Thursday, April 29, 2010

Who would you pick as rising star chef?

April 29

The James Beard Awards are on Monday. It's been a long year. I hope my tux still fits.

At any rate, I wanted to give you the chance to cast your vote for James Beard Foundation Rising Star Chef of the Year.

Most of the Beard Awards go to a rotating crew of nominees that don’t change that much from one year to the next, but you have to be age 30 or younger to win the Rising Star award, and it can be a real career maker.

Nate Appleman won last year, and boy has he been busy since then.

Anyway, the poll on the right is open until 5 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time on Monday. Please cast your vote.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Three opening parties

April 16

I went to three restaurant openings this week, all on Wednesday, and all in the course of about two hours.

I started on the really touristy part of Bleecker Street, between Thompson and LaGuardia, at the "green carpet" opening of a place called Otarian.

The ‘O’ in the name is meant to represent Earth. Because it’s round.

"Tarian" comes from words like "vegetarian." So the whole name is meant to indicate that people who eat there care about the planet.

The food is "low carbon cuisine."

Pretty much everything we eat is actually very high in carbon, except for the inorganic compounds salt and water (sodium chloride and dihydrogen oxide), which don't contain any carbon.

Fats, proteins and carbohydrates, the three main components of everything we eat, are all made from carbon-based molecules.

Carbohydrate, if you remember your chemistry class, means carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. Fats, or, more precisely, fatty acids, are carbon chains with hydrogen atoms hanging off of them. Proteins are chains of amino acids, which are in turn complex groupings of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen. Unless you're just sitting around drinking salt water, you’re not consuming low-carbon cuisine.

But I know what they mean. It’s low-carbon-footprint cuisine, and Otarian claims to be the first global chain with carbon footprint menu analysis.

Except, according to its web site, it’s not a chain at all. The Bleecker Street unit was the first of four restaurants listed on the site, but the only one that has opened yet.

Where I come from that’s not a chain. That’s a restaurant.

Another restaurant is supposed to open in New York next week and two London restaurants are “coming soon.”

Where I come from that's not global.

But they did get a good turnout for the opening party. They offered to send a hybrid car to my office to bring me there, but I told them I’d use a greener conveyance, the subway, which I did.

I walked past the paparazzi who were busy photographing Vanessa Williams (I don’t know why she was there, but the publicists did promise that the event would be star-studded) and got a green tea Mojito from the bar.

Then I spotted nutritionist extraordinaire and occasional party-goer Marion Nestle from New York University.

She had just arrived from out of town and said she would have accepted the party host’s offer to pick her up at the airport, but she got the e-mail too late.

We both wondered why they wanted us at the party so badly and chatted about the big food news of the week, KFC’s introduction of the Double Down — two breaded chicken breasts sandwiching two slices of cheese and two pieces of bacon.

There’s a picture of it at the beginning of this blog entry.

The anti-fast food crowd has declared the item a travesty. Sam Sifton called it "disgusting,” which isn’t very nice, but at least he tried it. If he found it disgusting, then that’s the way it goes.

Other people, especially those commenting on Marion’s blog, figuratively threw up their hands in disgust without going near the thing. That’s not just rude, it’s stupid. (Read their comments; with a few exceptions I’d call them retarded, but retarded people generally don’t continuously carp about things about which they’re ignorant).

Marion said she didn’t know what the big deal was. It’s comparatively low in calories for fast food, and as Marion argues all the time, the biggest problem with the American diet is that we eat too much. It all comes down to calories, she says. It doesn’t matter whether the calories come from fat or carbohydrates or protein, what matters is that we’re in the grip of an obesity epidemic, and people gain weight because they consume more calories than they burn, regardless of where those calories come from.

The people from Otarian were sure that Marion would love the place, which is not just low-carbon-footprint but vegetarian, and they were thrilled to have her there.

Marion told me that whether it was nutritious or not all depended on what they did with those vegetables.

Otarian’s a fast-casual place, so it has a menu board. But we couldn’t get close enough to read it because Vanessa Williams and a throng of people who wanted to be near her were in the way.

I did sample a mini-burger that tasted like it was made from falafel. It didn't seem particularly healthful, but it tasted good.

Marion was asked for an interview by someone from CBS Radio, so I took my leave and walked the few blocks to SoHo, to the opening of Lizarran, a new tapas place owned by a man from the southern Spanish city of Seville, who insists that all of the 200 some-odd tapas at the restaurant are Spanish.

"No fusion,” he said. Indeed, it is part of an actual Spanish chain, with 200 units, according to its web site.

I grabbed a glass of wine and a slice of Serrano ham, air-kissed food writer Kathleen Squires and said hello to food writer Margaret Shakespeare.

Lizarran is a long, narrow restaurant that opens up in the back. It’s dark with red walls and it seemed to me that it might be a nice place to spend an evening with friends eating tapas, but after sampling a tasty little garlicky chicken open-faced sandwich I decided to let others enjoy the rather packed space and went around the corner to opening party number three, Beba.

Beba’s intended to be more of a nightclub than a restaurant, really, but publicist Steven Hall said the chef, Tom Papoutsis, was a great talent who had yet to work at a venue where his cuisine could really shine.

Maybe so, but, it being a Hall Company party, the crowd was beautiful and fun, the booze was plentiful, and the food was not so available.

Steven knows I’ve said this about him before and he got me some meatballs and a bruschetta or two.

But you can’t judge a restaurant by the food served at an opening party, and I think Steven knows that. You go to get a feel for the place and to just kind of know that it’s open.

So Beba’s open. It has a front lounge and a middle bar area and a restaurant space in the back and then a bigger lounge downstairs.

I was out of there some time before 9 p.m. I walked to Chinatown for a bowl of noodles and went home.

I guess I really should have gone to KFC to try a Double Down.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Chris Cheung update

April 14

I just got an e-mail about my old friend Chris Cheung.

It seems he’s teaming up with Wally Chin, the co-owner of Chin-Chin, to open a restaurant called Walle in Midtown East (in the former Il Nido space at 249 E. 53rd St., between second and third avenues). It’s scheduled to open in mid-May.

It sounds like it will be Chris Cheung food, which is to say American with Chinese influences, although the sample items listed in the e-mail from Chin’s publicist are really pretty American: a Burger served on a Shanghai pancake bun, using Pat Lafreida beef, with a side of shoestring potatoes; Macaroni and Bleu Cheese; Bacon Crusted Black Cod with Stewed Tomato.

I’m waiting for the full menu, but I imagine that Chris, with his history of foie gras dumplings and short rib spring rolls, will Chinese the food up a bit.

It will be a moderately priced restaurant, with appetizers ranging from $8 to $14 and main courses selling for $18 to $26.

Chris most recently was chef at Fushimi, which has locations in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bay Ridge as well as Staten Island and Vue Restaurant and Lounge at Hotel Le Bleu, on the western edge of Park Slope in Brooklyn. But he tells me he’s phasing himself out of those operations to focus on Walle.

So there you have it.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Best New Chefs?

April 6

I thought I was going to have a slightly insane morning. The Food + Wine Best New Chefs party is tonight. It's a good party, and until a few years ago it was very newsworthy in the food world because that magazine's career-making selection of 10 great up-and-coming chefs was announced at the party.

Then the magazine started releasing that list on the morning before the party, to fit into the news cycle better.

It was still a fun party, but, naturally, with fewer surprises.

So I was expecting an e-mail to land in my box this morning with an announcement of the new chefs, which I would feel obligated to write about as quickly as possible, both for and for this blog. And, frankly, I have other things to do today, including meeting with two great up-and-coming chefs who are in town for some reason.

I set my alarm early in anticipation of getting an e-mail from Food + Wine, but it seems the magazine has gone back to their old, secretive ways.

Are my visitors today, Chad Robertson of Tartine in San Francisco and Rick Gresh of David Burke's Primehouse in Chicago, on the Food + Wine list.

I guess I'll have to wait until tonight to find out.

6:10 p.m update: Nope. Here’s the list, parsed out a couple hours early by Ben Leventhal over at Feast:
Roy Choi Kogi of BBQ truck in Los Angeles;
Matt Lightner of Castagna in Portland, Ore.; 
Clayton Miller of Trummer's on Main in Clifton, Va.; 
Missy Robbins of A Voce in New York City;
Jonathon Sawyer of The Greenhouse Tavern in Cleveland, Ohio; Alex Seidel of Fruition in Denver;
Mike Sheerin of Blackbird in Chicago;
John Shields of Town House in Chilhowie, Va.; Jason Stratton of Spinasse in Seattle, and
James Syhabout of Commis in Oakland, Calif.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Eating Frank Bonanno

April 5

Frank Bonanno was born in Bergen County, N.J. (father's side of the family is Sicilian, from Palermo, mother's side is Tuscan, from Lucca), but he has adjusted well to life in Denver. When he greeted me at his fine-dining Italian restaurant, Luca D'Italia, a little chaw of tobacco was bulging from his lower lip, reminding me of the LaCrosse players at East High when I was there.

Bonanno and I are about the same age, and we graduated from college in the same year — 1990. He got a finance degree from Denver University, which was of about as much use then as my degree in history was.

Compared to the current recession, the one in 1990 was cute, but it was obnoxious enough at the time, and Bonanno, who had worked in restaurants during college, went to the Culinary Institute of America and then came back to Denver to cook some more — mostly at Mel's Bar and Grill (that’s better than it sounds) — with stages on both coasts in all the right places (Gramercy Tavern, The French Laundry ...).

He opened Mizuna, a fine-dining French-influenced restaurant, in Denver in 2001 and hasn’t looked back. Since then he has opened Luca d'Italia; a casual place in Larimer Square called Osteria Marco; and, most recently, a fast-fine noodle restaurant called Bones, which is also Frank’s nickname.

He says his next place will likely be a casual French-style charcuterie, serving pâtés and whatnot.

His casual places, Marco and Bones, are the real moneymakers in his business, he says. They’re certainly on-trend, especially Bones, where I ate last year. There high-end ingredients (Frank has an exclusive deal with his distributor for the Japanese noodles he uses) are served in a casual setting that allow customers to get in and out quickly.

New York has a number of noodle bars like that. Other examples of fast-fine in that city are ’wichcraft and the Upper East Side taqueria Cascabel, where chef-partner Todd Mitgang has super-premium añejo tequilas on offer for $22 a shot.

Mitgang has no background in Mexican food, and Bonanno doesn’t have any experience with Asian cuisines, but you wouldn’t know that from their restaurants.

Bonanno says he has gotten some negative feedback from the richness of the broth he serves his noodles in, but he thinks that’s because most of the Asian noodles in Denver are pho, which is supposed to have a thin broth. That’s not true of all Asian noodles, though.

Since I’d been to Bones, during this trip to Denver I took my mother to Osteria Marco, and my 14-year-old niece, Tahirah Thorn, to Luca D’Italia, where she had her first taste of octopus, scallops and truffle oil.

She also was quite enamored of the virgin cocktail beverage director Adam Hodak made for her, out of house-made tonic water, muddled orange and cherry, limonata, sparkling water and grenadine.

What else we ate and drank:

At Osteria Marco:

Salumi and cheese platter of Prosciutto di San Daniele and house made coppa, bresaola and other goodies, plus assorted cheeses including Bonanno’s version of burrata, filled with ricotta instead of cream and shredded mozzarella
Whole grilled lemon-roasted artichoke with aïoli
House salad with pine nuts and house-made cheese
Odell’s Mountain Standard Reserve deep mahogany ale

Seared scallops with caramelized fennel, potato purée and grapefruit agrodolce
Slow-roasted suckling pig
The house red wine, which that evening was a Barbera d’Alba for $6 per glass

Butterscotch pancetta mousse with chocolate gelato and candied bacon
Double espresso

At Luca d’Italia (where general manager and sommelier Mark Sandusky went a little bit crazy, in a good way, when I asked him to pick some wine):
Grilled octopus with squid ink (called nero di seppia on the menu), crispy beans and arugula
Yellow fin tuna carpaccio with red pepper relish and Calabrian chile aïoli
2007 Bruno Verdi Riesling (Lombardy)
2008 Casal di Serra Verdicchio (Le Marche)

Lasagnette with lobster, shrimp, lump crab and white wine tomato sauce
Fusilli with wild mushrooms, shaved Grana Padano cheese and creamy white truffle sauce
2007 Moroder Rosso Conero (Le Marche)
2007 Paitin Barbera D’Alba (Piedmont)

Seared diver scallops with lump crab risotto, spring onions and peas
Colorado lamb chops with fava beans, porcini fonduta and braised shoulder
2005 Reversanti Barolo (Piedmont)
2008 Inama Soave Classico (Veneto)

Chocolate marble brownie with vanilla gelato, amaretti cookie and caramel sauce.
2001 Piazzano vin santo (Tuscany)
Pousse-Luca cocktail — a three-layered drink with equal parts Dom Benedictine liqueur, Grand Marnier and Luxardo Bitter Cherry in the middle, Sambuca on the bottom and Fernet Branca on top