Monday, March 17, 2008

Too many fancy events

March 17

“GET A DOO-WOG!” said this truly horrible woman with a heavy New York accent to a blind man at the James Beard House last Wednesday. She was one of those people who thinks it’s actually okay to tell other people, unbidden, how to live their lives, as if a blind man carrying a white cane and being escorted by his companion (maybe his wife, but one mustn’t assume) hasn’t examined his options and chosen to live his life as he sees fit.
You get a dog,” he said, which of course was a mistake because then she kept talking (excuse me, too-wahking) about her own stupid cur. And I was not in the mood for it last week.
“I’m having existential ennui,” I later told my friend Jonathan Ray, who teaches history at Georgetown. I’m a New York City food writer, so I’m allowed to use pompous words to express melancholy. It’s what we do.
“That’s because you go to too many fancy shmancy events,” he said.
Jonathan’s one of my favorite people in the world.
That was on Friday. He’d called me the day before just as I was tying my matte silver tie for my tuxedo.
It was a long tie, which it seems to me is more in vogue than bow ties for tuxedos these days, although I think the pendulum is swinging back. We’ll see what people are wearing at the Beard Awards in June.
The material on this particular tie is pretty thick, so a full Windsor knot would have looked bulky. I settled on a half Windsor as I chatted with Jonathan.
“You’re busy. I’ll let you go. We’ll talk soon,” he said.
Too many fancy shmancy events can lead to existential ennui, because if you think life is about fancy events and you go to a lot of them, you realize that they don’t contribute to your emotional well-being. That comes from inside.
I don’t think that was what was irritating me last week. Sometimes you just feel annoyed.
The week started with a fundraising dinner for the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, which might have been the only fundraising dinner in the history of the world to have no chicken or steak, but escargots, bone marrow, sweetbreads and rabbit. They raised $650,000.
As a member of the media, I was seated at a table with seats to spare, where I could be easily slotted in. My particular table had mostly been bought by Washington Mutual, and so I asked one of their financial analysts to apportion blame for the sub-prime mortgage crisis while we assessed the makeup of the emcee, food-TV personality Ted Allen.
The honoree of the evening was Urvashi Vaid, executive director of The Arcus Foundation.
“Revolution is Fun,” she said, which is my quotation of the week.
I did also have an amusing but brief exchange at the bar with a tall gentleman who was ordering a bourbon to soothe his throat, coughed raw by an illness from which he was recovering.
“Tuberculosis,” he said, to no one in particular.
“Hey, it beats lung cancer,” I said, not that I have lung cancer or anything — I just wanted him to look on the bright side.
“I’m working on that. Do you have a cigarette?”
Tuesday at lunchtime found me downtown at a somewhat New Zealand-themed place called Nelson Blue. I was having lunch with Jay Louisson of New Zealand Trade & Enterprise, the people who took me down under recently (and I’ve finally finished updating my blog about it. Click here for the final installment). I debriefed her on the trip while I ate a lamb curry pie. The restaurant choice was mine; it seemed appropriate.
That night I went to an absinthe tasting, at which Lance Winters of St. George Spirits spoke about the stuff. I was late and feeling harried, and the event was in a dimly lit room in the bar named Little Branch, and so I reintroduced myself to Kate Goldstein-Breyer, with whom I had just been dining a few days before at The Monday Room. So that was awkward and I decided to bury my embarrassment under Thai food. I walked to my new favorite downtown Thai restaurant, Rhong-Tiam, and ate Thai comfort food. I had khai-jiew woon-sen, which is a sort of deep-fried omelet, and a bowl of guay-tiew tom yam, which is a type of noodle dish from Sukhothai that we used to eat in Bangkok, walking from our offices on Phra-Arthit road across a little canal, past a small ice plant to a little noodle shop.
At Rhong-Tiam a scene that could have been in Bangkok unfolded for me. A middle aged white man came in (it occurs to me that I, too, am middle aged, but that’s all right) and spoke in fairly decent Thai to the waitresses as he asked them what food they recommended. He took a particular shine to one waitress who was clearly a tenor. She didn’t have a low voice, but it certainly was a masculine one, and she was obviously a man (why, then, am I referring to him as a she? Well, I think you should refer to someone as he or she would like to be addressed).
Transvestites are really quite common in Thailand, and so it was refreshing to see one in a Thai restaurant, and amusing to see the customer fall for her, going as far as complimenting her voice and comparing it to Marlena Dietrich’s.
So that was fun, and yet on Wednesday I was grumpy anyway and not in any mood to hear a loud mouth tell a blind man how to live his life.
He (the blind man) told the idiot that the problem with dogs is they don’t actually know where things are.
“You tell them, ‘go to the bank!’ They don’t know where the bank is. You still have to find your own way.”
Blind men were, in fact, the topic of conversation last week as New York’s lying hypocrite of a governor, Eliot Spitzer, was about to be replaced by New York’s first legally blind African-American governor, David Paterson.
One person said she wasn’t concerned about his being black (as of course that would be racist and therefore inappropriate to say), but it seemed wrong for him to be blind (a fair indicator of what prejudices remain socially acceptable).
Someone else wondered if all of our sighted governors were so great, implying that perhaps it was time to give the blind people a crack at it.
Apart from the dog-loving idiot, also at the Beard House on Wednesday was a simpleton who had, on a previous night, gone from table to table soliciting recommendations for restaurants in Barcelona. I recommended Rincón de Aragon for its roasted goat leg and she shuttered and acted like I was ridiculous for recommending such a thing. What’s wrong with goat leg, especially if you’re the sort of person who frequents the Beard House?
Believe it or not, that same simpleton was at the European Wine Council’s gala dinner at Le Cirque on Thursday as the escort of a truly unpleasant man I’d met at the gala about five years before.
He has a new food network. Actually, at the moment it’s a web site.
“It’s a network. I’m very sensitive about that,” he said, bristling at the word “web site.”
Oh, brother.
My date was Yishane Lee. I think I’ve gone to three European Wine Council gala dinners and Yishane has been my date at all three of them. Also at our table was Michael Aaron, chairman of Sherry-Lehman Wine & Spirits, whom I had met at that same gala some years before, when it was at Le Cirque 2000. I remembered him because of the bejeweled tuxedo studs he was wearing. They are family heirlooms.
Seated between us on Thursday was his wife Christine, a former interior designer who carries her own peppermill with her everywhere she goes. It contains a blend of five different peppers. I got a whiff of nutmeg in there, so I suspect that one of those five is Szechwan peppercorns, but Christine wasn't sure. She passed it around the table for people to use, and I said that if one were to have an eccentric affectation, carrying around ones own peppermill was a charming one.
The wine gala is an A-list event. So Food & Wine founders Michael and Ariane Batterbury were there. So was Nation’s Restaurant News (and New York Times) columnist Florence Fabricant, and Leonard Lopate and Rose Levy Beranbaum and many other people.
At one point some years ago, Rose Levy Beranbaum had the eccentric affectation of carrying around a tiny wooden box filled with fleur de sel.
If I were to have such an affectation, it would be to carry a mother-of-pearl caviar spoon with me at all times, so that if caviar were on hand I’d have the right utensil.
You don’t want to be caught off-guard on such occasions.
Michael Aaron performed an amazing feat at dinner. One of the gentlemen at our table was wearing a tuxedo, but with an open collar. Michael asked if that were some new sort of style from Los Angeles and the gentleman said that his bow tie had simply been too tight to fasten. He held it up for us to see and Michael expressed disappointment that it was one of those wrap-around ties.
Then, to show how simple tying a bow tie was, he untied his at the table and retied it again perfectly.
Let me repeat that: He untied his bow tie at the table and retied it again, perfectly. Without a mirror.
Better yet, he said he was taught to do that by Jonas Salk’s wife, Françoise, a former mistress of Picasso’s.
I suppose it wouldn’t be ennui if there were a reason for it.
But what, you wonder, did I eat at these events?

At the Gay Men’s Health Crisis event at Skyline Studios:
Escargots Saint Honoré with marrow and sweetbread cervelas (by Orsay executive chef Jason Hicks)
Slowly simmered rabbit raviolo in white burgundy with winter vegetables (by Aureole executive chef Tony Aiazzi)
Braised short ribs with butternut squash risotto (by Galen Zamarra of Mas — and it actually was risotto, not butternut squash cooked like risotto, which people were doing a few years ago, causing me to wonder why they called it risotto)
Chocolate meringue roches, Lillet gelée, nougat glacé with lavender honey (by Water Club executive pastry chef Victoria Love)

At the Beard House, by chef Jean Paul Desmaison of La Cofradia Restaurant in Coral Cables, Fla.:

Passed Hors d’Oeuvres:
Peruvian corn anticucho with huancaina sauce (a somewhat spicy cheese sauce)
Scallop Bloody Mary
Slow braised pork and grapes with pisco
Gosset Brut Excellence NV Champagne (France, obviously)

Lemon sole, octopus and shrimp ceviche
S.A. Prüm, Wehlener Sonnenuhr, Riesling Kabinett, 2003 (Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Germany)

Piquillo peppers stuffed with beef, pork, peanuts and raisins, with a creamy rosemary Parmesan sauce
Marchesi di Barolo, “Ruvei” 2005, Barbera d'Alba (Piedmont, Italy)

Peruvian yellow chile risotto with sautéed Florida lobster tail and coral crème sauce
Jean Luc Colombo “La Bell de Mai” 2004, Saint Peray (Rhone, France)

Duck Confit with spinach and sweet corn couscous and black currant gastrique

Goat cheese ice cream with satuéed berries in port-balsamic reduction
Cellers Fuentes, Finca el Puig 2002, Priorat (Spain)

At the European Wine Council gala at Le Cirque:

Hors d’oeuvre:
Ratatouille tart with poached quail egg
Branzino tartare
Asian tuna roll with dipping sauce
Crab cakes with Béarnaise
Pierre Sparr mèthode Traditionnelle d'Alsace Brud Réserve
Don Olegario Albariño, Rías Baixas, 2006
Pfeffinger Riesling Kabinett Halbtrocken Pfalz 2006
Ayios Andronicos, Monte Royia Winery
Proseco Aneri

Shrimp with Asian mixed vegetables and cocnut jus
Schloss Schonborn Riesling Rudesheimer Berg Roseneck “Erstes Gewachs” Rheingau, 2004

Foie gras ravioli with green cabbage marmalade and black truffle emulsion (Yishane’s favorite; Christine’s, too)
Château des Capitan Julienas 2006

Roasted loin of veal with haricots verts en persillad and morel cream sauce
Malleolus de Sancho Martin 2005, Ribera del Duero
Vamvakada red wine, 2004

Gorgonzola, Parmesan and Brie de Nangis with honey and assorted breads
Bolla Amarone DOC 2004

Dessert buffet of milk chocolate mille-feuille, pear tart, mini crème brûlée, crokenbush, tiramisu tart and petits fours
Commandaria Saint John, Keo Winery
JJ Prum Riesling Wehlener Sonnenuhr Auslese, Mosel 1994
J. Vidal-Fleury Muscat de Beaumes de Venise
(Yishane’s favorite)
González Byass Matusalem, DO Jerez
Arèle Vin Santo

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