Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Professional drinkers

April 30

I stopped by the French Culinary Institute last night (it has been sort of renamed the International Culinary Center, but I don't think it’s going to stick, any more than Avenue of the Americas has stuck as a name for Sixth Avenue). A chocolate company was launching a new truffle line. Deciding to go seemed like a no-brainer. I showed up and was handed a chef coat, which I put on and then dipped some plain chocolate truffles in couverture, and then decorated them. It was fun, particularly the dipping, because it requires taking chocolate spheres and throwing them with some force into melted chocolate, so they sink. Then fishing them out with a wire utensil that is circular on the end, allowing you to balance the newly covered truffle on it and tap it on the edge of the chocolate container, so the excess chocolate drips off before you set it down on wax paper for decorating. Fun.
Then I walked the scant mile to the Astor Center, where a rum cocktail competition was going on. Again, a no-brainer.
It turned out to be an extraordinary event, actually, or maybe it seemed extraordinary because I arrived relatively sober midway into a booze party.
Come to think of it, I wasn’t all that sober. I had sampled two chocolate cocktails and had a glass of Champagne at the chocolate event. But compared to most of the people at the Astor Center I was a teatotaller. Something like 24 or 28 cocktails were being served, and everyone seemed to want to try them all. I had a citrusy one called a Joan Collins (good name, right?), and another citrusy one with a sort of menthol bass note (from the yellow Chartreuse perhaps) that I think was called a Gowanus Sunset. I don’t know. My cocktail-drinking colleague Sonya Moore, who also was there, wrote a a much more detailed entry about the event than I have any interest in doing (although she apparently didn’t sample the Gowanus Sunset).
For me the highlight was simply witnessing the ability of beverage professionals to drink as much as they did, to be as gloriously inebriated as they were, and yet to be socially gracious and civilized. Perhaps a bit louder than they would be otherwise, sure. And more gregarious. But apart from just slightly slurred speech, a bit more abrupt changes of conversation topic than they might make otherwise, and bright red faces and noses, they were fine. There was no fighting, no falling down, no crying, certainly no vomiting.
The truly widespread drunkenness that was in evidence was what made the party seem so extraordinary to me.
I chatted with one guy (I don’t remember who — I’d had four or five cocktails and a glass of Champagne, remember, and it was only 8:30) about the widespread drunkenness around us that was so different from such situations out in the real world, among the amateurs, on nights like St. Patrick's Day or New Year's Eve. If I remember correctly, we agreed that people who can’t hold their liquor should know that and not embarrass themselves.
Of course, in New York we have the added benefit of a reliable subway and many taxis, so we can drink without having to drive.

Friday, April 25, 2008


April 23

I turned 41 years old yesterday. Still in Denver for Passover, I convinced my family that dinner at Frasca Food & Wine in Boulder was in order.
Frasca is perhaps the hottest restaurant that Colorado, outside of Aspen, has ever seen. The chef, Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson, is one of the hottest chefs in the country and you reportedly need to make reservations two months in advance if you want to eat there on weekends.
Even on a Tuesday, three weeks out, I was given the option of 5:45 or 8:45 for a party of 8 (mom, dad, brother, sister-in-law, sister, niece Tahirah and nephew Harrison — and me).
My family is not impressed by a restaurant’s hotness, but 5:45 is actually a good time for them, because Tuesday is a school night, after all, and Tahirah, 12, and Harrison, 8, need their rest (Alia, who will be 2 in July, stayed at home with a sitter).
The dinner was a huge success for me because I introduced sister-in-law Helen to Moscato d'Asti for dessert, which she loved, and gave my mother her first taste of amaro as a digestive, which she also loved. And what greater joy is there than introducing people to something they like?

What I ate and drank:

Salumi of prosciutto di San Daniele, speck (from Alto Adige) and Fra'Mani Salame Toscano (from California).
Asparago bianco fritta (tempura-fried white asparagus)
Frico caldo (a sort of potato-and-cheese pancake)
Hawaiian big eye tuna crudo with pickled ramps, English peas and lavash
Tamarack Farm veal-stuffed mlinci (Frasca draws its inspiration from Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, on the border with Austria and Slovenia, and so they use terms from those countries, too) with olive oil-poached fennel, oregano and watercress
Snake River Farm Berkshire pork belly with warm farro salad and apple
Tasting of house-made chocolates

Corte Sant’Alda Valpolicella “Ca Fliu,” Veneto, Italy 2005, which my parents found a bit light, so we got a super-Tuscan of Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah: Tenuta Argentiera “Poggio Al Ginepri,” Tuscany, Italy 2006
Then I had Meletti Amaro

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Aunt Donna knows Thirteen

April 21

It's much easier for me to be Jewish in Denver than in New York, because for me (and I think most people), religion is a family affair, and Denver is my ancestral homeland.
It was settled, for my family, by one of my maternal great grandfathers, Jackson Melman, who moved there in around 1909 from Columbus, Ohio, with my great grandmother Dora (the one who I believe gave me my dislike for raw tomatoes), and four of his seven children, including my grandmother Rose, whose husband, Harry Cohn, was born in Glenwood Springs, making me a third generation Colorado Jew.
Rose was the youngest child in the family. Her brother Ike stayed in Denver, too, while her sisters Millie and Anne eventually settled in southern California.
My father's parents moved to Denver (from Baltimore, although he and his sister Florine were born in Raleigh) to be with Florine when she married Phil Boxer, a Kansas City Jew who for some reason ended up in Denver and ran a restaurant with his brother called Boxers (long sold and gone; Phil became a humanities professor and his brother Martin opened a chain of shops called The Antique Trader). Dad joined his folks after he got out of the Navy.
Then there are in-laws and additions from other branches of the family who have found their way to Denver. It makes for quite a comforting web of family fabric, and so Colorado’s capital is a very nice place for me to spend Passover, which is exactly what I did this year.
The ritual dinner, or Seder, is the cornerstone of Passover observance and much is often made of the fact that Jews all over the world follow the same rituals that have been handed down for centuries. That, of course, isn't the case at all. As someone who is rarely in the same city as his own family for Passover, I have been to many seders all over the world. All have familiar elements (strangely, gefilte fish followed by matzo ball soup seem to be universal, at least among Ashkenazic Jews, or the ones from Eastern Europe), but each is embellished by family tradition.
Indeed, my immediate family generally spends the two seders with quite different relative-and-friend configurations on the two nights on which seders are generally held, and the rituals can vary wildly from one night to the next (this year a relatively traditional seder mostly in English was followed by a humanist one sent from Florida by my sister-in-law Helen’s grandmother).
But those little family things are why I want to go to Denver for Passover more often, especially for our after dinner customs.
Several songs are normally sung after dinner during a seder, although not among families who feel that the pre-dinner rituals are enough and simply end the evening with coffee and dessert, or among those who don't like to sing.
Our first-night seder has for quite awhile now been held at the home of my cousin Richard Kornfeld, the youngest son of my mother's older sister, my Aunt Donna. He is continuing the tradition of his father, my Uncle Eddie, who passed away about ten years ago. Our two favorite after-dinner customs are the singing of Had Gadya, and the singing in Hebrew, followed by the reading in English, of Who Knows One?
Had Gadya is a parable about a kid (a baby goat, that is) that is eaten by a cat (presumably a big, ferocious cat), that is bitten by a dog, that is beaten by a stick that is burned in fire that is put out by water that is drunk by an ox that is slaughtered by a butcher who is killed by the Angel of Death who is in turn done in by the Almighty. I guess it reflects the ephemeral nature of things, but one of the great customs of Passover seders is that the meanings behind such things are supposed to be discussed (except in families who don't want to discuss such things — because they find seders tedious and just want to get on with them, or because they enjoy the traditional flow of the seder, or because they are not curious about such things, or for other reasons I cannot fathom).
Anyway, in our version we replace the nouns with the sounds they make, highlighted by beating twice on the table instead of saying "stick." That is our custom.
Who Knows One is an accounting of how many of certain important things in Judaism there are.
In case someone is googling this and wants them enumerated, I'll list them here; everyone else, please skip down to the next paragraph. Jews are monotheists, so you’re just going to have to guess what there is one of. There are two tablets on which the commandments were written, three patriarchs, four matriarchs, five books in the Torah (the first part of the Bible), six books in the Mishnah (the first part of the Talmud), seven days of the week, eight days to circumcision, nine months to childbirth, 10 commandments, eleven stars in Joseph's dream (which predicted his dominion over his brothers), 12 tribes of Israel and 13 attributes of God.
It's performed very much like the Twelve Days of Christmans, starting with One, then Two, but repeating One and so on, except that the table asks "Who Knows One?" and someone says: "I know One," and reads what it is. But the custom in my family is that you must say it in one breath. That's no big deal if you just have to say "four matriarchs, three patriarchs, two tables of the covenant, one God in heaven and on earth," but 13 is trickier, and for as long as I can remember, that task has fallen to Aunt Donna.
Aunt Donna has never smoked and has lived a clean life, so she can do all 13. And remember, this is in Denver, so she does it at 5,280 feet.
I find what one eats at Passover seders to be mostly irrelevant, except for the gefilte fish and matzo ball soup, which are essential, plus the ritual foods such as egg and saltwater, greens (most often parsley) dipped in saltwater, horseradish and charoset (a mixture usually of apples, nuts, wine and spices meant to resemble mortar between bricks). Oh, and matzo, of course.
My brother Todd and I used to anticipate each year that Aunt Donna would declare that this year the horseradish was the spiciest ever, except for last year, which was really the spiciest. She doesn't seem to do that anymore, but she definitely did it from around 1973 to 1985, at least.
This year on the second night, though, the horseradish really was the spiciest. Cousin Joe Levi had to bang on the table after trying it (and Had Gadya wouldn't be for another hour, at least), and I thought my ears were going to bleed.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008


April 16

I enjoy breaking bread with Travel + Leisure’s Clark Mitchell for many reasons. Quite apart from his winning smile, blue eyes and amusing observations about German linguistics, he has a keen yet egalitarian palate. He relishes what he calls “trashy food” (you might recall his periodic need for the queso dip at Lobo in Park Slope), but he also can make quite an excellent goose confit, and when I first met him he was enjoying a brief fascination with aspic.
This evening, as we had dinner at Icon at the W Court hotel, he explained how people from different corners of the German-speaking world pronounce “Gstaad” while also marveling at chef Michael Wurster’s version of Buffalo wings.
The “chicken lollipos” were wings (or possibly drummettes, I have forgotten) turned inside-out and crusted with a blend of Rice Krispies and panko bread crumbs. They were deep-fried and dressed with Maytag blue cheese. Fine celery shavings garnished them.

What else we ate:

Nantucket Bay scallop ceviche with Meyer lemon, pineapple, licorice root and nasturtium, encased in yuba (tofu skin) and garnished with golden char roe
jumbo lump crab with grapefruit gel, avocado, espelette, hearts of palm and yuzu “caviar”
line-caught turbot with mussel pistou, sea urchin panna cotta, spring vegetables and roasted Parmesan emulsion
rack of milk-fed veal with yellow corn polenta and fava beans
blood orange sorbet with candied lemons and limes and fromage blanc
“Snickers” — frozen nougat with peanut butter sauce and powder with chocolate ice cream

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

experimental cuisine, sloe gin, and a really unnecessary rant about Thai food, again

April 16

Interesting week so far. On Monday afternoon I was on a panel with some pretty intense food wonks. They included braniac pastry chef Will Goldfarb; Nils Noren, the former executive chef of Aquavit who is now vice president of culinary and pastry arts at the French Culinary Institute; David Arnold, who has the unexpected title of director of culinary technology at the FCI; and chef Heather Carlucci, who owns Lassi restaurant (and who seemed very nice and probably talented, but less wonkish). Moderating our discussion was the man who is perhaps the most intense of intense food writers, Corby Kummer.
Even as he was asking us questions, Corby had his laptop up and running and was typing notes about what we said (I could tell, because I was seated next to him).
The panel was for the monthly meeting of the Experimental Cuisine Collective.
“Just call us ECC,” Will said, pronouncing it “eck.”
Oh, that Will.
Corby started out kind of hostile to all of this new-fangled use of transglutaminase and hydrocolloids and so on, and advocated a back-to-basics approach, but I think Dave, Nils and Will convinced him that the two were in no way mutually exclusive, and that people interested in using new techniques to make the food taste better were also interested in using the best of what’s already out there.
That’s true sometimes, but I pointed out that some of this experimental stuff is executed quite badly. Will countered that there are plenty of restaurants that execute French and Italian food badly, but people don't blame French and Italian cuisines for that, nor should they blame experimental techniques for the fact that some people are bad at them.
He has a point.
Oh, Will also said that his sandwich kiosk, Picnick, would be opening for the season next week and would have a beer and wine license later in the summer, so that’s exciting.
Dave Arnold’s favorite piece of equipment: a high-tech evaporator. It seems he’s all into distillates these days. Has been for awhile, but it’s all quite experimental at the moment so he doesn’t talk about it much.
He and Nils sometimes use a centrifuge, too, which they refer to as a dangerfuge. That reminds me of how my parents, to discourage me and my siblings from sampling the juniper berries that grew on the evergreen in our front yard when we lived in Aurora, Colo. (before moving to Denver), called them "poison berries." It worked.
Okay, so berries and new-fangled things lead me into the rest of the week, because last night I went to a launch party for Plymouth’s new sloe gin. It was at The Back Room, one of those secret speakeasy-like places where you have to know what you’re looking for and explain yourself, and then an intimidating looking doorman will move aside and indicate where you need to go (in this case down the stairs and into a forbidding-looking Lower East Side alley, and then up some iron stairs and into a really very grand event space).
“Alcohol’s legal now, you know,” I said to the woman who was checking names. But I have to admit it’s a fun schtick.
Sloe is actually the berry (sort of, it’s related to a plum) of the blackthorn bush. It’s inedibly sour unless you soak it in gin for several months, diluting the whole thing with sugar and water. I sampled it and drank a couple of cocktails made from it while meeting fascinating people, such as Eric Seed, the principal in Haus Alpenz, which imports things like velvet falernum and other specialty ingredients for cocktails. It turns out he went to Kenyon College and another person at the party, who also went to Kenyon, remembered Thad Camp, who studied in Nanjing with me in 1988. Neither of them remembered my friend Wade Sheppard, which means they probably didn’t meet him, because Wade’s memorable.
I wanted to ask Eric how he got into the specialty-cocktail-ingredient importing business, but instead I ended up chatting with Matt Stinton, the service director at Hearth restaurant. I shared my experiences waiting tables at Azar’s Big Boy in Denver and how men about to get lucky tip well. Matt said that men who weren’t sure how to close the deal ended up staying until late into the night, which was not the most desirable scenario. But he seems to really like his job.
And so I was running late to have dinner at Rhong-Tiam with cousins Leonard and Stephen, Stephen’s mother Pete (yes Pete; just let it all wash over you), Stephen’s friend Patricia, and Leonard’s best friend, Glenn Collins, the New York Times features writer, and his wife Sarah.
I’d had dinner at Rhong-Tiam on Friday, too. I love the place.
But I still might not recommend it to you, not merely because I don’t make restaurant recommendations in writing (as explained here and here), but also because in my experience most New Yorkers have so little understanding of Thai food that they can’t tell good from bad and have ignorant expectations. So if I recommend the place and you don’t like it, you’ll say “that Bret, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”
So, I love the place, if you don’t, that’s your problem and you probably won’t enjoy the food in Bangkok.
That was illustrated to me as I was leaving the sloe gin party, when someone exclaimed her love for Thai food, particularly pad see-ew, which is actually a Thai variation of a Chinese dish, but okay. She said she also liked pad Thai, but couldn’t eat anything remotely spicy.
“Then you don’t like Thai food,” I said, which might sound obnoxious of me (it does, I know it does), but is true nonetheless.
Despite the fact that I was late to Rhong-Tiam, my dining companions were more late, and so I sat down and had a beer as an irate woman walked in and handed her takeout food back to the owner, declaring that it was too spicy.
“Would you like us to make you something else?” Andy Yang, the chef and owner, asked very nicely.
But she said no, she wanted the same food, but less spicy.
The thing is, it’s not the same food if it’s less spicy. This is problematic, though, because people really do have different thresholds of pain when it comes to spicy food. They do. And people with low tolerance for capsaicin (the stuff in chiles that causes the chemical burn on the tongue that we call “spicy”) are no more wimpy than anyone else.
Nonetheless, that burn is part of the Thai food experience. It shouldn’t be genuinely painful, but you should feel it.
I vented to a server, asking her in Thai why that customer was ordering Thai food if she didn’t like spicy food. The server was diplomatically both sympathetic and non-committal.
But to be fair, not all Thai dishes are spicy, and we ordered a couple for Pete and Sarah.
The server recommended the lemon grass chicken, and I asked her if it was good. Diplomatic again, yet accurate, she said that people who can’t eat spicy food can eat it. And it was, in fact, a big hit.
I also ordered roasted pork neck (often just called roasted pork in the States), which comes with a firey sauce that you don't have to dip your pork into if you don’t want to. Oh, and we had khanom jeep, a Thai version of Chinese shao mai (or shumai if you’re Japanese)
We also had a couple of the specials, including what they called Thai-style buffalo wings, which were in fact a variation on gai ho bai teui — small chunks of chicken wrapped in pandan leaf and deep-fried. These were lightly breaded wings (not chunks), tied with pandan and fried.
The other special was chuchee soft shell crab — served in a rich sauce redolent of kaffir lime leaf.
Then we had fluffy catfish salad, a spicy beef salad called nam tok, which means waterfall because the oil drips down from the grill and sizzles on the coals as it cooks, chicken with crispy basil, and roasted duck in red curry.
Then Andy sent out three desserts — a sort of tofu flan, which Glenn in particular loved — fried ice cream, which isn’t Thai, but okay, and bananas in sticky rice.
All of my dining companions seemed to love the food, even as they sought cures for the fire on their tongues (Glenn found beer to be the best solution, as many people do, although sweets are good, too — Thais insist that salt on the tongue works, but I don't believe it).
As for new-fangled things, they were on display this afternoon at an Italian-American Chamber of Commerce event at Cipriani (the one on 23rd St.), at which the region of Piedmont in general and the city of Turin in particular were showing off their ability to combine design and food by serving things in truly odd looking receptacles that made the food harder to eat.
Indeed, one designer — a trim young man with a spike through his left ear, long hair and a bushy beard that made him resemble a leprechaun or small troll — explained to me that I was supposed to eat the salade Russe with a spoon, not to simply up-end the plastic cup it was in. But how is one supposed to know if we’re turning the rules on their ears? He handed me a plastic spoon, which after a few bites I surmised was actually three spoons stuck together.
I wondered when it became stylish to eat things out of plastic receptacles with plastic utensils.
We were supposed to eat a lot more items, but it turns out that the products hadn’t arrived in time for most of it, so they just sort of described how all the different bowls and plates and saucers were supposed to work, amusing us with risotto, salade Russe and what they called a deconstructed omelet, which was vegetables in kind of a watery egg concoction, served in a plastic cup that was in turn held in a trapezoidal metal container stuck onto a flat metal tray. I have no idea why.
The kicker was the way in which chocolate mousse was to be served — from a pastry bag covered with a rubber breast and nipple. Diners are supposed to suck the mousse from the breast, and this is supposed to remind them of the carefree time of babyhood.
I don’t think that would work for me.

Friday, April 11, 2008

The week in wine

April 11

I went to a couple of very different wine dinners this week. The first was at Bar Blanc in the West Village, thrown by the Loire Valley Wine Bureau and focused exclusively on Muscadet sur Lie. I ended up sitting with MSNBC columnist Ed Deitch, southern food writer etc. extraordinary Matt Lee, and a very nice wine distributor from Nantes named Claudine.
Matt is the older brother of Ted Lee, and the two share bylines in classy publications all over the country. They also won last year’s James Beard Foundation Award for the best cookbook. They are brilliant and engaging, perceptive without being condescending, and really nice.
In the past I’d had longer conversations with Ted, and they would often go in directions I wouldn’t expect. Ask Ted “How are you?” and he’ll actually tell you. It’s a nice quality, actually, at least the way he does it. The last time I spoke with him was at the announcement of this year’s Beard Award nominees — Matt and Ted announced some or all of the cookbook nominees (I don’t really remember; it was first thing in the morning), and I ended up chatting with Ted about the G train, because he lives in Bedford-Stuyvesant. He insists that the G has the potential of being the greatest subway line in New York City. I don’t completely remember his line of reasoning (as I said, it was first thing in the morning) but it made perfect sense at the time.
Matt always seemed quieter or more conventional or something. He’s super-polite in that southern way (he leaps up to pull out chairs for women, for example), but also socially astute, so that if Ed or I brought up topics that might be too parochial for Claudine to be completely up-to-date on, he’d briefly explain them to her. Simultaneously genteel and down-to-earth.
Ed seems like a good guy too. He was sure we’d met before and I trust him. It was probably at another wine dinner. Both he and Matt know a lot more about wine than I do (although I imagine they know less than Claudine). I had learned previously (at another Muscadet sur Lie lunch — at BLT fish, where we ate lobster rolls), that Muscadet is made with a grape called Melon de Bourgogne, but I had forgotten. So when I asked if it was made with Sauvignon Blanc, like Sancerre is, they both jumped in to instruct me that it wasn’t.
So now I’ll remember.
On the topic of Sauvignon Blanc, neither Matt nor Ed like New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. As Matt described it, that wine seems to shout at you. He said he doesn’t mind what it says, he just wished it would say it more quietly.
I like New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, in case you were wondering, but it is really different from Loire whites, which are more subdued, indeed almost austere. Ed loved — loved I tell you — the 1995 Luneau-Papin Muscadet, because despite its age, it still tasted so bright and young.
Indeed, it did. I noticed that even before Ed said so (once someone I consider more knowledgeable about wine than I do says something about it, I, like pretty much everyone else, tend to just go ahead and believe him). But if 13-year-old wine tastes like a two-year-old, why not just drink a two-year-old? Surely it’s cheaper.
Then again, the ’95 Luneau-Papin certainly had more soul than the 2006 Sauvion et Fils we sampled at the same time, sort of like a sophisticated, good-looking, in-shape 42-year-old compared to a healthy 22-year old who still has a lot to learn.
So that was fun in the highbrow sort of way that wine dinners can be.
Then the next night I was on the Lower East Side at Stanton Social for a wine dinner thrown by Crush, Drew Nieporent’s wine shop, featuring the wine of The Scholium Project, a California winery run by crazy Abe Schoener. And he is crazy. He is. And some of his wine does shout. Some of it screams.
Abe makes wine like a cook cooks, rather than in the more precise, anal-retentive way that pastry chefs perform their craft, or the way winemakers normally perform theirs. He experiments. Some years he ages things in old barrels, sometimes in new ones. He uses all sorts of different techniques, just for fun, and is completely uninterested in consistency from one year to the next; he says that would be boring. He only makes small productions — and he charges for them — so he doesn’t have to appeal to a mass market.
So that was already interesting. Mix into that the fact that most of the people at the table were simply enthusiastic amateur Crush customers, and you have a fun evening.
Andrea Strong was there, too. I learned from her that she and Bullfrog & Baum publicist Katherine Bryant are getting married on exactly the same day. What is particularly interesting about that is that Katherine and Andrea worked together at Restaurant Business magazine.
But my favorite people at the table were Jason and Ryan, two young financial types. Jason develops financial instruments for mortgage securitization and Ryan works with him, but I didn’t ask in what capacity.
But what I liked about them was that they just loved food and wine. They loved it. It was all so much fun for them, especially Ryan, that it was like watching four-year-olds discover pieces of the world for the first time.
Abe came by and chatted and Ryan was in heaven, to be speaking to a genuine wine maker. And then, then, Abe said, “Let’s try a barrel sample,” and I swear Ryan’s happiness level was raised permanently.
Personally, I don’t feel a need to try barrel samples. I’d just as soon let the winemakers hold onto the juice until it’s ready to be drunk. Let them taste it.
But that’s what happens when you meet winemakers all the time and become bitter and jaded. Ryan drank it all up. He loved it.
Then on Thursday I had lunch at Graffiti, Jehangir Mehta’s shoebox of a restaurant on E. 10th St., where he was celebrating his new cookbook, Mantra. I sat next to my friend-in-law Liz Forgang (her niece Jennifer is married to my good friend Matt Shapo). She caught me up with her grand-nephew Evan while we ate Jehangir’s food and sampled the Garnacha from Hi. Wines, which are intended to be casual, friendly social wines that retail for about $10 a bottle. No pretense, just fun, easy-to-drink fermented grape juice.
It takes all kinds.

What I ate (and drank):

At Bar Blanc:

hors d’oeuvres:
ravioli of salmon with avocado, tomato and basil gelée
mushrom schnitzel with tartar sauce
sardine beignets
chicken sausage with crispy sage
Marquis de Goulaine Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie 2006
Domaine de la Quilla Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie 2006

live scallop carpaccio with champignons de Paris and lemon-olive oil dressing
Domaine de la Landelle Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie Jeune Vignes 2007
Domaine des Hautes Noelles Serge Batard Muscadet Côtes de Grandlieu Sur Lie 2006

stew of Burgundy snails with razor clams, mussels and baby leeks (Matt loved the snails so much, he ate one of Claudine’s — with permission, of course).
Domaine de la Pépière Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie 2006
Guy Bossard Domaine de l’Ecu Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie Expression de Granite 2005

gently confit wild striped bass with porcini and oyster mushrooms in beurre blanc
Sauvion et Fils Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie Haute Culture de Cleray 2006
Luneau-Papin Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie Le L d’Or 1995

At Stanton Social:

sashimi of tuna with pickled jalapeño and wakame salad
Beef carpaccio with whole grain mustard crème fraîche, crispy capers and arugula
2007 Naucratis tank fermented Verdelho

thin crust grilled pizzetta with caramelized peaches, Humboldt Fog goat cheese and crispy Serrano ham
2006 La Severita di Bruto barrel fermented Sauvignon Blanc
and the same wine but from 2005, which tasted extraordinarily unlike the 2006

“purple haze” goat cheese croquettes with raspberry, chile and honey jam
and 2006 The Prince and His Caves tank fermented Sauvignon Blanc

petit pan roasted red snapper with caramelized leeks, littleneck clams, chorizo, garlic, tomato and black olives
and 2004 Scheria Hudson Vineyards Syrah

ancho caramel glazed pork tenderloin with barbecued black bean créma and vidalia tempura (which is to say, onion rings)
and 2004 Babylon ex 3 liter, Tenbrink Vineyards Petite Syrah (Ryan just about lost his mind over this one, which he described, not inaccurately, as “brambly”)

wood grilled hanger steak with crispy potato cakes, blue cheese “fondue” and double-smoked bacon glace
and 2005 Babylon, Tenbrink Vineyards

Cheese plates and chocolate tasting plate
and 2002 and 2005 Oro Puro

And at Graffiti:

green mango paneer with asafoetida, turmeric and chile
salad of beets, olive, feta, almond and grapefruit, which Jehangir serves as a dessert
pistachio-crusted foie gras that had been marinated in Riesling and flavored with whole mustard seed, served with toaste and raspberry jam
seared scallop with pickled ginger, dehydrated lentils and Thai “long chile” jam (presumably prik chee-fah)
pork dumplings with grapefruit confit, topped with fried semolina
pork buns with apricot chutney, cornflakes and peanuts (Liz, who doesn’t eat pork, had one made with eggplant)
black pepper ice cream with panko crumble
chocolate chip cookies, fresh out of the oven, served with hot chocolate flavored with Cointreau, cinnamon and a little orange zest.

lychee martinis
Hi. Garnacha — just a taste, because we were curious

Friday, April 04, 2008

Best New Chefs ’08

April 4

“Like the goatee. Are you riding a Harley now too?” That was Todd English. I guess I haven’t seen him in about a year-and-a-half, because that’s about how old my beard is.
“Yes, I am. Because I am a shit-kicker,” I said.
Todd English seemed shorter at Food & Wine magazine’s Best New Chefs party. Surely he hadn’t shrunk, but he wasn’t towering over the crowd the way he usually does. That’s when I realized how many extraordinarily tall people were there.
Here he is with former "Top Chef” winner Hung Huynh, who just extended his contract at Sòlo — I heard that was because the owners of that restaurant want him to be the chef of a non-Kosher restaurant they plan to open, but one hears a lot of things.
Anyway, as you can see, Todd English is pretty tall.
Starting last year, Food & Wine took to announcing who was on their career-making list of ten best new chefs on the day of the party, in the morning, rather than at the party itself. That kind of defeats the purpose of the party, but, well, it’s still often one of the New York food world’s funnest parties of the year. The crowd’s entertaining and in good cheer, the drinks are plentiful, the food’s delicious.
Anita Lo of Annisa was there early, to catch up with friends and so on, but she also has a restaurant to run so she didn’t stay long, although she was there long enough to say that her new place, Bar Q, would be opening soon (maybe next week, shh).
This year’s winner from New York (and the only one I knew, because Food & Wine really does a very good job at finding relatively unknown chefs) was Michael Psilakis, pictured here with his wife Anna, before he put on his Best New Chef jacket.
“Busy?” he asked me.
“Medium,” I said, and he looked concerned, because, being a chef, he assumes that everyone wants to be crazy-busy with 11 million things going on at once. But I’m a food writer. Medium busy’s just right.
I didn’t take Dan Barber’s picture, but he was there. We spoke about veal that he’s using these days, which is the non-kosher part (below the 13th rib, he said) of kosher veal. I said the non-kosher part could be made kosher by removing a tendon or something, but that it was difficult and time consuming and, now that I think about it, maybe not worth it for veal.
Anyway, Dan says it’s delicious.
I definitely hadn’t seen Scott Conant in awhile (he’s on the left, next to Fiamma chef Fabio Trabocchi) and so he commented on my goatee while handing me a card for Scarpetta, his restaurant on 14th Street and Ninth Avenue that he’s working on. He said a scarpetta is like a streak of sauce that you sop up with a piece of bread, and the restaurant’s logo is, in fact, just such a streak.
Scott used to be the chef and owner of l’impero and Alto, but he sold out of those ventures and Michael White, whom I also ran into at the party, took over as chef of those restaurants. To do so he left his job at Fiamma, leaving an opening for Fabio Trabocchi to fill.
Small world.
Here’s John Besh, the chef of August in New Orleans, towering over Café Boulud’s new executive chef Gavin Kaysen. Gavin is quick-witted and good natured, and he was dishing up crayfish and quail egg en gelée with asparagus, but one of his qualities I like best is that he’s about my height.
Serving of alcohol was temporarily halted so we could watch live entertainment (I could only listen to it because Rick Bayless’s head was right in front of me) and so Food & Wine editor Dana Cowin could introduce the Best New Chefs.
Here she is, a little later in the evening, with Myriad Restaurant Group chief Drew Nieporent. Drew’s 17-year-old restaurant Tribeca Grill is finally being inducted into Nation‘s Restaurant News’ Fine Dining Hall of Fame this year, so he can finally stop asking me when it’s going to be inducted. We’re both happy about that. Drew said he cried those many years ago when Montrachet was inducted.
I asked him when that restaurant was going to reopen.
“You’ll know when I know,” he said. I didn’t ask him if Paul Liebrandt was going to be the chef. That’s the rumor, but you know how rumors are.
Among the passed hors d’oeuvres at the party were little gold boxes of candied, gilded almonds from Gilt. Both executive chef Chris Lee and sommelier Jason Ferris were there, looking pleased. Gilt took awhile to draw crowds, but both Chris and Jason say the place is on fire now, which is always good to hear.
Here’s Chris, on the left, with Tom Colicchio.
Of course plenty of journalists were at the party too. I caught up with Food & Wine intern Nick Pandolfi, brother-in-law of my friend and former colleague Erica Duecy. Nick did a lot of the fact checking for the best new chefs — making sure they fit the award’s criteria. He’s about to graduate from college and so I couldn’t help offering him avuncular advice about career choices. I seem to do that a lot with Nick, give him advice, and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t need it. He takes it graciously enough, though.
Here’s a bad picture of Grub Street’s Josh Ozersky and Ben Leventhal of Eater. It seems to be saying “Here’s handsome Ben and some other guy,”
The picture below is much better, because Josh, too, is handsome in his own way and, well, why shove a guy into the background? It’s mean. And this is a better picture of Ben, too.
Rocco DiSpirito was also at the party. Can you believe it? I hadn’t seen him since December of 2005.
Some people feel bad for Rocco.
“Poor Rocco!” They say. “He had such promise as a chef, and now he’s doing all this weird celebrity stuff.”
Mm hmm. He used to spend countless hours a day in the kitchen of Union Pacific, winning the respect of his peers and nods of appreciation from Gourmet (okay, a cover story, but still) while Emeril Lagasse had cheering crowds and Bobby Flay had screaming teenage girls.
Then, after the Gourmet cover story he was in People magazine, shirt open, chest oiled, as the “sexiest chef alive” and he ran with that.
Once he became the star of the reality TV show The Restaurant, the foodservice industry started to mock him, but last night’s party was an industry event and, believe me, he had no shortage of company.
“Hey! How ya doin’?” he said to me before he was hijacked by a chef who wanted to have him in to his restaurant. I would have taken their pictures, but it seemed like a cliché. I wouldn’t have minded catching up with the guy, but I wasn’t going to stand in line to do it.
One last picture, of (from left to right) fellow journalists Jay Cheshes, Rachel Wharton and Amy Cortese
Oh, I almost forgot to list the winning chefs. Here they are: Jim Burke of James in Philadelphia, Gerard Craft of Niche in St. Louis, Tim Cushman of O Ya in Boston, Jeremy Fox of Ubuntu in Napa, Calif., Koren Grieveson of Avec in Chicago, Michael Psilakis of Anthos in New York City, Ethan Stowell of Union in Seattle, Giuseppe Tentori of Boka in Chicago, Eric Warnstedt of Hen of the Wood in Waterbury, Vt., and Sue Zemanick of Gautreau’s in New Orleans.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Birdman’s comfort food

April 3

My old college friend Birdman aka David Krauss seems lately to have been in the mood for the straight-up food of his youth. But Birdman was raised on the Upper East Side, so his comfort food isn't oatmeal or meatloaf or macaroni and cheese or burgers-fries-and-shakes.
No, for Birdman it's high-end sushi and the food of Daniel Boulud. And expensive alcohol.
So last Saturday we went to Bar Boulud, Daniel’s first Upper West Side venture, which opened at the very end of last year. We sat at the communal table and got the charcuterie tasting, followed by a plate of grilled Maine sardines and then the cheese tasting, sampling the wine-by-the-glass menu along the way, until the end when we splurged on a glass of fine de bourgogne for Birdman and one of calvados for me.
Birdman and I have mostly similar tastes, although he has an aversion to sweet elements in savory food, or cocktails, and he likes more subtle wine than I do, with a distinct dislike for earthy, flinty flavors which I enjoy. He doesn’t like “jammy” wines, either. When I drink Rhône, he's likely to have Beaujolais.
During dinner, he expressed an interest in having another meal this week.
“I’m in the mood for sushi,” he said.
When Birdman is interested in something, he learns everything there is to learn about it. When he decided — many years ago, of course — that he liked The Lord of the Rings, he went on to read The Hobbit, of course, but then continued with the Silmarillion (as I did, too, I admit) and then went on to find Tolkien’s unfinished works and read them, too. That’s just the way he is.
Birdman is interested in Japanese food.
He’s also a purist, so the rock-and-roll sushi with multicolored roe and diced mango and plum sauce and melted cheese holds no appeal for him.
And so the people at Sushi Yasuda know him.
We had 9:15 p.m. reservations because, well, sometimes that’s just the way it is when you call on Monday for a Wednesday reservation at Yasuda. Birdman’s shtick at Yasuda is simply to sit down and put himself in the hands of the sushi chef to feed us as he sees fit. And so we had, among other things, raw scallops and yellowtail and octopus and shrimp and lean tuna (akami) and fatty tuna (toro) and — and this was interesting — two kinds of uni (sea urchin), one from Santa Barbara and one from Maine.
What do you suppose Japan would be like if it were in the North Atlantic rather than the North Pacific?

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Introducing Gavin Kaysen

April 2

I had no idea Kevin Patricio had tied the knot! I sat next to his wife on Monday at Café Boulud, where a press lunch was being held to introduce that restaurant’s new executive chef, Gavin Kaysen, to New York food media.
I actually first interviewed Gavin back in 2004 for an article I was writing about popcorn. Gavin was chef de cuisine of El Bizcocho at the Rancho Bernardo Inn in San Diego, and he was drizzling popcorn with foie gras fat.
I interviewed him a couple of years later about basil seeds, which soak up liquid and get all gelatinous (but not if you use citrus juice). He was using them in raw fish preparations at the time.
He represented the United States in the most recent Bocuse D’Or competition in Lyon. He came in 14th out of 24, which isn't bad, especially since his French assistant, Kevin, for some unknown reason ate the chicken wings that were supposed to garnish one of Gavin’s plates.
I mean, who does that?
Also, the United States doesn’t take the Bocuse d'Or seriously. Daniel said that Norway, by contrast, has a $1 million budget for its competitor.
It did get Gavin to meet Daniel, however, and landed him a high-profile job at Café Boulud (although Gavin also was a Food & Wine Best New Chef last year, so he was already doing well).
Anyway, Kevin Patricio, who is a cook, a marketer and is currently working on opening a restaurant with cocktail guy Jim Meehan, is married to Maite Montenegro, the Maître d' at Daniel. And she sat to my right at lunch. To my left was freelancer Kathleen Squires, who was recently in Japan for three months and shared many stories of it. She also recommended that I check out Soto restaurant here in New York, which she says is doing things very much in line with what the avant-garde restaurants in Tokyo are doing.
Next to Kathleen was engaging conversationalist and talented photographer Michael Harlan Turkell. We also had a Brazilian journalist and a guy from Wine Spectator at the table. So it was a good table. But the dining room was full of cool people. At least one of the Batterburys was there, and Regina Schrambling, and Jennifer Leuzzi, who actually videotaped Daniel’s introduction of Gavin. Daniel said Gavin had worked with Jennifer’s husband, Laurent Gras.
I think it was Gavin. Daniel actually introduced a bunch of chefs, including db Bistro Moderne executive sous chef Jim Leiken, who, he announced, will be heading up the chef’s new burger restaurant downtown, whenever it opens [indeed, it turns out that it was Eddy Leroux, co-chef de cuisine at Daniel, who worked with Laurent -- see comment #1 below]..
In the meantime, at lunch we ate:

Kona Kampachi sashimi with gingered carrot purée, lime gelée, avocado and coriander blossoms
2006 Beringer Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc

Yukon gold potato gnocchi with butter poached shrimp and green asparagus
2005 Beringer private reserve Napa Valley Chardonnay

Jamison Farms roasted saddle of spring lamb with sugar snap peas, flageolets, tomato confit and morel jus
1995 Beringer private reserve Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon

Chocolate-hazelnut bar with meyer lemon marmalade, rice crispy and perrier lemon sorbet
2003 Beringer “Nightingale” botrytised Napa Valley

(By the way, that picture is of Gavin in 2006, posing for publicity for a 17-course dinner that he and 16 of his chef friends did to help raise money for the Bocuse d’Or competition).