Monday, December 29, 2008

How to spend a two-hour wait

December 29

“This is one of the things I hate about New York,” my friend Yishane Lee said.
We had friends visiting from out of town who wanted to go to The Spotted Pig on a Friday night. At 8pm.
The Spotted Pig is one of the hottest restaurants in the city, and it doesn’t take reservations. But Jeff Cranmer and Susie Park are good friends, and it was the day after Christmas. That’s a busy shopping day, of course, but an anomalous restaurant day. And the economy is in a shambles, after all. Perhaps The Pig would be quiet.

Nope. I was the first person in our party to arrive, and I squeezed my way through the crowd to get to the host’s stand. The host was nice enough, and apologetic yet fatalistic when he told me it would be a two to two-and-a-half hour wait for a four-top. I thanked him, had him write my first name down (I spelled it out for him, with one ‘t,’ he wrote it with two — that happens more often than not, and it fascinates me) and went inside to wait for my friends.
Just so you know, Jeff and Susie are no rubes. They knew it might be a long wait, but they wanted to see what all the fuss over The Spotted Pig was about. Sometimes to find out things like that, you have to wait.
It’s one of the things I hate about New York, too.

But of course the most important part of a meal is who you eat with. That’s also the most important part of a two to two-and-a-half hour wait.
If you ever see me using unusual but apt turns of phrase, I learned that from Jeff, who seems either to start from scratch or to continue part of his own internal linguistic dialog when he makes observations. I’d give you an example, but I can’t muster any great Jeffisms at the moment. I do think my use of the word “muster” probably came from him, in spirit at least.
He was doing a lot more verbal gymnastics when we met, oh, I'm gonna say 13 years ago in Bangkok. But we all had more vigor back in those days.
Susie does retail merchandising for Old Navy and was really after me to invest in a $1,000 coffee maker for my home, because a great cup of coffee is worth it. And of course she has a point. Susie is usually right.
And she was right that the crowd waiting for tables at The Spotted Pig was more boorish and apparently less accustomed to living indoors or associating with other people than you would expect from New Yorkers. As people stood around in friend groups near the bar, they seemed oblivious to the fact that people behind them might want a shot at making eye contact with the bartender. They didn't seem to know that if you make uninvited physical contact with someone — an elbow to the shoulder blade, a shoulder to the face — you’re supposed to acknowledge it with a brief verbal apology or, at the very least, a look of regret.
So it seemed to be a bridge-and-tunnel crowd (living in Brooklyn, I, too, am technically bridge-and-tunnel — I know), but I was with good friends who know not only how to behave in close New York spaces (Jeff and Susie lived in New York themselves for a few years), but also how to gracefully take over bar stools as they are vacated.
So we managed to score three stools, and for awhile the four of us tested our balance by sharing them while eating appetizers. We were then thinking of heading to Arturo’s for pizza, but an hour and fifty-seven minutes into our wait the staff offered us a table.
And it was a doozy of a table. I don’t usually notice when I’m getting a great table, but we got the corner booth in the back of the ground floor, by the window. Very classy.

What we ate at the bar:
prosciutto and ricotta tart with marjoram
sweetbreads with piperade and mint
sheep's ricotta gnudi with brown butter & sage
Somthing else, the name of which I have forgotten, but it’s basically the face meat of a pig made into little cakes — like crab cakes, but out of pork.

What we ate at the table:
Chargrilled burger with roquefort cheese & shostrings (two of them split among the four of us)
Scallops stewed with girolles & crème fraîche
beets with greens
Brussels sprouts
Walnut, chocolate & Amaretto cake
Ginger cake.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Bar Milano to become another ’Inoteca

December 22

The Denton boys are working the phones to let everyone know that they’re closing Bar Milano (323 3rd Ave, at 24th St., 212-683-3035) on January 1 and redoing it as another unit of their popular Lower East Side restaurant, ’Inoteca.
“We’re just going to do a little facelift,” Joe Denton told me, while Jason was on the phone with my colleague Elissa Elan.
They're going to have beverage consultant Tony Abou-Ganim come back and develop some less expensive cocktails — around $10, instead of $13, which is what most of them cost now — and reopen as ’Inoteca in early February.

Was George W. Bush a brawler?

December 22

Say what you want to about our outgoing president, the man can dodge a shoe. Do you know what would happen to me if someone threw a shoe with such accuracy at my head? I’d be hit by a shoe, that’s what.
But not our president. He knows how to duck. I think his ability not to be hit by shoes is the most impressive thing I’ve seen in his presidency.
“The man’s been in a fight,” Blain Howard told me.
Blain celebrated his birthday on Saturday, and I joined him and a couple dozen of his friends for the festivities at Aces & Eights Saloon on the Upper East Side.
It’s a “beer bomb” place, according to the bartender who handed me a pitcher of Bud Light ($12).
Between rounds of beer pong, Blain, who used to do mixed martial arts and is I think the only friend I have who considers physical confrontation as an option for personal conflict resolution, said the first thing he thought when he saw the hurled-shoe video was that our commander-in-chief had mixed it up himself a couple of times.
Makes sense to me.
The wings at Aces & Eights smelled good, but instead of eating them, after I left the party I stopping by a nearby diner and had a gyro sandwich with fries and a Greek salad.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Buttermilk Channel Tuesday

December 17

It was snowing last night here in Gotham. It wasn't snowing much, but ice flakes were falling from the sky and at times like that New Yorkers tend to stay close to home, or to order in. But Buttermilk Channel was packed.
I sat at the bar and ordered a Six Points IPA after owner Doug Crowell updated me on what had been going since I wrote a little item on his restaurant for this blog. They had readjusted their daily specials, so bluefish was no longer on the menu, although they were considering offering it as a whole fish.
Chef Ryan Angulo later came out from the kitchen, placed some roasted cauliflower and apple soup in front of me and said the challenge for him was getting the right size of bluefish — one to two pounds — to serve whole. So if you know of anyone selling a regular supply of cocktail blues, or big snapper blues I guess, let them know.
What had previously been offered as the Wednesday special, bluefish with cranberry bean-linguiça stew, is now on the regular menu, but with hake instead of bluefish. Now the Wednesday special is heritage pork cheek schnitzel with creamy celery root and prune jam.
I told Doug that for some reason my blog entry about his restaurant continues to be one of my most regularly visited entries.
“I think it’s the neighborhood,” he said.
But today someone from Bangkok visited that specific entry. I can’t explain it.
At any rate, business has been good at Buttermilk Channel since it opened in November, and business is also booming at nearby Frankies. I know, because I ended up nearly closing down Buttermilk Channel chatting with Mary, Frankies' comptroller and a native of Buffalo. So we had a good laugh about how downstate New Yorkers react to snow. Of course, Mary’d laugh at how Denverites like me react to snow, too, because we don’t get anything like the snow storms of western New York; Mary told the story of one Christmas Eve when they got 96 inches. That’s eight feet. But that was actually in a Buffalo suburb, where her parents live. Her parents say “the city” (Buffalo) doesn’t really get snow. Not real snow.
Just remember this: Don’t stop driving during a white out. Shift to low gear, put your high beams on and try to stay above 30 miles per hour. Once you stop you might never, ever get started again, and you could also trigger a multiple-car pile-up of disastrous proportions. Don’t stop.
What I ate:
Chicken liver mousse topped with grilled grapes
Roasted cauliflower and apple soup with crispy bacon and croutons
Buttermilk fried chicken with cheddar waffles and winter vegetable slaw
Pecan pie sundae

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Colorado whiskey, chocolate bitters and I think more hyperlinks per word than I’ve ever made before

December 16

I was all set to tell the New York drinking world about my discovery in Denver of a Colorado whiskey. So I admit I was a little disappointed when I sauntered into Louis 649, in the eastern reaches of Alphabet City (between B and C), for an event promoting Averna cocktails and asked guest bartender Damon Dyer if he’d ever heard of Stranahan’s. Damon, who can usually be found at Flatiron Lounge, swiveled around, grabbed a bottle of the stuff and plopped it in front of me.
Darn it!
Damon likes it, but he says he’d like it even better if they aged it a bit more.
I just got off the phone with Stranahan’s founder Jess Graber, who says his whiskey tastes cleaner at a younger age than most whiskeys because he contracts a craft brewery — Oskar Blues in Longmont, Colo. — to make the beer that he distills into whiskey (using 100 percent barley from the Rocky Mountain steppes of Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho).
But Damon would still like them to age it more.
Jess told me that micro-distilling is taking off like micro-brewing did a couple of decades ago, and with his help I found this interactive map that can help you find them.
Also tending bar at the Averna event was Tad Carducci, a man of very good character whose web site I will link to here.
Of particular note to me at the party, apart from the presence of the Stranahan’s which had nothing to do with the event, were the chocolate mole bitters that Damon was using.
A couple of years ago when I was on a panel at Tales of the Cocktail, someone asked me what the next bitters would be. I didn’t have a good answer then, but a couple of days later I did, got in touch with the guy and suggested chocolate bitters.
It seems I was right.

Wine and reunion at Table 6

December 16

Ben Weinberg was one of my heros in high school if for no other reason than that he was two whole years older than I but still spoke to me like I was a regular person. He was also one of the first people to notice that I had a sense of humor.
So I was both delighted and terrified to learn that — after a journey through corporate law and financial planning — he had become a wine writer. I was delighted, because wine writing is a good job, but terrified because wine writers can be among the most pompous, pretentious, ill-humored windbags in the whole world of food and beverage, surpassed only by freebie-grubbing travel writers.
They're not all bad, of course, but people whose whole world is fermented grape juice have a tendency to lose perspective. I was a little worried that a good friend who helped me grow up into the person that I am had fallen down the loathsome hole of self-importance.
But of course I had to see him, after a solid 20 years of not doing so, during my trip last week to Denver, and so he arranged a dinner at Table 6 and invited along a few friends from the Denver wine scene: A fellow wine writer named Tim Heaton, Tim’s friend Michael Frederick and Cliff Young. You would instantly recognize the name Cliff Young if you lived in Denver and were interested in its restaurants during the 1980s and 1990s, as he was the chef-owner of Cliff Young’s, which reigned as one of Denver's top restaurants for its 17 years of existence. That's a good run.
He now spends half of his time in Burgundy, and is an importer of premium Burgundies into the U.S.
Now that I’m writing this, I realize that turning a meeting between old friends into a wine dinner does look like a pretty pompous thing to do, but it didn’t seem that way at the time, partly because Cliff and I were the only ones at the table in collared shirts (but that’s just Denver, one of the most casual cities in the world), partly because the mood was so relaxed even though the conversation was probably 50 percent about wine, and partly because the wines that Ben & company brought were so good that I didn’t care.
And they were also very good restaurant customers. They had brought their own wine, it’s true, but after we tasted it we sent it to the kitchen for the chefs to try, and we tipped well (20 percent, plus an extra $20 per person, which, it being Denver, meant we tipped about 75 percent total).
And this is what we ate and drank:
confit fresh bacon with Parmesan broth, ricotta gnudi and greens
marcona almond tater tots with tomato marmalade
chicken fried sweetbreads with Honeycrisp apple salad
2006 Jean Perrier et Fils Roussette de Savoie Monterminod
1997 Louis Jadot Corton-Charlemagne
2000 Domaine de la Cotelleraie Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil Le Vau Jaumier
Arugula, white anchovy and a ham crouton
Duck confit with arugula, duck ham, Humboldt Fog cheese and plum jus
2000 Hospices de Beaune Beaune 1er Cru Cuvée Brunet Enchers par Cliff & Sharon Young
1996 Domaine Dujac Morey St. Denis
Then the chef tasted the 2005 Switchback Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon Peterson Family Vineyard and, to go with it, made us a hot chocolate mousse with burnt sugar brioche.
Then we had assorted cheeses that I didn't write down, along with 1999 Selbach-Oster Zeltinger Sonnenuhr Riesling Auslese and 1994 Château Tirecul La Gravière Monbazillac
It was a good evening.
Here’s Tim’s assessment of the wines.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Celebrity chef poll results

December 15

What smart people the readers of Food Writer's Diary are! You understand the complexities of life and shy away from yes-and-no answers to questions.
So when I asked you if you thought celebrity chefs were good for the foodservice industry, a whopping 40 percent of respondents, instead of ticking "Yes," "No," or "They used to be but they aren't anymore," said "It's more complicated than that."

Here are the full results from 66 respondents:

Yes: 18 (27%)
No: 7 (10%)
They used to be but they aren’t anymore: 14 (21%)
It's more complicated than that: 27 (40%)

Since you are such deep people, I’d like to find out more about who you are, so my new poll asks you exactly that. You may choose more than one answer.

Thanks for participating.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Chris Cheung has a new job

December 10

I was happy to receive word today that my friend Chris Cheung, most recently executive chef of Monkey Bar until it was sold out from under him, is now executive chef of an Alphabet City restaurant called China 1.
That restaurant features Shanghainese cuisine. Chris's family is from Toisan, in the deep-south province of Guangdong, but his wife is Shanghainese, and he recently was visiting her ancestral homeland, no-doubt learning about the cuisine in the process, because that's what chefs do.
He apparently also plans to maintain his own custom of using Western ingredients in some Chinese dishes. So his liquid foie gras baozi will find their way to China 1.
China 1 Antique Restaurant and Lounge
50 Avenue B, at 4th St.

Wanted: pastry cooks

December 10

I just got an e-mail from Yvan Lemoine, who is developing the pastries for Cyril Renaud's new New York restaurant Bar Breton. He's looking for a "a couple of good pastry people" to help out. Obviously, in this time of high unemployment and distress, I'm happy to spread the word.
If you're interested, contact Yvan at

Monday, December 08, 2008

Sampling the local spirits

December 8

Whiskey is now being made in Colorado — for the first time since Prohibition according to a bartender at Elway’s in Cherry Creek. It's called Stranahan’s, it’s based in Denver and I had it in the Denver Club Cocktail.
I won over a couple of the servers when the bartender asked me how I liked it and I said it tasted like the Western Slope in autumn.
That would be the western slope of the Rocky Mountains.
I wanted to write down the ingredients, but instead the bartender actually printed out the recipe, to wit:

In a shaker glass filled with ice, add two ounces Stranahan’s, one ounce sage syrup [I assume that’s made by steeping sage in sugar water], half an ounce of lemon juice and a dash of Angostura orange bitters.
Shake and strain into a highball over fresh ice.
Garnish with a lemon twist.
Historical note (this was printed out with the recipe, too; I have edited it a bit because I can’t help myself): The Denver Club was Denver and the mountain west's premier private club, established in 1880 in a mansion that was located on Glenarm Pl. and 17th St. in Downtown Denver. The mansion was demolished in 1953 and replaced by a high-rise office building, with the club located on the top three floors. The club’s popularity and prestige dwindled soon thereafter.

Good things about being a Colorado Jew

December 8

I don't understand why people feel a need to travel for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Sure, family's important, but it's your family. Why does it have to get together at the same time as all the other families? Who made up that rule?
So I flew to Denver on Saturday, on a two-leg flight (New York-Boston, Boston-Denver), both legs of which left on time, actually landed early because of good tail winds, and had empty seats. People were relaxed, the crew was friendly. A woman working security at LaGuardia was wearing an elf hat and standing in front of a giant inflatable Grinch.
I asked if she wasn't nervous with the Grinch at her back.
"I could take him down," she said.
"I bet you could, too," I said.
"I have an advantage," she said. "I have a pin."
Who laughs in airports during Thanksgiving weekend?
Besides, it's always a holiday when Uncle Bret comes to town.
I was picked up at the airport by my brother Todd and we went straight to his house for dinner with his family (wife Helen and kids Harrison, age 9, and Alia, 2), my parents, my niece Tahirah (13-year-old daughter of sister Courtney, who was at home with a cold), my Aunt Donna (mom's sister) and Aunt Florine and Uncle Phil (Florine's my dad's sister; Phil is her husband -- since roughly a third of this blog's readers are in New York, I'll point out that their daughter Sarah Boxer was on staff at The New York Times for many years, writing about culture and other things, including Charles Schulz's obituary).
Dinner wasn't intended as a Thanksgiving celebration, but we did have herbed turkey breast and string beans with onions and bacon and roasted potatoes and both cranberry compote and cranberry chutney.
We drank a table wine from Palisade, in western Colorado, made with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Sangiovese grapes all grown in the Palisade area. It was pretty good.
And we played Nintendo Wii. Todd and Helen just got Wii Fit, theoretically for themselves, but Harrison had been on it all day. No one's complaining, though. Most of us took turns on it after dinner, including Aunt Donna, who it turns out has quite good balance.
I switched between playing with Harrison and talking to Uncle Phil, who told me stories of his father, who in the first decades of the 20th Century was a wildcat oil well driller, mostly based in Wichita, just like Aunt Donna's father-in-law, Jay Kornfeld. In fact, the two families were very close friends. It is coincidental but truly fascinating that both of those families married into my mother's family.
And really not that unusual, I suppose, since there just weren't that many Jews in this part of the world, and you'd imagine that all the Jewish wildcat oil prospectors would have known each other.
Since we were on the subject of family, when I got back to my parents' house, Mom pulled out a type-written biography that had been written years ago of Abraham Cohn, who we think was her father's uncle, or maybe great uncle. We're not sure. But he was the mayor of the town of New Castle, Colorado, between Glenwood Springs and Rifle on I-70, before finding his way to Denver where he ended up taking over the Windsor Hotel downtown.
The Windsor was an important gathering place, and, according to family legend, at one point it had saloon doors and periodic gunfights. During that time my step great-grandfather, Phil Waterman, was selling newspapers outside. Phil Waterman was my grandfather Harry Cohn's stepfather after his own father left (in a subsequent letter to his son, he blamed the "demon rum" for his absence). So "Grandpa Phil," as Mom called him, was working outside the hotel that was owned by the uncle of the guy whose wife he would ultimately marry. Or something like that.
So as a Denver Jew, I came from both a pretty big city with a degree of anonymity and a small town where everyone knows everyone else. It's fun.
Yesterday was bonding-with-Harrison day. I picked him up at Hebrew school (saying hi to people I knew, of course) and then we went Hannukkah present shopping. I decided to splurge and got him an iPod Nano, and so I got one for Tahirah, too, and those giant leg-o's for Alia ("a brand new toy!" Alia said later that evening).
You might have noticed my tendency to bad-mouth the celebrity chef phenomenon, but I'm not above working it to my advantage, and I won considerable points from Harrison when I told him that Rocco DiSpirito (whom he knows from Dancing with the Stars) is a Facebook friend of mine.
At the time of this writing, Rocco has 4,983 Facebook friends, but I didn't tell Harrison that.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

NASCAR, fashion, defibrillators, cupcakes — the usual stuff

December 4

Apparently NASCAR did, indeed, evolve from moonshiners fleeing revenuers (yeehaw!), just as Ballantyne Resort food & beverage manager Peter Grills told me it did.
A publicist from that car-racing circuit confirmed the story for me last night at Olives. My boss Pam Parseghian and I had been invited to some sort of NASCAR event there. Todd English and Pam were the only people I knew at the event, and I tried to remember why I was there.
Looking back now at the invitation, it said English was launching NASCAR-inspired cuisine, including Speedway Sliders, which are venison sloppy joes with cranberry ketchup; deep fried drumettes with ham gravy; crispy tater tots with truffle aïoli; spicy tuna tartare tacos with avocado crema; warm carrot soup shooters with sesame and carrot chips; and bourbon-glazed lamb ribs with spiced cider sour cream.
The invitation said he also was introducing the Triple Champion Cocktail: Champagne, cognac, cherry brandy and lemon juice.
I think Pam might have had one of those cocktails, but I just asked the bartender what she had. She didn't mention the cocktail and I didn’t remember why I was there, as it was one of three stops I had planned for the evening. So I had a beer (a bottle of Blue Moon, into which she stuck an orange wedge for some reason). I did get one of those lamb ribs, but none of the other stuff rings a bell. Instead I had roast beef with truffled macaroni and cheese, home fries and creamed spinach, and some paella scooped from a massive griddle.
I ended up talking with the wife of the NASCAR publicist, who then introduced me to her husband, who didn’t say anything about Todd English’s menu items. But he did explain that this week was an annual NASCAR custom in New York, where its members and corporate partners throw parties at restaurants all week long and finish it all off with a televised, 1,500-person gala at the Waldorf-Astoria.
No one I spoke to at the party, except for Pam, had noticed that the Mac & Cheese had truffle oil in it.
Having eaten too much, and with the crowd swelling to a size that made it hard to get around, I left and walked uptown to Prespa, in Murray Hill (unless you put Murray Hill’s southern border at 34th St., as Prespa is on Lexington between 31st and 32nd).
Prespa’s not a new place, but it does have a new chef, Richard Farnabe, probably best known for his stint at Lotus. In his new gig he’s serving Mediterraneanish tapas, like chic pea fries with tzatziki, although servers also were passing around a pear panna cotta with foie gras mousse — which wasn’t Mediterranean at all, but it tasted good — Alsatian tarte flambée and other items.
Allergic Girl Sloan Miller was there, not eating much because, you know, she has a lot of allergies. I told her all about the Waldorf-Astoria NASCAR gala and she shared my fascination that we knew nothing about it.
I caught up with others, too, but I spent most of my time at the party talking with Jennifer Watson, a medical equipment saleswoman and restaurant lover. You know how if microwaves are present in public spaces you see big signs warning people with pacemakers (or at least you used to; I don't see those around much anymore, but maybe I just don't notice)? It turns out they’re a bit extraneous. If you have a pacemaker, you shouldn’t stick your chest up to a microwave that’s in-use — and if your pacemaker’s on your left side you should talk with your cell phone in your right hand — but if you are at arm's length from the thing, you’re fine, according to Jennifer, who sells pacemakers and defibrillators that are implanted into people.
Jennifer was in medical school when she got tired of being poor, quit and followed her father’s footsteps into sales. She entertains in restaurants a lot and is obsessed with them in a way that I usually find off-putting, but she was actually really charming about it. She’s one of the only people I’ve ever met who will spend her own money to eat at Masa.
So of course we talked about restaurants, but I also quizzed her about sales and wining and dining clients and wondered how that could affect the sale of medical equipment, because you’d think that surgeons would want to buy the best pacemakers possible whether they liked the salesperson or not.
Jennifer said relationship building was important but didn't affect how much stuff she sold. But then how important is it? You know what I mean?
I spend a lot of time building work relationships, but I don’t fully understand it. Emotionally it makes sense, but if you parse it logically, well, work-related entertainment is a boon to the economy, so I’m not going to knock it too much.
I said hi-bye to Food & Beverage editor Francine Cohen as I was leaving. She chided me for not saying good-bye when I left the opening party of Fishtail, David Burke’s new place, the night before.
Fishtail was an interesting party, full of David Burke's bridge-and-tunnel New Jersey fans and his Upper East Side patrons with the furs and plastic surgery. As a general rule, I find the Upper-East-Side types to be a lot more boorish and ill-behaved.
But the party was good, and David Burke explained the name and the restaurant’s gimmick, as it were.
David Burke is a gimmick genius, adding whimsy to his food without letting the whimsy take over. He also knows what sells, like the $88 "millionaire’s fried rice” he and his executive chef Eric Hara offered at davidburke&donatella a couple of years ago. At one point they were selling $1,000 worth of fried rice a day.
Fishtail is more of a budget proposition, David said, because the tail tends to be a cheaper part of the fish (as opposed to the belly, for example). And he will be offering a lot of tails and tail-themed items — and obvious things like lobster tail and shrimp, which is all tail.
See? A gimmick that still leaves room for food.
Speaking of which, many people at the party were taken with the pastries of the restaurant’s pastry chef, a newcomer by the name of Romina Peixoto.
Soa Davies was also at the Fishtail opening party, but I didn’t know her then. I met her last night at my third stop, Bar Q’s holiday party. I left Soa’s business card in the camel hair sport coat I wore last night, which is at home, so I can’t tell you her exact title, but she’s an executive at Eric Ripert’s company, which includes Le Bernardin but also an array of consulting ventures etc. As she explained it, she does with savory items what Michael Laiskonis does with pastry for the company.
She also recently became an owner of Merkat, and is working on repositioning that. That’s her in the picture, flanked by brothers Jeremie and David Kittredge.
Jeremie’s the one on the left, with the stylish facial hair and salesman’s smile. He’s a creative/marketing guy at a clothing store on Bond Street across from Il Buco, the name of which I’ll put here once I retrieve my notebook from the pocket of my camel hair sport coat [update: it’s Billy Reid]. I took an instant liking to Jeremie because the first thing he said to me was that my glasses were great.
It is always good to give someone an accurate compliment. People see right through fake ones, but notice something good about someone and he or she will like you forever. And my glasses really are good.
I guess I should update my profile picture, because I’m not wearing my current glasses in it. I’m wearing my new ones in the picture on the right. It’s not a good picture, but you can see that the glasses do suit my face well. I asked other fashion advice of Jeremie, because I would really like to manage to wear a long, flowing scarf or something, and I don’t think I can pull it off. He said the key to wearing something really feminine as a man is for everything else you’re wearing to be really masculine. And, of course, you have to wear it with confidence. You have to look in a mirror and feel great about it. “Dress with your gut, not your head,” he said.
Anyway, to the right of Soa is Jeremie’s brother David, who is the drummer in a band called Meridian West, sort of; the band members are all taking a break and David is in New York, chilling out, living life, weathering the recession etc.
I took that picture of Soa and the Kittredge brothers while we were waiting for publicist Moira Campbell, who had gotten distracted inside after asking us to wait for her to go get cupcakes at Batch, Pichet Ong’s pastry shop.
While we waited I also got better acquainted with the Kittredge brothers, who are from Tulsa, although David most recently is from Austin and clearly claims it as his adopted home, but their ancestral homeland is, in fact, Kittredge, Colorado, which was founded by their family.
At Batch I had a cappuccino and a carrot-and-salted-caramel cupcake. David fell in love with Pichet’s ovaltine pudding.
Pichet wanted me to join him for dinner at Kurve, but I had already eaten at three parties (I had Anita Lo’s ribs and pork buns and pickled vegetables at Bar Q, and drunk two shiso juleps), and it was getting close to midnight.
It was time to go home.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008


December 2

Behold Danku, the second unit of what identical twin brothers Bruno and Filip van Hoeck hope will be a multinational chain.
It’s already multinational, as its first unit is in Antwerp, the van Hoecks’ hometown (that’s right, two Belgian brothers are opening Dutch restaurants). But with just two units, it’s not a chain yet.
Within the next year they hope to open another two units in Antwerp, another nine in New York City and four in Kaliningrad, Russia.
The food is sort of Dutch, but with other things that Americans like, such as frozen yogurt (plain and açaí flavor) and salads and panini. They also offer Indonesian food, as that is the street food of the Netherlands, like Indian food is in Britain and Mexican food is in much of the United States.
Perhaps the centerpiece of the menu, and certainly the hook, is the krokets, which are cylinders of fried food that the Dutch traditionally fill with beef and eat with mustard. But at Danku the van Hoeck brothers decided to fill the krokets with other things. Much in the tradition of Rickshaw Dumpling Bar and Empanada Joe’s, Danku is filling Dutch snacks with such un-Dutch things as Indonesian chicken curry and spinach-artichoke, and each one gets a different sauce. The beef-and-bean kroket comes with avocado sauce, and tartar sauce is provided for the dill and salmon. The traditional Dutch beef one has honey-mustard.
Another part of the restaurant’s schtick is environmentalism. Everything’s compostable, the food’s all organic, you can get four different yerba mate beverages.
The place opened for a couple of hours on Sunday and then went full swing yesterday, and Bruno von Hoeck says business has been good, with the combos ( two krokets with salad, or satay or Indonesian stew with a rice or noodle dish, for $7.50) are the best sellers.Here’s Bruno, taking a break from a hard day’s work to let me interview him. He and Filip both studied at hotel school and have owned bistros in Belgium, including one called Daily, another called Afspanning de Hand, and what I hope was a Spanish place called Las Tapas del Sud.
At Danku, the food is being done by Christof Roothooft, whose picture is on the left. In good chain restaurant fashion, he calls himself the R&D chef. Roothooft has worked in hotels in the past, and also has been a personal chef, which is how he got his current gig as he was the chef of one of the restaurant’s investors.

Poll update

December 2

Thanks for participating in the poll on the right side of this page. It’s nice to see that Food Writer’s Diary readers understand that the celebrity chef phenomenon is a complicated one, and so at the moment “it’s more complicated than that” is far and away the most popular response. If you feel like sharing your thoughts about celebrity chefs, do feel free to comment below.
Thank you again, and best wishes.


Sushi, best practices and a long day’s journey into food

December 2

As usual, I spent Thanksgiving with the family of my boss, Pam Parseghian, because they’re very nice people with delicious food, combining Armenian tradition with traditional holiday fare. Many years Pam serves mashed potatoes and rice pilaf, but this year she stuck with rice pilaf, which was fine by me. She also made mashed yams with a bit of truffle oil.
The main meal was preceded, as is the Middle Eastern custom, by a couple of hours of mezze, highlighted by Rose Arpajian’s yalanchi, or stuffed grape leaves. It is very important when eating with Middle Eaterners not to over-indulge in the mezze, because you are expected to eat a full-on meal afterwards. Be warned.
This year, as a pre-Thanksgiving meal, post mezze, course, we also all had Alaska king crab legs, which Pam won at this year’s IFEC silent auction.
The new thing I learned this year: Pam’s nephew Grant was a childhood friend of one of the Jonas Brothers. I forget which one — whoever would be around 21 years old now.
Also as usual, the day after Thanksgiving was a bacchanal starting at Joe’s Shanghai where, as usual, I met my friends Birdman and Rusty Cappadona. We were joined for the second year in a row by Rusty’s son Ryan, now nine years old. If it’s new food, Ryan will try it, although this year he was on a mission to try sushi other than the typical rolls that usually are presented to him. Someone — his teacher if I remember correctly — had described a dragon roll to him, and his interest was piqued.
I think this caused some minor conflict for Birdman, who is a sushi purist, but also a devoted friend and indulgent uncle-surrogate. If the kid wants a dragon roll, he should get a dragon roll, but if we could teach him the wonders of proper, traditional sushi, all the better.
Still, we started with the usual soup dumplings, followed by pan-fried dumplings not far away at a little shack that Birdman had found when he was on a grand jury. Manhattanites often learn about Chinese food when on jury duty, as Chinatown is very close to City Hall. It is the only perk of jury duty, as far as I know, in Manhattan, although in Brooklyn they actually have a computer room where potential jurors can check their e-mail and whatnot.
Next it was on to The Patriot, one of Birdman’s favorite dive bars owing to its bartender Lanie (or maybe Laney, I didn’t ask). Last year she introduced Ryan to Shirley Temples, but this year she had neither grenadine nor maraschino cherries, so Ryan amused himself with Diet Coke while the men drank a couple of pitchers of Guinness. I had never seen a pitcher of Guinness before, but I recommend them.
At The Patriot we were met by Gabrielle, a former student of Birdman’s from Borough of Manhattan Community College, where he teaches biology. Gabrielle was one of Birdman’s favorite students, and so he helped her transfer to our alma mater, Tufts — quite a leap if you ask me — where she is currently enjoying her first semester.
Gabrielle went with us to Great New York Noodle Town, and we were joined there by Michael, an ear, nose and throat surgeon who's an old friend of Rusty’s.
As a food writer, many people just have to ask me what my favorite restaurant is. They can't help themselves. I’ve gotten used to it, and I never know what my answer’s going to be, because it keeps changing, although I tend to preface it with some statement about not really having a favorite. It depends on the context.
So I asked Michael what his favorite surgery was. It seemed only fair. He likes reconstructive surgeries where you remove something from one part of the body and repurpose it someplace else.
Okay, maybe time for sushi, we thought, but Michael, who is something of a Vietnamese-food aficionado, suggested we go to an old favorite of his on Doyers. Turned out it was that yellow-signed restaurant in the basement just a storefront or two away from Apothéke. We had spring rolls and a couple of salmon soups — one in a clay pot and the other in a sort of mild Southeast Asian broth redolent of fish sauce and cilantro that I really liked but that no one else much cared for. Oh well.
Starting at Great New York Noodle Town and continuing through our Vietnamese food, we talked about the problems of standardization. I think it began when for some reason Birdman started railing against ISO practices — a system of procedures and processes that the European Union has embraced — and that led to a discussion of the notion of “best practices,” which are procedures in training or food manufacturing or bowel resecting that everyone agrees is the best way to do it.
Of course, the problem with that is that standardized procedures tend to stifle innovation. If you’re forbidden from taking a new approach, how do you learn? Sometimes you mess up, of course, but that happens when following standard procedures, too.
And of course any entrepreneur will tell you that they succeeded precisely by not following the rules.
So that's what we talked about as Ryan tried to eat rice with chopsticks. I used a spoon.
Having eaten almost constantly up to that point, we headed over to Marshall Stack for beer and Diet Coke. I had a hoppy Arrogant Bastard and I don’t remember what everyone else got, except for Ryan’s Diet Coke.
Michael said good-bye and the four of us who started at Joe’s Shanghai walked up to Jewel Bako for proper sushi.
Much to Birdman’s and my relief, they don’t offer dragon rolls.
We had pretty standard stuff — mostly a selection of nigiri sushi that sounded good to Birdman — although as an amuse-bouche they sent out a little nagaimo with gingko and gold leaf. It was the first time Ryan had eaten gold, although Rusty made a bigger deal out of it than Ryan did.
Keep an eye out for nagaimo. Also called yamaimo, it’s a slightly mucilaginous tuber from northern Honshu and Hokkaido that is slowly finding its way into the pantries of avant-garde Asiaphilic New York chefs. I’m not sure why, although it probably has something to do with the fact that the Japanese push its healthful qualities.
The Japanese push the healthful qualities of everything they eat, but mainstream American chefs don’t seem to have noticed that yet.
Unlike his son, Rusty doesn't go out of his way to try new weird food, but he’s certainly game for it and will happily try anything that Birdman or I put in front of him. He admitted, however that he found the texture of raw fish (and rare meat, for that matter) to be off-putting.
But it turns out that Rusty had simply never had good sushi. He had had what Birdman called “suburban sushi,” although he admitted that New York City, too, has some god-awful versions of the stuff.
You know what I’m talking about — big hongkin’ slabs of mediocre (not to say unsafe; it’s probably safe) fish hanging over the edges of a lozenge of indifferently made sushi rice. Either that or rolls with salmon and cream cheese and mango and — I don't know, chocolate sprinkles or something. Good sushi really doesn’t take a lot of effort to understand. For the uninitiated, all you need is an open mind. And Rusty has that, so when the straightforward, unctuous fish landed in his mouth, he understood.
And he loved the sea urchin. He just loved it.
Ryan showed a distinct distaste for shiso, but he liked the rest of his sushi and showed no disappointment in not getting a dragon roll. He had recently learned in school that one of the foods likely served at the first Thanksgiving was eel. So we had some of that, too. Not surprisingly, it was his favorite.
Rusty and Ryan climbed into a taxi to get their train back to Connecticut and Birdman and eye hopped on the A train to Columbus Circle and walked from there to Bar Boulud, where we met up with Heidi, a friend of his whom he had met while scuba diving in Fiji, as you do.
Heidi works in information technology, but she is an avid scuba diver and shark rights activist. In fact, she has several shark tattoos, including a great white sort of wrapped around her torso (she showed me a picture).
Perhaps “shark rights activist” is not the right term, because it makes her sound stupid. Really, she wants to keep them from going extinct because she likes seeing them; she freely acknowledges that they don’t really have the capacity for long-term memory. We ate French fries and I drank a Côtes du Rhone followed by a splash of Calvados while discussing diving and marine biology.
And then we called it a night.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Food Writer’s Diary readers prefer Wendy’s

December 1

The results of the Food Writer’s Diary Big 3 U.S. Burger Chain poll are in, and 42 percent of the 119 participants said Wendy’s was their favorite. Nine percent said they’d never eaten at a Big 3 U.S. burger chain, which means that they likely live in very poor developing countries, are really irredeemable snobs, or liars.

The full results:

“Pick Your Favorite of the Big 3 U.S. Burger Chains”

McDonald’s: 29 (24 percent)
Burger King: 28 (23 percent)
Wendy’s: 51 (42 percent)
I have never eaten at any of these: 11 (9 percent)

Thank you for participating. A new poll has been posted. I await the results with bated breath.

Monday, November 24, 2008

When is a celebrity chef too much of a celebrity?

November 24

I created a bit of hubbub a couple of weeks ago, when I restated my dislike for Top Chef or, more accurately, since I don’t watch the show, my dislike for its fans — or more accurately still, since I have many friends who are fans and respect many others who are fans, some of its fans who have helped to bring the art of sycophantic idol worship and groupie-ism to the world of chefs.
I said it was bad for the restaurant industry, because it takes the focus away from the food.
New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni suggested I was being “a tad too grumpy.”
I was definitely being grumpy, and really the main point of that blog entry was not to criticize Top Chef but to offer a link to an interview I did of Jamie Lauren, a contestant in the current season, in case her fans wanted to read it.
And Top Chef’s not the only chef-related show that takes the focus away from the food. Hell’s Kitchen has introduced Gordon Ramsay to the mainstream world, but not as one of this planet’s greatest chefs, a reputation he enjoys within the snooty food world to which I belong, but as one with an extreme potty mouth. I’m sure many of the other food shows contribute to this as well, and in a way maybe they have to: Food is the only art form that uses all five senses, and television can only convey two of them. Unlike reality shows looking at other art forms — fashion in Project Runway, for example — the viewers of food shows can’t really have informed opinions about what the contestants are creating.
I've spoken to a bunch of people about the celebrity chef phenomenon, and about Top Chef. Some people defend the show, some say “I don’t like it either.”
But of course I can’t legitimately say I don't like it because I don’t watch it. I watch the throngs of glazed-eyed fans at food events hoping that Sam Talbot will raise his arms high enough that they’ll see his exposed belly. I know that when I hear and read people discuss the show, they don’t discuss the food, they talk about what a bitch Lisa is. The fact that I know about Lisa but not about her food illustrates my point.
“What about Perilla? Perilla’s good for the restaurant industry,” someone insisted a couple of nights ago.
Yes, I had a good meal at Howard Dieterle’s West Village restaurant, and his performance on Top Chef no-doubt helped make that restaurant happen.
Great, and I would never deny that Top Chef is good for the people who participate in it. But one restaurant (or even several — certainly I wish all of the Top Chef alumni who have opened restaurants all the success in the world) doesn’t make up for changing the tenor of dialogue in the restaurant world.
For years chefs have complained that kids coming out of cooking school think they’re ready to be the next Bobby Flay rather than to start training to be a line cook, and Frank Bruni said Top Chef could add fuel to that fire. Frank’s a better writer than I am, so I’ll just quote what he said: ”The show is yet another promise to young cooks that they can use, and should see, the role of chef as a road to celebrity. It gets them thinking more about mass-media glory — about big, quick fame — than about disciplined professionalism, dedication, sacrifice.”
Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio has taken umbrage at that, saying that the show is, in fact, a tough competition. I’m sure it is, but surely it can’t compare to the years, or decades, that chefs generally put into foodservice to really succeed.
I spoke to Iron Chef Cat Cora about this last week. She was in town promoting a new line of Simplot side dishes called Upsides. There she is on the right, doing a cooking demonstration with them.
She said that it was important to manage the expectations of culinary students. "I try really hard to stress that to a lot of teens,” she said, and pointed out that even the ones lucky enough to get on a reality TV show might not come across that well.
“There are instances when it can work well, but some kids go on reality shows and get beat up ... It’s rare that you’re going to be a megastar.”
If nothing else, you better have a Plan B, she said.
But maybe my whining is all for naught. After all, Americans are certainly getting more interested in food.
On the other hand, at some point in human history, actors were not celebrities. They were court jesters, traveling minstrels, Passion play performing missionaries. Now, actors seem to be the most important figures in the lives of many people who don’t even know them. Entire magazines, television shows, gossip columns and blogs are devoted to tracking their every movement. They get paid huge sums of money not just to appear in movies or on television, but to show up at parties or car dealership openings or whatever.
For the celebrity actors, I guess that’s great. It’s certainly lucrative, and if they didn’t want the fame they could be like Johnny Depp or Keanu Reeves and stay out of the public eye when they're not acting.
But since actors have become famous, has acting become better? Has the art itself improved?
I’m just asking.

PSA for a former colleague

November 24

Yesterday I said my next blog entry would be about celebrity chefs, but first I’d like to hand you a link to my former colleague Peter Romeo’s new blog, Restaurant Reality Check.
Peter headed up the Nation’s Restaurant News web site until last Tuesday, and he was the first guy to suggest that some of us should write blogs (he wrote The Scoop). I asked him what on earth I would write about that anyone else could possibly be interested in.
“Write about where you eat every night,“ he said. And that’s mostly what I do here.
So thanks, Peter, and best wishes.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

working weekend

November 23

I'm sorry for my week of silence. We had some staff cutbacks at the magazine, as you do during times of recession, and so the work loads of those of us still standing have been adjusted.
And so here I am, on a Sunday morning, working. I've been working all weekend here at the Inn at Palmetto Bluff in South Carolina, right near Hilton Head, covering the resort's second annual Lowcountry Celebration, hosted by celebrity chef Tyler Florence.
I've just come back from the spa, making sure the massage therapists are up to snuff. They are.
Okay, so this weekend hasn't been such a hardship. I'd agreed to come down here many weeks ago, and there was no reason to cancel my plans despite the layoffs in the company.
Layoffs are horrible, and if you currently have a job in the United States at a company where more than one person works, chances are good that you've already seen layoffs this year, or will see them sometime soon.
There's not a single nice thing to say about layoffs. If you're one of the people whose job was eliminated, well, you're out of a job. If you've kept your job, you'll be expected to get the same amount of work done with fewer people while dealing with survivor's guilt and the sadness that a bunch of your friend just lost their jobs. Add to that the awarenes that your job might be next and, well, it makes a temporary escape to a resort to eat and drink that much more worthwhile.
Palmetto Bluff is a four-year old community near the town of Bluffton on the banks of the May River. Nearly half of its 20,000 acres has been set aside for conservation projects, and the rest has been turned into a golf course, a spa, an equestrian center, a canoe house, plots of land on which people can build homes (plots go for $250,000-$3 million, with most in the $350,000-$1 million range). And then there's the resort, which consists of a lodge where reception, a lounge, the restaurant and a big porch are located, and a bunch of cottages stretched along a little pathway suitable for golf carts to drive down.
My particular cottage, #15 (picturd above), has a back porch and a very pleasant back yard that stops at the river.
I would be on that porch now (the view from it is on the right), but it has been un-seasonably cold during my visit — colder than I had expected. So last night during the traditional oyster roast I was wearing a t-shirt, a turtleneck, a button-down shirt, a cashmere sweater, a light pullover jacket and my new Inn at Palmetto Bluff fleece.
But the food was extraordinary. Bluffton is known for its oysters, and I'm told that the May River has both blue crabs and stone crabs.
But really the side dishes were the amazing part, and a reminder of how good southern food is -- nothing fancy, just food intended to taste good without any bullshit. It tasted like my paternal grandmother's food. She raised my dad in North Carolina and everything she made tasted like she meant for you, personally, to have a happier life for having eaten it.
That's what the food at Palmetto Bluff tasted like. So we had biscuits and gravy and squash spoonbread and the most delicious sunchoke & rainbow chard gratin, among other things. My favorite feature, because it was so obvious and yet I've never seen it before, was a chop bar, featuring venison chops, pork chops and wild boar chops. It should be a feature at every wedding.
The night before was possibly even better. It was a block party featuring straight-up southern food ranging from gumbo to she-crab soup to this sweet potato cornbread that you'd have to taste to believe. The editorial staff of Coastal Living, one of the sponsors of the festival, whipped up a batch of Southern-style cassoulet that did, indeed, taste like cassoulet, but with Southern-style pork.
Tyler Florence cooked the only really refined dish: a light yet creamy oyster stew.
I was actually wondering what the celebrity chef was doing there. The festival looked like it would have gone on just fine without him. But I later learned that he's actually a big fan of the resort, having been married there and, he speculates, made two children there.
The festival also featured a tasting tent and cooking demonstrations and late night campfires with marshmallows for making s'mores.
The weekend gave me a chance to ruminate more on the state of chefs these days and on how their celebrity is affecting the industry.
The day before I left for South Carolina I happened to meet another celebrity chef, Cat Cora, and I asked her about the phenomenon. I'll tell you what she said in my next blog entry.
But now I have to pack.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Leveraging social networking

November 14

I’m not big on instant messaging. It is to e-mail what a snap of the fingers in your face is to a gentle waving of the hand across a room.
But sometimes I like it. A few weeks ago when I was checking messages on my Facebook account, the IM bubble opened up and my old friend David Peters, whose wife just had a baby, wrote: “Bret, you’ve been online for more than a minute and haven’t told me how beautiful my daughter is. What’s wrong?”
There’s not much that’s sweeter than a kvelling father.
And yesterday when I was checking my Facebook account BLT Steak sommelier Brett Feore appeared in the IM bubble and asked me to check out his new blog. He’s trying to find the right style for it, so I gave him feedback and we chatted about other things.
And guess what? It turns out he’s not the sommelier at BLT Steak anymore. No, that position is now occupied by Rachael Rakes, a Philadelphia native who spent a number of years in San Francisco, first at Mecca (in The Castro), and then at The Last Supper Club (in The Mission).
She was a captain at BLT Steak when it opened in 2004, learned more about wine from Fred Dexheimer, who’s BLT’s national wine & beverage diretor, and then worked in Brooklyn at Marlow and Sons (that would be Williamsburg).
Then she went to college to get a degree in Middle Eastern Studies before coming back to BLT Steak after Brett Feore left.
So you see, social networking can be a good way to get news for your blog.

John Critchley’s new job

November 14

I didn’t meet John Critchley back in 2006 when I was at family-and-friends night at Toro, Ken Oringer’s tapas place in Boston, but I met his dad. John was in the kitchen, as Ken had tapped him as the restaurant’s chef de cuisine. But his dad seemed like a nice guy, so I figured I’d write a profile of his son.
I just happened to be in Boston for work that day, and so Ken’s publicist had suggested I stop by Toro.
I took my friend Michael Gerber and learned that, although Michael is a good New Englander who will pop any sea creature into his mouth with alacrity, he doesn’t really take readily to things like blood sausage and veal cheeks and tripe.
Like Michael, John Critchley is a native of Massachusetts. He has spent much of his career (relatively speaking — he’s only about 31) as a private chef for rich people. His love for the energy of professional kitchens brought him back to restaurants and under Oringer’s wing.
But he’s going off on his own now, to head up the food at Area 31, a restaurant scheduled to open in mid-December on the 16th floor of the Epic Hotel in Miami. The cuisine will be Mediterranean-inspired local seafood — specifically food from Fishing Area 31, which is basically the Caribbean Sea, the Gulf of Mexico and the waters off of Florida’s east coast. John shouldn’t have any trouble handling that.

Lamb brain &c.

November 14

I was at Bloomingdale Road to check out chef Ed Witt’s new chef’s table — a long 10-seat communal table close to the open kitchen, where Ed serves a six-course tasting menu for $55. Wine pairings start at $40.
Ed, whom you might remember as the executive chef at Varietal, likes playing with unusual ingredients, particularly weird cuts of meat, like lamb brain and pork neck. Actually, he said the bit of pork he cooked last night was a well-marbled cut between the shoulder and the neck. The way he described it, it sounded like the pig equivalent of beef’s top blade, also known as the flatiron.

What I ate and drank:

Raw Tasmanian salmon with porcini purée, pickled apple and fried rosemary
2005 Leopardi Cava Brut Rose

Concord grape-braised lamb cheeks with arugula, sunchokes, peeled grapes, braised lamb tongue and crispy lamb brain
2006 Domaine Lafond Lirac Blanc

Mackerel poached in duck fat and served on celery root purée with tarragon and macerated red onions
2006 Murphy Goode Chardonnay

Gray Horse Farm laying hen braised in red wine and served with pumpkin farfale and baby Brussels sprouts
2006 Estancia Pinot Noir

Spice-rubbed, slow roasted Clinton Corner Farm pork neck (or shoulder — in between, really), with chestnut, quince and escarole
2006 Argiolas Costera

Olive oil pound cake with cranberry ice cream and country ham (very small flecks of it).
2004 Arrowood Late Harvest Reisling

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Whither Tony Aiazzi?

November 12

Avid followers of the New York City restaurant scene have known for more than 30 hours that Christopher Lee is leaving his post as chef of Gilt to take over the kitchen of Aureole. It’s big news. Chris is an alumnus of Oceana from when Cornelius Gallagher was executive chef there, and then he built a name for himself in Philadelphia at what at the time was one of that city's landmark restaurants, Striped Bass.
He recently picked up two Michelin stars at Gilt, where he replaced Paul Liebrandt, and got other good press for himself there as well. Still, Aureole has one of the most respected kitchens in New York City and it’s a big move for Chris, who also has a newborn at home to take care of. Exciting times for the chap.
But I wondered what was going to happen to Aureole’s current executive chef, Tony Aiazzi, and so when I got the press release this morning — long after The New York Times broke the news online, the blogs went nuts and the scoop in print media for The Times was assured — I asked the publicist what Tony was going to be doing.
My question apparently cost him a bottle of wine, because he had bet the publicist that no one would ask.
Turns out he’s going to be taking some time off and traveling. He said he hopes to check out North African cuisine, as it has always interested him. He also expressed an interest in getting back to Paris, though, so if you happen to know of any restaurants there looking for an over-qualified stagiaire, let me know.

I talk turkey, literally

November 12

What a strange place Paris Commune is — a French bistro owned by a Chilean, an Englishman and a South African that for more than 20 years has managed to stay afloat in the West Village, largely, it seems to me, through robust weekend brunch business (which it recently started serving the other five days, too) and a neighborhood base whose loyalty transcended the 2004 move to a new location.
For the past six months, the restaurant’s owners have tried a new, long-term marketing scheme: The Red Rooster Club.
The concept was explained last night, at the sixth Red Rooster Club dinner, by the restaurant’s British owner, Laurence Isaacson.
Mr. Isaacson was once a multiunit restaurant operator, owning a bunch of British restaurants that specialized in steak frites. Back then he realized that it was very difficult to get press for a restaurant that isn’t doing anything new, so he created a Carnivores Club. He held regular dinners and showed up on television arguing with vegetarians and so on.
Seeing a similar dilemma for Paris Commune — an old place whose focus is more on having good rapport with its guests than on serving extraordinary food — he started the Red Rooster Club, to which an eclectic array of press and amusing people are invited for a brief lecture on poultry and a meal.
For the first such meal I attended, last month, Josh Ozersky gave a brief and entertaining analysis of duck in the American zeitgeist.
The second such meal I attended was last night, and I was the featured speaker. It being November, I had been asked to talk about turkey.
So I found Benjamin Franklin’s quotation about turkey, which he famously wanted to be our national symbol rather than the bald eagle, and I shared my own observations about turkey and our dual image of it as the centerpiece for our most decadent feast and also as the protein of virtue that we have instead of beef or pork in turkey burgers, turkey bacon, turkey sausage etc. And I concluded with the story of when I made Thanksgiving dinner for my American classmates as a student in China. If you’re good, I might share that story with you someday, too, deer reader [or rather, dear reader; sorry, Mark (see comment #1 below)].
This is what Benjamin Franklin said about turkeys, in a letter to his daughter, after disparaging the bald eagle as a scavenger and “a bird of bad moral character”:
“The turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America. … He is besides, though a little vain and silly, a bird of courage, and would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his farm yard with a red coat on.”

What I ate:

Cranberry foie gras brûlée with toast points
Butternut sqush soup with cream, almonds and cinnamon
Orange-glazed smoked ham with creamy honey mustard sauce, oven roasted turkey with homemade gravy, stuffing and sweet pumpkin with candied walnut
Individual pecal tart with vanilla, Cognac and whipped cream

NASCAR at the Beard House

November 12

Did you know that NASCAR originated as a group of moonshiners trying to out-race law enforcement officers?
That’s what Peter Grills, food & beverage manager of Ballantyne Resort in Charlotte, N.C., told me the other night. I have no idea if it’s true, but isn’t it a great story?
And it makes sense, really.
Isn’t Peter Grills also a great name for an F&B manager?
The chefs of Gallery restaurant at the Ballantyne Resort, executive chef Kirk Gilbert and chef de cuisine J. Kelly Morrow, were cooking at the James Beard House. In an unusual move, the only wines served at the event were from Childress Vineyards, a North Carolina wine company that grows all of its own grapes and was founded by NASCAR star Richard Childress.
It’s not unusual for a Beard House dinner to be sponsored by a wine company, but I’ve never seen one from North Carolina represented, so that was cool.
In another interesting move, Childress Vineyards is mentioned all over the menu and is also mentioned on the invitation that was sent to me, but the chefs’ names are nowhere to be seen. I had to look them up on the Beard Foundation’s web site.
Also on the menu, the wine was mentioned first, in bold, followed by the food, in plain text. But I’ll list it as I usually do.

What I ate and drank:

Neapolitan of parsnip with roasted baby beets, English peas and butternut squash
House-made cheese and charcuterie, including pork soppresata and Long Island duck coppa
Chicken liver mousse truffle with branded cherry and spiced pegan
Tayler Bay Scallop and Langoustine “Rockefeller”
Gallery’s house cocktail, which is Prosecco, Aperol and soda

Checkerboard of ahi tuna and hamachi with jalapeño and kumpquat escabèche and micro cilantro
2006 Childress Vineyards Signature Series Reserve Chardonnay

Duo of Barbecue glazed squab breast, Grateful Growers pork ham hocks, white stone ground Anson Mills grits and caramelized Vidalia onion preserves
2004 Childress Vineyards Allegro Shiraz

kaffir lime & coconut pâte de fruit, and Valencia orange and cream pâte de fruit

Pot au feu of beef short ribs, lamb merguez and poussin torchon with beta sweet carrots, cipollini and salsify
2005 Childress Vineyards Signature Series Meritage

Roasted Forelli pear with cardamom cake and Poire William sabayon
Pear-star anise ice cream
Pear crumbles with black mission fig and muscovado sugar
2007 Childress Vineyards Polar Late Harvest White Wine

Petits fours, coffee and Childress Vineyards Starbound Red Dessert Wine

Tuesday, November 11, 2008 does a nice thing

November 11

Given the economic hard times, has declared a moratorium on its “Deathwatch” feature, in which it predicts restaurants that will fail.
Here in New York, that particular restaurant blog has become so influential that, so chefs and publicists tell me, Deathwatch can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, like when the popular 13-year-old girl declares that some other 13-year-old girl isn’t cool anymore.
Eater’s commenters are an unruly lot, and some have accused the people running the blog of wimping out. But I’ve always thought Deathwatch was unnecessarily mean and am glad to see the moratorium.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Fred said right

November 10

I wore my black pinstripe suit on the plane flying home from IFEC last Thursday, because that evening I was going to the Opera as a guest of the marketers of Prosciutto di Parma and Parmigiano-Reggiano. Both the ham and the cheese come from the Italian city of Parma, which was also the adopted home of Giuseppe Verdi, whose opera La Traviata was being performed at The Metropolitan Opera House that evening.
Fred Plotkin, who has the unusual quality of being an expert on both opera and Italian food, says this is the best performance of the Verdi masterpiece he has ever seen, and so he was commissioned to talk to us over dinner about both of them as well as the history of The Met, where he was the performance manager for a number of years. Actually, he spoke specifically about the food of Emilia-Romagna, the region where Parma is located, and about the life of Verdi, as well as how food should be consumed before watching opera.

I’d met Fred awhile back at San Domenico restaurant. I don’t remember why. He thinks we might have met when he was there to talk about the wines of Friuli, but I don’t recall.
At any rate, Fred is a very gracious man, but a particular one. He insists that Parmesan cheese be served not on his food, but near it, so he can add it as he likes. His prosciutto, when served uncooked, must not touch anything else on the plate until he is ready to combine them.
He approaches opera at The Met sort of the way I was taught to approach the silent Jewish meditative prayer known as the Amidah. For that prayer, it is common to take three steps back (small ones, as you are likely standing at a pew), symbolically removing yourself from mundane life, and then three steps forward to enter the world of prayer.
Fred says that at The Met, the custom, as the 12 chandeliers rise and dim to announce the beginning of the performance, is to take a moment to adjust your mindset to put it completely in the world the opera that is about to unfold before you.
So he’s a dramatic guy, but really in a low-key way, and he’s a very engaging speaker.
In a moment I’ll list the menu that was served at The Met’s Grand Tier restaurant, which Fred said was a typical pre-opera meal in Emilia-Romagna, and the visitors from the two hosting consorzi, both from Parma, didn’t disagree.
But first I’ll comment, as I did during Fred’s lecture — from which he paused as each course arrived so we could eat it, another sign of his gentility — that the wines served were not from Emilia-Romagna, but from farther north, in Friuli and Piedmont. From my limited experience in the region, that did, in fact, seem typical for a (fancy) pre-opera meal in Emilia-Romagna because, I said, although the people of that region are extremely proud of their food, they willingly say that their wine isn’t that great.
I really loved that about my visit to the region: That the people were proud enough to admit their shortcomings.
Both Fred and the Italians kind of protested. They all insisted that the region’s wine was getting better. But that wasn’t my point. Local Lambrusco — a sparkling red wine that is widely dismissed as “unimportant” — is delicious with the rich food of Emilia-Romagna. There’s no need to go defending it.
I restated my point: What I liked was that people in the region had the dignity and confidence to admit that they weren’t perfect.
No really, they said, there’s some much better wine coming from there now.
Whatever. Great ham and cheese, “unimportant” wine, mediocre listening comprehension skills.
Or possibly jet lag.

What we ate, drank, watched and listened to (notice that we didn’t have dessert until after the first act — the idea being that you eat relatively lightly so you will be energized and ready for opera, and then get an added pick-me-up midway through):

Parmigiano-Reggiano soufflé
Pinot Grigio 2007, Livio Felluga, Friuli

Prosciutto di Parma with sliced seasonal fruit (fresh figs in this case, but I liked that they kept it vague on the menu to allow for optimal seasonality)

Risotto Violetta with a mélange of mushrooms (Violetta is the title character’s name in La Traviata)
Barbaresco 2004, Produttori del Barbaresco, Piedmonti

Salad of field Greens with piquant lemon dressing

Parmigiano-Reggiano morsels with Aceto Balsamico (which is to say balsamic vinegar, although if you want the real stuff, the vinegar that people really fork over the cash for, that’s been aged for 15 years or more, you have to get Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale, with this was not)

La Traviata— Act 1
with Anja Harteros and Massimo Giordano

A trio of desserts — including a little rum-heavy custard that I really liked
with Coffee or Tea

La Traviata — Acts 2 & 3

And after that Fred took us backstage where we sat in the green room and briefly met the exhausted performers, who greeted us graciously and then, I presume, went out for dinner.

Still not playing hard-to-get

November 10

Regular readers of this blog will notice that I go out a lot. If someone asks me to go to something — nearly anything, really — and I can squeeze it into my schedule, I go.
Some of my more elitist acquaintances have told me I should be more circumspect of the invitations I accept, and recently I, too, have started to wonder if maybe I should play more hard-to-get.
You don’t see my friend Andrew Knowlton hanging out at Lower East Side bar openings, do you? You certainly don’t these days, as his wife Christina just had a baby, but for years appearances of the guy, whom I met nearly a decade ago when he was a young whippersnapper cutting out press clippings for his bosses at Bon Appétit, have been pretty rare. And now he’s, like, a famous guy, with a fan page on Facebook and a Wikipedia entry. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he looks like Andrew Knowlton, but I wonder if his aloofness has helped.
Do you think my attention would be more sought after if gave it less often? Should I stop being such an event-slut?
The problem is that my job is to be out there, spotting trends, tracking down stories, getting scoops, and you just never know when something that sounds like a dud might be interesting.
Still, last week in Cleveland, during the IFEC conference, I despaired of picking one of the food tours to go on. I’d been to The Chef’s Garden many times. I didn’t particularly want to see the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame (although I do hear that it’s great). Michael Ruhlman’s speech from the night before convinced me that the West Side Market was worth checking out, but that was followed by a tour of Nestlé Foodservice’s kitchens.
Seriously, kitchen tours are something I can resist. That and wine cellars. Do I really need to see where the wine is aged? And how fascinating is a kitchen unless you have some sort of funky new equipment I haven’t seen before.
The West Side Market was cool, if for no other reason than the third-world prices of its meat and produce ($1/lb for blueberries, and I am not kidding), especially since pastry prices were sort of standard for the United States. And like Ruhlman said, you could find lamb heart and sheep head and all sorts of things there. I also liked the fact that the salespeople referred to all females as “girls.” I didn’t know that was allowed anywhere in the West anymore.
The Nestlé kitchen tour didn’t start well. They showed us a very brief high-tech promotional video with a bunch of buzzwords about providing its customers with various “solutions,” but nothing concrete. It was like watching a music video.
But then they split us up into teams and sent me into a kitchen with the food scientists, who taught me how to make lobster base.
They briefly showed us the ingredients for lobster stock — shells, mirepoix etc. — and then took us around the corner where they sautéed pre-cooked lobster meat (cooked on the lobster boats) with tomalley (that green stuff that’s the lobster’s liver) and roe in (unsalted) butter, making sure they held it at at least 180 degrees Celsius for ten seconds. Then they puréed that mixture with onion powder and the like, along with oleoresinated paprika, which is all the oil-soluble components of paprika, concentrated and used for flavor and color. That paprika was mixed with dendritic salt — scientists' way of describing the shape of a very fine salt — and added to the mix.
Then we put a little bit of it into a machine that tested its “water activity," to make sure it was low enough to have an acceptable shelf life.
Then we measured, if I remember correctly, 7.1 grams of it to be mixed with 230 grams of hot water to make lobster stock. We compared it to conventionally-made lobster stock, and it still needed more work. It needed to be redder, and I think I would have added more salt, although I suppose less salty is better than more salty.
From there we added cream, food starch that is stable when repeatedly frozen and thawed, chile pepper (I added more than our supervising chef wanted, but too bad for him) and brandy. We thickened it and poured it over chunks of cooked lobster, garnishing it with Chef’s Garden beet microgreens, and it was a passable bisque. I would have tweaked it a bit, and probably tossed in some more base, but chacun à son goût.
I love stuff like that, because the lobster base is how most restaurants make bisque these days (demiglace, too — I know fine dining chefs who order it, because the recipe’s basic enough and big food companies can do it much more cheaply and with more consistency), and it’s useful to understand that. I also like the precision of the whole thing, followed by a free hand with cream and brandy (but a rigid one with the starch), and whimsy with the garnish.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Oh Jamie, Jamie, Jamie

November 6

I’ve gone on the record more than once as saying I don’t like Top Chef, not because I think it’s a bad show — to be honest, I haven’t watched it enough to judge — but because I think the fans it cultivates are bad for the restaurant world, shifting the focus from food to personalities and drawing a lot of annoying, tittering idiots into my line of vision. But it does provide opportunities for its contestants, so I can’t blame them, or its judges, for taking part.
I hope that Jamie Lauren comes across well. She came across as unusually cool when I met her last year during a trip to San Francisco. Here’s a Q&A I did with her shortly thereafter.

Monday, November 03, 2008

IFEC in Cleveland, night I

November 4, 2:20 a.m.

I have eaten too much food on so many levels.
I'm at IFEC, the annual conference of the International Foodservice Editorial Council. This year it’s in Cleveland. Don’t laugh, Cleveland’s a nice place and quite an accomplished food city, and tonight it proved it.
IFEC joins foodservice trade publication editors and publicists who want our attention. We meet for what are basically a series of 10-minute speed dates in which editors sit at a table and publicists pitch us. We get a lot of work done in a relatively short period of time, and then we go out and eat and drink.
Tonight, after an opening reception at which I skipped the food and just drank coffee, we had a keynote speech by Cleveland native Michael Ruhlman. For half an hour or so, he told us of why Cleveland was such a great food city, gave us restaurant recommendations, took a phone call from his 13-year-old daughter (“Honey, I'm in the middle of a presentation”) and called his friend Anthony Bourdain names. I forget what adjectives he used to describe Bourdain, but I’m pretty sure “degenerate” was one of them. “Deceitful,” too.
That was followed by “meet the press” at which each of the couple of dozen magazines represented talk about themselves so publicists know what we want from them.
Then there was the “Chef Showcase” at which local chefs served up their food, including ingredients provided by sponsors. Restaurants represented included Sergio’s, Lola, Moxie, Dante, Parallax, One Walnut, Fire Food & Drink, CROP Bistro & Bar, Bar Cento and Fahrenheit. It was all far more delicious than it usually is at such events, and I will single at Jonathan Sawyer of Bar Cento whose smoked hog jowls with mustard on toast was extraordinary in its simplicity and deliciousness, the Dijon mustard balancing just right with the pork’s smokiness. And his potato soup that had the same pork, but diced as part of a brunoise that also included all of the other components of the soup (some raw, some blanched), was, well, imagine smooth, creamy potato soup with little crunchy bursts of flavor. How much fun is that to eat?
I didn't know Mr. Sawyer, but he used to be my neighbor, having lived on Seventh Avenue and Lincoln Place when he worked in New York, once cooking in Charlie Palmer’s Kitchen 22, and another tine cooking at Parea, Michael Symon’s short-lived Greek restaurant.
So I was full when we headed to the suburb of Valley View to eat have dinner at Dante, the restaurant of former Aureole executive chef Dante Boccuzzi (who before that opened Nobu in Milan and who was at Silks in San Francisco before that). He’s originally from Cleveland and decided last year to head back home. His wife had their fourth kid, a little girl, about two weeks ago, so congratulations to them.
From there we went to an after-party at CROP, which is research chef Steve Schimoler’s latest venture. The name stands for Controlled Research Operating Platform, but also means, you know, crops. The place has won all sorts of awards in Cleveland, but Steve also uses it as a test platform for products that can be rolled out on a much larger scale. Instead of paying focus groups to try his food and say what they think, he just sees what customers like to buy. But the thing is, he makes food using various high-tech starches such as those the molecular gastronomers are getting into (and that food manufacturing companies have been using for decades) to make dishes that taste great in restaurants, but that can also be made in batches of 800,000, packaged, frozen and sold at Target (which is in fact what he’s already started to do). We sampled a couple of ice creams, including one called ”hot coffee,” which was coffee ice cream with just the right amount of capsaicin added to it that it didn’t have chile flavor, but simply tasted warm.
By the way, Michael Ruhlman pointed out that the country’s first celebrity chef was from Cleveland. His name: Chef Boyardee.
I don’t mean this in a derogatory way, but Steve’s continuing the tradition.

What we ate at Dante:

Cloudy Bay Kiwi Cocktail: Rum, lemon grass simple syrup, house-made sour mix, Fee Brothers rhubarb bitters, and foam of kiwi and chartreuse

citrus king crab arancini
tiger shrimp and green kiwifruit skewers with spicy lime mayonnaise
tempura green kiwifruit (can you guess which fruit sponsored the dinner? Philips Foods sponsored it, too)
Non-vintage Ca’ Tullio Prosecco (Friuli)

Parfait of blue swimming crab, avocado and green kiwifruit, lime jalapeño foam and crisp rice crackers
2007 Riesling, Kabinett, Dr. Thanisch, Bernkasteler Badstube (Mosel-Saar-Ruwer)

Ricotta cavatelli with cauliflower, anchovy and confit of garlic
2005 Lavradores de Feitoria “Tres Bagos,” mad with Tourigo Nacional, Tourigo Franca and Tinta Rariz grapse (Douro)

Charred skirt steak with yuzu neri, shiitake tempura, ginger braised bok choi and clamshell mushrooms
2005 Volver Tempranillo (La Mancha)

And for dessert, by Dante’s new pastry chef, Russ Wheeler, formerly of Mustard Seed Café:
After School Special — chocolate and peanut butter crunch cake, concord grape sorbet and a crispy sesame treat
2003 Select Late Harvest Vidal, Pillitten Estates, Ontario

Friday, October 31, 2008

Coat check meltdown

October 31

I think Aureole invited the entire Upper East Side to its 20-year anniversary party, and all of the food, travel, real estate and probably gossip media.
I know at least one member of the real estate media was there, as I had the chance to catch up with the fun-loving Chris Shott of The New York Observer. You may remember that when I met him at Scarpetta’s opening, he complimented my necktie. This time he complimented designer Adam Tihany’s sport coat. It was, indeed, a very handsome sport coat, but what I liked best was that his pocket square was a different pattern from his tie. He’s Adam Tihany, so he can do that.
Chris also complimented my tie (a Boston Trader floral thing that I’ve had for years, but I still like it a lot), but he admitted that it was a cheap ploy to get mentioned in my blog again.
Like that will work. Ha!
Anyway, the place was packed, and I had been drinking with colleagues the night before and had overindulged a bit, so I wasn’t in the mood to party, really. I realized I’d be doing everyone a favor by calling it a night so other people could get in and eat and drink, and so I stood in line to get the coat and bag that I had checked.
Chaos ensued.
The nice-seeming women who were in charge of checking coats were clearly accustomed to checking a couple of coats at a time, at a rather leisurely pace. Aureole’s not a club with velvet ropes and bouncers, after all, it’s a posh restaurant where people spend leisurely hours relaxing over a meal. It had nothing like the capacity necessary to deal with all of the clothing and baggage that was thrown at it last night.
So I waited. Grill Club members Michael Park and Sara Bonisteel came in. I chatted with them and waited some more. I greeted Regina Schrambling as she came in, told her I was on my way out and waited some more.
Publicist Shari Bayer came in. She was the plus-one of Food & Beverage magazine’s Francine Cohen, whose husband Jake didn’t feel like coming. Francine soon arrived, too, and they stayed with me for awhile while I waited for my coat, but Francine got pulled away eventually.
Michael and Sara, having had enough of the party, were heading out and saw that I was still waiting for my coat. It was amazing.
I’m not exactly sure what the problem was, but the coats and bags were being stored in two separate rooms and it seemed that somehow the coat-check tags were no longer anywhere near what was checked with them. I was eventually brought in to see if I could find my own coat and bag, which I did, although, since it was a standard-issue Midtown black cashmere-wool blend overcoat just like everyone else’s, it took me awhile.
In the meantime rebellion had begun among other people who were trying to leave.
“This is ridiculous, I’ve been waiting 20 minutes!" I heard one guy rant. I mean, really, it was a fair rant, but the coat-check system had been overwhelmed, it had melted down. It was ugly.
Good party, though. Great turnout.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

A restaurant Blums in Brooklyn

October 29

As I’ve discussed before, former Olive Garden and Burger King executive Brad Blum is opening restaurants in New York. His Dogmatic Sausage System opened a couple of weeks ago near Union Square, and now, NRN’s Elissa Elan tells me, he has plans to open a Mediterranean restaurant in Williamsburg.
Once the full story appears on, I’ll link to it here, but for now, some details:
The 3000-square foot, 74-seat restaurant will be called Green Canteen and will focus on seasonal ingredients for its 60-some-odd menu items, including ready-to-serve antipasti, salads, flatbreads and hummus bowls. Healthful shakes “high in energy but not in sugar” also will be offered. Menu items will be priced at under $10 and per-person average checks are expected to be less than $20. He hopes to open it early next year.
Blum used his own money to finance the restaurants and he hopes to slowly expand both concepts, gradually opening additional units.
Blum’s people didn’t reveal Green Canteen’s exact location, but a company called Green Canteen-1-Williamsburg LLC apparently has applied for a wine license at 106 N. 6th St.
They did tell Elissa that it’s a building built in the 1890s, which is being restored right now.

Paul Liebrandt’s back

October 29

Of all the chefs whose food I’ve eaten, I think Paul Liebrandt’s is the easiest to recognize. It’s very modular, kind of like the written Chinese language.
As you probably know, Chinese doesn’t have an alphabet. Instead it has thousands of “characters,” each representing a concept or an idea, or, well, something (one character represents the notion of an action having been completed; another indicates that something was done to something else — the equivalent of a passive-voice marker),
Most Chinese words have at least two characters in them. Combine them and sometimes the meaning is obvious:
“electricity” + “brain” = “computer.”
Sometimes it’s more poetic:
“electricity” + “shadow” = “movie”;
“can do” + “mouth” + another “can do” + “happiness” = Coca-Cola.
Paul Liebrand’s food is modular like that. Each flavor component is expressed with clarity and precision. If there's key lime in the foam served with your lobster, by golly it tastes like key lime. If he says the bubbles of milk on the plate with your squab is flavored with pain d’épices, boy, you can taste those autumn spices.
I personally find the results exhilarating, and I’ve liked his food since he was a cocky young kid running the kitchen at Atlas back at the turn of the century.
Now he’s, well, still quite young — 33, the same age as Jesus when he was crucified — and I imagine his ego remains intact despite his moves from Atlas to Papillon to One Little West 12th to Gilt, and now to Drew Nieporent’s newest restaurant, Corton.
Corton is where Montrachet once was, although the space has undergone massive renovation, with the kitchen having been moved to the south side of the building, leaving one spacious dining room with 60 seats where once there were two that, together, seated 80. I'm not a décor guy, but I was taken by the main chandelier, made of thin metal pipes with holes poked in them.
And I was taken by the fact that Drew himself was there, not merely holding court, but greeting people at the door, serving, clearing tables, doing tableside flourishes like pouring sauces on plates.
The restaurant wasn’t full last night, but it did have a quality crowd. Picholine executive chef Terrance Brennan was there, and Food & Wine founders (and current Food Arts editors) Michael and Ariane Batterberry showed up shortly after I did.
“The BAT...terberrys are here!” Drew said at one point as he drifted by our table.
I came with my friend Andy Battaglia, a sensualist who likes weird things and who has been a Liebrandt fan since the chef cooked for us at One Little West 12th back in 2004. That restaurant was really a club whose guests wanted miniburgers and the like, which Mr. Liebrandt made for them, but he didn’t stay there for long.
Actually, he wasn’t at Gilt for too long either.
Corton just opened, but to me it seemed like the chef has found his groove again. Drew seems to have his back, and the sommelier, Elizabeth Harcourt, who also worked at Montrachet, did some cool wine pairings. To wit:

For me:
Veal sweetbreads with Violet Hill Farm egg confit, carrot and argan oil (the combination actually tasted like classy barbecue sauce)
2004 Audrey & Christian Binner Katzenthal Riesling (Alsace)

Wild striped bass with sweet onion, gnudi and chowder sauce
2006 L'Ecette Rully ‘Maizières’ (Burgundy)

Squab with chestnut crème, smoked bacon and pain d‘épices milk
2007 Comptoirs de Mageala ‘La Chance’ (Provence)

For Andy:
Foie gras with hibiscus-beet gelée and blood orange
2005 Bernard & Robert Plageoles “Muscadelle’ (Gaillac, southwestern France)

The same bass, with the same wine

Maine lobster with chanterelles, toasted hazelnut-lobster jus and, not mentioned on the menu, some kind of foam that sure seemed to be an intense key lime, and served with a side of lobster riso with house-made botarga
2005 François Gaunoux (Burgundy)

What we shared for dessert (pastry chef Bob Truitt worked at Room4Dessert, which was headed up by Will Goldfarb, who was Mr. Liebrandt’s pastry chef at Atlas; small world):

First, a palate-cleansing quince sorbet floating in an unusually thick kind of foam, and then:

Caramel brioche with passion fruit, coffee and banana (one of the best things Andy’s ever eaten)

White sesame crème with lemon, huckleberry and salted toffee

Mignardises, including a passion fruit truffle, a salted caramel chocolate bonbon and a citrus macaroon
brewed coffee