Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Food Writer's Diary end-of-year poll

December 15

I have one final poll for you this year, asking your favorite and least favorite food trends in 2010. I’ve listed on the right what seem to me to be probably the five biggest food trends of the year (I welcome disagreement, of course; feel free to berate and chastise me in the comment section below). Please select the one you like the best (whatever that means to you) and the one you hope not to see in 2011.

Thank you.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Eat this, not that, or maybe eat all of it

December 13

I just wanted to quickly paste a link to Men’s Health’s “20 Worst Foods in America.”

I’m not linking to it to tell you what foods to avoid. I think you should eat whatever you like, and if you want to try to stay reasonably healthy it makes sense to eat a balanced diet and get some exercise.

That, however, will in no way keep you from getting hit by a bus or falling victim to whatever congenital conditions you might have, or prevent cancer (it might cut down on your chances of getting cancer, although it depends).

But the reason I wanted to post that link is because some chain restaurant executives have told me that getting your food highlighted as being bad for you actually can be a boon to sales.

They’re not sure whether that’s because people want to say “You’re not the boss of me,” to Men’s Health or because just mentioning those dishes gives people a craving for them, but they’ve definitely seen sales go up.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Drinks at PDT (and way more information than you need to know about the house I grew up in)

December 10

Kim Yorio definitely didn’t know what she was getting into when she invited me to have drinks with her and Holly Arnold Kinney at PDT. She didn’t even remember that I was from Colorado.

Holly and I vaguely remembered meeting one another a few years ago at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen — we’re not exactly certain of the circumstances, but we’re pretty sure that Ti Martin was there — and I knew that my father had been friends with her father, legendary restaurateur Sam Arnold of The Fort.

Oh, but there was so much more.

It turned out that my dad, Bill Thorn, had been involved in producing a documentary about her dad and The Fort in the 1960s, and we also learned that Holly had been to the house where I grew up in Denver many times.

My parents had bought the house some years before we moved in, and for a couple of years their tenant was the Divine Light Mission, a religious offshoot of Hinduism whose followers did a lot of meditating.

Holly was in the Divine Light Mission as a young mother in the early 1970s, and she frequented the house, which had been turned into an ashram.

“That’s a great house!” she said, and so we were instantly friends, because it’s nice to say positive things about someone’s childhood home.

It is, conversely, mean to say negative things about someone’s childhood home. It’s important to remember that.

I’m pretty sure Kim thought we were going to talk about Holly’s new cookbook, which is also a sort of mémoire and history of The Fort, where Holly also lived, above the restaurant, in her early years.

Before Kim got to PDT, Holly and I actually did look through the book in our booth at the back of the bar. She showed me pictures of her pet bear, Sissy, a 6'5" 700-pound black bear that used to take naps with her. So Sam Arnold called his daughter “she who sleeps with bears.”

“She had been de-clawed,” Holly told me, as if that made it safe. She said the stuffed bear that’s part of PDT’s décor upset her a bit.

Anyway, the bear lived at The Fort for something like 19 years without serious incident, although Holly said it did occasionally startle customers who wandered out back.

Holly’s father and mine also both died at the same age, 79. Sam died a few years ago, and my dad died last year.

After he died, my mother, living alone with her two dogs in the former ashram, was left with the question of what to do with the house.

It looked almost certain that my brother and his family would move in, but instead the house is now once again a home of communal living.

My mom is now renting rooms to an adorable group of hippie-esque 20-somethings who write poetry and form drum circles and work for recycling companies and make chalk drawings on the sidewalk outside.

They sit around and drink wine and talk about ideas, and I just want to put them all in my pocket and take them home, except they’re already there.

The picture at the beginning of this entry is of Plus Randomity by Ron Kessinger. The picture was taken by Nick Orf, one of my mom’s housemates, a street performer and just a sweetheart of a guy. It’s emblematic of cool things in the house.

Randomity is a term from Scientology that as far as I can tell pretty much means “randomness.” I’m not sure why they used the -ity suffix, but they didn’t ask me.

So Plus Randomity basically means “sensory overload.” As you can probably see in the picture, it’s a giant horn with strings and a drum attached, and you can make a lot of noise with it.

The mobile in the bell is actually an addition made by my mother.

What I drank at PDT (descriptions graciously sent to me by the enduringly affable boss of PDT, James Meehan, because I was too rapt in conversation to take notes):


THE GOLD COAST
Karlsson’s Vodka, Swedish Punsch, Dill,
Black Pepper Essence

Jim Meehan created this old-fashioned style
cocktail spiked with punsch, herbs and spice
after visiting the Bjäre Peninsula in southern
Sweden where the golden potatoes used to make
Karlsson’s vodka are grown.



MEZCAL MULE
Sombra Mezcal, Lime Juice, Passion Fruit
Purée, House Ginger Beer, Cucumber, Chili

A backyard barbeque in a glass, this spicy passion
fruit and cucumber buck gets its smoky quality from
mezcal distilled from agaves roasted in a handmade
underground oven heated by wood-fired stones.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Chicago Michelin guide retweeted

November 16

The big news in American fine dining today was, of course, the release of the first Michelin guide for Chicago restaurants. 

If you were awarded a star, heartfelt congratulations. If you weren’t, remember, it’s just a guide book by a tire company.

Being the branché hep cat that I am, I had my TweetDeck up and followed yesterday’s apparent leaking to Yelp of the list of restaurants anointed with stars and today’s reaction by its winners.

There’s not much more to say than that, except that one of the two three-star restaurants, L20, recently lost its chef, although perhaps just temporarily, making the brand new book already a bit obsolete. People who know the Chicago restaurant scene much better than I are already doing their analysis, and will likely pillory it the way it was pilloried in New York and San Francisco. 

I think I’ll just let the chefs speak for themselves, as they did through their twitter accounts.

Paul Kahan, whose restaurant Blackbird got a star, but his restaurant Avec did not:

Avec?

@Paul Kahan
In the begining, they didn't understand the clash either. Avec rules.

Curtis Duffy, whose restaurant Avenues got two stars:

Feeling for the Michelin Release on Wednesday: excited, enlivened,psyched, edgy, anxious, restless,tense! What will it be?

It's official Avenues gets 2 Michelin Stars! Thank you to my team from the past and the present! Amazing!

Grant Achatz, whos restaurant Alinea got three stars:

What does it mean when Jean Luc Naret films NBC news show from your dining room on the morning of the release? I guess we will find out...

True??? How do they deal with chef Gras' departure? http://tinyurl.com/2b239xz

Graham Elliot Bowles, whose restaurant graham elliot got a star:

My name may be on the door but this star belongs to the GE team. From chef de cuisine to dishwasher, sommelier to busser...job well done XO

@grahamelliot graham elliot
Congrats!! Official 2010 Chicago Michelin-Starred Restaurants http://bit.ly/9cgSfK

@grahamelliot graham elliot
Graham Elliot Spoofs Jean-Luc Naret on His Voicemail eater.cc/akYZrb via @EaterChicago

NoMI restaurant, which got a star:
Thank You! We are very excited! RT @Audarshia CONGRATS to @NoMIChicago for its one star @MichelinGuidechi!

RT @JLynnePR Wish I had more than 140 characters to recognize all of the @MichelinGuideCH honorees - Congrats to all. Chicago is very proud.

Congrats to all! RT @ChicagoCVBPR Congrats to Blackbird, Boka, NoMi, Seasons, Sixteen, Spiaggia, Topolobampo, Tru, Vie, NAHA for a star!
  
Carrie Nahabedian, whose restaurant NAHA got a star:

Michelin Guide Chicago winners appear to have been leaked | Consumer | Crain's Chicago Business shar.es/0N3vK

Great 10year anniversary gift. A Michelin star and a phone call! Congrats to all our friends, it is such an honor. LOVE our NAHA staff! Xox

I've been tough on Charlie Trotter over the years, but most of these Michelin stars don't exist without him and Jean Banchet. Bravo.

is having a glass of Champagne.

The usually twitter-loquacious Rick Bayless, whose Topolobampo got a Michelin Star, and which also recently got a three-star certification from the Green Restaurant Association, actually was pretty succinct: 

Thanks!! T @GreenChicago: A Michelin Star AND Guaranteed Green - CONGRATULATIONS @619blackbird and @Rick_Bayless!!!

Thanks to all of you who've sent your congratulations on Topolobampo's star from Michelin. Needless to say, our staff is really proud!!

 And finally Paul Virant, whose restaurant Vie got a star.

Alright, Facebook friends! It's official!! Chef Paul Virant just received the good news: Vie has been awarded a... http://fb.me/Es8uaWlH

We're so excited to be included in the very first Michelin Guide for Chicago! http://fb.me/Er5p7wAM

We knew our staff was the best, but it's nice to know that others agree! Congrats to the whole crew on the... http://fb.me/Leht3we3

What do you say? Chef Paul Virant for Mayor of Western Springs??

RT@alpanasingh Alpana Singh
@jarstarvie I worked w/Paul and would 2nd that! One of the nicest, most thoughtful human beings put on this earth. Whole family is great.

RT@ChicagoBites Chicago Bites
[Post] Michelin: Comparing ratings from around the Web http://bit.ly/co5TVK

@jarstarvie Paul Virant
If you're interested in buying the Michelin Guide, it will be available 11/18. http://fb.me/AVKGNipC

And for the record, the winners:

Three stars:
Alinea
L2O

Two stars:
Avenues
Charlie Trotter’s
Ria

One star:
Blackbird

Boka

Bonsoirée
Crofton on Wells

Everest

graham elliot

Longman & Eagle

NAHA

NoMI

Schwa

Seasons

Sepia
Sixteen
Spiaggia
Takashi
Topolobampo
Tru
Vie








Sunday, November 07, 2010

Takashi’s dashi

November 6

“Look, I have goose bumps,” Suvir Saran told me.

It was true. He had goose bumps.

Suvir, Indian chef extraordinaire, chairman for Asian culinary studies at The Culinary Institute of America, and just a puppydog of a sweet guy, had just finished telling Takashi Yagihashi how awesome he was for figuratively staring his Japanese compatriots down.

Takashi, you see, had — on stage, in front of everybody at the Worlds of Flavor conference — added ground duck to dashi and then used a coffee siphon to infuse it with lemon grass and kaffir lime leaf.

It seemed to me like a perfectly reasonable thing to do. Indeed, I'd seen a coffee siphon — you might have seen these things, especially if you were drinking coffee in a hotel in Bangkok in the mid-’90s as they were all over that city at the time; they look like glass, high-tech percolators — used to infuse similar herbs into lobster stock at David Burke Town House in New York last year.

But Suvir told me that Japanese chefs would have regarded such acts as desecration of sacred dashi — the broth made by steeping kombu seaweed and then skipjack flakes (often called bonito flakes, but I’m told it’s really skipjack) in hot water. Dashi is the Great Mother Broth of Japanese cuisine, the source of much of the umami that makes their food so delicious.

For the record, and I wish this were the last time I’d have to write this but I know it's not, umami is basically just the flavor of protein. That’s it. It can be enhanced by exposing more of the bits of protein that trigger the umami receptors in our mouths — the amino acid glutamate along with certain nucleotides and other assorted protein components — but that’s all it is. It's one of our five tastes, along with sweetness, sourness, bitterness and saltiness. It’s not some mystical quality from the mysterious Orient. It’s just a taste. If you want to know what it tastes like, put some powdered MSG on your tongue.

If I’d taken a shot of shochu every time someone on stage said “umami” during the conference I’m pretty sure I would have died from alcohol poisoning.

Anyway, Takashi — who is the chef-owner of his eponymous restaurant in Chicago, although he’s probably better known for his work as executive chef of Tribute in the Detroit suburb of Farmington Hills, Mich. — souped up his dashi and served it around sashimi of geoduck clam that he garnished with sliced lotus root that sandwiched a shrimp mousseline and then was dipped in cornstarch and sautéed. Also in the dish was shiso leaf and two pieces of daikon, and the picture of it that accompanies this blog entry was sent to me from the smart phone of Will Dunbar, food & beverage director for the River Rock Casino in Geyserville, Calif., who had the presence of mind to take the picture.

In his notes, Will declared the dish to be “ridiculous,” but that, I soon learned, is the word he uses for foods that are unexpected, extraordinary and brilliant.

But Suvir was sure that the 39 chefs visiting from Japan would have found Takashi’s dish to be ridiculous in the more usual sense of the word and were possibly ridiculing it at that moment, while we were enjoying the day’s buffet lunch and congratulating Takashi, who gave us fist bumps and wandered off.

Then Suvir showed me his goose bumps.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Worlds of Flavor: The CIA does Japan

November 4

Did you know that Ruth Reichl’s an editor-at-large for Random House now?

That’s not the only thing I learned on the first day of The Culinary Institute of America’s 13th annual Worlds of Flavor conference, but I thought it was pretty interesting, nonetheless — almost as interesting as the fact that the Japanese used to throw away the fatty parts of the bluefin tuna in favor of the leaner parts.

That changed after the Japanese developed an appreciation of beef and thus also an appreciation for the fatty, marbled belly of the bluefin.

At least that’s what Yousuke Imada said, through a translator, as he was curing shad during the conference's first demonstration. Imada’s the chef-owner of Kyubey, a five-unit chain specializing in sushi and sashimi with four restaurants in Tokyo and a fifth in Osaka.

“Japan: Flavors of Culture” is the theme of this year’s Worlds of Flavor. It’s the first one I’ve been to, and so far, so good.

I’m a bit skeptical of the tuna-belly “fact,” though. Sometimes information like that gets a bit messed up in translation (although I must say the interpreter at the conference is one of the best I’ve ever encountered), and sometimes chefs who are very skilled at slicing tuna or assessing how much salt to sprinkle onto a shad have an incomplete grasp of history (or of nutrition, or modern animal husbandry or animal rights or the details of genetic modification or the effects on the metabolism of high fructose corn syrup or other aspects of food that they’re often asked to discuss).

Or maybe the Japanese used to throw away tuna bellies. It’s not like I know everything.

I’m more confident of the fact that the former editor-in-chief of Gourmet is now editing at Random House. Because she told me she was, and I’m just not an important enough person in her life for her to lie to me. I think this was only the second or third time we’d ever met.

She was speaking with White House pastry chef Bill Yosses, who was taking a break from his presentation of adzuki beans layered with chocolate and served as an Opera pastry.

The organizers of the conference let us off easy today. They introduced themselves and the conference sponsors and then just had one presentation, by Japanese author and cooking-school owner Yoshiki Tsuji, who has the excellent qualities of speaking beautiful Cambridge English and also having the sort of cute Japanese sense of humor that meant his PowerPoint presentation had cartoon drawings of animals who had eaten too much (having gorged themselves on the cuisine of Osaka) and others imploring us to wake up.

I'm going to have to figure out how to put cute Japanese cartoons in my presentations.

The lecture part of Tsuji's presentation actually came after three brief cooking demonstrations — the first, as I mentioned, by Imada-san, the second, of a sea bream soup that would be part of a kaiseki meal, by Kyoto chef Yoshihiro Takahashi, who's the managing director and third-generation chef of Kinobu in that city, and the third by Kunio Tokuola, who is also the third-generation owner of a restaurant in Kyoto, called Kyôto Kitcho, but his demonstration was of an Osaka-style preparation made of herbs and flowers and other ingredients meant, basically, to look beautiful. Apparently in Osaka kaiseki, each dish is meant to express a different aspect of enjoyment of the meal — flavor, aroma, what have you. Tokuoka's dish, which he called Yamoki Kashima and is meant to evoke a Chinese folk tale, was supposed to represent beauty.

And it was beautiful. I should have taken a picture.

Or maybe not. I neglected to bring the wire with the company camera that would let me download the pictures immediately for you, which is why instead you have a picture of a flower arrangement from one of the sake booths at the “marketplace” and walk-around tasting that followed the Tsuji-san show. I used my cell phone to take it and, well, let’s just say my cell phone pictures are best viewed as abstract images.

Of course the food was good — lots of tasty fish in dashi with other elements added, a surprising number of pork belly presentations, indicating that that particular cut of meat has at least one winter of life left in it, and something I hadn’t seen before — “Delacata.” That’s what the catfish folk are calling a farm-raised variety of the fish that their letting grow to about three times the size of the usual farm-raised catfish, making it a suitable substitute in some preparations for grouper, Chilean sea bass and other species that have, by many accounts, been over-fished.

So that was new.

So is the cotton candy at Golden Corral, which corporate chef Debra Olson told me the chain was rolling out. I asked if she was going to be adding Japanese food to the Golden Corral buffet soon.

She said: “You never know.”

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Venison

October 19

I wanted to comment about a tweet I made the other day: “Venison two nights in a row. Is it the protein of this fall?”

It occurred to me that maybe you thought I was weird, that just because I had chosen to eat venison two nights in a row didn’t mean everyone else was eating it. Who was I, some genius so plugged into the Zeitgeist of the modern American dining world that, if I was eating something, so was everyone else?

And you’d have a point, except that I often don’t choose what I eat. At the sort of dinner’s I’m often invited to, they don’t give you a choice. You show up, sit down, and they bring you whatever they’re showcasing. They generally provide you with a printed menu of what you’ll be eating, but you don’t get to pick anything, you just eat it.

That’s probably my third favorite way to eat in restaurants, because I don't have to think about anything. I can just sit there and let the whole experience wash over me.

My second favorite way to eat is alone in a nice restaurant, off the clock, without having to talk to anybody or meet anyone’s expectations. That approach might drop in my esteem if I did it very often, but I don’t.

My favorite way is a Maryland-style crab boil, with newspapers on the table, a mallet, and crab juice dripping down my arm.

Anyway, I made that tweet from The Four Seasons restaurant, where I was having dinner at a 10-top in the pool room with my friend Jennifer Watson. It was, believe it or not, The Four Seasons’ first-ever Spanish wine dinner. It’s 2010 already, and that landmark restaurant has wine dinners all the time, but I guess they’ve mostly been focused on French and Italian wines.

But The Four Seasons isn’t known as being super-progressive. It sails its own course and does just fine with that. It did try to get a bit more hip late last year when it hired celebrity-ish chef Fabio Trabocchi as its executive chef, but that only lasted for about three months.

That’s not to say that the food at the restaurant is boring or bad, but you don’t go there to be cutting-edge, you go there, well, for a lot of reasons.

Back in 2007, when Frank Bruni reviewed the restaurant for The New York Times and demoted it from three stars to two, I remember talking to eater.com founder Ben Leventhal about it. This was actually right before the review came out, but Ben, a native New Yorker (Upper East Side, I’m pretty sure), who knows perfectly well what places like The Four Seasons are all about, said the newspaper was wasting its time reviewing the place. A Times review can put a restaurant on the map, and it can damage the prestige of many restaurants, but The Four Seasons is The Four Seasons. People eat there to have power lunches or to enjoy the setting or to say they’ve eaten there or because they always have eaten there. What the Times says about it doesn’t make a lick of difference, Ben said. And I think he was right.

So the main course during the Spanish dinner, paired with a big, lusty 2005 Clos L'Obac Priorat, was roasted venison loin with huckleberries — a classic combination, although it would have been considered trendy in 1999, which was The Year of the Huckleberry.

Indeed, back at the turn of the century venison was all over fall menus, but you just don’t see it much these days.

Then on the following night, I had dinner at the James Beard House, where the featured chef was Ty Thoren of the Gaylord Texan Resort and Convention Center in Dallas (where MUFSO is being held next year). Ty might live in Texas now, but he’s originally from Ithaca, N.Y., and talks faster than your average downstater. I’m not sure what his hurry was, but we sat down to dinner at around 7:45 and were out of there before 10.

That's a good thing.

What I ate and drank:

At The Four Seasons:

Fluke, tuna and mackerel carpaccio
2009 Albariño, La Cana

king salmon with roasted porcini mushrooms
2000 Bodegas Muga, Rioja, Prado Enea “Grand Reserva”
2001 Bodegas Muga, Rioja, Prado Enea “Grand Reserva”
2005 Bodegas Muga, Rioja, Torre Muga

Roasted duch breast with Hudson Valley foie gras
2005 Emilio Moro, Ribera del Duero, Malleollus
2006 Emilio Moro, Ribera del Duero, Valderramiro
2006 Emilio Moro, Ribera del Duero, Sancho Martin

Filet of lamb with black truffle
2007 Bodegas Alto Moncayo, Campo de Borja, Alto Moncayo
2006 Bodegas Alto Moncayo, Campo de Borja, Aquilon

Roasted venison loin with huckleberries
2005 Clos L’Obac, Priorato

Christopher’s Dream (that would be pastry chef Christopher Broberg)
2007 Victoria, Jorge Ordóñez, Malaga

(oh, and Four Seasons has two co-executive chefs these days, Pecko Zantilaveevan and Larry Finn)
  
At the Beard House with chef Ty Thoren:

Grilled Texas quail with jalapeño–bacon vinaigrette and butternut squash succotash
Veramonte Chardonnay Reserva 2008

Fire-roasted poblano soup with oven-dried tomatoes
Flowers Sonoma Coast Chardonnay 2008

Cilantro and ancho–rubbed ahi tuna with chile–chipotle barbecue sauce and jícama slaw
Flowers Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2008

Mesquite-smoked venison chop with spicy pomegranate glaze, crispy cheese grit cake, and braised greens with tumbleweed onions
Faust Cabernet Sauvignon 2007

Caramelized apple lattice tart with white chocolate–cardamom sauce

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Burger King’s new breakfast items

September 16

If you ever wondered what a Burger King would look like if it had a velvet rope in front of it, wonder no longer. Just look to your left.

BK’s corporate folks roped off this franchised location in Midtown Manhattan (34th St., between Seventh and Eighth avenues) to invite the New York City media to try some of the chain’s new breakfast items, which they launched last week.

As you might imagine, New York City food writers can be pretty snotty when it comes to fast food. The last time BK threw a similar shindig, to introduce us to its new batch broiler, one of my fellow writers expressed shock to me that he actually enjoyed his hamburger.

Snotty, but open-minded.

Today one of the guests, who may or may not have been an idiot, declined when a server (oh yes, there are servers at these events, and tablecloths and metal cutlery and actual glasses for water — very classy) asked if she’d like some blueberry biscuits.

One of her table mates pointed out that this was, in fact, a tasting and that she should at the very least taste them.

Yeah, probably she was an idiot.

You can see the best picture I took of the biscuits on the right (note the classy blue tablecloth underneath). Beauty shots from BK can be seen here.

They also gave us a sausage, egg and cheese Croissan'wich®, which I didn't bother to take a picture of because they’ve been around forever.

On the left is a picture of the relatively new breakfast bowl, which corporate chef Jason Sullivan described as being everything you’d want in an omelet, but in a bowl instead.

This one had roasted potatoes, grilled onions and peppers, sausage and cheese, along with eggs that “Chef J,” as the company likes to call him, said were scrambled in-house.

I asked if unit employees were actually cracking eggs and scrambling them, which of course they’re not. He said the pasteurized eggs come in standard pre-cracked foodservice form and are scrambled and cooked usually in a microwave, except at units, like the ones in Mexico, that have a griddle insert that can be put on top of the fryer.

He said they’re not supposed to be held for more than 20 minutes.

We also had pancakes, which I photographed, too, but you already know what pancakes look like, and the new breakfast ciabatta club sandwich.

Chef J said the "smoky tomato sauce" is supposed to remind us of sun-dried tomatoes, and the raw tomatoes and bacon are supposed to remind us of club sandwiches.

I bet you didn’t know chefs at quick service burger chains thought so much about their food, did you?

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

genetically modified salmon

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is considering approving the first genetically modified animal for human consumption. It's a salmon that has been modified to grow faster than other Atlantic salmon. The company that developed the fish says they are sterile and would be raised in inland pools to prevent their mixing and breeding with wild salmon.

How does that sound to you?

That’s the subject of my next poll, which I'm just putting up until 1pm tomorrow, which is when I have to finish writing the story.

As always, feel free to comment below.

And below are the results from my last poll.
Quite interesting, I thought:

HOW MUCH MORE WOULD YOU PAY FOR LOCAL INGREDIENTS IN A RESTAURANT?
nothing:8 (5%)
less than 10%: 14 (10%)
10%-25%: 76 (54%)
25%-50%: 24 (17%)
50%-75%: 3 (2%)
75%-100%: 4 (2%)
More than double: 1 (0%)
It depends: 9 (6%)
Total votes: 139

Aaron Deal watch


September 8

The last time we heard from Aaron Deal, he and Custom House in Chicago had parted ways and he was looking for a new job.

He's still looking, but for now he’s moving to Chilhowie, Va., to work with chef John Shields and pastry chef Karen Shields at Townhouse, a restaurant widely praised for its culinary innovation, most notably, perhaps, by Food & Wine magazine, which named John one of the country’s ten best new chefs earlier this year.

I, personally, like the fact that John makes food that looks like dirt and rocks, like the picture on the right that they sent to me last year.

John says he’s inspired by the bucolic countryside, which he likes to reflect on the plate.

I suspect Aaron will have a fun autumn in Chilhowie, and maybe he’ll get to avoid that nasty Chicago winter.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Frank Bonanno’s next restaurant

September 1

Well the work load here at NRN is just crazy, but I wanted to pop into the blog very briefly, to let you know that I was vacationing in Denver recently and hope to find time to report on that.

Also, speaking of Denver, I just got off the phone with restaurateur Frank Bonanno, who told me he’s scheduled to close on a property on September 9 in the Highlands, where he plans to open that French-style charcuterie that has been talked about since May (or really April, I guess.

Plans now are to call it Lou’s Food Bar and to serve a whole bunch of house-made pâtés and sausages.

Frank said he also has plans to open a bar somewhere, but he decided to stay tight-lipped on the details of that.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

How much are local ingredients worth to you?

August 17

For my latest poll, I’d like to ask you how much more you’d be willing to spend for local products in restaurants. Polls being polls, they’re imprecise, so please comment below if you have something to say about what local ingredients are worth paying for (seasonal grapes or corn, say) and which ones aren’t (I don’t know, ketchup maybe).

Thank you.

Regarding my last poll, about what you thought Seamus Mullen would do next now that he has left Boqueria, most readers had no interest in such speculation, but here are the results from the seven voters:

Open a cute snout-to-tail restaurant in New York 3 (42%)

Open a cute snout-to-tail restaurant in another city 1 (14%)

Launch a new burger concept with hopes of turning it into a chain 1 (14%)

Get a job at a country club to make money and live a less hectic life 0 (0%)

Leave foodservice to become a full-time celebrity chef, possibly with a gig on Dancing with the Stars. 0 (0%)

Become a chef at someone else’s restaurant, possibly with Danny Meyer or Steve Hanson 0 (0%)

Something else. 2 (28%)

Friday, August 06, 2010

What will Seamus Mullen do next?

 
August 6

People who follow the New York restaurant scene closely were likely surprised and possibly saddened when it was announced several weeks ago that Seamus Mullen had left his job as executive chef and owner of Boqueria.

Naturally, I asked Seamus what he was up to next, and he didn’t respond. That’s fair. It’s my job as a journalist to ask, it’s not his job to answer if he doesn’t feel like it.

However he was good enough to send me a recent picture of himself so I could illustrate a blog entry about him. He sent it with the message: “headshots coming to you from Havana...”

So he was either in Cuba or engaging in a complicated plot of subterfuge, and I don't think he takes me seriously enough to bother with subterfuge.

But it means we get to speculate, and that’s always fun.

What do you think Seamus Mullen will do next? Is he in Cuba doing research for some Latin-American-themed place, or is he just on vacation?

Will he open a new restaurant in New York, or will he try his hand in a new market, like former Buddakan chef Lon Symensma recently said he’d be doing?

Or has he had enough of the day-to-day restaurant rat race and possibly heading to lower-stress and probably higher paying jobs, like former Daniel executive chef Alex Lee, who's currently in charge of the food at Glen Oaks Country Club in Old Westbury New York (NRN’s classified ads saleswoman Leslie Wolowitz says the food is phenomenal), or like former Oceana executive chef Cornelius Gallagher, who's currently corporate chef for the Long Island-based Bohlsen Restaurant Group (and, I hear, considering joining the growing number of restaurateurs who are serving wine out of kegs)?

I’ll leave the speculation up to you with the poll on the right. If you have different guesses about what he’s doing, please write a comment below.

And Seamus, if you’re out there, obviously we’d love to hear from you. Just say “hi” if you like.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Strawberry’s star-studded Sports Grill

“Excuse me, why do you think you were invited to this?”

That looks worse in writing than it sounded. Nadia, the woman in back of me on the bus, wasn’t asking me what made me think I was supposed to be on the bus. She wasn't assuming that I wasn’t invited and had somehow sneaked on.

Or, gosh, maybe she was. She did point out the guy on the bus I was supposed to check in with. Is it possible that I’ve finally evolved to a point where it doesn’t even cross my mind that I might be spotted as a fraud who doesn’t belong on the same bus as fabulous people?

At any rate, I thought Nadia was, like me, just trying to figure out who all these people were.

I did notice that it was a handsome crowd, and the guy sitting next to Nadia looked familiar, like he was part of that good-looking set of food and lifestyle writers (mostly lifestyle writers, except for Andrew Knowlton) whom I notice from time to time.

Is there a group word, like herd or gaggle, for impossibly tall, thin and leggy blond models? Bevy, I guess.

Well a bevy of them came onto the bus shortly before it pulled away. They all sat together, possibly in the same seat. And then I knew I was going to one of those parties.

I told Nadia I was a food writer, and so I tended to get invited to restaurant openings, like the opening of Strawberry's Sports Grill that we were all going to, braving the traffic to head to the Queens-Nassau County border.

The restaurant is owned in part by New York Mets legend Darryl Strawberry. It hadn’t occurred to me that it was one of those parties that celebrities go to, but in retrospect it should have.

How about Nadia? What did she do?

“I’m an actor.”

“Oh, where do you act?” I asked, because of course New York has a lot of actors, tens of thousands of them I’d guess.

“TV,” she said.

I cringed as I asked the ridiculous question of whether I was supposed to know her.

It’s a stupid question, to which the only civilized answer is “no,” which she gave, and told me she was next going to be on The Big C, on Showtime with Laura Linney.

I introduced myself to the guy next to her, hoping we hadn't met before and now assuming that I recognized him because I’d seen him acting somewhere. “Mike,” he said, and shook my hand and I went on with my conversation with Nadia.

She also has a baseball show on the web and was hoping to get Darryl Strawberry to be on it.

I wished her luck, and then looked at Mike and said “Oz!”

“You were on Oz. You were that guy who was mad at whatshisname...”

Mike knew exactly who he was and I don’t think he felt like listening to me fumble around with a plot summary. He said succinctly that he was a violently homophobic rapist who was himself raped and killed.

Yeah, that was it.

I said I was sorry when he was killed. I mean, it seemed like the polite thing to say, and I was sorry when he was killed. I had enjoyed watching him.

Well, that was that. I figured Mike and Nadia had actor things to talk about or whatever, so I turned around and, with the entire borough of Queens to get through and my Blackberry before me, I looked them up.

I determined without a lot of trouble that they were Mike Doyle and Nadia Dajani.

Later I even found Nadia’s web show, Caught Off Base. It’s cute.

When we arrived at Strawberry’s, I got off behind one of the statuesque blondes and in front of Mike Doyle. I felt like a gnome.

But I was, in fact, recognized by someone. Oh yes I was.

The paparazzi didn’t care about me, but I was greeted warmly near the back of the bar by restaurateur Michael Sinensky, who had fond memories of something I’d written about his restaurant Vintage Irving.
Michael is friends with Eytan Sugarman, who is Strawberry’s business partner in this restaurant.

He’s also the owner of Southern Hospitality, which I thought was partly owned by Justin Timberlake, but if that was true, it is no longer. He just helped conceptualize the place, according to Sugarman’s publicists.

Because we all know how intrinsically good pop stars are at conceptualizing restaurants...

Parties with paparazzi tend to be tedious and lame, but I knew I was trapped at this one until the bus departed at 11pm, so I had beer and crispy buffalo shrimp and barbecued chicken and watched the crowd go by, not recognizing the sports stars, except for Strawberry himself because I was in Boston during the 1986 World Series, and only being jostled enough to splash my own beer on myself twice.

I certainly didn’t recognize the reality TV stars that were there — apparently a Bachelorette and a Dancing With the Stars winner. There were a number of young men with high-maintenance gel-laden haircuts and beautiful eyes. I wonder who they were. Possibly just locals with good eyes.

The return bus was delayed as it waited for good looking, drunk people in their 20s to pile in, so in the meantime I caught up with Tom Farley and got acquainted with Max Gross, who, quite apart from being a writer for the New York Post (and, being a native New Yorker and lifelong Mets booster, a huge fan of Strawberry’s), is also Arthur Schwartz's godson. Imagine that.

As we waited we talked about restaurants and such with Juliet Izon, who works for Life & Style. Meanwhile some of the other reporters from magazines like People had to get off the bus because Justin Timberlake had arrived and they had to, oh, I don't know, stand near him or something. It’s their job.

But I’d met Mike Doyle, so I was all set.

He shook my hand and wished me a good evening as he left, I’ll have you know.

Oh right, pictures. I didn’t bring a camera, but I got one from StarTraks Photo of Karina Smirnoff from Dancing with the Stars, and some of New York’s Finest.

I asked for pictures of Mike Doyle or Nadia Dajani, but I guess they didn’t rate.


Here's my news story about the restaurant.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Lunch at a new restaurant, dinner at an old(ish) one

July 30

Sorry the blog has been so quiet lately, I've been busy over at nrn.com, where I’ve been filing stories about all sorts of things, from vegetarian menu items (that one’s for subscribers only, click here if you want to subscribe), to Cascabel chef Todd Mitgang (listen to the interview here), to Carino's new low-calorie kids' menu, to 5 Napkin Burger’s beer list, to Marco’s Pizza’s new lending facility for franchisees.

“Oh, that’s boring,” egg man Howard Helmer said yesterday when I told him about the Marco’s Pizza story, which I’d filed that morning.

What can I say? Some people want to read about beer lists, others about menu items, others about creative ways, during this credit crunch, to help franchisees fund their expansion.

Here at NRN we have something for everyone in the restaurant world.

I was at lunch with Howard, goose farmer Jim Schiltz (freshly returned from a feather conference in China, during which everyone apparently asked Hungary to desist from its centuries-old practice of live plucking), and Food & Wine executive editor Tina Ujlaki. We were at the much ballyhooed ABC Kitchen, Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s new restaurant focused, like all new restaurants these days that aren't burger joints, on local, seasonal food.

Howard ordered a pizza for the table, one with morels, Parmesan and a “farm fresh egg.”

Howard represents the American Egg Board, you see. He also occasionally represents the National Goose Council, of which Jim is the president and only member (we only produce about 250,000 geese a year in this country, and most of them are raised or processed by Jim — or both).

Howard was supposed to retire recently, and was going to be replaced by Next Food Network Star runner up Jeffrey Saad.

Jeffrey's doing a lot of the social networking stuff for the egg board, which is all well and good, but apparently they still want Howard to make omelets at state fairs and whatnot.

So he’s not retiring.

I ate relatively lightly — raw diver scallops with market chiles, anise hysop and lime, followed by sautéed Arctic char, summer beans, lime and spicy corn broth, and Jim and I split one of the signature juice drinks, made of peach, currant, cherry and ginger — because my friend Jonathan Ray was in town and I’d managed to finagle us a table at The Little Owl.

But it was a 6 o’clock table, which was fine with us because Jonathan had to take a train back to Westchester that evening. But it meant I shouldn’t gorge myself at lunch.

This is embarrassing to admit, but I hadn’t been to The Little Owl before. It’s one of those little places that everybody seems to love, and although it’s not new by any stretch of the imagination —it opened in May of 2006 — it continues to be a hard place to get a table.

So, good for The Little Owl, but with so many places to check out, sometimes I pass over the cute little ones that are hard to get into.

So I was glad Jonathan was in town, because it was an excuse to check the place out, and to eat:

baked clams with watercress salad and bagna cauda vinaigrette,
broiled halibut with corn, favas and pesto vinaigrette
rhubarb crisp

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Soup Man draws a crowd

July 20

Whenever you see a big mob of professional camera-wielders, you can bet that that’s not where the news is. What you have here is not news, it’s a media event — scripted, predictable, usually boring, but in this case irritating because it was about 88 degrees out and muggy and I didn’t want to be there.

This particular media event was the re-opening of the soup shop that became famous in the Seinfeld “Soup Nazi” episode. Al "The Soup Nazi" Yeganeh capitalized on that episode and now there are 21 "Soup Man" restaurants, because you can’t call yourself a Nazi, across the country. Well, now 22 with the reopening of the original shack.

Why should you care? I don’t really know. I took my pictures and left. I'm not standing in line for soup.

But a lot of people apparently do care and will stand in line for soup. Because below, on the left there is a picture of the end of the line of people waiting to get their soup, and next to it is a picture of the line as it continued around the corner to the actual entrance of the restaurant, where they could buy the soup.

Now, although as a customer I’m not going to stand in that line, as a restaurant owner I’d sure like to have people doing that outside my restaurant. At least I’d like it to be an option.

The key to making that happen, it seems, is to be featured on a massively successful situation comedy, spend a decade or more milking that and hiring a good PR firm to promote the reopening of your spot.

Oh, it also helps if you get Reggie Jackson to show up to promote the event.

Did the people in line think it was worth it? Feast New York asked some of them. They seemed fine with it.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Rick Tramonto and Wendy’s salads



July 15

Rick Tramonto got his start cooking with Dave Thomas at Wendy’s.

“I still know the chili recipe.”

That’s what he told a number of journalists recently at the Institute of Culinary Education as he assembled the chain’s new salads in front of us.

I think it’s a little risky for a fine-dining chef to associate with fast food.

You might remember that another celebrity chef from Chicago, Rick Bayless, was in a national TV ad back in 2003 promoting Burger King’s new and ultimately unsuccessful line of low-fat chicken baguette sandwiches.

BK actually tapped two celebrities to promote those sandwiches, Bayless and Rachel Ray.

I think Ray was an excellent choice, but Bayless seemed like a silly one. He wasn’t yet famous enough outside of the food world for him to impress many Burger King customers, and in the world of food-elitists where I dwell, he was (and still is) a champion of local, seasonal, touchy-feely food from cute farms. He advocated strongly against development of genetically modified organisms (in fact, I’ve never managed to get a call back from him when writing about his forte, Mexican food, but he was on the phone instantly when I was writing about GMOs) and in general was viewed as an opponent of “Big Food.”

Many of those relatively few people who knew Bayless’ reputation at the time were hurt, puzzled or outraged by his appearance in a BK commercial (although, for what it’s worth, from what I understand he did insist on trying the sandwich before promoting it, so that’s something).

Times have changed, lines have blurred, many fine dining chefs are opening burger joints, and Tramonto, if memory serves, has never wrapped himself as tightly in the Slow Food mantle as Bayless has.

Indeed, he said the spirit of quality and training that he got at Wendy’s is part of his DNA.

He also said he met his wife — I assume he meant his ex-wife, celebrity pastry chef Gale Gand — at Wendy’s where she was making sandwiches while he was flipping burgers.

Tramonto looked like he knew his association with Wendy's could be controversial in the food snob world, and he seemed relieved, or at least glad, when I told Wendy’s corporate chef Lori Estrada how much I liked the avocado ranch dressing (it’s true, I did; the pomegranate vinaigrette not so much, but I’m not in to lo-cal dressings).

And although the Rick Bayless-Burger King association was scandalous for about 20 minutes, both Bayless and BK survived quite well, and if I hadn’t just dredged it up again that episode would have been relegated to the dustbin of history.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Jeremy Fox not just at Plum

June 30

I just got off the phone with former Ubuntu chef Jeremy Fox, who was recom-mending new and soon-to-open restaurants in San Francisco for me (including Benu, the much-anticipated restaurant of former French Laundry chef Corey Lee, which is slated to open later this summer).

The world learned last month that Jeremy was going to be the chef at Plum, an Oakland, Calif., restaurant Daniel Patterson (of Coi in San Francisco) had planned to open in July.

Jeremy tells me Plum is now slated to open in the first week of September, serving plant-based cuisine, much of it from a garden on which he and Patterson will be breaking ground this summer (the picture above is from Jeremy’s days at Ubuntu, where he also had a garden).

Plant-based doesn’t mean vegetarian. Jeremy said he will be making his own charcuterie for Plum, and that the restaurant’s dishes will have more animal ears and skin than loins and other muscle meat — for flavoring rather than to be featured in the center of the plate.

But things will be hopping at that garden, which not only will be supplying produce for Plum, but also for Bracina, Patterson’s long-delayed restaurant in Oakland’s Jack London Square, which Jeremy says is now slated for a January opening.

Jeremy told me he’s going to be involved in that restaurant as well as in Plum, and also in future Patterson ventures.

I asked if he was Patterson’s corporate chef, then.

I kind of heard him shrug, and he said: “For lack of a better word.”

And there you have it.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Malacca

June 18

Malacca’s a very touristy city.

That in itself is not surprising. It’s an old port settled first by a rebel Malay prince of the maritime empire of Srivijaya, whose capital, it is believed, was near the modern-day city of Palembang, on Sumatra.

Then the Portuguese took it over, then the Dutch, who traded it to the British for Aceh, the northernmost province on Sumatra (and the epicenter, as you may recall, of that terrible tsunami in 2004).

So it has cool architecture and old forts turned into museums and, on top of that, is an important center for Peranakan culture and Nyonya cuisine. Why wouldn’t it be touristy?

What I found interesting was that most of the tourists we saw were Malaysians.

I hadn’t expected that.

But we didn’t take a day-trip to Malacca to see its historic sites (although we did a bit of that; you might as well while you’re there). We were there to eat Nyonya food. See? That’s me, on the right, taking notes as Alvin, the owner of Taragon restaurant, explained what I was about to eat.

See how serious a note-taker I am? I was, as always, glad that Albert Foo was there to take the pictures.

Usually in the United States we refer to the food of the Straits Chinese as Nyonya cuisine.

Actually, we don’t usually refer to the Straits Chinese at all, as Malaysia is noticeably absent from our country’s radar. We don’t know a thing about the place. But you know what I mean.

In Malaysia I’ve usually heard it referred to as Baba-Nyonya, which is really more illustrative. As I understand it, “Baba” is Chinese for father, while “Nyonya” is Malay for mother, or “madam” — the female head of the house.

You see, single Chinese men came to the Malay Peninsula centuries ago to work in the tin mines. They married Malay women and tried to instruct them how to cook food they were accustomed to.

But the Malay women had their own ideas, and as a matter of course added their own culinary flourishes to the food.

The result was dishes like the sambal-petai squid you see as the first picture of food in this blog entry. It’s stir-fried squid — something Chinese would make, but it’s flavored with Malay sambal, the local chile sauce, often spiked with shrimp paste called belacan (pronounced bla-chan), and a, oh, let’s call it aromatic, bean called petai, known for its bitter taste and ability to linger on the breath.

Next is terung bakar, or eggplant, served with chiles and a soy-sauce based gravy.

Notice also the tiny limes that flourish in this part of the world.

Next, well, that’s actually just a Malay dish — beef rendang. It’s a sort of curry made — as curries generally are — by heating chiles and other spices in oil, and adding liquid to that. Rendang has coconut milk added to it, and is generally cooked down until most of the liquid has evaporated, although like all national dishes it kind of depends on who you talk to.

Alvin told us that at Taragon they make the rendang a day in advance to make it taste better, as stews tend to do as their flavors meld.

We also had a cincalok omelet. Cincalok (pronounced cheen-cha-loke) is very much like belacan, except it comes from Malacca.

The last picture is of lemak nenas, a ginger-laden fish cooked with coconut sauce and pineapple.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Satay

June 16

On your left, please enjoy a beautiful picture by Albert Foo, the kind man and extraordinary photographer who accompanied us on Penang and has rejoined us here in Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur.

He actually took that picture at the Shangri-La Rasa Sayang in Penang, and once I get his shots from last night I’ll replace it, or possibly just add it below for the sake of contrast, because this picture would not be approved by Matrade.

[update: I did it; I added the new picture below]

Malaysia’s export-promotion body takes its satay seriously, you see, and this satay is displayed incorrectly.

Satay is not just a bunch of skewers of meat, it’s a meal. Like the one on the right, in the picture taken, of course, by the inimitable Albert Foo.

Incidentally, it’s also not Thai, any more than tacos are American. You can get satay in Thailand, but they’ll tell you flat out that it’s Malay.

Whether it’s Malaysian Malay or Indonesian Malay is open to debate, but everyone agrees, more or less, that satay was invented by the people of the Malay archipelago.

Honey Ahmad, chief content creator and co-founder of friedchilies.com, who accompanied us last night to a restaurant called Satay Station, says the term might be an abbreviation of salai di tepat.

Salai is the Malay word for barbecue, and a tepat is a makeshift grill.

Makes sense to me.

But as I was saying, satay is more involved than that. To be called satay by Malaysian standards, it must be served with pickled cucumber [see comment #1 below] and onion as well as peanut sauce.

And it must also come with rice.

Ideally, satay is served with nasi ketupat, which is made by pouring uncooked rice into a sort of stiff pouch made by weaving coconut leaves together. That’s put in boiling water, and as the rice cooks it expands and is compressed into one solid piece of rice, which is then sliced and eaten with the satay (and also dipped in peanut sauce if you like).

If you don’t have nasi ketupat (and Satay Station doesn’t have it) nasi himpit, which is boiled white rice pressed together into one solid piece, will do.

A Matrade-sanctioned picture of satay must have the skewered meat, cucumbers, onions and rice in it.

Honey explained that satay is made by pounding together fresh turmeric, sugar, onion (or shallot — usually shallot) and lemon grass and marinating cubed meat in it — any meat, including liver or tripe or whatever you like — for about a day.

Then you skewer it and cook it over coals, being sure to let some of it caramelize.

We had chicken, beef and chicken liver satay, with a really sweet peanut sauce with coconut milk in it. The beef had little bits of fat skewered on it, too, and the chicken had pieces of fatty skin.

It was fantastic.

It was preceded by mee rebus, which you can see on the left (in a picture by Albert Foo) made in the style of Johor state, I’m told. That’s yellow noodles, green chile and seafood broth with potatoes, sweet potatoes, boiled eggs and fried shallot.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Kelantan

June 15

This dish might not look particularly appetizing, but blame that on my photography, not on the food.

It’s ayam percik (pronounced perchik), one of the specialties of the Malaysian state of Kelantan, in the country’s northeast. It’s charcoal-grilled chicken topped with a coconut milk sauce.

Sounds good, right?

It is typically served with nasi kerabu, which is rice topped with herbs and other nutritious green things, plus bean sprouts. And two nights ago, when I took this picture, it also was served with shrimp crackers.

You can see a picture of it on the right.

Ayam percik and nasi kerabu are delicious together, they really are, and I think they’d translate well to a western state of mind.

We also had them with clams cooked in sambal (what’s not to like about that?) and peppers stuffed with fish paste and served with salted, hard-boiled eggs that were sliced in half and served still in their shells.

I suspect going to Kelantan was my doing: As this trip was being planned I mentioned to one of the organizers that I’d had the best mangoes in my life in this state’s capital, Kota Bahru.

Next thing I knew it was on our agenda.

Apparently I had given entrée to Wan Norma Wan Daud, director of the Product Section of the Product & Services Development Division of the Malaysia External Trade Development Corporation, or Matrade.

Matrade sponsored this trip, and Norma is a native of Kelantan.

We had a good time there. Kelantan, I’m told, is quite distinct from other parts of Malaysia. It’s the most Muslim of the 13 states, but also displays strong influence from its neighbor to the north, mostly Buddhist Thailand, a country of which it was once a part.

The part of Thailand that shares a border with Kelantan is actually mostly Muslim, but the Malaysian state still has a number of Buddhist temples and monasteries, and it shares some words and eating habits with Thailand, too.

The Kelantanese expressed pride in their elaborate wau (pronounced “wow,” which, in a perfect world, is also how it would be spelled). It’s a word for kite they share with the Thais.

They also share a love for funky, fishy flavors, such as budu, made from fermented and, to my taste, slightly rotten, anchovies.

That was served to us during lunch yesterday, they day after our dinner of ayam percik and its traditional accompaniments.

Kelantan was unseasonably, unreasonably, inhumanely hot yesterday and, cognizant of the fact that I was in a serious Muslim state, I chose to forego shorts and wear long pants instead. Thus did I swelter with my fellow westerners as we were led through the market, breakfasting on a hot soup of laksam — sort of like boiled rice gnocchi — and looking at the region’s signature blue rice, dyed from a flower we haven’t yet identified, and at silks [June 16 update: the flower, according to my new friend Krista, is bunga telang; she hasn’t lied to me yet].

I had Paco buy some mangosteens — a fruit I’ll discuss later, along with the salak that we’d found the night before — before we went off to look at how serunding and dodol were made.

Remember, it’s easily 90 degrees out. And humid. Feel your scalp as the sweat pools there and then trickles behind your ears and down your neck and back as I explain that serunding is shredded meat made by stewing beef or chicken in massive vats of a rendang-type curry for a couple of hours, until the meat falls apart into strings.

We stood over hot cauldrons watching this happen, and saw the meat in other cauldrons being further dried out over huge flames.

Remember that heat as we moved on to watch the production of dodol, a type of caramel made of palm sugar and coconut milk that are slowly cooked together, again in big, bubbling cauldrons.

Dodol’s interesting, because coconut milk has a gelatinous quality that becomes evident as it solidifies; dodol has a softer, gummier, less chewy and more tender texture than a western caramel. It’s frequently flavored with pandan, although Paco gave me one with durian, which he has decided is my new favorite flavor (it’s not; I like it now, but I like pandan, too).

It was all quite interesting, as was seeing the coconut-milk snacks made by pouring coconut milk mixed with flour and eggs into cast iron molds over smoldering fires, covered with coconut husks to give them a bit of extra smoky coconut essence.

But did I mention how hot it was?

We didn’t have much of an appetite for lunch, which was another traditional Kelantanese meal called nasi ulam kampung (rice and village greens, I believe).

The name of the meal focuses on the rice, but it really reminded me of the Thai meal known as nam phrik, which means (roughly) “chile paste.”

Here’s how they both work: You start with rice in the middle of your plate, and you add to it, one bite at a time from an array of dishes in the center of the table, any of a wide variety of greens and a dab of chile sauce (nam phrik in Thailand, sambal in Malaysia), augmented occasionally by a bit of meat or fish.

Our nasi ulam kampung also had a tasty roast chicken, fried fish and a couple of different fish curries, plus that fermented/rotten fish called budu that I was telling you about.

I told Paco that budu was one of those tastes that are not easily accessible to Westerners, and he said that lots of Malays don’t like it either, “including this one,” he said.

But A’dzimah showed me how to eat it.

Both A’dzimah and Paco are from near Kuala Lumpur, but A’dzimah married a man from Trengganu, the next state over from Kelantan, which shares an appreciation for budu.

The key, she basically explained, is not to eat very much of it. You mash some chile up in it, then get a bit of fish and a vegetable, and eat it all together.

I agree that if you have to eat fermented fish, maybe because, I don’t know, no other food is available or something, it’s a pretty good way to do it.

Along with various faintly aromatic greens that looked like weeds, we also had green jackfruit, which has a texture very much like artichoke hearts, and a vegetable that looks like a gigantic pea pod, maybe from the Cretaceous era. I knew it from Thailand as satoh, but Paco just called it “stinky bean,” probably because of its tendency to linger on the breath. I’ve always kind of liked its weird nuttiness.

I later learned its Malay name: petai.

We all agreed the chicken was terrific.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Hainanese food, but not really

June 13

Paco, good Muslim that he is, bowed out of dinner last night, which was destined to be laden with pork, and instead we were treated to the company of Helen Ong (pictured with restaurateur Ong Shin Hong), a charming Peranakan woman who just finished writing her second edition of the book Great Dining in Penang.

 Peranakan is a Malay word indicating a mixed-race heritage, but it refers specifically to Straits Chinese, the Chinese people who started settling here on the Malay Peninsula (mostly), starting in the 16th Century. Initially they were men, who naturally married Malay women, and a new culture was born. Their cuisine is often called Nyonya, or Baba-Nyonya, the titles of the woman, or man and woman, of the house.

The bulk of Peranakans originally came from Fujian province. Fujian’s actually the Mandarin name for the province. In Fujian dialect it's called Hokkien.

The Hokkien worked hard and prospered, and as Malaya came under British rule, they began to adopt the characteristics of their new overlords, wearing top hats and suits and walking with canes.

“Even furs,” Helen told us, with an expression of disbelief and disdain very much in the style of a posh English person.

Remember, Malaysia’s a tropical country. Fur coats would be uncomfortable.

Helen explained the Peranakans to us as she ordered dinner at Shing Kheang Aun, a restaurant that opened its doors in 1941, serving Hainanese food.

But not really.

You see, Helen explained, in the late 1800s, the Malay Peninsula experienced a huge migration of Chinese laborers from Hainan, a large island to the southwest of China’s Guangdong province (whence come the Cantonese, and, incidentally, the Teo Chiew, but they are not part of this story).

For the sake of accuracy, I’ll point out that Hainan itself has for much of its history been part of Guangdong.

The Hainanese came to be known for their culinary skills and were hired by the British as cooks. The Peranakans, mimicking the British as they were wont to do, hired the Hainanese, too.

So the Hainanese learned to cook both British and Peranakan food, but also retained their own culinary culture.

That, Helen said, is the “Hainan” cuisine of modern-day Malaysia.

At any rate, Joanna, Bob and I thought the food was fantastic. Helen, local restaurant critic and anglicized socialite that she is, was more critical. She disagreed with the sambal belacan, which according to Peranakan custom should be made from shrimp paste, fresh chile, salt and sugar, and that’s it.

“That’s the Peranakan way,” she said.

Shing Kheang Aun had added vinegar to theirs — a common practice to extend the condiment’s life, and a bastardization of the original

Thais add garlic and fish sauce, she said, which is equally delicious, but not Peranakan (she pointed out, by the way, that Peranakans are not just in Singapore, Malacca and Penang, the cities for which they are known, but also on the Thai island of Phuket, and Medan, a large city in northern Sumatra, just across the Strait of Malacca, and there are some on Malaysia’s east coast, too).

She also said her assam tumis was better than Shing Kheang Aun’s.

I have no reason to doubt here, but I thought the restaurant’s assam tumis was terrific.

Assam is the Malay word for “sour,” and tumis means “fry.” It refers to the sour paste that’s fried to make the sauce for this fish curry, which tasted very much like southern Thai gaeng som, which means “sour curry,” and is made with garlic, chile and fresh turmeric fried together to make a curry base. Assam tumis also has tamarind in it, and I have no doubt that some versions of gaeng som do, too.

It was my favorite dish, but Joanna and Bob really loved the shrimp, which was marinated in tamarind, salt and sugar and then fried (it’s pictured on the right, unlike the assam tumis, which is not as photogenic).

We also had beef liver and pork fried with soy sauce, stir-fried bean sprouts flavored with salted fish (which reminded me once again how ridiculous it is to eat bean sprouts raw — a state in which they’re disgusting), salted vegetables flavored with pig trotters, and Hainan-style noodles (apparently it is not the Hainanese custom to add black soy sauce to their noodles).

As dinner wound down Helen explained the origins of the name Fatty Crab, a chain restaurant in Kuala Lumpur after which Zak Pelaccio’s New York restaurant is named.

In Cantonese, "fatty crab" is pronounced "fei hai." But you have to use the right tones, especially for “hai.”

“Fei” means “fatty” and “hai,” pronounced correctly, means “crab.” Pronounced otherwise, it’s a vulgar word for “vagina.”

Transliterated into Roman letters as Fei Hai, it could mean either one.

If you’re Cantonese and see a sign written that way, it’s funny.

It’s kind of like the California-based chain Pink Taco.