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.