Tuesday, December 02, 2008

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.

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