Monday, November 30, 2009

Legal pot: Kind for restaurant sales or cause of chronic absenteeism?

November 30

There was an interesting article in last Monday’s Washington Post, saying that support for legalization of marijuana is growing rapidly in the United States.

It took the Great Depression to repeal the prohibition of alcohol (the 76th anniversary of that is being celebrated this coming weekend in what has become a sort of holiday in the mixology world). Will our current economic crisis lead to the legalization of another substance that is used widely by Americans to relieve stress? The tax revenues alone would be enormous.

Obviously, we at Nation’s Restaurant News like to look at this from the restaurateurs’ perspective.

And so I would like to ask you how you think legalization of marijuana would affect the restaurant world.

Please participate in the poll (you can choose multiple answers), comment below or do both.

Glad tidings from Hawaii

November 30

Our loss is Honolulu’s gain. Johan Svensson, who until recently was executive chef at Aquavit, has moved to Hawaii.

If you’re wondering what I’m talking about because you thought celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson was executive chef of Aquavit, Samuelsson is chef-owner of Aquavit and hasn’t been executive chef there for years. He does spend a fair amount of time there, though; Nation’s Restaurant News’ offices are across the street, so I meet people there for drinks with some frequency, and Samuelsson often comes out to say hello.

But of course he can’t be there all the time. Sometimes he’s busy cooking state dinners at the White House, or otherwise occupied as a celebrity. It happens.

Johan was the opening executive chef of Riingo, which is under the same ownership as Aquavit, and he became Aquavit’s executive chef after Nils Noren left that position to work at the French Culinary Institute.

But he is moving to sunny, sunny Honolulu to work for the BLT Steak scheduled to open on Waikiki at the new Trump International Hotel & Tower there.

Details (like exactly what his job is there) haven’t been confirmed, but I’ll write up a news item on that for NRN once they have been.

Meanwhile, back in New York, Marcus Jernmark, who started working at Aquavit in August as a sous-chef, is running the kitchen for the time being.

This particular Marcus is no slouch, either, having recently worked at the residence of Sweden’s consul-general in New York, but. management still seems to be looking for someone to fill the position permanently.

At any rate, congratulations all-around.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

split decision

November 25

Thank you, one and all, for participating in my poll on mandated sick leave.
Forty-five percent of respondents said it would significantly increase restaurants’ operating costs. Another 45 percent said it would make no difference, and one person said it would significantly decrease operating costs. Since only 11 people participated in the poll, however, that one person accounted for 9 percent of total votes.
Of more interest, I think, were the insightful comments this blog's readers made. You you can look at or add to them here.
Machinations are underway for a new poll on Monday. It should be a doozy, so stay tuned.


significantly increase operating costs 5 (45%)

significantly decrease operating costs 1 (9%)

make no difference 5 (45%)

Friday, November 20, 2009

Kurve unkurving

November 20

On Monday Pichet Ong was busily plating yuzu cheesecake and jackfruit cake and passing out peanut butter cookies at a press event for his new dessert venture on St. Mark's Place with Michael Bao Huynh, called Spot, when ponytailed Andy Yang walked in and started telling me about new activities in his world.

Andy’s the owner of Rhong Tiam, my favorite Thai restaurant in the city and the recipient of a Michelin star (something that improved my opinion of the tire company’s New York guide considerably). He’s also the owner of one of’s favorite punching bags, Kurve.

Rhong Tiam serves quite traditional Thai food, with an occasional Indonesian dish such as rendang dropped in here and there, the spice toned down to suit the New York palate. Kurve, on the other hand, was Andy’s attempt at a sort of nouvelle Thai, which I enjoyed, but I guess it was too high-concept for people not so familiar with Thai food (I wrote about all of that in more detail than necessary awhile back).
Pichet did the desserts there, by the way.

Anyway, Kurve is finally giving up the ghost, soon to be reborn as another Rhong Tiam.

But that’s not all. Andy’s also working with the people at Collective Hardware, at Bowery and Delancey, to open a Rhong Tiam there, to be called Rhong Tiam at Collective Hardware (not a particularly imaginative name, but clear enough). He’s currently working on getting a full liquor license for that location — which will also have a rooftop bar, maybe with a celebrity cocktail maker behind the stick — and then he’ll try to get one for his original location at 541 LaGuardia Place (between Bleecker and W. 3rd), which currently just serves beer and wine.

Andy’s also expanding beyond the New York market, and opening a Rhong Tiam just outside of Princeton, N.J., in the town of Plainsboro. He says it will probably open in about a month.

After catching up with Andy and eating Pichet's desserts, I felt a need for something savory, so I walked upstairs to Pho 32 and Shabu. Pho, as you probably know, is a type of Vietnamese noodle soup. Shabu is actually shabu shabu, a sort of Japanese hot pot of thinly sliced beef.

But the menu was in English and Korean, which actually was the second indication to me that Pho 32 was a Korean chain. The first was that the instant I sat down I was presented with a cold vegetable — in this case one of those "Asian" salads with a peanut vinaigrette. The servers all wore stylized sarongs that looked basically Burmese. I’m not sure why they were wearing sarongs, but hey, if you’re a Korean chain serving Vietnamese and Japanese food, why not?

I had Pho #3, which has brisket, flank and soft tendon. I would have had a beer, but the license is pending.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Parties, and New York’s shifting food writer hierarchy

November 18

I’m not a first-tier food writer in New York City.

You probably already knew that, but if you didn’t, I hope you’re not disappointed.

Chefs tend to enjoy getting mentioned in Nation’s Restaurant News, in print or online, but, well, if Food & Wine declares you one of the year’s ten best new chefs, that’s better, by a lot.

A friend of mine who’s a restaurant manager here in the City told me recently that getting a restaurant mentioned in my blog was a good second-tier hit, which was nice of him, and generous. New York has a lot of tiers. I think I’m probably around tier number four.

That’s okay. I have enough oomph that chefs return my phone calls more often than not, and restaurateurs let me come to their parties (not to brag; that’s true at tier 6, too). And really it takes the pressure off of me. If you’re in a top tier — say a critic at the Times or New York magazine — people take your words seriously. Losing a New York Times star can cost you not only prestige, but money. Even if I were a critic I couldn’t break a place, and that’s a relief. All I can do is spread a little sunshine, or very occasionally hurt someone’s feelings.

And any commenter on Yelp! can hurt restaurateurs’ feelings. They’re sensitive.

The people at Oceana certainly had hurt feelings when I was there for lunch yesterday. New York had just given them a hostile-sounding one-star review. The restaurant had recently relocated from an upper-midtown townhouse to a giant space in the McGraw Hill building that most recently housed a Strawberries clothing store. I’m a food guy, not a décor guy, but I loved the place — big and fun like a brasserie. And it was doing a robust lunch business for a buttoned-up clientele — I was glad I’d worn a suit that day.

But New York critic Adam Platt mostly didn’t like it, and he hated the space.

The chefs and owners were obviously disappointed, but they were also nervous, because the Times was reviewing it today (turns out it got two stars, which would be nice, except until today it had three stars).

Back to the different tiers of New York food writers, I think it’s fair to say that the new Times critic, Sam Sifton, occupies the top tier by himself, and Mr. Platt is on tier 2.

Then again, maybe not. The Times remains the religion of a large group of New Yorkers, but as media outlets multiply and publishing empires crumble, there’s a fair amount of apostasy going on. How Oceana’s loss of a star — or the drubbing poor Aureole took in last week’s one-star review — will actually affect sales remains to be seen. Up until now, business at both restaurants has reportedly been good, and it hasn’t been the fickle trend lemmings filling the seats, from what I understand.

Anyway, what got me thinking about this whole tier thing had to do with some of the parties I went to last week — at the opening of Obao a food writer from one web site was just a tiny bit miffed that he wasn’t invited to Eleven Madison Park’s eleventh anniversary the night before, even though people from had been invited.

The Eleven Madison Park party was good, but there actually wasn’t a whole lot of media there. I think most of the guests were simply good customers of the restaurant. I mostly spent the evening with my bosses, Pam Parseghian and Ellen Koteff, but I did enjoy a story from a caviar salesperson explaining how her competitors stole business from her: Their tactic was to call the restaurant on the chef’s day off and just say, “hi, I’m calling about your caviar order.”


And my friend Akiko Katayama, practiced networker that she is, introduced me to Financial Times reporter Nick Lander, who shared with me the interesting fact that, although Indian food is tremendously popular in Great Britain, it’s only popular at dinner. People don’t eat it at lunch.

The geniuses at Eleven Madison Park were waiting outside with full-on coffee service in to-go cups for people as they were leaving. This is no surprise as the place is ably led by general manager Will Guidara, who many NRN readers might be interested to know is the son of chain restaurant veteran Frank Guidara, who currently heads up Uno Chicago Grill.

Akiko also was at the opening on the following night of Obao (Michael Bao Huynh’s new place; I ate oxtail soup and crunchy pork belly cubes on skewers), which I got to late, so she was going as I was coming, because Bar Henry was opening that night, and she had a dinner to go to after that.

No, you won’t see grass growing under Akiko’s feet.

I was soon at Bar Henry, too, having taken the subway with Metromix's Alexis Loinaz and a friend of his whose name I have forgotten.

I hadn’t bothered to read anything about Bar Henry, but it was soon evident that it had a serious wine list, because high-tiered wine writer Alice Fiering was there.

Alice does not suffer fools lightly and would not set foot in a random bar opening. No way.

And soon Food & Wine’s Kate Krader was there, too.

We were drinking good wine throughout the party, but, you know, it was opening-party wine.

But they pulled out the good stuff for Alice and Kate, and soon I was enjoying a 1999 Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Hurray!

(A brief aside: Châteauneuf-du-Pape comes specifically from Avignon, which was where the head of the Catholic Church relocated for much of the 14th Century; this is easy to remember because the wine’s name means “the Pope’s new castle.”)

We had good conversation, too, although perhaps I shouldn’t have called Kate the spotted pig-lady. Really, I meant “The Spotted Pig lady,” which is to say she was a key player in garnering fame and attention for New York’s favorite gastropub, The Spotted Pig, but out of context it doesn’t sound very good.

I could also call her the Momofuku lady. Maybe I’ll do that next time.

What I ate at Oceana:

marinated oysters with cucumbers, apple and toasted spices
Taylor Bay scallops with shoyu and togarashi
a poke trio of tuna, hamachi and wild salmon
fluke tartare with cashews, mango and young coconut
snapper ceviche with roasted corn, hearts of palm and cilantro
Thai style red snapper with silk squash, jícama and kaffir lime-coconut water broth
Arctic char á la plancha with sautéed root vegetables and cranberry-apple coulis
Frozen pear chiboust with yogurt lemon grass soup and angel food cake croutons
Persimmon cake with apple sorbet
Assorted doughnuts

paid sick leave

November 18

I’m happy to report that the past 500 visitors to this blog came from 32 different U.S. states, four Canadian provinces and eight other countries, but 68 of you (that's 13.6 percent) came from New York.

So for my next poll I'd like to address an issue concerning local restaurants, that of mandated paid sick leave for workers.

The New York City Council’s considering such a measure, and so of course we at Nation’s Restaurant News are writing about it.

And one of my colleagues wants to ask you what you think.

For some background information, click here.

Pleas click what you think on the upper right hand corner of this blog, and, as always, feel free to write comments below, too.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Environmentalism and marketing

November 16

Oh, you cynical, cynical blog readers.

In my most recent poll I asked you to complete this sentence: “I think the main reason restaurateurs are engaging in more environmentally sound practices is...”

Seventeen percent of respondents clicked on “To save money by reducing waste.”

Another 17 percent clicked on “Because they want to help protect the environment.

And 66 percent of you clicked on “Marketing.”

What dark souls you must have.

On the other hand, it’s not like our environment has only been imperiled since Al Gore made a movie about it. I was writing about global warming in college, in the late 1980s. Air and water pollution? Tom Lehrer was singing about it in the 1960s.

The first Earth Day was in 1970.

What has changed? Now environmentalism is cool.

So I guess you have a point.

I’m afraid I don’t have another poll ready for you, but when I do, you’ll be the first to know.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Maialino opens tomorrow

November 10

Danny Meyer's much-anticipated Roman trattoria at Ian Schrager's Gramercy Park Hotel opens tomorrow, according to a press release that landed in my e-mail box at 2:40 p.m. Reservations (212-777-2410) will be limited, initially, though walk-ins are welcome. The restaurant will only be serving dinner for the next couple of weeks, but management plans to start serving breakfast in December, and lunch in January.

But of course it all depends. Danny Meyer's Union Square Hospitality Group is perhaps the most respected restaurant company in New York — possibly even in the country — but I don't know of any opening it's had without a glitch or two. The genius of the company is that it sees the hiccups and fixes them in short order.

The chef is Nick Anderer, a veteran of Danny Meyer's organization, having most recently cooked at Gramercy Tavern (for the past six years). Before that he worked in Milan at San Giorgio et il Drago, and before that he was at Mario Batali's flagship, Babbo (and made it into Heat, Bill Buford’s book about cooking there). He also worked under local-seasonal pioneer Larry Forgione.

General manager Terry Coughlin most recently was GM at another Danny Meyer place, Tabla.

I bet there will be much talk of the restaurant tomorrow night at 11 Madison Park, Meyer's four-star restaurant, which is celebrating its 11th anniversary with what I assume will be a blow-out party. I know I’m looking forward to it.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Supporting my local restaurateurs

November 9

Starting out the week by doing a good deed, because I rarely hear from restaurateurs themselves instead of publicists (true story: one publicist today sent a press release to me about an image consultant, noting the importance of a first impression, and then sent out a correction because she had misspelled her client's first name), I’d like to help out Astoria restaurateur Yann Henri (non-New Yorkers, Astoria is in the borough of Queens), who says he opened a little French place called Bistro Les Minots last March at 47-16 30th Avenue (non-New Yorkers, that’s what Queens addresses look like, and they’re quite brilliant; the number before the hyphen indicates what cross street it’s near).

The owners are French, from Paris and Marseille, and the menu is traditional French bistro fare. They serve a $16.95 prix-fixe lunch and a $19.95 prix-fixe dinner.

They also have a $19.95 all-you-can eat moules-frites special on Monday. The restaurant’s phone number is 718-606-2535.
This message has been brought to you by the fact that I’m in a good mood today.

Friday, November 06, 2009

I take it that means, “no”

November 6

Well, my latest poll was a dud. I asked readers of this blog if they or their customers had changed their food-sharing habits due to fears of the H1N1 virus. Only seven people responded. Five said no, two said yes, everyone else, by their lack of response, I guess were indicating that they hadn’t thought about it or weren’t interested in the question.

That’s fair.

Here’s another one for you, from another of my colleagues, about restaurants’ moves to engage in more environmentally sound practices.
As always, feel free to comment below.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009


November 3

Clark Mitchell does not, I repeat does not, drink vodka Martinis. I’m not sure why I thought he did, or why I said he did in this recent blog entry, but I have fixed the mistake and thought I should let you know.

Normally I’d just fix the mistake and go on with my life, and Clark certainly didn't grouse about my error, but, well, vodka and gin Martinis illustrate people in very different ways.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Books, Southeast Asian food and what not to say at dinner

November 2

I went to some good parties last week, including two book parties.

I don’t go to book parties much, because we don’t have much use for cookbooks at NRN — occasionally we can use art from them, but that’s about it — and I personally like to cook based on what’s on hand. If I have questions about specific technique I just grab my battered copy of The Joy of Cooking.

But on Wednesday, after going to the see-and-be-seen party at The Four Seasons to welcome its new chef, Fabio Trabocchi (the most interesting person I met was a writer and publicist with the unlikely name of Paxton Quigley, author of Armed and Female, a self-help book instructing women how to use guns to protect themselves), I went to the East Village for the launch of the Veselka cookbook. So I went from really lovely Champagne and foie gras and truffles to cheap red wine and pierogis, but I like pierogis and haven’t met many wines I can’t drink (I do remember one, boasting that it was made from 100 percent grapes! that was kind of hard to get down). So I chowed down on pierogies and borscht and meatballs and ran into my old colleague Craig Waters (his byline is C. Dickinson Waters, in case you want to look for it), who now works on the business end of Macmillan, which published the Veselka book.

Then yesterday I went to a packed event celebrating Marcus Samuelsson’s new book, New American Table. The party was sponsored and thrown by HSBC bank, which I remember from back when it went by its full name, Hongkong Shanghai Banking Corporation. Now, of course, it’s going for more universal appeal.

A lot of bankers were at the party, including a nice one with whom I spoke about travel to Southeast Asia. But some chefs were there, too, including Alfred Portale from Gotham Bar & Grill and Nils Noren from the French Culinary Institute, who for many years was Marcus' executive chef at Aquavit. Anita Lo, of the once and perhaps future Annisa and the current Rickshaw Dumpling Bar, was there, too, and I had a long chat with chef, consultant, writer, etc. Robert Danhi, who moderated a panel I was on a couple of years ago at the National Restaurant Show. It was about Asian food trends. Robert, who's based in Southern California, is married to a Malaysian woman and travels back and forth to Southeast Asia a lot. So we talked about his love for durian, my inability to appreciate it so far, the joy of a good mangosteen, and other things.

Marcus came by and ripped off my nametag in disgust, wondering why a bank would make us wear such things. He did it in a really friendly way, though. Marcus is good people.

I wasn’t so sure about people I’d met earlier in the week. At one dinner I sat next to a woman who expressed shock and almost disgust that I would admit to liking science fiction. She liked realistic things, she said, because she was a Virgo. I asked her, then, about her belief in astrology, and she readily acknowledged the contradiction, so maybe she wasn’t so bad. But still, who at a civilized dinner would show disgust for someone else’s taste? It’s not nice.

But speaking of Robert Danhi, I did have good Southeast Asian food at the Beard House last week, where Mohan Ismail, the chef of Rock Sugar, was cooking.

Rock Sugar’s a Southeast Asian restaurant in Los Angeles that’s the little brother of Cheesecake Factory. Ismail, who’s originally from Singapore — click here if you’d like to read a whole profile and interview of the guy, written by my colleague Lisa Jennings — but the salient point for this story is that he was on the opening team of Spice Market in New York’s Meatpacking District, and so was Pichet Ong, who was also at the Beard House, helping Mohan.

Pichet told me a little about his new dessert shop that’s opening soon on St. Mark's Place. He said it would be a masculine dessert shop, rather than all the frilly and feminine ones that are out there.

He said the only other masculine dessert place in town was Max Brenner’s, but Pichet’s consulting with Max these days, so he’s biased.

What I ate at the Beard House:

Hors d’oeuvre:

Crispy imperial rolls with pork, shrimp and shiitake mushrooms
Raw hamachi with sesame and tobiko
Crispy chicken samosas with cilantro yogurt
Stuffed naan with spicy ketchup
Champagne Nicolas Feuillatte Brut Rosé NV


Green mango and papaya salad with crushed peanuts and crispy shallots
Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc 2006

Indonesian-grilled cilantro shrimp with corn, sweet potatoes, peas, coconut milk and chiles
L’Aventure Rousanne 2007

Tai snapper with gai lan, shiitakes, and padifield sauce (a rich chile sauce reminiscent of many chile sauces that top whole in Thailand, although this fish was filleted)
Side dishes for the table: Coconut rice with lemon grass, pandan leaves and cashews, and nonya sambal eggplant with sweet soy and chiles (“Nonya” is a Malaysian word for “grandmother” and also refers to the Peranakan cuisine of what are known as the Straits Chinese of Peninsular Malaysia, and Singapore, who are the descendants mostly of Chinese immigrant men who were imported by the British to work in the tin mines and married Malay women; the food is those women’s attempts to make Chinese food, which naturally included incorporating local ingredients, techniques and sensibilities).
Robert Sinskey Vineyards Los Carneros Napa Valley Merlot 2005

Singapore black pepper filet mignon with asparagus and shiitakes (you might think of shiitakes as Japanese — I know I do — but I once visited a shiitake farm in Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands)
Roth Cabernet Estate Bottled Sauvignon 2006

Caramelized banana custard cake with milk chocolate ice cream, malted crème Anglaise and praline nut brittle
Saracco Moscato d’Asti 2007