Thursday, August 30, 2007

Why I don’t review restaurants

August 30

“I really like this restaurant.”
“I love this restaurant.”
“I really love the restaurants in this neighborhood.”
“This restaurant is great. Isn’t it great?”
“I love Gramercy Tavern.”
“I really like this place.”
“This is my favorite restaurant in the city.”
That, pretty much, is what my boss, Nation’s Restaurant News editor-in-chief Ellen Koteff, said as she took me and another one of my bosses, NRN executive food editor Pamela Parseghian, to dinner at Gramercy Tavern.
I sort of snapped, and said something like, “I know you like Gramercy Tavern. Why don’t you think of something interesting to say now?”
She quieted down for a little while, and then asked, “Are you going to write how great Gramercy Tavern is in your blog?”
“No,” I said.
“But you have to!” she said. “It’s so great.”
So I reminded her that I avoid commenting on the quality of restaurants, explaining: “That way lies madness.”
Because for one thing, my job is to write about food trends in restaurants. My readers (not including you, dear blog reader; who knows who you are?) are mostly chefs and restaurateurs who do not care much whether I like a particular restaurant. They want to know what’s happening to give them ideas for their own operations.
Who are my sources for those trend stories? Chefs. So I can’t very well go around bad-mouthing restaurants and alienating my sources.
But most importantly, as I mentioned here, my experience is different from your average restaurantgoer.
And so is Ellen’s.
Take our situation at Gramercy Tavern, which is owned by Union Square Hospitality Group. The head of that group, Danny Meyer, knows us well. He and others in his company are frequent sources for our stories, we chat at industry events, he’s a speaker this year at NRN’s annual chain restaurant operators convention, MUFSO (September 30-October 3 at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza in Los Angeles — tickets are going fast, so order yours now!)
Ellen and Pam aren’t restaurant critics either, and so Ellen had her excellent assistant Janette Clark make the dinner reservation in Ellen’s own name. They know who we are, they knew we were coming. Did we get extra-special service? I have no way of knowing. It’s possible that, every time a customer at Gramercy Tavern vacillates between two dishes, the server brings out the first runner-up gratis for the table to share. It could be that someone from management visits every table to greet the guests warmly and wish them a lovely dinner. At a Danny Meyer restaurant it really is possible, but I wouldn’t know. I only know how I’m treated.
I was reminded of this on Monday, too. The publicists at Tillman’s had asked me to come by and check out their grilled-cheese sandwich menu, and it seemed like a perfect thing to invite my vegetarian friend Kenyon Phillips to.
Kenyon is good-natured and knows how to behave in public. He’s also clean and smells nice (Angel for Men by Thierry Mugler), but he’s decidedly informal, and on Monday he was late.
So I was already in the dining room, which is a separate room from the bar, when he came in with his skateboard — shark-teeth dangling from his ears, wearing a low-cut T-shirt that made many of his tattoos visible.
He said they were abrupt and unkind when he entered, until he said he was with me, and then they were all smiles.
But I didn’t see it. All I saw was a friendly waitress (“I like you guys!” she said at one point) and at least two people from management who stopped by to make sure we were happy.
So what do I know?
I think that restaurant reviewers should be consumer advocates. They should go into a restaurant and see if it’s doing what it purports to be doing and then say whether it’s doing it well or not. They should say whether guests will likely get their money’s worth and have a good experience.
In my current position, I can’t do that, so I opt out.
But my approach to restaurant reviewing is not the only one. The New York food blog world (or more accurately those who comment on those blogs, mostly anonymously) have been having hissy fits over the fact that The New York Daily News has made Danyelle Freeman, who writes the blog Restaurant Girl, its restaurant critic. The Daily News splashed her picture in their pages when they announced it, which wasn’t really necessary because the New York restaurant world already knows what she looks like.
I’ve met Danyelle briefly a couple of times. She seems gracious and good-natured and completely undeserving of the really mean, personal attacks that have been flung at her, mostly, as I said, by people who for whatever reason won’t identify themselves (just so you know, I comment on blogs from time to time and you’ll know when I do it because I use my own name). Some of those people (and Josh Stein and Gael Greene) seem to agree with me, that you can’t be a good restaurant critic without being anonymous.
Others, especially those close to the restaurant industry, would point out that big-name restaurants know what their community’s critics look like, anyway — even the theoretically anonymous ones. Many operators insist that former New York Times critic Ruth Reichl, even with her array of false names and disguises, was spotted more often than not.
And despite the code of ethics that Josh refers to in the link above, many people don’t play by the rules set out therein. Several publications in New York (The Resident, Paper – at least the last time I heard, which was two or three years ago) don’t have the budget to pay restaurant reviewers’ tabs and expect them to eat for free, which obviously isn’t going to happen if you maintain anonymity unless you dine and dash, and dining and dashing is tacky.
My colleague Paul Frumkin and I kind of disagree on the purpose of a restaurant review. I think it should be mostly consumer advocacy, he’s fine with it as an educational piece. And he’s not alone. He cites the late Esquire magazine writer Roy Andries de Groot as taking a completely different approach. He would tell restaurants that he was coming and ask them to do their best — to lay on the most glorious, lavish affair that they could. This, so he asserted, meant that they were all playing on a level field, which may be true, but it’s on a field that most diners will never get to see. But it could be argued that such reviews have their place if you choose to view such dining experiences as more of an elite art form than, you know, having dinner.
Raconteur and Food & Wine magazine founder Michael Batterberry told me once that, decades ago, the critic at Gourmet magazine was told to eat at a restaurant until he liked it and could write a nice review.
I actually have reviewed restaurants before. When I lived in Bangkok I reviewed restaurants there from 1992 to 1997 (I only reviewed restaurants serving Western food for the first three years, but then I branched out), and I dined anonymously and my magazine paid my way, and that’s the only way that I want to review restaurants.
But what other people do is up to them.
“Well, can you write that I love Gramercy Tavern?” Ellen asked.
Of course I can.

What Kenyon and I had at Tillman’s:
Tillman’s Classic American Grilled Cheese (Pullman white loaf, American cheese, basil herb mayo and fresh basil served with San Marzano tomato soup)
Brie and Spiced Pear Grilled Cheese (Brioche loaf, triple crème Brie, spiced roasted pears and black truffle butter)
French Onion Soup Grilled Cheese (country loaf rubbed with roasted garlic and herbs, Gruyère, caramelized onion compote, served with spiced dipping jus)
Vegan Mozzarella (European country loaf, tofu mozzarella, roasted vegetables and pesto sautéed in olive oil)

And what I had at Gramercy Tavern:
Smoked trout with celery root puree and pickled onion vinaigrette
Rack of pork and braised belly with corn and baby onions
Quark cheesecake with blueberry lemon sorbet

Ellen had smoked lobster with cauliflower purée and scallion sauce, the sturgeon special, and warm chocolate bread pudding with cacao nib ice cream. She loved it!

Pam had open seafood ravioli and rack of lamb with zucchini purée, cranberry beans and lamb’s quarter lettuce, and the apricot pistachio frangipane tart with honey ice cream.

Because he thought we might be interested in them, the waiter brought us the daily pasta special of pappardelle in braised beef sauce as well as coconut tapioca with passion fruit and coconut sorbets, passion fruit caramel and cilantro syrup. As far as I know, they do that for everyone.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Global Culinary Expedition

August 28

The Hooters fact in the posting below came from the corporate chef of Hooters' South Florida franchisee. He mentioned it during one of Smithfield's after-hours "hospitality suites."
As a journalist, it’s very important to attend hospitality suites because it affords you the opportunity to socialize with potential sources and to discuss issues in a less formal setting.
Also there are free drinks — and if Smithfield’s the host, free cold cuts.
Since the corporate chefs from Qdoba and Baja Fresh were there, I heard great, salacious, unsubstantiated rumors about the corporate culture at Chipotle (which Qdoba executives have been known to refer to as “the C-word”).
Here are some other things I learned, during presentations, cooking demonstrations, idle chatter etc.
An economist at Smithfield predicts stable commodity prices through the rest of the year, but an increase of between three and five percent in 2008.
As of the last census, 62 languages were spoken in Mexico.
The fastest growing sauce or flavor in 2005 was chipotle. In 2006 it was aïoli (according to Datassential).
Mole, believe it or not, is available in 31.4 percent of Mexican restaurants in the United States (also according to Datassential).
In the Mexican state of Colima and parts of Jalisco, ginger is traditionally used in cooking, but it isn’t anywhere else in Mexico (from Roberto Santibañez, who by the way has not moved to San Antonio as indicated but not actually stated in The New York Times, but still lives in New York; he did a terrific demonstration of Mexican cooking).
It's important to dust off chiles before using them, because the dust on them is bitter (also Roberto Santibañez).
Also from Roberto:
Adobo means different things in different countries, but in Mexico (excluding "the Sister Republic of Yucatán" where the food’s totally different) it is either a paste made with dried chiles for marinating meat or a sauce in which to cook that meat.
He said Mexicans seem to like to make their food more mysterious than it is, and that they’d be better served by explaining it more clearly. He’s actually working on codifying Mexican cuisine, much as Escoffier did with French food, in a Culinary Institute of America curriculum that he’s developing.
Roberto made the former kind of adobo in his presentation, and he did it without toasting any of the spices beforehand because he wanted the flavors that are released through heating to be released while the dish was cooking, thus flavoring the meat better.
Also cooking at the conference was the Puerto Rican culinary world’s answer to Bruce Willis, Wilo Benet, who made a bunch of yummy sauces for us, and what he called a Puerto Rican sloppy Joe.
Perhaps that would be a sloppy José.
As is usually done at these meetings, the corporate chefs teamed up and cook things. My favorite creation: the Dagwood quesadilla filled with all the Smithfield deli meats the chefs could find.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Hooters

August 27

I brought the wrong notebook to work with me today. The one filled with fascinating tidbits is in my sportcoat at home, so I’ll have to update you on the wonders of the Global Culinary Expedition tomorrow.
But here’s one I remember: Hooters waitresses on average get tipped 45 percent.

Friday, August 24, 2007

smoked vanilla

August 24

On Wednesday evening I helped Waldy Malouf with an experiment. The executive chef of Beacon restaurant got rid of two tables and added a six-person bench that faces the open kitchen. For the time-being he’s calling it The Kitchen Counter and is thinking of making it a burger or pizza bar at lunch and, at dinner, something akin to the mini-bar at Café Atlantico in Washington, D.C., at which patrons sit for the night and eat whatever nibbles the chef feels like making for them — usually a couple dozen of them. It can take several hours.
Waldy wants his Kitchen Counter to be more casual than that, and although he’s not sure what he’s doing yet, he said he was thinking of doing about a dozen small plates over the course of two hours.
I was taken to Beacon by my boss, Pam Parseghian, who actually worked for Waldy on the line at La Cremaillere years and years ago (David Burke was working there at the time, too). She also invited a friend of hers and our intern Stephen, a career-changing former teacher who wants to go into publishing.
Joining us were New York magazine's Gillian Duffy and her equally entertaining husband David, a former British military officer who has fascinating tales of colonial Malaya.

We actually had 13 courses because after eating fried saffron lobster in tarragon aïoli at the bar, which we ate while drinking a “smoking” Kir Royale (a chip of dry ice was placed in the bottom of each flute), we had a couple of breakfast radishes that we dipped in lime butter with red volcanic salt and chile.

Here’s what else we had (skip down if you don’t want to read the list, but read on, because there is more to this tale; after all, I haven’t mentioned smoked vanilla yet):

Wild mushroom pizza with red onion and basil
(paired with Leffe Blonde Belgian ale)
roasted oysters with verjus, shallot and herbs
(and we started drinking a 2005 Serge Batard Muscadet made with Melon de Bourgogne grapes — from the Loire Valley)
seared scallop with tomato-ginger chutney and freshly grated ginger
smoked striped bass with corn-potato-bacon chowder broth
(and from Italy, a 2004 La Segreta Planeta Chardonnay-Sauvignon Blanc blend)
risotto with corn, fava beans and chanterellles
chilled soup with jalapeño, cilantro and tomato
(Then for the meat we drank a 2004 Artigas Priorat Grenache-Carignan-Cabernet Sauvignon blend from Spain)
grilled summer squash, lamb chop, caper and garlic
steamed pork belly rillette with foie gras, served with Kobe beef cooked tableside on a hot stone
Valley Shepherd cheese from New Jersey with mustard dates.
(the wine, from Piemonte, was a 2005 Gatti Piero Brachetto)
cherry sorbet with roasted apricot
Chocolate chip soufflé with (here it comes!) smoked vanilla ice cream

I had never had smoked vanilla before. Waldy put the vanilla in a smoker, then steeped it in the ice cream base, then sprinkled the dried, ground up bean on the ice cream.
It’s unusual that I get served something I’ve never eaten before, so this was exciting for me.

“But did you like it?” Bob Okura asked me the next day.
Bob is the corporate chef of Cheesecake Factory and is one of a couple dozen corporate chefs who have come to Charlotte for the Global Culinary Expedition that Nation’s Restaurant News put together for one of our big advertisers, Smithfield.
We’re focusing on Latin American food this year. So Smithfield got datassential to put together a presentation on the cuisines of Latin America, highlighting Brazil, Argentina, Peru, Costa Rica, Cuba and Puerto Rico. And of course the presenter mentioned Mexican food, too.
Then chef Leticia Alexander, an instructor at Universided del Claustro de Sor Juana and Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico, did a cooking demonstration. She made a pumpkin seed crusted pork tenderloin with a pasilla-piloncillo sauce, focusing on the best ways to heat a chile to release its flavors without overcooking it and making it bitter. She also talked about how to select good pasilla chiles (they should be flexible and shiny, not brittle and dull).
Piloncillo, in case you’re wondering, is raw can sugar pressed into a cone shape.
Then she made an escabeche sauce, which she said was great for dressing cold cuts. The Smithfield chefs obviously were pleased that the demonstration dovetailed so well with their products.
It is nice when things work that way.
None of this had happened yet when Bob asked me about the smoked vanilla. We were lingering over our welcome lunch.
I told Bob about the thrill of trying something new, of enjoying chefs’ experimenting and ...
“But did you like it?” he interrupted me.
I don't remember my answer.
By the way, Waldy’s chef de cuisine, Michael Smith, like me, comes from the Denver area. He’s from Arvada.
Stay tuned for interesting facts I’m learning at this conference. Here’s one for you: About 11 billion sandwiches were sold in the United States in 2007

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

“You don’t win friends with salad”

August 22

I just finished making the rounds of my work area, a salad plate in hand, fork poised, extolling the virtues of the terrific salad I'm eating. It is, it's terrific.
Remember Lee Jones, the canny marketing guru of Chef's Garden whose marketing materials made me wonder what cagey Paul Liebrandt is up to?
Well, after a brief phone conversation he said he'd send me some corn, which he did, along with about eight pounds of heirloom tomatoes, some tiny tiny root vegetables, multicolored cauliflower, a mixed array of tiny eggplant, a mixture of different types of basil, another package of mixed herbs, tiny corn and pea shoots, a little box of cucamelons (which are cucumbers that resemble very small watermelons, the size of a little chocolate Easter egg), and, I mean, a huge sack, a sack of mixed "Asian" greens.
Take the greens and herbs and shoots, sprinkle with one of the five varieties of pretentious rock salt given to me by Stein Eriksen Lodge (SEL, get it?) executive chef Zane Holmquist and drizzle with some Australian lemon-scented olive oil, and you can just leave the peppermill on the shelf.
The massive shipment was sent to me yesterday and I pleaded with my colleagues to help me eat it. They snatched up the corn pretty quickly, and with steady, relentless effort I was able to hand off the tomatoes (alas, raw tomatoes are the one ingredient that I haven't acquired a taste for), and they nibbled at the rest of it. I was munching on the root vegetables and snacking on herbs all day long, but there was still a lot left over, and I'm leaving for Charlotte tomorrow.
I thought of taking it to Grub Street editor Josh Ozersky's birthday party last night. He dubbed it Meatopia and declared it BYOV (V for vegetables). He was joking about the vegetables because of course he didn't have any interest in anyone eating them at his party (although in fact french fries were served with the hamburgers). I thought bringing the vegetables would be good for a laugh, but I decided it required too much effort.
It was kind of a miserable night for an outdoor party — it was at Water Taxi Beach, on the left bank of the East River. It had finally stopped raining, mostly, but the air was chilly and dank. Still, it was my favorite weather for viewing the Manhattan skyline. The tops of the Midtown skyscrapers were disappearing in fog, giving the island the ominous air of a Tim Burtonesque Gotham City.
And it was a good party, with a congenial crowd, surprisingly few of whom I knew, as well as veal tartare, barbecued suckling pig, salt and pepper Texas Game Hen, open pit-cooked kid goat and whole spit-roasted baby lamb. I met Josh's colleague, Daniel Maurer, who seemed earnest, but not overly so, and nice. I caught up with chef Chris Cheung (we talked about the rash of health scares related to Chinese exports and their possible effect on consumption of Chinese food) Pavia Rosatti of The Daily Candy (the topics were, of all things, Chuck Mangione and vegetarianism) and others. I met baseball writer Jonathan Leshanski, who was there as a friend of the Meatopia contest winner Tania Zamorsky (she rewrites classics for not-so-clever children). We talked about mankind's role in the cosmos. I’m serious; we did. Maybe it was the gloomy weather.
So I'm back in the office today with my vegetables. My boss, Pam Parseghian, is taking the heirloom cauliflower. I convinced my colleague and a capella singer extraordinaire Mark Brandau to have a salad because he overheard me uttering a profanity about it (he said something about Jesus weeping when he heard me talk like that). And I've been shoveling the stuff away, because it really is delicious. I'm telling you. But I’m leaving town tomorrow and I still have Karl and Margaret's zucchini to deal with.
My colleague Lorraine Roman said I should give a shout when I get chocolate.

(the quotation in the title of this blog entry comes from an episode of The Simpsons and is something the family sings in a conga line; it is in quotes, because I’m not completely convincd that it’s true)

Monday, August 20, 2007

The Weekend of the Goat

August 20

I took last Friday off to go to Maine and visit my old friend Karl Schatz, his wife Margaret Hathaway, and their daughter, Charlotte, who turned a year
old in June and whom I still hadn't met.
Karl was one of my trio of friends (along with Jonathan Ray and Markus Müller) with whom I spent most of my senior year of college.
Karl was the photo editor of The Tufts Daily that year, and I still have a vision of him at a rally on the day we boycotted classes over financial aid. He was standing on the base of a pillar at Ballou Hall, wearing one of those safari vests, surveying the crowd with that intense, humorless look he gets when searching for a good shot. He looked great!
He has the perfect jaw line for that sort of thing.
Now Karl works at Aurora Photos and also is working, with Margaret, on being a professional farmer. They have 10 acres in the town of Gray, about a half-hour drive from Portland, where they have two sets of chickens (one set for meat, one for eggs), half a dozen ducks and four goats, along with Godfrey the dog and Snuppy the mousing cat.
The laying hens and Larry the rooster have names (although their newest brood, all black and white, are each named Priscilla), and so do the goats (Joshua, Percival, Chansonetta and Flyrod). The meat chickens are nameless, as are the ducks, which will be eaten once it becomes too cold to schlep down the slope to close the door of their coop at night.
The goats are really what got this whole farming thing started, and if that makes you curious at all you might want to look at their book.
These days most of the farm time is spent in their organic garden, from which I enjoyed potatoes at breakfast, zucchini sauce for their homemade pasta one night at dinner, and snap peas and string beans in stuffed zucchini on another night, along with sautéed kale and mustard greens. I also sampled Margaret's delicious pickled radishes, and syrup from their maple trees. Best of all, though, was the soft-boiled egg fresh from the chickens.
I helped a little with the chores. Badly.
Karl [as I knelt to collect the eggs]: "You realize you're kneeling in chicken shit."
I should have squatted.
Karl [good-naturedly as I scattered feed to the meat chickens]: "Try to get most of it in the pen next time."
I almost helped him paint something, but I took a nap instead.
Mostly they gave me things to do that a four-year-old could handle. I got to feed a stalk of corn that had been knocked over in the wind to the penned in goats. They liked that. I brought them kale stalks too, which they liked less.
Chickens, I learned, are better omnivores than goats. They'll really eat anything. Goats are vegetarian.
Karl and Margaret hope to have dairy goats, but Chansonetta and Flyrod failed to breed last year. Joshua and Percival are wethers (i.e. no more testicles) because bucks are a hassle. But Chansonetta and Flyrod, fertile does, were taken to breeders last year. I guess the dates didn't go over very well. Maybe they were introduced to dorky bucks.
Better luck this year.
Three of the goats are Alpines, a dairy breed, although Chansonetta is half Alpine, half Boer, a meat breed.
Karl and Margaret weigh everything they harvest, because if you grow a certain amount of food, you qualify as a farmer for tax purposes, which is desirable.
They've gotten kind of arch in their eating practices, as behooves founding members of the Portland Slow Foods convivium. Now that they slaughter their own chickens, they don't eat meat that comes from out of state or from origins that they don't know. I have no reason to argue with them about that.
On Saturday night we had plans to go to Fore Street, but given the bounty they'd harvested that afternoon, we opted for stuffed zucchini on the homestead.
I left with three large zucchinis, four cucumbers, a small sack of potatoes and a Ziploc bag each of snap peas and arugula.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Prehistoric in Prague

August 15

I don’t have much to say about this. It was sent to the Listserv of the Association for the Study of Food and Society.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Restaurant Liebrandt?

August 14

I got a press packet from my friend Lee Jones of Chef’s Garden in Huron, Ohio, on Lake Erie, about the chefs summit it had this summer at its Culinary Vegetable Institute in Milan, which is just a bit inland from Huron and pronounced MY-lun.
If you’ve had little tiny microgreens or obscure baby vegetables in a very high-end fine dining restaurant somewhere between Chicago and New York, the chances are pretty good that they're from Chef’s Garden — but only if you’re in a very high-end fine dining restaurant as Lee and his brother Bobby were getting up to $140 a pound for some of their herbs a couple of years ago. I have no idea what they get now.
Anyway, among the participants listed was:
“–Chef Paul Liebrandt, of his signature Restaurant Liebrandt, opening Fall 2007, New York City, panel member.”
Obviously, an investigation is underway.
[backgrounder below, as I noticed the above posting is myopic and New York-centric and this blog is for the world (!)]
The New York food world has been wondering what Paul Liebrandt has been up to since he and Gilt parted ways last year. Rumors have been rife that he was going to team up with Drew Nieporent (Tribeca Grill, Nobu, Mai House, Centrico et al), but I haven’t heard anything about that lately.
Mr. Liebrandt caused some culinary shockwaves here in the Big Apple some years ago at the restaurant Atlas, where dishes like fresh water eel with watermelon and cocoa-wine sauce thrilled then-New York Times critic William Grimes and thoroughly irritated Gourmet magazine, which gave it an uncharacteristically harsh review (at the time people cruelly speculated that Gourmet editor-in-chief Ruth Reichl, who was Mr. Grimes’ predecessor at the Times, was striking out at her replacement; that doesn’t ring true to me, but it is fun to repeat).
Mr. Liebrandt and the owners of Atlas had a falling out over something, and though the chef had some other gigs, they were nothing as grand as Atlas, until Gilt opened in late 2005 in the space that once was Le Cirque 2000. It was an important opening, as such things go. But either Mr. Liebrandt or his food didn’t get along well with management, and he was replaced by Christopher Lee, a native New Yorker who won accolades at Striped Bass in Philadelphia.
Mr. Liebrandt (he almost invariably calls me Mr. Thorn and it makes sense to maintain that protocol) hasn’t responded to my e-mail yet.
I did have a nice chat with Lee Jones, but I got no more information about the restaurant.

Accademia di Vino

August 14

I had a nice chat with Kevin Garcia today. He has been the executive chef at ’Cesca on the Upper West Side since it opened. Before that he was at Del Posto, and he also was in Las Vegas for quite awhile at Prime, Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s steakhouse there. He worked at Lupa, too.
Now he’s teaming up with ’Cesca owner Anthony Mazzola to open a new restaurant and enotica called Accademia di Vino. Kevin will be executive chef at both restaurants. He says he has a good team in place at ’Cesca, led by Ghanaian sous chef Mattey Orfori. Running day-to-day operations at Accademia will be Sond Ponrahono, a Malaysian. The place is supposed to open tomorrow.
Each restaurant has two additional sous chefs in place, too.
I had a feeling Kevin was maybe feeling just slightly defensive about being a chef with more than one restaurant, but it’s not something I have a problem with. Executive chefs are managers. If they’ve done their jobs right, they can manage more than one place.
The food at the new restaurant will be less appetizer-entrée-dessert and more come-and-do-what-you-like, according to the general manager, John Fanning, who was previously GM at i Truli, and before that at Beppe. Before that he had a restaurant and wine bar in Rome.
The culinary focus will be Italian regional, with special attention being paid to local, seasonal ingredients, as is appropriate or Italian food. Kevin even named a particular farmer, Rick Bishop of Mountain Sweet Berry Farm in Roscoe, N.Y., as an important influence on how the food would taste.
Accademia di Vino also will feature grilled pizza, a specialty of Al Forno in Providence. Where Kevin worked while he was a student at Johnson & Wales.
You just never know what experience is going to come in handy.

Navel-gazing at Monkey Bar

August 14

Monkey Bar, an ancient Midtown Manhattan watering hole that has been reworked more than once in recent years (memorably as The Steakhouse at Monkey Bar), just underwent another facelift. Decor has been updated, the 46 images of monkeys on the walls have been restored, and Patricia Yeo has been brought in to do the food.

(Here’s a picture of Patricia I took at the C-CAP benefit earlier this year).

I stopped by last night to have a drink with one of its publicists, whom I hadn’t met before. She was late, causing me to approach women sitting alone and ask if they were waiting for me. They weren’t.
But that gave me time to peruse the cocktail menu and reflect on how we trend spotters (or at least I) order food and drinks differently from others. Rarely do I think about what I’m in the mood for or what sounds good. First I remove from the running anything that looks like the chef or beverage director made it because customers it sells, not because it’s good (most chicken dishes and steaks, Cosmopolitans, chocolate Martinis, marquee-name wines, anything mentioned in a movie). Then I look for what the restaurant seems to be hanging its hat on. What does it seem to be proud of?
Monkey Bar’s wine-by-the-glass list seemed to me to cover all the requisite bases, stepping out just a bit with a couple of South Africans, but the focus clearly was on cocktails. The list of traditional drinks included a Perfect Manhattan — which uses both sweet and dry vermouth — and a classic Champagne cocktail. Those aren’t particularly uncommon, but they’re not common, either. Now, if I were a critic, I could order one of those to test their mettle, but I’m not a critic, I'm a trend-spotter. So I ordered the grossest-sounding drink on the menu, both because it was the grossest-sounding drink and thus wouldn’t likely be there if it weren’t good, and because all of its ingredients were trendy. The Blueberry Joe (I think that’s the name), was made with tequila, coffee and blueberry.
Blueberries and things with blueberry in their names are all over supermarkets because of the fruit's reputation for being high in antioxidants. Coffee is everywhere, and tequila consumption in the United States is growing faster than any other spirit except for vodka, according to Pernod Ricard (guess what #3 is: post it as a comment below).
One of Monkey Bar’s managers told me tequila sales there had spiked just over the past couple of weeks. I wonder why.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Someone’s fibbing

August 13

Recently the good people at Grub Street reported that a Shake Shack would be opening at Citi Field, which will replace Shea Stadium as the New York Mets’ home field in 2009.
Then they reported that Danny Meyer, head of the Union Square Hospitality Group, offered them free burgers if they could figure out a way for him to do that.
If you’re not in New York or are simply disinclined to pay attention to places where you must stand in line for long periods of time for a burger and/or milkshake, you might not know that Shake Shake, owned by USHG, is the darling of Madison Square Park and much loved by people who are willing to stand in long lines for a burger and/or milkshake (to see just how long the line is at this moment, you can check out the burger stand’s Shack Cam, because the USHG people are clever).
Anyway, Grub Street observed that Meyer’s message wasn’t an outright denial and decided that their sources had it right all along.
But my colleague, Elissa Elan, who recently took on the post of Northeast bureau chief here at Nation’s Restaurant News, just talked to the USHG people and to the folks at Aramark, the contract feeder in charge of foodservice at the new stadium.
The Union Square people also offered her free burgers if she could find a way to open a Shack Shack in Shea (okay in Citi Field; my apologies for indulging in inaccurate aliteration).
The Aramark folks said they had never heard of Shake Shack.
Ah, but this is the frustrating thing about being a reporter — the inability to confirm something even though you’re almost positive that it’s true.
But sometimes it’s not true. Just today I was reminded of that fact when it turns out that a news item I wrote about a chef taking a new job turned out to be false, even though the source was the chef himself.
I hate when that happens.

Friday, August 10, 2007

The Year of the Goat

August 10

The Year of the Goat: 40,000 Miles and the Quest for the Perfect Cheese is now in bookstores near you, on Amazon.com and elsewhere.
Here are some relevant links:
read the text from the book jacket
Find out when you can meet the author in person
win a t-shirt
look at my friend Karl’s pictures. Karl is the husband of Margaret Hathaway, who wrote the book. Regular readers of this blog might be interested to know that she introduced me to my friend Clark, with whom she worked at Magnolia Bakery.
But that’s not why I’m plugging the book. Nor is it in hopes of getting a free t-shirt, or because I make a brief appearance in it (brief but extraordinarily flattering; Margaret makes me seem like Master Kahn from Kung Fu). I found it to be a really charming look into an obscure world — as is done in movies like Ballroom Dancing, Best in Show, a Mighty Wind and so on. But The Year of the Goat, though occasionally tongue-in-cheek, isn’t mocking as those movies are, but rather a very sweet exploration of self- and goat-discovery.

Here, with Margaret’s permission, via Karl, an excerpt:

“Over dim sum with our friend Bret, a balding, bespectacled food writer who has won George Costanza look-alike contests, is a graduate of the Cordon Bleu, and an ulikely speaker of fluent Mandarin, we ask about the role of goats in China:
“‘In Chinese,’ he explains, gesturing with deftly held chopsticks, ‘there’s one character that can mean either goat or sheep. Sometimes the zodiac is interpreted as a goat, other times as a sheep.’
“But which is it? His recollection of the livestock he encounterd while living in China doesn’t include goats along the lines of the dairy animals he’d seen in France, but they weren’t quite sheep, either.
“‘For you two, let’s call the animals a goat.’ Bret continues, ‘In the Chinese zodiac, it’s considered a patron of the arts and its year is supposed to be one of harmony and creativity and travel.’ He gives us a benevolent smile.
“We suspect that he might be making some of this up, but Bret insists it’s true. Horoscopes aside, he writes the Chinese character for goat on a napkin, which I tuck carefully into my wallet.”

Now, for the record, I merely hold an elementary certificate from Le Cordon Bleu, not a grand diploma, so I wouldn’t call myself a graduate, and even at its best, in summer of 1989, my Mandarin wasn’t fluent. But I’m also not really an all-knowing, benevolent philosopher-food writer who inscribes mystical charms onto napkins that will guide friends through a year of adventure (the napkin re-emerges later in the book, in San Francisco). But I’ll take the compliment.
Besides, the dim sum lunch in question did take place, as did that conversation, more or less, and I did write the Chinese character for goat or sheep, yang (rising tone so it sounds like you’re asking it — yang?) in Mandarin, on a napkin for them.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

I don’t think Nellie McKay would have approved of my steak

August 9

Alain Ducasse pulled out of operations at The Essex House late last year, but the hotel still has a restaurant. The space that used to be Alain Ducasse at The Essex House is now merely The Restaurant at The Essex House and features the food of the hotel's Austrian executive chef, Christian Gradnitzer.
The abstract brass-instrument themed sculptures on the walls are gone, but the restaurant still boasts a grand central flower arrangement and other quaint but nice trappings, such as the antechamber where Andy Battaglia was reading his advance copy of The Onion when I arrived last night.
I was coming from The Mandarin-Oriental, which was having a cocktail party so we journalists could meet with the publicists from the hotel group’s different properties. So I had a couple of hors d’oeuvres, a glass of Chardonnay and a cocktail featuring passion fruit, strawberry, lemon, lime and Champagne. I was there just long enough to kiss a couple of people on the cheeks and ask after Eric Ziebold, the chef at CityZen in DC, and Joel Huff at Silks in San Francisco. Then I headed to The Essex House.
Andy is the city editor for The Onion's New York edition. The Onion, as you may know, has a satirical news section wrapped around a serious arts magazine, called The A.V. Club, that includes music, book and movie reviews, interviews, astute observations about pop culture and, starting last year, a city section that observes the goings on about town. Andy, who also writes music and book reviews, is in charge of that section (this week, my friend Howard Helmer of the American Egg Board is featured; he holds the world record for the most omelets made in half an hour and according to Andy makes for a terrific interview).
I had an arugula salad with grapes and Parmesan, followed by a T-bone, and Andy had lobster salad and the grilled seafood special.
Christian sent out a giant portion of foie gras for each of us, with a balsamic reduction, an apricot jam and, inexplicably, lemon sorbet with a raspberry on top.
Dessert was a dark brown globe called a "chocolate surprise" that the chef presented to us himself and doused it in warm chocolate sauce that melted the top of the globe, revealing its contents. Surprise!
Lately in this blog I’ve mentioned friends who have been like surrogate family and friends who make the world seem less lonely. Andy’s neither of those. Andy makes me feel cool.
Not in the way that dorks make you feel cool by comparison, but in the way that people who are plugged in to interesting parts of the world and let you come along make you feel cool.
Years ago he took me to what I think was the introduction to the New York music scene of mash-ups, which at the time were being referred to as bootleg — when DJs combine tracks from two different songs, perhaps different genres, often using the vocals of one and the music of the other. Wise and artful juxtaposition can make for interesting implicit social commentary as well as good music.
Tonight after dinner we went to Joe’s Pub to see Nellie McKay. She’s less avant-garde than mash-ups were when we went to Apartment to listen to those, but she’s awesome, with an amazing stage presence, a voice that’s remarkable in its range and beauty, and quite significant game on the piano.
Andy observed that she was no slouch on the ukulele, either.
She apparently is vegetarian, too, but nobody’s perfect.
Her style actually reminded me very much of cabaret singers I’d seen with cousins Leonard and Stephen in the Catskills, but with irony and amused anger.
Andy had given me a Nellie McKay CD awhile back, and her music still has its place on my iPod, but I had no idea she was the one playing the piano in her songs. I also didn’t imagine her as a blond.
Andy has had her write some things for The Onion, including something on Frank Sinatra when a box set of his music was released. He said he’d noticed in her bio that she lists The Onion before The New York Times as publications in which her work has been published. He liked that.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

From Frutti di Mare to Nomad and back again

August 7

I was a few minutes early for dinner at Nomad, a mostly North African restaurant in the East Village, with its owner, Mehenni Zebentout, so I was entertained and given a Moroccan Sauvignon Blanc blend by its manager, a Tunisian.
But Mehenni arrived soon enough and I learned all about him. He was a law student in his native Algeria before he got tired of that and moved to New York, where he was hired as a busboy at the now-shuttered Frutti di Mare by its Israeli owners.
He then went on to become manager of another restaurant of theirs, Cucina di Pesce, across the street. He eventually became that restaurant's owner and then, about a year-and-a-half ago, opened Nomad nearby, keeping his Israeli friends as part-owners.
Now it has all come full circle, as Mehenni has taken over the Frutti di Mare space and plans to open it in September as Belcourt.
Mehenni has been shopping for accoutrements for the place, including fancy wrought iron doors from a French post and telegraph office (he pointed out the telltale PTT on them). So the name and the door are French, but the food will come from all over the Mediterranean. That's his vision, at least. Scarcely a month before the intended opening, the search for a chef continues, although Mehenni says he has his eyes on a guy who currently is running the kitchen at a restaurant on the Lower East Side (I'd say which one, but it's not a done deal so it would be rude).
As we ate Nomad's house-made merguez, grilled octopus, brik, braised lamb shank with prunes, and b'steeya, followed by lightly sweetened tea made with Israeli mint (Mehenni says it's the best mint in the world), and assorted cookies and baklava, we discussed the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Algeria during the 1990s and continuing problems with democracy in the world, the differences between Moroccan, Algerian and Tunisian cuisines, good books to read on that subject, and the philosophical approach required to run a good restaurant.
We also were visited by the chef at Cacio e Vino, next door (he came by to borrow takeout containers), and Mehenni asked him when they were going to have the couscous cook-off they'd been talking about (one area on Sicily, Trapani, makes its own version of the stuff).
Later on designer Lucia Nenickova, who used to be a waitress at Nomad, stopped in.
As Mehenni observed, she's done better since she quit.

Coda: the fact that Nomad's manager was Tunisian reminded me of a friend from my Bangkok days, Daniel Eaton, a New Zealander who worked for that country's defense ministry (which Dan insisted wasn't as important as it sounded because New Zealand, being surrounded by a 3,000 kilometer moat and having as its closest neighbor, Australia, a close ally, has little need for defense) before coming to Bangkok.
Dan's dad is an Anglican bishop and so he spent many years overseas. In fact, Dan's passport says he was born in Carthage, which is in modern-day Tunisia.
Ancient Carthage is just ruins now, but Tunis, the manager explained to me, has several suburbs with Carthage in its name. He also drew for me a diagram of the ancient port, brilliantly designed by the Phoenicians for ease in traffic flow.
You learn something new every day.

Sushi and a beer

August 7

“Confidentially,” Erica Duecy, who's in charge of Fodor’s restaurant books, said before beginning the good part of our conversation last night at Sushi Twist, so I’ll be keeping the conversation to myself.
She was on the record, however, in expressing her delight at the three city books that came out yesterday for Paris, London and New York. She said they looked awesome.
We sampled unfiltered sake and the restaurant’s version of a Caipirinha, and then, after some fried dumplings and Japanese pickles, settled in for sushi. The specialty house rolls looked very much like those of other sushi restaurants of the genre, containing all sorts of things mixed together, rolled in rice and then topped with stuff (a Philadelphia roll with salmon, cream cheese and avocado; a Dancing Eel roll with shrimp tempura and cucumber, topped with shrimp, avocado and tobiko; you get the idea). I know they’re really popular, but Erica lived in Japan and I’ve been trained on more straightforward sushi, so we had a salmon skin roll and otherwise headed straight for the nigiri sushi — and some scallop and fresh water eel sashimi. We did both seem to be in the mood for slightly atypical fish, so instead of tuna and salmon, we headed for mackerel, sea urchin, raw shrimp (tempura-battered shells on the side, of course), more fresh water eel and flying fish roe.
On the way home I stopped by Ocean’s 8, the fairly new restaurant part of a big Brooklyn pool hall called BrownStone Billiards. I thought maybe James the dancing bartender would be there.
To clarify, James doesn’t dance while tending bar. He’s an aspiring dancer who moved to New York from southern California and tends bar to make ends meet. He used to work at The Modern but determined that a lower-key place was more his style.
I met him in early June, just as the restaurant was opening, when I popped in to check it out and try the spaghetti and meatballs. Then I came back again just last Wednesday to observe weekly Karaoke Night, and he chastised me for not being there more often.
Though James is not really a dancing bartender, he is a singing one, being semi-forced by management and the audience to do a number on Karaoke Night (last Wednesday he sang “Mr. Brownstone” by Guns N’ Roses. Cute, right?).
Ocean's 8/BrownStone Billiards is a strange place. It’s in tony Park Slope, but on ghetto-y Flatbush, a really urban pool hall with all that implies, but also a sports bar with wide screen TVs and local microbrew. The karaoke singers included a couple of Park Slope lesbians (one sang Purple Rain with gusto), but most of them seemed to be from adjacent neighborhoods — African-Americans likely from Prospect Heights and Crown Heights (some with terrific voices, singing mostly R&B), white people with more of the blue-collar air of Bensonhurst, Sunset Park and Midwood than the urban-chic and privileged grunge of Park Slope (heartfelt Frankie Valli and Frank Sinatra; unbearable caterwauling of schmaltz like “I Believe I can Fly”).
Anyway, James wasn’t there last night, but I still enjoyed my Ithaca Nut Brown Ale.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Beard Awards move to Gemini

August 2

The Rabelaisian icon of the food world, James Beard, was born on May 5, 1903. That means he was a Taurus, which is appropriate if you put any stock in astrology. We Taureans (my birthday’s April 22) are an epicurean lot, enjoying good food and other luxuries. We’re loyal, dependable, gentle, a bit stingy at times but willing to spend money on things we care about, like good food. Stubborn maybe, but in a passive sort of way. We’re really very sweet, and terrific restaurant patrons.
In the New York food world, the James Beard Foundation Awards usually happen in the middle of Taurus season (April 21st to May 20), right around the birthday of its namesake (and also, incidentally, that of my mother; my brother Todd’s a Taurus too, May 17). But this year the awards have been moved to June 8.
That’s a Sunday instead of a Monday, which means I won’t have to change into my tuxedo in the office bathroom and then rush over from work, but I will have to remember to pick up an office camera on the Friday before. It also is after the National Restaurant Association Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show in Chicago, which means I won’t be killing myself trying to get my work done that inevitably is due around that time. But, I mean, June 8?
The Beard Foudnation folks said the move was necessary to keep the event at Avery Fisher Hall, where it moved last year after being at the New York Marriott Marquis for most of its history (although I’m told the first Beard awards were on a boat — one of those booze cruises). That’s understandable, but it will require adjustment.
Taureans also are traditionalists.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

swimming in coffee

August 1

On Lexington Avenue alone, between the subway entrance at 53rd and Lex and my office on Park and 55th, there are three Dunkin’ Donuts, two Starbucks and a Pret à Manger.
For a brief moment of maybe a couple of weeks, a large Dunkin’ Donuts iced coffee was $3.02 with tax and a Starbucks venti iced coffee was $2.98. Dunkin’ Donuts’ large iced coffee is in a bigger cup — 32 ounces instead of Starbucks’ 24 ounces — but I was still struck to be paying more for coffee at proletarian Dunkin’ Donuts than at yuppy, tree-hugging Starbucks.
But my Starbucks (or is the plural Starbuckses?) have raised their prices and now a venti is $3.03. The world continues to spin on its axis.
Pret à Manger only serves one size of iced coffee. I'd guess it's around 16 ounces, and the price was recently raised from $2.00 to $2.16.