other tasks being carried out by member-volunteers. We have a silent auction at the conference at which tens of thousands of dollars are raised for scholarships which we give to students who want to be in foodservice communications.
Why every food and restaurant publicist on earth does not join IFEC is beyond me. I’ve asked quite a few publicists to join. Some do. Some send in their membership check to please me (as if I care; I don’t) but don't go to the conference. A few go to the conference and thank me afterwards. Most ignore me, maybe because they think I'm telling them a fairytale about a magical Brigadoon-like paradise that materializes once a year for a few days where everyone gets along and dances amid butterflies as ponies prance by.
And to be fair, the conference isn’t paradise. This year it was in Austin, Texas, at the Omni Hotel, where one of the elevators was broken and the staff seemed unclear on how to set up a buffet properly. And the tours through the hill country outside of Austin were a tad long. But we still got a lot done, and in the evenings we went out and danced and drank and enjoyed Austin’s nightlife. And I met with a whole bunch of publicists for ten minutes each and got a lot of work done.
I'm not going to tell you everything I did in Austin, or even everything I ate, partly because I don’t have time and partly because I don’t want anyone to get sued or sent to jail.
I will report that one highlight of my stay was the Ms. Gay Austin competition, during which one entertainer sat on the floor of the stage and ate a hero sandwich.
I will also report that Todd Downs, chef extraordinaire for commodity boards, is going to open his own restaurant, Bourbon Street Hideaway, in Fort Wayne, Ind. (Todd bought me a Jäger Bomb; it was my first and last.)
And I will mention one dinner, for the kids.
I and a number of other editors, and some publicists, ate at Ventana, the Texas Culinary Academy’s restaurant, at which we ate food prepared and served by students Greg Anderson, John Crowley, Brian Dillon, Michael Fuller, Paul Heffley, Jason Hunter, Jacqueline Jones, David Medina, Adam Reson, Thomas Riland, Charles Stampley, Joyce Stanek and Anne Taylor, under the direction of chef Robert Brady.
As we sipped Paul Cheneau Cava, we ate:
An amuse-bouche of creamy butternut squash mousse with a Texas pecan crumble and sweet potato gaufrette
With a Napa Valley Hall Sauvignon Blanc we had:
Baby arugula dalad with poached Bartlet pears, toasted walnuts, olive oil and American grana cheese
A pan-seared dayboat scallop over mascarpone polenta with green asparagus, white truffle foam and fried spinach.
Then we started drinking a gravity Hills Killer Climb Syrah from Paso Robles, and ate:
Roasted centercut beef tenderloin with portobello mushroom ragoût, port veal stock reduction, creamy gorgonzola and a walnut persillade
Assorted BelGioioso cheeses
Cream ppuffls filled with vanilla bean ice cream, hot chocolate sauce and chopped, roasted walnuts (right, profiteroles)

Sunday, November 04, 2007


November 4

Chandler Burr was just in Santa Fe, doing one of a series of scent dinners that he’s doing across the country, working with chefs who prepare meals to go with various perfumes and other aromas that he presents to guests. They seem to be going well. Next he’s off to Dallas and Mexico for some reason, but he was in town long enough for us to stop by Bún last Friday.
Bún is pronounced “boon” and is also the name for thin rice noodles. So it’s a little like naming a restaurant Phở (pronounced like the French word feu, or like fur if you don’t pronounce the ‘r’), which as you may know is a Vietnamese noodle soup and quite a common name for Vietnamese restaurants in the U.S. It’s the latest restaurant of Michael Bao Huynh, who also owns Bao 111 and is a partner with Drew Nieporent in Mai House.
I sampled a red wine I hadn’t tried, but mostly I drank crémant d'Alsace rosé while Chandler and I caught up and sniffed each other (I was wearing Boucheron Pour Homme, which I really like — it smells to me like grapefruit mixed with lavender — and he had a variety of scents sprayed on different parts of his forearm). We got surprisingly few stares.
Chandler’s fun to eat Southeast Asian food with because he doesn’t get creeped out by exotic things.
To wit:

What we ate:
King crab spring rolls with pork, water chestnut and nuoc cham (a sauce made with fish sauce — nuoc mam in Vietnamese — vinegar, sugar etc.)
Seven-spice duck hearts and tongue with basil, chile, lime and salt
wild boar blood sausages with pickled green papaya and spicy ginger sauce
braised guinea hen with ginger, home-style sticky rice and duck sausage
A roll of beef, bún, arugula, pineapple, herbs and cham sauce
Bún with shrimp, Berkshire pork belly, cucumber and herb salad
Phở with thin sliced steak, sweet breads and anise beef broth

Friday, November 02, 2007

Crispy duck necks

October 31

Trestle on Tenth has an appetizer of crispy duck necks. They’re served with garlic and anchovy aïoli. My friend Birdman (aka professor David Krauss) said they were the best duck necks he’d ever had. I’d never had duck necks before.
I am always about 15 minutes late when meeting Birdman for dinner, and sometimes I worry that it’s some sort of sub-conscious passive aggressive thing I do with him. So this evening I was early, and I sampled two cocktails, the Cloister Fizz (Albert Mann Crémant d'Alsace, house-made bitters and Armagnac), and the Kirby (Plymouth Gin, Cucumber, Cynar, Martini Bianco and orange bitters), while waiting for Birdman, who I’m happy to say was about 15 minutes late.
Birdman had a beer, and then with our dinner, at the suggestion of chef Ralf Kuettel, we had a bottle of 2005 Franco Noussan Torrette from Italy’s Valle d'Aosta.
What else we ate:
Crépinette of pork shoulder with sautéed spinach
Lamb saddle with mustard greens and cipollini
Chattham cod wrapped in bacon on Savoy cabbage with porcini
Gratnéed Pizotel (a type of Swiss dumpling) with caramelized onions and Gruère
Roasted heirloom beets

St. Maure de Touraine
Mil Ovejas