Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Free lunch

December 29

It turns out that I have one more blog entry to make this year, to let you know about a free lunch tomorrow at Rhong Tiam East, formerly known as Kurve. That's 87 2nd Ave., at the northwest corner of 5th St.

Chef-owner Andy Yang is promoting his rendang. That's actually an Indonesian dish, but Andy tells me it's made in Thailand, too, where it's called panang neua toon. It's a rich, dark brown curry that should be appropriate for the blustery cold day that Wednesday the 30th promises to be.

Andy's using his grandmother's recipe and serving it with either flat wide noodles called sen yai or the Thai version of ramen, called ba mee.

Rendang is traditionally made with beef, but Andy's serving it with either beef of chicken. As I said, it's free tomorrow, from noon to 3. Every day after that it's $4.95.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

trying for a better decade

December 23

I have a feeling I’m not going to have much to report to you for the rest of the year. I’m lying low for Christmas and still waiting to see what materializes for New Year's Eve.

I rarely plan in advance for New Year's Eve, because that inevitably raises expectations and usually results in disappointment. Last minute invitations generally find their way to me around December 28, and if they don't, well, I’m happy to spend the holiday quietly at home, avoiding the amateurs who crowd the restaurants and bars that night — people who don’t go out much and don’t know how to drink properly or, really, behave in public generally. You see them in restaurants on Valentine’s Day, too.

The last time I tried to make plans in advance for New Year’s Eve was in 1999, because, you know, that was kind of a big deal, it being the end of the millennium and all (I know, technically the millennium ended in December of 2000, but you know what I mean).

I failed. My friends, turned off by all the hype, were mostly planning quiet affairs at home. So I made myself prime rib with Yorkshire pudding and asparagus and planned to enjoy myself that way, when I got phone calls from two friends, separately, who had suddenly popped up in the city, and, after I finished my dinner, I ended up party hopping with them. They were Thomas Crampton, who if memory serves was working for The International Herald Tribune and doing a stint at a sister publication called The New York Times, and Craig Stuart, who at the time was in business school at Yale and dating Susan Kim, who is now Susan Kim-Stuart, and Craig is a vice president at Wells Fargo Bank. I’m so proud.

It was a good evening.

If you’re old enough, you’ll remember that New Year's Eve of 1999 was a big bust for the hospitality industry, which had, for the most part, jacked up prices in anticipation of revelers feeling obligated to pull out the stops for this once-in-a-lifetime celebration opportunity.

Well, the American public quietly and non-confrontationally rebelled. Instead of doing what was expected, like they do on most Valentine’s Days and New Year's Eves, they said, “Screw you, we are not paying $1,000 per person for dinner,” and stayed home.

I’d never seen a consumer rebellion like that before, and I haven’t seen one since.

Some restaurant operators I spoke to afterwards blamed all the hype about Y2K (remember that?) for people staying home, but I think they were just fed up with the obvious greed of the restaurants, hotels and bars where they otherwise would have celebrated. It was just too much.

That was ten years ago, and since then, well, I, personally, have had a great decade, but from 9/11 to the economic collapse and every lousy piece of garbage in between — war, hurricanes, tsunamis — so far the 21st Century has been lousy.

And here’s something weird: We have yet to pick a name for this decade. I think we all figured that some name would emerge. The leading candidate seems to be “the aughts,” or possibly “the naughts,” although both of those seem so early 20th Century. “The naughties” has been suggested, and “the oughties,” and we'll see if either one of those takes.

The TV show Futurama refers to this period, broadly, as The Stupid Ages, and, frankly, that works for me.

Let's hope the teens are better.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Latkes and Bones

December 13

[update June 2, 2011: a new latke recipe can be found at the bottom of this entry]

I’m sort of on vacation in Denver (sort of, because I’m also working on stories on chili and on likely food trends in 2010, and keeping my blog up to date).

I like to travel between Thanksgiving and Christmas, because it’s a lot easier than traveling during those holidays. Technically, I’m also here, visiting family, during Chanukah, so I made latkes for the first time in about 15 years.

Latkes are the traditional Chanukah food of East European Jews. They're potato pancakes, preferably fried in a lot of oil.

Because Chanukah is the celebration of the Jews’ successful guerrilla war against the forces of the Seleucids, who inherited a big chunk of the Middle East from Alexander the Great. A military victory is not considered a suitable reason for a religious holiday, so instead we celebrate what seems to me to be a very minor miracle involving oil (sanctified oil used to fuel the eternal flame in the Temple) that lasted a lot longer than expected.

Chanukah is often called the festival of lights, but as a food person I like to think of it as the festival of oil.

The best latkes I’ve ever had were technically platski, which is what Poles call them. I had them at Lomzynianka in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Greenpoint.

I e-mailed the restaurant, asking how they made them, but I didn’t hear back, so I used the recipe I’ve been using since I was probably 12 years old, which I learned from Bobbie Towbin around then.

It’s very simple.

In a food processor, purée together one peeled white or yellow onion for every two large potatoes. Season with salt. Spoon into hot oil and fry. Serve with applesauce and sour cream.

This time I drained the mixture first. The latkes were nice and crispy, but they weren’t fantastic. I think they need work.

I think next time I might spread the purée on wax paper or parchment paper, freeze it in sheets and then slice it into latke-sized pieces for better consistency in shape and thickness, and ease in dropping them into hot oil.

I haven’t eaten out much on this trip, although I did go to Bones with my old friend Ben Weinberg. Bones is the nickname of chef Frank Bonanno, who also owns Mizuna, Luca D’Itlaia and Osteria Marco.

Bones is an Asian-ish place, focusing on noodles. I think I’d place it in that not-yet-defined restaurant category of fast-fine: Top-notch food, reasonably priced in a setting that lets you get in and out quickly. Some trend spotters see that type of dining as the future of fine dining in America (not that white tablecloth restaurants will go away, but there will be fewer of them).

What we ate and drank:

black cod tempura
steamed pork belly buns
udon with slow-cooked pork shoulder from Salmon Creek Farms, topped with a poached egg
ba mee with roasted spaghetti squash, mustard greens and horseradish mascarpone cream
2008 Infinite Monkey Riesling (Denver)
I also got an order of escargot pot stickers to take home to Mom.

[update, June 2, 2011, below]:

I got an e-mail from Bobbie Towbin awhile back, who said my recipe was incomplete and inaccurate.
I have finally pasted her full recipe below.
I have no recollection of ever following this recipe as a kid when we made latkes with Bobbie in Hebrew school, but maybe she secretly slipped in some of the ingredients. More likely, I wasn't paying attention:

2 very large potatoes
1/3 medium yellow onion
2 eggs
salt and pepper to taste (be generous)
1/4 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp sugar

Chop 1 potato in Cuisinart medium fine with 1 egg and onion.
Put second potato through Cuisinart grater
Mix all together with seasoning
Heat oil and drop mixture from mixing spoon into frying pan.
Fry until brown and crisp.
Don't drain the potatoes until they become too watery at the  

end, you lose too much of the potato starch if you drain them initially.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Predicting the future

December 10

The results of my marijuana poll are in. There were 27 responses from 20 people, because I let people pick more than one answer.

Nearly half of people responding to my poll asking how they thought legalizing marijuana would affect restaurants said it would have no affect, presumably based on the assumption that people who want to use marijuana already do.
The next biggest group, 40 percent, thought legal pot would increase restaurant revenues due to customers getting the munchies. The rest of the results are below. If you'd like to see respondents' written comments, click here.

How would legalizing marijuana affect restaurants?

increase revenues due to customers getting the munchies: 8 (40%)

increase the number of back-of-the-house injuries: 3 (15%)

result in chronic absenteeism: 1 (5%)

improve job satisfaction: 4 (20%)

benefit the pot-themed Cheba Hut "Toasted" Sub chain: 3 (15%)

hurt Cheba Hut: 0 (0%)

have no effect: 9 (45 %)

For my next poll (above right), I'm going to ask you to predict what the driving factors will be in foodservice trends in 2010.
As always, feel free to comment below.

Elevation Burger a step closer to opening in New York

December 10

I mentioned awhile back that Elevation Burger, a chain serving grass-fed beef and olive oil fries, had plans for opening in New York City.
Well, they finally signed a lease, at 103 W. 14th St., next to 7-Eleven's new flagship location in the city.
They hope to open in May.
The 1,900-square-foot restaurant is expected to seat 50-60 people inside and it also will have an outdoor seating area.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Shameless self-promotion

December 9

New York’s a great city on so many levels, and it’s romantic, too. So get ready this Valentine’s Day weekend for a big food writers' conference at the Roger Smith Hotel. I'll be on two panels, one on food writing in magazines, and one on food writing in blogs and such.
The conference web site says those panels are running concurrently, so I’m not exactly sure how that will work, but conference organizer Andy Smith is a very capable man. I’m sure he’ll figure it out.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

News from Prospect Lefferts Gardens and Columbus Circle

December 8

I'm in Denver at the moment, and I'd tell you all about what's going on in the Mile High City, but it’s 4° outside right now, so I haven't been wandering the streets exploring as is my wont.

Instead I’ve been working, researching and generally learning things, some of which I’d like to share with you, dear reader:

1) Poor Prospect Lefferts Gardens! It has lost one of its only full-service restaurants. My friend Milford Prewitt reports on the closing of Fly Fish:

“When it opened, it was named Billy Sunday's Barbecue, but I pointed out to them that Billy Sunday was a kind of Rush Limbaugh evangelistic preacher back during the Depression days who was racist and used the then-new technology of radio to rant and rail against blacks and immigrants with the Bible for support. He used a tent to feed barbecue to his flock after a sermon.

"So they changed the name to Whisky Sunday and that did no better.

"Finally they got out of the barbecue biz, rebranded the whole concept into a New Orleans-style deep-fried fish and chicken shack called Fly Fish."

But alas, some issue having to do with rent meant it shut its doors for good last Thursday, and, Milford tells me, will likely lie fallow through the winter.

Enduro, next door, is still doing very well.

2) If you follow, um, news, you’ve likely heard that AOL and Time Warner are parting ways because the plan for AOL to use its distribution network to broadcast content provided by Time didn’t pan out.

But the news is not all bad for those of us in the world of food writing.

AOL is working on developing content of its own, and that includes food. They’ve brought on Cheryl Brown, quite recently of Gourmet, as food director and, from what I hear, she has brought on a bunch of the people from the former Gourmet test kitchen to do some freelance work at AOL.

That’s nice.

Friday, December 04, 2009

My week on the Lower East Side

December 4

It’s been a good week, not least because I got to chat with Brad Farmerie. Twice.

Brad is the warm and gracious chef of Public (and the adjacent Monday Room) and Double Crown. I first saw him at the first anniversary of Shang, Sino-Canadian chef Susur Lee’s restaurant at the Thompson LES hotel.

I hadn’t made it to Shang before, and the space wasn’t what I’d expected. It has a cavernous industrial looking lounge with lots of concrete. I think I’d imagined something sleeker and faux-Asian in dark lacquered wood like at Kittichai (faux because in all my years in Asia I’ve never seen anything designed that way — the closest to it being the Sukhothai hotel in Bangkok, which I think is beautiful).

The party had a good and eclectic turnout that included cookbook writers and journalists, bloggers and chefs, restaurateurs and radio personalities.

Okay, one radio personality that I know of — Leonard Lopate — whom I greeted while he and Drew Nieporent were catching up.

Among the chefs were Anita Lo and Seamus Mullen. Seamus greeted Brad with a warm but intense two-handed grab of the back of his neck. I’d never seen that before.

I’m guessing that Brad and Seamus bonded when they were contestants on The Next Iron Chef. I spoke with Brad about that a bit. He seemed to have just a hint of post-reality-TV ennui — wondering why he put himself through all of that, but maybe I’m imagining it. He did say that the winner, Jose Garces, was a great guy.

I ended up falling in with the New York Post’s Carla Spartos and her colleague Julie Frady. Julie mostly does layout, but she did think up the headline that the Post used when Dick Cheney shot that guy in the face while quail hunting: “The Buckshot’s Here.”

Oh, I do love Post headlines.

The celebration started late for a sit-down dinner — cocktails at 8, dinner at 9 — especially since they had many more guests than they had seats, so the dining was staggered.

I wasn’t really paying attention; I was talking to food writers Francine Cohen and Nancy Davidson when I was grabbed by one of the hosts and seated between Carla and Julie.

It was fun.

I had been wondering about the restaurant’s name. Shang, and the Chinese character in the restaurant’s logo, means “on” or “above” or ”high” or similar things. It’s the first character of the word Shanghai, which means ”on the sea.”

I asked Susur about that when he stopped by our table, and he said his intention had been for Shang to be a step up from his other restaurants. He said that, in fact, it turned out to be a step down from them.

I’m not exactly sure what he meant, but it seemed refreshingly honest.

Less than 24-hours later I was back on the Lower East Side at the relaunch party of Kampuchea, which has expanded and is now a dual concept place — one with slightly haute Cambodianish cuisine, and the other, in back, is called "The Norry at Kampuchea." A Norry is apparently a type of primitive Cambodian train made of bamboo, and that part of the restaurant is a cocktail-and-handheld-food venue.

Brad Farmerie was there, too, and so was his brother Adam, whom I’d never met before. Adam’s the co-founder of AvroKO, the design firm that owns Public (and the adjacent Monday Room) and Double Crown and designs other places. Their family resemblance is slight, most pronounced in their very straight noses.

What I ate at Shang (apart from assorted sushi during the cocktail hour):

assorted cold platter with aromatic duck, beef tongue, octopus and pig ear foie gras (I think I had that last item and I’m still not altogether sure what it is; I’m glad that I like mysteries)

crispy oysters with yuzu-smoked chile sauce and citrus

vegetable chop chop lettuce wrap with almonds

crispy Canton chicken with sweet & sour sauce and shrimp chips

caramelized black cod with Asian preserved vegetables, miso mustard and salmon roe

Mongolian braised leg of lamb and lamb chops with lotus crêpes, tomato jam and chutneys

pearl noodles with Hong Kong XO sauce