Saturday, July 30, 2011

Cheesecake war

July 30

Davio’s, a northern Italian steakhouse in Philadelphia, wanted to prove to the world that the City of Brotherly Love had better cheesecake than New York City. 

So its owners threw down the gauntlet in front of ’Cesca, an Italian restaurant on New York’s Upper West Side. ’Cesca picked up that gauntlet, and a cheesecake war was declared.

It was a reasonably friendly war. Both restaurants exchanged recipes and worked with each other to replicate the desserts in each other’s restaurants, with the crew at ’Cesca learning to make Davio’s vanilla bean cheesecake with blueberry compote, and Davio’s staff whipping up ’Cesca’s mascarpone cheesecake with orange cream and orange brittle.

The two restaurants served half portions of both cheesecake’s side by side from Tuesday, July 26, through Thursday, July 28. The Cheesecake War Dessert special was offered at both restaurants for $10, and customers were asked to pick their favorite.

The loser of the war will have to post a photo of themselves eating the winner’s cheesecake in the the winning city's baseball jersey.

Above is a picture of the two desserts as they were plated at Davio’s.

I was asked as a neutral party to post the results today, which I'm told is National Cheesecake Day.

They are, well, actually they're mixed:

Votes from Davio’s customers
196- Davio's
42- Cesca

Votes from 'Cesca customers
65- ’Cesca
11- Davio's

Davios: 207
’Cesca: 107

That’s to say that customers in both cities preferred the hometown cheesecake by a wide margin. Although Davio’s sold more cheesecake overall and got more votes, a larger percentage of ’Cesca’s customers preferred that restaurant’s cheesecake, voting 6 to 1 in favor of the local dessert, compared to 4.7 to 1 from Davio’s customers.

Maybe Davio’s wait staff should be given an award for selling 238 orders of cheesecake in three days. 

Davio’s has about 150 seats in its dining room, ’Cesca seats around 125.

In any case, it seems like it was a pretty smart promotion, and a great way to sell more dessert in the middle of the week during a slow, hot summery month.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

How to get rid of invasive species: eat them!

July 6

Don’t want invaders in your home Why not kill them and eat them?

That’s the approach that consumer activist group Food & Water Watch is taking with three species of fish and a crustacean that have encroached on American waters.

In the picture are, from top to bottom, Asian carp, blue tilapia and lionfish, as well as green crabs.

Lionfish actually look much more sexy before their exotic and poisonous spines have been removed, but Kerry Heffernan, the executive chef of Southgate in New York, had already removed them by the time I got to the James Beard House, where Food & Water Watch was doing a presentation on ”exotic invasive species” and how to eat them.

I don't think their point was actually to eradicate the invaders. Indeed local sport fishermen in the Northeast like green crab, because it's good bait for blackfish.

I think what they really wanted to point out was that there’s lots of tasty seafood in our waters, and it would make sense if we stopped overfishing the popular ones and to rely less on imports — which Food & Water Watch said accounted form more than 80 percent of the seafood we eat — and instead chow down on the stuff we have in surplus.

Ironically, the fish wasn't easy to procure and Heffernan had roughly 27 hours to figure out what to do with what they gave him. 

They had to charter a boat in North Carolina to catch the lionfish. A seafood supplier actually told them that wild, or blue, tilapia wasn't available in the U.S., but they managed to find it at Fulton Fish Market for $1.75 a pound. 

The green crab was provided by New England fisherman after they finished scratching their heads wondering why anyone would want them.

But the results were good. Heffernan used the carp to make a tasty escabeche, pictured here. It was a labor-intensive preparation, though, because, as Heffernan said, “It's almost like the fish was designed not to be able to get at the meat.”

Loopy bones arched out from the spine into the flesh, and then looped off in other directions, making for a labor-intensive process. I asked Heffernan if the labor in preparing the fish would make it cost-prohibitive in restaurants, and he said that if the fish itself were inexpensive enough, it might be worth it.

My favorite was the green crab, which Heffernan made into a light bisque. He was impressed with the flavor of the meat, which to him tasted crabbier than blue crab. There was a preparation challenge for that animal, too, as there’s not a lot of meat per crab, so picking out the meat is a time-consuming process.

There was no problem with the lionfish, as long as you remove the poisonous parts.

But Heffernan’s favorite was the tilapia, which was firm enough that you could slice it after cooking it, and it had great body and flavor.

Eating under-utilized fish isn’t a new concept, but it is catching on. At the International Corporate Chefs Association summit that I went to in Seattle last week, one of the speakers was John Sackton, editor and publisher of In the face of rising seafood prices and less-than-stable supply, he recommended to the chefs at chain restaurants and onsite operations who attended the summit that they be flexible in the choice of seafood they put on the menu, changing those choices as supply and price demanded.

He wasn’t talking about Asian carp or lionfish, but he was advocating for a flexibility to which chain restaurants are becoming increasingly accustomed. 

Skeptics might want to remember that monkfish used to be considered unfit for consumption, and that, decades ago, North Atlantic fisherman threw away bluefin tuna as useless until the Japanese pointed out that they actually enjoy eating them, possibly more than anything else.

Of course, now bluefin appears to be on the verge of extinction. But that's another story.