Friday, June 30, 2006

North Square

June 30

When the topic of New York neighborhood restaurants comes up, I never think of North Square, and I don't know why. It's a nice place on the northwest corner of Washington Square Park whose chef, Yoël Cruz, has been the chef there for more than four years, and he was sous chef there before that. I must have eaten there half a dozen times by now and I always think I should write about it, and then it slips my mind.
I wrote about their tea service once, and I ran the announcement of Yoël's promotion, but I haven't actually written about the food since John McGrath was chef and the restaurant was named C3 (its address is 103 Waverly Place, get it?).
Anyway, I went there again last night with the restaurant's publicists to sample some new menu items.
We sampled a lot of them:

•Rosemary seafood salad — scallops, shrimp, mussels, calamari, romaine lettuce, onions, radish, crispy shoestring potatoes, lemon shallot dressing.
•Pan-roasted lobster served over a wild mushroom tamal with steamed asparagus and green pea sauce
•Porcini-dusted halibut with baby bok choy, chanterelle mushrooms, fava beans, pearl onion marmalade, red pepper and tarragon sauce
•Crisp Long Island duck breast with sautéed spinach, baby beets, steamed snow peas, roasted eggplant quinoa, tamarind and apricot demi-glace
•Citrus-rubbed seared tuna with vegetable couscous, baby herb salad, lime curry and shallot sauce
•Marinated pork tenderloin with mashed plantain and yuca, baby broccoli florets, red wine and ginger-fig sauce
•Tortilla-crusted snapper with sautéed Swiss chard, creamed corn and dried chile sauce.

And for dessert (obviously we were jonesing for chocolate):
•Caramel and chocolate parfait with pecan chocolate topping, served with a chocolate brownie
•Pecan pie triangles with rum cream, chocolate sauce, nut tuile and chocolate
•Chocolate mousse cake with caramel Heath Bar ice cream, chocolate and caramel sauces and chopped Heath Bar.

Thursday, June 29, 2006


June 29

After the rooftop party (see the entry below), I had dinner at Fillip’s, a year-old place in Chelsea that I’d never heard of until the publicist invited me there. She likes to throw press dinners, at which 6 or 8 or a dozen people sit at a long table and theoretically get to know one another in a convivial environment. It’s a hit-or-miss proposition.
Tonight, though, Kathryn and Chris Matthews (not that Chris Mathews), were there. Kathryn’s a food writer and Chris writes about wine, and they’re both very good dinner companions.
I’m not a wine writer, and I find some of them to be rather elitist and insufferable, but I like Chris and spent most of the night talking to him and Fillip’s sommelier about the wines.
After dinner, the chef, Brian Bieler, came out and chatted. He’s a Kansas farm boy who managed to finagle his way to New York. He says he changes the menu pretty much every day.

What I ate and drank:

Vichyssoise with osetra caviar and nutmeg
2004 Domaine de la Batardière Muscadet Sur Lie, Loire, France

Roasted Maine diver sea scallops with citrus suprème salad and coriander
NV Gruet Blanc de Noir, Brut, Albuquerque, New Mexico

Warm early summer asparagus with baby arugula and frisée salad, romesco and sherry vinaigrette
2003 Raymond Reserve Chardonnay, Napa Valley, California

Flying Pig Farms braised pork belly with granny smith apple, wild arugula and French lentil
2003 Jaboulet Isnard, Côtes Du Ventoux, Rhone, France

Crispy Long Island duck breast with Broccoli raab, pine nuts, Vermont baby carrot confit and natural reduction
2004 Heron Pinot Noir, American Canyon, California
(American Canyon, the sommelier discovered after I asked him, is a sort of broad appelation allowing for grapes to come from many parts of the state).

Warm heirloom apple tart with vanilla bean ice cream and caramel
2004 Pirramimma Late Harvest Riesling, South Australia

Pick something for me

June 29

I asked the bartender at the rooftop party I went to last night what the cool people were drinking.
"What, here? In New York? In the World?" he asked. The tone was flip, but I think he really was trying to be helpful.
Obviously, cool people drink whatever they want, but I like to take suggestions from bartenders. I might discover a new drink that way, or I might get something the bartender likes, and thus probably makes well.
But the youngster at this particular bar suggested that perhaps I would like an Apple Martini or a Cosmopolitan.
For a bartender at a chic Midtown boutique hotel to recommend something that was trendy five years ago is, well, sad, especially at a press event attended by food and beverage writers whose tastes tend to veer toward the experimental.
I tried a different tack and asked for a refreshing glass of white wine.
He gave me a California Chardonnay, which is not refreshing. It's rich and sort of creamy, but on a hot summer day, something more acidic, a crisp Sauvignon Blanc, say, would have been the thing.
To be fair, it might not have been the young bartender's fault. Sometimes when you say: “Pick something for me,” even though you might mean, “I have confidence that you, as a professional, will use your best judgment in selecting something really good for me," they interpret it as, "I don’t care, just give me a drink!”


June 26

I love living in New York, but I also love leaving it from time to time to see what‘s happening out in the world. So I was delighted to spend the past four days in Minnesota hanging out with corporate chefs from chain restaurants, a couple of CEOs from small chains, and officials from Hormel, which sponsored a meeting about pork, coordinated by Nation's Restaurant News' extraordinary event planner (really, she is) Monique Monaco.
We talked about how pork fits into current menu trends and toured one of Hormel’s plants on the Minnesota-Iowa border. The restaurant people flew from Minneapolis in a Hormel corporate jet, the NRN people took a road trip in which I learned that our publisher loves to sing along with the radio. He plays a bit of air-guitar, too.
We also had two nights to dine out in Minneapolis and had truly great meals at a tapas place called Solera and a chef-driven, ingredient focused restaurant called Cafe Lurcat.
Given how much pork we had consumed in the days leading up to our dinner at Cafe Lurcat, we managed to pack away an impressive amount of food.
Qdoba chef Ted Stoner proved to be a particularly good eater: Unbeknownst to him, a porked-out Jeff Sinelli, top dog at Which ’Wich?, slipped half of his wagyu beef onto Ted’s plate.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

I don’t like standing in line

June 21

Summer is upon us here in New York, and I don't like it one bit. Being outside sort of makes me feel like I'm being poached.
And yet last night and the night before I went to events that required me to stand in line to get into parties whose hosts seemed disinclined to use their air conditioning.
I think it stands to reason that the first few minutes of any event can make or break it. A seemingly minor thing like the ability of list checkers to do their job efficiently can cause a major attitude shift, especially if sweat beads have started to form on your forehead.
Monday’s event wasn’t bad. It was Pastry Arts & Designs' 10 Best Pastry Chefs party, held at the Institute of Culinary Education.
But the hallway leading to the school's entrance, which is on the 5th floor of a building in Chelsea across from Rickshaw Dumpling Bar, was untreated by air conditioning, and a bunch of us were standing there waiting to get into the school.
As my hair (of which I have very little) started to moisten I entered the lobby to see a table strewn with nametags in vaguely alphabetical order. Approximately three young women were sorting through them as they tried to check people in. It seemed like an odd way to do it.
The crowd, which was ample, but not insanely so, nonetheless seemed to overstretch the air-conditioner, which just managed to keep the place below sweltering as we tried, at least for a few minutes, to listen to the speeches being made using audio equipment that sounded like it had been swiped from the nearby subway station.
Some people left early, others wandered off to less crowded rooms where wine was being poured and the packaged cookies of one of the awards' sponsors were out on plates. Considering that we were about to sample desserts from actual pastry chefs, it seemed like an uninspired move on the part of the sponsors.
But I had a nice time, anyway, and in the course of several conversations I was reminded of some restaurant-industry rumors that I was supposed to follow up on. I made note of them as I sampled mostly overwrought, excessively complicated desserts, two (2!) of which featured basil seeds.
Then last night I stood in line on East 48th Street as I waited to be let in to the opening party of Alma Grill, a restaurant owned by music mogul Ralph Mercado and Union Telecard Alliance multi-millionaire Carlos Gomez (I thought it was character actor Carlos Gomez, but apparently not).
The party was hosted by Lisa Lisa, which would have been really excellent if this were 1983. But in 2006, if the best a music mogul and telecom mogul can scare up in Midtown Manhattan is a 1980s pop-star, it's a red flag.
The line was slow-moving and people were being turned away. Apparently, they had only been invited to the afterparty.
That's interesting because many of the regular restaurant-party crashers got in: Weird Shaggy Haired Guy was sitting at a table, and Slightly Creepy Italian Guy was wandering around the cramped space. I didn't see Eccentric Cookbook Thief, but she might have been there, too.
They poured so-so Chardonnay and Chianti. I drank the former because I was wearing my cream-colored sports coat, and sweating in it — it wasn't that hot out, so I'm not sure why the air conditioner couldn't handle the crowd.
My colleague, Molly Gise, came to the party, too, so we had fun chatting, otherwise I would have left. As at most bad parties, they seemed unaware of how to pass hors d'oeuvres efficiently, so I had a good time watching guests, who surely had $1.50 to buy a slice of pizza if they needed to, pounce on the food as if they'd just been let out of concentration camps.
I got a couple of slices from my favorite neighborhood pizza place in Park Slope, Antonio's, on Flatbush, just outside the 7th Avenue B/Q subway station.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

The maiden from Lomzyn

June 15

Arlyn Blake lives to connect people whom she thinks should know each other, and to get all of them to try the food at Lomzynianka.
Lomzynianka (which isn't quite how it's spelled, there's a line through the L and some other things, but I'm afraid I don't know how to add Polish diacritical marks on this computer, or any computer for that matter) is a tiny restaurant in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, with the best latkes I've ever had (sorry, Dad), and pierogi, and borscht and blintzes and various other really tasty Polish food, cheap. It's BYO.
The name, I'm told, means "Maiden from Lomzyn," which I think is pronounced Wom-zin, but I'm not sure. As one of my Russian history professors in college used to joke, Polish is written in code.
The town of Lodz is pronounced "wooj." I mean, what are you supposed to do with that?
Anyway, Arlyn invited like eight people to join her for dinner at Lomzynianka last night. I arrived just as they were passing around pickled beets, cucumbers in dill, sauerkraut and various other salads. I ended up sitting between a spirits marketer from Kobrand and the owner of a magazine that profiles woman entrepreneurs. The Kobrand marketer originally was from Bulgaria, and she and the magazine owner chatted about Bulgarian wines and strategized ways to get the magazine’s readers in front of the marketer's wines.
Arlyn does that. She arranges what seem like random agglomerations of people and then it turns out that they have more in common than you'd expect. I can't say whether she does that on purpose or not.

What else I ate:
cold borscht, hot veal meatballs, wienerschnitzel with a fried egg on top, potato croquettes and blintzes.

vodka, chocolate and modern Peruvian food

June 13

Premium vodka again!
I went to an event thrown by the Distilled Spirits Council, which is always a good idea. In this case it was a particularly good idea: It was a seated tasting of vodka cocktails, prepared by the articulate, dapper and talented Brian Van Flandern of Per Se, and chocolates by Jacques Torres, who needs no adjectives, held at Jacques Torres Chocolate Haven in SoHo.
Unfortunately I couldn't stay long, which made me angry as I sampled a "Mango Mary" paired with a heart-shaped chocolate candy filled with passion fruit ganache.
The Mango Mary had muddled rosemary and a rosemary sprig in it, which sounds stupid at first, but if you think about it, the muskiness of a good mango has a quality that's pretty similar to rosemary, and the added rosemary accentuates that.
But I had to leave, heavy-hearted, because I also had RSVP'ed to have dinner at the Beard House. "Stupid Bret!" I thought, as my taxi took me from SoHo to 12th Street and I wondered what I would do with the two cocktail shakers in my gift bag as I resolved to stop over-booking myself.
But then the Beard dinner was great fun, too.
Dinners at the James Beard House start at 7, with a 45-minute cocktail "hour," when guests drink wine — usually sparkling — and get their first samplings of the chef's food as hors d'oeuvres are passed around. I showed up right at 7:45, delaying my arrival as long as possible so I could enjoy my passionfruit chocolate and Mango Mary. I figured I would have to sacrifice the hors d'oeuvres as penance for my overbooking, but a plate of hors d'oeuvres had been kindly saved for me, hidden away in a kitchen cupboard and presented to me when I arrived.
My guest that evening, Yishane Lee, had arrived just a few minutes earlier and observed that they hadn't saved a plate of hors d'oeuvres for her.
Yishane works for Time Inc.'s web site and deserves to be sucked up to every bit as much as I do, but what can I say? I did share my hors d'oeuvres with her, at any rate, as we sipped some Bodega Lurton Rosé from Argentina, made with a combination of Malbec and Bonarda grapes if memory serves.
If you’re wondering what Yishane looks like, you know those Visa ads that promote drinking deeply from the cup of life and letting your credit cards help you do that? Well, if you’ve ever seen the one of a pretty Asian woman floating in the Dead Sea while reading a newspaper, that's Yishane.

The chef of the evening was a Peruvian fellow by the name of Jean Paul Desmaison, who is chef at La Cofradia, a five-month-old restaurant in Coral Gables, Fla. A soft-spoken man, he charmingly had nothing to say when introduced to Beard House attendees at the end of the meal. A regular beard foundation member did coax out of him commentary on guinea pig, which is a delicacy in Peru and Ecuador. It was not served at the meal this evening.
Here's what was:

Hors d'oeuvres:
Eggplant Carpaccio with Extra-Virgin Olive Oil and Lime Juice
Causa Roll — Shrimp, Avocado, and Crab
Sole Tiradito with Yellow Chile–Mandarin Cream
Asian-Style Tuna Tartare
Bodega Lurton Rosé 2006

Salmon Carpaccio and Caviar with Lemon Cream Sauce
Gran Araucano Sauvignon Blanc 2005

Baby Octopus with Tuscan Ragoût
Gran Lurton Pinot Gris 2005

Black Grouper with Sour Orange Escabèche, Mashed Yuca with Red Peppers, and Extra-Virgin Olive Oil
Château des Erles 2003

Braised Lamb Shank with Purple Corn, Rice, Sautéed Artichoke Hearts, and Asparagus
Campo Eliseo 2003

Fig and Apple Phyllo Tart with Maple Ice Cream, Peruvian Lucuma Mousse with Chocolate Macaroons, and Suspiro de Limeña
Vignobles Lions de La Louvière 1996

The Mango Mary:
1/4 oz. Finlandia Mango Vodka
1 oz. Finlandia Vodka (here's an interesting trick from beverage guru Brian Van Flandern: some people complain that flavored vodkas have a bit of a chemical taste to them, so to retain the aromatics of the flavored vodka while cutting back on the taste, he mixes one part flavored vodka to four parts of the regular stuff).
Finlandia’s apparently the only company that makes a mango vodka
1 oz. fresh mango purée
3/4 oz. lemon juice
a splash of simple syrup
muddled rosemary
rosemary sprig to garnish

Friday, June 09, 2006

pushing my buttons

June 6

I like to think of myself as a pretty mellow, happy-go-lucky kind of guy, but then I realize what a petty, nasty little fusspot I can be if you push the wrong buttons.
Among those buttons are bad produce, premium vodka and people who see organic comestibles as a panacea for all the world’s ills.
Nonetheless, I went to the launch of an organic, premium vodka. One reason I went was because I wasn’t doing anything else at the time. The other was because it was at Blue Hill, and I hadn’t had much of chef-owner Dan Barber’s food in a long time, except for an absolutely extraordinary freshly picked radish sprinkled with salt that he served at the annual C-Cap benefit earlier this year. So I knew that at least the produce would be good in the food served at this vodka party.

I had a good time. The food was either bursting with flavor from delicious fruits and vegetables or — as in the case of the arancini topped with melting lardo, or the pork belly on skewers — great without having any fruits and vegetables. Dan Barber’s food is all about using really excellent ingredients and treating them with respect. I have no complaints about that.
And I met the nice owners of Circa Tabac, a downtown tobacco lounge. I’ll have to take my smoking friends there at some point.
The organic premium vodka that was being launched is made from rye, which apparently is desirable in a vodka — one of the PR flaks there said that was what the tsars drank — but hard to do organically.
As I sipped the very good cocktails made from the vodka — I sampled it neat first and found my single shot too boring to finish — I expressed my skepticism about premium vodka to one of the company’s marketers.
I can understand why those who sit around drinking straight vodka might want a premium vodka. I can even understand why the millions of vodka-martini drinkers would have intense brand loyalty. But vodka, by definition, is flavorless. The difference in vodkas has to do with mouth feel and a certain smoothness that can certainly be distinguished if you line up a bunch of shot glasses with different vodkas and taste them side-by-side. But I have yet to be convinced that the type of vodka used in drinks that also include lemonade or cranberry juice or Red Bull makes any difference in the quality of the cocktail.
Au contraire, said the marketing guy, as he would, of course. Since I was not in the mood to demand a taste test then and there, I didn’t press the point. Besides, that’s a very rude thing to do at a party.
Instead, I asked him about the organic qualities of said premium vodka. Did the vodka’s target audience care? He admitted that people really devoted to organic food were mostly disinclined to spend $36 (retail) for a bottle of vodka, and premium vodka aficionados were paying for taste and generally didn’t care if it was organic or not.
I kept trying to avoid one blowhard from northern Westchester county who went on an anti-non-free-range-chicken diatribe and then bad-mouthed corn-fed beef and opposed Wal-Mart’s offering organic stuff and in general kept blathering the smug manifesto of the environmentalist elite.
I believe I’ve made reference previously here to my solid granola credentials, but to reiterate:
My parents are both retired now, but my father worked for public television and my mother was a schoolteacher.
In Denver in the 1970s, when recycling services weren’t yet available, they saved their paper and aluminum and so on and, the one time a month they could schlep it to a nearby collection center and hand it all over to recyclers, they did just that.
I was weaned while wearing cloth diapers, because my mother deemed disposable stuff environmentally unsound.
My parents voted for McGovern.
They own some property in Denver, but they keep rents low so lower-middle class people can afford to live there.
A few years ago they gave up eating mammals for moral reasons.
So I get it. I understand that it’s important to know how the way you live affects the world, and as a food guy I love to eat food made from excellent ingredients.
But I also have noticed that politically correct food doesn’t necessarily taste better (although sometimes it does), and isn’t always what it purports to be.
And I have visited some of those industrial food-processing facilities and have not found them to be the chambers of horror that they’re often described to be. To be fair, I haven’t been to a chicken hatchery yet, but I hope to someday soon.
I think what really bugs me is the vilification of industries that were created for a good purpose. Food became largely industrialized in this century in an attempt to feed the hungry. To a large extent, that mission has been accomplished. Obviously there are still major distribution issues with regard to food, particularly in developing countries, but here at home, too. Nonetheless, the fact that obesity is now the most serious health issue in the developed world is a massive victory over millennia of hunger.
Now we have to address obesity while not forgetting that some people, even in developed countries, still are hungry, and we should avoid environmental damage in the process. I’m not sure how sneering at cheap, nutritious food does that.
So I did finally say with feigned respect for Ms. Blowhard that her consumption exclusively of hand-nurtured animals and produce was fine for her, but it was not an option for most Americans.
Then I tried the premium organic vodka neat for a second time. I couldn’t finish it.

One of the cocktails I had:

The Coriandrum
2 ounces Vodka
1/4 ounce vermouth
Splash of Coriander Nectar (1 cup coriander seeds, 4 cups water, 1 1/4 cups Madhava agave nectar or simple syrup, briefly heated together)
Splash of orange bitters
Lemon twist
Coriander seeds
Add first 4 ingredients to cocktail shaker. Fill with ice and shake vigorously. Strain into a chilled
martini glass. Garnish with a few coriander seeds from the nectar mix and a twist of lemon.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Wings, pork, Japan and a second Martini

June 5,

I woke up this morning and wondered why I thought last night that a second Martini would be a good idea.

5 Ninth restaurant was celebrating its 2nd anniversary from 6 to 8 last night, so I went to enjoy chef Zak Pelaccio’s kecap manis-glazed chicken wings and his whole roasted pig while drinking beer and hanging out mostly on the third floor with my friend Clark Mitchell at Travel + Leisure and his friend, Peter Sherwood, who’s dining editor of Next Magazine, and various members of their entourages, including two women named Alex.
I also had a couple of chats with Steven Hall, the publicist who organized the party. While standing in line for food (it was a short line; I don’t stand in long lines for food), I asked him about the music that we were listening to, which came from the late ’70s and ’80s. It was pretty typical music for New York parties in 2006, and also was played at many restaurants and bars throughout the city. Why, I wondered to him, had the music of that period taken hold so thoroughly? Growing up to this music, I naturally enjoyed it but, being a member of Generation X, I always felt that our pop culture was inferior to that of our older Baby Boomer cousins. And yet it was quite common to hear The Smiths and Erasure and REM and old U2 and so on, yet the Rolling Stones and The Who and The Beatles were comparative rarities.
So why was the music I grew up with so popular?
“Because it’s good,” he said.
Maybe the DJ — one of 5 Ninth’s bartenders, I think — was listening. He played The Kinks later on in the evening.
Later I talked to Steven about some of his latest ventures and a trip he took to Japan. To summarize what he said, basically, notice that the company formerly known as Restaurant Associates recently bought itself back from Compass with the help of a Japanese company (but not the name “Restaurant Associates,” according to a spokeswoman from the company, hence the pending name change), and keep your eyes open for opportunities both to open Japanese restaurants in New York and American ones in Japan.
I had that chat while finishing a weisbier and then I headed to the bar at the terrace of the Maritime hotel and had Martinis with Clark, Peter and one of the women named Alex (although she had water). We stayed until, I don’t know, late, and Clark had a 10:15 a.m. radio interview to prepare for. I e-mailed him today and he, too wondered why we thought we should have that second Martini.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

dumb sushi

June 1

Got an e-mail to day from what appears to be another newsletter explaining to me how to be a trendy New Yorker. It told me about a $68 sushi roll at a restaurant I won't name because it happens to be a very good restaurant that doesn't deserve the embarrassment.
There's nothing wrong $68 sushi. If a restaurant wants to charge it and people want to pay it, who am I to argue? But this one is a spicy tuna roll made from hon maguro, rare blackfin tuna. I'm all for eating blackfin tuna. But if you're eating such a great piece of fish, why on earth would you wrap it up in a roll and drench it with spicy mayonnaise? What a waste of a good piece of fish.
Here's some trivia: The spicy tuna roll was invented by a Mexican-American in Los Angeles, according to Michael Cardenas, a sushi pioneer in that city.

Restaurants and their previous names, and fugu

May 31

Brasserie Ruhlmann has a new chef, and it threw a party to celebrate. Laurent Tourondel now is in charge of the kitchen there as well as at his three BLT (Bistro Laurent Tourondel) restaurants (listed in the order they opened): BLT Steak (at the space that housed, over the past decade, Le Chantilly, Restaurant David Ruggerio, Sono and Pazo), BLT Fish (which was AZ) and BLT Prime (where Union Pacific once stood).
Brasserie Ruhlmann opened, for breakfast at least, at the end of January, when Georges Masraff, formerly of Tavern on the Green, was in charge of the kitchen. Laurent Tourondel's involvement in the place was announced in April.
It was a crowded but convivial party, with many of my favorite food-scene people in attendance. I spent the first half hour or so trying to remember the name of the restaurant that occupied the space previously. It was a Provençal-Tuscan restaurant that was a joint venture among celebrated French chef Roger Vergé Roberto Ruggeri's Bice Restaurant Group, and Italian fast-food chain Sbarro. It was a cheery place with bright yellows and blues, but despite its choice location, just north of the Rockefeller Center skating rink, it failed to thrive. It opened in late 2001, which of course was bad timing, and limped along for a while before shutting its doors. The space remained vacant until Brasserie Ruhlmann opened this year, according to a guy I talked to at the party who's involved in operations of Rockefeller Center. He also was nice enough to remind me of the former restaurant's name: Medi.
I also ran into my friends Shigeko Fuke and Miguel Cardona. Somehow the subject of fugu, Japanese blowfish, came up. Fugu's famous for being potentially poisonous if not prepared properly. I've never had it, but I'd love to give it a try. Shigeko said a Japanese company was trying to find export markets for pre-prepared, pre-sliced fugu that already has been sliced properly to remove the poisonous bits.
So it was a fun party, but, it being my first post-Memorial Day party, I was wearing an off-white sport coat and felt disinclined to battle crowds and risk spilling things on it, so after Champagne and a few nibbles, I left and contemplated dinner as I wandered to the subway.
I had long known that Carnegie Deli was very close to a Q train station, but for some reason — its iconic status, maybe — I had never thought of it as a dinner option until tonight. I got a corned-beef sandwich on rye and had half of it for dinner, which was a very big dinner. The rest will make for a fine lunch, maybe two.